Jeff Tkac’s seat on the Bakersfield City Council should be filled in a special election, a majority of his fellow council members said this week.
But, just to make sure, a group of labor leaders and other community organizations is rushing to collect signatures to force a special election to fill the Ward 5 seat left vacant when Tkac took his own life on Jan. 5.
Rob England, president of the Kern, Inyo and Mono Counties Central Labor Council, said his organization has been on the streets since Tuesday gathering signatures on a petition to hold a special election.
They have less than four weeks to get the signatures of more than 4,700 Ward 5 voters on the petition.
If they succeed, the Bakersfield City Council would be required, by the city charter, to hold the special election.
If the petition isn’t submitted in time, or there are not enough valid signatures, the decision on how to fill the seat will fall to the Bakersfield City Council.
On Thursday, five of the remaining six council members said they also believe a special election is the correct course of action.
“I think we should have a special election. That’s the most democratic thing to do,” said Ward 1 City Councilman Willie Rivera.
“I strongly believe it should be a special election,” said Ward 2 Councilman Andrae Gonzales. “I think the residents of Ward 5 should be the one to select their representative.”
“My feeling is it’s up to the people of Ward 5 to make that decision,” said Ward 4 Councilman Bob Smith.
“I feel the only fair way is an election. It’s not up to the council. It’s up to the voters of Ward 5,” said City Councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan.
“I believe we need to put it out to the voters,” said Ward 7 Councilman Chris Parlier.
Ward 3 Councilman Ken Weir did not respond to calls for comment.
The process of filling Tkac’s seat, under the rules of the city charter, can take a couple of paths.
The registered voters of Ward 5 hold the trump card.
If more than 25 percent of the number of voters who cast ballots in the Ward 5 election in November sign a petition that calls for a special election by early February, there will be a special election.
If the petition isn’t submitted in time, or doesn’t have enough valid signatures, then the decision is kicked to the sitting Bakersfield City Council.
The council can either choose to appoint a new member or set a special election.
England said the signature-gathering drive that launched on Tuesday is aiming for a Feb. 1 deadline to return the petition to the Bakersfield City Clerk’s office.
England said the people behind the effort are “deeply saddened by the passing of Jeff Tkac,” but feel they have a duty to make sure democracy continues in Ward 5.
The effort isn’t just a union effort, he said.
“I think it’s a bipartisan effort,” England said. “Who doesn’t want democracy to flourish here?”
Parlier said signature-gatherers face a tough task with a very, very short amount of time to make it happen.
“The electorate out there can file but it’s a short window and a lot of voters,” he said.
Smith and other council members mentioned the fact that nearly all of the four-year term Tkac won in November remains to be filled and that’s a serious consideration for them.
“While I’ve been on the council, we’ve been through it one other time, when Rudy Salas was elected to the Assembly,” Smith said. ““We had the special election and Willie Rivera was elected — and that was only for a year and a half” term.
Council members said they have not met yet to talk about replacing Tkac, but they were each clear in how they want to proceed.
Sullivan said Tkac was irreplaceable.
But, she said, it is the people who voted him into office over incumbent candidate Harold Hanson and fellow challenger Ryan Nance who need to choose Tkac’s replacement.
Calls to Hanson and Nance seeking comment were not returned.
Interim Bakersfield City Clerk Pam McCarthy has said she doesn’t know what a special election would cost but the city’s share of the November general election was in the range of $350,000.