It was civil. It was even classy.
The first meeting of the Fullerton City Council last Tuesday night, before a packed and apparently mostly appreciative Council chambers, went abnormally (compared to the past 17 months) smoothly. It was mostly a ceremonial meeting: certification of election results, installation of new Councilmembers, selection of new Mayor and Vice-Mayor. It almost doesn’t demand media coverage — and that, for Fullerton, is newsworthy.
It was the first time in years, according to many observers, that the choice of Mayor and Vice-Mayor was unanimous rather than acrimonious — and I’ll go out on a limb and call it classy. Bruce Whitaker, top deputy to outgoing Assemblyman Chris Norby, had been chosen as Vice-Mayor after the recall election swept the libertarian team associated with the FFFF blog into power — but there was real question as to whether he’d be elected as Mayor. Democrats were unhappy with their treatment under the prior, post-Recall council (and frankly for a long time before that), but were less resistant to Whitaker’s elevation from Vice-Mayor than might be thought.
The strongest objections to Whitaker seemed to come from the police officers present (who haven’t forgotten Whitaker’s attempt at possibly breaking the FPOA — and probably never will) and, I’m told, from what I call “traditional Republicans” of the sort exemplified by Dick Ackerman. The Bushala insurgents (whom I call libertarian Republicans and Vern calls “real Republicans”) remain targets of anger by the Ackermanites who were associated with the three councilmembers ousted in the recall. (Our Publisher Vern has a different name for this group associated with — several of them, in fact.) Their lack of sorrow at seeing the tail end of Chris Norby seemingly played a role, although probably not a decisive one, in the election of Sharon Quirk-Silva to the State Assembly.
Whatever pressure they put on Jennifer Fitzgerald — the only new Council member of their faction, which is better than they had for the past half-year — to cast aside the normal order of succession and leave Whitaker in the dust did not take. Fitzgerald probably could have become Mayor herself with the votes of the two Council Democrats, but instead the normal elevation of the Vice-Mayor proceeded. This was smart politics on Fitzgerald’s part in more than one way; she gains the benefit of Council experience in the meantime, she avoids having to take a divisive stand at the outset of the term, and in any case she would benefit much more from being Mayor in her third or fourth year on Council.
As it turned out, Sebourn nominated Whitaker, who was elected by acclamation. Then Fitzgerald nominated Chaffee for Vice-Chair, he was elected by acclamation, and the line-up for the next two years was set.
The race for for Vice-Chair was probably the more significant. Doug Chaffee took that spot, meaning that (if things proceed as normal) he’ll be able to run for re-election with “Mayor” as his ballot designation in 2014. The other Councilmember up for re-election then, Greg Sebourn, won’t. (I imagine that Chaffee may be followed by Fitzgerald, then by Flory, then by Sebourn if he has been re-elected. If one doesn’t want both positions occupied by the same faction, the pieces only fit together in so many ways.)
This makes Fitzgerald, as the swing vote, especially powerful in this next term and, if her colleagues are re-elected, the one after that. (Yes, in a 2-2-1 factional breakdown, it’s the “1” that often holds the greatest power.) People I spoke to on Tuesday couldn’t recall when Fullerton’s Council last didn’t have a three-person ideological majority — although the city almost had one when Doug Chaffee came within 100 votes of beating Pat McKinley in 2010.
The turn of events may have had a subduing effect on the Council’s critics. Only ten members of the public spoke at the public comments before the meeting — the last two being speakers representing what had been the No on W and Yes on W sides of the Coyote Hills debate. The earlier speakers were mostly re-enlistees in “Kelly’s Army,” who pledged to stand strong for “Justice for Kelly” and against police abuses, but who were relatively polite and sometimes even conciliatory (though several of them endorsed Whitaker for Mayor at least one endorsing Sebourn.) If they were generally subdued — with the notable exception of two-time 2012 Council candidate Matthew Hakim, who asked Soon-to-Be-Not-Just-Interim-or-Acting Police Chief Dan Hughes if Hughes wanted to slap him in the face sometime, an invitation met by an admirable poker face — they did not seem defeated.
What was going through my mind as I watched the placid meeting and the pretty darn nice reception afterwards — you missed some great cream puffs, Dear Reader — was the might-have-beens. Here’s four to consider:
(1) What would this meeting have looked like had Doug Chaffee beaten Pat McKinley in 2010, leading to a split Council with Whitaker as the odd-one-out, leading to a likely Quirk-Silva Mayorship a year earlier — during the Kelly Thomas tragedy itself — and a likely alliance between Quirk-Silva, Chaffee, and Whitaker in favor of more modest, but still real, police reforms?
Would Tony Bushala have still sought a recall? Would Chaffee and Quirk-Silva have been included in it? Would it have succeeded if the Council had been willing to push a serious investigation — even without all of the drama and renting of garments?
(2) What would this meeting have looked like had either Chaffee or Sebourn not won in the recall — or, for that matter, had Kiger not won?
(3) What would this meeting have looked like had Jan Flory not come from behind and beaten Travis Kiger by a mere 29 votes in the general election a month ago?
And finally —
(4) What would this meeting look like if Kelly Thomas had been beaten but not killed — or successfully handcuffed before Jay Cicinelli and his taser arrived on the scene — or not even detained at all?
I like this Council. I have high hopes for it, from its quality of discussion to its “healing potential” to its possibility of implementing thoughtful reform policies. I’m prepared to be disappointed — it’s a Republican majority Council, which isn’t what I’d have wanted — but this time around failures in these areas would be a disappointment instead of the expected result, which is saying something.
Fullerton got to this point by dislodging the seemingly eternal “traditional Republican” majority and then upending the “libertarian Republican” majority — so that we’re left with no majority but also no one as extreme as Travis Kiger or the three recalled Councilmembers. It could have failed to come about in many ways, for many reasons — but somehow it didn’t.
Politics never goes away — but Fullerton has a chance, now, to focus on good governance. Checks and balances are in place — and the continued Fear of a Bushala Planet should help to keep people in line and pointed towards reform.
I’m sorry that Fullerton has had to cancel First Night this year, for lack of Redevelopment funds to cover it, because I’ll bet that a lot of people in the area would have felt like celebrating in each others’ company. But the city has to stay within its budget, right? No one — or at least not enough people — would want to see it go bankrupt.