After months of debate, a resolution that would have called a special election to change the current two-year mayoral seat selected at large into a fifth council seat, with the mayor selected every two years by council members, failed to win a majority in the deadlocked, four-member Windsor Town Council Aug. 3.
The debate was spurred on by the sexual misconduct and assault allegations against now former Mayor Dominic Foppoli, who was the first directly elected at-large mayor selected in Windsor’s new — and problematic — district-based election system. Without support at the final council meeting ahead of the Aug. 6 deadline to get the item before Windsor voters during the Nov. 2 consolidated Sonoma County election, leaving Nov. 8, 2022 as the earliest the item could make it to the ballot box.
The implementation of a four-member district-based council system with an at-large mayor elected every two years began in 2020 after a 2018 lawsuit alleged that, by marginalizing Latino voters through the at-large system, the town was in violation of the California Voting Rights Act.
Following Foppoli’s resignation, then-Vice Mayor Sam Salmon assumed the elected mayoral seat via appointment, leaving his own district-based council seat vacant. That shuffling around of the council illustrated major problems with Windsor’s new system, such as its liability to require frequent special elections if seated council members win the two-year mayoral seat.
The district-based system, purported to correct the lack of representation of Latino voters, has come under fire as itself a way of counter-intuitively reducing the ability of the citizens of Windsor to take part in frequent elections, and issues of Latino marginalization have become seemingly moot following the election of council members Esther Lemus and Rosa Reynoza, both of whom are Latina.
A reversion to an entirely at-large system, which would allow all Windsor voters to vote for two or three council members every two years rather than one singular council member in their home district once every four years, would require a racial polarization study, currently pending, to ensure Latino voters are not marginalized in violation of the California Voting Rights Act.
Stephanie Smith, of the law firm Best, Best and Krieger (BBK), said although the current system was able to be implemented via ordinance in 2020, California law prohibits the council from abolishing the at-large mayoral seat in favor of a rotational appointment without the approval of the Windsor electorate. In contrast, the related but separate issue of whether to dissolve district elections in favor of entirely at-large elections can be executed via ordinance.
Putting the item on the Nov. 2, 2021 ballot, according to Smith, would save Windsor money by consolidating with the existing Sonoma County election that day, also providing contracted demographers vital information as to how many districts to draw with newly received Census data. If the mayoral seat becomes an appointment decided among a five-member council, they will need to draw five districts instead of four, assuming the council is unable to return to an entirely at-large system.
“The Town of Windsor would not have to carry the full freight of a traditional special election, so there will be some savings there,” Smith said. “The second thing is that by placing it on the November 2021 ballot, it provides timely direction to the demographer as to whether they need to draw four maps or five.”
Council members were at each other's throats over the decision, the outcome of which would depend on how several uncertain variables — like the potential reversion to at-large council election system — could fall. Both Reynoza and Salmon refused to support the resolution calling for the special election, and council members Debora Fudge and Lemus were unable to sway either.
The conversation among council members was rife with confusion, anger and potential Brown Act violations, as pointed out by Town Manager Ken MacNab and counsel, as the topic of redistricting was not agendized and therefore iffy to discuss, however pertinent. Reynoza suggested that the council deliberate once more at a future date with all pertinent topics concerning the makeup of the council on the agenda, however, there was not time to do that ahead of Friday’s deadline.
Lemus called the current mayoral system a source of instability in the governance of Windsor, as it could cause situations in which a seated council member could assume the mayoral seat via election mid-term, thereby leaving two-year vacancies that would have to be decided by special election, if the system were not reformed by the electorate, that is.
“I think there’s a structural problem with an elected mayor,” Lemus said. “We will regularly have a vacant council seat. It’s going to be a revolving door, and every two years we’re going to encounter the issue we’ve had recently, which is a big debate over whether to appoint or run a special election.”
Fudge agreed with Lemus, and emphasized that without the special election the demographers may have to draw the new district maps twice — once per law with updated U.S. Census data, and another time in the event the at-large mayorship is dissolved in favor of a fifth council member and appointed mayor but the town is unable to abolish the current district system entirely. She also said that returning to a five-member council with an appointed mayor would help the community heal from the Foppoli scandals.
Mayor Salmon expressed his opposition to the special election as, given the uncertainty over whether the town could revert from a district-based system to an entirely at-large system, it allowed for the possibility that Windsor voters could vote for only one representative once every four years. Salmon would prefer the current system through which all voters could select at least one representative every two years (an at-large mayor with a two-year term) and two representatives every four years (a new at-large mayor and their district’s council member with a four-year term).
Lemus rebutted that the larger electorate did not necessarily hold that view, but instead a vocal, engaged minority that attends meetings and writes council members did.
Disagreements between Lemus and Fudge in opposition to Salmon grew heated, with Lemus saying Salmon’s position was based on a “childish and retaliatory” grudge. Fudge called his view “ridiculous.”
In response to Fudge and Lemus, Salmon said, “I heard loud and clear that people want to vote every two years. They want to have a voice. That’s where I come from. It has nothing to do with a grudge, and I don’t think it’s ridiculous.”
Salmon also said five districts would mean very small populations of Windsor voters would be selecting council members.
“I’m not in favor of five districts — if that’s ridiculous, I’m sorry. I’m much more in favor of keeping the mayor and four districts, or going forward and eliminating the districts,” he said.
Fudge agreed with Salmon about not wanting five districts, however, disagreed with him in the larger context of fixing the Windsor council and mayoral system.
In a final heated moment before the item was dropped without a motion, Salmon interrupted Fudge’s closing remarks, in which she was expressing sadness over the council’s inability to decide how to reform itself following the Foppoli scandal. After he beckoned her to finish her statement following his interruption, she refused to return to her earlier point, saying, “You have just shown the public more than I could say.”
The council also passed a resolution to call a special election in April 2022 to fill Salmon’s district council seat left vacant following his assumption via appointment of the at-large mayoral seat left vacant by Foppoli.
Having missed the Aug. 6 deadline, the earliest the issue of mayoral appointment could come before Windsor voters is during next year’s Nov. 8 general municipal election, at such a time when the representative selected in the April 12 special election will face a contest after less than 10 months on the council.