By Neil Farrell
Calling it the best option for an unfortunate situation, County Supervisors voted to rescind the appointment of a Los Osos Community Services District board member, and let the cut to decide how to fill the vacancy and correct a “clerical error” mistake by the County Clerk.
At the Nov. 20 Supervisor’s meeting, Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong asked the board to reverse its Nov. 6 vote that appointed Christine Womack to a 2-year term on the LOCSD Board of Directors. Gong has admitted that there wasn’t a 2-year term available and her appointment was made in error. He’s also admitted that the election should have been one “Top-3” winners race, instead of “Top-2” with Womack unopposed for the other seat. She should have been listed amongst the other four candidates running in that single race. Womack told the Board that she initially signed up for a 4-year term and it was Gong who said she had to run for what turned out to be a non-existent seat.
“It’s OK to be wrong,” Womack said, “but it’s not OK to stay wrong. This error with my seat is unfortunate.” She said when Gong advised her that she had to run for a 2-year seat, if she wanted to be named as an “appointed incumbent,” she “had no reason to doubt this information.” LOCSD Board Chairwoman, Vicki Milledge, told Supervisors that the mistake was Gong’s alone. The CSD staff and Board informed the County back in May (and again in June) that there were three, 4-year terms up for election, and also corrected a County document that still had former director Jon Eric Storm’s name as the incumbent (He resigned last March and Womack was appointed to his seat). “The error was his and his alone,” she said of Gong. Milledge criticized his handling of the matter when he described it as a “clerical error.” She pointed out that it was Gong who crossed out Womack’s “checkmark” on the 4-year term box and changed the nomination paperwork for the 2-year term, which Womack and Gong also acknowledged happened.
The LOCSD, “posted the information we had,” Milledge said. Stephen Best, who also ran for the CSD and came in a close third, was accusatorial in his remarks, suggesting there was some kind of conspiracy afoot. He said there were supposed to be five candidates running for three seats, and that Womack was on the board that approved a Resolution to be sent to the elections office.
He said that without precedent and without the CSD’s approval, the County Clerk had changed one to a 2-year term. “A 2-year term that did not exist,” said Best. “It changed the equation for Los Osos voters. How can one seat be taken of the ballot to the sole benefit of one candidate? I don’t believe Ms. Womack didn’t know about this.”
In explaining his mistake, Gong, who took full responsibility for it over a week after the election, said when deciding offices up for election, it gets complicated when there’s a resignation. He said Storm’s resignation and Womack’s appointment to serve out his term and the election lineups were happening about the same time. “That’s when the error was made and it moved forward from there,” said Gong. He said he spoke with Womack who wanted to list herself as an “appointed incumbent.”
He told her she could only run for a 2-year term if she did that. Under State election laws, if an incumbent resigns in the first half of his or her term, the appointed person can only run for a 2-year term at the next general election. But if they leave in the second half, as Storm did, they have to run for a full term at the next election. So the mixup apparently happened when Gong, with Womack’s knowledge, changed to the 2-year term, for which she was unopposed.
Gong said when the CSD told the County that Storm had resigned and shouldn’t be on the initial list of incumbents, they made the assumption that Womack had to run for a 2-year term. According to County Counsel, Tim McNulty, the Supervisors couldn’t simply appoint the third place finisher to fill the seat. Womack could be appointed by the CSD board to continue to serve, but McNulty said she has to run for election in 2020. Dist. 2 Supervisor, Bruce Gibson, said rescinding Womack’s appointment would allow the CSD Board to appoint whomever they wish. He called it, “A very unfortunate situation” for the voters of Los Osos, the candidates and the CSD Board”, but after talking with Gong and County Counsel, rescinding the appointment “is the best way to move forward. It puts the decision as close to the Los Osos voters as we can.” The CSD is slated to discuss the matter and decide what to do at its Thursday, Dec. 6 regular board meeting, starting with closed session at 6 p.m. and open session at 7, in the board chambers, 2122 9th St. The closed session agenda lists the election matter as “Anticipated Litigation.” The was robbed. This reporter sat down
with Best, who is critical of the CSD, on Nov. 28 after he sent an email asking to tell his story.
He ran for CSD in 2016 and “had a good shot at it,” but after Milledge entered the race, he “came in a close third. I promised myself and others that I would run again.” He put his name up when Storm resigned last May too, and was passed over. He ran in November and took third in a close race. Incumbent, Chuck Cesena, was first with 3,698 votes (33.63%), and Matthew Fourcroy got the second seat with 3,113 (28.31%) to Best’s 3,051 (27.75%), a difference of some 62 votes. He pointed out that it was him who told Gong the election was done incorrectly and Womack was appointed to a non-existent seat. He can’t understand how such a mistake was made and allowed to go forward. “It started gnawing on me,” he said. If five people run for three seats, he said, it’s a better chance of winning than if four people run for two seats. “I was within two percent of winning a seat,” he said. “I felt cheated. I did not get a fair chance to be elected.” The Bay News contacted Womack to interview for this story and she referred us to her testimony at the Supervisor’s meeting, which we reported on above. Womack did say that she intends to put her name up for re-appointment to the Board. We also tried to talk to the CSD’s executive director about Best’s complaints, but she declined. “Nobody questioned the creation of the two-year term?” Best said. “The mistake should have been caught. It should not have been changed.” So what does he want to happen? “I deserve to have my name nominated for this seat,” he said. “Christine Womack shouldn’t because something’s wrong.” When Womack signed up for the 2-year seat, he said, she took herself out of the race and “ran for a term that didn’t exist. If this hanky-panky hadn’t happened, I would have had a fair shot of winning this seat.”