Jose Gaspar

Sunday, Jan 20 2013 08:00 PM

JOSE GASPAR: Activism pays off for Ward 1 residents

By Jose Gaspar

Kudos to determined residents in the city of Bakersfield's Ward 1 who displayed and practiced civic engagement in their community. This is a good example of what can happen when the community organizes and follows through to the end.

In short, they were able to do the groundwork necessary to convince the Bakersfield City Council to hold a special election to replace former Ward 1 representative Rudy Salas. When Salas was recently elected to the State Assembly, that left his seat vacant. One of the options to replace Salas was to have city leaders appoint someone to fill the seat. Ward 1 residents would have none of that.

"This was a victory for the people of Ward 1," said community activist Marvin Dean, who plans to run for the seat and spearheaded the special election effort.

But it almost didn't happen. To begin with, when Salas left office Dec. 2, that gave community members a very short window in which to gather the roughly 1,220 signatures from Ward 1 voters needed to petition for a special election. And it wasn't an easy task given the timing during the holidays, meaning proponents of the special election had to put aside personal plans to gather signatures.

Petition gatherers went door to door, to churches and set up stands outside grocery stores to try to convince voters why a special election was needed and have them sign on the dotted line. I paid a visit to witness the signature gathering in front of a FoodMaxx on Union Avenue. A typical encounter between the person obtaining signatures and a voter went something like this:

"Excuse me, (sir, miss, ma'am) we're gathering signatures on a petition to have a special election for Ward 1 so the people can elect their own person. Do you live in the first ward? Can I ask you to sign the petition?"

This was usually followed by a blank stare indicating the person didn't have a clue about what was happening or more often than not the person simply mumbled and kept walking. Not to be discouraged, they kept at it all day long. It was encouraging when some folks actually stopped to listen to the election pitch, ask questions and agree that residents in one of the poorest, if not the most poorest of the city's seven wards, should be given the chance to elect their own councilmember. Several voters needed help filling out the petition. So petition gatherers helped by filling in their address and then the voter signed it.

Persistence paid off. Or so it seemed. Proponents gathered 2,129 voter signatures from Ward 1 voters and turned in the petition to City Clerk Roberta Gafford. That number was more than enough to force the city to hold a special election. Believe it or not though, because petition gatherers wrote in the personal information about the voter such as their address, the Kern County Elections Department determined this was a no-no, a violation of the elections code.

"In my opinion, I agree with the county clerk that that is a clear violation of at least two sections of the elections code," said city attorney Ginny Gennaro. And just like that, 1,145 voter signatures were thrown out. Had the signatures not been disqualified, Ward 1 residents would have forced the city to hold a special election. So the issue went before the entire City Council. And so did the community and others supporting a special election. Proponents spoke convincingly and from the heart about why it was important that the council honor the will of the voters.

"We are getting ready to celebrate Martin Luther King, whose sole mission was to make sure we had a voice and to make sure we had a right to vote," Walter Williams told the City Council.

"This is clearly an example of bureaucracy getting in the way of someone's right to vote," said Willy Rivera of State Sen. Michael Rubio's office. Rivera also informed the City Council that his boss is working on a bill that would prevent this sort of technical glitch from dooming future petitions. Makes sense. Rubio points to the fact that when it comes to filling out voter registration forms, it's legal to have someone else complete the residence portion, so long as a voter checks a box indicating he/she received help. Yet petitions are different?

After hearing from the public, there was surprisingly no major disagreement from the six council members. All agreed the people of Ward 1 expressed their desire to elect their representative despite the technicality that invalidated the petition. All six voted to have a special election June 4.

In the meantime, the seat will remain vacant and other council members will field calls from residents of Ward 1. The cost to the city will be about $100,000. But councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan came up with a solution to this. Sullivan said Rudy Salas should pay for the election out of his own pocket.

"Rudy should do the right thing," Sullivan told the audience.

Heard that Rudy? Cough up $100,000. Shame on you for using the little city of Bakersfield as a stepping stone to rub elbows in Sacramento. And besides, others who have also left their elected seats mid-term to run for higher office have had to pay for a special election, right? For example, there was ... uh, ... there was ... uh, can't think of anyone right now, but I'm sure someone must have been forced to pay.

"Ms. Sullivan is just playing politics," Salas said. "She can introduce a city ordinance to change the democratic process at any time so she can make any candidate pay for an election despite the will of the voters," the new assemblyman said.

Scores of other politicians have done the same thing as Salas, yet he notes it's never been an issue before. So why now? "She (Sullivan) would rather talk about it than do something about it," Salas said.

Sullivan, for her part, said she's doing more than just talking about it. She's asked city attorney Ginny Gennaro about amending the city charter to have council members pay for a special election should they leave office before half of their first term is complete.

"Not sure how far I'm going to take this," Sullivan said.

Those who are elected should complete at least half of their first term before moving to higher office, she said, explaining otherwise "it makes a mockery out of city government."

Yes, this was an interesting lesson in civic engagement.

-- Jose Gaspar is a reporter for "KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News" and a contributing columnist for The Californian. These are Gaspar's opinions, not necessarily The Californian's. Email him at elcompa29@gmail.com.

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