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By Michael Fagans / The Californian
BY ANTONIE BOESSENKOOL Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
The Bakersfield City Council voted unanimously Wednesday night to hold a special election for the open Ward 1 seat despite petition gatherers falling short of enough qualified signatures to force a special election.
Ward 1 residents and volunteers turned in 2,129 signatures from Ward 1 voters calling for a special election for the seat left open last month when Rudy Salas moved to the state Assembly. But the county elections office, tasked with verifying the signatures, disqualified 1,145 of them because someone other than the voter filled in voters' addresses. That left the petitions short of the magic number of signatures needed to force the council to hold a special election. Without the required number, it was up to the council to decide whether to appoint Salas' replacement or hold a special election.
Council members said Wednesday that the technicality shouldn't stop them from honoring the wishes of Ward 1 residents.
"There's no question about it, the signatures were there," Councilman Harold Hanson said in moving to hold a special election. "I agree that they were not done in the proper manner, but on the other hand, people have indicated that that's the way they want to go, and that's the way we should do it."
"We have to support the will of the people and the intent of the people," and hold a special election despite the cost, said Terry Maxwell, the new council member for Ward 2 covering much of downtown Bakersfield.
The special election would be held on June 4.
Councilman Ken Weir was the lone dissenting voice, expressing concern about the cost for a special election. City Clerk Roberta Gafford has said the election could cost up to $100,000, money that would come from the city's general fund, which is used to pay for basic city services.
"I can tell you that I am not a proponent of the election; I never was," Weir said. "I don't think it's a good use of our money. But I always said from the beginning if Ward 1 residents ... would demonstrate their commitment to an election, then I would support it. Commitment meant all the signatures. And unfortunately, that's not what happened."
Even so, Weir voted with the rest of the council to hold a special election. With that move, the council also decided to not fill the Ward 1 seat in the meantime. Weir has so far been answering concerns from Ward 1 residents, but other council members said they would pitch in until a Ward 1 representative is elected.
Before the council's decision, about half a dozen people, some who've indicated they may run for the Ward 1 seat, implored the council to hold a special election.
"Ward 1 residents want their voice to be heard," said resident Walter Williams, who added that he also signed the petition for a special election. "Ward 1 residents may not look like the rest of Bakersfield, but its residents are hard-working and they deserve the right to vote."
Willie Rivera, of state Sen. Michael Rubio's office, told the council Rubio is working on legislation that would prevent this particular technicality from invalidating petition signatures in the future.
"This is clearly an example of bureaucracy getting in the way of someone's right to vote," he said. "They've made their will known, and it's your job to honor that," he said of the Ward 1 petition signers.
Wednesday's meeting, the first of 2013, was also the first full meeting for new members Maxwell and Bob Smith.
Also Wednesday night, the council heard an update on Thomas Roads Improvement Program projects. Most noteworthy were anticipated dates for milestones in two controversial projects: the widening of 24th Street and the Centennial Corridor to link Highway 58 to the Westside Parkway and eventually to Interstate 5.
The final environmental document detailing the 24th Street project will be released in May at the latest, said Public Works Director Raul Rojas. Right-of-way property acquisitions will start in June, he said.
For the Centennial Corridor, the draft environmental document outlining the project is slated to come out in late spring, he said.