Local Politics

Monday, Jan 07 2013 10:00 PM

Technicality kills Ward 1 petition drive

BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

Organizers and volunteers in Bakersfield's Ward 1 did everything right.

Almost.

Following the resignation of former Ward 1 Councilman Rudy Salas, who was elected to the state Assembly in November, southeast Bakersfield residents and volunteers gathered 2,120 signatures on a petition to call a special election to fill the vacancy left by Salas.

But according to a report to the City Council from Bakersfield City Clerk Roberta Gafford, a "technical error" invalidated what otherwise would be valid signatures from 1,145 registered voters in the ward.

The error effectively takes the decision about whether to hold a special election out of the hands of the people and places it in the hands of the Bakersfield City Council.

"The requisite number of valid signatures needed to call an election is 1,220," Gafford said in the report. "The Kern County Elections Department reviewed 100 percent of the signatures submitted and determined that 577 of the 2,120 signatures were valid. However, an additional 1,145 signatures were determined to be invalid only as the result of a technical error."

The error? The signers properly placed their signatures on the petition, but someone other than the signers completed the residence information on their behalf.

And according to county Elections chief Karen Rhea, the law requires that each signer personally affix his or her residence information.

Despite the technicality, Gafford noted in her report that the response from residents is a "strong indication that the intention of the voters in Ward 1 is to have a special election."

Marvin Dean, who helped organize the signature-gathering effort, had not heard about the invalidation of the signatures until a reporter informed him Monday afternoon. Dean ran for the Ward 1 seat against Salas in 2010 and has said he will try again if a special election is called.

"This is news to me," a clearly shocked Dean said Monday.

Dean said organizers of the petition drive asked for and received basic guidelines from the city in how to properly gather signatures. But he was not aware that a volunteer could not complete the address portion of the documents.

"It was a hell of an effort to gather those signatures," he said. "It was not easy.

"You only have four weeks to do something once there is a vacancy," he said.

The deadline for the petition was Jan. 2. After meeting that deadline with 900 extra signatures, Dean felt comfortable that the effort had been successful.

"I was really hoping this was a done deal," he said.

While 398 of the signatures were deemed invalid for more common reasons, such as incorrect addresses or because the signer was not a registered voter, the 1,722 signatures left would have been more than enough -- barring the technical glitch.

The error now gives the council the power to do one of three things at its meeting Wednesday evening.

If it chooses, the council can still call a special election for June 4. Should that happen, the council can appoint an interim member until the election or leave the position open until the election.

Should the council choose not to call a special election, Gafford said, members can appoint an interim member to complete the balance of the term, which expires November 2014.

Reached Monday, longtime Ward 6 Councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan said the decision for her comes down to one thing: honoring the wishes of Ward 1 residents.

"This was a very easy mistake to make," she said of the error made by some signature gatherers.

"I have felt all along that the right thing to do is to have the special election," she said. "This petition clearly shows the will of the people to elect their own representative ... That's what democracy is all about."

Terry Maxwell, a Bakersfield restaurateur who is just beginning his first term as councilman, said he would like to consider all the information, including the discussion at Wednesday's meeting, before he makes up his mind.

Gafford has estimated that a special election would cost the city up to $100,000 -- a fact that must be considered in any decision, Maxwell said.

"But it's hard to ignore the will of the people," he said.

"We need to consider the intent of those who signed the petition," he said, "and weigh that against the cost of an election."

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