The council heard statements from the seven applicants at the special meeting, and briefly interviewed them before attempting to choose one whom at least three of the four members could support to finish out Jerry Carlson's term. Mr. Carlson, whose term expires in December 2014, resigned July 1.
Residents attending the Thursday night meeting encouraged the council to appoint one of the applicants rather than call for an election — and try to do business with only four council members until December. But three balloting rounds ended in stalemate: The final ballot gave John Ruggeiro two votes, and Rick DeGolia two votes.
The split vote — with Mayor Elizabeth Lewis and Councilman Cary Wiest voting for Mr. DeGolia, and councilmen Jim Dobbie and Bill Widmer supporting Mr. Ruggeiro — exemplifies why a four-person council is likely to be a problem: It reflects the frequent alliances on the council since December. Mr. Carlson was often the third vote to tip the council's decisions in the Lewis/Wiest direction.
With that dynamic in place until the year's end, some observers fear, the council will be unable to address important matters before the town, including ongoing contract negotiations with the police union.
After the failed attempt to appoint a new member, the council approved a resolution to call for a special election to be held on Nov. 5 with any other elections in the county. The deadline for the town to file papers with the county for an election was Monday, July 15. City Clerk Theresa DellaSanta on Friday said she had filed the paperwork that day, but would cancel it if the council makes an appointment July 17.
City Manager George Rodericks said he placed the option to make an appointment on the July 17 council agenda after Mayor Lewis asked him on Friday if and when the council could try again to appoint.
Mayor Lewis said it's uncertain whether the council will make another attempt to appoint, but she wanted the option to do so. The agenda item leaves the door open for such an effort, she said, and also allows the council and staff to discuss any new information or options to consider in determining how to fill the vacant seat.
Because of ground rules agreed to before council voting got underway on July 11, the first ballot narrowed the choice in subsequent ballot rounds to Mr. Ruggeiro, a transportation commissioner and longtime council watcher; and Mr. DeGolia, vice chair of the Community Center Advisory Committee.
There was added drama to the affair when Councilman Cary Wiest abstained in the first go-round.
Mr. Wiest had stated, after six of the seven applicants made statements (candidate Diane Sandhu did not attend) and before the council voting began, that he was struggling with choosing a single candidate. Calling the candidates "an incredible group of people," he said: "Residents of Atherton deserve to hear what we are hearing (tonight). They deserve to … have some input" in the choice. He then said he would be "very supportive" of calling an election, but stopped short of saying he would insist on one.
When the first ballot was passed out, he appeared undecided on his choice as council colleagues were turning in their ballots. When he finally turned his in, the choices were read: Jim Dobbie and Bill Widmer supported John Ruggeiro; Mayor Elizabeth Lewis cast her vote for Rick DeGolia; Mr. Wiest abstained.
That ballot in effect disqualified the remaining five candidates, but a candidate would need three votes to be appointed. Mayor Lewis asked: Should the council try again? Councilman Wiest was asked: Would you reconsider?
"I feel very strongly that there should be an election," he responded. "I think the residents of Atherton — they've said they want to be involved."
The residents of Atherton in attendance got involved. To call for an election to fill a 12-month term wouldn't serve the town well, said resident Bob Polito, a member of the town's Audit/Finance Committee. "Your job is to make tough decisions," he forcefully told Mr. Wiest.
The sentiment was echoed, with other residents asking in irritation why council members would have put residents through the application process if they weren't committed to filling the position this month.
Resident Valerie Gardner urged the council to find consensus and appoint a member that night, noting that a vacant council seat would "inhibit the town's ability to move ahead" on important issues the council is facing between now and December.
On the second ballot, Councilman Wiest changed his mind and voted for Mr. DeGolia. No changes occurred with the third ballot.
The filing period for residents who want to run for the seat, if an election goes forward, is from July 15 to Aug. 9.
Here's the complete list of candidates who sought appointment to the council at the July 11 meeting:
Audit/Finance Committee chair and Rail Committee member Greg Conlon; longtime council watcher and Transportation Commissioner John Ruggeiro; Community Center Advisory Committee vice-chair Rick DeGolia; Audit/Finance Committee member Diane Sandhu; Transportation Committee and Rail Committee member Michael Lempres; Atherton newcomer Michael Stogner, a former San Mateo County supervisor candidate; and Jo-Ann Byrne Sockolov, a former San Mateo County Board of Education candidate.
The applicants were sent a notice via email on Friday that the council might appoint one of them after all on July 17.