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On the day that Susan Gorin will be sworn in as the new Sonoma County 1st District supervisor, her former colleagues on the Santa Rosa City Council will begin the politically delicate task of replacing her.

Several key questions facing the council Tuesday will determine how they'll go about filling the vacancy.

Should they let the voters decide in a special election?

Should they take applications from residents, conduct interviews and appoint someone themselves?

Or should they just cut to the chase and award the seat to the next highest vote-getter from November?

Answering these and other questions about the appointment process will be a test of sorts for the recently realigned council, now led by Mayor Scott Bartley with newcomer Erin Carlstrom as vice mayor.

The answers also could help determine the balance of power on an ideologically divided council split between three members backed by business and development interests, two supported by environmental and neighborhood groups, and one, Carlstrom, with backers from both camps.

"It's going to make for some interesting council-watching in the near future," said Tim Aboudara, political director for the Santa Rosa Firefighters IAFF Local 1401.

Whether to hold an election may prove the easiest decision. An election would be expensive and probably couldn't take place until November.

The county registrar estimates a special election would cost taxpayers between $167,000 and $292,000. And, because of the way the law is written, the next available date for an election might be Nov. 5, according to City Attorney Caroline Fowler.

That's because the council presumably wouldn't opt for an election until it at least tries to find an appointee, Fowler said. That process of advertising for the opening, taking applications, interviewing candidates and making a decision could take several weeks.

The council has until March 1, which is 60 days from the date Gorin resigned, to select an appointee. If the council can't decide or chooses not to appoint someone, an election would be held at the next regular election date at least 114 days out. That could make it hard to hit the June 4 election date, leaving Nov. 5 the earliest possible election, Fowler said.

That puts additional pressure on the council to make the decision soon because otherwise it risks months of 3-3 gridlock on controversial issues.

All of which tells Aboudara that the council is almost certain to go through some kind of appointment process.

"Because of the cost and time involved, they are going to have to pick somebody," Aboudara said.

But if history is any guide, the appointment process can be a challenging, politically polarizing endeavor.

One reason is because an appointee could end up deciding key issues and also a significant leg up on the competition for the next election.

That became a divisive issue in 2007, when three-term councilman Mike Martini resigned.

To defuse the concern about the incumbency advantage, that council ultimately required potential appointees to promise they wouldn't run in 2008. Out of a pool of 21 applicants, the council selected Carol Dean, in part because of her non-binding vow not to run.

But after 10 months on the council, the West End resident and member of Board of Public Utilities decided to run. She was vilified for it and lost in 2008.

Whether to again require such a pledge is one of the questions the council will need to grapple with Tuesday.

Stephen Gale, head of the Sonoma County Democratic Party, said given that history he doesn't think requiring such a pledge makes sense. All it will do is limit the pool of candidates unnecessarily, he said.

Other issues include what kinds of questions would be on the application, when the submission deadline should be and how the interviews would be handled.

Last time, interviews were held over two days in the council chambers. Applicants also were required to submit a nomination form with 20 signatures from registered voters.

A simpler but potentially perilous route would be for the council to simply appoint the highest vote-getter from the November election.

That was Don Taylor, owner of the Omelette Express restaurants and the fifth-place vote getter. Following the election, some suggested Taylor was the logical choice for the appointment, something Taylor said he would welcome. But it's unclear if such a plan has any support on the council.

Planning Commissioner Curtis Byrd said he would be disappointed to see the city do anything other than open it up to a full application process.

"Our city deserves an open process," said Byrd, who said he plans to apply if allowed the opportunity.

Other names that have surfaced in recent weeks as potential nominees include: Robin Swinth, a member of the city Board of Public Utilities; Donna Zapata, executive director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; Judy Kennedy, a neighborhood activist; Tanya Narath, executive director of the Leadership Institute for Ecology and the Economy, and former City Council candidates Caroline Ba?elos, Hans Dippel, Mike Cook and Shaan Vandenburg.

Asked after she was elected how she was thinking about her role in selecting Gorin's replacement, Carlstrom said she would seek someone who was independent-minded and could work with both factions.

"I really want us to kind of get away from this idea that we go into a room and everybody knows where everybody's vote is going to lie down," she said at that time.

She added this week that she would like to see someone with a "track record with the city" and an interest in city issues.

In this situation, so soon after a contentious election, Gale said he expects the council will shy away from those who recently have been "highly visible competitors" in the political arena.

"It's hard to be able to bridge differences that may be too fresh," Gale said, "and someone who has less baggage in that respect can be a better candidate for appointment."

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. OnTwitter @citybeater.

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