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Windsor opts for special election to fill council seat

Windsor residents will get to vote in a special mail-only election this spring to fill a vacancy on the Town Council.

Council members, who appeared to be deadlocked ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, voted 4-0 to set a May 4 special election to bring the council up to its full five-person complement.

The winner will serve out the final time left on the previous term of Dominic Foppoli, who won direct election to the position of mayor in November, leaving vacant the remainder of his four-year term that ends in December 2022.

After previously discussing the choice between a special election and an appointment, Foppoli and Councilwoman Deb Fudge had leaned toward an appointment and Vice Mayor Sam Salmon and Councilwoman Esther Lemus favored an election.

The stalemate didn’t last long, as Foppoli led off by nodding to the emotional nature of the day, especially on the subject of democracy. Hours earlier, a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters had stormed the U.S. Capitol, displacing Congress as federal lawmakers were amid the process of certifying President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.

Within that context, Foppoli said, he felt his role as mayor was to unite the town and make residents know they’re being heard. And in this case, he said, his constituents swayed his opinion, leading him to support a special election as soon as possible.

“Personally, my trepidation has always been the fiscal concern about the cost of special election,” Foppoli said. “But the reality is, the overwhelming messages that at least I’ve received from residents is that they feel that it’s worth it.”

Foppoli’s statement appeared to give clear majority support to the special election proposal, but before the council voted, Fudge offered a compromise: holding the election but also making a temporary appointment to restore the council to full strength as early as possible.

Fudge recommended Paul Berlant, a former town manager, and one 24 verified applicants who sought the vacant seat..

“There wouldn’t be a learning curve,” Fudge said. “We don’t have time for a learning curve, especially with a temporary position.”

Windsor’s policy docket this year includes planning for its next two-year budget, a potential deal to develop a new downtown civic center and 151-room hotel and the dispensation of a $20 million payment from the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians stemming from the tribe’s pending housing development west of the town. Town Manager Ken MacNab has said he prefers having a full council in place as quickly as possible.

Asked by Foppoli about the feasibility of Fudge’s proposal, Town Attorney Jose Sanchez raised procedural concerns, noting that the type of appointment Fudge suggested would require the council to pass an urgency ordinance — which hadn’t been drafted ahead of Wednesday’s meeting. That type of action typically requires findings that emergency action is necessary due to public health and safety concerns and could be subject to litigation, Sanchez said.

“There is some risk that somebody could come and challenge,” Sanchez said.

Salmon spoke up in opposition to an interim appointment. And while Lemus said she was impressed with the town’s applicant pool, she reiterated her position that a special election was the right course of action.

“It’s the fair thing to do,” Lemus said. “I do agree that it will build trust, and build trust in the council.”

Fudge eventually came around to vote in favor of a special election, noting that she was “not super enthusiastic, but I am supportive.”

Windsor has pivoted to district-based races for town council with an at-large mayor. Fudge was recently reelected to a district-based seat, and the other three district seats will be up for election in November 2022.

The council had faced a Monday deadline to choose whether to call a special election. With the council’s vote, Monday will now mark the beginning of the candidate nominating period, which will end Feb. 5.

The estimated cost of a special election for the town is up to $85,000. The election is expected to be conducted entirely by mail, according to Windsor officials.

The early May election date will give county election officials until June 3 to certify the results, setting up the winner to join the council later that month and giving that person about a year and a half before their term expires.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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