PALMDALE – The City Council appointed Fred Thompson to a vacancy on its board Wednesday evening, making the former Palmdale School District trustee the first African-American to serve on the council.
The four-member council voted unanimously in a motion to appoint Thompson to Councilwoman Laura Bettencourt’s vacated seat. Bettencourt resigned her seat on the council effective March 20, citing personal health issues and the uncertainty of the court’s resolve with “on-going election issues.”
Thompson was elected in Palmdale’s Nov. 8, 2013 election, but he was prevented from being seated when a Los Angeles Superior Court judge voided the election in December due to the ongoing California Voting Rights Act lawsuit. The results of the council seat are postponed until the Court of Appeals certifies the election.
Thompson’s appointment to the council holds extreme significance for Palmdale because the lawsuit against the city claims its at-large elections prevent minority voters, especially African-Americans and Hispanics, from holding office.
At Wednesday’s meeting, City Attorney Matthew Ditzhazy explained the city’s position and its options for filling the vacancy. Though a special election is prevented by the court, he said the council may simply leave the seat vacant until the next election or appoint someone to fill the vacancy now.
“The last option is to appoint someone to the vacant seat. According to our municipal code, it’s just that,” Ditzhazy said. “It’s just filling the vacancy. It’s not putting anyone into a seat other than the seat that was vacated recently by Laura Bettencourt.”
Before the council’s 4-0 vote, civic and business leaders throughout the community voiced their support for Thompson during public comment.
Former Palmdale School Board member Sandy Corrales-Eneix told the City Council she worked hard to make sure Thompson was elected last November.
“And I think that your role as representatives of our constituents that voted last November, there is really only one option to consider tonight, and that is to fill the vacancy with the very appropriate Fred Thompson who’s so well-qualified,” she said. “This council has the ability to make history this evening, has the ability to reflect its constituency, and to make sure that voters feel secure that their vote last November mattered – that you listened.”
Palmdale School District board trustee Bo Bynum told members of the council their decision was a serious one and would be scrutinized by the public.
“The public has spoken, but it goes beyond that,” Bynum said. “It goes to the fact that we have a qualified man who ran a quality election, and was voted in by the folks. And this is an opportunity now to fulfill the wishes of the public and to see Mr. Thompson as the next City Council member for Palmdale … And the public states that it wants a council that is real concerned with diversity, that’s real concerned with their youth, that’s real concerned with education, and Fred Thompson has been involved in all of those areas.”
However, when time came for the council’s discussion on Thompson’s appointment, legal concerns raised by Mayor Pro Tem Tom Lackey quickly dampened the enthusiasm radiating throughout the chamber.
Lackey said there was no question about who to appoint to the vacant position, but his concern was with possible retaliation from the court if the council were to appoint Thompson.
“We have to be very, very careful not to be caught up in our emotion, and our emotion is clearly to tell the court that we do not appreciate what they’ve done to us; we don’t appreciate the intervention,” he said. “However, I think it is also important that we send the message that we are in compliance with what the court directs, otherwise we may get into trouble.”
Lackey then suggested to the council that it explain its intentions for Thompson’s appointment to the court and then act on it after the court’s ruling, which is scheduled for April 8.
When a notable objection rose from a member of the public at Lackey’s suggestion, he responded: “You can disagree with me, but I’m just telling you where I’m at, ma’am. And the reason why is because I believe, again, the short-term benefit versus the potential long-term penalty is something that needs careful evaluation.”
The City Attorney clarified there would be no legal consequences if the council were to appoint Thompson – not to the seat intended from November’s election – but to the vacancy created by Bettencourt’s resignation. Ditzhazy told the council that state law provides for the filling of a vacancy by appointment.
“He would hold that (seat) until we get a decision,” Ditzhazy said. “If we get a decision in a week, or if we get a decision in two or three months, and they say, go ahead and certify, Fred will actually be sworn in again. Because then he would be getting sworn into his seat for his term.”
The four-member council then made their decision to appoint Thompson based on this distinction, while also acknowledging that the council’s appointment was not a defiant reaction to the court’s ruling.
“I feel confident with what we’re doing,” Mayor James C. Ledford said before the vote, admitting that he did not believe the council’s action would incur the “wrath of the courts. More important, this is the will of our voters.”
After the vote, City Clerk Rebecca Smith administered the Oath of Office in a filled-to-capacity chamber that reflected the community’s support for Thompson.