Stanislaus County supervisors, on a 3-2 vote Tuesday, denied Riverbank's request for the county to hold a June 4 special election to fill a City Council vacancy.
The board vote came after attorneys for the city and county debated whether Riverbank complied with state laws in calling for the election to fill the unexpired council term of Richard O'Brien, who was elected mayor in November.
Board Chairman Vito Chiesa and Supervisor Bill O'Brien supported Dick Monteith's motion to turn down the city. Supervisors Terry Withrow and Jim DeMartini dissented.
"It's hard for me to overrule our experts," said Bill O'Brien, whose district includes Riverbank. Richard O'Brien is his uncle.
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Withrow and DeMartini said it was clear the city intended to hold the election and that the county should let voters choose a council member. Given the disagreement among attorneys, three supervisors suggested the city take the matter to Superior Court for a quick ruling.
It appeared that Riverbank officials either dropped the ball or didn't cross their T's in asking the county election office last month to schedule the vote. Registrar of Voters Lee Lundrigan told the city its Feb. 11 resolution to set the election was a day late because state law requires at least 114 days from the call for election to the voting date.
County Counsel John Doering said Tuesday that it was "undisputed" that Riverbank failed to take the action in time. He said granting the city's request would put the county in the awkward position of conducting an unlawful election.
Two attorneys representing the city argued that it didn't matter. State laws require holding the election in June regardless of how the city handled the formalities, said attorney Steven Churchwell of Sacramento.
Voters' right to an election
Churchwell said court cases have established that "voters should not be deprived of their right to a city election." Riverbank was willing to pay for the legal defense if the June vote were challenged in court, the attorneys said.
Lundrigan countered that holding a June election in violation of state law would harm the integrity of the county election office. "The people in the county depend on us to absolutely follow the Election Code to the 'T'," she said.
Lundrigan said she talked with the secretary of state's chief of elections and legal counsel Monday and they agreed with the county's position.
Riverbank officials are concerned they'll be stuck with a short-handed council until November if forced to skip to the next election date. Churchwell contended that Lundrigan's suggestion for an August vote-by-mail election is not permitted by applicable laws.
The codes that triggered a special election — after the council failed to agree on an appointment within 60 days — refer to election dates in March, June and November, Churchwell said.
Mayor Richard O'Brien declined to comment after Tuesday's decision went against the city. Churchwell said it would take too long — possibly 30 to 45 days — to file legal papers and get a ruling from Superior Court. He said the city's best option is hiring a private company to conduct the June 4 election.
On Monday, Jeremy Fennell of Riverbank became the fourth person to pull papers for the June election; two others are Adam Lema and Timothy DeWitt. Cal Campbell is the only candidate to have returned papers. The filing period ends Friday.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2321.
STANISLAUS COUNTY SUPERVISORS WATCH
The Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors took the following action Tuesday:
Approved age-based eligibility rules for the adult indigent health program. The changes will raise the income limit from $2,135 a month to $2,671 for residents age 60 to 64, but will lower the limit to $1,637 a month for adults in their 20s. About 80 patients will be affected. The county bases the guidelines on a cost-of-living analysis and what it costs people of different ages to buy health insurance.
Approved the midyear financial report. The county will make budget adjustments for financial exposures in community services, mental health and health services. In a bright spot, improved sales tax receipts allow for an increase in library appropriations by $465,705 and revenues by $826,800. Libraries will use some extra money to fund staff costs, upgrade computer systems and address facility needs.