By Shawn Raymundo
The seat for San Clemente mayor will remain vacant for the time being, as city councilors on Tuesday, May 5, reached an impasse over who among them should serve as the official head of the elected body.
In the interim, Mayor Pro Tem Laura Ferguson will continue chairing and presiding over the council as acting mayor, following last month’s departure of former Mayor Dan Bane, who resigned from office to take a job in his home state of Missouri.
During Tuesday night’s meeting, conducted via teleconference, both Ferguson and Councilmember Chris Hamm received nominations for the mayoral position, but neither received the necessary votes to earn the promotion.
A subsequent discussion over the election of mayor pro tem followed, resulting in another split vote on whether Ferguson should retain the position. City Attorney Scott Smith explained that in such an instance, the tie vote reverts to the status quo, meaning Ferguson remains mayor pro tem.
Councilmember Gene James kicked off the council’s meeting by nominating Ferguson for mayor, with the provision that either Hamm or Councilmember Kathy Ward serve in the mayor pro tem role.
“I’ve given a great deal of thought to the position of mayor. In these hard times, we should try to unify for the people of San Clemente,” James said. “We need to keep San Clemente safe and support our people and businesses at this time. . . . With that, I’m going to make a motion to nominate Laura Ferguson to be mayor of the city of San Clemente.”
That nomination was quickly dashed, however, as none of his colleagues seconded the motion, preventing it from even going to a vote.
Afterward, Ward nominated Hamm for the role, stating that her reasoning was similar to James’ previous comments about Ferguson, in that “we need leadership.” Touching on their individual experience as elected officials, Ward noted that Hamm has been on the council for nearly eight years, while Ferguson, in the second year of her first term, would do well by continuing to serve as mayor pro tem for the rest of the year.
“We need leadership in this time, and I think Mayor Pro Tem Ferguson would do well if she was still maybe the mayor pro tem, but she could use another year to be on,” Ward said. “I think our city needs stability. We have a budget that we need to get through, and Councilmember Hamm is the most experienced member on this dais.”
Before seconding the motion, Hamm first said he didn’t feel comfortable leapfrogging over Ferguson as mayor unless she and James felt comfortable with it.
Citing a contentious special council meeting held this past Friday, May 1, Ferguson said she didn’t “appreciate (Hamm’s) verbal mistreatment” and, therefore, couldn’t support Hamm’s nomination.
At that Friday meeting, Hamm had expressed frustration over the convening of the session and also accused both Ferguson and James of using their social media platforms to “grandstand” and spread “false information” regarding Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order to close beaches countywide.
Ward’s nomination of Hamm did get sent to a vote, with the two voting in favor while Ferguson and James dissented.
“That motion fails in a tie, so no election of a mayor tonight,” Ferguson declared.
The council then turned to the discussion of electing a mayor pro tem, which had been added to the agenda at the request of Hamm and supported by James during a different special session meeting held last week.
Seeing the request as an unprecedented move, as the council traditionally sets its leadership roles every December, Ferguson on Tuesday asked Hamm and James why they wanted to agendize the item.
Hamm explained that in the city’s history, the council would normally decide the mayor and the mayor pro tem positions at the same time. James echoed the sentiment, stating that he seconded Hamm’s motion because “we had to have a contingency in place if you were selected as mayor.”
He went on to accuse the San Clemente Times of believing “there was something nefarious about it,” when it reported on the potential shake-up in leadership ahead of the Tuesday meeting.
“They should go back to seeking donations for their paper,” James said of the SC Times, referring to its contribution campaign to support the publication amid the pandemic. “There was nothing nefarious about it. We just needed to have a vote for mayor pro tem if we were going to have a vote for mayor.”
Ferguson said, “It was great to hear there was no particular reason” behind the decision to elect a mayor pro tem. She added that she had been curious about the move, noting that an election of a sitting mayor pro tem in the middle of the year was unprecedented.
Agendizing the discussion of the mayor pro tem “had not been done before in the past, just the mayor is, and we subsequently vote for mayor pro tem afterward,” she said, adding: “So that’s probably what raised the eyebrows of the media and people.”
James later proposed that Ferguson remain mayor pro tem, which she seconded.
However, the council encountered another 2-2 split, with Hamm and Ward both opposed.
“My vote is no. You shouldn’t be running the meeting,” Ward said.
According to Smith, in a tie vote, the status quo controls the situation, so by default, the council’s prior action back in December 2019 to appoint Ferguson as mayor pro tem remains in effect.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.