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By Eric Heinz
If history has told us anything, it’s that San Clemente’s mayor pro tem is usually voted the city’s mayor the following year, if he or she is still in office.
Since 1987, only four times has the mayor pro tem not been selected as mayor the following year, according to city records.
The selection of mayor comes with little—if any—discernable executive powers, as all five Council members are equal in their votes, though the position of mayor is afforded extra importance and ceremony by the community at large.
With this year’s Mayor Bob Baker failing to be reelected and a new City Council taking office starting Dec. 20, we thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to look at why each 2017 Council member may or may not be selected. Keep in mind, these are not official selections nor are they endorsements, just interpretation of historical statistical significance and what may occur. Council will also elect the mayor pro tem at the Dec. 20 meeting.
Most Likely: Kathy Ward
Council member Ward has been on City Council since 2014 and has not yet been mayor. She served as mayor pro tem in 2016 and has served in a crucial role on the Transportation Corridor Agencies board of elected officials.
She has served on Council the fourth-shortest amount of time—only the incoming Steven Swartz has served fewer years than Ward.
Ward is also retired, so she may have the extra time to dedicate to the position, which can include trips to Sacramento, as we saw last year during the debate about changing legislation to allow for a free-standing emergency room.
Possible: Tim Brown
Brown’s depth of knowledge in government and his involvement with the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station Community Engagement Panel gives him a lot of visibility.
He is the second-longest tenured City Council member and has served as mayor twice since being first elected in 2010.
It’s not impossible Brown could be tapped for mayor yet again, but it depends on the direction in which the Council wants to go. Brown and Ward don’t differ on too many major issues—Brown has been more involved with nuclear energy and Ward has been more involved with transportation issues. Thus, a pick between Brown and Ward could come down to whose experience and expertise best align with the Council’s 2017 goals.
Possible: Lori Donchak
Council member Donchak has been on City Council the longest of her colleagues since being elected in 2006. There’s a chance, with many moving parts in the city, that her leadership could be called upon once again to be mayor. Donchak served as mayor in 2008 and 2010.
Serving as the Chairperson of the Orange County Transportation Authority and continuing to push local efforts at the county level have made her the figurehead for San Clemente on a regional scale.
Donchak has butted heads with other Council members—notably Chris Hamm—on a few issues in the past, such as the short-term rental ordinances and Council procedural work.
Less Likely: Chris Hamm
Councilman Hamm is popular with a majority of voters. He won his reelection bid by a margin of 3,000 votes.
The reason why Hamm probably won’t be mayor is because he served in that role in 2015, and the trend of rotating in mayor a few years after they’re elected could prevent a second year as mayor, at least for now.
He also may not want it. No doubt Hamm loves to serve on City Council and is probably one of its most outspoken members, but when asked recently if he wanted to be mayor, he said he would like to spend time focusing on his family.
Less Likely: Steven Swartz
Swartz was one of the most vocal of the candidates during the election in supporting local businesses and said he would have addressed issues such as the hospital closing and subsequent lawsuit against the city after the land the hospital sits on was zoned in a much different way.
As a first-year council member, it’s entirely possible he could be voted as the mayor pro tem, which would make him the ultimate authority should the mayor be unavailable for important items.
As the candidate who was the alternative to the incumbents in this year’s election, Swartz would be a change of pace for the city’s leadership. It would be unlikely, however, for any first-term Council member, to be elected mayor in their first year.