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Fullerton Politics: It’s Out With the Old, in With the Old

Maybe they’re bored and just wanted some excitement. Maybe they’re tired of being thought of as that sleepy town north of Anaheim that nobody ever talks about. Or, maybe they’re just confused.

Whatever. Will someone please explain what’s going on in Fullerton, or, as we’ve come to know it, “The City That Loves Elections”?

In an election-year routine that has amounted to playing a shell game with its own City Council, Fullerton voters have kept us all guessing. When it comes to the council, now you see ‘em, now you don’t. This town changes council members more often than “All My Children” changes the cast.

The fun began in June, when a citizens’ group opposed to a 2% utility tax recalled the three council members--Buck Catlin, Molly McClanahan and Don Bankhead--who voted for it. Citing the cost of a special election and noting that two of the evictees’ terms ended this year, city officials wanted the three ousted members to serve until this week’s election. Recall leaders, understandably wanting to savor their victory, insisted on a special election to replace the three.

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So, they got one on Oct. 18, with none of the three ousted members eligible to run.

But, like a Quentin Tarantino script, there was a screwball twist. Because two of the terms ended in November, anyway, it meant that those two replacements would serve only until the regular elections this week. The third new member would finish out a two-year term.

On Oct. 18, Peter Godfrey won the last two years of Bankhead’s term. Jan Flory and Conrad DeWitte won the other two seats, subject to running again three weeks later. Catlin, McClanahan and Bankhead surrendered their seats in late October.

So far, things made at least a modicum of sense.

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Until Tuesday, that is, when in the best show-biz tradition Fullerton voters gave us the surprise ending.

McClanahan and Catlin had said they wouldn’t run in the November election, but Bankhead decided to try again. With Godfrey already sworn in to finish his original term, Bankhead was running for one of the other two seats.

On Tuesday, apparently to show there were no hard feelings, Fullerton voters voted Bankhead back into office. He finished right behind Flory in the voting, and they will be sworn in within a few weeks.

Meanwhile, DeWitte, who won a seat in October, finished fourth this week and out of the money.

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I expected Bankhead to be gloating when I talked to him Thursday, but he wasn’t. He said he still supports the utility tax as the fiscally responsible thing to do. He said the recall “really didn’t make sense from the beginning” because the city isn’t being mismanaged.

He attributed his success this week to a larger turnout and the public’s willingness to “re-evaluate a lot of things and look at the city as a whole.”

He also noted that the recall and special election resulted in Fullerton “spending $300,000 of the city’s funds that could have been avoided with a little sense.”

And as for DeWitte, he must be wondering if it was something he said. Riding high in October, shot down in November.

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He explained things by noting the difference between the recall election that targeted specific candidates and the difficulties of running in a wide-open field. “I really did want to win,” he said Thursday. “I felt I was a very good candidate and a very good councilman.”

He defends the recall election in June. “I think we did a tremendous, excellent service for the city.”

So far, DeWitte has sat in on two council meetings and expects to be at two more before stepping down. If nothing else, he said, he’ll be able to vote to repeal the tax before he leaves office.

DeWitte said he ran in October only because none of the other recall leaders had come forward. He said his council experience has been richly rewarding and that his campaign signs leading up to this week’s election read, “Conrad DeWitte Says Thank You.”

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After treating us to this puzzler, the impish Fullerton voters have left only one unanswered question: What would have happened if McClanahan and Catlin had also run again?

On second thought, never mind.

Bankhead said he considers his election as vindication for McClanahan and Catlin too.

If I were Bankhead, I’d be careful about statements like that.

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Who knows, Fullerton voters had so much fun this year, they may want to try it again.

Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.

Parsons Online: * Missed one of Dana Parsons’ columns? There’s always a collection of recent ones available through the TimesLink online service. Parsons is also taking questions from subscribers on the TimesLink bulletin board in the Speaking Out section.

Details on Times electronic services, B4.

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