The landslide recall of three City Council members in Fullerton ushered in a new council majority that's younger, more ideological and more populist, potentially paving the way for major change in a city rocked by turbulence.
Dick Jones, Don Bankhead and Pat McKinley came under fire for their perceived protection of the Fullerton Police Department after the death of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man who was beaten by police last summer. Each was voted out by an almost identical majority of nearly 66%, according to the Orange County Registrar's complete but unofficial election results.
Once the results are certified, the ousted leaders will be replaced by Travis Kiger, a planning commissioner and blogger for the site Friends for Fullerton's Future; Greg Sebourn, a land surveyor; and attorney Doug Chaffee.
Kiger, 33, and Sebourn, 39, are small-government conservatives whose campaigns were backed by local blog owner and businessman Tony Bushala, who bankrolled the recall effort. Chaffee is a Democrat who was narrowly defeated in a 2010 council bid. They join incumbents Bruce Whitaker, another populist conservative supported by Bushala, and Mayor Sharon Quirk-Silva, a Democrat who is vacating her seat in November to run for state Assembly.
The newly elected members replace a council majority that was perceived as entrenched and out of touch. Jones and Bankhead had been in office since 1996 and 1988 respectively, with the exception of a brief interlude in 1994 when Bankhead was ousted in another recall over a utility tax and then promptly reelected. McKinley, elected in 2010, previously served as Fullerton's police chief for 16 years.
"Being in office for a long period of time, you basically will eventually offend almost everyone, and over time, they developed kind of a command-and-control style," Whitaker said.
The newcomers signaled that changes at City Hall may be on the way, including an attempt to restructure pensions and possibly contracting out police services. The jobs of top city officials may also be on the line; Sebourn said he wants to see the council take a hard look at the city manager and city attorney. They also suggested that the city's public employee unions face a tough road ahead.
Some recall opponents expressed apprehension, but Kiger said, "The balance will tip back toward the taxpayer, which in my view is a good thing."
The decisive recall results came as little surprise to political observers. John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, said recalls often fizzle before they make it to the ballot or fail on election day.
"But in this case, the circumstances were so extreme that public support was galvanized," Pitney said, adding that the campaign got fuel from Bushala's funding and the public support of the controversial but popular radio duo John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou.
McKinley, for one, expressed little surprise at the outcome. "People were so incensed by the [Kelly Thomas] incident, and they were looking for someone to hold accountable," he said.
The Thomas case spurred a protest movement and led to criminal charges against two of the police officers. The public's anger was stoked again last month when prosecutors, for the first time, released graphic video and audio recordings of the encounter between Thomas and the police.
Chaffee, who did not publicly support or oppose the recall despite running in it, said the atmosphere in Fullerton has been "uncivil and not very respectful."
"We need to get back to civility," he said.