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Costa Mesa City Council forgoes special election, names Stephens as Foley’s replacement for mayor

Costa Mesa residents, from left, Ben Chapman, Hengameh Abraham and Dale Luther rally Tuesday at Costa Mesa City Hall.
Costa Mesa residents, from left, Ben Chapman, Hengameh Abraham and Dale Luther rally Tuesday morning outside Costa Mesa City Hall. They believe the city should have held a special election or allowed the candidate who had the second-most votes during the November election finish out the remainder of Katrina Foley’s two-year mayoral term.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Forgoing a special election and seeking applicants to replace outgoing Mayor Katrina Foley — who will be sworn in to the Orange County Board of Supervisors March 23 — Costa Mesa City Council members Tuesday appointed John Stephens the city’s new mayor.

A former District 1 councilman who lost his reelection bid in November to conservative challenger Don Harper, Stephens has been serving on the city’s planning commission since being appointed by the council in January.

Tuesday’s 5-1 vote (Harper opposed and Foley abstained) came well after midnight and followed a long discussion on the merits of making an outright appointment or soliciting applications from residents interested in filling out the two-year, at-large mayoral term.

California’s Government Code states municipal leaders must appoint a replacement, even for an elected mayor. If council members had failed to name Foley’s replacement within 60 days, a special election would have to have been conducted before Nov. 2 at an estimated cost of between $433,321 and $503,350.

“The cost of a special election is quite enormous, and we’d be looking at that solely to fill the remaining year of the mayor’s term,” City Atty. Kim Barlow told council members.

Not everyone agreed, however.

Costa Mesa residents Hengameh Abraham, center, and Dale Luther, left, during a rally Tuesday outside City Hall.
Costa Mesa residents Hengameh Abraham, center, and Dale Luther, left, stand along Fair Drive during a rally on Tuesday morning at Costa Mesa City Hall.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

A small group of residents opposed to the council’s handpicking an appointee mayor rallied outside Costa Mesa City Hall Tuesday morning with signs reading “My Vote Counts” and “Let the People Decide.”

Hengameh Abraham — who ran an unsuccessful conservative campaign for an open seat in council District 6 in November and says she’s considering a mayoral run in 2022 — said the position should be filled by special election or at least someone with previous experience.

“Anyone who has not run a citywide mayoral campaign should not be considered because they don’t know what it entails,” she said at the morning rally.

Costa Mesa resident Andy Ginocchio, who attended the rally outside City Hall, wasn’t opposed to the council’s seeking and reviewing applications for an appointment, so long as the process was fair and allowed the public to weigh in.

Former Costa Mesa Planning Commissioner John Stephens
Planning Commissioner John Stephens was appointed Tuesday to fill out the remainder of outgoing Mayor Katrina Foley’s two-year-term.
(Courtesy of John Stephens)

“We need input from the people,” he said. “The mayor is not only a tie-breaking vote but the city’s leader. It’s important we get a full-time functioning mayor as quickly as possible because the city has a bunch of issues.”

At the rally and in public comment at Tuesday’s meeting, Abraham supported the return of former City Councilwoman Sandy Genis, who ran against Foley in November and was the second top vote-getter with 27.4% of the vote to Foley’s 52.2%. But council members had a different way of thinking.

While Manuel Chavez and Loren Gameros suggested appointing Stephens to the position, Mayor Pro Tem Andrea Marr, along with Harper and Councilwoman Arlis Reynolds, initially favored an application process.

“I feel like that would be the more transparent thing to do at this point, and we could do it rather quickly,” Marr said.

Councilman Jeff Harlan was against hosting an open call for a new mayor if officials simply ended up choosing an applicant they’d already had in mind. Instead, he recommended appointing Stephens.

“He has exercised sound judgment, and he has demonstrated leadership,” Harlan said. “I think that’s something worth considering.”

Outgoing Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley, top center, bids a fond farewell Tuesday to city staff and fellow council members.
Outgoing Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley, top center, bids a fond farewell Tuesday to city staff and fellow council members.
(Screen shot by Sara Cardine)

Following the council’s vote in his favor, Stephens on Wednesday contemplated council priorities, including opening Costa Mesa’s first permanent homeless shelter, crafting a retail cannabis ordinance, updating the city’s housing element and recovering from the pandemic.

“It’s an exciting time, and I’m happy to be in a position of service and working with this council,” he added. “We’re very well placed to do great things for the city of Costa Mesa but also kind of be a model for the rest of the region.”

Signing off on her last council meeting Tuesday, Foley thanked fellow council members and city staff for their hard work and dedication.

“It’s been great serving with all of you — I appreciate you,” she said as 1 a.m. approached. “Good night, Costa Mesa.”

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