Editorial: San Jose council was right to appoint members
Candidates for the open District 10 seat on the San Jose City Council. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    When the San Jose City Council appointed two new members last week, it felt like a snub of democracy for some.

    It was the culmination of a heated and lengthy debate over how to fill two open seats on the 11-member council. District 10 became vacant after former Councilmember Matt Mahan became mayor and District 8 opened because Sylvia Arenas was elected county supervisor. Mahan, along with what appeared to be the majority of residents, wanted to hold a special election. The mayor argued an election is more representative of the people, while opponents said appointments are faster and millions of dollars cheaper.

    The majority of councilmembers, who voted in favor of an appointment process, said a special election could cost up to $10 million and those funds could be better spent on city programs and projects. And the soonest a special election could happen is May, which could drag out even longer with the chance of a runoff.

    By then, the city would have approved its fiscal budget and those districts would have no one to advocate for street improvements, library and parks funding, trash removal or homeless solutions. This list only scratches the surface of each district’s ongoing needs.

    As newly-appointed District 8 Councilmember Domingo Candelas said on our podcast, 200,000 people in the two districts would’ve been left without representation. These districts would have been rudderless, and that doesn’t sound like balanced governing.

    Yet throughout this entire brouhaha, something extraordinary happened that no one seemed to notice.

    The appointment process brought out nearly 40 residents interested in serving on the council. Thirteen raised their hand in District 8 and 24 in District 10. Many had years of experience in various sectors of public service and business. A fair number were well known for their work in the community. The choices were plentiful and councilmembers whittled it down to 11 top candidates before publicly interviewing and selecting a representative for each district.

    If there had been a special election, there is no way 37 people would’ve thrown their hats into the ring.

    The barriers to entering the fray would’ve been significant and the playing field would’ve been far from level. Elections are expensive and nasty and it takes thick skin and deep pockets to survive. Many, if not most, of the people who applied through the appointment process would have never considered running for office.

    A special election might place the decision in the hands of residents, but voter turnout will be low because special elections garner limited interest. The last special election was April 2015. It drew 10,000 residents in District 4 and no one received 50% of the vote. It led to a runoff and the councilmember wasn’t seated until August.

    The two appointees, Candelas in District 8 and Arjun Batra in District 10, are in office until next year before the seats are up for full four-year terms. If they do their jobs well and choose to run, then perhaps voters will reward them with a full term. If not, they are out. It would work the same way if someone won a special election—they would need to fight to win reelection and continue to represent their district.

    With more than three dozen applicants turning out to represent their districts, diversity and democracy weren’t absent.

    Moryt Milo is San José Spotlight’s editorial advisor. Contact Moryt at  or follow her at @morytmilo on Twitter. Catch up on her monthly editorials here.

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