Santa Maria Election Decided by Defective Ballots?

City Council Contest Comes Down to Statistical Tie

The difference between second and third in the race for two seats on the Santa Maria City Council was two votes. Out of 19,404 total votes, that’s spectacularly close, a statistical tie. And as fate would have it, three City of Santa Maria residents inadvertently received ballots without the city council election on them. Who knows who the voters are or if they would have made a difference — they evidently didn’t notice the problem, or at least notify election officials, who didn’t notice themselves until a closer look. But it means current Councilmember Bob Orach squeaked past Etta Waterfield for the second open seat on the council. Terri Zuniga, a Democrat who ran and lost in 2010, claimed the top spot.

There could be an easy resolution, however, as there is another seat open, thanks to Councilmember Alice Patino’s election to mayor. The four members will have to determine how to proceed in filling that seat at their December 18 meeting. The election was certified December 4, and Waterfield had until Monday night to file a request for recount. She did not, banking on the hope the four members of the new council would appoint her. “I hope they do the fair and just thing,” Waterfield said earlier this week. “I hope that politics don’t come into play.” There is precedent for the council to appoint the next-highest vote getter. Out of the four occasions a vacancy has occurred on the City Council in the last 20 years, three of those vacancies have been filled with an immediate council appointment. In all three of those appointments, the person receiving the next highest amount of votes in the election was appointed.

But it might not be that easy. Waterfield will likely have the support of new mayor Patino, but might not have the support of Councilmember Jack Boysen or Zuniga. If the council remains deadlocked, they could take applications and make an appointment based on the applications, as the council did on one of the four occasions. Outgoing city councilmember Mike Cordero — who lost to Patino in the race for mayor — has said he’s interested in staying on the council.

It’s an important pick, and Boysen is at the center of it all. He’s a pretty moderate Republican, who had an ally in Cordero. Patino is a Republican who doesn’t really rock the boat, while Orach, a Republican — who has been on the council for more than 20 years — goes along to get along.

Oddly enough, both Orach and Patino were beneficiaries of a similar situation in past years. Patino came in third in the 2000 race before being appointed to fill a vacated council spot, while Orach came in third in 1994 before his appointment to fill the vacant spot.

Whatever happens, the process has served as a reminder to Waterfield that every vote counts. “That’s my message to people,” she said. “I’m living that out.”

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