Rafu Staff Report
CARSON — Long-time Carson City Clerk Helen Kawagoe’s recent decision to resign prompted a lengthy debate by the City Council over how to choose her successor.
After hearing public testimony, mostly from those favoring the immediate appointment of Chief Deputy City Clerk Wanda Higaki to serve the rest of Kawagoe’s term, a majority of council members voted on Jan. 17 to open the position to applicants.
Mayor Jim Dear and Councilmember Elito Santarina supported Higaki’s appointment; Mayor Pro Tem Julie Ruiz-Raber and Councilmembers Mike Gipson and Lula Davis-Holmes, said that she should compete for the job along with other applicants.
Kawagoe, 84, served in the post for 37 years and was elected for the 10th time last March, but suffered a stroke in September and has been undergoing therapy. She announced her resignation in December, briefly rescinded it in January, then resigned again, this time for good.
Higaki has been performing the city clerk’s duties in an interim capacity.
At the meeting, City Attorney William Wynder outlined the options for replacing Kawagoe: “You may appoint someone who would otherwise be qualified to hold the office of elected city clerk to fill the unexpired term of office of the city clerk, or you can call a special election to fill the vacancy … Under state law, you have 60 days from the effective date of the city clerk’s resignation to fill the office, either by appointment or by special election.”
He added that leaving the position vacant for the rest of Kawagoe’s term was not an option. “The state law says that if you fail to take action within the time required by law, you shall call a special election, and your failure to call a special election will result in the County Board of Supervisors calling it for you. So you only have two choices.”
Wynder further explained that three votes on the council were needed to appoint someone outright or to select an appointee from a pool of applicants. “You could establish a mechanism to interview some or all of the applicants not later than Feb. 29, if you elect to pursue the appointment route … that is your operating deadline.”
There was general agreement that an election would be an unnecessary expense for the cash-strapped city. The deadline to call an election passed on Jan. 31.
“We All Love Her”
Twenty-four Carson residents spoke on the issue. Among those favoring Higaki’s appointment were presidents Paul Randall of the Carson Harbor Village Homeowners Association, Raul Murga of the Imperial Carson Mobile Estates Homeowners Association, Terri Forsythe of HARD (Homeowners Against Rent Decontrol), and Isabella Meni of AFSCME Local 809.
“Wanda has worked with Helen for 31 years, and if that isn’t enough experience I don’t know what is,” said Forsythe. “I would really encourage you all to vote to put her in the position, also to save the city at least $80,000 in election monies to be put out … And despite the history of Carson, the problems we’ve had with mayors that have gone to prison and so forth, Helen’s office has always been squeaky clean, and that includes Wanda Higaki.”
Planning Commissioner Harold Williams said he has known Higaki since 1984. “For the position of city clerk, you need someone who is kind of stable, and never gets riled about things. One of the things I learned about Wanda is that I’ve never seen her lose her temper. We all know that a difficult thing to do here in the city of Carson. So I think she is perfectly suited for the job and I will support her 110 percent.”
Dorothy Dominguez of the Senior Citizens Advisory Commission said of Higaki, “She is the perfect person for this, and I would love to see her as city clerk. Helen did a good job in training her and I believe she deserves this.”
Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Grant, who worked on Kawagoe’s first campaign, added, “I know that Wanda is the best that there is because I’ve watched her all through these years.”
Calling the choice of Higaki “a no-brainer,” Ricardo Pulido, a long-time homeowner and community activist, told the council, “It’s very important that you as a body listen to your community … We have a lot of leaders here tonight. They’re voicing their opinions and they came out because it’s a strong issue … I’ve spoken to a lot of people at the markets, at the schools and what not … They all say, ‘Hey, Pulido, you make sure … we keep the right person for the job, a neutral person, an unbiased person … someone who cares about our city.’”
Also speaking in favor of Higaki were Tiny Cook, Joanne Swan, Mary Anne O’Neal, Frances Cottrell, Jennie Reddick, Rosa Banuelos, Itelia Walker, Tommie Williams, Wilma Wilson and Bonnie Lu.
“It Needs to Go to the People”
Dianne Thomas, a Carson resident for 40 years, offered a dissenting view. “This by no means … an attack because I like Wanda and she knows that. But I believe that as an elected position. It needs to go to the people of Carson. I don’t believe that these chambers currently hold a majority vote of the residents in Carson. It needs to be put to a vote … There may be others out there who also have expertise we don’t know, but they need to be given a chance to at least fill out an application and put it in.”
Richard Hernandez, a 36-year resident, praised Higaki, but continued, “Are you going to take the right for people to vote away from them? I think we ought to be entitled to decide an election on who we want to be in the city clerk’s office.”
Marvin Stovall, a resident for nearly 20 years, said, “ I think it would be nice and appropriate if we opened this up for applications.”
Dr. Rita Boggs commented, “I have no problems with Wanda at all, but I do think (applications are) in the interests of fairness, in case there’s anybody else who would want to be considered for the appointment.”
At the close of public comments, Higaki reported that nine letters had been received on the issue and would be entered into the record.
Dear noted that eight of the letters were from supporters of Higaki, including Carson Chamber of Commerce President John Logan. One letter was from former Mayor Vera Robles DeWitt, an opponent of Dear, who is seeking the appointment.
During a debate punctuated by applause and boos from the audience, Santarina made a motion that Higaki be appointed, seconded by Dear. Davis-Holmes made a substitute motion to solicit applications, seconded by Ruiz-Raber.
“I’d like to see what’s out there, Wanda,” Davis-Holmes said. “There’s no doubt that you are qualified, and my motion would be to make an appointment but to … give us an opportunity to look at other applicants.”
Santarina stressed Higaki’s qualifications. “She’s duly certified as a professional participant of the professional management program at USC … She has been certified as a municipal clerk by the the IIMC (International Institute of Municipal Clerks) … I still feel very strongly that this is the right person.”
Dear concurred. “This has been known publicly by many people over the past few weeks … and since we had only two people actively address the idea of being appointed … there’s no question that Ms. Higaki stands head and shoulders above the other applicant. There’s an absolutely night-and-day situation there.”
The mayor also suggested that some people may apply because of the $100,000 salary, plus benefit. “We have to defend the interests of the people of Carson. We don’t want to put a person in that position who’s going to be political and is going to turn the office into a political launching pad to attack other elected officials, to basically corrupt the system.”
Ruiz-Raber countered, “I have been receiving phone calls from people that have been long-time residents in this city and asking to be given a chance … There’s no doubt in my mind that Wanda is well qualified, but we really need to open it up to other people. I mean, we have 100,000 people in this city… It needs to be fair. And at the end, if Wanda comes up head and shoulders above everybody, I would be more than happy to agree to that. But we really need to open this up.”
She added that when Kawagoe first ran for city clerk, “she had no idea, no clue what the office was. But look what she’s done. She learned the job and she did a good job, a wonderful job.”
Davis-Holmes pointed out that whoever is appointed or elected must be a Carson resident. “Wanda moved into this city just recently, a week ago … I have to live in this city to run for office, and everyone else is going to have to live in this city … We know Wanda’s qualified, but I have residents that have been here for 40 years and want to be interviewed, and may be a deputy city clerk in another city that lives here in the city of Carson.”
Gipson argued that the city just hired a city manager who had to go through a process with other qualified candidates. “I can’t believe that people would want something less than doing that … There are people now being indicted for (representing) cities which they don’t live in … I don’t believe, me personally, that if someone were to move into the city of Carson tomorrow that has impeccable credentials, that we can put that person up.”
While not ruling out Higaki, Gipson said, “We do the same thing for commissioners. Commissioners have to go through a process, fill out an application and talk about their experience level, things of that nature … We should at least allow this process to go forward.”
Higaki was called upon to read the text of the substitute motion for clarification, after which the council cast its 3-2 vote in favor of it.