A tumultuous few days for the Watsonville City Council showed signs of calming Tuesday evening when the council elected a new mayor pro tempore, chose a process to fill a vacant seat on the council and made progress on an alleged violation of the council's code of ethics.
First-time Councilman Eduardo Montesino was unanimously selected to replace former Vice Mayor Bill Neighbors, who abruptly after just four months on the council.
Mayor Daniel Dodge called Montesino a young family man, representative of "new Watsonville."
"I know your heart's in the community," Dodge said.
Neighbor's vacancy in District 3 will be filled by an appointment process, another decision made by the City Council Tuesday night.
Two candidates—Dobie Jenkins, who is active with several city commissions and community organizations, and Lowell Hurst, a retired school teacher and former mayor—have declared interest in the seat.
City staff had suggested scheduling a special election to fill the position, because so much of the term remains to be served. An election would cost upward of $13,000.
However, four of five council members at the meeting supported the appointment process. The position must be filled within a month of Neighbors' resignation.
The meeting to select the new councilman will be May 3.
The matter is complicated, because Jenkins, 74, will be traveling abroad with his wife during that time. Historically, potential appointees take part in public, in-person interviews with the council. Jenkins, instead, will have that conversation over Skype, an online phone program that provides free and low-cost international calling.
It will be the first time the Watsonville Cty Council will use the Internet to conduct a council candidate interview. City staff, including City Attorney Alan Smith and City Manager Carlos Palacios, said they were not aware if other municipalities in the state have used Skype to conduct similar business.
"We’re setting precedent, as far as we know,” Dodge said.
Smith pointed out that it will be Jenkins' responsibility to ensure his connection is reliable.
"It’s at his own risk—if it goes dead, it goes dead, and we don’t get to hear what he has to say," Montesino said.
Hurst, 62, will be interviewed in person at the meeting.
The decisions on the future make-up of the council were made without embattled Councilman Emilio Martinez, who is the subject of an ethics inquiry. Martinez's absence—the second in as many meetings—made waves.
“I, for the life of me, cannot understand why he’s not attending the council meetings," Councilman Manuel Bersamin said. "... He should stop this pattern of avoidance and come to face the music."
The ethics investigation launched earlier this spring after Elias and Heidi Alonzo made allegations that Martinez had intimidated Elias Alonzo. A newspaper op-ed piece penned by Martinez that questioned city staff salaries and spending decisions raised the ire of some community members. Neighbors even cited tensions in city leadership—both elected and paid staff—as reasons for his resignation.
But the issue before the City Council Tuesday was how to proceed with the ethics probe. Thus far, Martinez has declined to meet with the ad-hoc committee to discuss the allegations.
"We’re still waiting for Mr. Martinez to sit down with us, to talk with us," said Councilman Oscar Rios, who is on the committee.
Martinez has told the committee he needs more time to research phone records that pertain to the allegations. The council voted 4-1 Tuesday to extend his deadline to meet with the committee until May 10.
"This is not some kind of witch hunt,” Rios said. "We were assigned to find out from the public … (if) the incident ... took place."
The most-serious outcome possible from the ethics inquiry is censure.