Costa Mesa City Council appointed former Councilman John Stephens its new mayor during a midnight meeting – ironically in the middle of last week’s “Sunshine Week.”
Sunshine Week was created in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors (now News Leaders Association) as a nationwide celebration of access to information and open government.
If Sunshine Week represents accountability and transparency at all levels of government, then midnight is symbolic of the opposite: a world where what our elected officials do is clouded in secrecy. As the Washington Post’s slogan states: democracy dies in darkness.
Stephens will replace Mayor Katrina Foley, who will head off to the Orange County Board of Supervisors after a successful bid for the 2nd District seat. Foley won the Costa Mesa mayoral election in Nov. 2020 and will be the first Democratic woman elected to the board in history.
Foley served as the first elected mayor in 2018. Prior to that, the mayor of Costa Mesa was appointed.
Stephens, who served as the mayor pro tem since 2016, lost a bid for re-election as the first elected council member of the newly formed Costa Mesa District 1 to businessman Don Harper in the Nov. 2020 municipal election.
According to a city council agenda first reported by Voice of OC, a special election would’ve cost the city half-a-million dollars, which is admittedly a large amount of money to spend amid the pandemic financial crisis. Costa Mesa is expecting financial problems for the next several years as a result of the pandemic, per a June 2020 annual financial report.
Despite the cost, a compromise was offered by Council Member Arlis Reynolds and backed by Harper, according to the Voice of OC. They proposed a plan to appoint the mayor through an application process. However, the rest of the council voted with the original motion to appoint Stephens, with Foley abstaining from the vote.
The Coast Report Editorial Board stands with Reynolds and Harper. Most importantly, we stand with transparency and accountability at all levels of government.
Democracy only works when constituents have access to their elected representatives and the opportunity to elect them. When appointments are made behind closed doors in midnight meetings, it sends a quiet but clear message.
An application process would’ve not only given more people the opportunity to run for mayor – ultimately resulting in a more representative local government – but also would’ve allowed citizens voices to be heard and the democratic process to be carried out.
According to a Feb. 2020 Pew Research study, citizens living in a democracy are much more likely to be unsatisfied with their government if they don’t feel that their elected representatives care what they think. This was true in every democratic country across the world.
A study published in the International Journal of Public Sector Performance Management highlights how citizen participation in government leads to more public accountability and better performance from public administrators. This, in return, leads to higher levels of satisfaction with the government.
During a week where Costa Mesa officials had the opportunity to not only embrace but celebrate transparency and its important role in democracy, they instead chose to scorn Costa Mesa citizens and their right to participate in selecting their leader.
With many crises like climate change and student loan debt looming over our futures, it is more important than ever for the younger generation to get involved in politics. Costa Mesans will have the opportunity to elect a mayor again in 2022. Mayor Pro Tem Andrea Marr, Council Member Manuel Chavez, and Reynolds will also be up for re-election.
“The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference and undernourishment,” said Robert M. Hutchins, an educational philosopher.
The cost of inaction is high and it is something that we can no longer afford.
Those in Costa Mesa who want to make their voices heard about this decision can contact the city council.