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Battle Brewing Over Post-Election Vacancy On National City Council

A bridge in National City's historic area is seen in this image, May 9, 2018.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Above: A bridge in National City's historic area is seen in this image, May 9, 2018.

A political battle is brewing in National City over how to fill a vacancy on the City Council. The seat came open after last month's election, and progressives are eyeing a majority that has long eluded them.

The vacancy arose after former City Councilwoman Alejandra Sotelo-Solis won her bid for mayor, finishing first in the four-person race with 46 percent of the vote. She and her three council colleagues have until mid-February to either appoint a replacement or call a special election, likely in November 2019.

The council ultimately decided at its meeting Tuesday night to accept applications for the vacancy and conduct candidate interviews on Jan. 29 — but not after some political jockeying.

Sotelo-Solis and Councilwoman Mona Rios initially supported appointing Jose Rodriguez to the vacancy at Tuesday's council meeting. Rodriguez ran for City Council last month with endorsements from Sotelo-Solis and Rios, but finished in third place.

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All three are progressive Democrats and, with a council majority, could push through policy changes ranging from affordable housing to union hiring to police oversight. Rios and Sotelo-Solis have frequently been on the losing side of 3-2 split votes.

But the motion to immediately appoint Rodriguez failed in a 2-2 deadlock, with Councilman Jerry Cano and mayor-turned-Councilman Ron Morrison opposed. Morrison and Rios won the two open seats on the council last month.

A number of residents turned out to support Rodriguez's appointment, arguing a special election would leave the council with only four members for the next year and, at an estimated cost of more than $400,000, would be a waste of scarce taxpayer dollars. They also argued that because Rodriguez won more votes than any of the other losing candidates for mayor or City Council, voters had already made clear he would be their choice.

"Of all the candidates who have faced our city voters, there is no other candidate who can compete with Jose Rodriguez's vote count," said National City resident Bradley Bang.

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But Morrison said putting off a decision until January would not cost taxpayers anything, and it would allow the council to review the applications of any interested candidates — including some who may not have been on the ballot last month. He also suggested those who spoke in favor of Rodriguez were motivated more by his politics than his performance in the election.

"I don't think a single speaker would have said the same speech if I had come in third," Morrison said. "Let's just be real."

National City has been a hotbed of progressive organizing this year, particularly after the death of Earl McNeil. McNeil was arrested by National City police in May on suspicion of drug use and went into cardiac arrest after officers placed him in a full-body restraint.

McNeil, who was black, was on life support until his death in June. Activists have staged angry and disruptive protests at National City Council meetings, demanding the release of all video footage of the encounter and an outside investigation.

In September, District Attorney Summer Stephan said she would not hold National City police officers liable for McNeil's death.

A political battle is brewing in National City over how to fill a vacancy on the City Council. The seat came open after last month's election, and progressives are eyeing a majority that has long eluded them.

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