The Danville Town Council decided Thursday to forgo the November election after only three candidates filed for three available council seats, opting instead to appoint incumbents Renee Morgan and Newell Arnerich and challenger Lisa Blackwell to four-year terms effective Dec. 6.
The new term will be the sixth for Arnerich, who was first elected in 1995. Morgan, who is serving as town vice mayor this year, has been on the council since being elected in 2012.
The newest face on the council when her term starts in December, Blackwell is a 30-year Danville resident who spent the past three years serving on the town's Parks and Leisure Services Commission as well as nearly two decades volunteering with San Ramon Valley school district.
Blackwell, Morgan and Arnerich were the only people to submit candidacy paperwork for this year's Town Council election before the original Aug. 12 deadline.
The filing period was extended five additional days after 25-year Councilman Mike Doyle decided not to seek a seventh term in office, but no other candidates entered the race when the new deadline passed on Aug. 17.
"The opportunity was there for people to file, and we had Lisa Blackwell file her papers but nobody else did," Morgan said to a nearly empty Town Meeting Hall on Thursday morning.
By canceling the election, the council saves the town an estimated $40,300 in election costs but closed the door on the possibility for write-in candidates for the Nov. 8 ballot.
The council's 5-0 decision came following a 15-minute discussion during a special morning meeting, with only Blackwell sitting in the audience. The deadline to call off an election was Thursday, city clerk Marie Sunseri said.
The town made a similar move in 2010 when incumbents Karen Stepper and Robert Storer were the only candidates to file for the two-seat race that year. Storer and Stepper were reappointed by their fellow council members while themselves abstaining from the vote on the advice of city attorney Rob Ewing.
Ewing's recommendation was different this time around, saying Arnerich and Morgan could vote on the matter -- citing a 2014 advisory from the California Fair Political Practices Commission that concluded sitting council members do not have a conflict of interest for such uncontested elections.
A key talking point during Thursday's meeting was whether appointing the three candidates in lieu of holding an election would create a problem if the new five-person council ever needs to fill one of its member seats due to a vacancy by resignation or death.
When a sitting council member resigns or dies, the council could fill the vacancy by appointment or by calling a special election, but the state's Government Code says an appointment could not occur "if it would result in a majority of the members serving on the council having been appointed," according to Ewing.
He said it seems clear the provision applies to councils with members who were appointed to fill unexpired terms caused by an unforeseen vacancy, but it is unclear whether the stipulation applies to councils with members who were appointed to full terms in lieu of holding uncontested regular elections.
"While I would say there is some potential ambiguity, I think it's fairly clear if you chose to cancel the election today and appoint the three nominees, they would not be considered appointees in the same way as someone who has been appointed to fill a vacancy," Ewing told the council Thursday.
Danville faced a similar question in 2012 when it had a mid-term vacancy once Councilwoman Candace Andersen left to join the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors.
That left the council with four members, of which Stepper and Storer had been appointed in lieu of an election in 2010 -- which led Ewing to advise the council in 2012 that it could not fill Andersen's seat by appointment because that would give the council a majority of appointed members, rather than elected.
But Ewing said Thursday his opinion has changed based on further examination of state laws, and he now sees no potential problems arising from making appointments in lieu of holding uncontested elections.
Arnerich said he wanted to make sure the council thought its argument was "rock solid" because of potential financial ramifications if the town's conclusion on the issue were later deemed wrong.
"While we could save $40,000, and we always want to save money, if for some reason an interpretation came out and we had a vacancy or something, we would be required -- mandated by law -- to hold a special election, which could be $200,000," Arnerich added.
"It is my opinion ... I am confident in my opinion, but it is not 100%," Ewing said, noting the ambiguity in the Government Code has not been addressed by the legislature nor taken to the courts for resolution.
Councilman Robert Storer said he sees an obvious distinction between being appointed while running unopposed for a regular term and being appointed for a vacancy to fill somebody else's unexpired term.
"I'm surprised there's not a clear, black-and-white answer to this ... because it seems real clear to me," Storer said, adding that canceling the election and appointing the three candidates Thursday "is the most responsible direction."
His fellow council members agreed, voting unanimously to forgo the election and appoint Blackwell, Arnerich and Morgan to council terms running from Dec. 6, 2016 to December 2020.
Toward the end of the meeting, Mayor Stepper commended Doyle for his six terms of service on the council, which is set to come to an end in less than four months.
"We were surprised, Mike," Stepper said of Doyle's decision not to seek re-election. "But we expect to see you a great deal. I figure downtown, every single day."
The council members also congratulated Blackwell as they wrapped up their open session Thursday morning.
"I'm very excited about getting the opportunity to serve," Blackwell, who did not address the council during the meeting, said in an interview afterward.
"I was fully planning on having an election, so I was geared for that for the next three months. But now I'm going to use the time to go to as many of the events that I can, learn the issues," she added.
"I've been in community service for probably 20 years now and our kids grew up here and were given so many good community role models. And it's my turn to give back to the community," Blackwell said. "I think I have a reputation for listening and being very fair and balanced when I listen to people, so I think I can bring that to the council."
The council also convened in closed session Thursday to confer with Ewing and Town Manager Joe Calabrigo about price and terms of payment related to property negotiations for 279 Front St., a privately owned office building next door to the town-operated Village Theatre and Art Gallery.
No action was taken during closed session and the council gave direction to staff on the issue, according to Geoff Gillette, town public information officer.