In a 3-1 decision last week, the Colusa City Council added a fifth member to its ranks, appointing 25-year-old Josh Hill to fill the vacancy left by the unexpected death of Kirk Kelleher on Jan. 17.
The city’s newest council member was appointed on a motion from Mayor Greg Ponciano, seconded by Tom Reische. Councilmember Dave Markss was the lone “no” vote.
“I think I made it clear. The direction I wanted to go was in opposition to the rest of the council. I felt we should go eight months and go to the election in November. That was the direction I wanted to go, but I was outvoted,” Markss said.
Hill was selected from a field of four applicants that also included George Parker, Kelsey Watt, and Ann Nordyke.
During last week’s meeting, the four applicants were taken into a separate room and called into the council chambers individually, where they answered five preformed questions from the council, in public session, before a standing-room-only crowd.
According to Mayor Greg Ponciano, the questions were preformed in order to forgo any thought of bias in the appointment process.
“This is my first time going through this process. I don’t know if any other councilmember in any other position has been through this. As awkward as this is, this is a public seat that we’re appointing, and it will be done in public,” Ponciano said before he made the motion to appoint Hill.
While Ponciano ultimately made the motion, councilmember Tom Reische was the first on the council to say Hill had his support.
“I just want to bring up something that I’m aware of… What I do know is Kirk Kelleher was mentoring Josh Hill for the past year, and I would almost assume he would be a half a vote (for Hill). If he were here right now he would be a full vote. Not to complicate things, but that was going to be a direction I was going to request,” Reische said.
After the vote was called, Ponciano thanked all the applicants, encouraged them to run for election in November and to apply for the litany of vacancies on various city commissions in the meantime.
“This is a very, very uncomfortable position to be in, to basically have five questions determine what seat you’re going to take, and I do thank everyone for their public participation at whatever, and I would encourage that to continue,” Ponciano said.
On Wednesday, the day following the meeting, Ponciano said Hill’s youth and ability to communicate were among the qualities that made him the right man for the job.
“For me personally, I’ve learned over the years that I’ve been on the council… that the ability to communicate with your peers on the council level is really, really vital,” Ponciano said. “He struck me – and I’ve talked to Josh from time to time – as someone who is very easy to communicate with. Not to say the other candidates didn’t, but he represented a demographic we needed to communicate with, as well as the demographic that appears on the council.”
Reische, also in an interview on Wednesday, said that Hill’s youth and Kelleher’s mentorship were key factors in Hill getting his vote.
“(Hill) would go in, inquire how the meetings went, and why we went this direction, and just got a feel for being anxious to be a city councilman and be a part of the group,” Reische said of Kelleher and Hill’s relationship. “Because of his anxiousness to dive in and do the job was the reason I was impressed with him.”
Reische said the plan initially was for Hill to run for Womble’s seat during the upcoming election in November.
“But we had no idea that what happened (to Kelleher) was going to take place, that’s for sure,” Reische said. “It just seemed a perfect fit to take Kelleher’s position. I just felt, because he was being mentored by Kirk, and Kirk and I have done so many things and been on the same side, as a rule of thumb, in the past, I just thought that was a perfect role for the way we’ve been moving along at the city level.”
Womble said on Wednesday that there would be a steep learning curve for Hill, but that the new councilmember was already putting in the work to get up to speed.
“I think he’ll do OK,” Womble said. “I know he’s going to learn. I gave him some material last night that he can look over for future reference, and he said he’s been trying to study the codes and whatever, so that’s a good sign… Kirk’s been grooming him for quite some time, and I think he’s given him a lot of insight, information that’s worthwhile for him.”
“The interviews were a sham”: Some felt Hill’s appointment was a foregone conclusion
Some members of the public, and at least one other applicant, were skeptical of the council’s interviews and appointment process.
Prior to the meeting, applicant Ann Nordyke said she thought the appointment “was already in the bag” for Hill, because of his ties to Kelleher.
Colusa resident Cynthia White and former Colusa City Councilmember Donna Critchfield both endorsed George Parker, a currently-seated planning commissioner in the City of Colusa, during the period of public comment prior to the interviews at last week’s meeting. He was the only applicant who received such an endorsement during the meeting.
“I was thrilled to death when I found out George was running, because of his knowledge of how all this stuff works; he’s so talented,” White said, adding that in addition to being a planning commissioner, Parker is also the Capital Projects Manager at Pierce Joint Unified School District, and is in charge of the bond project there, in addition to previously serving in a similar role at Yuba College.
White said that Parker was by far the most qualified applicant, pointing to his experience in public service and to the fact that he was the only applicant she had seen at a city council meeting prior to the meeting last Tuesday.
“Being a council person is about understanding how public agencies work, in my opinion, and if you have that information, you are 50 yards ahead,” White said.
She added that she didn’t believe the interviews could have been factored into the council’s decision making process at all.
“If all the information they got was from those five questions, there’s just no way… I do think they knew exactly what way it was going to go when they walked in there. The interviews were a sham,” White said. “I don’t hold this against (Hill). I think he’s probably a nice young kid – he just joined Rotary, and that says he wants to be involved with the community.”
In a statement submitted to the Pioneer Review, Critchfield questioned why Hill – who she described as a “friend of (a) former council member (with) minimal experience and unfinished education” was chosen over Parker, a candidate with “outstanding knowledge and experience, with spoken public support at (the) meeting.”
In a question directed toward Reische, Critchfield asked how he could “know with certainty the choice of Mr. Kelleher,” and why that would influence his vote.
“Every council member has the duty to examine the facts and vote in the best interest of the community, not what someone else thinks,” Critchfield wrote.■