Temecula City Council agrees to leave mayor seat vacant after Stewart’s resignation

Temecula Mayor Pro Tem Maryann Edwards presides over the Temecula City Council's June 9 meeting, the first one since Mayor James Stewart's resignation over an email that many condemned as racist.

The Temecula City Council will leave vacant both the position of mayor and the open seat on the council following the resignation of former mayor James Stewart, councilmembers agreed Tuesday night.

Councilmembers quickly came to the conclusion that the closeness of the upcoming election — Stewart was up for reelection in November regardless — made it more practical to allow voters to decide on Stewart’s replacement on the council. As for the position of mayor, which is rotated among the councilmembers annually and had just been passed to Stewart in December, the council all agreed, after some discussion, that the position would remain open for the remainder of the year “in the spirit of unity,” as Councilman Mike Naggar summed it up.

The former mayor stepped down June 4 over criticism of an email to a constituent in which he stated “I don’t believe there’s ever been a good person of color killed by a police officer,” a statement Stewart earlier had said resulted from a typo made while using speech-to-text software.

With his resignation, the city had a number of options for dealing with his absence. For the open council seat, councilmembers could have chosen to appoint someone to the seat through the November election, instead of waiting for the election as they ultimately decided to do. Going through an appointment process, though, was nixed by all four remaining councilmembers.

“I think this is something that we let it go to the election and we let the people decide,” Councilman Zak Schwank said.

While Naggar teased the idea of recruiting a former councilmember to fill Stewart’s seat in the interim, he said he believed having a four-person city council until the end of the year would make little difference.

“In all sincerity, I think we can wing it with four,” he said.

Mayor Pro Tem Maryann Edwards said she wanted to reassure the constituents of Stewart’s area that they would not go unrepresented. Stewart was actually elected to his council seat at-large by voters across the city in 2016, but after the city council made the decision to transition to district elections the following year, he was due to run for re-election in the newly-created District 4.

“For the past what 30 years, the council has served the entire city as a whole, and considered the entire city and the importance of infrastructure and maintenance and public safety in the same,” Edwards said, “and I think we will continue to do that and that will protect that district as well as all of the districts.”

The decision on what to do about the position of mayor elicited a bit more discussion between the councilmembers before they came to a consensus.

Councilman Matt Rahn said given the reason for Stewart’s resignation and ongoing conversations with the community about racism and other topics since the protests over the death of George Floyd, he thought it was too soon to appoint a new mayor.

“We haven’t that feedback, we haven’t had any additional dialogue with the community on some of these issues,” Rahn said, “and so absent that I think it’s a little premature for us to appoint a mayor. I’d like us to get through that conversation.”

Naggar, though, said that for the sake of argument, he was questioning whether leaving the mayor’s seat vacant would pose any unforeseen ramifications.

“I’m saying this for discussion, not for affirmation or challenge, O just want to discuss it — does it send a different message if we don’t replace the mayor?” Naggar asked. “Does it send a negative message? Are we gonna read across the United States, ‘council refuses to appoint mayor?’”

Edwards said she thought it would be wise to “have a main spokesperson, just so that we are all on the same page, and it does send that clear and succinct message.”

Schwank sided with Rahn’s argument, though, saying he believed that not appointing a new mayor “sends a message that we’re listening to the community.”

“This might be the first Dave Chapelle reference at a city council meeting, but Dave Chapelle said the streets are talking, right? Let’s listen to the streets,” Schwank said.

A comedian may have been an unlikely person to be referenced in a city council meeting, but Schwank was referring to Chapelle’s latest stand-up set, released on Netflix June 12, in which Chapelle examines the George Floyd protests and tells viewers to trust the protesters — “the streets.”

“I think that’s important, and I think leaving it vacant doesn’t send a bad message, it sends a message of unity, it sends a message that we’re all together, we’re all listening, we’re all participating and one person’s voice isn’t artificially amplified in any way,” Schwank said.

Naggar spoke again, and while he did not disagree with Schwank, he said his main concern was ensuring the city has a clear message, particularly concerning overall support for the message Black Lives Matter protesters have been voicing and unifying the city.

“There’s a good message going out there regarding black lives matter, because black lives matter right now, and when they had the protests going on out there they were very clear that all lives matter, but right now black lives matter, and that message has to be very gently and in unity as you say, communicated out there just for the benefit of our city and our citizens,”  Naggar said. “And the other side of that is that there’s — maybe I’m saying too much, but there’s a whole other side of our community that may not understand that because they haven’t been engaged like we have and so we need to communicate with them as well.”

Naggar, wrapping up the discussion as the council came to agree on going without a mayor through the end of 2020, summarized the rest of the council’s thoughts.

“In the spirit of unity, we’re going to leave the mayor’s seat vacant for the rest of the year,” he said.

The council was not required to take a vote on its decision to leave Stewart’s seat vacant through the November election, as it was officially taking no action, but did vote 5-0 to put out a statement on the decision to leave the position of mayor open.

With no mayor, the mayor pro tem may continue to preside over city council meetings.

Will Fritz can be reached by email at wfritz@reedermedia.com.