In somewhat of a departure from precedent, the Murrieta City Council voted at its Dec. 17 meeting to put recently-appointed council member Gene Wunderlich in the mayor’s seat for the next year.
Wunderlich was appointed just two months ago by the rest of the city council to fill the spot vacated by Randon Lane, who left at the end of August to take a position with the communications department of the U.S. Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C.
In the city of Murrieta, as in many general law cities, the position of mayor is rotated among the five city councilmembers on an annual basis. The Murrieta City Council’s existing policy is that a mayor must have served at least two years on the city council and have previously served as mayor pro tem. Per that same policy, a mayor pro tem must have served at least one year on the city council.
Based on those qualifications, Lane would have become mayor and Councilman Scott Vinton would have been mayor pro tem for the 2020 council rotation, Murrieta City Clerk Stephanie Smith explained during the council meeting. However, in his absence, the council was left with no members who met the existing prerequisites to be mayor, save for Kelly Seyarto, the mayor during 2019, and Jonathan Ingram, who last served as mayor in 2018.
“Due to this anomaly, the council may wish to take other action,” Smith told the councilmembers.
Councilwoman Christi White, who was elected to the city council in 2018, immediately suggested giving the position of mayor to Wunderlich.
“In speaking with some Murrieta residents, there are some qualities that my conversations have led to regarding the next mayoral appointment, and those are qualifications, time available to readily do the job, and the knowledge and the know-how,” White said.
Wunderlich, White noted, is vice president of government affairs for the Southwest Riverside County Association of Realtors and legislative liaison/executive director for the Southwest California Legislative Council.
“He’s an advocate for private property rights, home ownership, business issues, and is a fiscal conservative bringing no agenda to the council other than serving the best interests of the city of Murrieta,” White said, reading from Wunderlich’s bio on the city’s website.
White made a motion to appoint Wunderlich as mayor, while also making Vinton mayor pro tem as would have happened under the typical rotation.
Seyarto, who was still mayor, commented he “kind of had a different idea,” but no other motions were made. White’s motion passed 3-2 with Seyarto and Ingram opposed. Neither dissenting councilmembers offered any comment on their opposition during the meeting.
Reached by telephone Wednesday, Ingram indicated he was caught off-guard by the decision.
“I’m perplexed. I don’t know what the council was doing, and we’ll leave it at that,” Ingram said.
Seyarto did not immediately return an email seeking comment Wednesday evening.
Despite his ‘no’ vote, Seyarto offered his congratulations to Wunderlich once the votes had been cast.
“Your service to our community has been commendable. I think it’s nice to recognize that and afford you that honor,” Seyarto said.
After a break, the council returned to session and Seyarto told the council and audience that it had been an honor to serve.
“I’m looking at doing some different things in my life, so this is probably the last time I will ever serve as mayor of this city,” Seyarto said. “So it makes me a little bit sad, but being on the council, we’ll see what happens. I appreciate everyone who’s in support of our community.”
Wunderlich then got the chance to speak for the first time as mayor.
“I’m seldom at a loss for words, but I would first of all like to thank members of the council for their sup for affording me this privilege,” Wunderlich said. “When I came to this position, as I really indicated, I have no agenda, I’m just really focused on doing the best that we can for the city of Murrieta.”
He also said he’s not the first person in his family to serve as a mayor – his father and grandfather were both mayors of Telluride, Colorado, Wunderlich said.
“Right now, they’re probably looking down with some measure of pride as well as saying, ‘good lord, how did that happen?’” he said.
Though Wunderlich was only appointed to the city council less than three months ago, this is also not his first time on the council dais. He was previously appointed in 2014 to fill former councilwoman Kelly Bennett’s seat after she resigned several months before her term was set to expire. In a sequence of events similar to the one that transpired Dec. 17, Bennett had been slated to take the position in December 2013 when Lane – the councilman whose resignation created the most recent situation – made a motion to appoint then-councilmen Alan Long and Harry Ramos mayor and mayor pro tem, respectively. And, just as in the most recent situation, Long and Ramos were granted their positions in a 3-2 vote with the mayor and mayor pro tem at the time opposed.
Asked for comment Wednesday on her motion to appoint Wunderlich mayor, White reiterated her belief that the newly-seated leader will “make an excellent Mayor during the next 12 months.
“Wunderlich has the qualifications, the time available, as well as the necessary expertise,” White said. “We were following the process and while negative comments are hurtful, we all together want to do what’s best for Murrieta. Murrieta remains in good hands with Gene Wunderlich as our new Mayor and he received the majority vote from his Council colleagues.”
Will Fritz can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.