When Gene Wunderlich, who was appointed to the Murrieta City Council to fill former councilman Randon Lane’s vacant seat just three months ago, was selected to be the city’s mayor in a 3-2 vote, it came as an apparent surprise to Jonathan Ingram and Kelly Seyarto, the two council members who voted against his appointment.
At the Dec. 17 council meeting where Councilmember Christi White made the motion to give the mayor position to Wunderlich, former Mayor Kelly Seyarto commented that he “kind of had a different idea,” though he made no other motions. When White, Wunderlich and Scott Vinton voted to make Wunderlich mayor – in a move that also made Vinton the mayor pro tem – Seyarto offered his congratulations to Wunderlich despite his “no” vote.
“Your service to our community has been commendable. I think it’s nice to recognize that and afford you that honor,” Seyarto said.
Ingram made no comments on Wunderlich’s selection during the meeting, but when reached by phone the day after the vote, he 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 at the time.
When asked for comment Dec. 17, White echoed comments she made during the council meeting and said she expects Wunderlich will “make an excellent mayor” over the next year.
“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.”
The issue is that Murrieta is a general law city – a city that does not have a charter and thus operates under state law. In California, general law cities have at least five city council members of which the mayor is a member and that position is mostly ceremonial in nature. The city council hires a city manager to run most of the day-to-day city operations. Some cities have other ways of selecting their mayors – for instance, the mayor of Menifee is a citywide elected position while the four remaining council members come from districts — but in Murrieta, the title of mayor has historically been rotated among the sitting council members each year. All council members were previously elected at-large in Murrieta, but in 2017, the city opted to move to a district form of elections.
Existing rules in Murrieta stipulate that a mayor must have served at least two years on the city council and have previously served as mayor pro tem; the person selected to be mayor pro tem is typically next in line for the mayor’s seat. A mayor pro tem must have served at least one year on the city council. That same policy stipulates that the title of mayor at each rotation of the city council goes to the most senior council member who has served as mayor pro tem and has not served as mayor, or to the one who has not served as mayor the longest. In the case that multiple council members were elected at the same time, the one who won the most votes during the election gets the edge.
Based on those existing rules, Randon Lane, who was Murrieta mayor pro tem for 2019, was due to become mayor in 2020, with Scott Vinton to serve as his mayor pro tem. However, Lane announced in August that he was resigning his seat to take a position with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s communications office in Washington.
In October, the Murrieta City Council appointed Wunderlich to take Lane’s seat, but he did not take on the title of mayor pro tem, which remained unused for the rest of the 2019 council rotation.
With Lane gone, the only sitting council member other than Seyarto with the qualifications to become mayor was Ingram, who served as mayor during the previous council rotation in 2018.
“Due to this anomaly, the council may wish to take other action,” Murrieta City Clerk Stephanie Smith told the council members while explaining the situation at the Dec. 17 meeting.
White made a statement in support of Wunderlich before making a motion to select him as mayor and Vinton as mayor pro tem, but no other discussion took place among the council members before the 3-2 vote that sealed the decision.
The history around the situation surrounding Wunderlich’s selection as mayor shows it is not the first time contention has surrounded Murrieta city leaders. In fact, this instance is tame in comparison to some of the city’s scandals over the years.
In 2005, citizens of Murrieta ousted former-mayor Jack Van Haaster in a recall election. Proponents of the recall effort accused Van Haaster of conflicts of interest including allegedly holding meetings with members of the city’s planning commission to have permits issued for his daughter’s day care facility.
Van Haaster was later charged with felony counts of perjury, filing false documents and violating conflict of interest laws.
He pleaded guilty to the false documents and conflict of interest charges in 2007 and received a sentence of 30 days in jail and three years of probation.
Around the same time Van Haaster was charged, Councilmember Warnie Enochs – one of the proponents of the recall election – was charged with extortion, forgery and subornation of perjury amid allegations that he had threatened to break a tile contractor’s leg if he did not assist him in cheating his wife out of money in divorce proceedings.
Enochs was convicted of the charges and sentenced in 2009 to 180 days in county jail, which he was able to serve on weekends.
In 2013, former councilmember Lane – the same man whose resignation caused the situation that led to Wunderlich’s selection as mayor – made a motion to appoint Alan Long mayor in place of Kelly Bennett. Bennett had already served as mayor once before. Long had been elected in 2010, and Lane’s rationale was that existing policy would not have allowed Long to serve as mayor until the first year of his second term. But the move was described as a mistake by former councilmember Rick Gibbs, who was presiding as mayor immediately before Long took the position.
“Everything that is abhorrent about politics was on display last Tuesday evening,” Gibbs told the Press-Enterprise at the time. “A well-thought-out mayor rotation policy that has protected Murrieta from political intrigue and behind-the-scenes machinations was shredded with a single vote.”
Gibbs and Bennett voted against Lane’s motion, but just as in the situation that left Wunderlich as mayor, Long got his seat in a 3-2 vote. That same motion also gave the position of mayor pro tem to Harry Ramos, who would later become the subject of a different scandal.
Bennett stepped down from her seat on the council about six months after that decision.
Long presided as mayor during 2014, the year Murrieta garnered national notoriety when protesters blocked busloads of undocumented immigrants being taken to the U.S. Border Patrol’s facility in town. Long was arrested in October of that year on suspicion of driving under the influence after a crash with a car full of Murrieta Valley High School students; he resigned his seat as mayor but was reelected to the city council the next month and remained on the council until he was termed out in 2018. Long eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor DUI charge and was sentenced to three years of probation and 180 days in county jail.
Ramos became mayor after Long’s resignation of the position until he, too, was ousted by scandal; he was stripped of his title as mayor after a former employee at a Temecula radio station accused him of sexually harassing her. Ramos never faced any charges. He was voted out the next year in 2016.
Will Fritz can be reached by email at email@example.com.