Fullerton council member Ahmad Zahra replaced council member Bruce Whitaker as a representative on the board of directors for the Orange County Water District, winning a 3-2 vote during Tuesday’s city council meeting.
Two weeks ago, when the Fullerton City Council reviewed its representation on regional advisory bodies, Zahra requested that the council allow him to take Whitaker’s place on the board.
“The agenda was a Brown Act violation,” Whitaker said. “That’s what forced the council to have to deal with it again tonight, but those three who stubbornly wanted to make this move, of course they’re able to have the muscle to do it again.”
The Brown Act requires that legislative bodies post agendas of meetings three days in advance of the meeting, and stick to what is set in the agenda. The Fullerton City Council violated the Brown Act when members nominated Zahra for the position without prior notice to the public.
Zahra explained that his reason for wanting to serve on the board was to provide a new perspective for the city. During last Friday’s city council meeting, Zahra said that he sees the water infrastructure affecting impoverished areas in Fullerton.
“I hear the arguments of experience. This is what experience has led us to, the status quo,” Zahra said. “The poverty in our city has expanded and what I see is a water infrastructure that’s crumbling. We’re considering water rates now that are going to affect disadvantaged communities disproportionately.”
Fullerton Mayor Jesus Silva, who was one of the dissenting votes, said that he was surprised by the request and that prior to Feb. 5, he had no knowledge of Zahra’s interest or intention to seek the position.
“No, I didn’t know. I know we were going through the process. I did ask him ‘What are you interested in?’ and he never mentioned that,” Silva said.
Silva said he felt that Whitaker’s time wasn’t up and didn’t see a reason as to why he should be taken off the board. Silva also added that he was concerned about future votes.
Council member Jan Flory said she was also caught off guard by the request, explaining that she was surprised both by Zahra’s intention and his commitment to stand firm on his position when Whitaker objected to his notion. However, she voted in favor of him replacing Whitaker after recognizing what Zahra could contribute to the board.
“The more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me from the diversity point of view. The members of the audience were implying that there were some sort of quid-pro-quo, but that was not the case,” Flory said.
Flory was appointed to the city council on Jan. 29 and Whitaker voted against her appointment.
“The meetings have been contentious before and it really needs to stop,” said Sean Paden, a 17-year Fullerton resident. “The City Council is engaged in a tit-for-tat and score settling and it’s not what an elected, or in the case of Jan Flory, appointed (member) should do.”
Several other citizens also objected to Zahra’s appointment. Fullerton resident Liz Savage said the situation was a travesty.
“He’s inexperienced. He’s never been to any of the meetings. He just started on city council (for) a couple of months,” Savage said. “He’s the one who instigated this whole issue last meeting by bringing up an item for a vote that was not agendized.”
Jeff Koskela, a retiree living in Fullerton, said he was disappointed with the politics behind the decision.
“(Whitaker) wasn’t doing anything incompetent or illegal or wrong, he just wasn’t particularly popular with certain people on council,” Koskela said. “(Zahra) has no seniority, so he’s not going to have the ability to make the decisions that our current man did.”
However, Zahra did garner support from some attendees.
“I’m definitely encouraged. I think that it’s definitely time that Fullerton has a new voice,” said Arnel Dino, a Fullerton business owner. “We need a new perspective and we’ve got issues that need to be addressed now and not two years from now and I think Ahmad would be a good advocate for our city.”
Miguel Hidalgo and Hosam Elattar contributed to this article.