Calistoga’s City Council filled a vacant seat Tuesday night with businesswoman Irais Lopez, the first Latino woman to sit on the council.
“I believe that all Latinos who live in this town need stronger representation and a voice that can speak up on their behalf,” she told the council before the vote.
Lopez, who runs a business caring for senior citizens, said she immigrated to the United States 23 years ago and picked Calistoga as a good place to raise her kids.
“I took every opportunity this country had for me … I accomplished the American Dream,” she said. “At the same time I feel that others like me need the support to succeed.”
She has been a prolific volunteer, including serving on the board of the Calistoga Art Center and working with the Calistoga Family Center and the Calistoga Education Foundation.
The seat was left vacant in December when newly-elected Councilmember Carl Sherrill resigned in protest after the remaining council members refused to appoint former candidate Charlotte Williams to a previous vacancy. The council passed over Williams, who had placed third in the six-way election in November, and named fourth-place candidate Jim Barnes to the open seat.
Williams applied for the latest vacancy as well, arguing that she had the clear support of a significant segment of the community, having gotten 711 votes in last year’s election.
Barnes and Mayor Chris Canning nominated and voted for Williams on Tuesday, but the motion died after members Michael Dunsford and Gary Kraus refused to support her.
Lopez was appointed 3-1, with only Barnes objecting.
Williams’ supporters said the council had consistently ignored the will of the voters who supported her in the election, and dismissed her qualifications as a volunteer, mother, and budding politician.
“So what is the council’s issue with this woman,” asked Michele Verdeille before the vote.
They also questioned whether Lopez would be an independent voice on the City Council. She has been outspoken in her support for a pair of proposed resort developments in Calistoga, as have the four sitting members of the council. Lopez appeared in a recent promotional video from the developer of the Enchanted Resorts project, which will be on a special election ballot on March 5 as Measure C.
Sherrill and Williams were passionate critics of the resorts, Enchanted Resorts and the unrelated Silver Rose Inn redevelopment, which was approved by voters last fall. Both were leaders of the effort to challenge the resorts at the ballot box.
Friends and family testified, however, that Lopez was motivated to apply not by her support for the resorts, but by disappointment in the abrupt resignation of Sherrill, for whom she had voted. She had seen Sherrill, a retired teacher and the only bilingual candidate in last fall’s race, as a reliable voice for the Latino community, at least until his resignation after less than a month in office.
Supporters of Lopez argued that the city’s Latino population, roughly half of the total, has been poorly represented on the council. Former Councilmember Placido Garcia, the only previous Latino to serve, was among a series of speakers, including some of the seven other people who had applied for the vacancy, that endorsed her.
“She’s a very hard-working lady,” he said. “She loves Calistoga.”
In all, nine candidates stepped forward for the vacancy. Joining Williams and Lopez were former mayor Jack Gingles; financial services executive Seth Gersch; retired IT executive Albert “Dutch” Farha; bed and breakfast owner Dennis McNay; olive oil shop owner Jamie Anzalone; retired businesswoman Mary Kay Macy; and winemaker Bob Pecota.
Before the vote, Barnes paused to apologize for a remark he made in January while urging as many people as possible to apply for the open position. He had said that the council would welcome applications from anyone, including a “gay, green Martian.”
That comment went down poorly with the city’s gay community and irritated Williams supporters, who said it was a cruel devaluing of her qualifications.
On Tuesday he called it “an insensitive term intended as hyperbole.”
“The citizens of Calistoga have a right to expect better from elected officials,” he said, pledging to be more mindful of his words.