The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to move forward with a special election on Aug. 15 to fill the District 4 seat being vacated by Nathan Fletcher.
The board voted 4-0 to advance a resolution, which will be formally presented at the board’s May 23 meeting, to call for the special election.
Fletcher, who is in an out-of-state treatment facility, is planning to officially step down from his seat on May 15.
Fletcher announced his resignation on March 29 after admitting to an affair with a Metropolitan Transit System employee who is suing him for alleged sexual assault and harassment. He has denied the allegations.
If no candidate receives a majority vote in the Aug. 15 primary election, then a special general election would be held Nov. 7, according to county officials. Costs could range between $3 million and $5.2 million if the county conducts a primary and general special election.
After hearing from dozens of District 4 constituents Tuesday during an hour-plus public forum, supervisors opted for a special election rather than appointing a replacement to serve out the remaining three-and-a-half years of Fletcher’s term, or choosing an interim representative who would hold the seat until the county held a special election.
“To be honest, none of these options are ideal,” board Chair Nora Vargas said, adding she wished the board wasn’t facing such a difficult situation.
But she said it is the board’s responsibility to ensure a fair and transparent process for the district’s 700,000 residents.
During a special meeting April 11, the board unanimously approved a resolution calling on Fletcher to immediately resign, rather than waiting for his planned May 15 departure date.
“My priority is ensuring that we are able to serve the people of San Diego,” Vargas said last month. “We encourage him to resign immediately so he (can) focus solely on his treatment, and the people of San Diego can move forward with the representation they deserve.”
According to a county attorney, the board has no authority to remove Fletcher from office, and it is up to Fletcher to decide when his resignation will take effect.
Fletcher was one of the most powerful politicians in the county when he announced March 26 that he was entering a treatment center for post-traumatic stress, trauma and alcohol abuse, and was abandoning a planned run for state Senate. Days later, he announced plans to resign his seat altogether, setting his departure date for May 15.
It was unclear whether Fletcher was aware of the board resolution calling on him to resign immediately.
According to a recent statement from his office, “Fletcher is unable to respond due to the fact he is in treatment.”
The plaintiff in the lawsuit against Fletcher, former MTS Public Information Officer Grecia Figueroa, alleges that Fletcher groped her on two occasions and pursued a sexual relationship with her for months before she was abruptly fired on the day Fletcher announced his state Senate candidacy.
Fletcher resigned April 4 as MTS chair.
Figueroa alleges that beginning in 2021, Fletcher began “stalking” her social media account, then sought to meet with her privately on several occasions. On two of those occasions, she claims he assaulted her.
The complaint alleges Figueroa “was intimidated by the dynamic Fletcher had created” and says she “felt pressured to reciprocate Fletcher’s advances because she knew he had authority as both a career-politician and as chair of the MTS Board to destroy her career at MTS and to potentially humiliate her publicly if she made him angry.”
She alleges that on Feb. 6, she was fired during a closed-door meeting and believes “that MTS terminated her employment because she was sexually harassed by defendant Fletcher.”
The lawsuit filed in San Diego Superior Court alleges sexual assault and battery and sexual harassment by Fletcher. It also names the MTS as a defendant and alleges sexual harassment, failure to prevent sexual harassment and retaliation, and whistleblower retaliation.
Fletcher denied Figueroa’s charges, claiming the affair was consensual.
Fletcher’s attorney, Danielle Hultenius Moore, said the woman’s allegations “are false and are designed to drive headlines and not tell the truth.”
The attorney said the woman pursued Fletcher, who “does not and never had authority over her employment.”
“We will aggressively fight this issue in court and the full record will show the truth,” Moore added.
Supervisor Jim Desmond, said Tuesday that it was great “to hear a lot of passion,” from District 4 residents, and that supervisors have been spent a lot of time mulling over the replacement process.
While holding a special election could cost several million dollars, there’s “no price to put on democracy,” and letting residents choose a successor is the top priority, Desmond said.
He added that if the county can pay the $1 million-plus tab for Fletcher’s private security, it can also afford a new election.
Earlier, Desmond called it unacceptable that Fletcher would stay on the board and collect $25,000 from taxpayers during his quasi-resigned period through May 15.
His colleague Terra Lawson-Remer on Tuesday stressed that it was important the county encourage voter participation in a non-partisan fashion as much as possible, given low voter turnout in many off-year elections.
Lawson-Remer said her priority “is to ensure that we have grounded, rooted representation” for a racially and culturally diverse district that is, in general, politically progressive.
“How do we make sure that we have a champion on this board?” she asked. “It’s not such a straight-forward question.”
Many District 4 residents who spoke Tuesday asked for a special election and also encouraged the county to increase voter education.
“It’s vital to a functioning democracy that voters get to choose who will be representing us as a supervisor for the next four years, and potentially eight,” said Patricia Mondragon, a policy manager at Alliance San Diego who lives in District 4.
Kathleen Harmon, 92, a longtime city activist known as “Queen Mother,” said she has lived in District 4 for 67 years and asked the board to let her and other constituents choose a new supervisor.
Monica Montgomery Steppe, a San Diego city councilwoman who recently announced that she was seeking the District 4 seat, said a special election was the best choice despite lack of direct representation for the next few months.
“I know it’s hard in this moment, but I ask you not to change course today,” she added.
Along with Montgomery Steppe, Marine Corps veteran Janessa Goldbeck is also a candidate for the District 4 seat.
Some speakers called on the board to appoint a supervisor, saying District 4 constituents currently don’t have a voice.
One man said that instead of spending millions on an election, that money should go toward hiring more child care workers or road improvements.
Nate Wollmann, vice president of Service Employees International Union Local 221, also asked the board to appoint Fletcher’s successor to reflect the constituents’ values.
Wollmann added that no one could be more disappointed in Fletcher “than those of us who voted for him,” but his failings shouldn’t be tied to the movement that elected him.
Chief Administrative Officer Helen Robbins-Meyer said Fletcher’s chief of staff is still on duty, and he and other staff members can handle residential concerns. She added that District 4 constituents may contact other supervisors’ offices if needed.
Updated at 5:11 p.m. May 2, 2023
City News Service contributed to this article.