RICHMOND -- With the six sitting members of the City Council appearing deadlocked over whom to appoint to fill the seat of Councilman-elect Gary Bell, a costly special election this summer is increasingly likely.
"I don't know if anybody can get four votes," said Councilman Corky Boozé. "I want to see us come together and appoint someone with four votes, but I don't know how we get there from here."
Bell, with heavy funding from Chevron, was elected by a narrow margin in November but days later fell ill with what was described as a "severe bacterial sinus infection." He remains in a coma following at least two head surgeries, according to his family.
According to the city charter, the council has 60 days to appoint a replacement with a simple majority of council votes, or the vacancy must be filled by a special election in June, which could cost the city about $200,000.
Mayor Gayle McLaughlin proposed an agenda item at Tuesday's meeting officially marking the vacancy date as Jan. 8 and asking for a Jan. 31 deadline for candidates to submit statements of eligibility. McLaughlin sought Feb. 12 as the date for a public meeting to hold votes on an appointment.
But the agenda item was shelved near midnight after hours of bickering on the council over a slate of other items.
Asked via email whether the failure to set the timetable Tuesday made a special election imminent, Councilman Tom Butt wrote, "I just don't know."
The next scheduled council meeting is Jan. 29, meaning the proposed Jan. 31 deadline for candidates' statements would almost surely have to be pushed back.
But to some observers, the deadlines are increasingly irrelevant because hopes of a four-vote majority look slim.
"It appears that the council may be deadlocked," said Lloyd Madden of the Community Mobilization Leadership Coalition, which is backing Kathleen Sullivan to fill the vacant post. "But in the interim, we will continue to lobby the council members."
Three of the six council members appear solidly behind Eduardo Martinez, 63, a retired elementary schoolteacher who was the next-highest vote-getter after Bell in the Nov. 6 election. Martinez has the support of the Richmond Progressive Alliance and its allies, who note that he received just a few hundred fewer votes than Bell despite being heavily outspent. Martinez supporters also scoff at spending an estimated $200,000 for a special election and opening the door for another ugly campaign.
"As we saw in the last election, Chevron is willing to flood the city with fear literature," alliance member Mike Parker said at Tuesday's meeting. "(The council) should appoint a candidate."
Don Gosney, former president of Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 342, also declared his candidacy last week, presenting himself in an open letter to the council as a third option for appointment.
"My appointment would be as a temporary placeholder until Gary becomes healthy enough to take the seat that is rightfully his," Gosney wrote, adding that he would govern in a way "similar to the representation that Gary would have provided."
But Gosney's overtures did nothing to ease the gridlock.
Butt said in an email last week that Gosney's appeal to be appointed was a "non-starter."
Some still hold out hope for a compromise, which would likely depend on Councilman Jim Rogers. The progressives, in particular, hope that Rogers may join them for a four-vote majority for Martinez, but Rogers has remained noncommittal.
Madden said he and his coalition are ready for an election. They argue that Sullivan is the most ideologically similar to Bell and enjoys the same base of support.
"In my opinion, it's going to be more than three candidates in the race," Madden said.