Ahmad Zahra’s first major decision as a council member was to figure out how to fill a vacant council seat. The debate consumed many hours of meeting time, and he describes his thinking while navigating the city through an unprecedented scenario.
Q: You won election to the Fullerton city council last year. Am I correct that your occupation at the time was a film producer?!
A: That is correct. I’ve been an independent film producer for the past 20 years. It was my lifelong dream to make movies.
Q: Wow. That is quite something and I–wait, what’s this here? This is…oh, my goodness. My acting resume! How did this get on the table? Normally I keep it sitting on your side of the desk, so I’ll just slide it down that way–
A: I’ve heard this so many times before! Take a number!
Q: [laughs] Before your oath of office, what kind of role did you envision for yourself in the screenplay that is the Fullerton city council? Were you a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? A Hannibal Lecter? Or Shrek?
A: All great characters. We all have a part of Hannibal Lecter and a part of Shrek and a part of Mr. Smith in us. I can relate to all of them at any given time: the shrewdness of Hannibal Lecter. That comes in handy every now and then. The naïveté of Shrek and then the tenacity of Mr. Smith.
Q: I agree. Thank you for giving that answer instead of one which involved eating people. At the same time that you were elected, Council Member Jesus Silva was elected to a district seat from an at-large seat, meaning his at-large seat was vacant. At the December 18 meeting, it was up to your council to decide whether to fill the seat through an appointment or a special election. You and Council Member Bruce Whitaker advocated for a special election, so why did you see the open seat differently than the other two people on council?
A: The motion I made was a special election by mail. For me, there was no particular clear way of actually conducting the interviews or the appointment. We had no process. The other thing is: we were given information that ended up being incorrect, that the city had the option for an all-mail-in ballot election [for] half the cost of a full election and would’ve been sooner. For me that was the middle ground.
Q: You may have seen a middle ground in the method, but to other people this was more about intent. Some of the commenters you heard characterized the appointment as a betrayal. Was there something in particular that they were worried about?
A: Throughout time, politicians always have developed fans and people who don’t like them. People who come and participate, they also have their favorites and the ones that they don’t like. We all have biases. You just have to listen to everybody and then make a decision not just based on who’s coming to the city council. For me, it was about making sure we were setting proper policy because it’s going to affect people for the next 50 years.
Q: At the January 29 meeting when your council was actually taking interviews, you referred to this as a “series of unfortunate events.” What did you mean?
A: It was a multitude of factors. State laws recently had changed and they set certain dates for special elections, which ended up pushing our special election date so far out that we would’ve had almost a whole year of a dysfunctional government. The other issue was the county did not adopt another state law that would’ve allowed cities to do all-mail-in ballots. The third thing is in our original ordinance, the appointment process was not included. On the night of the election in 2018, the night I won, there was a city council meeting in which the ordinance was revised to include an option for appointment, but they never discussed a process. Then there was people jumping the gun–candidates, applicants.
Q: What do you say to the criticism that you “sold out” by switching from supporting an election to supporting an appointment?
A: I did my best at pushing for a process that I felt was extremely open and transparent. My conscience is clear. We came to the right decision. We saved the city a lot of money which we actually invested in some lifesaving equipment for our paramedics, which we would not have had if we spent the money on an election.
Follow Council Member Ahmad Zahra on Twitter: @AhmadZahra