Newly appointed Solvang City Councilman Robert Clarke takes the oath of office.
Robert Clarke takes the oath of office, administered by City Clerk Annamarie Porter, after being appointed to the Solvang City Council on Thursday night. Credit: Contributed photo

A sharply divided Solvang City Council filled the fifth seat with a familiar face after multiple tie votes snagged the process Thursday night.

Robert Clarke returned to the dais after a 3-1 vote, with Mayor Mark Infanti, Councilman David Brown and Councilwoman Claudia Orona voting for Clarke. Councilwoman Elizabeth Orona voted against his appointment.

For vote after vote, the quartet split — Brown and Claudia Orona favoring Clarke’s return, and the mayor and Elizabeth Orona supporting Jack Williams, Planning Commission chairman. They also were divided on delaying the item until the next meeting.

“OK, we’re not getting any place, so let me try and bring this to a head,” Infanti said. “And I’m going to apologize to Mr. Williams, because I think he is the superior candidate.”

However, Infanti said he didn’t want to spend money on a special election to fill the seat.

“Oh boy, I keep getting interesting texts,” Infanti said. 

After the final motion to appoint Clarke, Infanti could be heard whispering to Orona, “I’ve gotta go with it. Got to get this over.”

Infanti’s election to mayor with two years left on his council term created the vacancy.

“This is not an easy decision to make,” Infanti said as the impasse dragged on and audience members expressed frustration at various times.

Clarke had a large crowd of supporters urging the council to pick him along with a number of emails of support, which Claudia Orona said swayed her decision. 

“It’s not that we’re voting someone down,” Brown said, calling Clarke “shovel-ready” to step into the job for the next two years. 

Clarke can’t run for election in 2024 unless he moves into District 1. Williams lives in District 1, and detractors said it would give him a boost to be the incumbent when the seat is on the ballot in 2024.

The 2022 election marked the first time that Solvang voters picked council members to represent different sections of the city instead of using the at-large system. 

Elizabeth Orona barely bested Clarke. She received 334 votes to Clarke’s 323, with nearly 70% of the registered voters casting ballots for District 4.

In the District 3 race, Brown received 153 votes to 129 for V. Louise Smith, with 54% of the registered voters casting ballots. 

Infanti’s vacant seat remained an at-large seat until 2024, so the council had the option of appointing a candidate from anywhere in the city.

Smith along with Denise El Amin were the other two candidates who had applied for the vacancy.

“I think it is a rightful approach to the election results to nominate someone who is not an ex-candidate in the former election,” Elizabeth Orona said, explaining her support for Williams.

Brown noted that Clarke had received more votes than the total cast for the two District 3 candidates.

The mayor said he supported Williams’ appointment to provide a representative for District 1.

As the stalemate dragged on, Claudia Orona offered a suggestion to break the tie.

“We could flip a coin,” she said.

“We could,” the mayor said, laughing. “I don’t like that idea, but we could.”

After the vote for Clarke to fill the vacancy, the mayor said, “I hope he’s worth saving $40,000 for. I’m not convinced of that yet.”

After taking the oath of office, Clarke took the same seat he vacated on the dais in December. 

“I remember this seat,” Clarke said.

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Janene Scully | Noozhawk North County Editor

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com.