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Ukiah City Council narrowly votes in new mayor

A woman wearing a silver top.
City of Ukiah website.
Ukiah City Council Member Josefina Duenas, who will rotate into the mayor's seat in the new year.

The Ukiah City Council voted 3-2 last week to appoint Council Member Josefina Duenas as mayor in the new year. Duenas was passed over last year, due to lack of preparation. Current Mayor Mari Rodin and Council Member Susan Sher voted against her appointment this year, citing a lack of confidence in her ability to fulfill the role. Duenas argues that, as a deaf person and an immigrant who speaks English as a second language, she represents people who are often overlooked.

Council Member Douglas Crane, who will replace Duenas as vice mayor in the new year, nominated her for mayor, saying it fulfills the city’s stated obligations to DEI, or diversity, equity and inclusion. And he thinks the city can do more to incorporate technology to help the public understand Duenas.

“We speak of accommodation,” he said. “We speak of inclusion. I think it’s incumbent upon the body to do everything we can to facilitate, accommodate someone with a disability that has been brought to the body by the voters.”

Duenas thanked Crane for his trust, and said she is clear about the expectations of the job.

“I am representing the diversity,” she declared; “Not only the Latino immigrant, but also the deaf, the handicapped, the poor, so I think that the voters choose me for a reason. And it will be my honor to do the best I can.”

Sher cited some of what she views as the minimum qualifications for the mayor’s role.

“I think we all have a responsibility to be prepared for meetings, be very familiar with the issues. Returning inquiries from fellow council members, from staff and from constituents, and meeting with constituents when we’re requested to…I guess I need to know whoever is mayor is ready to take on those duties, and has the time and the energy and the interest in doing it.”

Duenas said she has previous government experience where she excelled, thanks to support from colleagues and a kind boss. She asked Sher what kind of qualifications she is looking for. “As a group, we really need somebody from the rehabilitation department or the League of Cities to come and teach us about how to get along or how to work with people with disabilities. We really need it.”

Rodin weighed in, saying “I am supportive of diversity, equity and inclusion. But for me, it doesn’t substitute for qualifications. It’s not a free ride. So I wouldn’t vote for Vice Mayor Duenas to be the mayor simply to add diversity or equity or inclusion. That just goes against my principles…I need to adhere to my role as a city council member, which is to support a mayoral candidate who meets the qualifications necessary to perform as the mayor. And that’s my duty to the city and to constituents. And I really appreciate the sincere efforts that Vice Mayor Duenas has made in this past year. But to me, she hasn’t demonstrated adequate preparation or a firm detailed grasp of many of the issues that we’ve had to confront and vote on.”

Sher admitted that the discussion was “excruciating,” and that she had been dreading it for a long time.

“When I itemized the duties, I guess I wanted you to say, yes, I’m ready to embrace all of these duties, and my qualifications are more than fulfilling a diversity and equity requirement. But what I heard you say was, we need diversity and equity. Absolutely we do. But we need qualifications at the same time.”

Council Member Juan Orozco, who voted with Crane to appoint Duenas to the mayor’s seat, asked a question that appeared to be answered by the vote.

“For part of the council, or members of the council here, we weigh as more important the effectiveness of running a council meeting, and being accountable to our residents, just like any other council member would. Versus how important it is for us to have that title. To have that position as a mayor for our families, for our community. It’s two different views of things that we may have here. And I’m wondering if that’s the case.”

After hearing from Alan Nicholson, a member of the public who regularly attends the meetings, that he has not had any success communicating with her, Duenas, whose city bio includes a text-only phone number, expressed some confusion about email spam filters.

“If you email me to the city’s email, and you are not registered or something, your email goes to spam or to, how is it that prevents us to read the email?” she asked. “It contains all the emails that say, if you don’t know the person, don’t click. It’s Microsoft or something.”

Crane asked Duenas what she will do if her colleagues ask her to step down, “if you were not meeting the expectation for conducting the meetings,” he said. “What say you?”

“I will know, if I am doing the best, if I am doing well,” Duenas replied. “And I will accept if you say no. I will.”

There will be a reception to welcome Mayor Josefina Duenas at the Civic Center in Ukiah at 5:30pm on December 6.

Local News
Sarah Reith came to Mendocino County in 2008 and worked as a reporter and freelancer, joining KZYX as a community news reporter in 2017. She became the KZYX News Director in March, 2023.