ORINDA -- City leaders have selected a new mayor, but not without some pushback from a few residents questioning her past actions regarding downtown development.

Council members unanimously agreed this week to elect Sue Severson mayor, in accordance with a city tradition in which elected officials promote the vice mayor to the mayor's seat as part of a council rotation. Severson succeeds Amy Worth, whom council members lauded Tuesday for her year of service while chairing the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, among other roles.

Typically a more upbeat affair, this year's council reorganization came less than a month after one resident asked Severson to recuse herself from voting on the city's housing element, a highly-debated document in the city's general plan outlining how Orinda will accommodate state-mandated affordable housing guidelines.

That request followed the dissemination of e-mails obtained by the community group Orinda Watch through a Public Records Act request. In the correspondence, Severson privately discussed plans for the city's downtown with a developer and one-time city task force member, and related to the developer an informal conversation she had with the city's planning commission chair over a proposed downtown preschool project.

Severson also assessed other commissioners' stances on the project and suggested to the developer that two new planning commissioners be "brought up to speed quickly" and "educated" on the proposed preschool before the project application came before the planning commission. "You can do more as a private citizen because the (planning commission) and council members communications are restricted by (the) Brown Act," or open meeting laws, Severson wrote.

While Severson publicly recused herself from voting on the Nov. 5 appeal of the planning commission's approval of the preschool project -- a project ultimately denied by the city council -- she did not respond to the request to disqualify herself from voting on the housing element.

On Tuesday, the same resident asked city leaders to postpone the decision to appoint Severson mayor until facts about her recusal are reviewed.

"Ms. Severson has created a public dilemma for herself via her e-mails leading to the need to recuse herself," the resident said. "In her recusal, Ms. Severson said 'When it comes to ethics, perception is very important.' No, not perception but ethics alone."

Another resident requested city attorney Osa Wolff address legal and ethical questions about Severson's behavior. "This issue runs to the core of public council trust. This is not the time where we just move on," he said.

Both requests were made during the public comment portion of the meeting; council members and city staff did not respond.

After her election, an emotional Severson briefly thanked her colleagues for their "vote of confidence" and acknowledged the support of her family and city staff. "May 2014 be a year of coming together as citizens for the betterment of our community," she said.

Severson previously served as mayor in 2009. She was elected to the council in 2006 and served as Mayor Pro Tem in 2008.

The council also elected Steve Glazer to serve as vice mayor. Glazer was mayor in 2012, and is seeking to replace state Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan when her term expires in November.

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