In June 2012, Stockton, California— a city of nearly 300,000 people, 80 miles east of San Francisco— filed for bankruptcy, becoming the largest city in the country ever to do so.
Less than a decade earlier, times were good. Stockton experienced a booming housing market and population growth through the early 2000s that left the city’s coffers flush with cash. With this increased revenue, the City Council approved several lavish revitalization projects and signed lucrative labor contracts with city employees, police and firefighters. But, the housing bubble burst and the financial collapse of 2007 devastated a burgeoning Stockton, depleting municipal revenues while leaving massive debt intact. By 2012, that debt exceeded $500 million. The city council was forced to cut public services and make citywide layoffs, including police officers. A virulently rising homicide rate and an unshakeable stigma has followed. Twice in the last three years, Stockton has been voted “The Most Miserable City in the U.S” by Forbes magazine.
In November 2012, Stockton voters responded to the city’s miserable state by voting out nearly half of the City Council. One seat on the council was left vacant when former councilmember Susan Eggman won election to the California State Assembly. The city sought to fill the vacant seat through an appointment process, application to which was open to anyone living in Stockton’s District 5—an historically impoverished part of town that includes downtown Stockton, as well as many of the city’s failed revitalization projects. Twelve applicants ultimately stepped forward and submitted their names—taking it upon themselves to join a beleaguered local government trying to salvage their city.
Vacant Seatfollows five applicants from all walks of Stockton-life through the appointment process, from initial signature gathering to public interviews in front of the council, and finally, to the appointment of Stockton’s newest councilmember.
We follow Christina Fugazi, a fourth-generation Stocktonian who seeks to better her hometown for the hundreds of high school students she teaches every year. We meet new Stockton resident Michael Marino, a serial entrepreneur and salesman who’s driven to help the city with his seasoned business know-how. We hear from Don Aguillard, a gardener who runs several urban community gardens, engaging the city’s youth and teaching them gardening skills while providing fruits and vegetables to the hungry. We also meet Dyane Burgos, a former intern and friend of Susan Eggman, the woman she seeks to replace on the Stockton City Council. And lastly, we meet Vincent Sayles, a regular at City Council meetings where he shares his readings of the Bible, and also promotes an exercise that he believes can save Stockton—trampolining.
Following these five residents turned political newbies, the documentary gives a glimpse into local municipal government, as well as life inside a bankrupt city. We learn of the hardships of skyrocketing crime, the disastrous effects of poor leadership, and the resolve and resilience of a public taking it upon themelves to fix their hometown.