Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Filling City Council Vacancies

The commission appointed by the Richardson City Council to review the city charter made a recommendation to have a special election in case of a vacancy in the mayor's seat. (Good.) They also recommended reducing from three to two the number of vacancies in the six council seats needed to trigger a special election. (Right direction, but they didn't go far enough. It should be one.)

Monday night, the City Council deliberated this second recommendation.

First, Mayor Paul Voelker said the charter review was done in the context of the federal and state constitution, state statutes and case law. He said that the council is comfortable that the review was done with proper proceedings and process. I read between the lines and took this as his way of answering those on social media who have been arguing that the council was acting illegally by appointing a commission to review the charter. Voelker is saying that they are wrong. Readers of The Wheel already knew that. Lucky you.

Steve Mitchell asked the council to consider having the same standard for vacancies among council members as the commission proposed for a mayoral vacancy. That is, a special election be held for even a single vacancy if there's an opportunity to do so by the election calendar.

Scott Dunn asked how the state legislature handles vacancies (showing he doesn't read The Wheel). I was shocked that city attorney Pete Smith said he wasn't certain of the answer, then said (wrongly, I believe) that there is a provision to name someone to take the seat (meaning he doesn't read The Wheel either, and didn't brush up on state law, for that matter). To reiterate:

Sec. 203.001. APPLICABILITY OF CHAPTER. This chapter applies to the offices of state senator and state representative.

Sec. 203.002. VACANCY FILLED AT SPECIAL ELECTION. An unexpired term in office may be filled only by a special election in accordance with this chapter.
Newly appointed council member Marta Frey gave a reason why the commission reduced the number of vacancies that would trigger a special election from three to two. She talked about considering different combinations of which places were vacant and the timing of elections. She failed to mention the key reason why needing three vacancies to trigger a special election is too many. The reason for having two vacancies trigger a special election has nothing to do with timing of elections. It's to prevent the council from gaming the system. For example, Place 5 was the recently open position. If another council member had wanted to slide from his current place into Place 5, the council could have accommodated him by letting him resign from his current position, then appointing him to the open Place 5 position, then appointing someone else to the newly vacated position. Such a move isn't likely in the case of Place 5, a geographically unrestricted seat, but such a swap could be attractive in case one of the four geographically assigned seats becomes vacant. That Marta Frey, who served on the commission that reviewed the charter, didn't seem to understand this scenario concerns me.

Voelker said he wants consistency in the charter, which would argue for a special election for both mayoral vacancies and council member vacancies, but he also said he has to balance that against the cost of a special election.

Bob Townsend went along with commission's recommendation (no special election unless two or more vacancies) due to the cost of holding an election. Mark Solomon agreed, then added that because it hasn't happened before, it's probably a non-issue. Of course, if cost is a non-issue, then Solomon had no substantive reason for his opposition to this democratic reform.

Based on the discussion, it appeared that Mitchell was in favor of a special election for even a single council member vacancy. Mayor Voelker appeared to be on the fence. Townsend, Solomon, and Frey wanted to go with the commission's recommendation of requiring two vacancies to trigger a special election. Dunn and Mabel Simpson didn't express an opinion and Mayor Voelker didn't call on them by name to get them to state an opinion. Instead, he just let Mitchell's proposal drop without asking if he wanted to make a motion. Mitchell himself passively let him do so. I don't understand Mitchell's lack of assertiveness. It looked like he would have lost a vote, but not even making a motion lets this council avoid going on record opposing a democratic reform.

Ultimately, not to decide is to decide. Let the record show that no one on the council considered giving the voters the right to elect their council members a high enough priority to even make a motion to have a special election when a council member resigns or dies in office.

For my previous thoughts on this charter review, see:

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