The Bellingham City Charter gives the City Council the power to fill vacancies in the council ranks but does not spell out the process.
“A vacancy in the office of any City elected official shall be filled for the remainder of the unexpired term, if any, at the next municipal general election; but the Council, or the remaining members thereof, by majority vote, shall appoint a qualified registered voter to fill the vacancy until the person elected to serve the remainder of the unexpired term takes office. A vacancy in a ward council position shall be filled by the appointment of a qualified registered voter of that ward.”
Therein lies the huge rub, as we witnessed when the council chose a replacement for Roxanne Murphy, the then at-large council representative. The council chose local immigration attorney, Hannah Stone, to replace Murphy. I met with council member Stone for about an hour and look forward to working with her. The problem is not with the council’s choice; the issue is with the flawed process they decided upon because they were not given specific guidance by the city’s charter. (View my remarks before the council on this topic here at 3.00.21 on the video counter)
On September 10th, the council approved Resolution #2018-23 (view the committee of the whole meeting video at 27.49 on the counter) to establish the process for application and selection of the replacement council member. The original resolution appears innocuous at first blush, except the executive session mention. However, ad hoc procedures were added the day of selection.
RCW 42.30.110 provides for executive sessions:
(h) To evaluate the qualifications of a candidate for appointment to elective office. However, any interview of such candidate and final action appointing a candidate to elective office shall be in a meeting open to the public;
Note that this provision does not require, or even suggest, that the evaluation of candidate qualifications be done in a closed session. Our council chose to meet in closed session. This is not a hiring process for a planner or an admin assistant in which privacy concerns may come to bear. A candidate for elected office is required to go through a normally thorough vetting process by the public and in public. The vetting process for filling a vacant elective position by council appointment should face equally intense public scrutiny given the fact that a very small number, in this case six council members, is making a choice for the entire community. What we got was a combination of a papal enclave (executive session) followed by a hat trick. That is, finalists names were literally drawn from a hat to then be voted upon. [All that was missing was the white smoke and for the council president to exclaim, “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: habemus concilium membrum.”]
I find it insulting to the candidates that the council’s choice depended on drawing names from a hat. Ranked choice voting would have been a good solution to the problem of dealing with two dozen candidates. A recent column (Ranked Choice Voting - A Better Way to Conduct Elections) by Stoney Bird and Alan McConchie in the Whatcom Watch outlines the essence of this voting system that involves organizing one’s choices in order of preference. Each council member could have ranked three or more candidates, then the ranked order system would have revealed the winner. From the article:
“The first place votes are counted. If a candidate has a majority, that person is declared elected, and the counting is done. But if no one has a majority, the votes for the last candidate are reallocated based on the preferences stated on each ballot, and the votes are counted again. This continues until someone has a majority and is declared the winner. ... The effect of ranking your choices means: if your first choice doesn’t win, your vote may still count towards electing your second choice or a choice farther down your rankings.”
The irony here is that the council members had already identified their top five candidates, but without rank order. Had they rank-ordered these top five, the ranked choice system could have been activated. No hat. No drawing. Open process.
The camera obscura process (without even the pin hole) invites suspicion and distrust. Council members ought to state preferences in public and be required to defend their choices. None of this was asked of our council representatives. Generally speaking, council members should have to provide, for example, good reasons they have nominated someone. Have they nominated someone with little or no involvement in the public sphere? Or someone who has never once been seen at a council meeting? Maybe someone who has lived in town for only a few years? Or whose oral presentation before the council is lacking in substance? This type of questioning is relevant but we heard nothing of the like at this meeting.
Those who apply for these openings should expect that their work and community history will be scrutinized in a public process to determine who is the most suitable for the position. The current approach of backroom exchanges on candidate qualifications should be moved to the dais, the council’s front porch.
Filling vacancies demands a fair and open process since the selection confers incumbency on the person chosen, which is highly advantageous going into the next general election.