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Filling City Council Vacancies - A Flawed Process

By On

The Bellingham City Charter gives the City Council the power to fill vacancies in the council ranks but does not spell out the process.

2.06 Elected Officers - Vacancies

“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.

Attached Files

About Dick Conoboy

Editor • Member since Jan 26, 2008

Dick Conoboy is a recovering civilian federal worker and military officer who was offered and accepted an all-expense paid, one year trip to Vietnam in 1968. He is a former Army [...]

Comments by Readers

Satpal Sidhu

Oct 29, 2018

Great article. Last year when County Council faced the same situation with 18 applicants for a vacant position, Inwrote an email to all council members and Council Attorney for a similar process to select 5 or so candidates by allowing each to vote for seven applicants of their choice. Then we did a second round and third round to appoint one person. I favor a ranked voting system for our elections too

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Dick Conoboy

Oct 29, 2018

Stapal,

Thanks.  I agree that a ranked voting system would be more favorable as it is fair and has the extra benefit of saving time.  However, I do want any system put in place to require that council members defend their choices orally before the public and that there be a  council debate on these nominations.  No hiding in what we used to call “smoke filled rooms.”   Even better would be a public hearing on the nominees after the nominations.

I have heard back from Council Member Barker who tells me that the city council is working on the issue.  I expect to have some material regarding that process sent to me presently.

Dick

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Michael Lilliquist

Oct 29, 2018

Dick,

I agree that ranked choice voting would have been better. Indeed, ranked choice and similar voting methods are the only sound method to arrive reliably at the candidate with greatest support when you have multiple candidates vying for the same position. Knowing this, I advocated for ranked choice voting both with our city attorney before hand, and with my fellow council members during the selection process. The idea was rejected as untried and overly complicated, or some other reason. You will have to ask the other members what they thought.

At the next council meeting after the appointment of Ms. Stone, I formally moved that we establish and adopt procedures for the selection of interim appointees, so that we did not have the “drawing from a hat” scenario the next time around. I have already suggested ranked choice voting, and I hope the council will agree.

I’d also like to address another one of your complaints, Dick, that council members discussed candidates in the proverbial “smoke filled room” of executive session.  Actually, that is not how it went this time. In fact, we spent the majority of our time discussion the mechanics of the selection process, which unfortunatley we were deciding upon as we went along.

To be specific, we discussed whether or not to narrow the field of candidates, and how to do so, and how to accept nominations, and the order of voting on those nominations. We discussed whether or not to rank candidates, or just indicate our top candidates in no particularl order (which is what we did). We discussed whether to vote on each candidate after each nomination, or to take all nominations before voting (which is what we did). It was obvious that we did not want a “race to nominate,” which would mean that candidates were not on a equal footing. Then we discussed what order to take the voting. It was recognized immediately that the order of voting would also  create unequal situations, potentially an advantage for whomever was voted on first.  Seeing this, we decided that a random “draw from the hat” would be unbiased. These discussions took up most of our time. We did not even mention particular candidates during  this discussion.

In addition, we were advised by the city attorney that any kind of “straw poll” or ranking exercise could not be part of executive session. We were advised that needed to happen in open session, which is what we did. What this means is that council members did not know each other’s preferences until the very moment that the public learned, in open session. I honestly did not know the other council members preferences until that moment, although I had my guesses and expectations. But since we did not talk about candidates, I didn’t really know.

When the first name was drawn from the hat, and the vote taken, it was a bit of a surprise to myself and I assume also a bit of a surprise to my fellow council members. Hannah’s name was drawn by luck. Hannah was on everyone’s short list, so as soon as her name was drawn, I could see the writing on the wall.  If we had done a ranked choice procedure instead, or some other form of instant run-off voting, I presume that Hannah would have risen to the top. Although the ad hoc procedure we used ought to be replaced with something better, the result this time is probably the same result that a better procedure would have produced. We lucked out, I think.

Next time, I don’t want to rely on luck.

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Dick Conoboy

Oct 29, 2018

Michael,

Thanks for turning on the light about the exec session in this most recent selection round.  Why that discussion of process had to take place in the dark is beyond me.  I don’t think the RCW established the Executive Session for legislative bodies to discuss process.  I reread the section and there is no RCW item on process within the portion on executive sessions.  What is the secrecy about?  Is it that council members disagree vehemently and fear the public see that?  :-)

Your explanation gives me even further pause in that if process dominated the in camera discussion, when did the candidates/nominees get discussed?  Unless that was done in the hallways the week before, which would be very naughty, there was precious little explanation from any council member on any candidate.  Why all this “in pectore” silence?

I do not want the council to rely on luck either.  I want them to stick their necks out and state the reasons for their choices.  Or are they afraid the rationales for their choices will come back to haunt them when the next election comes around and they find their choice was a dud who is then transformed into an incumbent dud?

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Michael Lilliquist

Oct 29, 2018

Just one more bit about executive session. Under state law, executive sessions are allowed to discuss qualifications of candidates.  We heard from the city lawyer that saying “I like person x” or “my favorite is person y” is NOT “discussing qualifications,” and so that kind of statement was not appropriate for executive session. That’s why we did not know each other’s preferences. That was outside of the permissible scope, as it was explained to us.

Evaluation of qualifications, in this case, included *how* we would evaluate qualifications and/or narrow the field of candidates to those who were more qualified. Would we agree to a common rating scale and evaluation criteria, or would we each use our own standards? Finding a common evaluation scheme seemed beyond reach, if not impossible, so we opted for a evaluation method that allowed each council member to use his or her own judgment.  That discussion, I would say, was about “evaluating qualifications” in the broad sense.

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Dick Conoboy

Oct 29, 2018

Michael,

I find it hard to believe that the RCW on executive sessions was set up, in part, to give legislative bodies a closed session to discuss essentially what are criteria or a mechanism  (the “how” as you described) for choosing a candidate to fill a vacancy.  What is the secretive or closed nature of such a discussion except for its own self-generated secrecy?  I find it makes no sense (do you?) while engendering suspicion on the part of the public.

So I think that re-inforces my contention that all of this be held in open session as there is nothing of a secret, private or closed nature.  The only reason I see that a legislative body would like to meet on any of this in closed session is avoidance of potential embarrassment to its members who cannot offer logical and supportive arguments for their selections or their fear of being thought dull in expressing a judgement on someone for office who may be lacking manifestly in qualifications.

 

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Dianne Foster

Oct 29, 2018

It strikes me that what Dick is looking for is the publicly-expressed criteria for a city council member,   prior to consideration of specific applicants,    followed by public discussion of those applicants’  specific merits….  i.e. transparency.

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