As I reported earlier today, Mayor Ed Murray announced early this afternoon that he is resigning effective at 5:00pm Wednesday. Since that time, there has been a mad scramble, both by city officials and by reporters and pundits, to sort out what happens next.
What follows is my current understanding of the situation, which is subject to change at any time based on new information or decisions by any of the officials involved. And by no means is the situation clear; the City Attorney’s office is still researching issues, and individual Council members have some big decisions to make.
First a couple of resources: here is the City Charter, which details the rules for filling a vacancy in the Mayor’s office or a City Council seat — though it has several gaping holes. Also, here’s a memo published by City Council President Bruce Harrell earlier this summer, after Council member Lorena Gonzalez twisted his arm into figuring out the succession plan. And here’s my earlier explanation of what Harrell’s memo says. That’s all the theory; now it’s all real and we have to understand how it will play out with specific people and timing.
When the Mayor’s resignation takes effect tomorrow evening, Council President Bruce Harrell immediately becomes acting Mayor, so continuity of government is preserved. Harrell then has five days to decide whether he wants to accept the position and serve out the rest of Murray’s term of office.
If Murray had served out his full term, he would remain in office until January when either Cary Moon or Jenny Durkan would be sworn in as his duly-elected successor. But according to the City Charter:
A person who thus succeeds to fill a vacancy in an elective office shall hold such office until a successor is elected and qualified.
That means that as soon as there is a certified winner in the Mayor’s race this November, the winner becomes the new Mayor. According to the King County Elections office, the November election results will be certified on November 28. So on November 29th, either Cary Moon or Jenny Durkan will be Mayor. And it means that the acting Mayor’s term ends on November 28 — not in January.
The City Charter is unclear on whether Harrell would need to resign from his Council seat if he were to accept the acting Mayor position, though this afternoon the City Attorney confirmed that he would indeed forfeit it — there is no mechanism for Harrell to be “on leave” for the very short period of time that he would need to serve as acting Mayor, and he is not allowed to hold two elected positions simultaneously. Harrell’s term runs through the end of 2019, so he would be giving up half of his elected term. Also, once he resigns from his Council seat, the remaining Council members must vote to appoint someone to fill that position within 20 days; they can’t hold the position open for him until December when he’s finished serving as acting Mayor and then reappoint him. Even if they could re-appoint him, since he would then be an appointed official, the City Charter would require a special election next fall (or possibly before) to elect someone to fill his Council seat for the remainder of the term. He could run for it (and again the following year), but there’s no guarantee he’d win. So in a nutshell: if Harrell accepts the Acting Mayor position, he is unemployed on November 29th.
If Harrell declines the Acting Mayor position, then the nine City Council members must vote to appoint a different City Council member to take the acting Mayor position, with the same consequences: he or she must resign from the Council, and will be unemployed on November 29th when the newly-elected Mayor is sworn in. The City Charter is very clear: the person they appoint must be one of the City Council members. For Council members Herbold, Johnson, Bagshaw, O’Brien, and Sawant, that holds the same impact as it does for Harrell: none of them come up for re-election until 2019 so they would give up two years of their elected term.
Burgess’ seat, however, is up for election this year and Burgess chose not to run for re-election, so no matter what happens he will be out of office at the end of the year. However, he is the Chair of the Budget Committee, and the Council is about to spend the next 10 weeks entirely focused on writing the 2018 city budget. Burgess capably led that effort last year after designing a new, streamlined process, and his leadership is crucial to the Council running that gauntlet this year as well since the new process requires the Budget Chair to do a tremendous amount of shuttle diplomacy and consensus-building among the Council members. If he were to resign from the Council next week, it would throw that process into chaos. Burgess has also spent the last year on a signature legislative effort to regulate AirBnB rentals, and is nearing the finish line; if he were to resign, it’s not clear the legislation would survive. Abandoning the 2018 budget process and the AirBnB legislation is probably not how Burgess would like to finish out his tenure on the City Council.
Gonzalez’s seat is also up for election this year, however, and that creates a unique opportunity since she is running for re-election and is expected to win handily (having taken well over 60% of the votes in the primary). If she were to resign her Council seat and take over as acting Mayor, her vacant seat would be filled until November 28th by an appointed person, and then it would be filled on November 29th by the winner of the election – presumably her. It’s terribly convenient: just as Gonzalez’s term as acting Mayor concludes, she would immediately retake her Council seat. There are risks for her in this plan; she would need to run a campaign while serving as acting Mayor, and she could lose the election and end up unemployed if her performance as acting Mayor sours the voters toward her. It’s also possible that Gonzalez may not want to give up her role in crafting the 2018 budget (though as acting Mayor she would have an equally powerful one). But if it all worked out, this would minimize the chaos for city government through the rest of 2017. Gonzalez flirted with the idea of running for Mayor earlier this year when Murray announced he was not running for re-election, so the idea of trying out the position might have extra appeal for her.
It’s always dangerous to handicap Seattle politics, but I would bet that behind the scenes Harrell is trying to line up this very scenario: he declines to serve as acting Mayor, he and his colleagues vote for Gonzalez to take the job, and at the end of November either Durkan or Moon is sworn in as Mayor and Gonzalez slots back into her Council job.
One way or another, the Council will be voting in a few weeks to appoint someone to the open Council seat replacing whomever became acting Mayor. An interesting sideshow will be watching who they choose to appoint for a very short stint in the middle of the budget development process. My money is on Nick Licata, a former Council member (and former Budget chair) who will hit the ground running and is respected by all and beloved by the far-left contingent on the Council. And if Harrell does take the acting Mayor job, not only will the Council appoint a Council member for a longer tenure, but they will also need to choose a new Council President from among themselves — and there is no obvious choice.
We’ll know much more in the next five days, after Harrell makes his decision and other Council members signal their intentions. Earlier today, Harrell issued a statement on Murray’s resignation, but gave no hint as to whether he will accept the acting Mayor position:
“First and foremost, my heart goes out to survivors and their families who have been affected by sexual abuse and the re-traumatization these allegations have caused. These accusations are unspeakable and require the utmost attention from our legal and social service system no matter how long ago they might have occurred.
“The City must focus on governance and day-to-day business without distraction. I have a plan in place for a seamless transition in order for City operations to continue at the highest standard. Seattleites deserve a government that holds their full confidence and trust.
“The City Charter outlines the next steps in terms of succession planning and as outlined in my memo to City Councilmembers.
“Charter Art. XIX, § 6.B provides in part: ‘The President of the City Council shall become Mayor; provided, that said President may within five days of such vacancy decline the office of Mayor, in which event the City Council shall select one of its members to be Mayor in the manner provided for filling vacancies in other elective offices.’
“Council will have until Monday, September 18, 5:00 p.m. if a public vote is required to fill the Office of Mayor vacancy.
“I intend to make an announcement within the five days on my intentions and will talk to my family, my colleagues on the Seattle City Council, and trusted members of our city on this decision with the understanding that the City and continuity of governance comes before all other factors.”