Council looks to codify rules for appointments to fill vacancies

Tomorrow morning, the Council will have a first discussion of an ordinance, proposed by Council member Kirsten Harris-Talley, to fill in the gaps in the process used to appoint someone to fill a vacancy on the City Council.

Harris-Talley’s bill mostly follows the script followed last month to appoint her to fill Tim Burgess’ open seat, after he was appointed Mayor.

Currently the Seattle Municipal Code specifies that the Council must vote  to appoint someone within twenty days of a vacancy, but it’s silent on the exact process the Council must follow leading up to that vote.  This year a group of activists calling themselves Transparent Seattle lobbied for a public forum so that members of the community could learn about and ask questions of candidates before the Council appointed someone, in order to add transparency and accountability to the appointment process. In the end the Council chose to have a formal application process, and indeed organize a public forum in which all candidates were strongly encouraged to participate. That process led to the appointment of Harris-Talley.

Here is the process laid out in Harris-Talley’s proposal:

  • Within five business days of a Council seat becoming vacant, the City Council shall publish procedures for qualified persons to apply to be appointed to the position.
  • Within five days of the seat becoming vacant, the Council will also publish procedures for “community entities” to apply to help organize a public forum for the candidates.
  • After the deadline for applicants for the Council seat, the Council will publish all submissions that meet the application criteria.
  • After the deadline for community entity submission, the Council will develop and host a public forum for the qualified candidates, in consultation with the community entities that made submissions and were selected by the Council.
  • After the public forum, the Council will meet to consider the applications.
  • The Council will hold at least one open meeting after the applications have been published in which the applicants are permitted to address the Council and a public comment session is held.

While closely following the script that was used this fall, there are a few rough areas in the bill that will likely get cleaned up before it’s passed:

  • This ties the Council’s hands pretty tightly; they may want to add an exception for emergencies (like a natural disaster) where it’s important to have a full Council seated immediately to deliberate and vote on important matters. Then again, if that Council member will be seated for several months, they may decide that isn’t appropriate.
  • The process as delineated doesn’t specify whether the Council must meet publicly or in executive session to consider the applications.
  • It makes no mention of whether Council members are allowed (or required) to meet with some, all, or none of the qualified candidates in private.
  • This year’s public forum had a large number of candidates, which made it chaotic and severely limited the amount of time that any individual candidate had to speak. The Council may want to allow for the possibility of multiple candidate forums with a subset of applicants at each to allow for more time, or some other arrangement so long as all candidates are given equal opportunity to participate.
  • The bill states: “Only applicants who participated in the public forum… and addressed the City Council at the meeting… may be appointed to fill a City Council vacancy.”  This year the Council said that it “expected” all candidates to participate in the Public Forum, but stopped short of requiring participation. Given that the public session is scheduled on short notice outside the control of the applicants, and some might have pre-existing commitments (such as work or childcare), it may not be possible for all of them to attend both the public forum and the Council meeting.  As an equity issue, the Council may decide not to make this a requirement.

The bill is not going through a committee, though Council President Harrell’s Education, Equity and Governance Committee would be the likely one if it did. Rather it has been routed directly to the Full Council, meaning that it will be discussed at the Council Briefing tomorrow morning and then come up for deliberation, possible amendments, and a vote as soon as next Monday’s Full Council meeting (it’s not on the agenda for tomorrow afternoon’s Full Council meeting, though it’s possible Harris -Talley could “walk it on” at the meeting).  It should be noted that next Monday’s Full Council meeting will be Harris-Talley’s last, as Teresa Mosqueda will be sworn in as the duly elected Position 8 Council member the following day (November 28) when the election results are certified.