In the past week there have been multiple calls for Mayor Jenny Durkan to resign, which in some ways is nothing new since she has had her share of detractors ever since she took office. But this morning three Council members (Sawant, Morales and Mosqueda) joined the chorus, suggesting she resign over her handling of the protests in the city over the past week. Sawant went one step further, saying that if Durkan did not resign she would introduce articles of impeachment. Durkan has responded by saying that she has no intention of resigning and that she refuses to be distracted by what she termed a “political ploy.”
Nevertheless, since this now puts us beyond idle speculation, it’s worth reviewing how the impeachment process works for the Mayor, and if Durkan were to resign or be removed from office how a new Mayor is selected.
The removal of the Mayor by the City Council is governed by Article V, Section 10 of the City Charter, which reads:
The Mayor may be removed from office after a hearing, for any willful violation of duty, or for the commission of an offense involving moral turpitude, upon written notice from the City Council at least five days before the hearing. He or she shall have the right to be present, to the aid of counsel, to offer evidence and to be heard in his or her own behalf. Upon the affirmative vote of two-thirds of all the members of the City Council, acting as a court of impeachment, the office shall become vacant.
To remove Mayor Durkan, the Council must allege that her actions in responding to the protests amounted to a “willful violation of duty” (since no one is accusing her of moral turpitude). The Council must provide he Mayor written notice of the charges against her and their intention to hold a hearing. The Mayor then has the right to attend the hearing, make her case, and offer evidence. Upon conclusion of the hearing, the Council takes a vote on whether to remove the Mayor, and if at least six of the nine Council members vote “yes,” then the Mayor is removed from office.
If the Mayor is removed, or if she chooses to resign, then Article XIX, Section 6 of the City Charter specifies the process for filling the vacancy. (Less than three years ago when I wrote this article after Ed Murray resigned, I had no idea I would be recycling it so soon) In the run-up to Murray’s departure, then-Council President Harrell had this memo written (at the urging of now-President Gonzalez), which lays out in detail the process and an approximate timeline for completing it.
At the moment the Mayor’s seat becomes vacant, the Council President (currently Gonzalez) immediately becomes acting Mayor, so continuity of government is preserved. The Acting Mayor then has five days to decide whether she wants to accept the position and continue serving until the election of a new Mayor. As for the timing of that, the Charter specifies:
A person who thus succeeds to fill a vacancy in an elective office shall hold such office until a successor is elected and qualified. Such successor shall be elected at the next regular municipal general election or at a special election held in concert with the next state general election, whichever occurs first, and shall hold the office for the remainder of the unexpired term and until a successor is elected and qualified; provided, should a vacancy in an elective office occur after the filings for elective office have closed for the next regular municipal general election or state general election, no successor for the unexpired term shall be elected until the next succeeding regular municipal general election or state general election, whichever occurs first.
Following these rules, if the Mayor were to resign tomorrow, an election would be held in November to select a new Mayor to fill out the last year of Durkan’s term, and Gonzalez would have the option to accept the position of Mayor until the November election results are certified. Here’s the catch: Gonzalez would have to resign her Council seat to do so. Her Council position is also up for re-election next year; but the Council would also immediately appoint someone to fill her vacant Council seat, and then there would also be a special election for that Council seat in November. Gonzalez would then have several choices: she could run for Mayor in the special election to keep the position for the last year of Durkan’s regular term; she could run for her old seat on the Council and return to it in November (assuming she wins) to serve out the last year; or she could leave city politics at the end of November and move on to greener pastures.
If Gonzalez were to decline 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 at the end of November 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 member Mosqueda, that holds the same impact as it does for Gonzalez: she would give up her Council seat, serve as Mayor until the end of November, but could run to reclaim her Council seat for the final year of her four-year term. For the other seven Council members, the stakes are much higher since they are just five months in to a four-year term — they also would have to run again in November to reclaim their Council seat for the next three years.
In a year as tumultuous as this one, and coming off an expensive and deeply divisive 2019 election, it’s a fair bet that few of the nine Council members are itching to move upstairs until November and face the voters again so soon.
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