The Winston-Salem City Council on Monday voted to ask the N.C. General Assembly for charter changes that would create a more open method of election for filling city council vacancies.
One requested change, approved unanimously, would allow for a special election preceded by a primary to fill council vacancies, when there are more than 12 months left on the unexpired term.
The second change requested, approved by a 6-2 vote, would make it possible for the new election rules to apply to any appointments made between now and whenever the charter change can be approved in Raleigh.
On learning that the split vote could hurt the chances of the charter modification being approved by the General Assembly, the two dissenting council members changed their votes to make it unanimous as well.
The council’s actions on filling vacancies were in response to appeals from the public for a more open election process.
Without the charter change, the city has two methods for filling a vacancy: either the board appoints a new member, or the city holds a special election among nominees selected by the leadership of the political parties.
Council members easily agreed that the city charter should be changed so that in the future, vacancies that occur when there are more than 12 months left in a term should be filled by a special election, one that is preceded by a primary to winnow down the field.
But the controversy on Monday was on whether any council member appointed before the new rules go into effect should also have to face the voters in a special election.
If the General Assembly goes along, the amended charter would allow any council slots filled by appointment in 2018 and 2019 to be subject to a special election, if at least 1 percent of the voters in the affected ward petition for such an election.
Here’s why the petition provision matters: At least one council seat will soon become vacant and two more potentially so: Council Member Derwin Montgomery resigns Nov. 5 to fill the N.C. House District 72 seat left vacant when Rep. Ed Hanes resigned in August. That’s the certain vacancy.
Two other council members, D.D. Adams and Dan Besse, are running for other elective offices. Should either or both win their races, more seats open up on the council. And it is possible that their replacements would be named before the change in the city charter went into effect.
During a committee meeting last week, Besse objected to subjecting people appointed under the old rules to the special election invoked by petition.
“I don’t think it is fair to people who take office under the existing law to change the terms after the fact,” Besse said.
Local Democrats have selected Annette Scippio, a precinct chair, to fill Montgomery’s unexpired term. On Monday, Besse said he believes that the low 1-percent threshold for petitioning for a special election means that “those who hold the office would be campaigning for most of their term.”
Besse and Council Member John Larson initially voted against that part of the requested charter change.
“It changes the rules and acts as sort of a recall election,” Larson commented. He added that Republicans could force an appointed Democrat to go through an election that could be “very expensive for the (appointee) and the city.”
Larson added that the petition provision applying to 2018 and 2019 appointments would “clutter up” the proposed charter change when it goes to Raleigh for approval.
Both Besse and Larson changed their stance on the petition method to improve the measure’s chances of getting approved by the General Assembly.
The procedure for filling a vacancy when there are fewer than 12 months left in a term would stay the same under the city charter: The mayor would appoint someone to the remainder of the term, picking someone recommended by the leadership of the political party with which the departed member had been affiliated.
The charter change could come up for approval in a special General Assembly session this November or during next year’s session.
Montgomery said the charter changes fulfill the demand for more public input that the council has been hearing from the citizens. “It puts it in the hands of the people,” Montgomery said.