Q: What is the backup plan when a City Councillor is ill or has to resign for other reasons? –Jeff, Peterborough
Goyette: There are a number of ways that a City Council seat can become vacant, including resignation; disqualification; appointment or election to another Council position; unauthorized absence from Council meetings for three successive months; a judicial declaration; or death. Interestingly, a Councillor’s resignation is not effective if it reduces the number of Councillors to less than a quorum.
So what happens if a Council seat becomes vacant? This is a complex field with a thousand little rules, but here is the gist of it. If there is a vacancy on City Council, the Council declares the seat to be vacant at the first Council meeting following the vacancy. In the case of a vacancy resulting from death, Council has up to two meetings to declare the seat vacant. Then, the Council has a choice: either fill the vacancy by appointing someone who will agree to serve, or hold a by-election.
And here’s where it gets interesting and frequently contentious.
The appointment of a new Councillor is quick, involves very little cost, can be determined by a simple interview process, and can reward a runner-up from the last election. Its downside is that it denies people the opportunity to directly elect their own representative – a principle that lies at the heart of democracy.
On the other hand, a by-election for a new Councillor is time consuming and expensive. It can be financially challenging for those candidates who have just completed a costly campaign in a regular election. It puts a temporary halt on Council business and may serve as a platform for focused criticism of the entire Council. However, it wears the noble cloak of electoral accountability which, to some, is all it needs to commend itself.
Consider two additional complexities. First, the timing of the vacancy is important. If it occurs at the beginning of a four year term, an election is typically favoured. If it occurs near to the end of the term, an appointment seems more palatable. In fact, if the vacancy occurs within 90 days of an upcoming regular election, the City doesn’t have to fill it at all.
Second, when a person is appointed to fill a vacancy, he or she will have an undeniable advantage if they decide to run in the next regular election, including incumbency, experience and exposure ... benefits that were not earned by election. In other places, compromises have been reached whereby the appointment is conditional on an agreement with the appointee that he or she will not run in the next regular election.
Life happens. People resign and seats become vacant. The municipal response is a very good measure of the value a community places on the balance between efficiency and accountability.
David Goyette is the Executive Assistant to Peterborough Mayor Daryl Bennett. Email your burning questions for David about City Hall to firstname.lastname@example.org.