No Circus In Store for This Council Appointment


City Council member Sally Clark’s abrupt announcement this morning (as a panelist at last night’s Civic Cocktail, held at the Palace ballroom downtown, she betrayed no inkling of her planned bombshell) that she will step down from the council on April 12 set a series of events in motion that we haven’t seen since 2005, when then-council member Jim Compton resigned under the shadow of Strippergate, a scandal involving bundled contributions from strip-club impresario Frank Colucurcio.

Unlike that raucous three-ring event, the process of replacing Clark promises to be a fairly swift, streamlined affair. No more “individuals seeking congruity in the oneness of our city.” No more candidates bragging that their main qualification is that they’re totally unqualified. No more candidates endorsing other candidates. No more (I assume) Pete Holmes and Roger Valdez seeking the same elective office. 

Instead, the council—helmed by council president Tim Burgess, who’s losing a frequent ally in Clark—will publish the final list of applicants and their qualifications on April 14, when the application period closes, pick three finalists in executive session, announce them on the 20th, and hold a public hearing—at which the rejected candidates will have their only opportunity to address the council, in the one minute allotted during public comments—before picking the winner, who is supposed to pledge to serve only the remainder of Clark’s term.

Burgess has also said the candidate should “understand city government and the public policy issues associated with the Council’s Committee on Housing Affordability, Human Services and Economic Resiliency; demonstrate a commitment to social justice and the ability to communicate and collaborate effectively across cultures and with diverse populations; and [have a] desire to serve the people of Seattle and assume the responsibilities and accountability inherent in the work of a Councilmember.”

So many questions. Why not vet the candidates in public like the last time, and let the public in on the process of selecting one of its representatives? Why not take a little more time with the vetting process (the city charter’s “requirement” that a vacancy be filled within 20 days of a council member’s departure, by May 2 in Clark’s case, allows the council to keep deliberating as long as they do so every day, publicly, until they decide)? And why all the mandatory-seeming “qualifications,” like experience with health and human services (Clark’s committee) and the promise not to run for reelection?

Nothing in the charter says that a council appointee must take the committee of the person she’s replacing; the only possible reasons to insist on that tradition are to ensure continuity amid chaos, or to lock other council members out of the job.

The first is obvious: The last council appointment was a circus that made the council appear weak and disorganized, and still produced council member Sally Clark. Why go through all the hassle when so many more virtual eyes will be on the council (and its now-weakened president Burgess) this time around?

As for the second and third: In short, the council wants to get this done quickly and have someone who can “hit the ground running” because of the upcoming districted elections, in which five incumbents will be fighting to keep their seats; plus, a lame duck council member won’t threaten candidates like Mayor Murray’s legal counsel, Lorena Gonzalez, who have already announced for the new at-large position for which Clark had declared.

Another wrinkle: The “qualifications”—housing and human-services expertise—presume that whoever takes Clark’s seat will also take over her committee, which is telling in itself. Other incumbents, including Kshama Sawant (currently making socialist pronouncements from the dais as City Light committee chair) might want that relatively high-profile assignment. Nothing in the charter says that a council appointee must take the committee of the person she’s replacing; the only possible reasons to insist on that tradition are to ensure continuity amid chaos, or to lock other council members out of the job.

Say what you will about the sometimes anarchic character of the 2006 process, it was one of the first times we’ve ever seen the council really process in public, and it may well be one of the last. When the council appointed Clark, Twitter hadn’t even been founded, and blogs like the one I was writing for (where Josh Feit and I foreshadowed Twitter by liveblogging the nearly five-hour-long public vetting) were just getting their sea legs. The council wasn’t quite as media-savvy and insistent on controlling the message (plus, there weren’t as many web sites covering city politics and policy, and meetings weren’t yet broadcast online), which left some breathing room for interesting, unpredictable things to happen. Yes, we would have probably gotten Sally Clark with or without the parade of weirdos. But it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.

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