City Hall

Council Vacancy Raises Questions About Appointment Process

Four former council members have come up as potential candidates to fill the temporary council seat.

By Hayat Norimine September 20, 2017

Seattle city council jan 28 2017 vsnz5l

Seattle City Council on January 28, 2017.

A lot at City Hall is still up in the air. Tim Burgess's council office is clearing away. No one seems to know much about the appointment process (though this isn't the first time the council has filled a vacancy). And little is being said about which direction council members are going with it. 

The city council has the option to solicit public applications for its at-large position 8 seat left open by Burgess, who is filling in as mayor for 71 days. That person would temporarily take the council role until November 28, when election results are certified and either Jon Grant or Teresa Mosqueda takes over. The charter gives the city 20 days at most to fill the role. Grassroots organizers—their coalition Transparent Seattle includes Gender Justice League director Danni Askini and Peoples Party members—are urging that the city allow members of the public to apply, a public forum, and an open council meeting. 

"Too much is on the line to rush our processes, especially when so many in our communities feel uncertain of our city's future," the coalition wrote in a released statement Monday. 

While other council members have been appointed to their seats before, it's unusual for the appointed member to have such a short term focused specifically on next year's budget. The appointment would be for two months; waiting 20 days would shorten it to just over one month. And while council member Kshama Sawant—who wants the vacancy open for applications—pointed out that a public process doesn't necessarily mean waiting a full 20 days, it would certainly mean it take longer, especially if the council schedules public meetings.

Two council members, Rob Johnson and Sally Bagshaw, both said they preferred they select someone familiar with the budget process during Monday's public council briefing. And former council members' names are being floated around as potential candidates: Nick Licata, John Okamoto, Tom Rasmussen, and Sally Clark. All of whom would be familiar with the budget process, which will be the city's major challenge for the next couple months. Another name that's being thrown around is Jessyn Farrell, a former state representative who's worked with council in the past and recently resigned her legislative post to run for mayor.

But nobody might have the votes. Council members discussed a Friday meeting to talk about the appointment; that doesn't seem likely at this point. And if there's no consensus, the city council could default to a public process. Five out of eight council members would need to support the candidate to get them on the council. Burgess won't be involved in the appointment process, according to the mayor's office.

Beyond familiarity with the budget, it's unclear what would factor into council members' decisions and what they're looking for, or how much of an influence that newcomer would really have on the budget. Burgess during a press conference Monday said most of the budget in the mayor's office has already been completed, and he would be making "some tweaks" before he sends it to the council. He'll be releasing that budget next week.

Licata sent a statement of interest to council members on Sunday, before they selected Burgess to be mayor, listing his experience on the council and his familiarity with the ins and outs of government—pointing out that he's been through it 18 times and served as chair or vice chair of the budget committee for a third of that time.

Licata told PubliCola he thought he could help during a difficult time for the city. He said, though, that he doesn't want to be in the position of "heavy-duty lobbying." On opening it up to the public, Licata said he would respect whatever process the council decides, but that he thought it would be a challenge for someone new in the role. 

"The council traditionally gets slammed with a budget from the mayor, and we have a very short time to work it. That's one of the reasons I stepped up. You do need someone who knows the intricacies of the budget, the money that is squirreled away and some of the strings that are attached," Licata said. "It's a difficult balance. ... I'm not weighing in one way or the other on what they should do."

With Lisa Herbold—a former legislative aide to Licata—already chairing the budget committee, some may be uncomfortable with how much of a combined influence the two of them could have. Licata said he would try to focus on social justice issues in the budget and would speak with constituents; and members of the public right now are demanding more funding to support sexual abuse survivors, given the accusations against Ed Murray that forced him to resign. 

John Okamoto, who was a temporary council member for eight months in 2015 following Sally Clark's exit, has also been mentioned. Sally Clark was first appointed to her seat in January 2006 following Jim Compton's departure, got elected the following November, and left the council in 2015 to take a job at the University of Washington. Tom Rasmussen served on the council from 2004 to 2015.

"I'd never rule out a quick walk-on role, but I'm not actively seeking the position," Clark told PubliCola by email. "The next 10 weeks are all about budget and ensuring that the city's spending is both effective and matches up with our values as a community. The meetings are a long, detailed marathon. Whoever fills the slot will drop into a fast-moving river." 

Jessyn Farrell, as a state legislator for five years, has worked with the council in the past. She said she's had some conversations and is open to the position, but that she doesn't know whether she would have the votes.

"I'm open-minded, but I understand that the council is in a pretty tough spot right now," Farrell told PubliCola. "It will be interesting to watch how they find consensus on any person."

Updated headline on September 21, 2017, at 9:15am to reflect the council vacancy for clarity.

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