One of the benefits, in theory, to having a 15-member City Council would be that when vacancies arise or councilors otherwise have to step aside, there are plenty left to deal with the city’s business.
But the resignation this month of two Keene city councilors, both of whom are leaving their jurisdictions, actually matters. The concurrent loss of at-large Councilor Bartlomiej Sapeta and Ward 4 Councilor Maggie Rice leaves a void, even with 13 members remaining.
As Mayor Kendall Lane noted, there are some particular situations where only some of the councilors can vote, such as on a proposed road closure now before the council; only those who attended a recent site visit can decide on the issue.
More importantly, the work of the council’s planning, licenses and development committee is at a standstill: Both Rice and Sapeta were among its five members, and the panel hasn’t met since April.
Both positions will be up for grabs in November, but the council can’t wait that long to fill the seats. So, it will turn to its usual selection process, which entails city residents applying, and temporary replacements being chosen by the council members. It’s not a terrible way of filling the seats, but neither is it perfect, particularly since in the case of a ward vacancy, most of the remaining council members wouldn’t live in that ward.
According to Lane, anyone wishing to be considered for the seat will have two weeks to submit an application to the council, starting July 2. At the July 18 council meeting, the applicants will be announced. And Aug. 1, the councilors will vote to fill the two seats, immediately after each candidate gets five minutes to make his or her case.
Though the two new councilors will hold office for only a few months before the seats are voted on again — Sapeta’s seat for a full two-year term and Rice’s to serve the remaining two years of her term — incumbency does matter. It gives those two candidates a leg up if they run to retain the seats in the fall.
And while giving the next councilor five minutes in public session is better than appointing a replacement in secret, it’s still a needlessly opaque process.
To begin with, while we hope fresh faces will avail themselves of the opportunity to apply and take part in the running of the city, it’s likely the next councilors will come from a narrow slate of familiar faces — former councilors, other city board members, former high-level city employees or state office-holders. Essentially, the replacements will need to win a popularity contest among the 13 remaining councilors, and those they’re most familiar with have an advantage.
Moreover, the one-time, show-up-and-be-voted-on process lacks public transparency and input. That part of the process is dictated by council policy, but the council should change that policy moving forward. Maybe some residents will write to the councilors or buttonhole them during the two weeks between the announcement of the candidates and the presentations/voting. But that’s not the same as having a formal say in a public setting.
We wonder why the council couldn’t take, say, two meetings instead of one, and allow the public time to offer input after the applicants have made their presentations. It wouldn’t be the full vetting they’d get during a true election season, but given the potential significance of the appointment, it would at least allow members of the public to feel as though they have a meaningful opportunity to have a real say in who represents them.