The decision by long-serving Keene City Councilor Terry Clark to resign his seat representing Ward 3 triggers the city’s rather opaque procedure for filling a council vacancy. It’s a process that does not promote transparency and should be reexamined by the council.
Clark announced his resignation on Feb. 3, and Mayor George Hansel formally declared the seat vacant at the council’s meeting the next day. Hansel is required by the council’s rules of order to announce a 14-day period for anyone interested in filling the seat to apply, and he says he will do so at the council’s Feb. 18 meeting. The rules also specify that the council must then hear from, and choose among, the candidates at its regular meeting following the filing period.
That’s all straightforward enough, but it’s the procedure at that meeting that ill-serves the public. Under the rules, the applicants are each given five minutes to make their case to the council, and a vote is held immediately afterward, without discussion, without an opportunity to ask questions and, more importantly, without any public input.
For such an important position — particularly for the residents of Ward 3 — the lack of public involvement is hard to justify. In the normal election process, candidates for the city’s highest representative office would undergo a public campaign of several months, including both a primary and general election. During that time, voters have a chance to learn about the candidates’ positions and priorities and to interact with them. There’s no such public vetting when a vacancy is filled, no opportunity for public comment and — in the case of a ward seat vacancy — no particular accountability to the ward’s voters. True, the sitting councilors will hear the applicant’s five-minute presentations before a public vote, which is at least better than an entirely secret procedure, but it remains a process needlessly lacking in public transparency and input.
We of course hope that fresh faces from Ward 3 will step forward to apply for the seat. But the process tends to favor those with whom the sitting councilors have the most familiarity, and whoever is chosen will have a leg up for this fall, when the seat is up for election. It’s easy to see why some might view the process as a self-perpetuating, inside-the-club exercise, no matter how open-minded the councilors are.
It may be that the council’s process is set in stone for the current vacancy. But even if it is, the council should reexamine its procedures. At a minimum, applicants should make their presentations in advance of the election meeting and there should be an opportunity for the council to receive public comment on the candidates and vet their views, ideally with the process extending to a second meeting. This may not result in the fuller vetting of an election campaign, but constituents would at least have a meaningful opportunity to understand and weigh in on who represents them.