Cities consider how to fill vacant council seats

  • Article by: JIM ADAMS
  • Star Tribune
  • December 21, 2012 - 5:49 PM

Two Dakota County cities may take different approaches to appointing residents to fill vacancies caused by city council members leaving in midterm.

Lakeville council members will discuss what type of qualities, such as previous civic involvement, they would like to see in an appointed council member.

Across the county in Hastings, Mayor Paul Hicks says the custom has been to choose former council members who agree not to run for their appointed seat when the term ends. That prevents a council candidate from gaining an unfair incumbency advantage, Hicks said. His council will discuss the issue in January after a vacant seat is left by Mike Slavik, who was elected last month to the County Board.

State law says councils can appoint people to vacant seats that have less than two years remaining before an election. Seats with two or more years remaining must be filled by special elections, an expense many cities like to avoid.

Other than meeting legal requirements that a candidate be at least 21 years old and without a felony conviction, "A city council is free to pick pretty much anybody they want," said Kevin Frazell, member services director at the League of Minnesota Cities. He said there is no best practice on how to select and appoint council members.

"Our advice is [that] the more open and transparent the process can be, the better," Frazell said. "Some cities go with the next-highest vote getter in last election. Or a council could ask somebody who is a community leader or on a city commission."

In Lakeville, the council will try something new by discussing what kind of candidates they will appoint to the seat Matt Little will vacate in January when he takes the mayor's seat he won in November. They may reach a consensus on background experience that would guide who they interview and choose for the vacant seat, said Administrator Steve Mielke.

"We will sit down in work session to discuss the qualities we want," Little said. "It's always nice to get somebody with some involvement with the city" on community or city boards or service groups. Little said he wouldn't want to restrict an appointee from later running for office.

Mielke said the last time the council filled a vacant seat, several years ago, they hoped their choice would run for office to make use of the experience gained on the job. "It takes a while to get up to speed as a council member," Mielke said.

Conversely, Mielke noted that he once worked in Hopkins where the council felt it would be a politically tainted decision to appoint a person who planned to run for the seat.

Hicks said his council has yet to decide whether to follow the tradition since the 1990s of appointing a former member who agrees to a short-term caretaker role. Holding a special election for the vacated, city-wide at-large seat, with a possible primary, would be a needless expense, Hicks said.

Another Dakota County city, West St. Paul, learned last week that it would have a vacant seat to fill, as well, when first-term member Ed Hansen announced his resignation. He was elected in 2010. The city has just begin discussing how to replace him for the remainder of his term.

Jim Adams • 952-746-3283

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