Hastings mayor's plan to fill vacant City Council seat draws fire

  • Article by: JIM ADAMS
  • Star Tribune
  • January 4, 2013 - 6:16 PM

Several Hastings officials are debating the wisdom of a plan to nominate a former council member to fill the City Council seat vacated by Mike Slavik's election to the Dakota County Board.

Mayor Paul Hicks said he expects the council to support his suggestion at its meeting Monday to appoint retired Council Member Ed Riveness, who left the council in 2008. Riveness, 80, has agreed not to run for his appointed seat when the two-year term ends, Hicks said.

Mark Vaughan, chair of the city Charter Commission, says the charter is vague on how a vacant seat should be filled. He has asked Hicks to let the commission review the matter. Hicks said the current charter language gives the council flexibility and that the commission is free to review the appointment provision if it wishes.

Tom Bullington, a Planning Commission member, questioned whether the council should have sought applicants for the seat. He said he wrote the council a letter about the issue in November after Slavik's election.

"There's the appearance to some people, when you appoint a former council member, it looks like an inside deal," Bullington said, adding he has nothing against Riveness. "I think we need to have as much appearance of openness and transparency as possible."

Many cities, including Lakeville, are taking applications for vacated council seats. Applicants can be interviewed by the council, which then appoints the best candidate.

State law says city councils can appoint people to vacant seats that have less than two years remaining before an election. Seats with more than two 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 with no felony convictions, "A city council is free to pick pretty much anybody they want," said Kevin Frazell, member services director at the League of Minnesota Cities.

"Our advice is [that] the more open and transparent the process can be, the better," Frazell said. He said some cities take applications, others pick the second-highest vote getter in last election, and others appoint a community leader.

Hicks said one of the reasons for his plan, which the council used in the 1990s, is that the former council member appointed has agreed not to gain an unfair incumbency advantage by running for the seat. He said regardless of who the council appoints -- someone new or a former council member -- people could call it an inside deal.

Riveness, who served more than 20 years on the council, comes ready to work because he knows well the city's policies and procedures, Hicks said. He noted that many residents have said they like his plan, partly because they have confidence in Riveness, who was elected about six times.

Hicks said opening the process to applications may be a self-serving request by Bullington and Vaughan.

Bullington, 45, said he would apply for the seat if allowed, but that isn't the reason for his objections to Hicks' plan. Vaughan, 43, said he would consider applying if permitted. He said he wouldn't object to the mayor's plan for a six- to 12-month seat vacancy.

"What Tom and I are saying is two years is a long time. Somebody could do a lot of good things on there in two years," Vaughn said.

"If you appoint someone and they do a great job, why not elect them [after the term ends]?" Bullington said. "You can see how they operate. I don't think that should disqualify somebody from running'' for the seat.

Jim Adams • 952-746-3283

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