Columbia Heights city leaders on Monday will again consider what to do about a vacant City Council seat, the latest step in a process that has divided council members and drawn mounting criticism from residents as cumbersome and confusing.
Three months after formally declaring the vacancy on the five-member council, the four remaining members have yet to reach a consensus on which of the 17 applicants to appoint to the job, if any. Each name brought forward has added to a growing list of 2-to-2 votes.
If the deadlocked council cannot agree on a fifth member, it will have to proceed with four, a possibility that concerns some city leaders.
“I don’t like it,” said Council Member Bobby Williams. “If we can’t agree, we could hurt our city.”
The seat opened when former Council Member Donna Schmitt became mayor after upending the incumbent in a tight November contest. The electoral shake-up also included the defeat of another City Council incumbent by new Council Member Connie Buesgens.
The appointment process has aligned Schmitt and Buesgens, who say they want to prioritize candidates with “fresh ideas” and a younger perspective. On the other side have been Williams and Council Member John Murzyn Jr., who have generally favored either longtime city residents or applicants with experience on the council.
The appointment would last until an election to fill the seat in November 2018.
The political tug-of-war has involved multiple rounds of interviews, a straw poll vote and at least one outburst from an applicant expressing frustration with the process.
Columbia Heights’ city charter outlines the process for filling council vacancies and dictates the timeline for posting the vacancy, fielding applications, interviewing candidates and finally making the appointment.
But the process has been marked by disagreement from the get-go.
In early March, a debate ensued over whether to record and broadcast the candidates’ public interviews. That issue triggered a 2-to-2 vote.
During public comment periods, residents have described the process as disorganized and bemoaned the lack of clear communication. Some city leaders agree.
“I’m hoping the charter commission sees how complicated this process is, how drawn out it is, and re-look at it and try to figure out how to make it better,” Schmitt said.
Some worry that lack of agreement over the appointment may hint at deeper dysfunction in the City Council.
“There are lots of people in the community who are very frustrated,” said Sean Broom, one of the 17 applicants.
Broom, a policy aide to Minneapolis City Council Member Blong Yang, said he is concerned about how it would look if city leaders fail to agree and whether that image will affect the city’s ability to do business.
Late last month, the council selected Broom and Nick Novitsky, a tow truck operator, as finalists. They were re-interviewed on March 27 before the council reached an impasse and opted to bring back all 17 candidates for consideration on Monday.
Unable to reach a consensus, city leaders then tabled the appointment another week.
Council members can technically table the item “as long as they want to” if they can’t come to a decision, said City Attorney James Hoeft. The other option is to go without a fifth member until the 2018 election.
“I hope we can do it Monday,” Williams said. “If we don’t appoint someone, we may all get kicked out next time.”