Staff Columnist

Iowa City should let the people pick next council member

Vacancy follows Kingsley Botchway's resignation

Iowa City Mayor Pro tem Kingsley Botchway, Mayor Jim Throgmorton and council member Susan Mims listen as a constituent advocates for sanitary city status during a public comment period of a city council meeting at the Iowa City City Hall following a work session on the prospect of becoming a sanctuary city on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Iowa City Mayor Pro tem Kingsley Botchway, Mayor Jim Throgmorton and council member Susan Mims listen as a constituent advocates for sanitary city status during a public comment period of a city council meeting at the Iowa City City Hall following a work session on the prospect of becoming a sanctuary city on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

A resignation on the Iowa City Council leaves city leaders with three bad options.

Former council member Kingsley Botchway was confirmed last week to an administrative position in the Waterloo Community School District. He delivered his resignation effective the following day, leaving his at-large seat empty.

The timeline for filling empty positions is governed by a maze of state laws, complicated even more by the regularly scheduled state and federal elections in November. A special city election can’t be mixed with the general election, nor scheduled within four weeks before or after.

If council members wait to discuss the vacancy until their next scheduled meeting in August, one option is to bypass voters and appoint a new member of the council’s choosing to serve until the next regularly scheduled city election in 2019. Another option is to call a special election next January, leaving the seat open for nearly six months.

Both those scenarios deprive Iowa City residents of our due representation.

Frustratingly, there are three weeks between the meeting where Botchway resigned last week and the next meeting on August 7, which happens to be only four days after the deadline to notify the Johnson County Auditor’s Office of a special election to take place before the November general election.

The better option by far is to schedule a special city council meeting in the next two weeks and call for a special election. If they move quickly, the special election could be held in early October, with a new council member seated soon thereafter.

Even then, some will complain about the costs associated with a special election, starting at an estimated $30,000, with another $30,000 for a primary if more than two candidates qualify to be on the ballot. I also realize another election shortly before or after the November election will both fatigue voters and election staff. Alas, that is the price of a republic.

Unfortunately, council members don’t appear to be in a hurry. At the end of last week, there were no plans to schedule a special meeting to talk about filling the vacancy. “Due to Council members’ schedules it seems improbable that this deadline could be met,” city staff wrote in a memo.

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If council members decide to appoint their new colleague, they can determine their own process for identifying and vetting prospective appointees. Other nearby jurisdictions in recent years have published applications and invited residents to apply. Sometimes boards have voiced their preference for candidates who would only plan to fill out the remaining term, and not run again.

I caution the council’s left-leaning clique against using an appointment to expand its majority, even if it’s for an abbreviated term. Mayor Jim Throgmorton and council members John Thomas, Pauline Taylor and Rockne Cole ran as a slate called the “Core Four” in the 2015 election.

Botchway, first elected two years before the “Core Four” wave, often voted with progressive slate, but also held his own as an independent voice on several important issues. He didn’t have overt political ties to the group like their hypothetical handpicked successor would.

The council’s appointment could be challenged by a citizen petition, forcing a special election. With a relatively low threshold of 637 signatures — calculated based on the number of votes for the office last time around — that would be easy for a small group of unhappy citizens to pull off.

If the council appoints and hopes to fend off such a petition challenge, they would be wise to select a politically moderate community leader with wide public support. Nobody who has run for office and lost in recent years should be considered. A former elected with no plans to run for re-election would be a good pick. Perhaps they will surprise me by picking a young person or someone with ties to real estate development, two populations I and others have accused the council majority of snubbing.

Of course, the council can avoid all of those calculations and show their commitment to representative democracy by calling a special election. Sooner is better than later, as an empty seat serves nobody. Just let the people choose.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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