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How should the city council fill vacancies?

Mark Parker



Councilmember John Muhammad (center) was appointed to the city council by a simple majority of his colleagues in October 2022. Photo: City of St. Petersburg.

With memories of an emotionally taxing appointment process still fresh in their minds, St. Petersburg City Council members discussed filling all vacancies through a special election.

Chair Brandi Gabbard requested Thursday’s business item in October 2022, mere hours after the council selected John Muhammed to represent District 7. He replaced Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, who resigned in September 2022 amid allegations that she had moved out of the district.

Gabbard noted that her colleagues on the Public Services and Infrastructure Committee “lived through the reasoning for my referral” and how councilmember Lisset Hanewicz filed the same motion simultaneously. While Gabbard believes Muhammad was a “fantastic” choice, she said they are still living with the fallout from the process.

“I think that it (appointments) puts the council in an impossible place,” Gabbard added. “I think there are voters out there – to this day – who believe their voice may not have been heard in the decision.”

Assistant City Attorney Brett Pettigrew explained that the issue arose 25 times in St. Petersburg’s history, with 21 vacancies filled through appointments. The remaining instances occurred just before a scheduled election.

The city charter gives council members 45 days to set a process, open applications, review submissions, gather public feedback, interview the candidates and select a new representative. Pettigrew said that was the most extensive window among 10 comparison cities.

Although dais vacancies infrequently occur, Gabbard said that “once was enough to show us that elections matter.” However, council members also realized there were no easy solutions.

Pettigrew said the “simplest” model is to leave the seat vacant until a special election. That would also take more time and cost the city over $350,000.

He said they could adopt an “either-or” model with a cutoff point or timing determining the method. Pettigrew noted that four of the 10 comparison cities, including Tampa and Orlando, employ that system.

The third option, currently used in St. Pete, is “a combo.” That is where the council makes an appointment on short notice to avoid a prolonged vacancy. The selection must then run in the following election to remain in office.

Pettigrew said Miami and four other cities use that method. “There are always going to be tradeoffs based on which one you pick versus the other,” Pettigrew said.

“If you are not comfortable with the possibility of a minimum three-month vacancy, and you want vacancies to be as small as possible … then the only option is going to be the combo model.”

A voters rights rally outside of City Hall in October 2021. Photo by Mark Parker.

Hanewicz said determining their comfort level with an appointee versus an elected official should be the priority – regardless of cost. While the council is non-partisan, she noted the surrounding political climate is deeply divisive and envisions that aspect increasingly affecting the appointment process.

She also expressed the likelihood that an appointee would serve longer than the wait for a special election. While it was an exception, a November 2022 ballot referendum that delayed this year’s races until 2024 means Muhammad will serve on the dais until January 2025 without voter approval.

In addition, he remains eligible for two subsequent four-year terms.

Hanewicz said that only filling vacancies through elections is impractical, but she would like the option. Pettigrew said the problem with a discretionary mechanism is that it “might be perceived as the council playing games.”

He elaborated that officials could leave the seat vacant and move to a special election anytime they are unhappy with the applicants.

Councilmember Gina Driscoll said a special election should include a primary to mirror the typical process. However, that would create an eight-month gap and increase costs.

“The argument for having a special election is that the will of the voters is reflected,” Driscoll added. “But it’s really not because we can’t set up the exact same scenario.”

She also questioned whether a special election would garner sufficient voter turnout. Several council members, and Pettigrew, would like to see a contingency plan included in charter language if they fail to reach a six-vote supermajority on an appointee within 45 days.

While Driscoll acquiesced to that addition, she noted that the council met its deadline despite a hurricane delay last year. “When we have an unexpected vacancy on the city council, it’s a hard time; it’s stressful,” she said.

“But I don’t see any of these other options as being that much better, where we should pursue this long process and a lot of expense to make that change.”

Councilmember Copley Gerdes said he preferred not to make a complex process more difficult. However, he and Gabbard requested additional information and discussions on implementing the either-or model.

City attorneys will also draft charter amendment language surrounding super majority votes and a contingency process if the council fails to meet its 45-day deadline. Pettigrew will provide individual updates throughout the process.

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  1. Avatar

    Jonathan A Ginsberg

    July 17, 2023at3:30 pm

    I think the current method is bizarre. I have never heard of a legislative body interviewing, considering, and appointing their very own colleague. What is this, the bachelor? People getting voted off and on “the isladn” Special election costs a lot? At what price is our chance at democracy? Leave the seat vacant until the special election can be held – and “piggyback” on another election. OR – How about the Mayor appoints an interim and you hold a special election at the next time there is an election?

  2. Avatar

    Thomas Dolan, Ph.D.

    July 16, 2023at12:24 am

    The process should not be revised without due process and consideration of the performance of the process. Government systems and processes should be held to objective standards like those of CMMI.

  3. Avatar

    S. Rose Smith-Hayes

    July 15, 2023at6:23 pm

    The process used to select John Muhammad is not new or untested. It does not make sensecto spend $350,000 to fill one seat. Please be practical, you will never please everyone. You are doing a great job. Thank you.

  4. Irv cohen

    Irv cohen

    July 15, 2023at3:10 pm

    The process used for the past opening deprived the public adequate ability to make their voice heard.

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