Mayoral succession still up in the airDemocrat and Chronicle
December 12, 2010
By Brian Sharp
Four months after City Council members first met to discuss mayoral succession, they remain just as divided, still without a clear majority save for one objective.
All agree that once they settle on the process to replace departing Mayor and Lieutenant Governor-elect Robert Duffy, they will go back and rewrite the City Charter for the future to define a clear and possibly different succession plan.
"We’re all there," City Council President Lovely Warren said, wanting to devise a "defined path, not a choice ... It has to be one way, and the law be the law, and then we don’t get into this argument of people having to take sides."
For now, though, City Council members face one of two options. Warren and three others support calling a special election in the spring. The rest of their colleagues are undecided, with most favoring a one-year appointment, sending voters to the polls for primary and general elections in the fall.
If there is no consensus — or if City Council opts for an appointment but cannot agree on who that should be — a special election is called by default.
Time is running out.
While Warren hopes to reach a consensus before Christmas, some Council members say the debate could drag on into next month.
Duffy will be sworn in as lieutenant governor on Jan. 1. Once the office is vacant, City Council has 30 days to act. No formal action can be taken until those 30 days run out at the end of January.
And, in the case of a springtime special election, no mayoral candidate can begin collecting signature petitions until that formal action is taken. In that scenario, they have 12 days, and the special election would need to be set within 60 days.
In the regular election cycle, candidates have up to six weeks to collect petitions, and the benefit of doing so in the summer months.
"It absolutely needs to be defined differently," said City Council member Dana Miller, who once favored an appointment, now is undecided and is a possible mayoral candidate. "The fact that we are still at what many would describe as the 11th hour and there is still uncertainty about what the process is and how it works really troubles me.
"Typically, the rules of succession are very clear, and the person who is second in command ascends."
Deputy Mayor Thomas Richards, the only declared mayoral candidate if City Council chooses a springtime special election, will serve as acting mayor until either a special election or an appointment.
Richards has said he is not interested in being the appointed mayor, should City Council choose that option. And Warren has said she does not want to appoint someone who intends to run, as their year in office would end up being a campaign for the office and give them an unfair advantage.
Critics of a springtime special election, however, note that the lack of a primary also gives an unfair advantage to the lone candidate chosen by the party to run on the Democratic ballot line.
A special election will cost an estimated $150,000 to $200,000, which will be paid for by Monroe County taxpayers, elections officials say.
Rochester’s mayoral succession plan is spelled out in the City Charter, adopted in 1984 as the city was preparing to switch from a City Council-hired city manager form of government to a popularly elected mayor. More commonly in New York, mayoral succession follows a process set in state law in which a vacancy is filled by the popularly elected City Council president who runs for office at the same time as the mayor, both serving a four-year term. Such was the case in Utica in 2000, and in Syracuse in 2001.
In Utica then-Mayor Edward Hanna, an independent, resigned and Timothy Julian, the Republican president of the Common Council at the time, stepped into the role and later won election. Critics unsuccessfully argued that Julian should only have served until the next regularly scheduled election.
Syracuse followed suit a year later after then-Mayor Roy Bernardi, a Republican, was appointed to a position at U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Matt Driscoll, a Democrat who was City Council president at the time, became mayor and went on to win election and re-election before leaving office in 2009.
"It was very smooth. It was statute, everyone knew it in advance," said Tom Carnrike, senior assistant corporation counsel for the city of Syracuse.
In Rochester, the City Council president is chosen by members of the elected City Council and serves two years. Given that model, state law prohibits a sitting City Council member from being appointed mayor. Changes to the process could be made locally but could require a referendum if, for instance, the desire was to make the City Council president as a popularly elected, four-year office.
Rochester is not alone in having an ill-defined and somewhat messy succession.
San Francisco is currently in a similar place, looking to replace a mayor elected as California’s next lieutenant governor.
There, in a shared city-county government, the president of the Board of Supervisors becomes acting mayor and the board can appoint someone to finish the term. The process to do so, however, was not spelled out and the board only adopted a plan late last month.
Who will be the next San Francisco mayor played a role in a contentious supervisors election this fall from which four new members and an incumbent emerged. The appointment requires only a simple majority of the board, and board members are eligible.
While the appointment cannot be made until current Mayor Gavin Newsom leaves office, there is pressure to act now. A vote is possible as early as Tuesday but also could occur the day after Newsom’s scheduled swearing in on Jan. 3. The current board meets for the last time on Jan. 4; the new board gets sworn in on Jan. 8 with the authority to elect a new president and arguably appoint a mayor. All this is why Newsom might delay his swearing in.
"Normally in San Francisco, we have about 11 people running for mayor and the entire city votes," said political consultant and lobbyist Alex Clemens, founder of Barbary Coast Consulting that works in the Bay Area. "This is the opposite. Eleven people are the electorate and the entire city is potentially the next mayor. It’s wonderfully upside down."
Dispelling the chaos
Back in Rochester, City Council has long since abandoned hope for a unanimous decision. On a board where most usually agree, the fact that one of most important decisions — if not the most important one — will be a split vote is actually seen as beneficial to dispel public concern about collusion.
"The reason this (vote) is different is because usually it’s a project ... it’s a bonding, it’s a building, it’s a funding of a program," said Elaine Spaull, vice president of City Council. "But this has to do with (citizens’) voting rights. Even though, under both circumstances, people will go to the polls and vote, this is different — even from mayoral control. This has a personality to it that will impact voters."
The process has "created so much chaos and unnecessary divisiveness," said City Council member Jackie Ortiz. "I think, after all this, we have to go back."
So what’s to change?
Miller said one option might be to have the deputy mayor run for office alongside the mayor, just as the governor and lieutenant governor do at the state level. City Council member Loretta Scott said making the City Council president next in line makes sense, as that person already is elected.
"One of the things that seems to be causing confusion and angst is people feel we are doing something that is undemocratic," said Scott. "But it is in the charter."
Even if the process gets changed going forward, it will be impossible to remove politics, City Council member Carla Palumbo said. But "it seems it would be best to not spend so much time talking about the process."
"Is the discussion of the process as important as the discussion of the candidates?" Palumbo asked rhetorically. "What is most important is who the next mayor is ... (but) we are spending all our time getting there."
See this article in the Democrat and Chronicle