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Filling a Vacancy in a City or Town Council

August 13, 2014 by Paul Sullivan
Category: Legislative Body

With 281 cities and towns in Washington and with city and town councils typically consisting of five to seven members, there are bound to be vacancies in council positions on a fairly regular basis. Vacancies typically occur due the death, resignation, or loss of residency. If there is a vacancy, a replacement needs to appointed. This post addresses the requirements and process for doing that.

What are the rules for filling a vacant council position? The statutes merely provide that a vacancy “shall be filled as provided in chapter 42.12  RCW.” See, for example, RCW 35A.12.050. RCW 42.12.070(1) states that “the remaining members of the governing body shall appoint a qualified person to fill the vacant position.” If there is more than one vacancy to fill, one position is filled first and then, with that added appointee, a vote is taken to fill the other position(s). Id.  If, due to vacancies, there is only one councilmember remaining or if all council positions are vacant, the county legislative authority appoints a qualified person or persons until the council has two members, who can then begin the appointment of the remaining members.

The appointment should be made within 90 days of the vacancy’s occurrence; if it is not, the city council loses its authority to do so and the county legislative body, within 180 days of the vacancy’s occurrence, makes the appointment. RCW 42.12.070(4). If the county legislative authority fails to the appointment within that time period, the governor may be petitioned by the city council or county legislative authority to do so, and governor may make the appointment if the county legislative authority has not, in the meantime, done so. Id.

The person appointed must have the same qualifications for the council position at the time of appointment as would a person elected into the position. In second class and code cities and in towns, he or she must be a registered voter and a city or town resident. RCW 35.23.031 (second class cities); RCW 35.27.080 (towns); RCW 35A.12.030 and 35A.13.020 (code cities). The code city statutes also provide that the person must be a resident of the city for a period of at least one year preceding his or her appointment. Cities with wards or districts also require that some or all council positions be filled by a resident of the particular ward or district.

The first class city statutes are silent as to eligibility requirements, but a general statute, RCW 42.04.020, requires that, to hold any elective office, a person must be a U.S. citizen and an "elector" of the jurisdiction. (The state constitution states that an elector - a person entitled to vote - is a person who is a U.S. citizen, 18 years of age or older, and a resident in the state, county, and precinct at least 30 days immediately preceding the election. Though, to be able to vote, you have to register, so, technically, being a registered voter is not the same as being an elector.) Most all of the 10 first class city charters require the person be a registered voter, and some require residency of a year or more.

What process should be followed to make the actual appointment? Must the vacancy be advertised? Are applications required? Must the council interview candidates? The answer is that there is no process required by state law. So, what process is used is up to each city or town council. A council could, if it so chooses, just appoint the first qualified person who comes in the door. In my experience, though, most councils advertise that there is a vacancy, and they ask interested persons to either fill out an application or write a letter of interest to the council for consideration. Typically, the council will then interview candidates in an open session, as required by the Open Public Meetings Act, before making the appointment. (The council may, however, evaluate the qualifications of candidates in an executive session. RCW 42.30.110(1)(h)). The vote to fill the vacancy must be in open session. For one example of how a city council might proceed, see Bothell City Council Protocol Manual, Section 12.02.

One final note: the person appointed to fill the vacancy must now obtain open government training (open public meetings and public records) within 90 days of assuming office. RCW 42.30.205.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Paul Sullivan

Paul worked with many local governments and authored numerous MRSC publications on local elections, ordinances, and general local government operations in his many years at MRSC. He is now retired.



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