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Vacancies in Local Elected Offices

This page provides an overview of council, commission, and executive vacancies for local governments in Washington State, including resignations, unexcused absences, and other causes of vacancies; effective dates; and the process for appointing new officials to fill the remainder of the terms for the vacant offices.

This page focuses on the Washington state laws regarding vacancies. Some jurisdictions may have adopted local charters or policies that go beyond the minimum requirements in state law, such as establishing additional causes of vacancy or laying out more detailed procedures for filling the vacancy. Always consult your local procedures.



Overview

A local elective office – such as the office of mayor, councilmember, county elected official, or special purpose district commissioner – can become vacant for a number of reasons. The reasons for vacancy, and the process for filling them, are generally spelled out in chapter 42.12 RCW (see the “Notes” section of that chapter for additional statutory references for specific agency types).

These reasons an office may become vacant include the following (all of which are listed in RCW 42.12.010 unless otherwise noted):

  • The death of the incumbent;
  • Their resignation (discussed in more detail below);
  • Their removal;
  • Their ceasing to be a legally registered voter of the jurisdiction in which they have been elected or appointed (discussed in more detail below);
  • Their conviction of a felony or any offense involving a violation of their official oath;
  • Their refusal or neglect to take the oath of office or give/renew their official bond within the time prescribed by law;
  • The decision of a competent tribunal declaring their election or appointment void;
  • Whenever a judgment shall be obtained against the incumbent for breach of the condition of their official bond; and
  • For some jurisdictions, an excessive number of absences (discussed in more detail below). This is not contained in RCW 42.12.010 but is addressed separately in some agency statutes and/or local policies.

Sometimes the causes and effective dates of a vacancy are clear, such as the officeholder’s death. But in many other cases there can be confusion over whether the office has indeed been vacated and when.


Resignations

An elected official’s resignation may be offered verbally or in writing. If the official does not specify a resignation date, then the resignation takes effect when it is delivered to the agency. The state court of appeals found that the mere announcement of a resignation meant to be effective immediately – such as a councilmember standing up and shouting “I quit!” during a council meeting – is enough to complete the resignation process (State ex rel. Munroe v. Poulsbo, 109 Wn. App. 672 (2002)).

The governing body does not have to formally accept the resignation or take any action for it to take effect. But your agency may still want to adopt a policy that says you will acknowledge a resignation in writing.

Once the specified resignation time is reached, the resignation automatically takes effect. If the official resigned effective immediately, they may not withdraw or extend the resignation because they have already vacated the office. However, if the effective date has not yet arrived and the official still holds office, they may rescind or extend the resignation.


Loss of Residency

While the technology for “connecting” from remote places has become widespread, state law still requires elected officials to reside in the jurisdiction they represent.

RCW 42.12.010(4) says that an elected position becomes vacant when the official is no longer a legally registered voter of that jurisdiction – or, for those jurisdictions with districts or wards, the district/ward that they represent. (The exception cited in RCW 3.50.057 only applies to municipal court judges.)

State voter registration laws define “residence” as “a person’s permanent address where he or she physically resides and maintains his or her abode” (RCW 29A.04.151). Over time this has been distilled to two tests: (1) the physical location of a residence and (2) where the official intends their permanent residence to be.

Physical location is usually easy to establish. The official either owns or rents a place somewhere in the jurisdiction and lives there or they do not.

If an official owns or rents more than one place, then it becomes a question of which place the official considers to be their primary residence. The official’s intent can be established by both direct and indirect evidence. In terms of direct evidence, it is simple enough to ask the official which location they consider to be their permanent residence. For indirect evidence, look at the address the official uses on their voter registration, driver’s license, tax records, children’s school enrollment forms, memberships in public parks and recreation programs, utility bills, and similar documents.

However, in some cases an official may be able to temporarily live outside the jurisdiction without vacating their office. Sometimes an official will temporarily move outside of the jurisdiction for reasons such as military or civil service, a divorce, the need to care for a family member, an extended work assignment, or the inability to find suitable temporary housing in the jurisdiction (such as a councilmember whose house burns down and who must find temporary accommodations while their house is being rebuilt).

Each of those events could indicate that the official intends to return to the jurisdiction in which they serve as an elected official, and if that is the case it might be difficult to prove that the official has lost their residency within the jurisdiction. These scenarios will depend heavily on the facts. Obviously, the longer the official lives outside the jurisdiction, the more difficult it becomes for them to prove the intent to move back.

Other factors to consider include whether the official continues to perform their duties while they are temporarily living elsewhere – such as attending meetings in-person or by phone/video conference and continuing to engage with constituents and staff. The answers to these questions may inform the agency about the official’s intent.

If an official no longer resides in their jurisdiction (and/or district or ward), they may resign voluntarily. If the official does not resign voluntarily, RCW 7.56.010 provides for an action of quo warranto (literally, “what warrant”) that can be filed in the county superior court against any person who “unlawfully” holds a public office. This is a civil action that can be filed by any person, but typically the county prosecuting attorney is directed to do so (see RCW 7.56.020). If the court finds that the official no longer resides in the jurisdiction it can issue an order that the position is vacant.


Unexcused Absences

Chapter 42.12 RCW does not address absences. However, some public agencies have specific statutes declaring an office vacant if the official has too many “unexcused” absences. For example:

There does not appear to be a similar provision for non-charter counties. Local agency charters or rules may provide for similar rules.

Some of these statutes provide for a specific process. In towns, for example, the council declares the position vacant. In water-sewer districts, the board must notify the commissioner in writing that a board member has two consecutive unexcused absences and that the position will be declared vacant if the commissioner is absent from the next regularly scheduled meeting without being excused.

What the statutes do not provide, however, is direction on how to decide what is an “excused” versus an “unexcused” absence. This is left to the discretion of the agency’s governing body. Most agencies require advance notice to the presiding officer and/or clerk stating the reason for a member’s absence (unless there is an emergency). Some agencies automatically excuse the absence if the member has given advance notice (subject to a motion to not excuse it), while others require a motion and vote to excuse each absence.

If an elected official has an extended absence or illness, the position might not become permanently vacant. Some jurisdictions have the statutory authority to appoint someone to temporarily fill in for the absent member. RCW 35A.12.065 allows this for councilmembers in code cities, but towns do not have the same authority under chapter 35.27 RCW. There is no authority in chapter 36.32 RCW for county commissioners, but a charter (home rule) county probably has the authority to establish a procedure allowing for a temporary appointment. Most of the statutes related to special purpose districts refer to chapter 42.12 RCW on vacancies and do not appear to allow for temporary appointments, but be sure to double-check the specific enabling statute for your district.

Some jurisdictions have adopted policies providing for extended leaves of absence for elected officials. Examples of local policies regarding absences and leaves of absence can be found at the end of this page.


Other Causes of Vacancy

While failure to take the oath of office or give official bond is grounds for creating a vacancy, MRSC is not aware of any instance where it has happened. Agencies pay for the bond (RCW 48.28.040). One question that we have been asked is whether the official must have a separate bond or if the agency’s insurance policy is sufficient. MRSC has previously advised that an agency’s general insurance may meet the requirements for fidelity bonds, only the State Auditor’s Office can decide whether your insurance coverage will meet its requirement under the statute.

Recall is the primary method by which elected officials can be removed from office against their will. The process for recall is set forth in RCW 29A.56.110-.270, and voters can remove the elected official(s) for malfeasance, misfeasance, or violation of the oath of office.

Local elected officials may also be removed from office if they are convicted of a felony or any offense involving a violation of their official oath, the decision of a competent tribunal declaring their election or appointment void, and for judgments against the incumbent for breach of their official bond.


Effective Date of the Vacancy

As discussed earlier, resignations take effect on the date selected by the official or, if no date is specified, when the resignation is delivered to the agency.

Beyond that, there does not appear to be clear law on whether an elected position automatically becomes vacant if one or more of the statutory conditions are met, or if the agency has to take some kind of action to have the position declared vacant. If the incumbent does not agree that the position is vacant, MRSC believes that the governing body needs to take some kind of formal action to declare the position to be vacant and to state the basis for the vacancy.

The reason for the vacancy will dictate what kind of action will need to take place. For example, since the governing body decides whether an absence is excused, it could make findings about whether the member has missed the required number of meetings and whether or not those absences were excused. It could then declare the position to be vacant.

On the other hand, some of the reasons for disqualification may be more fact-specific, such as a change in residency or whether the official has breached a condition of their official bond. In those cases, the local government may want to file a quo warranto action and have a court decide.

One tactical question for a local government to consider is whether to proactively file a court case to have the position declared vacant or to adopt a motion declaring the position vacant, which would require the incumbent to go to court to overturn that declaration. An agency should discuss available options with its attorney and risk manager.

For those reasons based on a court order, the vacancy is probably effective on the date the court enters the order declaring the position vacant, but there is an argument that it is not effective until all appeals have been exhausted.

In cases where the legislative body declares the vacancy, such as when a member has a certain number of unexcused absences, the vacancy is probably effective when the vote is taken. Again, because this vote is subject to a court action it is possible that the effective date is after the time for filing a court action has passed.


Filling a City, Town, or Special Purpose District Vacancy

RCW 42.12.070 addresses filling nonpartisan vacancies and applies to:

  • All cities and towns except first class cities or cities that have adopted a charter; and
  • Special purpose districts where property ownership is not a qualification to vote.

For special purpose districts where property ownership is required to vote, consult the agency's statutes. For instance, see RCW 87.03.081 for irrigation districts and RCW 17.04.070 for weed control districts.

For cities, counties, and special purpose districts covered by RCW 42.12.070, the governing body must appoint a qualified replacement within 90 days of the vacancy. If the governing body fails to meet this deadline it loses the authority to appoint a replacement, at which point the county legislative body has an additional 90 days to make the appointment. If the county legislative authority does not make an appointment within 180 days of the vacancy, the governing body or the county legislative authority may petition the governor to make the appointment.

If there are multiple vacancies to fill, one position is filled first and then, with that added appointee, a vote is taken to fill the next vacant position, and so forth. If, due to vacancies, there is only one councilmember remaining or if all council positions are vacant, the county legislative body appoints a qualified person or persons until the council has two members who can then begin the appointment of the remaining members.

However, beyond these requirements state law does not require a specific process to follow. See the section General Process for Filling a Vacancy (below) for more guidance. Also see below for guidance on filling mayoral vacancies.

There is no statute that specifically applies to cities that have adopted a home rule charter (mostly first class cities). If the city charter does not provide for a process, it would be reasonable to follow the process in chapter 42.12 RCW.

Mayoral Vacancies

If the office of mayor in a mayor-council city or town becomes vacant, the mayor pro-tem may fill in for a short period of time (see RCW 35A.12.065 for code cities and RCW 35.27.160 for towns). However, the mayor’s office is still considered vacant, and the council must fill the vacancy.

A mayoral vacancy is filled in the same manner as a vacant council seat. Anyone who is otherwise eligible to serve as mayor may be appointed to fill the vacancy, including current councilmembers. If the council appoints a sitting councilmember to the mayor’s office, that would create a vacancy on the council which would then have to be filled.

In council-manager cities, the mayor pro tempore or deputy mayor serves in the absence or temporary disability of the mayor, but only until council appoints a new mayor. The statute does not provide a specific timeline for “temporary” but the timelines in RCW 42.12.070 are a good guide.


Filling a County Vacancy

For partisan offices – all county officials except judicial offices and offices that have been made nonpartisan by a home rule charter (RCW 29A.04.110(3)) – the process for filling a vacancy is set forth in the Washington State Constitution at Article II, Section 15. It requires the county board of commissioners or council to appoint a replacement from a list of three candidates nominated by the county political party to which the former official belonged. The board or council has 60 days from the date of vacancy to make the appointment from the list. If they do not, the governor has 30 days to make an appointment from the list.

If a vacant partisan office was previously filled by an independent official who did not declare a party affiliation, the state constitution and applicable statutes do not provide guidance. Counties will have to check with the Secretary of State or the Attorney General if they find themselves in this situation.

RCW 36.16.110 and RCW 42.12.040 also talk about filling vacancies in county offices. However, those sections do not exactly mirror the procedure in the state constitution. We believe that the procedures in the constitution prevail over statutes, but counties should also try to follow the applicable provisions in the statute.

However, beyond these requirements state law does not require a specific process to follow. See the section General Process for Filling a Vacancy (below) for more guidance. Also see below for guidance on filling vacancies in county executive offices.

There is no statutory or constitutional process that specifically applies to vacancies in home rule charter counties. If the county charter does not provide for a process, it would be reasonable to follow the process in chapter 42.12 RCW.

County Executive Vacancies

In non-charter counties, the commissioners exercise executive as well as legislative powers. If one of the commissioner positions is vacant, the remaining commissioners retain their executive authority but may have to temporarily reassign some of the duties of the vacant position.

If a county elected department head position becomes vacant – such as the county prosecutor or auditor – their deputies can fill in temporarily until the board or council appoints a replacement.

If the legislative body appoints a sitting councilmember or commissioner to the vacant executive post, that would create a vacancy on the legislative body which would then have to be filled.


General Process for Filling a Vacancy

The applicants (or, in the case of partisan county offices, party nominees) must be qualified to hold office as discussed below. But beyond that and the basic timelines and requirements for filling partisan and nonpartisan offices (discussed above), there is very little statutory guidance about what process the agency should use to make each appointment.

Some guidance and considerations are provided below. Some agencies have adopted their own policies and procedures to follow, so always check your local requirements.

Important: Any records related to filling vacancies in elective office, including the names of applicants and their application materials, are subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act. While RCW 42.56.250(2) exempts public employment applications from disclosure, this exemption specifically excludes applications for vacancies in elective office.

General Qualifications to Hold Office

To be eligible for appointment, the applicants (or nominees in the case of a partisan county vacancy) must be eligible to hold office under RCW 42.04.020, which requires the individual to be a citizen of the United States and the State of Washington as well as an “elector” of the local jurisdiction. Article VI, Section 1 of the Washington State Constitution defines an “elector” as 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. If your jurisdiction is divided into wards or precincts, the applicant/nominee must also reside in that ward/precinct.

Agencies should also consult their specific statutes, but those generally provide the same requirements. However, to be eligible to hold elective office in a code city, an applicant must have been a resident of the city for at least one year preceding their election or, in this case, appointment (see RCW 35A.12.030/35A.13.020).

MRSC has been asked if agencies can adopt supplemental eligibility criteria (such as someone who commits to not running in the next election). Finding no specific statutory guidance on this, MRSC believes that an agency could adopt additional criteria provided that they that do not discriminate based on a protected class.

Advertising the Position

For partisan county offices, the candidates will be nominated by the county political party to which the former official belonged. We suggest that you adopt a process to notify the county political party of the vacancy and remind them of the timelines for appointing someone to fill the vacancy.

For nonpartisan positions, state statutes do not require the agency to place a legal advertisement before considering candidates. However, wide dissemination of the opening – along with a clear statement of eligibility criteria and a deadline to submit applications – will provide for a broader pool of applicants. Consider issuing press releases and publishing the notice on your agency’s website (if you have one).

Interviewing Candidates

The legislative body may – but is not required to – ask for written responses to questions and/or interview candidates. Examples of potential questions can be found in some of the application packet examples at the bottom of this page.

If the legislative body chooses to interview applicants or nominees, the interviews must take place in an open public meeting. The legislative body can ask the candidates to voluntarily leave the room while other candidates are being interviewed, but since it is an open public meeting the other candidates cannot be required to leave (RCW 42.30.030).

Evaluating and Voting Upon Candidates

When it is time to evaluate the qualifications of the candidate(s), the governing body can do so in executive session (RCW 42.30.110(1)(h)). This allows members of the governing body to freely express their opinions about the qualifications of the applicants without having the applicants or the general public listening to their evaluations.

However, the legislative body must be careful not to take any kind of preliminary vote in executive session, even to narrow the field of candidates or even if the vote is considered a nonbinding straw vote. (See Miller v. City of Tacoma, 138 Wn.2d 318 (1999), which pertained to a planning commission appointment but whose reasoning would also apply to an elective office appointment.)

The appointment itself must be made during an open session, at which time the appointee must be confirmed by a majority vote of the legislative body. For mayor-council cities, the mayor can vote to break a tie. For other agencies, a tie means the legislative body has to try again to obtain a majority vote, otherwise the appointment decision may go to the county (if a city or special purpose district) or the governor.

There is no state law that specifically says a councilmember or commissioner may not vote for themselves to fill a vacancy in another agency office (such as a mayoral or county executive vacancy). However, MRSC believes that a councilmember or commissioner may not vote for themselves if the new appointment would result in a pay increase, because under Washington’s common-law ethics doctrine the member now has a financial interest in the outcome of the vote.

If the legislative body has advance notice of an upcoming vacancy – such as a resignation that has been announced but has not yet taken effect – the legislative body may begin preparing for the vacancy while the current officeholder is still in office, such as advertising for interested candidates. However, the legislative body may not vote to fill the position until after the vacancy has occurred, because before that time there is technically no vacancy to fill. (See AGO 1978 No. 20.) For instance, an official who has announced their upcoming resignation could change their mind at the last minute and withdraw the resignation before the effective date.

Similarly, an outgoing member of the legislative body may participate in the vacancy preparation process while they still hold office, such as recruiting candidates or gathering background information. However, the outgoing official may not vote on their own replacement because, technically, the vacancy does not exist yet. Once the vacancy has taken effect, the individual no longer sits on the governing body and may no longer vote on such matters. Whether the outgoing member can vote on who to interview while they still hold office (and effectively vote to exclude candidates from the pool) is a gray area and should be reviewed with legal counsel.

Taking Office

Before assuming office, the appointee must take the oath of office and post a bond if a bond is required pursuant to local ordinance or charter. The appointee must also obtain open government training within 90 days of assuming office, just as any elected official must do (RCW 42.30.205).

The appointed official serves until a qualified person is elected at the next general municipal election at which a governing body seat is usually on the ballot.

For instance, if a vacancy occurs in first year of a four-year term – such as the city council or county board of commissioners – the appointee will serve until the next general election which will occur in the second year of the term. The winner of the election will immediately take office (after the results are certified, the winner takes the oath of office, and the bond is posted) and serve the remaining two-year “short term.” After the “short term,” the position will be up for election again in the next general election for a full four-year term.

If the vacancy occurs in the third year of a four-year term, the appointee will serve until the next general election. The election winner will immediately take office for the remainder of the unexpired term and then continue to serve the full four-year term for the position to which they were elected.

Similarly, if a vacancy occurs in the first year of a six-year term – examples include public hospital district, water-sewer district, or fire protection district commissioners – the appointee will serve until the next general election which will occur in the second year of the term. The election winner will then serve the remaining four years of the term, at which point the position will be up for election for a full six-year term.


Examples of Vacancy Policies and Procedures

Below are selected examples of local policies and procedures related to vacancies in elected office.

Cities and Towns

  • Bothell City Council Protocol Manual (2022) – Council-manager code city; see:
    • Section 2.05 – Election of Officers; addresses permanent vacancies in ceremonial mayor’s office
    • Section 7.13 – Council Attendance Policy
    • Section 10.01 – Return of Materials and Equipment
    • Section 10.02 – Filling Council Vacancies
  • Issaquah City Council Rules of Procedure (2022) – Mayor-council code city; see:
    • Section 2.03 – Council Vacancy; includes applicant presentations rather than interviews
    • Section 3.01 – Attendance
  • Lacey City Council Policies-Procedures Manual (2021) – Council-manager code city; see:
    • Section 2.08 – Council Attendance
    • Section 2.09 – Council Vacancy; includes resignation process
  • Poulsbo City Council Rules of Procedure (2020) – Mayor-council city; see:
    • Section 1.3 – Attendance, Excused Absences
    • Chapter 8 – Filling Council Vacancies and Selecting Deputy Mayor and Alternate Deputy Mayor; includes mayor and councilmember pro tem appointments
    • Chapter 9 – Filling a Vacancy in the Office of the Mayor
  • Spokane Valley Governance Manual (2020) – Council-manager code city; see:
    • Chapter 1, Section C.5 – Attendance; provides detailed procedures on excused and unexcused absences and allows councilmembers to request leave of absence up to 90 days for serious health or physical conditions
    • Chapter 2, Section B – Filling Council Vacancies
    • Appendix E – City Council Member Application Form (also see other example application forms below)
  • Vancouver Procedure for Filling City Council Vacancies (2021) – Detailed policy and procedures for first class charter city; still of interest to non-charter cities

Counties

Special Purpose Districts


Examples of Vacancy Application Forms

Below are selected examples of application forms and packets to help fill vacancies in local elected office.

Cities/Towns

Special Purpose Districts


Last Modified: May 06, 2022