BUCKHANNON – Buckhannon City Council is debating how it should proceed when a vacancy arises in the office of city recorder or among council members.
At Tuesday’s council meeting, members and city attorney Tom O’Neill began a discussion about the protocol that should be followed in an attempt to draft an ordinance detailing exactly how city council should fill a vacancy on council in the future. In the end, however, council members voted to table the issue.
In past years, when the council has to replace a city recorder or councilperson, they have asked interested residents to submit a letter detailing their qualifications and why they want to serve, interviewed those candidates, and then selected the most qualified person via a majority vote. That occurred when former city recorder Colin Reger unexpectedly resigned in 2019 and current city recorder Randy Sanders was appointed to fill that vacancy. Prior to Reger’s election in May 2018, Dr. Susan Aloi occupied the position after having been appointed by council in 2016 to replace former recorder and mayor Richard “Rick” Edwards.
The practice of accepting applications and conducting interviews wasn’t utilized, however, in August 2021 when, after an unprecedented Election-Night tie in the June 9, 2020, city election, council appointed former city councilwoman Shelia Lewis-Sines to fill the vacated city council seat left by Mary Albaugh, who moved out of the area.
At the time, Sines told council it seemed unnecessary for them to accept applications for the position because she had already applied, referring to her run in the June 9, 2020, city election. On election night, Rylands and Sines had tied at 423 votes. (Rylands was later determined the winner when the county commission canvassed the votes, edging out Sines by just six votes.)
The city charter states that when a vacancy occurs in the office of the mayor “from any cause,” the city recorder becomes the mayor and serves until the next election. The charter also says that if a vacancy arises among council or in the office of the city recorder, “the remaining council shall, by a majority vote, fill such vacancy.”
At council’s Aug. 2 meeting, mayor Robbie Skinner noted that councilman David McCauley had brought up the issue, adding that he would welcome some discussion about a protocol process for filling a council vacancy. Skinner said Elkins Mayor Jerry Marco provided some information on how their council replaces a vacancy.
“I think there are two schools of thought here,” Skinner said. “I think we are all aware that one school of thought is we accept the next highest vote-getter (from the election) as the council seat winner. The second would be that the council would advertise the vacancy and accept applications. The council would then interview the pool of potential candidates and fill the seat.”
Skinner said when thinking about a solution, he felt there would be a way to blend the two choices together.
“I see the merit of both of them,” Skinner said. “I think the voice of our constituents is critically important for us to listen to. We are all here because of the voice of our constituents and the folks who live here in our community. None of us were put here because we walked in and said we wanted to serve on council. We walk in, fill out paperwork and it is up to the community through a vote to put us here. I think it is very important to pay attention to that.”
Skinner said he thinks if a vacancy occurs, they should look to the next highest vote-getter if that vote-getter is within 50 votes, or some other designated number, of the winner.
“We could then see that the community had truly spoken,” Skinner said. “If the number is a large discrepancy, I am not sure the community spoke, and at that point, I would advocate asking for applications and then having council interview for the next council seat. But I think it is important to first look at it from the next highest vote-getters perspective.”
Councilwoman Pamela Bucklew said she was not in favor of taking the next highest vote-getter.
“There may be a period of time that goes by before we need to fill that position and there can be life-changing things going on with that person at that time,” Bucklew pointed out. “Also, when it is just a city election, we only get 10 to 15 percent of the population of the voters who come out and vote. So, to me, that is not really doing what the majority of the people want. I still believe we need to take applications and go with the most qualified person.”
Councilman David Thomas said he believes the person who came in second, i.e., the next highest vote-getter, should be given the position if a vacancy becomes available.
“Although I think if they did not receive ‘x’ amount of votes or a certain percentage, they should go with asking for applications,” Thomas said. “I do think what [mayor Robbie Skinner] is suggesting, in concept, is where we should be, but we have to finetune it. I do think the next highest vote-getter should be automatic.”
City recorder Randy Sanders said they could make sure the next highest vote-getter still qualifies.
“There are checks and balances – seeing if the candidate is still a resident of the city, to see if they are still eligible to serve,” Sanders said. “They may not still be interested in being on council.”
Sanders said he had not previously considered a blended process.
“I think it is a concept that is worth studying,” Sanders said. “Before this meeting, I thought it would be one way or another. This is something for us to think about.”
Councilman Jack Reger brought up another point.
“Let’s say (Buckhannon City Recorder) Randy Sanders decides to take a job running the Miss USA Pageant – he ran for this Buckhannon seat unopposed,” Reger said. “You are going to have to have applications; there is no doubt about that.”
Reger said someone stopped him outside of the Buckhannon Post Office and shared her opinion. He said she felt it should be the next highest vote-getter.
“I agree with that,” Reger said. “I think there needs to be specific perimeters.”
Councilman David McCauley said his issue with taking the next highest vote-getter is that there are folks out there who are hugely qualified to serve in any council position and if they did not run during the election, they could not be considered.
“When Colin Reger stepped down as City Recorder, we hired a pretty good City Recorder in Randy Sanders,” McCauley said. “You do not discount anyone if you take applications. It may be folks who finished third or fourth as opposed to second best. After the council enjoys a conversation with that person, we may come to the conclusion that person brings the best skill set to the job.”
McCauley asked why council would want to ‘limit the field’ to people who ran for the office.
“I could rattle off 100 people in the community who have never sought office that maybe, if they had the opportunity to be interviewed and be appointed to council, we would be like ‘wow.’ Maybe there is a penalty for that and maybe not, but that could be the person to round out city council. We are entrusted to do the people’s bidding and conduct the people’s business. Part of that delegation, when we are elected, is to come up with a system and procedures to serve the community. So why would we tie our hands? That is why I brought the issue up to begin with.”
Councilman CJ Rylands said he supported the process used up to the point.
“Have interested parties write a letter, interview them and pick the best candidate,” Rylands said. “It has worked in the past and ultimately, that is why we are on City Council – to make decisions. This gives us the opportunity to choose the best candidate.”
McCauley moved to table the matter and the motion received a second from Thomas. Council members voted unanimously to table the matter to discuss again during an upcoming meeting.