Outgoing West Linn councilors may attempt to fill vacancy before leaving office
In true West Linn City Council fashion, outgoing members of the 2020 council will leave their positions amid a shroud of controversy.
On Christmas Eve, three days after the council held a goodbye ceremony for outgoing councilors Rich Sakelik, Teri Cummings and Mayor Russ Axelrod during what was billed as its last meeting of the year, Cummings submitted her desired agenda for the first meeting of the year.
Cummings' suggestions for the Jan. 4 meeting include a vote to fill a vacant fifth council seat before Councilors-elect Rory Bialostosky and Mary Baumgardner are sworn in — indicating that she herself intends, along with other outgoing councilors, to vote to fill the vacancy.
When incoming councilors Baumgardner and Bialostosky are sworn in and Councilor Jules Walters (who has two years left in her term as a councilor) takes office as mayor at the Jan. 4 meeting, the five-person council will be one member short. City charter calls for the vacancy to be filled in the next election, but the council may vote to appoint someone to serve until that election. In prior years this decision was made by the incoming council.
In response to Cummings' suggestions, Axelrod wrote that as outgoing councilors he, Cummings and Sakelik would not be participating in the Jan. 4 meeting. Councilor Bill Relyea followed up with a request on behalf of himself and Cummings for a special meeting on Dec. 30 to discuss filling the vacancy.
Though the community and City Council discussed this matter in November, Cummings stated that vague charter language regarding the situation left it unresolved.
Citing his authority as mayor granted to him by the charter, Axelrod rejected the request for the Dec. 30 special meeting. Axelrod argued in his email to councilors (incoming and outgoing) that neither the discussion of the vacancy nor the city attorney evaluation (which was the other item on the proposed Dec. 30 agenda) were "absolutely necessary" at the moment.
Axelrod pointed to the council rules that state special meetings "be utilized only when absolutely necessary."
"This attempt to implement what amounts to an implied last minute emergency-type meeting on a fabricated issue over the holiday, when the public has assumed differently and is not around or tuned in to such activities by its City representatives over the holiday, is very concerning from a transparency standpoint," Axelrod wrote in his email sent Dec. 29.
Cummings replied in the early hours of Dec. 30, deriding Axelrod's rejection of the special meeting and requesting the proposed Dec. 30 agenda be added to the Jan. 4 agenda.
In her original proposal for the Jan. 4 agenda, Cummings had recommended that following the resignation of Walters (so she may be sworn in as mayor), the remaining councilors should vote to fill Walters' vacated council position by appointment.
Then, according to Cummings' suggested agenda, Baumgardner, Bialostosky, Walters and a possible new appointee would be sworn in. Holding the vote on appointment before the swearing in would mean the outgoing councilors — Axelrod, Cummings and Sakelik — could vote instead of the 2021 councilors.
And in this scenario, if Walters had already resigned her council position she would not be able to vote.
In her midnight reply to Axelrod, Cummings pointed out that the vacancy question was not "last minute" but was first brought up in November. Relyea mentioned concerns with the charter's language around council vacancies on Nov. 9. City Attorney Tim Ramis provided input at the next meeting and told Relyea if he was still unclear, he could write his questions out and he would respond as best he could.
Ramis advised during the meeting that because the charter could be interpreted multiple ways, the council could use its own discretion in deciding how to go forward.
One of the solutions Relyea suggested was for Cummings or Sakelik to maintain their seat until an election was held for someone to fill Walters' council position. Relyea suggested this based on a section of the City Charter that states a councilor's term ends when their successor takes office.
"It was not fair of the Mayor to dismiss the concerns his fellow Councilors raised about ambiguous language in the Charter and avoid placing it on an agenda just because he does not want to," Cummings wrote in her Dec. 30 email. "A fair and decent Mayor honors the will of the majority of his/her/their fellow Council members."
It is not common for outgoing electeds to participate in the first meeting of the new year, however Cummings stated the council ought not to rely on precedence alone. Though Section 10 of the City Charter says that a councilor may serve until their successor is sworn in, West Linn voters cast their ballots in November with no inclination that any of the outgoing councilors would be able to retain their seat without fairly winning reelection because that has never been the practice. This means that to keep one of these members on council would, as Axelrod explained, subvert the will of the voters.
In her Dec. 30 email Cummings disputed that notion and stated "this never was about proposing to disqualify an incumbent councilor who was elected to be mayor."
"Is it reasonable to rely on de-facto precedence when questions about the wording of the Charter arise?" she wrote. "Furthermore, should past precedence determine the interpretation of the Charter or is it not the Council's duty to do so when questions arise?"
As of afternoon Dec. 30, the agenda for the Jan. 4 meeting was not available. Unlike the agendas for regular business meetings and work sessions, which must be published in advance, the council rules provide no timeline for when a special meeting agenda should be published.
City Manager Jerry Gabrielatos did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how the meeting would proceed.
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