Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Charter Reform: The "Blago Amendment"

From this week's CityBeat, we learn that Councilmember Leslie Ghiz is proposing a charter amendment that would end the practice of filling mid-term Council vacancies by appointment. As we all know, the current process is that each Councilmember designates a "proxy" who has the responsibility of choosing his or her replacement should he or she vacate the office for any reason mid-term.

Over the last several years, it's become increasingly common for term-limited councilmembers to resign mid-term, permitting their appointed replacements to run as incumbents in the fall election. Ghiz proposes--gasp--elections instead.

I think Ghiz (pronounced with a hard "g'"--get your mind out of the gutter, folks!) has got this issue exactly right (or nearly so). This practice of early resignation to make room for hand-picked successors has become an abusive practice. (And I say this as one who is, frankly, delighted to have Greg Harris on Council, particularly as a replacement for Cranley.) The last few election results make clear the power of incumbency in Council elections, and politicians should not be able to bequeath their seat to their favorite Facebook friend (or whatever other criteria is used).

The criticism from HCDP Chair Tim Burke--that elections are expensive--is misplaced. First, that's life in a representative democracy. But his critique also misses the mark: if the "Blago amendment" passes, term-limited councilmembers will stop resigning early (unless they have a better job offer--and even then, there would be party pressure not to leave prior to November). So there wouldn't be a flurry of midterm elections; instead, there would be a flurry of elected officials fulfilling their commitment to voters.

Nonetheless, I wouldn't mind seeing the proposal altered slightly to include some sort of "25th Amendment" exception. If a councilmember becomes gravely ill or dies while in office, it might make sense to fill the position by appointment. The test could be simple: a majority of council would have to vote to certify that the departing councilmember is incapacitated due to illness or death. That would trigger a proxy appointment, and eliminate a lengthy time period during which Council might operate with an even number (there's no procedure in the current Charter to break a tie vote). Because even though it's fun to call this "the Blago amendment," no one is suggesting that anyone has sold or tried to sell a Council seat. But the rearrangement of the deck chairs just prior to elections is distasteful; Ghiz's proposal would end that, and an illness or death exception honors her intent.

This is a good proposal from Ghiz, and one I'll vote for if it makes it to my ballot this fall.

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