The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Tennessee County Municipal Advisory Service

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Filling City Council Vacancies

Reference Number: MTAS-1016
Tennessee Code Annotated
Reviewed Date: November 30, 2016
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Every city council will occasionally experience a vacancy. A board member might need to resign after moving his residence out of town. Or perhaps a member of the board has died, leaving an open seat.

Most cities do not have a formal policy to address how vacancies on the city council will be filled. As a result, the process of recruiting and appointing new board members can be emotionally charged and stressful. Recruitment and selection is conducted while the board is under time pressure. There can be confusion about how the appointment is to be made, eligibility requirements and the length of the term the appointee will serve. Such a state of affairs does nothing to improve the board’s chances of selecting a good, qualified replacement to fill the opening. To the contrary, these situations can contribute to the appointment of controversial new members who are confused about their duties.

But it need not be this way. Board vacancies, even those created by unfortunate or tragic events, can be managed in a way that will strengthen the governing board or, at least, avoid protracted and divisive debates over the appointment of a successor. A council vacancy can be an opportunity for the community, one that will improve the board, its public image and its ability to address local issues.

This section presents an argument in favor of cities adopting succession plans with two goals in mind:

  • Developing a roster of citizens who are familiar with the processes of local government and willing to serve when a vacancy occurs; and
  • Implementing a selection process that is open, transparent, fair and results in the placement of qualified persons on the governing board.

Types of Vacancies
Filling board vacancies can be influenced by factors that created the vacancy in the first place.

Council vacancies are most commonly caused by the resignation of a member of the board. In some instances, the board member’s resignation is mandatory after he or she has relocated to a new residence out-of-town or outside the district or ward he or she represents; the member may have contracted some debilitating illness that hinders regular attendance at board meetings; and less frequently, board members will sometimes resign their offices to protest board decisions with which they disagree or out of frustration.

The private act charters of some city governments require the board to declare a member’s seat to be vacant after the member has missed a given number of council meetings. In some instances, the charter may excuse these absences if they are due to extraordinary circumstances – a prolonged illness, for example. But in other cases, the charter grants no exception for multiple absences from council meetings or a failure of the member to perform his or her duties. In these circumstances, the board may be forced to declare a vacancy even if the member wishes to remain on the board.

The death of a board member, of course, is another cause of vacancy – often a very emotional time for the governing body.

Finally, and much more infrequently, a board vacancy can result from the ouster or removal of a board member. Such actions are ordered by the courts, usually after the board member’s conviction for serious misbehavior.

Any of these factors may have a profound effect on the board’s selection of a citizen to fill the vacancy. The death of a popular mayor, for example, may result in a desire to fill the vacancy in a manner that memorializes the deceased member. In these circumstances, there may be a call to appoint the deceased member’s spouse or some other close associate to fill the vacancy. Such sentiments are, of course, natural and understandable. They do not, however, always result in the best appointment to fill a board vacancy.

Similarly, if the vacancy is the result of an alderman’s repeated absences from board meetings, the board may look to recruit a replacement who is known to be available on meeting nights. Here again, an understandable response by the board, but there are other criteria that the board should consider as well.

If the vacancy was created by the abrupt resignation of a frustrated board member, the board may feel it important to select a replacement who will “go along” with the majority and who won’t rock the boat too much. This may result in more cordial board meetings, but it is no guarantee that the appointee possesses the knowledge, skills, abilities and temperament needed to oversee operation of the city government.

The selection of a citizen to fill a board vacancy should not simply be a reaction to the circumstances that led to the creation of the vacancy. Instead, the appointment should reflect the board’s agenda for the remaining term of the vacant seat – selecting a person who can help the board meet that agenda.

Consult your charter before taking any action!

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