The Racine City Council voted tonight to hold a special mayoral election on June 2, with a primary, if needed, on May 5. The election will determine who is mayor until April 2011, when Gary Becker's term would have ended.
Ignoring the extra cost, the Council voted to give candidates more time to get the word out, and citizens more time to get to know the candidates than would have been possible if the primary had been set at the earliest possible date, concurrent with the April 7 spring election, followed by a general mayoral election four weeks later. Each city election, primary or general, costs about $36,000.
Meeting as a Committee of the Whole, council members also decided to meet next Thursday, Jan. 29, at 6 p.m. to devise a process to fill the vacant Mayor's chair until the election can be held. They did this after an abortive attempt by 1st District Alderman Jeff Coe to have 5th District Alderman David Maack, council president, named as Acting Mayor (or interim mayor, or just plain mayor until the election).
But all action taken is provisional: Nothing is "decided" until the Council meets at its regular meeting date on Feb. 3 to finalize -- or perhaps undo totally -- the action it recommended to itself while meeting as a committee.
Last night's 90-minute meeting showed clearly why cities need a single, decisive mayor, as the discussion ranged back and forth between two points of view: the need for a quick election vs. voters' need for time to get to know the candidates.
The meeting began with a quick motion by District 11 Alderman Greg Helding, right, -- an already announced candidate for mayor -- that the city hold its mayoral primary with the April 7 election, and then the general election four weeks later, as the law requires, on May 5. District 10 Alderman Thomas Friedel demurred, saying "That's too short a time for us to really examine the candidates' qualifications."
Some aldermen spoke in favor of a quick election:
"The city has been wounded. We need to move forward." -- District 9 Alderman Terrence McCarthy.Others spoke in favor of delaying an extra few weeks:
District 14 Alderman Ronald Hart said his constituents want to move on "as soon as possible."
"I see it as a healing, a positive movement toward establishing order." --District 4 Alderman Jim Kaplan.
"I feel we'd be rushing this." -- District 15's Robert Mozol.Friedel then made a motion to amend Helding's motion by resetting the election to June 2 and the primary to May 5. "The extra expense is well worth being paid," he said. "I don't think it's in our best interests to rush this."
"Haste makes for poor legislation." -- District 8's Q.A. Shakoor II.
The discussion continued as it had before the amendment was offered:
Maack: "Everyone I've talked to has asked for a special election as soon as possible. If we leave it (as originally proposed in April), we'll have higher turnout and less cost."Raymond DeHahn, District 7, opposed Friedel's amendment, over concerns the city might lose "potential money coming down from Washington. Without a mayor we might miss the money coming down for KRM," he said. City Administrator Ben Hughes was asked his view of that, and he -- "without endorsing any timeline" -- said "I am confident that with our 13 department heads we can continue to monitor all grant opportunities."
Coe: "$70,000 is a small amount of money for the people to get to know the candidates."
Kaplan, noting that April 5 is Cinco de Mayo, said: "The further we push it back, the more the enormity of of the matter goes away.
Shakoor: "Whether we have it in May or June, the city will function." Later gives "more time to let Democracy work. There's no need to rush."
McCarthy, referring to Hughes' mention of the need to participate in state budget discussions, said, "I would rather have that done by someone elected by the citizens."
One of the strongest proponents of a quick election was District 3 Alderman Michael Shields, who said, "We've been hit with a major disaster. Our forefathers gave us a timeline. We should clean this mess up as fast as we can."
Hart, also speaking against the amendment, noted, "After Memorial Day, it's kind of an inconvenience to the voter."
Friedel, right, expecting defeat, called the question, pointing out, "Keep an open mind. We will have to vote on this again as a Council." Surprisingly, the vote to change the date in Helding's motion to June 2 was 8-6 in favor (Kaplan, Hart, DeHahn, Helding, McCarthy and Shields voting no.), and then Helding's motion calling for the election itself was passed 10-4 (Kaplan, Hart, DeHahn and Shields voting no.) .
Then the council set about determining how to fill the empty mayor's seat until the election. District 12 Alderman Aron Wisneski said, "We need to have someone able to sit in the chair as a full-time mayor." Other mayors, he said, "will be fighting tooth and nail" for funds from Washington and Madison. "Leaving it to staff is not putting our best foot forward."
That brought a rejoinder from Shields, who said, "It seems he's contradicting himself, given he voted for the later election. If we wanted a full-time mayor, we should have gone along with the (earlier) election."
And so it went, until Coe said, "I think we have a person now that is very capable...he works for the county...I think Dave (Maack) as acting mayor has done a good job." And then he made a motion to appoint him as Acting Mayor -- a motion that seemed to catch others by surprise. DeHahn quickly asked whether Maack would be on leave from his job as Racine County Emergency Management Coordinator.
Maack indicated that he could "fill in, take vacation, make this work." But the pushback came quickly. District 6 Alderman Sandy Weidner said, "I thought this discussion would take place after the election date is decided by the council." And Helding pointed out, "We can't make this up as we go along." In any case, he noted, Maack "would have to resign as alderman. If we appoint a mayor, we appoint a mayor."
City Attorney Rob Weber agreed: "The offices of Alderman and Mayor are incompatible," he said. "You can't be both at the same time." That changed everything. Maack said he was "flattered," but wouldn't want to give up his aldermanic seat. "We have a lot of exciting things going on in the city," he said, asking Coe to withdraw his motion, which Coe did.
The discussion went on, but it finally led only to a decision to hold next week's Committee of the Whole meeting for further discussion of the process the Council would employ to fill the mayor's chair until it is filled by an election. McCarthy noted that the statute says "we shall appoint a mayor in a reasonable time period," but no one could give a firm definition of how long "reasonable" is. Weber noted, "As a former municipal judge, I have no idea," although he did say "shall means sooner rather than later." But he noted, with some humor, "Even if there's litigation on this, we'd have a mayor before it came to court."
Council members were urged to come up with their proposals before next week's meeting, and present them to Weber for vetting. "We need to act," said Wisneski. "We're going to shoot ourselves in the foot if we wait," said DeHahn.
Maack reminded all, "I want everyone to understand the city is not leaderless. We are not a ship without a captain." Maack said that anyone can submit a name of a potential mayor to the Council, but McCarthy replied, "I would strongly urge you not to submit names. The process needs to be transparent."
In fact, anyone eligible to vote in Racine, legally "an elector," can be chosen as Acting Mayor. All it takes is a 3/4 vote of the Council. Keep in mind, the Council can also decide to leave things as they are, with Maack as Council President filling in, without ever appointing a Mayor for the interim until the election. (And, for the record, there is no such thing as Acting or Interim Mayor; there's just Mayor.)