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Our View: Timing is important for special elections

Last week, the West Point City Council discussed changing the way it handles mid-election vacancies for an open mayoral seat or city council seat.

The conversation started this past Thursday during a work session and although no decision was made and two council members were not present, it seemed the council had a fairly similar opinion across the board.

Based on the discussion, the council was leaning toward changing the city charter to force a special-called election anytime there is a mid-election vacancy. The only thing the council seemed to differ on is whether the charter should be changed now or early next year, when a new council could make its own decision.

While we stand firm on the opinion that it is never a bad idea to allow the public to have a voice in who represents them, it is important that we elect leaders who can make tough decisions when needed.

Special elections can be a great tool if a mayor or council person steps down early in their term. However, oftentimes in this situation there is a year or less left on a term, meaning a costly special election may be used to fill a seat for only a handful of months.

West Point doesn’t have to look far to find a situation where that exact scenario played out.

The LaFayette City Council decided to have a special election earlier this year for a seat that will be up for reelection in August 2020. The public made the decision, but the city spent more than $15,000 between two elections because a runoff was needed. Charlotte Blasingame won that election, but she had also been pegged as the mayor’s appointee about nine months beforehand. The city could have saved itself thousands of dollars by appointing her.

LaFayette has the opportunity to learn from that choice because the council isn’t locked into holding an election by the city charter.

If West Point moves forward with changing its charter, dictating that a special election must be held whenever there is a vacancy, there would be no mechanism for the city to save itself from spending thousands of dollars to fill a seat for what could be a short time. It’s important to note that if there was a vacancy today, the council has the decision to either appoint someone or call a special election. Changing the charter simply takes away the council’s ability to make a common-sense decision, lessening the council’s control of the situation.

However, it should be noted that two of the most recent people to be advantaged through an appointment are actually all for avoiding them in the future. Both Mayor Steve Tramell — who was appointed mayor in 2016 after Drew Ferguson was elected to U.S. Congress — and councilwoman Deedee Williams — who was recently appointed after Benjamin Wilcox resigned — want to make a special election the norm, ending all council appointments.

Their opinions matter a great deal in this discussion, considering they both benefited from the way the charter is written now.

We must reiterate, we never think it is a bad idea for the public to decide as to who represents them, but we do elect officials to make tough decisions. If the city charter is amended, forcing a special election any time a vacancy occurs, there have to be exceptions as to when the vacancy occurs.

If a council person or mayor resigns a year into their term, a special election makes a lot of sense. If that happens in the final year of a term, it doesn’t make sense. Changing the charter is taking the decision-making process out of elected officials’ hands, which is precisely what we elect them to do.