By Leanne Finlay
One of the important questions being debated around the island this week is, “May a city council member vote for him/herself to fill a mayoral vacancy?”
Some of you may not know about the free resource available to all of us to help answer governmental legal issues and procedures. The website www.mrsc.org offers this opinion:
“This situation comes up frequently, and, unfortunately, there is no specific rule in this state, other than general conflict of interest principles. If the position of mayor is unpaid or is paid the same amount as a council member, there would be no financial conflict of interest. Nevertheless, case law from other states indicates a general rule that, regardless of any financial interest, a public officer may not vote for himself or herself for appointment to a position except where that position must be filled from the membership of the body on which that officer serves. Thus, under this exception, a council member may vote for himself or herself for mayor pro tem, because that position must be filled by a council member.
“If the position of mayor involves an increase in compensation, general conflict of interest principles would seem to preclude voting for oneself for this position. Despite the fact that it may often happen that council members do vote for themselves, without adverse legal consequence, the safest course is not to vote for oneself to fill a mayoral vacancy.”
Despite this opinion that indicates the “safest course” is not to vote for oneself to fill a mayoral vacancy because of concern for conflict of interest due to the compensation, I believe there are other important points to consider for the situation as a whole.
It’s very important to note that our state laws do not prohibit that council member vote for themselves for mayor appointment. There is far more than just potential salary compensation as a conflict of interest at stake here.
1. In Washington state, a city council, mayor pro-tem or city attorney cannot tell any council members who are applying to be mayor not to vote for themselves. That voting decision must be individually made.
2. We thrive on equality in this country. It would be most unequal if 40 percent of the five council members’ votes were compromised by not being cast in the same equal way as the other three council votes. If two of the five vote for someone other than themselves, simply because the person fears being thought of as “seeking the salary,” their representational duty to vote will have been compromised.
3. This isn’t about whether a seated council person has a better “chance” at getting selected than the non-council members. This is about legal issues, the unexpected consequence of the conflict of interest when constituents are not fully represented by those they elected to represent them. I believe this is the reason why the RCWs do not prohibit council members from voting for themselves for an appointed position.
4. Langley is looking for the best mayor, not to revise Washington RCW laws.
5. One hundred percent of the council must feel free to vote, not 60 percent. All of the citizens who voted for these five people voted for 100 percent representation at all times.
Per mrsc.org, Washington state law does not prohibit these council people from voting, nor does it prohibit them voting for themselves.
The potential conflict to the citizenry not being fully represented is much more important than the potential conflict that a person applies for appointed office simply because of the lure of a salary.
Let’s not lower our opinions of the good work of these council people to that kind of thinking. Embrace five votes, and let the best candidate be appointed.
Leanne Finlay, a Clinton resident, is a real estate agent whose clients “have much interest in Langley.”