Assembly members Mim McConnell and Phyllis Hackett introduced a measure last night that would have required Assembly vacancies to be filled by the next-highest vote getter. There were some caveats – the person would have to have earned more than 20 percent of the vote to be considered and of course, they’d have to accept. Only after the Assembly had gone through that list could it look at appointing someone who wasn’t on the ballot in the last municipal election.

The move came after Pete Esquiro ended up behind the Assembly table over four other people: John Sherrod, who also did not run in October, and John Stein, Michelle Putz and Jack Ozment, all of whom did appear on the municipal ballot.

To be clear, arguments made in the last month or so against Esquiro’s appointment to the Assembly were about the process – namely, that the new Assembly member should be chosen from among those who ran. Those who testified or wrote letters to the editor against the Assembly’s decision were clear that their protests had nothing to do with Esquiro himself.

“If he had run, maybe I would very well have voted for him,” said Marie Wichman, who read her testimony to the Assembly last night. She said she felt disenfranchised by the appointment of someone who did not run for the position.

“The other candidates paid their dues,” Wichman said. “An appointed Assemblyperson has not. With candidates who have run, the voters have had a chance to see where the candidate stands on the issues. With an appointed person there is little knowledge of his or her stance on points of interest to this community.”

Wichman said she’s concerned appointments are made for the convenience of the Assembly, or to control which views win out in future debates.

Sitka resident Mike Reif, on the other hand, asked the Assembly to reject the idea of appointing the next highest vote getter, at least in the way it was presented last night. He said the ordinance as it was written had “unintended consequences.”

“We had a great slate of candidates this last year,” Reif said. “But some years that second place, third place candidate is someone, if you look at past elections, they ran two, three, four times, and they never got elected. But because of this ordinance they may be appointed sometime. And I don’t think that’s the best choice, when you have to limit your choices.”

Mayor Cheryl Westover agreed with that.

“The fact that we have a lot of disgruntled voters doesn’t make the process wrong. Maybe people didn’t get to have the people they wanted in, in. But that’s not really a reason for us to handcuff future Assemblies, and I’m not willing to do that.”

Wichman came back up during public testimony later on, and rejected the notion that voters were upset with the process because their own candidates lost.

“That’s a really dangerous assumption to make,” she said. “And it’s incredibly inaccurate, actually. I’m supporting this ordinance because I believe it needs a better process than this. If we had all these wonderful candidates who weren’t elected, and you have sat up here tonight and said, ‘These were good candidates,’ and they submitted letters of interest, why didn’t you choose one of them? The voters supported them. Why wouldn’t you choose one of them?”

Some members of the Assembly appeared to focus their objections on specific portions of the measure as proposed. For example, the measure as proposed would have required the next highest vote getter in the mayoral election be considered as a candidate for the Assembly vacancy. That didn’t sit well with Terry Blake.

“If you’re running for mayor, the Assembly member is not a consolation prize,” he said.

Blake said he’d be willing to entertain something different, as did Thor Christianson, who said he’d consider the ordinance if it dealt only with Assembly candidates.

Mim McConnell, one of the measure's co-sponsors, said she'd be fine with that.

“It’s the idea of this that we’re talking about,” she said. “If there’s some tweaks that need to happen to make it pass, I’m fine with that. If we want to remove the mayor part, that’s fine. If we want to raise the percentage, that’s fine. I’m OK with that.”

McConnell moved to strike the provision allowing the mayoral candidates to be considered for Assembly vacancies, and Christianson and Hackett voted with her to do that, but the other four did not and that amendment failed.

The vote on the whole ordinance went down to defeat not long after, with McConnell and Hackett voting yes. That means for now, any interested citizen who meets the requirements to run for office in Sitka can apply for Assembly vacancies that might pop up, whether they were on the ballot in the last election or not.
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