Farms City Council debates how to fill vacancy

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published September 19, 2012

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — Still reeling from the sudden death of Mayor Pro Tem and City Council member Joseph Leonard Aug. 19, his fellow officials are now wrestling with what to do about his vacant seat.

City Attorney William Burgess said the council has two options: Fill the vacancy by appointment within 60 days, or call a special election. If the council does nothing within 60 days of the seat becoming vacant — in this case, the date of Leonard’s death — the attorney said the city’s charter would require the city clerk to call a special election.

Although there’s already a presidential election Nov. 6, Burgess said there isn’t adequate time for the city to post notice of the call for candidates and for any possible council candidates to circulate and file petitions, meaning that the city would need to hold a special election in February unless the council makes an appointment by mid-October.

If the council does appoint someone, Burgess said that person wouldn’t serve the rest of Leonard’s term, but would instead hold the position until the next regular City Council election — in this case, November 2013. If the city holds a special election in February, the person who wins the seat would complete Leonard’s term, serving until November 2015, he said.

City Manager/City Clerk Shane Reeside said a city election typically costs about $10,000-$15,000. Because this would likely be a single-issue election, he said that figure would probably be closer to the low end of that price range.

Even if only one candidate filed for the opening, Burgess said the city would still need to pay for the special election, because once the 60-day window is over, the Farms must have an election. On the other side of the equation, if a large number of candidates were to file for the seat, he said the winner could be elected by a plurality rather than a majority vote, since there would be no primary in advance of the special election.

Leonard is the third council member to die in office in the Farms in as many years. In his 22 years with the city, Burgess said the Farms has filled all council vacancies by appointment and not through a special election.

For several previous vacancies, the council had adopted an informal policy of naming someone — usually a former council member — who vowed not to run for the seat. City Council member Peter Waldmeir said this practice didn’t give the power of incumbency to an appointee and left a level playing field for candidates running in the general election.

In 2010, former City Council member Martin West was named to fill the vacancy left by the death of City Council member Doug Roby. At that time, West said he wouldn’t run for the seat. However, when City Council member Charles “Terry” Davis died last year, West said he didn’t want to again promise he wouldn’t run for council. City Council members Louis Theros and Waldmeir cast symbolic votes against West’s appointment, because they said they would prefer to name someone who wouldn’t run for re-election, but then voted unanimously in favor of his appointment as a show of support for West personally.

As of a Sept. 10 City Council meeting, officials were divided on whether to appoint someone or have a special election. Waldmeir said he didn’t have enough information to make a decision on the matter as of Sept. 10, but seemed to prefer either having a special election or naming someone who wouldn’t run for the seat. He said it would be better for 100 voters to name the next council member than for that decision to be made by “the six of us.” Theros seemed to agree, calling $10,000 a “cheap price to pay to give citizens a chance to vote.”

On the other hand, City Council member Lev Wood said he was opposed to the city spending money for a special election. He also pointed out that the city would likely have low voter turnout for this election.

“It’s part of our responsibility as elected officials to make this kind of decision,” Wood said of appointing someone.

Mayor James Farquhar pointed out possible pros and cons for either scenario. Naming a new council member would mean the council would have two appointees and would lead to having four council seats up for election in November 2013, meaning that the winning candidate with the fourth-highest vote total would be elected to only a two-year term instead of the typical four-year term for council members. However, the city would bear the cost and work involved with holding a special election.

At press time, the council was slated to hold a special work session at 7 p.m. Oct. 1 at City Hall to discuss this issue further. The council isn’t expected to vote on an appointee then. Instead, should the council decide to make an appointment, that would likely occur during the next regular City Council meeting at 7 p.m. Oct. 15.

Because the council might appoint someone, residents interested in filling the vacancy are asked to submit a résumé and letter of interest no later than 4 p.m. Oct. 1 to Shane Reeside at Farms City Hall, 90 Kerby Road, Grosse Pointe Farms, MI 48236. Candidates should indicate whether they would run for the seat if they’re appointed. For more information, visit