By Michelle Valentine
County Executive Aaron Reardon’s Feb. 21 announcement and subsequent reaffirmation of his intention to resign his office at the end of May (Everett Herald March 21, “Reardon still vows to quit”) provides us a “teachable moment” to examine the ways we fill vacancies in elective offices in Snohomish County; the role that voters, political parties, and other elected officials play; and, whether the current rules provide the most even handed approach.
Article II, Section 15 of the Washington state Constitution specifies that vacancies in any partisan county elective office “shall be filled by the county legislative authority of the county in which the vacancy occurs” — in this case the Snohomish County Council. The person appointed must be from the same political party as the county elective officer whose office has been vacated — in this case the Democratic party. She/he is selected by the council from a list of three names submitted by that political party.
The Snohomich County Charter “Section 4.80 Vacancies” provides that “Vacancies in elective office shall be filled at the next November general election, unless the vacancy occurs after the last day for filing declarations of candidacy, in which case the vacancy shall be filled at the next succeeding November general election.” General elections are held every year in Snohomish County. The next general election will be Nov. 5, 2013, and the last day for filing for that election is May 17.
So, in the current situation there are two possibilities for filling the executive’s vacated position. If he resigns before May 17, the Council will fill the position, other candidates may file, and five months later the voters will decide. If, however, he does not resign until after May 17, the vacancy in the chief executive office of our county (an elected position) would not be filled by the voters until November 2014. Rather, it would be filled for 17 months by the person appointed by the County Council.
In the first case all of the players’ rights and responsibilities are timely fulfilled. The executive resigns, the party nominates, the council appoints, the appointed executive serves for five months, and the voters make a choice at the earliest possible opportunity. In the second case, the executive resigns, the party nominates, the council selects, but the voters’ participation is delayed for a full year. The League of Women Voters believes that the democratic form of government depends on the active and informed participation of citizens, and that citizens’ voting rights must be carefully protected. The question to be considered is whether, in the situation that the Snohomish County Executive position is vacant, a year long delay in holding an election adequately protects our voting rights.
Michelle Valentine is President of the League of Women Voters of Snohomish County.