Point/Counterpoint: Political appointments

Three times this year, the Kitsap County Commission has appointed someone to a vacant elected office, using the recommendation of the political party that held the office. The county’s GOP and Democratic party chairmen argue the pros and cons of that system.

Kitsap County Democrats

The Kitsap County Democratic Central Committee recently undertook the responsibility of conducting two special caucuses.

The first caucus was called to nominate a replacement for Sen. Rockefeller, who was appointed to a regional council by Gov. Gregoire. A second caucus was required to fill the vacancy created when Rep. Rolfes was selected to replace Sen. Rockefeller.

These vacancies occur when someone retires, dies or resigns their position. There are questions as to whether resigning in the middle of a term provides a benefit for the person appointed to fill the vacancy. The answer is yes and no — but it depends on many other events happening at the same time.

Elections are the best method of filling vacancies. However, elections are costly and leave the vacancy open for the longest period. The appointment process mandated by the Washington state Constitution for filling vacancies in partisan offices are fast and do not cost the taxpayer a single dime.  Even the appointment process requires special elections depending on the length of term remaining.

Until November 1930, the governor was responsible for appointing the replacement caused by a vacancy. Early politics gave power to “party bosses” over common citizens. The problem with that is evident in what the people of Illinois experienced recently when their governor made a questionable appointment to fill the position vacated when Barack Obama was elected president. There is nothing democratic about this kind of appointment and while it may work out sometimes, the potential for abuse was simply too large and our state Constitution was amended.

Our state Constitution now requires the county central committee of the current resignee’s party to call a special caucus of elected and appointed precinct committee officers (PCOs) to select three nominees to forward to the board of county commissioners for an appointment of one to fill the vacated position.

In the case of a multi-county legislative district (LD), the state party calls the caucus, and after the PCOs of the LDs nominate three, the combined county commissioners of the multi-counties select an appointee.

A complaint I’ve heard is that these appointments are not an election and are therefore wrong. These same naysayers seem to be surprisingly in favor of a gubernatorial appointment, which is also not an election.

I find the current process refreshing and exciting. Rather than have a single person responsible for appointing a new legislator or county official, Washington requires that duly elected PCOs, who are elected to represent their immediate neighborhood, are called to caucus to vote for three nominees to present to the board of county commissioners who vote for an appointee to fill the vacancy.

This process limits the amount of possible abuse in filling vacancies. It limits the time where citizens have reduced representation and doesn’t cost anything. In addition to being democratic, this process is also transparent.

This law is in the Washington State Constitution, Article II, Section 15.

— Michael Arnold is chairman of Kitsap Democrats.

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Kitsap County Republican Party

The drafters of our state Constitution recognized that, from time to time, a vacancy might occur in a partisan elected office.

The drafters instituted a special election process to fill the vacancy, thus ensuring a choice by the voters. Subsequent amendments to the Constitution resulted in the system we have today. Vacancies are filled by appointments made by county commissioners with input from the same political party as the individual vacating the office.

Of course, the original drafters presumed that an elected official would serve the full elected term and not vacate the position mid-term except for reasons of death, failing health or overwhelming scandal.  The revised Constitution, in effect today, generally eliminates the voter from selecting the replacement.

It would be inappropriate to consider the option to vacate a partisan elected office, knowing that your replacement will be selected by your political party, as an open invitation to “game” the system. Unfortunately, the near-term historical record might indicate otherwise.

Nearing the end of a “public service” career, a partisan elected representative may either simply not seek reelection or resign and allow the Constitutional provisions to operate. Retiring at the end of a term allows the seat to be contested as a “vacant” seat and establishes maximum uncertainty on the outcome. Using the resignation and replacement path establishes an “incumbent” in the office, granting a higher likelihood of reelection. The unfortunate outcome of the current process is that the voter, the individual supposedly represented by the person filling the office, is essentially minimized in the decision-making process.

When the basic consideration of elected representatives is the retention of political power for their party, the only reasonable option is to resign and support replacement by a fellow party member. The power of incumbency in a political campaign is strong, especially when the record of performance is shallow and not easily attacked. It is even better if the parent party enjoys an overwhelming majority in the legislative body in question. It is an easy task for the body to “promote” the replacement with activities that draw voter approval while providing cover for the less palatable issues.

The concept of campaign resume building by short-term incumbents is well understood and practiced by all political parties. The incumbent is effectively on the payroll to campaign for reelection.

With all of the recent activity to reduce or eliminate the sway of political parties in our election process (for example, top-two primary and candidate preference, rather than direct party affiliation), it is surprising that we would consider allowing the authority to select replacement representatives to remain in the hands of political parties. Perhaps it is time to return to the original intent of the Constitution and require a special election to fill vacancies of partisan elected offices. Who knows? That might even get the people we elect to complete a full term in office.

The fear of losing political power is a strong incentive.

— Jack Hamilton is chairman of the Kitsap County Republican Party.


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