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Future Metro Council Vacancies Could Be Filled By Special Election

city Hall
city Hall

If a Louisville Metro Council member dies, resigns or is removed, the responsibility for filling that vacancy currently falls to his or her peers. That's what happened late last year when the council selected Vitalis Lanshima to be the new representative for District 21.

But some say the residents of a given district should decide who will represent them in the case of a vacancy. A new bill in the Kentucky House of Representatives aims to give them that power.

House Bill 98 would require any vacancy to be filled by special election called for within 60 days, and would give the council power to reimburse the County Clerk for election expenses. A special election of this kind is expected to cost about $39,000, according to a county clerk estimate.

Rick Blackwell, Democrat of District 12, said he thinks the cost is probably worth it.

"It’s a big chunk of money but for the opportunity for the people in the district to get to choose their own elected official, I think it's a worthwhile expense," he said.

The council previously tried to pursue a switch to special elections in 2010, Blackwell said. That effort fell through, and the current bill will need to address certain details — such as what would happen in the case of a vacancy soon before a regular election — but that he supports the concept. Blackwell said support among council Democrats may be mixed depending on some of the finer points.

State Representative McKenzie Cantrell, a Democrat who represents part of Louisville in District 38, sponsored the House Bill, which she introduced in early January.

She stressed that she has no problem with councilman Lanshima, who is the new representative for District 21, where she lives. But throughout the replacement process in late 2017, she heard from constituents who didn't feel they had a say in the choice. Lanshima did not respond to requests for comment.

"It creates this really weird dynamic where everyone else in town all of a sudden has an opinion on who your Metro Council member should be, but then you're the one who doesn't have a Metro Council member to speak for you," she said.

The bill, if it passes, would change the state statute that refers to this process in the Metro Council.

Jason Nemes is a Republican who represents parts of Jefferson and Oldham counties in the Kentucky House. He is a co-sponsor of the bill, which he said he expects to pass, in part because it is bipartisan.

The change is a matter of letting a district's residents choose their representation, he said.

"If my council person retired or resigned... I would not want council persons from other areas picking who represents me," Nemes said.

Angela Leet, the Republican Metro Councilwoman from District 7, said she is in favor of special elections. She said the procedure for filling government vacancies should be the same, whether for Metro Council seats or at the mayor's office. She is running for Louisville mayor this year.

"If the point of having a special election is to have the voters select who their representative is, I certainly believe that should hold true within a Metro Council district as well as for our city," she said.

As the law currently stands, Metro Council would select a replacement in the case of a mayoral vacancy.

Bill sponsor Cantrell said the process for moving the proposed change to the Metro Council vacancy statue should move forward quickly, but did not provide details about when it might be complete.

Amina Elahi is LPM's City Editor. Email Amina at aelahi@lpm.org.