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New process for filling vacancies likely coming to Louisville Metro Council

Louisville Metro Council chambers.
Roberto Roldan
Louisville Metro Council chambers.

The Kentucky General Assembly recently approved a bill requiring a special election any time a seat on Louisville Metro Council becomes vacant.

Metro Council members have for years called for changes to the current appointment process, where council members interview candidates and fill a vacancy by majority vote. Republicans and Democrats alike have called the process “undemocratic” because it cuts voters out of the process.

State lawmakers intervened earlier this year, with Republican Rep. Jared Bauman of Louisville authoring House Bill 191. At a House Committee meeting last month, Bauman argued in favor of replacing appointments with special elections. Sitting beside him was Democratic state Rep. Rachel Roarx, also of Louisville.

“It is broadly seen as undemocratic, the current process we have,” Bauman told his House colleagues. “Effectively, what House Bill 191 will do will move us from an appointment process to a special election, so the people who are represented by the council person will have a say in who their council person is.”

The current process

Keisha Dorsey resigned as the District 3 representative at the start of the year to take a job as the assistant chief of staff to Mayor Craig Greenberg. Dorsey had just been re-elected in November, running uncontested for another four-year term.

At a meeting last month, the remaining council members selected her replacement.

Democrat Jecorey Arthur of District 4 nominated activist and former mayoral candidate Shameka Parrish-Wright, and he made a not-so-subtle dig at the appointment process.

“I believe if this vote were up to the people of District 3, which it should be, the majority of them would choose [Parrish-Wright], because 18,000 people in this city chose her for their mayor,” Arthur said.

But Metro Council members didn’t get behind Parrish-Wright. Instead the majority supported public school teacher Kumar Rashad, who now holds the District 3 seat.

In a recent interview, Arthur reiterated that he believes residents should choose who represents them in the case of a vacancy.

“Instead, the politicians pick who represents the voters in a district that we do not even live in,” he said.

Under the current process, voters will get a say in November with a special election tacked on to an already scheduled election. They’ll choose who finishes the term for District 3, as well as Districts 6 and 8, which also became vacant early this year. Council members picked temporary replacements for those seats, too.

There won’t be a primary ahead of the special elections, however. Local Democratic and Republican party officials will pick their candidates, ultimately deciding who gets to be on the ballot and who doesn’t.

“Just because it’s the Democratic Party picking the candidate, doesn’t mean it’s a democratic process picking the candidate,” Arthur said. “That is not the same thing as the voters picking who they want on the ballot and who they want to win.”

To him, that’s just another example of how undemocratic the appointment system is.

A new process

House Bill 191 was approved by both chambers of the General Assembly last week. It tries to address local officials’ concerns.

The bill requires a special election within 60 days any time a Metro Council seat becomes vacant more than three months out from a normal Election Day. Vacancies occur because a council member resigns, dies or is removed from office.

There are some exceptions to the special election rules.

If a seat on the Louisville Metro Council becomes vacant less than three months from a planned election, then the special election to finish out the rest of the term would just happen on that day. The remaining Metro Council members would appoint someone to represent the district in the interim.

“House Bill 191 really empowers voters. It makes the process more transparent,” Bauman said last month.

In the General Assembly, the changes received bipartisan support. It had two dozen sponsors, Republican and Democrat, by the time it gained final approval.

Unforeseen consequences

Metro Council President Markus Winkler, a Democrat representing District 17, said in an interview last week that he supports any changes to the vacancy process that put more power in the hands of voters. But he’s also questioned some aspects of the state legislation.

For example, what if there are three months and a day before the next regular election? Would you still hold a special election within two months, as House Bill 191 requires?

“I don’t think anybody would say it makes sense to hold a special election on September 30 and then a regular election on November 8,” Winkler said. “And there’s no provision for that.”

Winkler said allowing an unlimited number of candidates on the ballot also creates its own set of challenges, especially because turnout for special elections is usually relatively low.

“Not only might somebody win with 15 percent [of the total vote], but they might win with only 15 percent of 10 percent of people voting,” he said. “I don’t know that that’s any more democratic.”

A proposed amendment to House Bill 191 by state Sen. David Yates would have required a runoff election with the top two candidates if no one garnered more than 50% of the vote. Yates is a Democrat from Louisville who previously served on Metro Council. His proposed amendment failed.

The Jefferson County Clerk’s Office has estimated that holding a special election in a Metro Council district would cost $50,000.

House Bill 191 is awaiting Gov. Andy Beshear’s signature.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.

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