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When officials resign

Feb 5, 2014 - By Steven R. Peck

It happens too often, and the appointment process is no match for a public election

The Riverton mayor and city council moved counter to conventional wisdom Tuesday in opting not to reinstate recent councilman Lars Baker to his old Ward 3 council seat after he had completed a 30-day hiatus from city government necessary for him to qualify for full retirement benefits from his job with Fremont County.

Most outsiders probably assumed Baker's reappointment was a foregone conclusion, but the mayor and council opted instead to name newcomer Martin Cannan to the seat, along with Kyle Larson to the Ward 1 vacancy created by the recent resignation of Eric Heiser.

Whatever the outcome would have been, the city was going to be well served. A good group of candidates had stepped forward to be considered, and the mayor and council were able to choose from a qualified field.

That's about all we can ask for in such an unexpected situation. With no election at hand, we needed some good citizens to step forward, and they did. Congratulations to Cannan and Larson for their willingness to begin a period of public service for their community, and thanks to Heiser and Baker for their service.

It continues to be unfortunate, however, to see so many elected officials in local government opting not to complete the terms to which they were elected, leaving a significant number of seats on local councils and boards filled by people chosen not by all the people, but by just a few.

Hundreds of voters cast ballots in the 2010 election that delivered a second term to Heiser, and hundreds more in the 2012 vote that elected Baker. That contrasts sharply with the five voters who chose Cannan and Larson on Tuesday.

There is a legal process in place to deal with unexpected vacancies, and when there is a conscientious council and a good slate of volunteers to fill the vacancies, that process works well enough, as it did this time. The mayor and council weighed their options, conducted careful interviews, talked it over, and made the most informed choices they could.

But it is no match for an election, when candidates must announce their intentions well ahead of time, when they must make their positions on public issues known to the voters, when there is time for voters to discuss local concerns with them, when those concerns can be debated among the candidates in a public forum, when the candidates can be interviewed by local government reporters, and when the candidates can test themselves against each other and with voters through campaigning of various types.

An appointed official also can gain what some would call an unfair advantage when he or she slips into a seat without having to run for it but then can run as an incumbent in the next election. Incumbency is no guarantee on Election Day, but it is a powerful force through simple name recognition.

So often do local government officials resign their posts early these days that it's not uncommon for one-third, even half, of the members of an elected body to be comprised of people who first were appointed, not elected to their jobs.

Life circumstances can't always be predicted. Everyone knows and understands that. Sometimes departing from an elected position before a term has expired is unavoidable. Both of our newspaper's co-founders were elected officials who died in office, for example.

But when you have gone before voters asking for their support, when you have defeated other qualified candidates who were eager to serve, when investments in knowledge, training, access, information and public money have been made in you, and when the governing body and the citizens it serves have come to rely on you, then you ought to have an overpowering reason before you walk away from that obligation.

Councilman Cannan, Councilman Larson, welcome to municipal government. You have said you want to serve, and you have been rewarded with the opportunity to do so. Dig in, work hard, and try to stick it out.

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Riverton City Council