SPRINGFIELD – City council is considering an amendment to its charter to fill the mayor vacancy through an election, after residents at Monday’s meeting said they’ve gone too long without a mayor.
An unusual situation, Mayor Christine Lundberg suddenly resigned in August 2020 after being re-elected in May. The city charter prohibits a special election to replace Lundberg, and requires successors for vacant seats to be elected at the next general biennial election following the council’s appointment to fill the vacancy. The next election wouldn’t be until 2022.
At Monday’s meeting, councilor Kori Rodley and councilors Stoehr and Pishioneri were sworn in for a new term, and council appointed councilor Steve Moe as president, who will function as mayor until an interim mayor is appointed later this month.
Councilors Leonard Stoehr and Sean VanGordon have applied for the mayor position. Council may appoint Stoehr or VanGordon to interim mayor on Jan. 19, followed by a two-week recruitment period for the council seat vacancy to be filled in March.
But residents are unhappy with the process, stating they do not want to see a city councilor fill the mayor spot, and pitched that the city charter be changed on an upcoming ballot to allow for elections when vacancies occur.
Springfield resident Holly Shaper said that in the last five months, the City has received much public comment around the pandemic, economic freefall, continuing housing issues, wildfires, civil unrest and calls for real police accountability – all without a mayor to lead the city.
“Without a mayor there’s no leadership or direction for the City to tackle these important challenges,” she said, and noted that she tires of hearing council discussing the necessity to appoint “one of their own rather than beginning to craft and debate policies” to address these challenges.
“We’re about to enter into a period of two more years without having an elected leader, and two and a half years is simply too long for Springfield to not have an elected mayor,” community member Mike Eyster said. “Council has the authority to place a charter amendment on the ballot to prevent this from occurring in Springfield again … A simple amendment would prevent an extended period of time for the position to be occupied by an unelected acting mayor … and ensure that the citizens of Springfield never again have to go two and a half years without having an elected mayor.”
Community member Samuel Benjamin said he’s been a resident for about a year and has been “disappointed” by the democtratic process in the city.
“When I heard our mayor was resigning, I was shocked to hear that there would not be a special election called, which is a pretty standard democratic process … It is also the job of the city to engage in self-reflection and understand when it is time to change the rules,” Benjamin said. “I truly think the city needs to consider adding in special elections for both mayor and council for future vacancies in order to enhance public trust and democracy.”
Shaper said residents of Springfield have been “explicitly excluded from helping to elect their representatives in the event of the vacancy” and that it is unacceptable that offices can be vacated “and in turn result in long-term appointments, which then roll into incumbent elections.
“Let’s work together to close the loophole that allows for long-term appointments, and instead, open it up to election so that people can hear the platform of each candidate … and then allow them to make an informed decision. Don’t choose to wait because the government moves slowly, choose to prioritize things and show us that you were really listening to your constituents. Put democracy back in the hands of Springfield residents,” she said.
VanGordon said he’s heard multiple times that the city’s charter language is different from other cities in Oregon, but defends that “it’s pretty in-line” with other cities. “Still, it’s a real issue that we still need to figure it out and talk about it,” he said.
Stoehr said that, while he does not know what other city charters look like across the state, “if there is no provision for a special election and circumstances like this, I think that’s a problem for everybody. I think that there should be a democratic solution that should be sought for a two-year term. I agree completely with the speakers who were speaking in favor of a charter amendment.”
Moe agreed. “We didn’t see it coming, but we’re here now so let’s address the charter, fix it, and then continue on.”
Filling the seat has proven difficult largely because of timing, city manager Nancy Newton said.
“The council can’t deal with the new term until they get to the new term, so it would have been premature to try and appoint an interim mayor earlier,” Newton said. “And so that is why we intended to wait, but that is also why the charter has a provision where the council president can act and function as the mayor when the mayor is absent. Council also appointed a council president pro tem to assist … it was just the timing that made it difficult.”
Newton said she will meet with the city attorney to carve out a starting point for council discussion on a charter amendment, and to consider what options there are.
“We hear you loud and clear,” Newton said. “We can schedule this for a future council meeting – not in the distant future, but in the near future.”
The new term for the mayor seat officially started at the first council meeting of the new year on Monday. A position is considered vacant after 10 days – or on Jan. 14, said Amber Fossen, public information officer for the city.
The next regularly scheduled Council meeting is on Jan. 19, where council will discuss next the interim mayor appointment.