Dexter City Council Failure to Fill Its Empty Seat Reflects Growing Pains
By Doug Marrin, STN Reporter
At its May 24 meeting, Dexter City Council failed to fill its empty seat left by former Councilmember Julie Knight, whose resignation was effective March 31.
The City Charter requires the position to be filled in 60 days or May 30 for Knight’s vacancy. The City Charter does not expressly define the procedures for filling an empty council seat. Traditionally, the Council has followed this eight-step process outlined in the City’s “Council Rules.”
- Officially vacate the Council Member position, if required.
- Provide adequate notification to the public regarding the open position through the city newsletter, a newspaper, the internet, or any other means deemed appropriate.
- The applicant will write a letter of intent or fill out an application in accordance with the advertised deadline, a copy of which will be provided to the Council in the Council packet.
- At the next council meeting, the Mayor or Presiding Officer will announce all the applicants and provide copies of applications or letters of intent.
- The Mayor or Presiding Officer makes a nomination from the applications received.
- The nominee is then voted on.
- If this nominee received four votes, he or she is then appointed and sworn into office.
- In the event this nominee does not receive 4 votes, the process begins again at step 5.
Five Dexter residents submitted letters of interest for the open seat—Cole Miller, Joe Semifero, Rich Bellas, Sanam Arab, and Julie Wilkinson.
Mayor Keough was ready with his recommendation at the Council’s May 10 meeting, but the approval stalled when questions over the selection process arose during the discussion. As a result, the Council tabled any decisions pending further discussion at a May 12 work meeting.
Introducing his recommendation of Joe Semifero at the next meeting on May 24, Mayor Keough told the Council, “I've done my best to try and follow the process that was in our rules. We had a healthy discussion on May 12 at our workshop.”
Mayor Keough highlighted Semifero’s experience serving on Dexter’s councils, commissions, and boards, including 13 years on Dexter’s Village Council. The Council split in a 3-3 vote on Mr. Semifero’s approval. A majority of 4 votes is needed for support.
Mayor Keough then submitted his second nomination, Rich Bellas. As with Semifero, the Mayor outlined Bellas’s history of serving on Dexter’s governmental committees as qualification for filling the empty seat. The vote once again split 3-3, and Mr. Bellas was not approved for the council seat.
For both candidates, council members Michels, Griffin, and Cousins voted no. The Sun Times reached out to each member of the Council for their thoughts on the failed appointment.
In an email to the Sun Times News, Councilmember Michels explained his votes were over the selection process. “I believe both of the individuals to be good people,” he says. “I am thankful for their previous service to our community and hope they will continue to serve.”
“My ‘no’ votes were due primarily to philosophical differences on how to approach Council openings,” he explains. “It's my position that when there is an opening on Council, that we should first look to the next runner up in the most recent election, especially when there was a large group of candidates, and we are in the shadow of the most recent election.”
Michels believes that method would be the least political way to fill a vacancy, following the will of the City’s electors. He points out that as it is now, it is an election by six people.
In an email, Councilmember Griffin explained her votes. “In short, my recent votes on the Council vacancy reflect the value I see in gaining a fresh perspective on Council.”
Griffin went on to express her disappointment in the May 24 proceedings. “Following the two tie votes, the Mayor stopped short of recommending any of the remaining three applicants. I am not sure why. Per our Council Rules, I would have expected the Mayor to continue by recommending each one of the remaining three applicants, in turn, until one received at least four votes.”
“As best as I can tell, there seems to be the impression that we deadlocked on all possible nominations, but that's not true,” Griffin adds. “All we learned on Monday night is that the Mayor's first two recommendations did not receive majority support. Unfortunately, we've now violated our City Charter because we have not filled the position within 60 days of the vacancy's creation. It's not clear to me why neither our Interim City Manager nor the Mayor has attempted to convene a special meeting to resolve this issue.”
For Councilmember Cousins, his vote for Semifero hinged on one issue—a new fire station.
“Joe has great experience, I don’t deny that,” said Cousins in a phone call. “But I can remember at one of our public sessions on the new fire hall Joe spoke out against building a new fire hall. I have worked hard to let people know the present fire hall is inadequate and is not in the best future for the City. So why would I vote for someone who is opposed to what I think is the most important thing we have to do for the City of Dexter right now?”
As far as voting against Rich Bellas, Mr. Cousins states, “He’s a great guy, but I haven’t had a chance to have much discussion with Rich at all. I’m surprised (Mayor Keough) threw his name out there without any warning.”
In a phone call, Councilmember Fisher explained her support for both of the Mayor’s recommendations.
“I believe both of those people would be excellent replacements for Julie,” said Fisher. “They both have done a lot of service for the community already. Rich Bellas is currently on the DDA and Arts, Culture, and Heritage Committee. I worked with Joe when he was on the Council. He’s just a really intelligent man and is responsible for the road management plan we use now. So, I think both of them would be excellent.”
Councilmember Hubbard supported both candidates and commented in a phone call, “Do I think we have what I think is a perfect process for filling a council vacancy? Maybe not. The process changes need to take timing into account.”
“To suddenly reevaluate something like this at the eleventh hour, and only after the Mayor's recommendation has been announced, feels purely political to me,” continued Hubbard. “I'm not saying we shouldn't reevaluate the process. What I am saying is we don't need to reevaluate something that has been used without incident in the past at the cost of holding up the vast majority of all other council business.”
Expressing her frustration over the apparent stalemate in filling the council vacancy, Hubbard says, “We had very qualified people who applied. Two of them were recommended, and for no good reason that I see, were voted down.”
Mayor Keough was disappointed with the failure by the Council to approve neither Semifero nor Bellas. In a phone call, he recounted the May 10 meeting where things stalled. “I was ready to give my recommendation of Joe Semifero when this question of the process came up, specifically, if the runner-up in last November’s city council election would be recommended.”
“We have never used that method,” said Mayor Keough in the call. “It was a suggestion to change the approval process while we were in the middle of it. These eight steps currently in the rules were implemented in April of 2004, and that’s what we’ve followed. This current Council reviewed the Council Rules, including filling a vacancy, back in January, and nobody voiced concern over the proceedings then.”
The recommendation was tabled, and the Council discussed the procedure at a May 12 work session. “We don’t make decisions in a workshop,” says Keough, “But I thought everyone came away with an understanding of the process we had to work with.”
When neither Semifero nor Bellas was approved, Keough felt that any recommendation he put forth would fail. “I didn’t want to make a mockery of the process or the candidates, so I stopped with just those two recommendations until the Council can sort out how we’re going to do this,” he explained.
Just how it is going to be sorted out is anybody’s guess at this point. “I don’t know where we go from here,” said Keough. “I did my best to get it done in the 60-day time frame. So, I guess we’re going to go along with six members until we have another conversation about the process we want to implement.”
However frustrating the process to fill the vacancy is, it is not necessarily a sign of a dysfunctional council but perhaps growing pains to a stronger council. Both Michels and Griffin hint that such growing pains could be stepping stones toward a more diverse council that generates fresh perspectives.
“At the heart of the issue is that Council now has more diverse perspectives than it likely has for a very long time,” says Michels. “That can be a great strength and be really beneficial for the community. However, it requires a much different approach from its leadership than a Council with less-diverse perspectives.”
Griffin is also optimistic about the future health and strength of the Council, saying, “I look forward to welcoming a seventh member to Council, regardless of whether or not that person receives my individual vote.”
Mayor Keough, too, remains enthusiastic. “We’ll figure this out,” he says. “I have a lot of confidence in this council. And as we learn how to work together, I think we are on the threshold of doing some really great things.”
Photo by Doug Marrin