Vacant political seats attract would-be politicians like manure attracts flies. Arizona lawmakers are stepping into a big pile of statutes governing how to deal with vacant seats with a pair of bills approved by a House committee last week.
HB2102, sponsored by Republican Rep. Kelly Townsend of Mesa, would declare that appointees for vacant seats in the Legislature no longer have to be from the same county as the lawmaker being replaced, only from the same legislative district.
HB2162, sponsored by Republican Rep. Debbie Lesko of Peoria, would declare a city council member’s seat vacant if the council member stops residing in the city or town he or she represents. It also clarifies that in order to serve on a city or town council, a person must have lived within the city or town limits for at least one year.
For both lawmakers, the issue is personal.
When Republican Sen. Rich Crandall resigned from his seat in Legislative District 16 last year to become director of the Wyoming Department of Education, Townsend, his seatmate in the House, was among those who were itching to replace him with a more conservative Republican. Crandall had just voted with a coalition of mostly Democrats to pass Medicaid expansion.
But her preferred replacement, former Rep. John Fillmore, lived in a different county than the outgoing lawmaker, though he lived within the district. So Fillmore changed his voter registration from Pinal County to Maricopa County, declaring his residency at an apartment at the same site as his business in Mesa.
Fillmore was one of the three nominees that Maricopa County precinct committeemen from the district had chosen to be considered for the appointment. He was not selected to fill the seat by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, which made the appointment from the precinct committeemen’s list.
Townsend argued that the provision requiring appointees to be from the same county as the outgoing lawmaker is an outdated law that dates back to statehood, when all lawmakers were chosen by counties. But in reality, until 1987, legislative vacancies were filled by a special election, and from 1987 until 1999, the appointment was solely in the hands of the boards of supervisors. It wasn’t until 1999 that district precinct committeemen were a part of the replacement process.
That wasn’t the only time last year that same-county requirement came into contention. When District 7 Democratic Sen. Jack Jackson Jr. resigned to take a position with the Obama administration, Rep. Albert Hale was one of the three nominees to replace him.
When Hale was passed over for the appointment in favor of now-Sen. Carlyle Begay, he filed a lawsuit alleging Begay lived in Maricopa County, not Apache County, where Jackson had resided. Hale later dropped the lawsuit, but said he was considering taking on Begay in the 2014 primary election.
Townsend’s bill stipulates that the board of supervisors from the county where the outgoing lawmaker resides would still make the ultimate decision on who to appoint. That was a sticking point for lawmakers when Republican Rep. David Gowan introduced the same bill in 2010.
Gowan introduced the bill after he was barred from seeking the appointment to his district’s Senate seat when then-Sen. Jonathan Paton resigned to run for Congress. Paton was from Pima County, while Gowan lives in Cochise County.
Gowan argued that the process disenfranchises precinct committeemen from districts like his that span multiple counties, but his measure died in a House committee after lawmakers questioned why a board of supervisors would pick an appointee who wasn’t from their county.
Surprise City Council
Lesko’s bill was spurred by a city councilman in Surprise, within her legislative district, who allegedly moved out of state, but continued to call into council meetings. City officials said they had no way to investigate the allegations that he was no longer an Arizona resident.
So Lesko’s HB2162 would allow the county attorney to investigate and determine whether city council members actually live in the city they represent — and if not, the city would have to declare the seat vacant.
Surprise Mayor Sharon Wolcott noted that it is especially important to Lesko’s legislative district, which is home to many winter visitors who live here only part of the year. Wolcott said the definition of residency in Arizona is subject to debate, and she urged lawmakers to clear that up.
The issue has been problematic for several lawmakers who have been wrapped up in residency scandals and lawsuits recently, including Begay and Republican Rep. Darin Mitchell. The bill, however, would not apply to state lawmakers who do not live in their districts.