Iowa City Council schedules special election to fill empty at-large seat

Iowa City Council Chamber — photo by Paul Brennan

The Iowa City Council voted unanimously on Friday morning to hold a special election to fill the at-large vacancy created by Kingsley Botchway’s resignation. The election’s date will be Oct. 2, and the Johnson County Auditor has estimated its cost as $30,000.

State law limits how a city council can fill an empty seat to two options. The council could have appointed a replacement, who would have served until the next city elections in November 2019. The other option is a special election, but there are restrictions on when the election can be held. It cannot be held in conjunction with this November’s general election, and must occur at least four weeks before or four weeks after that election.

Friday was the last day to call for a special election before the blackout period begins.

The council discussed the pros and cons of both ways of filling seat before voting. (At-large member Mazahir Salih wasn’t present, but participated via speaker phone.)

Members of the council agreed that appointing a successor to Botchway would save the city money, but that didn’t outweigh the obvious cons.

“The voters would feel that they didn’t have a voice,” said Pauline Taylor, who represents Council District A.

At-large member Rockne Cole agreed and added, “The other con would be the person that would be appointed would be in an untenable position if we had some very controversial issues. There would be a perception of — even though we’re following the law — legitimacy.”

Mayor Jim Throgmorton also pointed out that if the council appointed a person, the law allows citizens to file a petition that would trigger a special election anyway. “If we appoint someone, odds are pretty good there’ll be a call for a special election,” he said.

The council voted unanimously to reject the appointment option, leaving just the special election.

The special election must be held at “the earliest practicable date,” City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes told the council. The scheduling of the election must also allow for a primary to be held, if more than two candidates filed to run for the seat. The primary, if necessary, will be held on Sept. 4.

Because of the time restrictions on when the election can be held, anyone interested in running must file a candidate’s petition with the Johnson County Auditor’s Office by Friday, Aug. 10. The petition will need to have at least 128 signatures from Iowa City residents who are eligible to vote.

The narrow window to gather signatures is the biggest drawback of holding a special election, according to Throgmorton.

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“Ideally, people would have a little more time to think about whether they want to be candidates, to get their act together,” the mayor said. “A related point is that the public would have very little time to vet the candidates. Maybe that’s a good thing. Lots of countries — I think of England in particular — they have two months to campaign. That’s a lot better than four years to campaign that we see in the United States often.”

“But still, that’s very little time to vet the candidate,” he added. “I don’t think that’s great.”

Cole was more upbeat in his assessment of the special election’s abbreviated schedule.

“I’m really excited about this. Everyone get on their walking shoes and get out to the farmers market, discuss the issues,” Cole said. “It’s fall, and fall’s election season. So, I’m really excited about the opportunity to ventilate some of these issues out in the public square. So we can get that public feedback.”

The council voted 6-0 in favor of the special election.

Whoever is elected will serve out the remainder of Botchway’s term, which lasts until 2021. Botchway resigned on July 17, after taking a job with the Waterloo Community School District.