Pelletier must wait to fill vacant Portland council seat

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An empty Portland City Council seat will remain vacant until December, creating the potential for deadlocked votes.

Some members of the public, however, are calling on the city to fill the vacancy immediately with Councilor-elect Victoria Pelletier.

Victoria Pelletier
Portland City Councilor-elect Victoria Pelletier (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Former City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau resigned the seat in September, after accepting a position in the Biden administration.

The lack of a ninth councilor effectively killed a proposed citywide mask mandate in October, when the council voted 4-4 on the question. And while it’s unlikely the council will consider anything as controversial as that before new councilors are sworn in on Dec. 6, there have been calls for Pelletier to be seated immediately because her seat was already vacant when she was elected on Nov. 2.

Pelletier, a political newcomer who won the District 2 seat decisively over former City Councilor and former state legislator Jon Hinck, said she was copied on an email from the city’s interim corporation counsel, advising that the City Charter doesn’t allow someone to be elected to finish the term of another councilor and then begin a new full term.

“I’ll be sworn in with the rest of the councilors the first week of December, and look forward to serving alongside them,” Pelletier said.

She said she wasn’t surprised there was a push to have her seated because constituents are eager to have representation. She said she shares their concerns.

“I welcome the conversations and enthusiasm behind getting me in the D2 seat as quickly as possible, but we only have a few more weeks until we’re all sworn in, so I look forward to doing so at the same time as the other elected councilors,” Pelletier said.

Kate Sykes, a board member on former Mayor Ethan Strimling’s progressive group Swing Hard Turn Left, tweeted she believed Pelletier should be sworn in immediately.

“She’s filling a vacated seat, and every vote taken between now and then hangs in the balance,” Sykes said.

Strimling responded to the tweet, saying Pelletier’s vote is needed because at this point District 2 does not have a councilor.

Thibodeau announced he would not seek reelection even before he announced he was taking the federal job. He resigned on Sept. 20.

George Rheault, a frequent critic of city government, emailed the entire council, Mayor Kate Snyder, all members of the Charter Commission, various city staffers, and members of the press, to demand that Pelletier to be sworn in immediately. Rheault said he believed the city clerk had erred in interpreting the charter.

He said the charter doesn’t give vacancy appointment power to the council, and doesn’t empower it to keep the seat vacant.

“The fact a duly held election was already underway when Spencer resigned is not the fault of the voters,” Rheault wrote. 

He went on to say he doesn’t believe the charter distinguishes between a short unexpired term like this one and one long enough to require a special election. 

Jen Thompson, the city’s acting corporation counsel, and City Clerk Katherine Jones responded to Rheault’s message. Their emails were provided by a City Hall spokesperson.

Thompson said the articles Rheault referenced do inform the decision, but don’t “dictate it entirely.”

She said if Thibodeau’s resignation were deemed a vacancy as Rheault described it, the election to fill the seat couldn’t be held for at least 127 days after the resignation took effect, unless the council voted to hold a special election. She said that means a special election for the seat could not be held until Jan. 24, 2022.

The 127-day rule was also how the city justified holding a Charter Commission election in June, instead of November 2020, as many advocates had desired.

Jones also acknowledged Thibodeau’s resignation created a vacancy, but said the timing ruled out a special election.

“Because nomination papers filed by other candidates had already been accepted for his seat before he submitted his resignation, the election for District 2 seat was called and held in the normal course,” Jones said. “Councilor-elect Pelletier will be sworn in at the December inauguration along with the other councilors-elect.”

Thompson agreed the timing of Thibodeau’s resignation allowed the election to proceed as scheduled and avoided the need for a vacancy election.

“As a result, the city will now have representation for District 2 exactly as it would have had Councilor Thibodeau not formally resigned and sooner than it would have (if a special election had been deemed necessary,)” Thompson wrote.

Even had Pelletier been sworn in the day after she won, she wouldn’t have had much to do. There was only one council meeting scheduled, on Nov. 15, between the election and the Dec. 6 inauguration.

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