12/19/13: Openness takes a holiday

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

THE DIFFERENCE between Virginia Beach and Norfolk is sometimes quite stark. The handling of each city’s council vacancies is one such instance.

Two of Virginia Beach’s council members won races for the General Assembly in the Nov. 5th general election. On Nov. 15, this paper reported that the city was seeking applicants for the positions, with a deadline of Dec. 2.

Thirty-nine candidates applied. On Tuesday, the council publicly interviewed 11 candidates and made its appointments for the vacant seats. Both appointees plan to run for the seats next November, the next regularly scheduled election.

Norfolk’s Ward 3 council vacancy also comes courtesy of last month’s election. Tuesday, the decision was made to announce the opening and accept applications.

Details are to be provided on the city’s website, with the paperwork due by Jan. 2. The council will make the appointment on Jan. 14. The successful appointee will serve until May, the next regularly scheduled election.

There is no doubt that Virginia Beach’s need to fill two seats — one of which was at-large, meaning any city resident could apply — is different from Norfolk’s need to fill one. Plus, the term of service is six months longer in Virginia Beach than in Norfolk.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Norfolk is a month behind Virginia Beach in starting the process, the details of which are still unknown. Nor does it change the fact that the application process will occur over the holidays.

What was the Norfolk council thinking? A column in The Compass two weeks ago gives us a hint: The council may be already leaning toward an appointee.

Unlike Virginia Beach, Norfolk has in the past chosen to appoint people who do not plan to run for election.

I think this is a good thing, because it doesn’t create an incumbent. The power of incumbency is strong. How strong? Just one incumbent was unseated in November’s House of Delegates election. (Of course, Virginia Beach’s last effort at this didn’t work out so well. The appointed member failed to win in the next regularly scheduled election.)

Assuming that this is a requirement again, I applaud Norfolk for doing so. But the process still stinks. The time frame shrinks the pool of potential applicants. And if the council has already decided on the appointee, the process is just a charade.

It’s something to keep in mind next May, when four incumbents plus the mayor are up for re-election.

On another note, there is a campaign taking place over the holidays, another result of last month’s elections.

The race for the 6th Senate District is well under way between Democratic candidate Lynwood Lewis and Republican candidate Wayne Coleman.

Don’t blame these guys for the timing; the voters in the 6th deserve representation in the state Senate when it convenes Jan. 8. The special election to fill the seat, which was held by Lt. Gov.-elect Ralph Northam, will be held Jan. 7. If you live in the 6th and have not registered to vote, the deadline to do so is Dec. 31.