Answering Juneau’s succession question

Mayor Greg Fisk’s untimely death Monday left a grieving city with far more questions than answers. One of the more perplexing — and pressing — problems city officials had to solve was the matter of succession. The answer didn’t come easily.

Answering the question

A handful of civil attorneys from the city’s Law Department spent all day Tuesday trying to determine how the city should legally proceed in replacing Juneau’s mayor and the vacant Assembly seat that was left open when Deputy Mayor Mary Becker stepped into Fisk’s role Monday.

Two legal documents outline the process by which the city is to fill vacancies both in the mayor’s office and in the Assembly, according to City Attorney Amy Mead. City code and Juneau’s charter both describe what is to happen in circumstances like the one Juneau found itself in Monday, when Greg Fisk was found dead at his home. The problem, Mead said, is that the code and the charter were written at different times and don’t “facially match up.”

“What we spent all day doing was trying to figure out whether there was a way to read them in a cohesive manner,” Mead said, explaining how she and her team of attorneys had to try and reconcile two differing and ambiguous sets of instructions.

It was like trying to use two different maps — each drawn at separate times and neither current — to get to the same place. And it took a lot of reading, a lot of debating, and then even more reading to get there. Mead and her attorneys even resorted to reading the commission minutes from when the charter was written in the 1970s to reach their elusive “cohesive” set of instructions.

“Every time we read the code and the charter, things just slowly started to read together, and there were a lot of debates in my office today,” Mead told the Empire Tuesday evening. “The other civil attorneys were a great sounding board. The four of us spent the day debating the relevant sections until I felt we had arrived at the ability to read the pieces cohesively.”

Should the city ever find itself faced with an uncertain matter of succession again, Mead said it should be able to use her team’s work as a guide. Still, Mead said it would probably be best for the Assembly to consider amending city code to specifically address filling a vacancy in the mayor’s office.


Applying the answer

Now with a working, or at least functioning, set of instructions in hand, Mead said it is clear that the Assembly has two choices. (For details, see the infographic accompanying this article.)

It can either allow Becker to ride out the rest of the year as mayor until the next regular election in October, at which time a new mayor would be selected to finish the remaining two years of Fisk’s term. In this case, the Assembly would appoint by majority vote a qualified candidate to sit in Becker’s now-vacant District 1 Assembly seat until that person could be replaced during the next regular election.

Or the Assembly can choose to hold a special election to elect a new mayor to finish Fisk’s term. In this case, the Assembly would still appoint a replacement for Becker’s vacant D1 seat, but what happens next would be determined by whether Becker chooses to run for the mayor’s office. If she did, she would resign from her Assembly seat, which the Assembly would likely have already filled temporarily. If she lost a mayoral campaign, her stint on the Assembly would be over. If she decided not to run, Mead said that the Assembly could appoint somebody temporarily to her District 1 seat, allowing Becker to serve as mayor up until the special election, which would likely be held in March to allow time for candidates to file and campaign. This option, however, would be the most convoluted of the lot.

Regardless of which path the Assembly members decide to follow using the map provided by Mead and her team, Becker said she is prepared to fulfill the duties she took on when she became deputy mayor for the fourth year in row in October.

“I am willing to see things through until the next regular election,” Becker said, adding she would serve longer if needed. “When you take on the role of deputy mayor, this is a possibility. I think it’s very, very sad this possibility came true. All of us on the Assembly are going to have to step up, and I am, too.”

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