MISSOULA - After holding a moment of silence to remember Mayor John Engen, members of the City Council on Wednesday began the process of naming a replacement and doing so within the 30-day window required by state law.
The process will be rigorous, and a number of elections will follow over the next several years.
“This feels really early after the death of Mayor Engen, but your decision framework in state law is fast,” City Clerk Marty Rehbein told the City Council on Wednesday. “We have the Labor Day holiday falling right in the middle of this 30 days that state law gives you to fill a vacancy in office, and that happened upon the death of the incumbent Mayor Engen.”
The City Council on Wednesday reviewed and agreed to the process that will play out over the coming weeks. The city officially opened the application period for interested and qualified candidates to apply. That window will remain open until noon on August 26.
“Absolutely no late applications will be accepted,” Rehbein said.
Once the application period closes, members of the City Council will each have an opportunity to nominate one individual to be interviewed. They'll also have an opportunity to submit one question to ask each nominee.
The League of Women Voters will run the interview process during a special Committee of the Whole meeting on Sept. 7.
“It's a practice City Council has used in the past when interviewing mayoral candidates,” said Rehbein. “Just in case there are council members that apply, having a neutral third party asking the candidate questions is the path the last council in your position chose, and Acting Mayor (Gwen) Jones has opted to do that.”
Once the nominees have been interviewed, the City Council will begin the process of appointing a new mayor. It's the same process used to name an individual to fill a vacant seat on City Council or a judge on Municipal Court if a seat opens up mid-term.
The winning nominee will need to win at least seven City Council votes.
“Someone's name must be called seven times in order for the appointment to be made,” said Rehbein. “If no candidate receives seven votes, the vote will be called again until someone gets seven votes in that particular candidate pool.”
However, Rehbein said, the law includes a provision that if two successive roll-call votes produce no majority vote for a particular candidate, new nominees can then be named.
Those nominees can be any individual that qualifies, even if they did not submit an application or sit through an interview.
“It's the only circumstance under which new nominations can be made different than that first nomination pool,” said Rehbein. “These new nominations may include the name of any qualified person, whether or not that person has applied for or been interviewed for the job.”
The City Council resorted to a similar process after the death of Mayor William Cregg in the early 1980s. In that case, the council couldn't agree on any particular applicant and named council member John Toole as mayor.
Toole served as mayor for 25 months, though the current City Council may look for a candidate with more longevity, commitment and experience given the nature of the job today.
“Watching John serve as mayor, I think this is way more than a full-time job. This is a lifestyle,” said council member Jordan Hess. “Continuity of government is something that government takes very seriously.”
Under current rules, whoever is appointed to replace Engen will serve until next November's election. If the candidate wins that election, he or she would complete the remainder of Engen's term, which expires in January 2026.
At that point, another election for the office will take place. The process could net a single electable mayor or three different individuals.
“You're going to appoint someone, and they may or may not decide to run for the office, or they may or may not win,” said Rehbein. “If they run and if they win, they'll serve until the balance of John's term runs out. If they decide to run again, then they'd run for a full four-year term. You can have constancy through this term or end up with three people who serve.”