Understanding the Ward 1 Race: What Happens When a Mayor in Ypsilanti Resigns?

Amber Fellows
Understanding the Ward 1 Race: What Happens When a Mayor in Ypsilanti Resigns?

Filling of Vacancies.       

  1. Mayor. Vacancies occurring in the office of Mayor shall be filled by the Mayor Pro Tem until the next general election and vacancies occurring in the office of Mayor Pro Tem shall be filled for the balance of the unexpired term of the Mayor Pro Tem by appointment of a Member of the Council. Such appointment shall create a vacancy in the office of Council Member until the next general election.Ypsilanti City Charter Article II Section 5d

At this point in 2020 most of our current City Council representatives in Ypsilanti have either been appointed to their seat by other council members or ran uncontested in their primary and general election races. This trend will continue after November 3rd—after initially assuming office via appointment, both Steve Wilcoxen and Annie Sommerville ran unopposed in their respective wards in both the 2020 primary and general elections. The valid extenuating circumstances aside, it is not an exaggeration to state that in Ypsi, the way to a seat on City Council these last fews years is to be appointed, largely by other appointees. If an ad-hoc process of successive appointments sounds bad to you, it might be because it is in conflict with some of our most basic tenets of democracy. Yet what might be even worse than a bad process is an unknown process—one that is unknown even to many people in our city government and the cloudiness of which tends to favor the few people within the bureaucracy for whom the terms are clear.

As previously stated, most representatives on council have been appointed or ran unopposed in their elections. Ward 1 however, has stood in contrast to this trend with a challenger to the incumbent Nicole Brown in 2018 and now a three-way race in 2020. The added complexity to this year’s race began when community outrage over former mayor Beth Bashert’s racist comments and legacy prompted her to resign on June 23rd. At the time Ward 1 representative, Lois Allen-Richardson, held the title of Mayor Pro Tem (basically vice mayor) and therefore assumed the seat of mayor after Bashert’s resignation. When Allen-Richardson assumed the mayor’s seat, her Ward 1 seat was vacated and then filled via Council appointment by Brian Jones-Chance. These events all happened after the partisan filing deadline for the 2020 election had passed and after Allen-Richardson had already filed to run for her Ward 1 seat again. 

Since Bashert’s resignation, the City Election Commission, City Clerk, County Clerk’s office, and City Attorney have gone back and forth about how to interpret the city charter with regard to filling the vacant mayor’s seat. With days to the election, as it stands there is no clear answer. The Election Commission rescinded their resolution for a process once City Attorney John Barr submitted an opinion that their commission could not determine term limits, and therefore could not restrict Allen-Richardson from finishing former mayor Bashert’s term through 2022. 

Opinion from City Attorney John Barr found here:

City Attorney Barr’s legal opinion is not the last word but as it stands what we might expect based on City Council’s prior tendencies is for Council to defer to John Barr’s legal opinion, and for current mayor Allen-Richardson to have the option to keep her mayoral seat until 2022 regardless of whether she wins the Ward 1 race or not. Alternatively if mayor Allen-Richardson does win the Ward 1 race she has the option to keep her Ward 1 spot until 2024 and relinquish the mayor’s seat. In that situation, City Council would effectively select the mayor themselves by electing a new mayor pro tem, who would then immediately fill the vacant mayor’s seat. 

Outside of the mayor’s seat, there are further complications with the Ward 1 race: mainly that there are two candidates on the ballot and one write-in candidate, and if Mayor Allen-Richardson wins her Ward 1 race and decides to stay on as mayor, City Council would again need to appoint a replacement for the Ward 1 seat. Allen-Richardson is on the ballot for the Ward 1 race as a Democrat, her challenger Ka’Ron Gaines is running as a nonpartisan candidate, and current Ward 1 appointed council member Brian Jones-Chance began a write-in campaign in October. There is no precedent for a 2nd-place winner of a race to assume office—the only way for any of the candidates to move into the Ward 1 seat from the election is if they win outright. 

Due to Allen-Richardson’s likeliness to continue in her mayoral role and because there are serious concerns about Ka’Ron Gaines’ candidacy, there have been efforts to galvanize a write-in campaign for Brian Jones-Chance who is currently serving a 3-month appointment in the Ward 1 seat—but historically write-in candidates have not fared well in Ypsilanti, or almost anywhere. This is where I return to my very first point of an unknown process being worse than a bad one. Clear expectations are the absolute minimum needed of an institution for it to function, otherwise the public is unable to reasonably hold that institution accountable. It is unacceptable that there is gray area over the process at this point and it’s too late to put pressure on the city to formalize their process because the election is hours away. For the voters of Ward 1 of Ypsilanti, this is an utter mess: The residents of Ward 1 are not getting the transparency nor the respect that they deserve in this election, and it is arguable that their rights are being infringed.

At the end of the day what might be best for voters in Ward 1 is to go with what is known. This election is predicted to have a higher turnout from “blue districts” like ours in Ypsilanti, and it is likely that Allen-Richardson will win—if not on her service of over 20 years, then for her Democratic party affiliation. When elected, Allen-Richardson will likely keep her role as mayor, and unless there are other applicants City Council will likely reappoint Brian Jones-Chance as representative of Ward 1 for a part of Allen-Richardson’s term, until the following partisan election. It is important to note that per our current city charter an appointment for a Ward 1 vacancy would shut out residents from selecting their own representative for up to two years—arguably a process that is disenfranchising and suppressing of voter participation.

“…said appointee to hold office until the next City election at which election such vacancy shall be filled for any balance of the original unexpired term.” —Ypsilanti City Charter Article II Section 2d3

Timeline of events:

On June 23rd, due to community outrage former mayor Beth Bashert was prompted to submit her resignation.

On that same day residents raised questions on who would replace the mayor’s seat; based on a strict reading of the city charter it appeared that there would be a mayoral election in November, which City of Ypsilanti clerk Andrew Hellenga confirmed in an email: “The Mayor Pro Tem would take the seat until the next General Election [in 2020]. An election would be held this November for Mayor, however, since the deadline to file for primary has passed a candidate would need to file qualifying petitions by July 16th 4:00 pm to run as an independent.”

On June 24th, then Mayor Pro Tem Allen-Richardson was sworn into the office of mayor.  

On June 26th, after meeting with the Bureau of Elections and the County Clerk’s Office, the Election Commission passes a resolution “Process for filling the seat of Mayor until expiration of term ending in November 22” which stipulated that because our city elections are bipartisan (one of only three municipalities in Michigan to be so) we are required to have a primary election to fill vacancies such as these: “Due to our partisan status, and timing of the resignation, we will be unable to fill the vacancy by a vote of the people. Instead during the Organizational Meeting of the new Council on November 9, 2020 Council will vote to appoint a Mayor Pro Tem. Upon appointment Mayor Pro Tem elect will assume the office of Mayor until the expiration of that term in November Of 2022. Council will then elect another Mayor Pro Tem to serve until November 2022. Council will then accept applications for a Council Member to fill the vacancy of the Ward created through Council election Mayor.”

In early October, City Attorney John Barr issued a legal opinion that current mayor, Allen-Richardson may stay for the duration of former mayor Bashert’s term based on the city charter and state law that states term limits cannot be redetermined:

(4) Term of Office cannot be Shortened or Extended. Except by procedures provided in this Charter, the terms of the elected officials of the City shall not be shortened. The term of any elective City officer may not be extended beyond the period for which the officer was elected except that, after the term has expired, the officer shall continue to hold office until a successor is elected and has qualified. Ypsilanti City Charter Article II Section 5d4

Shortly after, the Election Commission rescinds their “Process for filling the seat of Mayor until expiration of term ending November 2022” resolution.

Since then, the community has questioned what the existing process is. 

11/14/2020 update: On November 3rd Mayor Lois Richardson won the Ward 1 race by a large margin. At the following Council meeting she announced her intent to remain as mayor until 2022 and relinquish her Ward 1 seat, opening up debate in the community about who rightfully won the Ward 1 seat. Since then, City Council decided on a process of appointment to fill the Ward 1 seat until 2022, and in response to public backlash the City Clerk issued a retrospective memo about the chain of events. On 11/14/2020 South Side resident Bryan Foley and City Clerk Andrew Hellenga discussed the outcome further on Heart To Hearts.

*11/2/2020 A correction was made about City Council vacancy appointments: It is 2 years per the Ypsilanti City Charter, not 4 years.