Former Councilor Susan Falkoff, will fill out the term of Michael Dattoli.The surprise announcement two weeks ago by Councilor Michael Dattoli that he would be resigning left the Town Council scrambling to figure out how to fill the vacancy. Thursday night Councilors decided, rather than holding a special election, to reappoint a former longtime member of the board to fill out the 19 months remaining on the term.
In the case of a vacancy in the first 12 months of a Council term, Watertown’s Town Charter calls for the Council to call a special election unless they decide, by a vote of at least 6 councilors, to appoint someone to fill the open seat, said Town Council President Mark Sideris. Many thought it would be hard to find someone they could agree upon, but they found someone very familiar to them and to the voters of Watertown – Susan Falkoff.
Falkoff left the Council at the end of 2017 when she decided not to run, having served six terms over the past 14 years.
Town Council President Mark Sideris said that the Town could hold a special election as soon as 64 days after the decision is made to hold one. That would cost an estimated $12,000 to $15,000, and there would only be one vote to fill the seat, no matter how many people ran.
The Council could also wait to hold the election until the scheduled State Primary in September, which would save the cost of a stand-alone special election but there would still be just one vote for the seat. Sideris added that there would be several months that the Council would be down a person and he noted that there are some major issues that are will come forward during that time – Mt. Auburn Street renovation, the redesign of Watertown Square and the school building projects which will likely require an override vote for the high school.
“We have $100 million in renovation coming before this Council,” Sideris said.
Sideris reached out to Falkoff about the possibility of her filling the vacancy, and Falkoff told him she would agree not to run for re-election in 2019. He added that he thinks she is one of the few people that could fit the bill.
“During the reading of the proclamation we gave her when she left the Council we touted her experience and work on a number of committees that are important for this community and many many issues she has served on the last 10 years,” Siders said. “And she was one of the top vote getters almost every election. I do think the community continued to elect her because of the way she approached this Council.”
No other names were proposed for appointment.
Councilor Angeline Kounelis said she believes Falkoff would be a great person to fill the spot.
“Councilor Falkoff served the last consecutive 10 years. There is no learning curve and she left at own accord, nothing came through the ballot box,” Kounelis said. “I now understand she is willing to come back and serve our community. I think it is a wonderful caveat that she will not run for re-election, opening up the opportunity for others in the community to serve.”
Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli said that for him to support appointing someone rather than sending it to the voters, it would have to be just the right person.
“Susan Falkoff is the only one I think of who can pass the high bar of receiving votes (of people) behind this table,” Piccirilli said. “She is the only person in the community I can think of that I would vote for.”
Councilor Anthony Donato said for the past two weeks he has been “consumed” by thinking about how the Council should fill the vacancy, and he was originally leaning toward holding a special election.
“I like the long drawn out period people can take to make the decision to run for office. The problem is I don’t think we have the time to wait for that process to play itself out,” Donato said.
With Councilor Dattoli is resigning effective April 30, Donato said that he agreed with Sideris that there are some big ticket items coming before the Council, not to mention many other issues. Finding someone to fill the vacancy was the problem.
“I didn’t think the six of us could come up with someone we could agree on,” Donato said.
Councilor Caroline Bays said that she was worried about how a special election would turn out, especially since there would be no primary.
“I am not having quite the same problem doing this as everyone else,” Bays said. “When I look at what would happen in a special election – and if there’s lots of people in the special election – someone could easily win, with five people, with 30 percent of the vote. They would not have a mandate from this town.“
Councilor Lisa Feltner said she was excited at the prospect of having Falkoff back because the Council is dealing with so many issues and she is up to speed on them. Feltner added, however, that the Town Charter lists holding a special election as the first option for filling a vacancy that occurs in the first 12 months of the term.
“I definitely understand as voter citizen the appeal of a special election and a feeling of fairness,” Feltner said
Councilor Kenneth Woodland said his default preference would be to hold a special election but he did not want to have a “short-staffed Council” for some of the biggest decisions facing the town.
“I think bringing in Councilor Falkoff relieves concerns about bringing someone in right away,” Wodland said.
The Council voted 8-0 to appoint Falkoff to serve the remainder of Dattoli’s term. Dattoli recused himself from the discussion and the vote.
Donato asked if the Council could add a provision to the proposal that would require Falkoff not to run for re-election. Sideris said he spoke with Town Attorney Mark Reich and said the Council cannot mandate that, but he added, “Susan has agreed to say that (she would not run again) if she is appointed, and she has agreed to state that again.”