Cover Story: Debate - filling a vacancy

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Passing the torch.  But who gets the handoff?

Charlotte Mayor Pro-Tem Susan Burgess stepped down one week ago with class, courage and tears.  And amid her battle with cancer, she says there's only one person who should take her place.

"I urge you to give strong consideration to my replacement, my son Jason Burgess," she said last week.

But 23 other people wanted the job.  And there was debate Monday night surrounding how the job was being filled.

While the city opened up the seat for all to apply, those who didn't have the last name Burgess never had a chance.

Monday night, by a vote of 8-2 the city council chose Jason Burgess to fill his mother's unexpired term.

To fill Susan Burgess' seat, it was a delicate balance the city council had to strike.

Honor the wishes of a respected colleague who's given so much of her life to the city and risk angering a public already skeptical and in some cases upset about today's politics or follow the process laid out in the past.

The decision may have lasting ramifications.

Twenty-four people applied for the Charlotte City Council At-Large seat, but no one other than Susan Burgess' son Jason had a chance.

That's not the way it was when David Erdman was chosen to fill an at-large vacancy on city council 11 years ago when a member stepped down for health reasons.

Erdman and two dozen others went through a long vetting process which included appearing in public before council to make a case for their candidacy.

"If council doesn't even hear from the other people who have applied one would question whether that is due process," says Erdman.  "They've set up a process. They ought to follow through that process."

Problem is the process isn't specifically laid out.  It's done more by tradition.

To fill the vacant seat state law says the candidate must be 21 years old, a Charlotte citizen and registered with the political party of the departing council member-- in this case a Democrat, the party Susan Burgess represents.

Nowhere does it say how long city council members have decide or whether they have to hear from each candidate.

But in the six times vacancies had to be filled in the last 38 years, it took weeks in some cases months to fill the seat.

Burgess resigned one week ago Monday and council filled the vacancy Monday night.

Charlotte City Councilman Andy Dulin was urging colleagues to slow down.  "In all those cases people applied and then they had an opportunity to come down and make their case why they belong on Charlotte City Council. And that's all I'm asking. I want to give these folks an opportunity to come down there and do that."

Burgess says her son shares her values and ideals completely.  And as we've seen in politics before it's not uncommon for a family member to take over.

Says political scientist Dr. Ted Arrington, "Everybody likes the family member replaces the old timer who can't do it anymore because of sickness. That's a wonderful story. And everybody on council loves it."

But does it reinforce the message that politics is about who you know?

Jason Burgess promised not to run for office when his mother's term ends in 18 months.

That's by tradition as well.

But that appears to be another factor weighing heavily in supporters decision to appoint him.

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