The Bellevue City Council and Mayor Rita Sanders are in a Catch-22 when it comes to resolving a council vacancy.
One faction — council members Don Priester, Carol Blood and Steve Knutson — want the city to hold a special election to allow voters in Ward I to select a representative for the rest of former councilman Scott Houghtaling’s term.
Sanders, however, is joined by council members Kathy Saniuk and Paul Cook in wanting Olde Towne businessman Mike Hall to fill the seat through a mayoral appointment, one of the few powers of Bellevue’s mayor, and thereby avoid the few thousand dollars it would cost the city to hold an election.
Proponents of both solutions reiterated their cases Monday evening in front of an overflow crowd at City Hall.
Residents of Ward I and elsewhere in Bellevue spoke in droves, some calling for an election, others defending the mayor’s selection and most wanting to see a timely resolution to the dispute.
“For the folks of Ward I, this just needs to get resolved,” said Olde Towne businessman John Jungers. “I commend you for your stances and your steadfastness in your beliefs, but please get this figured out so we can get forward with the business at hand.”
Jack Charvat, a former councilman under Mayor Ed Babbitt, said residents would accept a special election as fair, but he urged the city to avoid the unnecessary expense and uncertainty.
“A lot of people in Ward I want this over with,” Charvat said. “They want this over tonight.”
After much debate, the council voted 3-2 for a special election, which City Attorney Patrick Sullivan said failed to reach the supermajority required to appropriate money. An election would cost about $7,500, Sullivan said.
Preister said he felt the cost would be closer to $6,000 after talking with Sarpy County Election Commissioner Wayne Bena. He suggested splitting the costs between the council’s expense account and the budget for the mayor’s office.
Sanders made it clear she was prepared to veto the call for an election had it earned a fourth vote, which she could have provided.
“I was voted by 61 percent of the voters as your mayor,” Sanders said. “As your mayor, I say no to the special election and no to the extra cost.”
The majority of the council also effectively said no for the second time to Sander’s appointment of Hall.
Preister and Blood, citing a disagreement with Sullivan over state statute, abstained from the vote on Hall’s confirmation, and Knutson recorded a vote against it.
Upon rejecting the special election, Preister and Blood held that Sanders should have kept offering names for consideration until an agreement was made that night.
“Tonight we have two choices,” Preister said. “We either follow statute as it’s established, and we need to, or we vote for a special election.”
Sullivan called Preister’s interpretation of the statutes “completely wrong” and said it boiled down to his opinion not being liked by some on the council.
After the meeting Sanders said she does not understand the opposition to Hall, and said she has the ability to bring his name forward a third time for consideration.
“It is my job to bring a qualified candidate,” she said. “To me, it’s pretty simple.”
If Sanders does not offer Hall a third time, she said she might return to square one and ask for new candidates.
Saniuk said she felt her colleagues effectively took away one of the few privileges of being mayor, selecting the best candidate for appointments.
“It shows disrespect for the office of the mayor,” she said.
Another former councilman, John Ott, who lives in Ward IV, said he has not heard any reasons for opposing Hall.
“My personal feeling is it is a matter of control and power,” he told the council.
The dispute has prompted some to spread ugly gossip, Blood said.
She said she has been treated rudely, and she favored allowing the democratic process to settle the issue.
“The bottom line is we have almost a four-year term to fill,” she said. “This is not an issue of not supporting the mayor.”
Preister does not take the dispute personally and said he and the mayor get along.
“In the democratic process, there are different opinions,” he said. “It is healthy to have different opinions.”