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Not all mayors break pro tem deadlock

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Bettie Parker

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Saturday, December 16, 2017

When City Council deadlocked 4-4 Monday night on which councilor should serve as council’s mayor pro tem for the next two years, new Mayor Bettie Parker didn’t hesitate.

She broke the tie, voting to have Third Ward Rickey King serve as mayor pro tem, turning back Fourth Ward Johnnie Walton’s bid to serve in the largely ceremonial role. 

Explaining her decision, Parker noted that King has never served as mayor pro tem before but Walton has. While Parker also said it was important to decide the pro tem matter so that council could move on, it’s not a decision all previous mayors have been willing to make.

In the 1990s, then-Mayor Rick Gardner declined to break a tie after then-Fourth Ward Councilor A.C. Robinson Jr. and then-Second Ward Councilor Pete Hooker each got four votes for mayor pro tem. Hooker would later get the nod, but not before several similar 4-4 votes.   

In 2003, then Mayor John Bell refused to take sides between King and then-Councilor Kirk Rivers. Bell even allowed councilors to vote by secret ballot in an attempt to avoid bad blood over the decision — a vote that later was found to be illegal.

Rivers ultimately won the mayor pro tem job in a 4-3 vote in 2004 — when King was absent from a council meeting and couldn't vote for himself.

Council next deadlocked over the mayor pro tem job in 2009, but then-Mayor Roger McLean chose to break the tie, handing the position to Second Ward Councilor Anita Hummer instead of King, who also was seeking the job.

McLean's successor, Mayor Joe Peel, stayed out of a mayor pro tem battle, allowing debate and multiple deadlocked votes between Walton and then Councilor Lena Hill-Lawrence. Peel said at the time he believed the city's charter left the matter of electing a mayor pro tem solely to council.

Though council ultimately decided to split the post between Walton and Hill-Lawrence, allowing each to serve a year as mayor pro tem, City Attorney Bill Morgan determined that the mayor can break a tie vote on the matter.

City Manager Rich Olson said Wednesday the city's understanding is still that the mayor isn't required to vote in case of a tie vote for mayor pro tem, but may do so.

Arguments can be made both for and against mayors weighing in on the mayor pro tem issue.

Because the mayor is the presiding officer at City Council meetings, deciding who should serve as mayor pro tem can be seen as taking sides and favoring one councilor over another.

Conversely, a prolonged fight over who should serve as mayor pro tem can be embarrassing for both the council and the city. The position carries some prestige but little power. When there’s a deadlock over the mayor pro tem, it creates the appearance that council can't agree even on a small matter.

Parker reiterated her reasons for choosing King in a phone interview Wednesday. She said she considers both King and Walton qualified for the position, but chose King because he's never served as mayor pro tem. The city's protocol is that the mayor breaks ties, and she saw no reason not to vote or to delay action, she said.

Parker also said she wanted to keep the council moving forward, noting “we've got a lot on our plate now.”

King similarly said he’s glad Parker settled the matter. Though some councilors might not agree with her decision, he said he feels it would have caused more friction between councilors to let the matter linger. He also thanked other councilors for supporting him, and pledged to appear more often at public events, an obligation of the position.

Though he nominated Walton for the mayor pro tem’s job, Fourth Ward Councilor Darius Horton said he was OK with Parker's decision. He also said he was glad she broke the tie, even though he disagreed with her vote.

Walton could not be reached for comment for this story.

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