Appointment or special election? Council weighs options to fill Nick Zerwas’ seat

Click here to see a map of Elk River’s Ward 1.

by Joni Astrup

Associate editor

Elk River council members are considering whether or not to call a special election to fill the Ward 1 council seat being vacated by Nick Zerwas, who was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives last week.

Nick Zerwas

Zerwas told the council on Tuesday that he plans to resign from his council seat effective Jan. 7. He will be sworn in as a state representative on Jan. 8.

The council may either appoint someone to finish the two years left in Zerwas’ term, or hold a special election.

During a council work session Tuesday night, council members appeared somewhat divided on how to proceed.

Council Member Jerry Gumphrey, who did not seek re-election, said if he were still going to be on the council he would like to see a special election. The residents of Ward 1 should have the opportunity to elect who they believe will best represent them, Gumphrey said.

Mayor John Dietz disagreed, saying the council could interview all interested candidates and make a decision on who should replace Zerwas.

Council Member Paul Motin said he’d like a better idea of the cost of a special election. Early estimates put the cost in the $8,000 to $10,000 range. If the council goes the appointment route, Motin wants notice of the open council seat more heavily advertised than the openings on city boards and commissions have been.

Zerwas said he chose the Jan. 7 resignation date to give the council as many options as possible. If he were to resign with more than two years left in his term, state law requires a special election to be held. The Jan. 7 resignation date leaves just under two years left in Zerwas’ term, so under state law the council could either appoint or call a special election, according to City Administrator Cal Portner.

If a special election is held, Portner said the council seat would still need to be filled by appointment in the interim.

Zerwas, meanwhile, said he thinks the best candidate would rise to the surface by the council interviewing interested people and selecting the best one for the job. If the council went with a special election in January or February, Zerwas predicted that the turnout would be “abysmal.”

Council Member Matt Westgaard said he understands the concern about voters turning out for a special election in the dead of winter and said it’s tough to spend $8,000 to $10,000 on an election.

But he also finds it challenging to be asked to appoint someone to fill Zerwas’ Ward 1 council seat.

“I don’t live in Ward 1. I don’t represent Ward 1. It just makes me really uncomfortable (to appoint),” he said.

No decision on the matter was made or required at Tuesday’s work session. The council can’t take any formal action to fill the seat until there is a vacancy, according to City Attorney Peter Beck.

Beck also noted that if the vacant seat is filled by appointment, it would be done by the four remaining council members (not including Zerwas). If there is a tie, the mayor would make the appointment, Beck said.