Splitting the council
Resignation of Mayor John Zeiger leads to heated discussion among council members
August 26, 2020
As discussion among the Saratoga Town Council became heated on how to fill the now vacant mayor seat during the August 18 meeting, a statement from legal counsel Tom Thompson appeared to show there’s a first time for everything.
“Frankly, I’ve not seen a situation where the council couldn’t agree to filling a vacancy.”
By the time the council adjourned the nearly three hour meeting, the seat once held by Mayor John Zeiger remained vacant.
In Zeiger’s absence, Mayor Pro-Tem Bob Keel read the letter submitted to the council. The letter, dated August 17, was similar to the post Zeiger made to his social media page late Monday night.
In the 12 years that I have been mayor, I put the Town of Saratoga before my family more than I should have. With the arrival of our first grandchild coming in October, it is time that I now put family first. Something I should have done in the past.
I want to thank the employees that have done an outstanding job serving the citizens of Saratoga. Thanks to the council members I have served with over my terms in office and thanks to the citizens of Saratoga for your support.
This is to inform all of you that I will be resigning as mayor effective immediately.
After reading the letter, it was accepted unanimously by the council. Keel then read from Wyoming State Statutes 15-1-107 and 15-1-108. The former dictates how vacancies are determined, declared and filled for both council members and the office of mayor while the latter deals with the powers and duties of the mayor, including the appointment of a mayor pro-tem.
Following the reading of the statutes, Keel asked Thompson if the council needed to declare a vacancy. Thompson informed the governing body that they had done so by accepting Zeiger’s letter of resignation.
“Since a vacancy has been declared to exist, the council has to fill that mayor vacancy from the actual council members that you have. In other words, you can’t advertise and have somebody from the outside send in a letter or expression of interest and appoint that person,” said Thompson. “Whoever moves into the mayor’s slot serves until Mayor Zeiger’s unexpired term.”
Thompson added that, not only would filling the mayor vacancy create a vacancy on the council that would need filled, but that the use of the word “shall” in the statute meant that it was not permissive.
“It says you shall appoint. It doesn’t specify the time period, it just says you have an affirmative obligation to fill that seat,” Thompson said.
When asked by Keel if the council would be able to go until January without filling the vacant seat, Thompson replied “My reaction to that would be no.” The legal counsel added that he had not had the opportunity to look at the issue.
Following Thompson’s interpretation of the statutes to the governing body, Councilmember Jon Nelson offered a proposal centered around the seeming lack of a timeline in terms of filling the vacant seat.
“I agree with that, that it says ‘shall’. It does not say that it shall happen within a certain period of time,” said Nelson.
Nelson then stated that, since Zeiger’s announcement, he had “considered an appointment of all of you and whether I feel comfortable seconding that or voting in favor of it.” Nelson praised Councilmember D’Ron Campbell for her “willingness and expertise” in the two weeks since she had been appointed to the council, adding that he felt she was completely capable of being mayor.
“To appoint somebody to the council and then, at the same time, move them into a mayor position for a two-and-a-half year term I think is not the right course of action,” Nelson said.
The council member had less than praise for Keel, however, stating that he did not have confidence in his fellow council member and that he wasn’t comfortable with Keel filling the role of mayor. One portion of Nelson’s proposal was to wait for 90 days and allow Keel to serve as mayor pro-tem in the interim.
“You get the opportunity to show me, for one, and I think there’s some other folks that may want to see how you do in that roll for 90 days and give you that opportunity to show us and I’m willing to give you that opportunity,” said Nelson. “And also give D’Ron an opportunity to be in the role for more than two hours and be on the council for a period of time and let the public become familiar with her.”
The other part of the proposal offered by Nelson was to wait until after the general election and solicit the input of the two candidates who would join the council in January 2021.
Councilmember Judy Welton appeared to agree with Nelson’s proposal, stating, “I felt the same thing that you do, that we could wait until the election, after the election, and then you have more candidates on the council to choose from.”
“I think Tom (Thompson) strongly advised us not to wait,” said Welton. “I don’t know what happens, who comes in and looks over our shoulder and says ‘You didn’t appoint someone and you need to.’”
As Welton began to state that she would like to make a motion, Nelson quickly interjected and motioned to adjourn with Campbell seconding. When asked to justify his motion by Keel, Nelson replied, “I think going down this road is not the correct course of action for this governing body at this time and I do not think that we need a gun to our head. I do not think that there is a timeline on this.”
The vote to adjourn failed in a 2-2 vote with Nelson and Campbell voting in favor and Welton and Keel voting against.
Keel stated that he felt there was still good discussion to be had, about the matter. When he stated that the council did not wait to fill the seat left vacant by the passing of the late Councilmember Steve Wilcoxson, both Nelson and Campbell replied that the council waited two months to fill the vacancy.
As discussion continued, Nelson pushed for the council to wait to fill the vacancy. That push was aided by Richard Raymer, former council member and current chairman of the Saratoga-Carbon County Impact Joint Powers Board. Raymer reminded the governing body that the previous council had opted not to fill the seat left open by the resignation of JennieLou Garland. Welton was appointed by the current council to in January 2019.
When Keel asked for additional input, acting zoning officer Kent Smith accused Nelson of “throwing the election.” Throughout the discussion, Smith had stated that the governing body should not put off the nomination and had taken issue with Nelson’s proposal of “probation” for Keel.
“That’s just politics. That’s the same crap that the Republicans did with the Supreme Court. Make up your minds. Just get somebody in here,” said Smith.
Danny Burau, one of the four candidates for Saratoga Town Council, proposed that the governing body wait two weeks for Thompson to provide further information on the statute.
“Can we delay at least until the next council meeting as legal counsel said he isn’t 100 percent sure? This is new information to him. Can he spend at least the next two weeks looking at it?” asked Burau. “Can we at least do that instead of fighting in the council room over something that no one has a clear answer on right now?”
The Last Word
In the final minutes of the meeting, some discussion centered on whether it was proper for an appointed council member to be appointed to the open mayor seat. This eventually lead to Nelson stating, that of the two elected members, Keel had tendered his resignation three weeks prior.
“I told you I was close to resigning but then I had the ability to look at what I can offer this town as far as staying on the town council. I had no knowledge that I would be made mayor pro-tem when I decided not to resign,” said Keel. “To be completely honest, I really don’t want to be mayor either, but I feel like I have the ability to unify a council, I have the ability to work with everybody involved, I have proven that, if I make mistakes, that I can rectify those mistakes and that I can work to make those mistakes better.”
Nelson replied that, if Keel felt he had the ability to unite the council, he was willing to give Keel that opportunity. In response, Keel admonished what he called “personal attacks” from Nelson, adding that it was “really indicative of the poor state of our politics right now.”
With no consensus, and emotions high, the Saratoga Town Council voted unanimously to table the appointment to mayor until the next meeting.
The next meeting of the Saratoga Town Council will be at 7 p.m. on September 1 at Saratoga Town Hall.