You don’t hear about this very often, but it happened last month in Lynnwood when a councilmember was removed from office by a vote of the city council because she had missed three consecutive regular council meetings without being excused for those absences by the council. (She also missed a lot of other meetings.) Removal of a city councilmember from office for this reason is specifically authorized by state law, and I think you can understand the policy behind it. But how exactly does it work?
Removal of a sitting councilmember for three consecutive regular meeting absences – special meeting absences don’t count – without being excused for those absences by the council is authorized in code cities by RCW 35A.12.060, in second class cities by RCW 35.23.101(1), and in towns by RCW 35.27.140(1). The statutes governing first class cities do not address this issue, but such cities are free to adopt provisions like this in their charters. One difference between these statutory provisions is that RCW 35A.12.060 provides that, in code cities, “a council position shall become vacant” because of such absences, while the provisions for second class cities and towns provide that the council “may declare a council position vacant” because of such absences. Despite this difference in language, a code city council would still need to make the determination that a councilmember had three consecutive, unexcused absences from regular council meetings. So, in essence, a code city council would still have to declare the position vacant, as occurred last month in Lynnwood.
But what is a valid excuse for missing a regular city council meeting? The statutes do not say. Ideally, city and town councils will specifically identify by ordinance or in their council rules acceptable reasons for being excused from a regular council meeting. Not identifying acceptable reasons invites personally- or politically-motivated or arbitrary decisions regarding absences. Unfortunately, many city and town councils have not identified what constitutes an acceptable excuse. Acceptable reasons that councils have adopted for excusing absences include: death of a family member, family or personal illness, inclement weather, accident, scheduled vacations, and other “unusual or unforeseen circumstances” – the latter allowing for a bit of flexibility. Also, ideally, city and town councils will have a procedure for reporting and excusing absences.
The decision to remove a councilmember for missing meetings should not be taken lightly. And, of course, a councilmember’s responsibility to attend meetings should not be taken lightly either.