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Wildwood City Council resignations lead to discussions of political motivation

By: Jessica Meszaros

Just a few months prior to the April 3 municipal election, two Wildwood City Councilmembers have resigned and two current candidates for the April 3 election have been tapped to take their place.

Councilmembers Jerry Porter [Ward 6] and Larry Goodson [Ward 8] resigned between Feb. 2-6. According to Mayor Jim Bowlin, Porter’s resignation occurred due to family-related health concerns; Goodson’s resignation cited a potential conflict between the time needed for business concerns versus council endeavors. Both held council seats that expire in April with neither running for re-election.

In the case of a resignation, or incomplete term, the Wildwood City Charter states: “A vacancy in the City Council shall be filled at the next general municipal election for which the full filing period remains. Until the person elected to serve the remainder of the unexpired term takes office, the Mayor, no later than thirty [30] days following a vacancy, with advice and consent of a majority of the members of the City Council shall appoint a qualified person to fill the office until the next general municipal election at which the vacancy is filled.”

By Feb. 6, Bowlin had selected Brian Rull and Rob Meinert, candidates in the April 3 election, as nominees for Porter’s and Goodson’s seats, respectively. Rull and Meinert will be presented on Feb. 12 for council approval.

According to Bowlin, consideration of possible appointees to fill the vacancies began with Porter’s resignation and continued with Goodson’s resignation a few days later. Of choosing current candidates, Bowlin said, “I’m charged with using my best judgment. There can be a lot of good choices, but I can’t choose more than one.”

Meinert said getting the call about the appointment in light of the resignations was a surprise.

“I received a phone call Tuesday [Feb. 6] about it, and I was kind of shocked to hear about it from the mayor,” Meinert said.

According to Bowlin, the nominees were chosen based on pre-existing interest in the city council along with increased residential recognition due to their present campaign efforts. Rull served as a trustee of the Rockwood Forest Association for 11 years. Meinert served on the city’s Charter Review Commission and the Park Action Plan Update.

“One option that I did look at was the appointment of a placeholder for a couple months,” Bowlin said. “In other words, someone who hadn’t filed and someone who didn’t want to file and didn’t have interest, but I feel like that didn’t meet my obligations under the charter and wasn’t in my best judgment because that person might not be as motivated to serve their ward.”

Rull is running against Cheryl Jordan for the Ward 6 seat. Jordan currently serves on the City’s Rural Internet Access Committee and has for over a year. Meinert is running against Niles Stephens. If elected, serving on the city council would constitute Stephens first public service in Wildwood government. According to Bowlin, Jordan and Stephens were made aware of the proposed appointments of Rull and Meinert.

The opposing candidates are backed by two active, and equally opposed, organizations.

We Are Wildwood claims to promote increased transparency and accountability of current city officials, including the upholding the city’s charter. On its official website [wearewildwood.net], the group declares support for Stephens and Jordan.

Progress for Wildwood, a designated political action committee [PAC], identifies its goals as implementing the Wildwood 2020 Plan proposed by Bowlin, implementing the Economic Development Element of the 2016 Master Plan and restoring Town Center development to the city’s original plan. The group’s official website is progressforwildwood.com. On Feb. 8, the group issued a press release proclaiming a list of endorsed April candidates, including Meinert and Rull.

In an interview with West Newsmagazine, Meinert said, “I do support the mayor’s 2020 plan, because many of those items revolve around Ward 8, including the Master Plan and the downtown area.”‘

The affiliations of the appointees, as well as a proposed city charter amendment [Proposition 3] on the April ballot regarding the appointment of officers, boards commissions and committees, has raised concerns, particularly among members of the We Are Wildwood group.

Ward 6 resident Bill Kennedy, a member of We Are Wildwood, said in an email to West Newsmagazine that the proposed appointments are “back-door politics at its worst.” Kennedy said, “The fear is that he [Bowlin] will appoint people who will push through his chosen legislation before the citizens get to choose their representatives [in the April election].”

According to Rull, “I hope that no matter who wins or loses the election, it doesn’t deter residents from getting involved in the community.”

Bowlin maintains the pre-election appointments were not politically motivated, but not everyone agreed with that statement.

“Wildwood voters are not dumb,” Bowlin said. “They’re smart, and they know that just because someone is appointed to a position, that doesn’t mean they’re the person they’ll vote for. Just because the candidates are approved by the mayor and council doesn’t mean voters don’t do their own investigation, because they do. We have a highly educated city, and they know what they’re doing.”

Councilmember Tammy Shea [Ward 3] said, “It just seems like if you weren’t trying to politicize these appointments you would just pick someone who wasn’t running already.”

Stephens described the nomination of his opponent as “an act of desperation.” Still, he said, “I believe I have a strong campaign and I have the support of my opponent’s neighbors; I’m confident that they’d like to move away from the dysfunctional 2017 council meetings.”

“You have to have confidence in the voters,” Shea said. “I trust this community implicitly, I really do.”

According to the city charter, “If the City Council fails to consent to the appointment, the Mayor shall make an appointment of a different qualified candidate within thirty [30] days of the Council’s failure to consent and continue this process until such time as a majority of the members of the City Council consents to an appointment.”

“If he’s got 30 days, that’s plenty of time to find somebody,” Shea said.

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