City seeks court clarification on Ward 2 seat

WESTFIELD – The city and Cross Street residents are seeking clarification from Hampden Superior Court of the appointment process to complete the term of formers Ward 2 City Councilor James E. Brown Jr., who resigned last September. Both the city’s Law Department and the attorney representing the Cross Street residents filed documents requesting the court’s intercession in the appointment of a new Ward 2 City Council representative.
Mayor Daniel M. Knapik said yesterday that the city’s Law Department had filed documents with Hampden Superior Court on Thursday, Feb. 7, seeking a declaratory judgement pertaining to the process of naming a successor for the ward 2 council seat.
Under City Charter the City Council has 15 days if a City Council vacancy occurs to name a successor. Brown’s Sept. 1, 2012 resignation letter was officially accepted at the council’s Sept. 21 session, starting the 15-day clock. The appointment was placed on the council’s agenda for the Oct. 4 meeting.
The Cross Street residents, through Attorney Mark A. Tanner, are seeking the court to order Mayor Knapik and the City Council to appoint Brian Winters to the Ward 2 seat and find that Winters’ right were violated by the City Council and Mayor Daniel M. Knapik.
Under City Charter the candidate with the next highest vote count is appointed to fill a vacancy on the City Council, but Brown ran unopposed. However, there were three residents who each received a write-in vote. One of those residents declined consideration for the appointment, while another had moved out of the city and was not eligible for appointment.
The third resident, Brian Winters of 34 Cross Street, indicated his willingness to serve and was the only person considered by the City Council for appointment to the Ward 2 Council seat.
Neither the City Charter nor state law clearly defines the term candidate. The City Charter calls for seating “the defeated candidate with the next highest vote” count. In the absence of a clear definition of a candidate, the council asked for an opinion from the Law Department, which basically stated that the council was legally obligated to seat the resident with one write-in vote. Voting contrary to that Law Department’s legal opinion could strip the councilors of their indemnification as public officials and expose then to litigation as individual citizens.
However, the council at its Oct. 4 meeting failed to take a vote, with nine members exercised their right to abstain because of a conflict of interest. Eight councilors cited a law suit, to which Winters is a party and in which the councilors are individually named as their reason, while one councilor abstain because of the belief that Winters is automatically appointed without the need for action by the council.
The appointment then defaulted to Knapik under the City Charter.
“We’re asking the court to define an interpretation of the term in the Charter which says the ‘mayor should make a choice’ and what that means in terms of this process,” Knapik said. “We’re also asking the court to determine the time frame for making that appointment. The Charter requires the City Council to act within 15 days but does not address the time-frame if the appointment goes to the mayor.”
Knapik said that Winters is named as the defendant in the city’s petition to the court.
The summary judgement request specifically states:
WHEREFORE, the Plaintiffs respectfully request that this Court issue a declaratory judgment
defining the proper interpretation of Chapter I §25 of City Charter for the City of Westfield,
specifically whether or not the Mayor is required to appoint any specific individual to fill the
Ward Two vacancy, whether the Mayor may make a “choice” of any individual to that vacancy,
and whether or not the Mayor is under any obligation to appoint any individual to that vacancy
within any specific time period.

Read the entire complaint here.

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