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Replacing the Mayor

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Reviewed Date: July 16, 2021


Original Author: 
Hemsley, Sid
Date of Material: 
Jun 28, 2012


Replacing the Mayor

MTAS was asked who can become the mayor upon the resignation of the current mayor.




From:Sid Hemsley, Legal Consultant
Date: 6/28/12
Re: Replacing the Mayor

Who can become the mayor upon the resignation of the mayor?

The City Charter contains no provisions for the replacement of a mayor who resigns or otherwise vacates his office. Section 6 of that charter, provides that “In case of absence, sickness, or other disability of the Mayor, the Recorder shall be, for the time being, Mayor pro tempore, with all the powers and duties as given the Mayor.” However, as we shall see below, such a provision does not contemplate that the recorder, or any other person, to assume the office of mayor pro tempore to fill the vacant office of a mayor who has resigned.

Indeed, there is nothing in the charter explaining how the mayor who resigned is replaced. I can find no provision in the city’s charter or the general election law of the state providing for his replacement by election. It has been held that unless there is a statute that supports an election, no election can be held. [Brewer v. Davis, 28 Tenn. 208 (1848)] However, it is the law in Tennessee that where there is a vacancy in office, and the statutes governing the filling of the vacancy are silent for how long the replacement holds office, he holds office for the remainder of the term of office. [State ex rel. Gann v. Malone, 121 Tenn. 149 (1914). Also see 62 C.J.S. Municipal Corporations, § 498.]

It does seem clear that because in Tennessee all the legislative and administrative power of the city is vested in the city’s governing body unless the charter or state law provides otherwise, the City Council has the authority to appoint a mayor to fill the vacancy in that office even though the city’s charter is silent on that point. It is worthwhile pointing out here that Section 3 of the city’s charter provides that “No person shall be eligible to the office of Mayor and Alderman unless he is at least twenty-one years old and a qualified voter under the laws of Tennessee, and has been a bona fide resident of the Town for at least one year….” Those qualifications apply to the “eligibility” of members of the city council; for that reason they apply to appointees as well as elected members of the office of mayor and aldermen.

Incidentally, a “qualified voter” of the town does not mean a registered voter, only one who is qualified to be a registered voter. Tennessee Code Annotated, § 2-2-102 provides that: “Any citizen of the United States eighteen (18) years of age or older who is a resident of this state is a qualified voter unless the citizen is disqualified under the provisions of this title or judgment of infamy pursuant to
§ 40-20-112.”

Mayor pro tempore under the city charter

As far as I can determine, there have been only a tiny number of cases in which the question of whether the vice mayor can function as the mayor when the office of mayor is vacant. In Babbidge v. City of Astoria, 36 P. 291 (1894) the mayor resigned. The city’s charter provided that: “an office shall be deemed vacant on the death or resignation of the incumbent…that [a vacancy] must be filled by appointment of a majority of the remaining members of the common council” for the remainder of the term.” [At 291-92] The charter also provided that: “during any absence of the mayor from the council, or if he be unwell or for any reason be unable to attend, the president of the council shall be the acting mayor and perform all the duties of such office during such absence or disability….” [At 291-92]

A question arose as to the validity of certain ordinances signed by the president of the common council while the office of mayor was vacant. In holding that the ordinances were invalid, the Court reasoned that:
It is manifest from the language of these [city charter] provisions that it is a temporary absence or disability, only, which authorizes the president of the council to act in the place of the mayor, and perform his duties. He is not authorized to approve ordinances, or perform the duties pertaining to the office of mayor, when such office is vacant and without an incumbent. It is “in the absence of such mayor,” or “in the absence of the mayor from the city,” or “during any absence of the mayor from the city, or if he be unwell or unable to attend,” that the president of the council shall perform the duties of mayor, “approve and sign all ordinances,” or have the right and power to approve such ordinances as may be passed during such absence.” Within the purview of the charter, the office of mayor is an important branch of the city government, the duties of which can only be performed by an incumbent, or someone acting in his stead, when he is absent or disabled. The charter contemplates that a mayor is in esse [“in being, actually existing”—Black’s Law Dictionary, 6th ed. , 1990] and that the office shall not be without an incumbent in the case of death or resignation, for it provides that it must be “filled” by the city council. So that, when a vacancy occurred by the resignation of Crosby, it was the duty of the council to appoint a mayor…. [At 292.]

The Court continued that the charter contemplated that the city not conduct any important business until a mayor was selected.

That same case became an issue in the same court a few years later, in State ex rel. Dyer v. Kirkpatrick, 148 P. 51 (1915). There the mayor died and Dyer, the chairman of the council, began to perform the duties of the mayor. This time the Court sided with the mayor, based on a difference in the language of the pertinent city’s charter. Article 1, Section 4, read that the city council would elect a chairman of the city council who would “perform the duties of the mayor in the absence of the mayor or his inability to act.” Article 3, Section 6 also read that “In case of a vacancy occurring in any of the offices provided under this act, the mayor, with consent of the common council shall fill such vacancy until the next regular election or the time fixed by this act for the appointment of appointed officers, and until a successor shall be elected or appointed and qualified.” [At 53]

The Court concluded that under that language that the chairman of the city council, became the mayor when Matlock died: “The charter prevents any real vacancy by conferring upon the chairman of the council all the duties and responsibilities of the mayor. For all practical purposes the council did select a mayor when that body elected a chairman of the council, whose right to act, however, was suspended until, from and cause, the chief executive of the city was unable to act.” [At 52-53].

Finally, in Nolan v. Representative Council of City of Newport, 57 A.2d 730 (1948), the mayor died, and the argument was whether the chairman of the board of aldermen became the mayor. The Court held that the answer was no, reasoning that “We have found no case which holds that a vacancy caused by death is governed by a provision relating to the mere absence of the incumbent or his inability to serve.” The charter clearly provided that the chairman of the board of aldermen could act only when the mayor was “absent.” “In legal terminology,” reasoned the court, “a dead person is not spoken of as merely absent.” [At 731] The Court pointed out that the petitioner had, pointed to a case “almost on all fours to the contrary. Babbidge v. City of Astoria, 25 Or. 417, 36 P.291, 42 Am.St.Rep. 796. As far as we are aware that case is the current of authority.” [At 732] “However,” continued the Court, “apart from that authority, we are of the opinion in the case at bar, on reason, it is clear that the legislature did not intend by Sec. 24 to provide against the contingency of a vacancy in the office of mayor when it provided that the chairman of the board was to perform the mayor’s duties in case of his absence or inability to act. [At 732]

Those are all the cases we have to go on. It is likewise clear that the City Charter does not contemplate that the recorder serve as mayor, except in the case of his absence, sickness, or other disability of the Mayor…,” and that none of that language refers or includes the resignation of the mayor, in such a case, there being no mayor. There is not even any wiggle room in the City Charter to justify anyone to act as mayor after the resignation of the mayor, as there was in State ex rel. Dyer v. Kilpatrick.

I am not sure whether the Tennessee courts would follow those cases, although when the charters clearly authorize a person to act as the mayor only in the absence or disability of the mayor, it is difficult to ignore the charter. Arguably, under such a charter, difficulty appointing a mayor might lead to a standstill in at least some of a city’s business. On the other hand, such a charter should, in theory at least, lead the city to quick action on the appointment of a mayor. But many cities go for long periods without a mayor because they cannot agree on someone to fill a vacancy in that office, and they survive.


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