Mayor will force vote on council candidates

Watertown City Hall. Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — City Council members were unable to fill a vacant council seat after interviewing two candidates Saturday.

Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith said they came away needing some time to think about what to do after interviewing Amy Horton and Benjamin Shoen during an executive session Saturday.

No decision was made, he and council members said.

“They wanted some time and then we’ll circle back,” he said.

Mayor Smith said he planned to get back to council members in the middle or end of the week to get their thoughts about filling the seat left vacant by former Councilman Jesse C.P. Roshia, who resigned last month.

In recent days, the process of selecting a candidate to fill the vacant seat has come under fire.

Mayor Smith was again insistent that he didn’t think the council should interview anyone who didn’t already have the support of three council members because he wanted to make sure there was a consensus and to avoid a 2-2 vote.

If they are unable to appoint either candidate, Councilwoman Lisa A. Ruggiero said they might open up the process to others who have not expressed an interest in the seat.

“I think it appears we may need to look for more candidates,” she said.

Since they only interviewed two candidates, Councilman Ryan Henry-Wilkinson thinks their work should continue and they should talk to more people.

If they cannot agree on a candidate, the mayor said an option might be finding a placeholder who would serve in the seat until just the rest of the year.

They are forced by the city charter to fill the seat, Mayor Smith said.

“We’ll have to continue to work on it,” he said.

Councilman Henry-Wilkinson said council members can’t “ignore” filling the seat, so they should do whatever they can to find one, even if it’s appointing a placeholder. It’s important to follow the charter, but he noted there are state laws for such instances.

During the Saturday morning interviews, council members asked the two candidates what they think about all the current and past city issues, like the proposed business improvement district and the fire department. The two candidates also brought up some ideas during the interviews, which each lasted about 30 minutes, Mayor Smith said.

During the interviews, one of the candidates said they were interested in filling the position for the remainder of the year and then would decide to run for the remaining two years of Councilman Roshia’s term, while the other person would run in November. The mayor declined which candidate said what.

Ms. Horton, a mother of five children, is an account executive with ABC-50 and Mr. Shoen owns a contracting firm and has a background in owning a business. They both are known in the community because of their jobs, Mayor Smith said.

“I think they bring a unique perspective,” Councilwoman Sarah V. Compo said.

Neither candidate has returned numerous phone calls to a reporter to see why they are interested in serving on council or talking about their backgrounds.

Councilman Henry-Wilkinson and Councilwoman Ruggiero have requested other candidates be interviewed after their top two picks, former council candidate Patrick Hickey and Katharine E. Kimball, were not chosen for an interview.

Last week, a third candidate, Thomas J. Penn, took his name out of the running, citing the time wasn’t right for him.

At the beginning of the process, 11 people expressed interest in the seat; the others did not have the support of three council members.

Mayor Smith defended the way he has handled the process, stressing it was his job to make sure the council had a consensus.

He said he suggested looking for someone who had previously served on the council to fill the vacancy, but Councilwoman Ruggiero opposed that idea.

The mayor also said party politics wouldn’t play a role in his decision since city elections are nonpartisan.

While it came out this week that Mr. Hickey and Ms. Kimball were Democrats, he stressed that Ms. Horton and Mr. Shoen do not belong to a political party. Mayor Smith is a registered Republican.

The mayor also reiterated that Mr. Hickey wasn’t considered for an interview because he ran for council in 2019 and voters decided not to elect him. He also said he knew Ms. Horton because she watched his children years ago one or two times. Ms. Horton was also a one-time neighbor and his wife Milly was, at one time, a student in a Zumba class with her.

Councilwoman Compo wouldn’t say what she thought about the process, but she talked about when she was appointed to her council seat in 2019.

She said that process was also flawed. Nearly 20 people initially expressed interest in the position.

All of them were gathered in council chambers together and answered the same questions. It didn’t serve the candidates or council members, she said.

The new council member would have to run for election in November. If the appointee wins in November, they will serve the remainder of Councilman Roshia’s term.

Candidates can start getting signatures on petitions March 2. They must obtain 178 signatures in the nonpartisan council race.

Councilmembers Ruggiero and Henry-Wilkinson are also up for four-year terms.

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