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Charleston council urges special election for Byrd seat

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Charleston City Council became the first elected government body to endorse a special election as a means of selecting a replacement for Sen. Robert Byrd.

The resolution, which passed with only one member of council voting against it at a meeting Tuesday, urges Gov. Joe Manchin and members of the state Legislature to authorize a special election when state lawmakers meet in special session later this month.

The resolution states, "The mixed messages coming from state leaders about West Virginia's election laws, quirks in succession rules and other confusion about the future of West Virginia's representation in the United States Senate would be resolved most effectively through legislative action to settle the matter once and for all with a special election this year by the citizens of West Virginia.

"The citizens of Charleston and West Virginia deserve to have their say as soon as possible in determining who represents our city and state in the United States Senate."

Councilman Jack Harrison introduced the resolution, and said he thinks it is important that voters be allowed to select the strongest leader possible to represent the state's interests.

With Byrd's passing, Harrison said West Virginia has lost a "powerful asset" and that the senator's replacement should be someone who is willing to fight as passionately as Byrd for the state's interests.

"We would like to see a strong advocate there," Harrison said. "And we think it should be voted on."

Harrison cited the city's plans for a massive overhaul of its sewage and wastewater treatment facilities. The city's current system -- like many others throughout the nation -- collects rain water and sewage waste in a single pipe and dumps millions of gallons of raw sewage into local waterways during periods of heavy rain.

City officials have developed a multi-million dollar proposal to revamp the system to make it more environmentally sound.

Harrison said that project and many other services could only happen with help from the federal government. Byrd was well known for using his position on the Senate Appropriations Committee to steer billions of federal funds to his home state.

Whoever takes the position would be a relative newcomer to the Senate and would lack Byrd's seniority. That's why Harrison said Byrd's replacement should be sent to Washington with the backing of voters.

"By authorizing a special election on the November ballot, the West Virginia Legislature will prevent potential legal challenges to our state's next member of the United States Senate and empower that person to more effective leadership more quickly and with more authority than a political appointee would have under the current circumstances," the resolution said.

Secretary of State Natalie Tenant has already called on state lawmakers to revise the law to allow for a special election.

"For me, there is a distinct line between how I personally feel and what I can legally do," Tennant said on her website late last week. "I personally believe that the voters of the state should be allowed to elect a successor to Senator Byrd sooner than November of 2012." 

But as the law is currently written, Tennant has said Gov. Joe Manchin must appoint a successor to serve out the remainder of Byrd's unexpired term. 

Councilwoman Cheryle Hall was the only dissenting vote. She believes that the law is settled, and that council should not interfere.

"The law is what it is," Hall said before casting her vote. "It was passed, it was interpreted, it's there and I will respectfully vote no."

She also said she does not believe that an election is necessarily going to produce the best candidate.

Councilman Marc Weintraub pledged his strong support for the resolution. He said this is a rare moment when council should inject itself into state and national politics.

He recalled a resolution he introduced opposing the invasion of Iraq. He said council did not pass the measure because many felt it inappropriate to get involved with national issues.

"But this is one of those circumstances where I think it is critical that we do indeed dip our toe in that area," Weintraub said.

Other officials and groups have called on the Legislature to authorize a special election, but the city council was the first elected government body to do so, Harrison said.

As previously reported, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce is backing a special election, while the state AFL-CIO is in support of Manchin appointing himself to the position, despite the governor's repeated claims he will not appoint himself.

Attorney General Darrell McGraw's office is reviewing the matter and could issue an advisory opinion soon.

Kanawha Commission President Kent Carper began his call for a special election the day after Byrd's death. He said he was the first to publicly voice such an opinion.

Carper, who was reached by telephone, said he was happy the city favors an election, but pointed out that the county -- not the city -- would most likely be on the hook financially for a special election.

He said the commission plans to discuss a similar measure during a regular meeting Thursday. He plans to recommend that the state authorize and pay for an election.

County Clerk Vera McCormick said a special election would cost at least $300,000 in Kanawha County alone. Statewide, a special election would cost at least $2.5 million, Carper believes.

If the state doesn't foot the bill, Carper said he fears most counties, including Kanawha, wouldn't be able to pay for the cost of the election.

"I don't know where we would find funds," he said. "It's certainly not in the budget right now, so I am going to propose to the county commission that the Legislature provide the funding for this."

Although cost remains an issue, Carper said he firmly supports a straightforward election. He said lawmakers also must clearly state whether the primary process will be handled by a party convention or a primary election.

Carper also wants the state to authorize the use of paper ballots. If counties are required to use electronic voting machines, the cost will go up significantly, he said.

"We would have to pay to rent the truck and the programmers," he said. "But with paper ballots, you pay for a box of pencils and some paper."

McCormick noted payment of poll workers is the biggest cost associated with a special election. Poll worker pay accounts for about two-thirds of the total cost of the election, she said.

Contact writer Billy Wolfe at billy.wolfe@dailymail.com or 304-348-4843.


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