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Mayors are the highest elected officials in cities across the United States. Regardless of whether a mayor is considered a weak or strong by the city charter, the incumbent is the symbolic head of city government. A weak mayor leads the legislative branch of city council members, while strong mayors lead the executive branches of city government. When a mayor is unable to carry out her duties, city government can respond in several ways, including calling a new election or elevating the designated replacement (such as the vice mayor) to the mayor's office.
Many reasons exist that make in impossible for mayors to perform their duties while in office. Ethical considerations are a common issue: a mayor may be arrested for a variety of alleged crimes, such as bribery, domestic or professional violence or disorderly conduct. Health reasons may also prevent a mayor from performing her duties. Clearly, a mayor's death ends her ability to perform her duties, but nonfatal medical issues, such as a heart attack or stroke, may also render her incapacitated. The inability to perform may be either temporary or permanent.
Voluntary or Forced Resignation
When a mayor becomes unable to perform the duties of the office, he can voluntarily resign the post, or the city council can invoke the terms of the city charter to force the mayor's resignation. While the mayor's voluntary resignation is usually made of his own accord, a forced resignation is executed in conjunction with the city council, with guidance from the city attorney and city manager.
After an incapacitated mayor temporarily or permanently leaves office, the city charter usually spells out the process for appointing an interim mayor. Depending on the terms of the city charter, the interim mayor may serve out the duration of the departing mayor's term, or may serve until the city council has the chance to schedule a special election. A city council may elect an interim mayor from its own ranks. When former Chicago mayor Harold Washington died in office, the city's then-vice mayor, David Orr became interim mayor. Orr served from November 25 to December 2, 1987. During that time, the city council elected Eugene Sawyer as the city's acting mayor.
Recall elections are an option in many cities across the United States. Recall elections are referendums asking the city's voters to vote about whether to remove the mayor from office and to vote for the mayor's replacement. Recall elections are often initiated by collecting a required minimum number of signatures and turning them into the appropriate authority, such as the city clerk or the county election's official. The recall tool is useful in cases where an incapacitated mayor refuses to resign or otherwise does not intentionally leave office upon incapacitation.
New Mayoral Election
Whether or not a city charter allows the council to elect an interim mayor, or whether a recall election is possible, the charter likely spells out the process for electing a new mayor. In this case a special election may be held that requires the council to schedule a citywide mayoral election within a specified period of time. In some cities, the city council may have no say in the matter. The city charter may require the previously designated vice mayor or acting mayor to serve in this capacity until the term of the departed mayor has expired. In this scenario, voters will elected a new mayor according to the same schedule that they would have had the former mayor remained in office.
Nicholas Smith has written political articles for SmithonPolitics.com, "The Daily Californian" and other publications since 2004. He is a former commissioner with the city of Berkeley, Calif. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of California-Berkeley and a Juris Doctor from St. John's University School of Law.