It's hard to say whether William A. "Pete" Welch Jr., who is widely expected to be chosen to replace his mother on the City Council, would be the best choice to represent the 9th District. As he points out, he is a long-time aide to his mother and knows the workings of government and his district well, but he does not represent the change that the other candidates for the post would bring, and we have no way to know whether residents of the district want continuity or new ideas.
The selection of people to fill council vacancies is left entirely up to the other members of the council, only one of whom, Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, represents the residents of the district, and because he was elevated to the top job following Mayor Sheila Dixon's resignation, he has never run for office there. There haven't even been so much as community forums to solicit ideas from the district's residents about what kind of councilman they want. Some leaders in the city's African-American community are seizing on this fact to call for a change to the city charter to create special elections to fill future council vacancies. Given that a regular election is only nine months away, that wouldn't make much sense in this case, but a discussion of how to provide more input from the district into the process is certainly needed.
The case of Mr. Welch, however, poses a more immediate problem. He has a criminal record, all of it related to political activities he conducted on his mother's behalf. He pleaded guilty in 2000 to second-degree assault and gun violations for firing a gun during an argument about whether to pay a poll worker — a dispute over $40 in what was, at the time, an illegal transaction to begin with. He claimed at the time that he fired the gun into the ground to restore order, though this week he told the council that the gun misfired. Either way, why was he carrying a loaded gun on election day?
Four years later, Mr. Welch pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges related to the failure to file campaign finance reports for his mother — in fact, he turned in the exact same report for years. That's particularly egregious for someone who is a certified public accountant.
Mr. Welch says the gun incident was a "life-changing moment" that led him to learn anger management techniques and that the campaign finance report violations were a simple mistake. Some council members have indicated that they accept his explanation, others are bothered by it.
But as they vote on whether to hand the job — and the power of incumbency going into this year's elections — to Mr. Welch, the council members need to think about what their decision says about them.
They are one year removed from the conviction of former Mayor Sheila Dixon on theft charges related to her activities as City Council President, as well as revelations about her acceptance of thousands of dollars in gifts and cash from a developer who received millions in tax breaks from the city. And another of their members, Councilwoman Helen Holton, was recently stripped of her leadership post following her guilty plea to a campaign finance violation related to her solicitation of two developers with business in front of her committee of $12,500 for a political poll. These incidents follow on revelations several years ago about council members accepting a variety of under-the-table perks from businesses who considered them the cost of working with the city.
Perhaps the voters of the 9th District will look at Mr. Welch's record this fall and decide that he has moved beyond his brushes with the law and would be an effective, honest public servant. They answer to no one but themselves and are entitled to make that determination.
But it's much more problematic for City Council members to do the same thing. Selecting an aide to a departing council member would smack of insider dealing as it is, and the fact that he is her son makes matters that much worse. Ignoring his history of politically-related lawbreaking on top of that would send a message to voters that the council is not concerned in the least about the appearance of propriety. If the council members who seek re-election this fall want voters to believe they're not practicing business as usual in City Hall, they have to pick someone else.