After a 9-3 City Council committee vote Thursday night, it is a foregone conclusion that the full body will name William A. "Pete" Welch Jr. to replace his mother, Agnes Welch, on the council, when it meets Monday night. That is a mistake, not because Mr. Welch is necessarily the wrong choice to represent his district but because of the message it sends about the other members of the council.
Mr. Welch is a longtime aide to his mother, and as he pointed out to the council members considering his candidacy, he knows the workings of government and his district well. But he does not represent the change that the other candidates for the post would have brought, 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, as a city-wide official, represents the residents of the 9th 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 last 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 indicated that they accepted his explanation; others said they 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. Mr. Young issued a statement after voting for Mr. Welch Thursday night saying that "he has long since paid his debt to society and should not continuously be penalized for his past lapses in judgment." But under the circumstances, City Council members should be erring on the side of caution when it comes to ethics and lawbreaking.
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 after she pleaded guilty 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 that considered them the cost of working with the city.
If Mr. Welch were running in an election for his seat, perhaps the voters of the 9th District would look at his record 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, a fact that was recognized by three members who voted against him — Mary Pat Clarke, Bill Henry and James B. Kraft. 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 seeking re-election this fall wanted voters to believe they're not practicing business as usual in City Hall, they should have picked someone else.