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Debate continues over disputed Binghamton City Council seat. Both mayor and city council appoint members

Phoebe Taylor-Vuolo
Democrat Rebecca Rathmell was appointed by Binghamton City Council and sworn in Friday. Just the day before, Mayor Jared Kraham appointed incumbent Republican Council Member Phillip Strawn to the same seat.

Amid a continued dispute over Binghamton’s 6th District city council seat, council members appointed and swore in Democrat Rebecca Rathmell during a special meeting Friday. Just a day before, Binghamton Mayor Jared Kraham swore in incumbent Republican Council Member Phillip Strawn to the same seat.

Rathmell and Strawn tied in the 6th District race in November. Since then, city council members and Mayor Kraham have disagreed over who holds the legal authority to fill the seat.

'The city charter is silent on failure to elect’

Kraham argues while the Binghamton city charter does give the city council the right to replace elected officials if they retire or resign, it doesn’t address a “failure to elect” in case of a tie. Because of that, he said the city must defer to New York state law, which leaves authority to the mayor.

“Since the city charter is silent on failure to elect, which is what happened in the 6th District, there is New York state second-class cities law, which is specific to a failure to elect and says that the mayor shall make an appointment in this case,” Kraham said.

Kraham said he consulted with the New York Conference of Mayors, outside legal counsel, and the city’s Corporation Counsel before appointing Strawn. The appointment would be temporary until a special election can be held in November.

"We were very transparent with the city council, we gave them the information, we gave them the legal opinions of municipal experts on this,” Kraham said. “And at the end of that, it was clear that I had to take the action as required by law, and they feel differently about it.”

'We see the way forward as a judicial resolution'

During the special meeting Friday, Council Member Robert Cavanaugh said the city charter allows the council to fill all vacancies, whether due to retirement, resignation or a failure to elect.

“This law has been in place since at least 1970, 53 years,” Cavanaugh said. “The mayor's interpretation is that we ignore the plain reading of our city charter, and decades of precedent, to rely on a carve-out provision in the older second-class cities law.”

Cavanaugh said the city council plans to take the dispute to court.

“I am going to choose to believe that the mayor and the previous Corporation Counsel are acting in good faith. And I can assure you that we are acting in good faith,” Cavanaugh said. “We see the way forward as a judicial resolution of this appointment, letting our two interpretations of the law go before a judge in the [state] Supreme Court, and having it out.”

Phoebe Taylor-Vuolo
Democrat Rebecca Rathmell and Republican Phillip Strawn, both sworn in as city council members for the same seat, were present at Friday's special meeting.

Strawn and Democratic challenger Rebecca Rathmell each secured 550 votes in November’s election. That tie remained unbroken even after a hand recount.

Strawn, who was sworn in as council member Thursday, showed up to the special meeting. He said he was frustrated that the city clerk did not allow him to sign the city’s oath book.

“I didn't, you know, force my way in and sit at the table, I could have brought my own plaque with my name on it,” Strawn said. “So I came here respectfully, and I respect the fact that this is gonna go through a judicial process. What I don't respect is what literally just happened about three minutes ago. I was sworn in yesterday by the county clerk, I have all my paperwork with me.”

Rathmell was sworn in during the special meeting. She said taking the dispute to court would add clarity and set a precedent in the case of future ties in local elections. In the meantime, she said the city council would focus on regular legislative business.

“City council has assumed their perceived authority to appoint. And in that function, at business meetings and city council meetings, we will move forward under the same assumptions,” Rathmell said. "So my appointment, my role at city council will be recognized by city council members. Certainly, no disrespect to Phil Strawn. None of this has been personal.”

The city council has awork session Monday. With two council members technically appointed and sworn in, it’s unclear how the dispute will be resolved in the meantime.