Next in Line
As much as we all like to believe that we are indispensable, we are not.
A good leader prepares those who one day will take the lead. Although succession planning in government is always subject to the realities of an election cycle in a particular jurisdiction, it is essential, and in fact, legally necessary to have a plan.
A lieutenant, for example, might let a sergeant handle an issue, with guidance, to prepare that individual for promotion in the future. It is also common for a lower-ranking officer to serve in an “acting” role in a higher-ranking position.
However, in an emergency, when that higher-ranking officer is not available, someone has to be authorized to take the necessary action.
Kentucky law sets forth the mandate for emergency interim succession planning and delegations of authority in an emergency. KRS 39D anticipates the need to replace a government official, including critical appointed department heads. In an emergency, it is called an emergency interim succession plan.
An emergency interim successor is “a person designated under this section, if an officer is unavailable, to exercise the powers and discharge the duties of that office until a successor is appointed or elected and qualified as provided by law, or until the lawful incumbent can resume the exercise of the powers and discharge the duties of the office.”
An office under this statute “includes all state and local offices, the powers and duties of which are defined by law, except the office of Governor, and except those in the General Assembly and the judiciary.”
Although the term “political subdivision” of the state is usually limited to counties, for this statute it includes counties, an urban-county government (Lexington-Fayette County), “charter counties, cities, special districts, authorities, and other public corporations and entities, whether organized and existing under charter or general law.”
While Louisville Metro, a consolidated local government, is not specifically included in this list, logically, the law also applies to that government as well.
“Unavailable,” in the context of this law “means that during a state of emergency either:
A vacancy in office exists, and there is no deputy authorized to exercise all of the powers and discharge the duties of the office; or
That the lawful incumbent of the office and any duly-authorized deputy are absent or unable to exercise the powers and discharge the duties of the office.”
For example, in an emergency, it may be necessary to have someone present at the Emergency Operations Center who is authorized to take specific actions.
If the principal, such as the chief of police or sheriff, is not immediately available, someone present needs the legal authority to take steps and make commitments of personnel and resources.
Even if the sheriff or chief is available, in a situation that is working 24 hours a day, they cannot be available all of the time. In such instances, there should be individuals with authority to take necessary actions.
Also, KRS 39D.040 requires that all state and local officers, those who would be expected to be available to make such decisions, “designate by title emergency interim successors and specify their order of succession.”
This would happen if, during a major emergency, the primary were simply unavailable. The local legislative bodies of cities, counties, urban-counties and charter counties shall enact ordinances or orders governing how vacancies in offices or emergency interim succession are done.
In some cases, the choice of successor is evident, in the case of a “deputy,” for example. The term deputy has a precise and important meaning, indicating that the individual carrying that title is authorized to “step into the shoes” of the principal and take whatever actions needed.
However, in the case of the police chief, it might read, the assistant chief is first, followed by any those in order of seniority.
Often the chain of command is laid out in an organizational chart, but there should be more to it. It should be included in the local Emergency Operation Plan. A sufficient number of successors should be named, with no fewer than three, nor more than seven, required by KRS 39D.
Someone formally designated as an “emergency interim successor” is authorized to exercise the powers and discharge the duties until the principal is again available, or in the case of a vacancy in the office, until a replacement official is appointed.
In some cases, the law outlines the line of emergency succession explicitly. For example, if the county judge-executive is unable to perform his/her duties during an emergency, KRS 67.725-.745, outlines the process of a deputy county-judge or member of the fiscal court to perform those duties.
This is a different process from appointing the long-term replacement when the principal resigns or dies.
It is a two-part process, with an interim emergency successor being needed immediately, giving time for the actual replacement to be appointed as indicated by the appropriate state law.
For each local elected official, there is a state law that shows how the position will be filled, either by the governor making the appointment or by perhaps, the county-judge executive doing so.
For example, KRS 63.220 mandates that if the office of sheriff, coroner, surveyor, county clerk, county attorney, jailer or constable is vacant, it falls to the county judge-executive or the mayor of a consolidated local government (such as Louisville Metro) to appoint someone to fill the role until a special election takes place.
When an emergency strikes, local and state agencies may shift an around-the-clock operations cycle, over and above the ordinary needs of their community.
It is essential that leadership be ready to take the helm, and for that individual to have the delegated authority to take action and make commitments. Without proper authorization, emergency responses could be mired in confusion and decisions delayed and questioned. Having a transparent process to delegate authority and when necessary, establish an interim emergency successor, is the only way to ensure that life-saving decisions are made immediately.