Following the tragic illness of a candidate elected in November, the Richmond council has been left to select a replacement who could swing the balance of power among the deeply divided leaders of the city.

The council could fill the seat itself or leave the decision to the voters. The latter is the right course. There's simply too much at stake to undermine the will of the electorate with a political appointment.

Three of the seats on the seven-member council were up for election in November. The two incumbents seeking re-election, Nat Bates and Tom Butt, finished at the top, providing no clear mandate since they come from differing political perspectives.

Business-backed candidate Gary Bell finished third, but then suffered a severe bacterial sinus infection. After two head surgeries, he remains in a coma, unable to assume office. That leaves the council to fill the vacancy.

The city charter is clear: The council, by majority vote, is to select a replacement. The council was expected on Thursday night to set the application process in motion. If it fails to reach agreement within 60 days of the vacancy, it must call a special election.

Let's be clear what's at stake. Bell ran as a moderate, finishing ahead of eight other candidates. The next candidate in line was fourth-place finisher Eduardo Martinez, a retired elementary schoolteacher backed by the left-leaning Richmond Progressive Alliance.

Three of the six council members are ready to back Martinez, arguing he was the next in line in the balloting. It's a fallacious rationale for shifting power from council moderates to the Progressive Alliance.

Yes, Martinez was the next in line in the balloting. But that's the point: He finished behind Bell, whose politics are completely different, not ahead of him. Voters had the chance to elect Martinez and they opted instead for someone far more moderate.

Three of the council's current six members are solid backers of the Progressive Alliance, with wild card Councilman Jim Rogers often providing a fourth vote. In other words, depending on Rogers' stand, the seventh member could provide the swing vote.

If this were a community and council generally unified behind one political philosophy, we could understand letting the elected leaders fill a vacancy to save the estimated $200,000 cost of the election. But that's not the case here.

To be sure, the progressive faction has one legitimate concern about holding an election. Chevron, the largest private employer in the city, swamped the November campaign with about $1.2 million, or roughly $35 per voter, an obscene display of political muscle.

For the sake of community harmony, Chevron should exercise restraint next time. That said, fear of the company's future campaign spending should not provide an excuse to override the will of the voters any more than its past spending should nullify the results of the last election.

The voters should determine the political future of their city. Council members should not take advantage of a tragedy to usurp that.