Democracy on the Front Lines
City Administrator’s Blog
March 23, 2006
Nobody pays attention to parliamentary procedures until it impacts the outcome of a decision. If you attended or watched Monday’s City Council meeting, you would have noticed two instances where votes were influenced by esoteric rules of order.
The first issue dealt with a resolution for the subdivision of land for an office park on Green Mount Road. After considerable discussion, the council voted 7-6 to approve the resolution. However, our city attorney determined at the time that the issue failed because a majority of the entire council was required for approval (which is eight votes for a fourteen member council).
After the meeting, we did some research and learned that the issue actually had passed. According to state law, the rules on majorities are different depending on whether they are ordinances or resolutions and whether the City is spending money. For all ordinances and when the City is authorizing the expenditure of money, the majority of the whole is required (8 votes). For all other action items, only the majority of the quorum present is required (in Monday’s case, 7 votes). Since the office park was a resolution for a subdivision, only seven votes were required for approval. Therefore, the vote of 7-6 approved the resolution.
While this is a rather technical matter, it made a big difference to the developer of the office park. At the very least, it meant waiting two weeks for the item to be considered again by the city council. Since Mayor Graham and one alderman were absent on Monday, it is possible the margin of “yes” votes could improve. After all, time is money. At the worst, the project would have been denied and the developer would have had to redo the plans.
There also was some confusion regarding Mary Schmidt’s absence during the consideration of an ordinance to allow a “doggie day care center” called Camp Bow Wow. Ms. Schmidt felt she had a conflict of interest with the owners of the business and did not want to influence the decision. As a result, she stood up and walked out of the Council Chambers during the discussion and vote of the item.
When the vote was taken, there was a question whether her absence would be treated as an “abstention” or as an “absence.” Since she was present at the meeting and had voted on items before and after the Camp Bow Wow, should she still be considered present for that vote even though she was out of the room?
The distinction is significant. If her vote is considered as an abstention, then it would go with the majority and could influence a decision in a tight vote. However, if she is considered absent, then she is not counted at all and only makes a difference in achieving quorum or if eight votes are needed for approval (see above).
We checked with our legal counsel and the decision is that she should be recorded as absent. Our minutes should reflect the time she departed from the meeting and the time she returned. In the future, we will need to ensure that an alderman’s absence does not cause a loss of a quorum because the City Council would then have to adjourn.
You now probably know more about voting rules than you cared to know. Yet these obscure regulations illustrate the foundations of democracy. When the rule of law prevails, people abide by the meeting procedures that establish who votes, how votes are taken, and how issues are approved. It may be confusing and cumbersome at times, but it is necessary for the normal functioning of a civil society.