Council rule changes not for the better

Incident to the inauguration of our new County Council, there were some rather inglorious developments relating to one of the more prosaic elements of our county government – the rules of the County Council.

The council rules set forth the procedures under which the council will transact its business. They deal with steps for processing proposed ordinances and resolutions, standing committees of the council, public testimony at council meetings and like matters.

Pursuant to historic practice, it is likely that some, but probably not all, of the County Council members elected decided to make some changes in the council rules that had been in place for the 2012-2014 term, the proposed amended rules were placed as Resolution 2015-02 on the agenda for the inaugural County Council meeting of Dec. 1, 2014.

The state Sunshine Law has been interpreted to make any convening of more than two members at what might be construed as a meeting that is not duly authorized and noticed a violation of the law.

So there may be a question, if the proposed changes were authored in compliance with that law.

The agenda notice for the inaugural meeting did not clearly identify, and the public was not adequately informed about, the changes being sought in the rules. These shortcomings were glossed over with the comment that deferral of, and a more appropriate Ramseyer presentation, was not possible because the Charter required the adoption of rule by the council and it could not function without them.

This was mistaken. The council already had rules — only amendments to those rules were being proposed. Adoption of new rules and cancellation of former rules were unnecessary.

However, the proposed rule changes as submitted were duly adopted at the inaugural meeting.

This article will discuss two of the changes made and my views about them.

Four years ago, the council adopted Rule 13 (e), which provided for 18 minutes of time set aside at the outset of each meeting to allow members of the public to testify on any agenda item.

The rationale for this rule was to serve the convenience of citizens who were unable or unwilling to remain at the often protracted meetings until the agenda item of interest to them was called.

This rule was deleted based on a contention that the council had been given advice that early testimony was in violation of the Sunshine Law. 

No citation supporting such contention has been offered, and letters to the council chair were not answered. In fact, the Office of Information Practice, the state agency for interpretating the law, ruled in Opinion Letter 06-01 that the Sunshine Law allows an early testimony period before the start of discussion on agenda items.

While councilmembers might like to curtail public testimony and perhaps shorten council meetings, their responsible course should be to afford their constituents suitable opportunities to provide their views.

Some good suggestions have been made for the improvement of Section 13 (e) and it should be restored.

Under the rules before the Dec. 1, 2014, changes, the chair was given discretion as to timing of placing other councilmembers’ proposed measures items on the agenda but was required to place a matter proposed by a councilmember within 120 days.

The 120-day requirement was deleted in the proposed changes. In support of ending the required time for placement, the chair noted correctly that it would not be justifiable to require putting a proposal that was illegal on an agenda.

The point was well taken, but it could have been implemented by giving the chair the authority to withhold placement of matters deemed illegal. Preservation of other matters should have been retained. Councilmembers are duly elected and they should be able to offer proposed ordinances. The 120-day rule should be restored.

I have a great deal of respect and regard for our new council chair and wish him success in his new role.

In my view, though, I believe he would better serve his constituents by reinstating their opportunity to offer their testimony on a basis that would be much more convenient to them, and he would better serve the other councilmembers by assuring that measures they sponsor would be duly considered.

Citizens who may want to be heard would be happier, and harmony within the council would be promoted if the suggested changes are made.

Walter Lewis is a retired attorney who writes a regular column.

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