Monday, July 14, 2008

Rules Resolution Raises Questions

By Terry E. Cohen, Council Member

Constituents have raised some interesting questions and comments to me about Resolution 1672 which will be considered in tonight’s council meeting, starting at 6 p.m. The resolution is designed to change the Council Rules of Order to further limit debate at council meetings and disallow anonymous letters being introduced to council. The resolution was proposed by Council President Smith and supported by Council Vice President Comegys and Councilwoman Shields.

It’s a little hard to know how extensively to discuss a seemingly minor resolution, until one looks at the context in which it’s set. For starters, it was discussed at a specially scheduled work session held June 16, for which neither Councilwoman Campbell nor I could change our schedules to attend. That hardly seems a good way to create consensus, collaboration or “unity,” but it is what it is.

Recently, I learned that council’s discussion last year on September 17 to consider rule changes to limit council members’ ability to ask questions directly of department heads and city staff apparently was a waste of time. Council President Smith’s July 17th memo about it was already distributed to all department heads by City Administrator John Pick on July 18th – two months before our discussion. The memos appear at the end of this post and in a PDF at right with other memos of interest on this topic.

There are so many points that came up in conversation, I can but touch on them here. One key question was, the council president is given such broad powers already to control debate, why is yet another rule needed in an attempt to further consolidate that power?

As for the disallowance of anonymous letters, I’m used to the open government style of federal agencies that not only accept anonymous letters for their public records, but also post them along with signed letters on their websites. I’m more concerned about constituent claims of experiencing retaliation from their government.

I’m somewhat puzzled that my colleagues don’t want anonymous letters on the record, yet they are willing to create policy based on the log Council President Smith kept (also in the PDF file) of comments anonymous to everyone, except perhaps to Council President Smith. It’s also interesting that such a large number of constituents contacting Council President Smith are concerned with the smooth presentation of meetings. The many constituents who contact me (I confess, I’m not keeping a log) seem far more concerned about double-digit tax and rate increases, crime, deteriorating neighborhoods, pollution in the river, housing, jobs, access to information, and similar issues.

In closing, is this just a simple rule change for “efficiency,” or given the history of memos like the one below and in the PDF file at right, under the heading of Documents of Interest, plus the 10 previous changes to the Council Rules of Order, does it contribute further to constituents’ expressed sense of blocked information flow and disenfranchisement as voters? It’s a question I’ll have to grapple with tonight as the vote comes up.

Click on photos to enlarge.