Saturday, January 07, 2006

Fairness And Order In the Metro Council

Bruce Barry's recent PiTW response to the Enclave "Simply Gruesome" post has exponentially increased traffic coming through here, and I appreciate his comments. One of those folks following the PiTW link writes these comments:
The calling for an anonymous verbal vote from the council seems to hide a multitude of sins. They may as well use an applause meter instead; it may be more reliable. Don't you think the council should be required to do a machine vote for every bill? Are council members afraid of going on record?
Rather than responding in the comments section, I wanted to devote a post to these issues, because I have been thinking a great deal about them even before the questions were asked.

The whole purpose of parliamentary procedure is to conduct government and community business as efficiently as possible while ensuring fairness to all of those represented. Roberts Rules of Order and other such parliamentary authorities are designed by definition to strike this balance between order and democracy. So, I do not believe that parliamentary procedure in itself hides "a multitude of sins."

And "verbal votes" are not anonymous to those in the public gallery watching their Council member respond with an "aye" or a "no." Nor are they anonymous if constituents contact their Council member to find out exactly how and why they voted during voice votes. My guess is that many constituents, outside of those in special interest groups with larger election agendas, do not make an effort to find out how their member voted in Council. That does not make the votes "anonymous."

Moreover, I believe that it is fair to say that any voting mechanism--whether it be verbal votes, standing roll call votes, electronic ballot votes, conventional ballot votes, or votes by general consent--can hide "a multitude of sins." Would it be any less of a risk of creating an "applause meter" to disallow Ginger Hauser's Previous Question motion on Tuesday night so that the Council could debate the Sylvan Park overlay on second reading and have the meeting end at 6:00 or 7:00 the next morning? I do not think so. In fact, with the Council gallery so unusually full for such a significant amount of time, we would be subject to grandstanding and other attempts on either side to whip up audience sentiment rather than to strive to convince Council members on the opposing side by the force of argument alone.

Any voting mechanism can be used against the very democratic process that they are designed to protect. The chair called for a voice vote on the Sylvan Park bill. Then, the opposition mustered the needed 5 votes to send it to electronic balloting so that every member's vote could be registered.* Chances are good that there are some members who voted for the Sylvan Park overlay have ulterior motives. But chances are just as good that some, who voted against it and who wanted to express themselves in front of the full gallery, have their own political agendas that have little to do with Sylvan Park. However, to ask that Council debate this bill on second reading just because they have a gallery full of people that they might not have on third reading is unreasonable and in my opinion out-of-order. If Council debate is not allowed at the upcoming third reading, then there is cause to consider unfair treatment of the minority.

If the Council can muster 5 votes (out of 40 total) on controversial bills, members will record their votes electronically. That seems entirely reasonable. But subjecting every single vote, including the minutiae that often get put on the uncontroversial "consent agenda," to the public record would become grindingly excruciating and it would effectively mire the orderly process of the Council. It would also minimize the significance of those votes that are more significant like the Sylvan Park vote. The public is already thoroughly uninterested in Council business. Digging through dozens of roll call votes to find the ones that matter to them most is the last thing people want to do.

So, while some interest groups might like to have a roll call vote on every bill so that they can build a case for skewering the records of some Council members at election time, I do not believe that every single vote requires a machine vote, especially if the opposition lacks the will to demand it. That does not mean that Council members are afraid to go on record (although there may be some who are). It may just mean that they, like most of us, do not want to have to face 8-hour meetings every Tuesday or Thursday evening that they are in session. That prospect would cause a lot of good people not to run for Council.

*Although thanks to our anemic local mainstream media, we could not immediately find out how those voting results. In fact, I see no quick way of getting those results unless one has access to a computer loaded with Adobe Acrobat.

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