• warning: Parameter 2 to ed_classified_link_alter() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/soloneconomist/www/www/includes/common.inc on line 2968.
  • warning: Parameter 2 to ed_classified_link_alter() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/soloneconomist/www/www/includes/common.inc on line 2968.

Room for disagreement

Is there such a thing as being too civil?

Is there such a thing as being too civil?
I argue there can be too much civility when it comes to boards of government officials elected to represent a wide range of constituents.
Once, someone I highly respected told me we should value those who ask hard questions and don’t accept easy answers. (Shamefully, I can’t remember who offered this maxim, but I repeat it frequently, yet fail to attribute it. Please, if this sage advice belongs to you, come forward and let me recognize and thank you.)
I was reminded of it again recently when the North Liberty City Council shared an awkward moment over a failed vote due to two members being absent. The gist of it went like this:
Three of the five members were in attendance. The city administration reminded the group before the meeting, if ordinance readings on the agenda did not receive three identical votes, they would fail. According to North Liberty’s council rules, set by policy, ordinances and resolutions pass only with a majority vote of the entire council, not just a majority of a quorum.
You can guess what happened next; a developer’s agreement came up for a vote, and council member Annie Pollock did not approve it because of an allowance provided the developer to include a cul-de-sac street even though it goes against city code. The vote was two-to-one, and the measure failed.
Pollock braved the slight arm-twisting that ensued, couched in reasoning that the agreement must be approved to protect the city’s interest, and resisted the subtle suggestions that she, and only she, could bring the matter back to the table at that meeting for another vote.
She stood by her vote because she didn’t agree with the conditions underlying the premise. I think that’s principled behavior, and I commend her for it.
But it didn’t end there. A new discussion arose about just what to do when a full quorum cannot be present, and the suggestion was made to table important items in those conditions. In fact, the maneuver has been practiced in the past, the audience was told.
Wait. What?
Turns out, North Liberty’s council rules allows for just this situation. If two councilors are absent, two of the three remaining members can choose to table an ordinance or resolution until all members are present. So, there are council members who, upon knowing a measure might pass or fail based on the number of people present, have requested to table an agenda item until a full quorum is present. The justification is that everyone should be allowed to express their opinions in a meaningful– and subsequently decisive– way.
Ostensibly, it is more civil to wait until everyone can be there to vote.
Pollock then asked a hard question, though she asked it in a courteous way: doesn’t that indicate the council feels certain agenda items are more important than others?
I’ll ask another with less manners than she: doesn’t it pave the way for gerrymandering the result you want?
So if I suspect I will be in the two-to-three minority on an upcoming ordinance, and two of my fellow councilors are gone, of course it’s in my best interest to table it, so that I might possibly garner more support before the next meeting. Or if I am in the majority of a three-to-two split, and know my fellow supporters will be absent, I must table it until they can be there to vote.
I can’t adequately enumerate all the bad scenarios this practice potentially generates.
What alarms me more is that it gives council members the incentive to discuss how everyone is going to vote before stepping into council chambers.
A walking quorum is a media industry term for a series of conversations or communications held by consecutive groups of less than a quorum– outside the public eye–sometimes used by officials to come to a consensus or understanding of government business before discussing it in an open meeting. It is against Iowa’s Open Meetings Law and counter to the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act.
I am in no way suggesting North Liberty officials engage in walking quorums. I have no reason to suspect that.
But coming to the table knowing how your colleagues will vote gives an appearance that conversations have been held, and that’s a tightrope walk.
For those newer to the community, here’s some history. North Liberty had a bad couple of years under a former administration and council that could not get along. Political jockeying gave way to bad behavior and discussions deteriorated to accusations, outbursts and a series of nasty letters to the editor– and that’s just the part that happened under the public’s watch. The government gained a reputation, and while it made for interesting news reports, it became a smudge on the city’s otherwise shining progress.
A turnover in administration and council ushered in a new era of civility. The late Mayor Tom Salm told me once it was his goal to bring people together so the city would no longer be torn apart. He quietly, nobly and graciously made that happen, and he deserves much credit for that accomplishment.
But I don’t think his goal was ever to squash civil discourse all together.
Elected officials are supposed to engage in discourse. They are charged with looking at matters from all angles and considering all sides. Politeness is desirable, but it’s more crucial they hash out the issues in the light of day, so the public can understand their positions, their values and their doubts. We should trust them to ask hard questions and not accept easy answers.
We should also be able to trust that votes will fall the way they fall without pre-meeting maneuvers that are more strategy than representation. I don’t want to feel like decisions are made before discussions are held in public meetings.
The North Liberty council will revisit their council rules, as a matter of course, as they are required to do every two years. It has been suggested that the council change their rules to avoid the circumstances they faced a couple weeks ago.
Does that mean they will decide all votes will require a full council? Will they allow a two-to-one vote to hold sway? Will a minority voice ever bear any importance again?
Just wondering… will they value the gravity of civil discourse, or will they lay it aside for civility’s sake?