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City Council, January 11

Council member seeks to reinforce Robert's Rules on debate
Issue over travel expenses
Marc Knapp

Council member Gregorie raised an issue last night that has been long simmering. It was the habit of the Mayor to speak at will during debate and before all Council members had a chance to weigh in. The Council member opined that it was contrary to Robert's Rules of Order, adopted by Council, and asked legal staff could look at the rules and give an opinion.

The request of legal was couched in politeness and with no reference to the Mayor but to the “presiding officer” of a meeting. But there was no doubt as to whom the Council member was referring. Council member Mallard, who has also made reference in the past to the Mayor's habit, also spoke to the issue and left no doubt as to whom Council member Gregorie was referring.

We too have noted the Mayor’s habit of speaking out of turn and commented critically in past postings. In our opinion, there really was no need to ask legal staff for its view. Council member Gregorie and others including the Mayor know that strictly all Council members should be allowed to speak in the order they are recognized by the Clerk, and that the Mayor should comment only when each Council member who has sought to be recognized, has spoken.

Of course there are exceptions and times where such rigidity should be relaxed. During the debate on an issue, the Mayor may be asked a question or needs to elaborate on the facts. But only in such circumstances should the rule be relaxed.

It will be interesting to hear how legal addresses the request and the Mayor’s response to legal’s opinion. The criticism of the Mayor implied by the request is not new and indeed, reflecting this criticism, we think the Mayor has been more restrained in recent months over the timing of his comments. But it won’t hurt Council proceedings in future if the Mayor and others are reminded of Robert's Rules.

Per capita limits for travel expenses?
Principles were also the root of the other issue that took up time in yesterday’s meetings. It related to travel spending by Council members. In the past an amount has been determined in each year’s budget for members’ travel expense. No limit was set on spending for each member, and the amount was drawn down on a first-come first-served basis.

It seems the past practice worked well when the coffer was full and the amount in aggregate was over $40,000. But things have been tight in recent years and the budgeted figure for 2011 is $25,000. Last year, the figure was $18,500. Some Council members planned travel only in the latter part of the year but found that the fund has been totally depleted by other Council members.

Council member Alexander proposed last night that the pot should be split equally amongst Council members and that in the current year, the limit on travel spending should be about $2100 per member. This proposal was supported by the Mayor and others but not enough for the proposal to be adopted. The majority thought that Council members themselves could exercise restraint and that strict adherence to the per capita limits could restrict legitimate travel.

We think both sides have a point but how self disciplining will Council members be? We thought Council member Gallant “protested too much” at last night’s discussion and today’s Post and Courier article indicated why. He drew the lion’s share of funds from the pool last year - $5,000. According to the P&C, the Council member made more trips than any other Council member in both 2010 and 2009. In the latter year, he spent $7,794 when the total budget was $18,500. However, some other Council members were excessive in their spending as total travel spending that year amounted to more than $35,00

There was no contrition in Council member Gallant’s lengthy speech last night, only justification. He was attending conferences that indirectly would benefit the city, he said. We would comment that this is what other Council members also hoped to do.

Council Mallard’s prayer
And finally, it was Council member Mallard's turn to open the meeting with a prayer. He asked God to do something about the weather we were suffering. Waking this morning, it seemed, sadly, God was not listening. May be he was still reeling from the request to make Council discussions more civil and polite. (These may not have been the correct adjectives but they come close. We don’t take notes during prayers). God must be asking whether this is the prayer of a truly repentant sinner.
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