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City Council, February 9

Council agrees to a super majority vote of 60%, but will it hold?
Procedure in appointing members of boards and commissions to change
Marc Knapp

City Council passed the amendment to reduce the supermajority to 60% for a vote to override a Planning Commission (PC) decision. But we doubt that the reduction from 75% will hold. But more on this later.

We were interested and pleased to hear the comments of Mayor Tecklenberg when he summed up after the debate on the appropriate supermajority percentage. He said that one of the surprises at the beginning of tenure was the large number of City boards and commissions. He was also surprised as to how little information there was on the board members and their tenure. The issue was being studied and he thought that the City web site at some time in the near future would carry this information and more. Vacancies would be advertised on the site and citizens could apply to fill them. It was also inferred that appointments would reflect applicant’s qualifications. And these qualifications could be viewed by Council members when they voted on the appointments.

As some Council members pointed such a procedure would be a change from that of the past. Mayor Riley generally made the recommendations and Council members “rubber stamped” their approval. Nobody suggested that the past process was flawed and that board and commission members were incapable. But there was a strong hint of politics in some appointments. The measures suggested by Mayor Tecklenberg would go some way in ensuring politics was removed from the process.

Mayor Tecklenberg’s comment was prompted by Council member Moody who knew of the plan and who thought it relevant to the discussion on the appropriate level of a supermajority. It was relevant in our view. One of the arguments put forward by those defending the status quo was that members of the PC were more expert in planning than City Council and this should be recognized by having a high voting threshold to reverse a PC decision.

The relative expertise of Planning Commissioners and Council members is something we will leave alone, except to say that in our experience in more than 10 years, there have been weak members of both bodies and some capable of political ‘suasion – not a lot, but some. If Mayor Tecklenberg follows through with his proposal, the City’s boards and commissions should be that much stronger and citizens can be more assured of their integrity.

Back to the issue of the super majority. As pointed out last night, the need for the 75% vote only arises if the PC votes down an issue. An example is as follows. A zoning amendment comes before Council and Council votes in favor. The amendment then goes to the PC for its review and vote. If the vote is in favor of the amendment, it goes back to Council for a final vote. Council can then vote for or against the amendment but the decision needs to be only a simple majority. But if the PC votes against the amendment, the Council on the subsequent hearing must obtain a 75% majority to overrule the PC.

The amendment before Council last night was not only to reduce the supermajority vote to 60% but to allow a decision to be made by a less than full Council and still with a 60% majority.

A lot of citizens and groups spoke against the proposed change. Notably the Historic Charleston Foundation and
The Preservation Society were opposed to the change. Generally speakers noted that nothing was broken in the system so why did it nerd to be fixed. A super majority vote made it more difficult for politics to affect the final decision, the implication being that PC members would decide only on the basis of the merits of a proposal.

The proponents of the change, led by Council member Waring noted that a 75% super majority was unprecedented. In the State and Federal houses, the supermajority was only 60%. Why was it so high in Charleston? And more, the PC does not comprise elected officials. There were all appointees. There was something wrong with the ability of a body of appointees holding up an ordinance wanted by a majority of elected officials. And he also noted that some decisions by the PC were with slim majorities implying there was some degree of incertitude. There was merit to these arguments but in our view, the corollary might be why a super majority at all? Why not a simple majority vote?

Anyhow, we will conclude on the issue with the following observation. The approval of the amendment last night means that the amendment will go to the PC for its approval – it’s the requirement of the law. The PC will make it review and vote. More than very likely, it will vote against the amendment. So when it comes back to Council, it will need a 75% supermajority to pass. The first reading last night saw 5 Council members (Seekings, Williams, Shahid, White and Mayor Tecklenberg) opposed to the change. Assuming they vote the same way, the 75% super majority will not be attained to pass the ordinance.

So the issue will die.

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