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May 7, 2013

MAJORITY RULES: Jeffersonville council passes resolution allowing a majority to change agenda

Measure passed 5-4 Monday

JEFFERSONVILLE — Changes in how the Jeffersonville City Council can approve its agenda were adopted at its meeting Monday night, and some council members are upset with the change.

Jeffersonville City Councilman Matt Owen had been an outspoken critic of the change that amended resolution 2000-R-3 from requiring unanimous consent to amend a council agenda without prior notice to only needing a five person majority vote for an amendment.

“This is ridiculous,” he said. “I think this is completely retaliation for me stopping an agenda change in February. I think this is one way to suppress the minority vote on this council. It allows a simple majority to completely control the way you do business and completely circumvent other people from having information on this council.”

Owen was referencing a resolution Councilman Ed Zastawny attempted to add to the agenda of the council’s Feb. 4 meeting. According to the meeting minutes, the resolution Zastawny planned to introduce was related to stormwater conveyance and requested that the Jeffersonville Redevelopment Commission amend the 2012 plan and submit it to the city council for approval. He added that the concern surrounded the leases the redevelopment commission had planned to approve for several nonprofit organizations to rent buildings downtown, and without official council approval of the plan, the leases would be void.

At the meeting, Owen said he was not necessarily opposed to the resolution proposed, rather the way in which it was proposed. It was a sentiment he reiterated Monday.

“I represent 44,000 people in the city; I have the right to be informed on what we discuss in this meeting,” Owen, an At-large councilman said. “Saying that we don’t have to have something on the agenda in the same amount of time as every department head that works for this city is not right.”

City Councilman Brian Glover agreed.

“If a majority on this council wanted to move something, all they have to do is amend the agenda, put it in front of you, they already have the five votes, they’re going to push it through,” he said. “It doesn’t allow me to contact my constituents and ask them what they feel about that piece of legislation.”

Owen added that under the resolution that requires unanimous approval, changes can still be made for a meeting if the legislation is time-sensitive.

“That’s why we have the ability to unanimously approve agenda changes, so that if we’re all on the same page about something that’s missed a deadline, that we can go ahead and move forward on that,” he said. “But this circumvents that guarantee that I even know what’s coming.”

Zastawny disagreed and said the change follows the model the council uses to conduct its meetings.

“We follow Robert’s Rules of Order for almost everything else; this would follow that moving forward,” Zastawny said. “The guarantee that you’re mentioning, I don’t think has ever been part of meetings in general.”

Robert’s Rules of Order is a standardized set of guidelines to follow in parliamentary proceedings for organizational meetings. According to the website robertsrulescom, “at the time that an agenda is presented for adoption [at the start of a meeting], it is in order for any member to move to amend the proposed agenda by adding any item that the member desires to add, or by proposing any other change.”

However, as Owen pointed out, it had been the practice of the council since 2000 to require unanimous support to amend the council agenda.

City Councilman Dennis Julius said that the council researched the matter recently and a majority vote for an amendment is the practice followed by most municipalities.

“The person who wrote that [resolution 2000-R-3] even admitted they did it specifically for a political purpose,” Zastawny said. “Which I see as just as equally putting more power in one person’s hands to be able to stop, or slow down the process, just for political purposes. When it comes to operating a meeting, and the flow of business, I think we should look to the Robert’s rules of order ... to be followed. This is one where I think maybe one person shouldn’t have the power or delay civil process.”

Zastawny was referring to current Jeffersonville Corporation Attorney Les Merkley, who introduced the legislation when he was serving as a council member from 2000-04. But Merkley denied introducing the legislation for “political purposes.”

“It wasn’t necessarily political reasons,” he said. “Many times documents [and] resolutions were brought in at the meeting. Informed public debate isn’t political, it’s good government. The public has the right to know what’s going to be considered, too. It favors and promotes public transparency.”

Merkley said there was no resolution prior to the one he introduced and he was being asked to consider and vote on something that he hadn’t had a chance to review or digest before being asked to vote on it.

He explained that then Mayor Tom Galligan and then city attorney and wife of the mayor Anne Marie Galligan would commonly present the city council with resolutions and ordinances the night of the meeting. The resolution also established guidelines for when claims and agendas were to be delivered to the council members.

“It was a way for the council to have all the information prior to meeting,” Merkley said.

City Council President Connie Sellers sent a letter to the News and Tribune in support of using majority rule to amend the agenda, saying the previous way “can result in a single member exercising a ‘veto power’ against the wishes of the other eight members of the council. It should be noted that Indiana law does not and has never required a unanimous vote to amend a proposed meeting agenda. For most actions taken by a council, Indiana law only requires a simple majority vote.”

Julius agreed.

“That’s how it should be,” he said. “If I wasn’t comfortable with something I would just vote no and explain why. I don’t think that if you have something that you want to add to the agenda, I don’t think one person should be able to stop it.

He added that you would have two chances stop a piece of legislation — once from being added to the agenda and the second being an ability to vote against it.

When asked if something was presented at a meeting and was added to the agenda that he disagreed with, Julius said, “I don’t think I should be able to stop it.”

“I just think that this opens the gate for an opportunity for something to be rammed through,” Owen said.

The resolution was approved 5-4, with council members Zach Payne, Lisa Gill, Glover and Owen voting against.

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