Baxter City Council debates rules change for meetings
The proposal by John Ward has been billed as a means for council members to tackle the issues that matter to their constituents, but concerns were raised over the long-term implications.
During a workshop Tuesday, July 6, the Baxter City Council examined a proposal to revise its meeting procedures — a proposal that garnered no shortage of discussion and tapped into the fundamental building blocks of council business and city government.
As an item approved during the council meeting later that evening, the Baxter City Council approved a Rules of Procedure Policy — or, specifically, a framework of rules and processes the council follows, step by step, through each meeting. Up until this time, many of these rules were considered unwritten rules and, so far, hadn’t been codified into city statutes.
Where Tuesday’s workshop took a turn was a proposal, pushed by council member John Ward, to revise these rules of procedure so that a single council member could move to have an item added to the council agenda based on their own prerogative. This stands in contrast to this provision in the Rules of Procedure Policy:
“A Councilmember wanting to add an item onto a work session or regular meeting agenda for discussion/consideration must either obtain consent from the Mayor or by requesting the matter to be placed on a future agenda during the Council Comments of a regularly scheduled meeting. If another Council member concurs with the Council Member’s request, the item will be placed on a future agenda.”
It is this matter of obtaining consent from the mayor or another council member that Ward wanted removed. As an elected official chosen to represent the interests of his district, Ward said, a council member should be empowered to introduce an issue, proposal, or concern for discussion without depending on the backing of another council member. It is this sort of autonomy, he added, that is vital for governing bodies to function effectively.
“A member should be able to propose an agenda item, at any point or time, as we represent constituents of the city, whether that comes from our constituents or our own personal thoughts or ideas, or philosophies,” Ward said. “I really believe that that is our duty and responsibility to represent the constituents, but to also use common sense.”
Ward’s proposal would enable council members to set agenda items immediately, during the meeting if need be, so they can be voted upon. In this way, he said, the council can act decisively and swiftly on matters that pertain to each member.
Council member Mark Cross said he appreciated the desire to ensure each member can have their say, but advised that members should also reserve the right to table these issues if they’re raised.
It was a concern, raised by Cross and council member Zach Tabatt, that empowering individual members in such a way could accelerate council deliberations, instead of methodically exploring each topic, fact checking, and having council members debate any given issue with city staff on hand to provide clarifiers, context, or corrections. Otherwise, Tabatt warned, it could present opportunities for abuse, or future councils losing on the substantive issues that affect residents of the city.
“We’d have no inkling what was coming on the agenda,” Cross said. “And we're only presented the facts they want us to hear. It could be something very simple that we can say yes or no, or make the decision. We need to be prepared. There will be issues that we can't make a decision that night and we'll leave the table for more discussion.”
Mayor Darrel Olson echoed these concerns, but also noted there seemed little in the way of justification for empowering individual council members to add agenda items during the meeting. The Baxter city administrator can change the agenda and add items up to and during the beginning of a council meeting, Olson said, and council members have a comment period at the end where they can speak at length on whatever they want, including proposals to add agenda items to be addressed later.
If a sudden decision has to be made — such as implementing watering restrictions when the water treatment plant is down — then the council can convene an emergency meeting. In essence, Olson said, there are very few issues that arise that can’t wait until the next council meeting and, in the few situations where this isn’t the case, there are procedures in place to ensure the council can act quickly when it needs to..
“The problem I have is the emergency stuff. We’re going to get in trouble if we do that, I guarantee it,” Olson said. “I don't know what the crisis would be that couldn't wait two weeks.”