VOL. 128 | NO. 249 | Monday, December 23, 2013
Council Rules Could Change in 2014
By Bill Dries
Memphis City Council members are already starting to adapt some items in a set of proposed changes in how they conduct business.
The proposal took a bit longer to formulate than originally anticipated.
And the recommendations by the committee, chaired by council member Wanda Halbert and including Myron Lowery and Bill Boyd, are more wide-ranging than council chairman Edmund Ford Jr. originally outlined in October.
The council will vote on them possibly next month as Jim Strickland begins his one-year term as council chairman.
The problems that Ford cited in forming the ad hoc committee included council members missing votes and then much later recording their votes to appear in the minutes of the meeting.
Council members have to be present at the time of a vote. If they aren’t and their votes are not recorded, it could leave a legal opening for those contesting the council’s decision to challenge it in court.
At the last council session of the year, Ford began insisting that council members had to be at their seats to vote and that even if they were in the audience within council chambers they could not shout their votes to the comptroller who takes and records the roll call.
The other problem Ford sought to address was individual council members ordering those with the administration to do things or take certain actions.
That followed a complaint from Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s administration. Ford never said which council member the administration complained about. But the complaint came the same day council member Janis Fullilove berated Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division president Jerry Collins in the continuing series of committee discussions she has had about smart meters.
Council member Bill Boyd also complained openly several times that smart-meter critics at the sessions were being recognized to make motions by Fullilove as if they were council members.
Ford reminded the council that as chairman, he had the power to change committee assignments.
At year’s end, Fullilove remained the MLGW committee chairwoman. But other council members have chaired the committee in recent weeks.
Fullilove has said she has no regrets about the way she has handled the committee meetings or continuing to draw attention to what she sees as problems with smart-meter technology.
Meanwhile, one of the rule changes would require citizens who want to speak at committee sessions to notify council staff the day before the Tuesday committee sessions, which precede the full council session the same day.
The proposed rule changes would also require all committee chairmanships to rotate annually and would bar council members from serving as chairman of the council more than once during a four-year term of office.
It puts in writing the council’s unwritten rule for the chairmanship. The unwritten rule can be, and has been, overridden with seven votes.
Shelby County Commissioners have the same unwritten custom, which in recent years has prompted sometimes-bitter debates on that body and multiple ballots in the chairman’s race.
Halbert sought the vice chairmanship of the council for the coming year in a contest with Lowery.
Halbert lost in the council balloting, even though she pointed out that Lowery, the council’s longest-serving member, had been chairman or vice chairman four of the six years Halbert has been on the council.
The council decided to make it seven for Lowery.
The proposed rule changes would also require a nine-vote, two-thirds council vote to invoke the use of same-night minutes, frequently used to give more rapid final approval to an item. It occurs when the council approves an item, then at the end of the meeting, approves just the minutes that include that item.
Normally, the minutes of a meeting are approved at the start of the next council meeting two to three weeks later.
When he was chairman in 2012, council member Bill Morrison had a strict policy that greatly limited the use of same-night minutes. During Ford’s tenure, the use of same-night minutes has been much more common.
Some of the recommended changes are a reaction to specific council members.
Council members would be barred from taking or making a cellphone call at their seat during a council meeting. They would have to leave the meeting, and if they didn’t, the chairman could ask them to step away.
The rule is aimed at council member Joe Brown, who not only frequently takes calls during committee sessions, but takes them at the committee table. Brown has gotten better in the last year about stepping into the hallway shortly after he answers.
But sometimes during the full council session, Brown has been known to start talking with constituents in the audience from his chair.