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Over the objections of three of the four veterans on City Council, the Rules Committee of City Council whittled the membership of the Council’s Planning and Development Committee to just five aldermen, added a tenth member – the Mayor – to the Rules Committee, and agreed to reset times and meeting dates for City Council and other committees. Council was scheduled to vote on these proposed changes on May 26.
The Rules Committee – composed of all nine aldermen and, as of May 17, the mayor – sets the rules of governance and committee membership for City Council.
A lot of animated discussion, much disagreement and a little acrimony marked the May 17 meeting of the Rules Committee, the first for this City Council.
Newcomers Judy Fiske, Donald Wilson, Mark Tendam, Jane Grover and Coleen Burrus requested the change, saying they thought it would help to restore citizens’ trust in their local government. The smaller committee structure, a majority of the aldermen felt, would allow for greater citizen engagement at the committee level and expanded aldermanic discussion at the Council level.
Ald. Fiske, 1st Ward, said, “Ultimately the decisions are going to be made at Council … but many people feel that the Council decisions are made in committee and Council rubber-stamps them.”
At some point in the discussion, each of the new aldermen said their constituents had expressed similar opinions to them during the campaign.
Ald. Wilson, 4th Ward, said, “When a decision is made at the Planning and Development Committee with all nine aldermen, people in my ward said they felt they had no voice, that the decision had already been made. He added it is a “perception problem – when, at Planning and Development, they can count the votes [and know how the Council will vote].”
Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, proposed enlarging the committees instead, making all nine aldermen members of all the committees: Administration and Public Works, Planning and Development, Human Services and Rules.
Aldermen Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, and Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, objected repeatedly to any change in the committee structure, particularly since the aldermen proposing the change had not yet sat on any of the committees. While Ald. Tendam, 6th Ward, said he would wait three months before considering the change, Ald. Grover, 7th Ward, said, “The issues are efficiency and public access. The goal is to keep our meetings open, timely and efficient.”
Ald. Fiske said, “It’s important for a new council to make some gesture. At least four or five of us have heard [that Council rubber-stamps committee decisions] in our campaigns.”
Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said, “I do think there is that perception, with all of us on the Planning and Development Committee, that Council is a rubber stamp.” She also said she felt there were “better discussions” when the membership of the Planning and Development Committee was limited to five.
Concomitant with the discussion about committee size was the length of Council meetings. Some felt the problem was the time allowed for citizen comment – 45 minutes, but often extended by a vote of the aldermen – and said they hoped the new mayor would curtail it.
Others said the committee meetings ran too long, delaying the start time of City Council. One alderman also mentioned that aldermanic comment is supposed to be limited to five minutes per item but added that that rule “was never enforced.”
Ald. Burrus, 9th Ward, said, “We heard that the system is broken. … I do not believe that in the last three years I saw a Council meting that started on time.”
Ald. Rainey said she objected to “chang[ing] the entire structure because of a couple of issues that occurred in the last four years.”
Ald. Jean-Baptiste said, “Citizen comment eats up a significant amount of time. If we try to shift the debate [from committees] to Council, the meetings will run late.”
Committees and Meeting Times
By a 5-4 vote the size of the Planning and Development Committee reverted to five aldermen. For the last four years, all nine aldermen sat on that committee.
Aldermen also agreed that the Administration and Public Works Committee would begin at 5:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Mondays of the month, and City Council meetings would begin at 7 p.m. The Planning and Development Committee would meet on the first and third Mondays, preceded by either the Rules Committee meeting (first Mondays) or the Human Services Committee (third Mondays). These changes will have to be approved by City Council before they become effective, said Ald. Rainey, who chairs the Rules Committee.
The number of aldermen on the Economic Development Committee was increased to seven.
Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl sent a memo to the Rules Committee requesting discussion and votes about the powers of the mayor, several of which were curbed in 1993 and some additional ones in 1997. The Rules Committee considered only two items, and the mayor won one only of them: She is now a member of the Rules Committee but she will not appoint the chairs of the standing committees. Following the policy of the previous Council, aldermen voted to have the chairmanship of those committees rotate every six months.
In asking to become a member of the Rules Committee, Mayor Tisdahl said, “The disunion here tonight shows why the Mayor should be a member of the Rules Committee: [According to your discussion] the problem is that there is not enough citizen participation and the solution is to have the Mayor cut off citizen comment.”
At the next Rules Committee meeting, there will be a discussion of the powers of the mayor.