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Rules of thumb

NORTH LIBERTY– No cell phones. No speaking out of turn. No changing your mind once an ordinance is passed.
The North Liberty City Council has unanimously adopted an official set of rules outlining duties, procedures and public participation for the council’s monthly meetings.
The council body asked city attorney Scott Peterson to draft a set of rules in January 2011 to provide guidelines for the city’s elected officials on the organization of its meetings and its adherence to– or divergence from– Robert’s Rules of Order, as well as the council’s expectations for respect, conduct and decorum from the public. Peterson spent the last year gathering input from individual council members for the document, and presented a final draft at a meeting last Tuesday, April 24.
Most of the rules are typical protocol for government bodies required to hold public meetings, and are largely dictated by Chapter 327 of the Iowa Code, such as the establishment of a quorum, the way minutes must be kept, the deadlines for publication of notices and other similar conventions.
Since Chapter 327 also states that a city council may determine its own rules, as long as they do not conflict with state code, this council is taking a few liberties of its own.
For example, the mayor’s duties include the following: “Preserve order and decorum, prevent attacks on personalities or the impugning of members’ motives, and confine members in debate to the question under discussion.”
Peterson said this particular rule is in the context of the Mayor’s duties, and it speaks to keeping the focus on the business before the council.
“There are times where statements are made, whether during public hearing, comment or discussion on a particular issue that are not productive and are more of a personal attack, having no bearing on the substance of the issue.”
The council spent a considerable amount of time discussing if and when an ordinance or resolution could be reconsidered once it has passed by council vote. At issue was the proper way for a councilor to change his or her mind, and how long after the fact it would be viable to do so without having to bring it up as a new item on a future agenda.
Council member Gerry Kuhl disagreed with the language in the rules.
“I would like to see clear wording that says a motion cannot be reconsidered after it has been in effect,” Kuhl said.
Councilor Chris Hoffman asked for clarification.
“Does it go into effect once we passed it at council?” Hoffman asked.
“No, because [Mayor Tom Salm] has the right to veto,” Kuhl said, suggesting an ordinance becomes effective once the mayor has signed it or it has been published for the public. “I don’t think he’s ever used [his right to veto], but it has been used before.” According to the city’s existing Code of Ordinances, the mayor has a right to veto an ordinance, resolution or amendment within 14 days of its passage, and must immediately explain the reason for the veto in a written message to the council.
Hoffman asked how a councilor would properly make a motion to reconsider, then, after the meeting but before a document is signed.
Salm said either a special meeting could be requested, or the item could be put back on a future agenda.
“And that’s going to keep him (the mayor) from signing it?” Hoffman countered. Even if a councilor requests a special meeting to reconsider an ordinance, Hoffman added, it might not stop a mayor from signing it in the interim. “The mayor could just go ahead and sign it after the fact, and there would be a certain level of dishonesty that would have occurred at that point. That would do away with the reconsideration anyway. There’s no clear-cut definition of time.”
Peterson said once councilors adjourn a meeting, they can make a request to put a motion of reconsideration on the next meeting’s agenda, but it becomes the mayor’s discretion as to whether or not to sign and publish the ordinance.
“If he holds off, and the council puts it on the agenda for the next meeting, you have a chance to look at that,” Peterson said.
Hoffman said he felt adding the language would not help clarify the procedure.
“If a councilor doesn’t have enough time to think about a motion, they should speak up before the end of the meeting,” Hoffman said.
Peterson suggested the council could limit motions to reconsider to occur before adjourning the meeting during which the motion was brought up and passed. Councilors Terry Donahue and Coleen Chipman agreed.
“I like that, because after the meeting, there is no problem understanding that someone comes back to (the mayor) and says, ‘I want to reconsider this.’ It should be done in an open session so everybody hears the same thing and we can discuss it if needed,” Chipman said.
The council gave its verbal consensus to change the rule that a motion to reconsider must be made by the end of the meeting, and can only be made by a member of the prevailing side of the vote.
Also new in the rules is the requirement for the public to approach city staff with concerns before bringing them before the council. The document states, “A person should not address the council about issues that are known to be within the responsibility of other city staff/officials and have not been previously presented to that responsible party.”
Peterson said after the meeting this rule was put in place as a suggestion to help guide citizens in resolving issues with the city.
“It comes up on occasion where someone asks a question at a city council meeting where councilors have no idea what the citizen is talking about. This encourages people to try to resolve problems by going through city hall with the city staff directly responsible for addressing them.”
The city’s current code directs the city administrator to be that point of contact for the public, to take necessary action to resolve problems, and to present a report to the council advising as to the nature of any such incident.
“His is a broader responsibility, and he is ultimately responsible for that day-to-day operation,” said Peterson.
The new rules state, as in the past, the council will not take action on a citizen’s comments or request, nor engage in conversations with the individual unless the mayor permits it. The council can vote to suspend its rules and add an item to its current agenda only if it deems the concern an emergency. Otherwise, the council may direct the city administrator to address the concern or defer action until the next meeting.
The rules aren’t that different than the council’s past practices, said Mayor Tom Salm; it’s just that they are now official.
“It’s a common practice to have a formal set of council rules,” Salm said. “We have, for a number of years, worked under a set of unwritten rules that focused on Robert’s Rules of Order as a guide, but a more casual version.  We have been working on this off-and-on for several years, and now have a set of rules that fits our style but still follows good sound practice.”