2017-04-21 / Front Page

Council amends standing rules

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — A change that would have required the assent of three South Portland city councilors to bring a topic forward for workshop debate has been nixed from a slate of amendments to the council’s standing rules.

Prior to an April 3 vote to amend the 36 rules governing its operations, the seven-member council voted unanimously to edit out the proposed change in how each is allowed to introduce topics for consideration.

Under the proposal, sponsoring councilors would have to submit a written summary of a workshop topic to the city clerk’s office at least one week prior to the workshop meeting at which it will be discussed.

The council generally revises its schedule of upcoming workshops as an agenda item on the first workshop session of each month, held on the second Monday of each month.

The sponsoring councilor would be given up to 10 minutes to make a case for holding a future workshop session on the suggested topic, or 15 minutes total if presenting more than one idea. It would then take the assent of at least three councilors to schedule a workshop on the item.

Presenting almost all new business in a workshop session before scheduling a vote at a regular business meeting is a practice that started in the 1990s, according to Councilor Linda Cohen, who was city clerk at the time, because of a trend of items going up for a vote with little advance public notice, apart from friends of the sponsoring councilor, tipped off in advance, who would pack the meeting hall, sometimes overwhelming other members of the council.

More recently, the council has clashed over how items got on a workshop agenda. Conflict tended to swirl around Councilor Brad Fox, who complained repeatedly that he could not get then-Mayor Cohen to schedule his items. Fox would often take to public stumping for suggested meeting topics circulating his ideas using a private email account.

In October 2015, the standing rules were amended to specify that the city manager would maintain a list of potential workshop topics, to be regularly reviewed by the council. The new rules called on assent from at least two councilors to move a topic from the potential list to become a scheduled agenda item.

The new rules at the “workshop schedule petition for,” and upped the number of councilor’s needed to advance an item to three. But speakers at the April 3 council meeting objected to that change.

“Three is basically all you need to stop any zoning change, so that seems like the wrong number to be there,” Franklin Terrace resident George Corey said, referring to the super-majority needed to enact zoning changes.

“Last year this was very important because it took eight months to get a second on a propane workshop,” he said. “So, when something isn’t broken, fixing it by making it harder to get a workshop seems counterproductive, especially when most of the workshops are not councilor-driven, they’re staff driven.

“It seems odd that any staff member can bring something to a workshop but an elected city councilor needs two, and now maybe three votes, to be heard, not even for anything to happen but just to have a discussion,” Corey said.

Rosemarie de Angelis, a former member of the council who lives in the Pleasantdale neighborhood, agreed.

“I think (requiring) three people is really prohibitive,” she said. “Three is only one shy of the majority you need to pass or defeat something.

“I really hope this is not targeted and trying to keep certain councilors from bringing forth items, because I’ve felt that same experience myself on the council, and it’s not good feeling,” de Angelis said. “You’re elected, you have an obligation to bring forth issues whether somebody likes you or not.”

Cohen remained in favor of the three-person green light, responding to de Angelis’ assertion that it could allow the council to freeze out debate on a topic that might have widespread support in the public, if not on the council.

“I don’t think that we ever tie the hands of the public in any way because they can always email or contact us,” she said. “I’d like to believe that if we had a huge group of people in the community who were pushing for an issue to be brought forward that this council would support getting that on a workshop.”

However, Councilor Claude Morgan said he was “coming around” to the idea of leaving the two council or requirement in place.

“It may be too burdensome to get three councilors together (on an issue),” he said. “And if we think about the communications that would have to take place before that – phone calls and such – I would hate to see us butt right up to holding a public meeting indirectly by trying to get prior support.”

“Three people makes an official meeting. So, that’s what I’ve been hearing from folks about this,” Councilor Maxine Beecher said. “I think there’s some truth to that. To avoid even the looks of that, having just two would suffice.”

Morgan moved to leave the two-councilor rule in place for scheduling workshop items.

Also unanimously edited out of the new rules package was his idea to change the start time for council meetings from 7 to 6:30 p.m.

Many of the nine remaining rules changes are a parting legacy of interim city manager Don Gerrish, who served in between Jim Gailey’s resignation last summer and the hiring of new manager Scott Morelli.

“This was a lot my idea. So, if there’s issue with this, it all goes down to the guy going out the door tomorrow,” he said, when introducing the proposed rule changes at the March 20 council meeting, his last at the helm.

Most of the changes are minor edits to language. Some of the bigger changes include specifying that an agenda item postponed indefinitely by the council may not be brought back for discussion for 180 days, and banning votes on topics after 11 p.m. unless a majority of the council votes to press on with the scheduled agenda.

Return to top