By: Roosevelt Wright, Jr.
The Monroe City Council introduced an ordinance to raise water and sewer rates when it met Monday night, but it broke several rules of order in the process. Once the rules are ignored, the precedent for ignoring other rules is set; council members and the public won’t forget.
The mayor’s office placed the proposal on the agenda, but no one would make the motion for the 75 percent increase. Finally, Gretchen Ezernack, the council chair, made the motion herself. However, no one would second the motion. There was silence.
The motion died for a lack of a second.
The mayor gave everyone a tongue lashing and the council recessed so Ezernack could search for a legal way to make the motion again. During the recess, she consulted her copy of “Robert’s Rules of Order for Dummies” and concluded that she could “renew” the same motion. The meeting resumed and Ezernack made the same motion again, and this time Juanita Woods seconded her motion.
What’s the problem?
Ezernack, as chair, is supposed to be impartial, applying the rules of order to insure fair play. Whenever the chair makes a motion, impartiality disappears because the chair decides the legality of her own motion and can push it through.
In meetings, according to Robert’s Rules of Order, if the chairperson wants to make a motion, the chair passes the gavel to the vice-chair, and then makes the motion. This protects the integrity of the decision.
Secondly, there is no such thing as a motion to “renew.” If a motion is made and dies because of the lack of a second, it has been considered by the body which has, by its silence, made a decision on the subject. Once decided the same issue cannot be addressed twice in the same meeting unless the motion is changed in some way.
Any motion that would have the net effect of introducing the water rate issue, would be restating the same motion in the same meeting, which is out of order.
If the substance of the action would have changed, then the new motion, having not been advertised 24 hours in advance, according to the Open Meetings Law, would have had to be added to the agenda by a unanimous vote of the council.
The item was approved by the council, but whether it was correctly introduced is questionable. Since an ordinance is a law, it’s extremely important that laws are handled in a way that cannot be challenged later for being in conflict with the city charter, since the charter requires that all council actions be consistent with Roberts Rules of Order. (Not Roberts Rules of Order for Dummies).
If the council ignores the rules of order and refers to books for “Dummies” for its advice, it sets a dangerous precedent for future meetings and leaves a gaping hole in legislation it passes inviting legal challenges up the road.
Consulting “Roberts Rules for Dummies” for procedural advice is the same as having a district judge consulting “Louisiana State Law for dummies” instead of the revised statutes. Your confidence in your heart surgeon would be shaken if you noticed a copy of “Heart Surgery for Dummies” on his desk.
If the water rate ordinance is finally approved two weeks from now, it will be extremely vulnerable to a legal challenge because it was improperly introduced. Laws have been thrown out for much less, but one that depended on a book for dummies is a glaring target for anyone opposed to the water rates.
In hindsight, if the council wants to proceed with the water rate issue, at its next meeting it should introduce it in properly for the first reading, and then return to approve it two weeks later.
In her defense, Mrs. Ezernack should not have had to make that determination, the city has an attorney who was present at the meeting. Advising the council is the attorney’s job. Ironically, Ezernack showed what her “Dummies” book said to the city attorney and they both drew from the “Dummies” book the conclusion the mayor wanted.
Had they consulted Roberts Rules of Order they would have learned that the council can “renew” a subject by bringing it up again at the next meeting as a motion to “reconsider.” Ezernack would not be able to make that motion, one of the four council members on the prevailing side would have to present it.
To deal with the same subject matter council could have changed the wording of the motion in the same meeting, added the new motion to the agenda by a unanimous vote, and then approved the new motion. If Ezernack herself planned to introduce the motion she would give up the gavel and someone else would guide the decision on the motion.
Robert’s Rules of Order is basic stuff to those who serve in public bodies. It is designed to insure the public’s trust that decisions are made fairly, and by the rules.
Mrs. Ezernack was wise to buy herself a child’s version of “Roberts” but she and the city attorney should know that when laws are being passed, books for amateurs are for the novices.
When the council is passing a law that will impact the lives of the citizens, it’s guaranteed that a procedure that depends on a “Dummies” book for its authenticity, will be challenged.