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Administration Panel Posing Changes
To Council Regulations
By John Voket
The Administration Committee of the Legislative Council is tackling one of its most ambitious initiatives to date. On April 20, three of the four committee members began the task of reviewing and suggesting possible changes to the council’s official regulations.
For just over an hour this week, committee Chairman Gary Davis and colleagues Mary Ann Jacob and George Ferguson reviewed minor housekeeping points and engaged in some spirited debate over more substantive changes. Committee member Jan Andras was absent.
A number of these more sweeping amendments were suggested by Mr Davis.
The first item of discussion referred to dated language throughout the regulations identifying the panel’s “chairman.” It was generally agreed upon by the council members on hand that the council’s leadership should be changed to “chair,” and that reference should be carried throughout the document.
Then Mr Davis introduced a subject he said had more “controversial implications.” He suggested amending the regulations to provide that the vice chair should come from a separate political affiliation from the chair.
Mr Davis proposed that the chair and vice chair should not be from the same political party. Some subsequent discussion harkened back to previous councils where the chairman was typically a member of the majority party, and the vice chair was typically from the minority party.
The current council makeup includes three members from the Independent Party of Newtown – of which Mr Davis is a member – and only a single Democrat, Daniel Amaral. The balance of the council is made up of Republicans.
Mr Davis pointed out that a past precedent was set by splitting the party makeup between the council leadership. Ms Jacob, who is the current council vice chair, said there is no regulation compelling such a structure, and there is no record reflecting the council’s intent to have its leadership split between two parties.
“It’s up to the council members to elect leadership regardless of political parties,” she said. “What if there was only one minority party member and they were not qualified – should they automatically become the vice chair?”
Ms Jacob said she believes any spirit of collaboration in seating council leadership would be thwarted if a party split was forced by regulation.
Mr Davis said he wanted to raise the point, saying the change would represent a “nice symbol to the public – hands across the water.”
Ms Jacob maintained that forcing a party split at the top would unnecessarily politicize the process of engaging council leadership. Mr Ferguson also pointed out that during periods where the council had a Democratic majority, the Democrats held the chair.
He added that he expected such a switch in the council’s political power base or a more politically balanced council would likely happen again.
The three committee members decided to take up this and any other substantive proposed regulation changes in May with the hope that all four members could reach consensus on recommendations to the full council.
The next subject of discussion was the possible elimination of one or more of the council minor committees, an idea that received a favorable reception by all three Administration Committee members on hand.
Mr Davis said in past years, the council did not even activate its Administration committee, and that beyond the limited scope of budget review, the Public Works and Parks, as well as the Public Safety Committees met seldom, if ever. His suggestion was to merge the Public Works and Public Safety Committees.
At the same time, Mr Ferguson said the council might entertain creating a new committee, or folding added responsibilities to a standing committee to advise on environmental and land use issues.
Ultimately, Mr Davis said he sees going to a four-committee system for the council as providing an even distribution of added responsibilities and areas of expertise to all elected members.
“Going to four committees makes it easier for members to be more active,” he said. “Then you cover more ground in those committees.”
Ms Jacob agreed, saying such a redistribution would eliminate the need for some council members to be on three committees while others serve on just two.
Another item of substantive discussion involved time and subject constraints on public comment to the council. Currently, the council offers two opportunities for public comment, near the beginning and at the end of each main and committee meeting.
Typically, the chair requests that comment be limited to issues on the agenda. And council members reserve the right to request unrelated comments be ruled out of order.
Mr Davis said he was “not a fan of sticking to the items on the agenda,” but at the same time, he supported issuing a general limit on any public comment to three minutes.
In cases where members of the public felt they had important information to share that might require more than three minutes, Mr Davis suggested the speaker appeal to the chair for more time before the beginning of the meeting.
Ms Jacob said she generally felt that citizens should have the freedom to speak about any subject, but said the subcommittee should consider whether to limit nonagenda comments to the later portion of the meeting versus during both periods of comment.
The final issue introduced possible language that all council members would use in the event they are offering public comment outside the confines of council meetings. Suggested language in the regulations would compel any council member to identify themselves as an elected official in any other public venue, to members of the public or the press.
In these instances, suggested verbal and written language was posed that stipulates the council member is speaking as an individual and not representing the council. Only in instances where “their personal opinion will not reflect their actions as a council member” would officials be permitted to waive or omit identifying their political affiliation.