Last Tuesday, the Pittsfield City Council ran aground on a proposed rule change affecting debate on issues and on a "charter objection" that ended debate on the issue of debates. The City Council will have another go at both subjects tomorrow night, and should think twice about fixing a rule that doesn't need fixing.
Council President Melissa Mazzeo proposed allowing the council to debate issues that are now automatically referred to a committee for review. She maintains that this will enable questions to be answered immediately when department heads are present to answer them and denies that the intent is to ram through proposals without proper review, as Councilor Barry Clairmont worries may be the case.
Intent aside, however, the proposal if enacted would both invite the council to act in haste and undermine the committee process. That process enables issues to be studied thoroughly and without undo speed, giving time for interested parties, including city officials and residents, to participate and provide information. Presumably, city councilors would have the opportunity to debate the issue in question when it returns from the committee with a recommendation for action.
It is easy to imagine the council becoming bogged down in lengthy debates over subjects that members know little or nothing about because they were just brought before them. Surely, the start time wasn't pushed back to 7 p.m. to accommodate even longer meetings. The current procedure has been in place for some time, appears to be working well, and there is no reason to tamper with it.
Councilor Clairmont ended the discussion and sowed confusion among his colleagues by declaring a "charter objection," a provision in the new city charter allowing a councilor to cut off debate on a subject until the next meeting. In this case, the charter objection gave councilors two weeks to consider the impact of Ms. Mazzeo's proposed rule change, but it is easy to see how it could be abused by postponing votes on important issues that need quick action. The workings of the charter objection need clarification at the least this Tuesday night.