Two changes in the proceedings of the Pittsfield City Council have recently been proposed that have been a cause for consternation and debate. Interestingly, they both have to do with when debate is appropriate or when it should be curtailed. The Council itself operates under Demeter’s rules of parliamentary procedure and a set of approximately 40 council rules designed to maintain order and an efficient flow of information and decision-making.
The Pittsfield City Council is empowered under the city charter to act as the legislative body for the community, much like a board of directors for a corporation. Progress, growth and seemingly never-ending regulations dictate a larger infrastructure within the government to deal with the complex issues facing a 21st century community with an annual budget of more than $100 million.
The City Council often needs the consultation and expertise of our department heads and professionals on technical, legal, financial, personnel and a host of other issues before an informed decision can be made. This is accomplished in duly posted and advertised council subcommittee meetings with appropriate professional staff present to discuss all issues. Any councilor or any member of the public is welcome to attend and participate in the proceedings. Many councilors spend five to 10 hours in these meetings and in consultation with our staff for every hour spent in a full City Council meeting.
Forty years ago, City Council meetings could run past midnight, when many communications from the mayor or council petitions, needing more information, would be debated anyway and then referred to committee. When the committee report was returned to a subsequent council meeting, much of the debate would be repeated. Certainly not an effective use of limited Council time and certainly detrimental to the petitions that were at the tail end of the agenda and being considered in the wee hours of the morning.
The City Council wisely passed a rule that there would be no further debate when a motion was made to refer an item to a committee. Let the committee get the necessary information and return its recommendation. At that point, the Council could have a more meaningful debate.
Because it was only a council rule, a councilor with critical information to add to the petition could request a suspension of the rule for the purpose of making that addition. This exception would require six votes and I cannot recall one instance when a legitimate request was denied. The rule worked and meetings were much more timely and efficient. It is even more important today with greater financial consequences and more complex regulations.
The other item was a shocker, the "charter objection." A classic sledgehammer to kill a fly! A filibuster without words! It somehow slipped between the cracks, but I’m glad Councilor Barry Clairmont used it and exposed it.
The Pittsfield City Council does not need this kind of micro-management at the city charter level. There’s no suspending the charter and the consequences of giving one councilor the power to stop debate until the next meeting is incomprehensible.
Picture a situation where a major development is being proposed for the city and must meet with a very strict schedule. Time is of the essence and there are 10 councilors in favor and one against. Could one councilor pull a "charter objection" and endanger the whole project?
If you want to end debate, "move the question" under Demeter’s rules and get five others to support the motion. If you don’t get six votes, tough! At least democracy is preserved, and the will of the majority prevails. God bless America!
Joseph W. Ryan is a former president of the Pittsfield City Council.