Rules for objection provision in new Pittsfield City Charter uncertain
PITTSFIELD -- Ground rules for use of the city councilor "objection" provision in the new city charter might require some fine-tuning.
City Councilor at large Barry Clairmont apparently surprised fellow councilors and others on Feb. 11 when he raised his hand and called a "charter objection" during a council debate. The provision was included in the new charter approved by voters in the Nov. 5 election and is intended as a "cooling off" option, which postpones voting on an issue until the next council meeting.
Clairmont’s objection, preventing a vote on a proposed change in council rules of procedure, also instantly prompted confusion over how, when and for what purposes the provision should be used.
City Solicitor Kathleen Degnan wrote an opinion on that topic to present to councilors at the following meeting, on Feb. 25, but it wasn’t discussed. Since her submission wasn’t on the agenda, some councilors objected to discussing it at that time.
"Please know that this memorandum is not being written to change the charter objection on Feb. 11, 2014," Degnan wrote, "but rather to explain how the charter objection should be applied in the future."
The solicitor then asserted that an analysis of the relevant sections of the new charter brought her to the conclusion that such objections can be raised only concerning "measures," or "emergency measures," as defined in the charter. She said those proposals presuppose participation by the mayor in the form of a signature or rejection.
Measures are referred to in "except as otherwise provided by the charter, every adopted measure shall become effective at the expiration of 10 days after adoption or upon the signature of the mayor, whichever comes first," Degnan wrote.
She said the charter further states: "Charter objection -- On the first occasion that the question on adoption of a measure is put to the city council, if a single member present objects to the taking of a vote, the vote shall be postponed to the next meeting of the city council, whether regular or special. If 2 members present object, such postponement shall be until the next regular meeting. If it is an emergency measure at least 4 members must object."
Degnan, who added the emphasis to the definitions, concluded that the context of the language is that "a ‘measure’ contemplates mayoral participation."
That aspect was not present Feb. 11 in Council President Melissa Mazzeo’s petition to change a council rule of procedure to allow more discussion before issues are referred to a subcommittee. The request was defeated on a 6-5 vote at the Feb. 25 council meeting.
Clairmont said Monday that he is still researching the issue and talking to other officials but believes following the solicitor’s opinion would unnecessarily limit the effectiveness of the charter objection. "I think that would be a bad idea," he said.
"It’s intent was to slow the process down," Clairmont said, adding, "I think the charter is being interpreted to be how she [Degnan] wants it to be, not how it is meant to be."
Attorney Michael McCarthy, a member of the study group that drafted the city’s new charter last year, said the primary reasoning for the charter objection was to allow one councilor to "stop a runaway train."
It also was included because a "second reading," or the taking up an ordinance change or other proposal at two separate council meetings, was dropped from the new charter.
If a measure is being pushed through the council too rapidly, especially if some councilors were absent, the provision allows for a timeout at least until the next meeting, McCarthy said.
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