The business of city council business

Sonoma City Hall

It has long been council policy, albeit not in written rules of order, that any member of the city council could add an item to the council agenda. This has been an open-ended right, completely unencumbered by the opinions of other council members or city staff, and it has worked wonderfully. Unnoticed in the recent discussion of what is and is not city council business is a substantial new precedent that has the potential to seriously diminish the ability of each council member to add items to the agenda for discussion.

Over the years, each council member has exercised his or her prerogative and added items to the agenda for the council to discuss and/or take action upon. The many hundreds of topics have ranged from very local ones, such as adding stop signs and discussing speed bumps, concerns about city procedures or operations, and policy governing city commissions, to topics with broader scope such as immigration policy and even The Patriot Act. In short, whatever was placed on the agenda was considered. If a council member did not feel that it was within his or her decision-making jurisdiction, he or she would so state and abstain or simply vote no. Nothing was off-limits, no topic required the permission of the majority to be discussed.

In the froth over the Iraq resolution, a new ingredient was quietly slipped into the council formula: the requirement that a majority of the council approve the discussion of a specific issue placed on the agenda. The supposed logic of the new approach is to determine whether or not a topic is appropriate city council business. The logic falls apart, however, as one explores that very premise. This approach is more than a slippery slope; it is a greased flagpole.

If an elected representative thinks something is council business that is reason enough to discuss it. All five council members are equally elected and each has one vote; is not each council member entitled to exercise his or her judgment as to what is of concern to the citizens? Why is it necessary to vet a topic prior to discussion, and if so, by what objective standard shall the determination of appropriateness be made? Opinions vary; is the final vote on any topic not enough? What purpose is served by adding a review of appropriateness, and who gets to decide what is subject to review? Should every agenda item be considered for appropriateness; if not, why not? Finally, how does one determine appropriateness without discussing the item in question?

No matter how one explores the concept, it’s endlessly subjective, and ultimately results in muzzling an elected official. Moreover, it is a waste of time and needlessly protracts a topic into a two-part agenda item when it could more easily be a simple “yes or no” vote on the issue itself.

For decades, council members have placed any item on the agenda; it has just been a perfectly normal thing to do. This privilege has never been abused; some council members place many items on the agenda, and others place but a few. However, given their election by the citizens, all have been given the respect and courtesy of being allowed to exercise their personal and political judgment. To curtail that privilege in any way whatsoever reduces the opportunity for the citizens to be heard and seriously harms democracy in Sonoma.