Council, and democracy, take time
on October 19, 2011
The slow crawl of representative democracy was on full display Tuesday as the City Council debated a Personnel Board election held earlier in the month, in which some votes weren’t counted. The time-sucking agenda item caused Councilmember Nat Bates to say “let’s move on and go home,” as the discussion topped the hour and a half mark.
The whole affair centered on the decision by City Clerk Diane Holmes to invalidate ballots submitted by some city employees in the Department of Public Works. According to Holmes, a designated “point of contact” for the department arrived at her office with the ballots at 3:04pm, four minutes after the 3:00pm ballot deadline. The debate over those four minutes would account for over a quarter of the entire City Council meeting.
Employees typically vote in their department, then have a designated person take these votes to the Clerk’s office. At issue was what the deadline meant — did the votes have to arrive at the Clerk’s office by 3:00, or did the votes simply need to be cast in the department by 3:00?
Millie Cleveland, a representative from the Services Employees International Union (SEIU) 1021 that represents many city employees, addressed the Council and said that the entire process was a “flawed plan” to begin with. She said the Personnel Board is important to city employees, as it has the power to identify classification of city workers, amend job descriptions and institute disciplinary action. She said the employees should not be penalized by losing their votes.
“All of our members voted before three o’clock,” said Cleveland. “The issue is the ballots were delivered four minutes late, and who’s to say whose clock is right? We are simply asking that people be allowed to have their votes cast.”
Holmes defended her decision, later stating that she had a “precise atomic clock” on her desk.
The Personnel Board election was originally scheduled to occur in late August. According to the City Clerk, the police department failed to receive proper notification that an election was occurring, so she cancelled the election and rescheduled it for October.
Citing the Clerk’s prior decision to change election protocol, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and Councilmember Jovanka Beckles attempted to pass a motion “to urge the Clerk” to reconsider accepting the late ballots.
The motion, however, would have no actual binding power, as the city charter gives the City Clerk total authority to determine voting procedure. Bates and Councilmember Corky Booze recognized this, and routinely questioned the measure, with Booze asking why the Council was even taking the time to discuss it.
“There is nothing we can do,” Booze said. “Why are we spending an hour on this?”
Time continued to be swallowed up as both Councilmembers Jim Rogers and Jeff Ritterman voiced concerns that by not allowing the late votes the city would be open to a potential SEIU lawsuit. Ritterman additionally said he wanted the votes to count to “optimize democracy”.
Rogers ultimately said that the Council should not involve itself in a decision that is expressly out of the Council’s domain, saying he didn’t want to begin a “pattern of micromanaging the staff when a controversial decision arises.”
When the official motion to urge the City Clerk to accept the late ballots finally reached a vote, it failed to secure the four votes needed for passage, with only McLaughlin, Beckles and Ritterman voting yes. Yet for nearly two hours, Holmes had a front row seat for the unofficial pleadings of the Councilmembers. She did not heed those pleadings.
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