SANTA FE, N.M. — A resolution that would change the Santa Fe City Council’s procedural rules is still getting a cautious reception from some in the community, despite a recent overhaul by the measure’s sponsor.
The new measure emphasizes that “civility and decorum” should be a part of the City Council’s ongoing operations.
City Councilor Peter Ives said at a recent meeting of the city’s Ethics and Campaign Review Board he hopes the changes will “promote and foster informed decision making by the city council, help councilors focus on issues and use city staff time more efficiently.”
Ives said he also wants the council to conduct its business “during a reasonable time so members of the public may come (to a meeting) and not” give up and leave before the item they’re interested in is reviewed.
He is sponsoring the measure with Councilor Rebecca Wurzburger.
Ives’ first try at changing the procedural rules, introduced earlier this summer, got a negative reaction in several quarters. He pulled the proposal, saying he wanted more public input. Late last month, Ives introduced a revamped version at a meeting of the Ethics and Campaign Review Board.
But numerous individuals and groups including Common Cause New Mexico and Santa Fe Neighborhood Network say they still have concerns with parts of the proposed resolution.
The changes “actually create more problems regarding open government and public representation than any problems solved,” the Santa Fe Neighborhood Network’s Marilyn Bane said at the meeting of the Ethics and Campaign Review Board.
The board agreed to form a subcommittee to look into the proposal before making recommendations to the City Council.
Under the Ives-Wurzburger proposal:
♦ City Council items with a fiscal effect would, on agendas, include information such as the cost of the item, the source of the money being spent and how spending the money will affect fund balances. When ordering an agenda, cash items would be listed from greatest to lowest fiscal impact.
♦ The measure emphasizes that no issue discussed in executive session could be disclosed unless the entire City Council agrees to do so.
“The privilege of Executive Session is that of the Governing Body, not individual members of the Governing Body,” the measure said. “Any member of the Governing Body who violates this provision shall be subject to censure and other disciplinary penalties in accordance with law.”
The procedural rules already state that any issue subject to attorney-client or “any other existing” privilege can’t be made public unless the city council votes to do so.
Ives said the proposal “does not change the existing rule that matters are confidential until a public vote.” He denied criticism that the intent of the proposal is to silence dissenting voices, or to encourage the use of executive session.
But attorney Jim Harrington of Common Cause New Mexico told the Ethics and Campaign Review Board that the provision raises “a First Amendment flag, is vague and doesn’t give fair warning” about what councilors are prohibited from doing.
Attorney Fred Rowe agreed that what councilors can and can’t talk about publicly needs to be clarified. He also called the disclosure penalties “draconian.”
Karen Heldmeyer, a former city councilor, said, “There are no exceptions for councilors coming out and reporting on things that aren’t covered by open meetings.”
♦ The proposal tightens up which items can be placed on the council’s consent agenda. Contracts, agreements and other matters with a fiscal effect over $100,000, for example, could not be put on the consent agenda but would require a separate vote by the city council.
Ives said he wants more feedback on this idea. Generally, “the idea is that items of a significant dollar level will be discussion matters,” he said.
John Gordnier of the Santa Fe Coalition for Good Government suggested the city take the proposal a step further and hold public hearings on any items over $50,000.
“Routine” items without fiscal effect and items that have been approved by at least one major city committee and have been reviewed by every councilor during the committee process can be placed on the council’s consent agenda.
♦ The revised measure, similar to Ives’ original proposal, would require councilors who want to remove an item from the consent agenda to open it up to debate to notify the city clerk and other city councilors by 4 p.m. on the Monday before any regular Wednesday city council meeting. Councilors would have to briefly clarify in writing why they want an item moved from the consent agenda.
A councilor can still ask at a meeting that an item be removed from the consent calendar, but the entire city council must agree to grant the request.
Ives said councilors occasionally don’t come to meetings prepared and take time reviewing items, making meetings run longer than necessary and sometimes creating a scramble for staff members able to answer questions.
“Members of the Governing Body are encouraged both to seek information from City staff in lieu of moving matters from the consent agenda to the regular agenda and to be considerate of the best use of and respect for the time of the public and the Governing Body while it is in session,” the measure said.
Harrington said his group thinks the practice of allowing councilors to simply pull an item of the consent agenda at a council meeting should be left alone.
“We think in order to promote public input the council should expand rather than restrict opportunity for public comment,” and putting items on the consent agenda restricts input, he said.
Bane and others wondered if the public will have enough time to read the agenda and talk to their local councilor in time to meet the Monday deadline. Pulling an item verbally should not be subject to the will of a majority of the council, Bane added.
Several people said it shouldn’t matter if council meetings run long because councilors ask questions. After all, that’s what they were elected to do.
Ives said he does plan to introduce an accompanying resolution that would require the city to post on its website the informational packets given to councilors, committee minutes and other information relevant to the items being discussed by the council. “The idea is to ensure we have transparency by making information to the public available well in advance,” he said.
♦ City councilors would only be allowed to speak three times on any one subject, for no more than 10 minutes, unless given permission to do so by the presiding officer, usually the mayor.
Heldmeyer said she believes there could be a perception that limiting councilors’ speech is actually aimed at quieting opposing viewpoints. “If people are pretty much OK with what goes on, then not much gets said,” she said. “Dissenters speak at length, and the concern is that they will get shut down.”
Rowe said limiting councilors is a “one-size-fits-all situation which would not be appropriate.” Rowe and Heldmeyer also wondered who would be in charge of timing councilors’ speech.
Public petitions from the floor, usually heard at the start of the council’s evening agenda, also would be limited to no more than three minutes each.
In addition, Ives’ proposal says that “the parties appearing before the Governing Body on any adjudicatory or quasi-adjudicatory matter shall have reasonable opportunity to present their position to the Governing Body.” Ives’ previous proposal had placed a 15-minute limit on such matters.
♦ Councilors are already prohibited from acting “disorderly” at meetings, but the proposal also specifically bars rudeness and behaving in a disruptive manner. Those misdeeds would now be grounds to remove a councilor from a meeting.
“The Governing Body should and shall set an example for the conduct of the public’s business, showing respect for the Governing Body, and to its members, City staff and all appearing before it … civility and public decorum shall be observed at all times,” the proposal said.