The Seward City Council put on an embarrassing display Monday night, in which some members repeatedly broke the rules of order and balked at suggestions that they fulfill basic legislative functions. As a whole, the body failed to stick to its agenda and spent nearly two hours on a sequence of off-topic discussions before it even reached the meeting’s first action items.
The disintegration of Monday night’s meeting into a series of fruitless squabbles marks the return of a problem that the Seward Journal had hoped was solved.
Over the last 18 months, meetings of the Seward City Council have gradually become more efficient and less plagued by open conflict between the council and the city administration. But Monday night saw many of the hallmarks of dysfunction reemerge.
Members spent half an hour debating whether a particular attorney who works at the city’s law firm should be permitted to work on anything other than “labor matters.” They spent nearly another half hour in hostile questioning of the city’s utility manager. One member repeatedly accused the city attorney of being an “obstructionist,” apparently for giving advice the member did not like. At several points, the meeting devolved into cross talk, with members speaking over one another and their staff.
This is no way to run a city.
The Seward City Council exists to conduct the business of the people of Seward. Fulfilling that function will often involve disagreement; politics, it is often said, is ugly. But even parties with a fierce disagreement can conduct themselves in a professional manner.
Legislative bodies have long resorted to formal rules to encourage elevated discourse, and Seward is no different. If the City Council would make a better effort to follow its own rules – which default to Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised when not specified elsewhere – then its meetings would be less of a torment to sit through for everyone.
In addition to its own rules, the City Council must abide by state and local law on public meetings, which requires the body to give adequate notice of the topics on which it intends to act well in advance of its meetings.
The council ran afoul of the spirit of those laws on Monday, when members put forward four motions to take actions not noticed in the meeting announcement. In two cases, the city attorney interrupted to point this out. The other two took place during the city attorney’s report and were aimed at barring a particular attorney from doing certain kinds of work. In these cases, no one intervened.
The council is well within its purview to make decisions on these topics. However, it should do so in a transparent fashion, giving adequate notice to all parties. Members should not make motions on the fly just because a pet topic happens to come up.
One general rule would go a long way to keeping the council on track with both its own rules, with state law and with basic decency. That rule is this: If you want to do something, write it down. Sponsor a resolution or an ordinance. Write an agenda statement explaining what you want to do and why. Submit all of it well in advance of the deadline.
This not only meets the letter and the spirit of the law, it is the minimum courtesy that the council should afford its subordinates – the city manager, city clerk and city attorney – and its bosses – the citizens.
Mayor David Squires and City Attorney Holly Wells both raised a version of this suggestion at Monday night’s meeting, only to be met with obstinacy in one case and derision in the other. It seems that some members of the City Council balk at being asked to write first drafts of legislation.
We can only hope that they will have a change of heart – and that the coming election will give us a change of faces if council members can’t follow their own rules.