COUNCIL’s DEBATE ON REFERRALS PROMISES TO BE ‘THE SPLENDID SPLUTTER’ … MORE ‘CAN’T MISS’ ACTION FROM OUR RIGHT HONORABLE GOODFRIENDS
By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
NOTE: A SMALL TECHNICAL GLITCH MAY DELAY THE ABILITY TO POST COMMENTS ON THIS STORY. THE PLANET HAS NOT DISABLED THE COMMENTS FUNCTION! THANK YOU — WEBMASTER
First of Two Parts
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, MONDAY, FEB. 24, 2014) — Tomorrow night at its regular meeting, THE PLANET‘s Right Honorable Good Friends on the city council shall take up agenda item #9. This numeral stands as the famous jersey number of Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, also known as The Splendid Splinter. We might dub the council’s agenda item #9 as The Splendid Splutter.
As a noun, “splutter” means “a loud utterance or fuss.” As a verb, Webster’s New World, College Edition informs us of the meaning: “to make hissing or spitting sounds, or to give off or scatter particles or drops in an explosive way.” For the more animated and visually inclined, think of Sylvester the Cat. He splutters when he talks. So did Mel Blanc. Sometimes.
Agenda #9 reads: “A petition from President Mazzeo requesting that the City Council amend Rule #7 by removing the words “a referral to a committee of the City Council,” and change Rule #9 to say “the first three shall be decided without debate.”
The hypothetical, disinterested, third-party observer — without knowing a thing other than the words themselves — would have concern over “shall be decided without debate.” Deciding items “without debate” is how it’s done in totalitarian systems. Generally speaking, a full-functioning democracy by its ideational and definitional plurality predicates itself on deciding “with debate.”
Since agenda item #9 refers to council rules seven and nine, let’s take a look at how they’re presently worded.
Rule 7 (THE PLANET has underlined the words Council president Melissa Mazzeo wants stricken).
The motion to adjourn, a referral to a committee of the City Council, the motion to lay on or take from the table previous question [sic] shall be decided without debate. However, the motion to file shall be decided with debate.
Rule 9 (Here, we have underlined the word Mazzeo wants changed; note that THE PLANET has corrected the council’s punctuation, replacing the incorrect semicolons one finds in the rule as written with the grammatically correct commas. No other changes have been made except as indicated in brackets).
When a question is under debate, the chair shall receive no motion but (a) to adjourn, (b) to lay on the table, (c) to the previous question, (d) to commit or refer, (e) to amend, (f) to postpone to a day certain, [or] (g) to postpone indefinitely [sic] which several motions have precedence in the order in which they stand arranged, and the first four shall be decided without debate. He [the council president; note the archaic language, which does not allow for a female prez!] shall put the previous question in the following form: “Shall the main question be now put?”[,] and all further amendments or debate of the main question shall be suspended until the previous question shall be decided.
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Yes, along with you, THE PLANET wonders if these rules were written by a badly operated Commodore 64 computer. In fact, we may bring these rule-writes into our Comp 102 class at the college as a prime example of unclear, bureaucratese — a bastardized form of expository prose whose mother is a rhetorical harlot and whose father, like Jack The Ripper, has never been identified.
What the heck does Rule 9 mean? THE PLANET isn’t sure what the proposed change from “three” to four” accomplishes. On Rule 7, though, it seems as if Mazzeo’s intention is to prevent motions, items, and questions from being automatically referred to council subcommittee, where they are vetted before making a recommendation on the matter to the entire council. That may be her intention, but we wonder if the actual words do not allow for much more than she realizes.
Look at the proposed version again. This time, we have removed what Mazzeo wants, the phrase “a referral to a committee of the city council.” Doing that, it reads: The motion to adjourn, the motion to lay on or take from the table previous question [sic] shall be decided without debate. However, the motion to file shall be decided with debate.
In this modified form, the language doesn’t not address referrals to committee one way or the other. In other words, it doesn’t prohibit debate of motions to refer. The last sentence, which expressly says “motions to file” require debate, as written, isn’t definitive or exhaustive. It would appear to be a legal loophole large enough for any councilor desiring to debate a referral to drive through in a Sherman tank (and by that, we do not mean a Kevin Sherman tank!).
At the Feb. 11 meeting, when Mazzeo proposed the change and it became clear she had a 7-4 majority (Clairmont, Krol, Lothrop, and Caccamo in opposition), councilor at-large Barry Clairmont raised a “Charter Objection.” This is a new rule allowed by the new city charter that gives any councilor the ability to stop deliberation in its tracks. Think of it as an emergency brake. It can be pulled if there’s a strong indication that things are moving too fast, too hastily, too sloppily, or in some other way that calls for cooler heads to prevail to keep the train from jumping the tracks.
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Actually, according to the language, Mazzeo wants to reinstate debate on matters that are now referred automatically to committee. If in such a case the council decided not to refer, the item could be taken up in full, then and there. That presumes, however, that all of the councilors have done their homework on the item in question and can thoroughly and intelligently vet an issue with proper deliberation — without needing to go to marathon lengths in terms of meeting length. That’s how government should be run, but we know from all too many examples in the past that too often, too many councilors and school committee members show up unprepared. You can see them trying to sneak a hurried look at their packets in the minutes before meetings are called to order. That’s the reality.
THE PLANET asked Mazzeo to explain her rationale for the measure.
“I thought my petition would have been an easy conversation,” Mazzeo told us, “considering Demeter’s rules say that ‘motions to commit or refer are debatable.’ I was not trying to make something up. This is how it is done, and there is good reason for it. I was NOT trying to keep from sending things to committee. Many items that come before us HAVE to go to a committee before they can be voted on by rule or charter, so I was not trying to by pass that.”
She added that she “was just trying to make councilors all aware that sometimes you need to have a little debate before it goes off to committee. But I guess some councilors felt differently and wanted to keep things the same. Long story short, when it came time to vote, Councilor Clairmont used the new charter option called ‘Charter Objection.’ Since I had stepped down from the chair in order to debate my petition, Councilor Connell was acting President. He didnt have a copy of the new charter handy and needed a few minutes to get a copy to read what to do with this motion, so he called for a five-minute recess.”
At that point, Kathy Degnan, the city solicitor, gave her opinion that Clairmont’s objection was legal. After Degnan weighed in — correctly, we might add — the council meeting was called back to order. Mazzeo said that because of Degnan’s ruling, “We had no choice but to table until the next meeting [tomorrow night]. So I am sure you heard it was chaotic,” Mazzeo told THE PLANET, “but we are working with a new charter, and things are going to happen that we have not seen before. It will take us a minute or two to get it figured out, but over all I dont think it was a big issue. Not voting on that petition was the bigger surprise.”
It’s an interesting rationale, one that has a lot of meat on the bones.
THE PLANET grants Mazzeo’s point about the charter being new and all, but we also have to point out that all councilors had plenty of time to read the new charter and to learn its rules. In fact, we would argue that it was incumbent upon all councilors to get up to speed on the new charter before their first meeting in January to take up We The People’s business. Credit Clairmont for having done this. He obviously knew about the “Charter Objection” provision. Most of the others didn’t. Procedurally, Clairmont played chess. The council’s leadership played checkers.
This matter will come to a head tomorrow night. There might be some hissing, spitting, and spluttering before it’s over. We wonder: Will The Splendid Splutter hit a home run for Mary Jane and Joe Kapanski, just as The Splendid Splinter did in his last at bat, or will she hit into a triple play?
Tomorrow, we continue this discussion in Part Two.
“My love don’t give me presents. I know that she’s no peasant. All she ever has to give me is love forever and forever. My love don’t give me know presents.” — The Beatles, “She’s a Woman,” (1965).
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE.”
LOVE TO ALL.