The combination of the emergency clause and council’s hurried action on an ordinance meant a law could be passed, signed, and go into effect all in one day.
City Council records show these fast-track methods dominated council’s lawmaking activities last year. Of 136 ordinances and resolutions approved, 81 of them, or 60 percent, were approved at the same meeting when they were introduced.
Council passed only 20, or 14 percent, of ordinances and resolutions with three separate readings, thus giving the public the opportunity of weeks, rather than a day or even a few hours, to study and comment on them, council records show.
Non-emergency legislation also allows citizens to place a referendum on the ballot to try to repeal the law.
Bypassing the requirement for legislation to have three readings at three separate meetings is legal under state law, if council agrees to hurry passage with a three-fourths majority vote by the 10 voting members.
There is no advance notice when emergency legislation, or plans to hurry its passage, will be put on City Council’s agenda. The agenda is commonly released the day before council’s regular Tuesday meetings. Council meets twice monthly.
City Council rules, which are not in writing, require a person who wishes to comment on or question any legislation to submit it in writing before the meeting, or to speak within a four-minute time limit during a period called “oral communication” at the start of meetings.
Later in the meeting, only council members may discuss and debate the legislation before voting on it.
Some fast-track legislation is introduced as an “add-on,” a term administrators use for items inserted into the agenda just minutes before City Council meets.
City Law Director Don Rasmussen is responsible for authoring legislation, including the emergency declarations, according to Mayor Lydia Mihalik.
Council members and city administrators justify hurried action on legislation in various ways.
“I think the name is unfortunate. I wish we could call it something other than emergency legislation,” said 2nd Ward Councilman Randy Van Dyne. “…It makes it sound like it’s something more than what it is.”
“I’d say that about 80 percent that we pass in this way is pertaining to expenditures, a project that needs to start or continue, and there’s no reason to wait for three readings,” Van Dyne said.
For example, there was no reason to delay final council action on a new contract with firefighters, Van Dyne said. The union “had good faith in negotiating with us,” Van Dyne said.
“It was very amicable … Everybody seems to be happy with this, so let’s just pass it and move on,” Van Dyne said.
“Because we meet twice a month, having three readings can’t always happen,” said former Councilman-at-Large Jerry Murray.
“Obviously, there are some things where you just can’t wait that long,” Murray said. “It can get overused if we’re not diligent about it. But I think the due process is there. I think we’ve been pretty good about it.
“Three readings is meant to give the public enough time to understand it and for council to investigate and ask questions if they need to. It’s so things aren’t railroaded through,” Murray said.
“But will public opinion really make a difference when it comes to spending money for a necessary sewer line replacement? We’re trusted to make those decisions and I think we’re well-balanced, generally,” he said.
Mayor Mihalik agreed that much of the legislation passed in haste pertains to spending.
For example, she said, contractors and bills need to be paid, materials for projects need to be purchased, and so forth.
With rare exceptions, legislation related to commendations, alley vacations and rezoning are given three readings.
Some situations that influence speedy approval “the public is not privy to,” Murray said.
Murray seemed more skeptical as a council candidate in 2011. He said he would advocate for public comment on issues as council addressed them.
“Proper legislation should be authored and adopted in a fair, clear and consistent way so that agreements, such as those concerning flood-control spending and cost-sharing, are on paper,” Murray said then.
Debate about emergency legislation, and avoiding second and third readings, tends to depend on the topic and council member turnover.
“I think a lot of brand-new council members think we use it (fast-tracking) too often,” Van Dyne said. “I felt the same way. But when they see what passes by emergency, then they understand the necessity of it.”
Half of council members are new this year.
“Watching these meetings, I would have to say that yes, there have been many things ran through on emergency and some were warranted and some were not,” said new 1st Ward Councilwoman Holly Frische.
“I can’t say that I would never support suspending the rules (to hurry passage) because there are times this is warranted, but, that being said, we need to not make this a common practice,” she said
An emergency clause in legislation doesn’t necessarily guarantee passage in one night.
“I hate having stuff shoved at you at the last minute, by emergency,” 7th Ward Councilman Bob Nichols said during a failed attempt to rush salary-related legislation during a June 2012 meeting.
At a February 2013 meeting, Firefighter Scott McWilliams, on behalf of his union, convinced council to slow down and reconsider layoff plans while holding off on emergency legislation to transfer $1.5 million from end-of-year unspent money to capital improvements.
Rasmussen did not respond to requests seeking more information about emergency legislation.
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