Council looks at updating its rules and procedures

Tomorrow afternoon the City Council’s Governance and Education Committee will deliberate over a set of proposed changes to the Council’s rules and procedures for how it runs its meetings and handles legislation.  Many of the changes are minor, but a few topics potentially up for discussion might shake up some long-held traditions.

The proposed changes were drafted by a working group headed by Council President Gonzalez and including members of her staff, the Council Central Staff, the City Clerk’s office (which also serves as the Council’s parliamentarian), and the City Attorney’s Office. SCC Insight obtained a redlined-version of the updated rules document, highlighting the proposed changes.

A staff memo explains the changes, which fall under several topics:

  • Hybrid in-person and virtual meetings. The Council rules require in-person meetings except in emergency situations; that rule has been suspended since early 2020 due to COVID. Now with no clear light at the end of the tunnel for COVID health restrictions and many lessons learned, the working group has proposed that the rules be changed to allow (but not require) virtual public comment sessions and for meeting agendas and other materials to be posted only online (eliminating the current requirement for paper copies to be available in City Hall). There is a smattering of other places in the rules where flexibility on virtual vs. in-person is proposed.
  • Sponsorship of legislation. The working group is proposing several changes to the rules for sponsorship of legislation. First, a bill is not required to have a sponsor to be submitted, such as might be the case for a bill transmitted from the Mayor’s Office. Second, there are some changes to keep the Council from running afoul of the Open Public Meetings Act, which prevents a quorum of Councilmembers from meeting other than in a public forum: pre-introduction, the number of co-sponsors on a bill may not reach or exceed a quorum, and post-introduction, additional co-sponsors must be added in an open, public meeting.
  • Committee membership and participation. Two years ago the Council modified its rules such that only the official members of a Council committee may fully participate in that committee’s meetings; other Councilmembers may not offer amendments nor may they vote on a bill in committee. The working group has clarified some of the more ambiguous areas of those new rules; the effect is largely the same, but the rules anticipate more of the edge cases. Non-committee members may introduce a bill to be referred to the committee, but once it has been referred to that committee they may not participate in the deliberations until it is voted out of committee and before the full Council. It also clarifies what has become a standard practice: non-committee members may draft amendments to a bill being heard in committee, but the committee chair officially shepherds those amendments through the legislative process.
    The working group also clarified the requirements and rules for “Alternate” committee members, who participate only when a regular committee member is absent. A committee is not required to have an alternate appointed. Also, the alternate only participates if a regular committee member is absent for the entire meeting, and not just a part of it.
  • Budget Committee amendments. The working group proposed to codify the amendment rules used in this year’s Budget Committee process, related to requirements for proposed amendments to be circulated in advance of the committee meeting in which they are to be presented and/or voted on.
  • Finance Committee. The working group fixed an oversight: it made the Finance Committee a standing committee of the Council, since it is cited and given certain responsibilities in the City Charter.
  • Parliamentary procedure. The working group adopted the most current edition of Roberts Rules of Order, clarified the Chair’s options for resolving a point of order, established a time limit on when a motion “laid on the table” may be brought back, and clarified the impact of abstaining during a committee vote (Councilmembers are not allowed to abstain in Full Council meeting).

There are some other topics that the working group wrestled with that it didn’t bring forward, though the Councilmembers may offer them as amendments tomorrow afternoon anyway:

Changing the schedule for Council Briefing and Full Council meetings.  Under the Council’s current rules, Council Briefing is held every Monday morning, and the weekly Full Council meeting is held Monday afternoon at 2pm. As the staff memo suggests:

The Monday meeting time often results in last-minute work over the weekend to draft amendments. This has an impact on the health and sustainability of Council staff and provides limited time for public review and discussion of amendments before Full Council action.

The working group recommended that the Council consider moving the full Council meeting to either Tuesday morning or Tuesday afternoon. Doing so would have downstream effects: the displaced Tuesday committee meeting would move to another day; Council Briefing might move to Monday afternoon; and the deadlines for items for the full Council meetings would likely shift.

Electronic participation by Councilmembers at regular committee and full Council meetings. As mentioned previously, the current rules limit remote participation by Councilmembers. The current rules allow for the Council to approve remote, electronic participation for “emergency” and “special” meetings, which can be scheduled at the last minute and under difficult circumstances that require additional flexibility in order to maintain a quorum of voting Councilmembers. The rules also allow a Councilmember who has been granted a leave of absence for a personal situation which would normally entitle them to family, parental, medical, or family care leave to participate remotely. But with COVID restrictions dragging on, the Council will need to wrestle with the question of whether remote participation should be more generously approved. Three options were put forth by the working group:

  • make remote participation always allowable;
  • make remote participation at the discretion of the Chair of the meeting, including potential restrictions or limitations (such as providing advance notice);
  • leave the current policy unchanged.

There were several other possible changes to the rules that the working group discussed but did not bring forward — though Councilmembers might offer any of them as potential amendments tomorrow:

  • Amending the rules of debate to establish a time limit on a single topic, including potentially a time limit on a Councilmember’s comments.
  • Modifying an odd rule in place today wherein a bill that fails to gain a majority vote in committee is still forwarded to the full Council for consideration and final vote. It could be changed such that only bills that receive majority support in committee move forward.
  • Allowing Councilmembers to abstain in full Council meetings when voting on resolutions, which unlike ordinances are legally nonbinding. This would allow, for example, Councilmembers to avoid having to take a position on some of the more obscure resolutions that Councilmember Sawant has brought before the Council related to political issues in other parts of the world.
  • Adding another recess in April, in addition to the current ones in August and December.
  • Granting the Chair additional powers to find Councilmembers out of order when they speak without the Chair’s recognition; including potentially requesting that their audio source be muted if the out-of-order behavior continues (perhaps this should be called the “Sawant Rule”).
  • When a bill’s sponsor requests that it be referred directly to the full Council, bypassing the normal committee process, the preference of the committee chair responsible for that topic area shall be considered by the Council President when deciding whether to grant that request.
  • Clarifying that “substantive legislation should not be referred directly to Council when standing committee meetings are suspended during budget deliberations.”

As of this writing, there are no additional amendments published ahead of the committee meeting for potential consideration tomorrow afternoon. However, some may get posted in the morning or circulated midday, so we shall have to wait to see which ideas are brought forward. This is the first of two committee meetings on the proposed changes; voting will occur at the second, scheduled for December 8th.