Calling The Question: Town Council Considers New Rules To Cut Off Debate

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Council Did Not Allow Debate On A Letter Of Response To The Community Safety Working Group, Prompting Concerns About Undermining Democratic Process

At the February 8 meeting of the Town Council, a discussion about the Council’s response to a letter of complaint, directed to the Council by the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG), turned into a contentious discussion about processes governing debate and how and when debate can be ended. 

At the Council’s January 25 meeting, Community Safety Working Group Chair Paul Wiley and Vice Chair Brianna Owen read a two-page letter criticizing Councilor Alisa Brewer (At large) for pointing out what she believed was an error in process when their second public forum, on January 16, was called to order before all participants had been admitted to the Zoom call. The letter can be viewed here. Although Brewer was called on by the facilitator, Wylie and Owen noted that they had requested that speakers defer to BIPOC people in the audience and allow them to speak first in the forum. They felt that the “ interruption”  by a White person with standing in Town government was detrimental to the safe space the Working Group wanted to create and maintain for members of the BIPOC community, so that they can share their personal experiences. (See previous reporting in The Indy here).

Brewer immediately crafted a response to the concerns of the CSWG, saying she did not mean to disrupt the work of the group. (See here and here) .

Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) had also drafted a letter from the entire Council in response to the CSWG and had included it in the Council packet prior to its meeting. In this letter she states that “the Council appreciates the honest and clearly stated letter from the CSWG holding town leaders accountable for words and actions that cause harm to people traditionally marginalized by government structures.” The letter emphasizes the Council’s support of the CSWG work and the need for the Council to “take on the self-examination of our own racist attitudes.” The Council is currently looking at dates for a weekend workshop on undoing racism, and Griesemer is compiling past emails to the Council and public comments at Council meetings regarding the police.

Griesemer made a motion to accept the letter and send it to the CSWG. In the strangest part of the Council meeting, Council Vice President Evan Ross (District 4) seconded the motion and immediately called the question. The vote to call the question garnered the two-thirds votes necessary at 9-2-2 with Councilors Brewer and Cathy Schoen (District 1) abstaining, and Darcy DuMont (District 5) and Andy Steinberg (at large) voting no.

Hence, there was no discussion of the matter, and the Council proceeded to an immediate vote on accepting the letter. The Council voted to send the letter by a vote of 8-1-4, with Steinberg voting no, and Brewer, DuMont, Schoen, and Dorothy Pam (District 3) abstaining.

Following the vote, DuMont stated that calling the question immediately and preventing any discussion of the matter at hand seemed anti-democratic. Pat DeAngelis (District 2) asked Ross why he cut off debate. He replied that he “wanted to move the meeting along,” and since the motion (to call the question) had passed, the matter was concluded. DeAngelis replied that that his answer was not sufficient. 

The matter was again raised when the Council discussed amending the Council Rules and Procedures 6.3. The Governance, Operations, and Legislation Committee recommended that Councilors be limited to speaking for two minutes at a time, instead of the current three minutes, and that they not interrupt each other or speak without recognition except to raise a point of order or to call the previous question. Steinberg objected, saying that to allow someone to interrupt another’s two or three minutes of speaking to call the question encourages rudeness. He said he was still angry that Ross had called the previous question (about the CSWG letter). Schoen agreed and said it almost seemed planned. Steve Schreiber (District 4) stated that Robert’s Rules of Order specifies the circumstances when someone can interrupt a speaker and calling the question is not one of them.

DuMont , Brewer, and Schoen felt that three minutes is often necessary for Councilors to express their thoughts. Brewer felt there are better ways to shorten meetings, such as limiting the time for presentations. Pam thought that if there is very little discussion at meetings, residents in attendance will infer that many decisions are made in back rooms. Since this was the first reading of the proposed rules changes, the proposal to allow interruption to call the question will be voted on at a future meeting. The Councilors did not address further their concerns about calling the question and ending debate before it starts. 

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