Additional Thoughts (Feb 13, 2021) – Council Rules and Snow Removal

Feb 13, 2021 | City Council

The following was originally published in my Feb 13, 2021 Newsletter in the “Additional Thoughts” section.

Two especially interesting items on this week’s agenda are DC-2 and DC-3: a motion to reconsider recently approved Council Rules (DC-2) and a resolution to address more effective snow removal downtown in the DDA district (DC-3).

DC-2 (21-0229) Motion to Reconsider the February 1, 2021 Vote that Approved the Resolution to Approve Amendments to the Council Rules

At our meeting on February 1st, Council approved new Council Rules with significant changes, specifically regulating the speech of Council members both inside and outside of our meetings. In the context of meetings, the new rules aimed to limit substantive discussion and debate of agenda items with shorter speaking times for Council Members. The rules also define a new violation, if any Council member speaks to “assail, question or impugn the integrity, character, or motives of another Member.” At the full discretion of the Mayor, a Council Member will be given extra speaking time if they feel that this rule has been violated by speech during or outside of a meeting. At the discretion of the Administrative Committee, these terms can also define an ethics violation for speech outside of a meeting (“in another public venue”). In our Council debate, I supported three different amendments aimed at removing this vague and highly subjective rule, but all three amendments were rejected by a majority of Council.

A few days after Council approved these new Rules, a local attorney (and active member of the ACLU) asked me about them and pointed out a potential “chilling effect” on free speech. The phrase “chilling effect” is a legal term that refers to how the mere threat of possible sanction discourages the legitimate expression of dissent. Our Council debate on these new rules during the Feb 1st meeting did make clear exactly what kind of speech would be targeted: criticism and dissent. At one point, the Mayor explained:

It’s not particularly complicated to have this not be a problem, and that is we all simply avoid speaking about each other in a way that assails, questions, or impugns their integrity, character or motives. We don’t talk about suggestions of improper influence, we don’t talk about or declaim on hypocrisy.

I look forward to re-visiting our Rules and I especially look forward to hearing an opinion from the ACLU about them.

DC-3 (21-0286) Resolution to Request that the City Administrator Determine the Cost and Feasibility of Supplemental Snow and Ice Removal of our Pedestrian Infrastructure to Improve Pedestrian Safety within the DDA Boundaries

Agenda item DC-3 has been introduced by my colleague, Council Member Ali Ramlawi, who owns a downtown business and also serves on the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) Partners committee. This resolution asks our City Administrator to consider the cost and feasibility of improved snow removal for the safety of pedestrians in the downtown area. Though not specifically referenced in the resolution, this is a particularly sensible proposal because of potential collaboration with the DDA and the University. I appreciate the perspective and experience of CM Ramlawi on issues like this – he has a better understanding of our downtown needs than any other member of Council.

At our last meeting, Council considered a similar resolution on the much larger (and more unwieldy) task of snow removal city-wide. One of my colleagues proposed that the City simply collaborate with and expand on the small neighborhood-based volunteer program, Snow Buddy. It happens that the Snow Buddy program was actively studied several years ago, so the City already knows how and why that model is not a viable strategy for city-wide snow removal. When Council discussed this idea, staff helpfully offered additional explanation: the City cannot rely on volunteers because we must comply with minimum wage ordinances. That overly-broad resolution was set aside by Council, postponed to an indefinite date.

What’s contemplated in DC-3 is realistic and achievable. If DC-3 leads to some measure of success downtown, it is much closer to the exact model that could be expanded for better snow removal services city-wide. As a pilot program, it would make a lot of sense.