Montgomery County Legislature quarrels over powers

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By ASHLEY ONYON

The Leader-Herald

FONDA — The Montgomery County Legislature voted down proposed amendments to the rules of procedure governing the body this week amid disagreement among the legislators over the powers of board committees.

The resolution to amend the rules and procedures considered by the Legislature on Tuesday was drafted to “improve efficiency and eliminate inconsistencies.” Proposed changes primarily sought to formalize how to proceed in the absence of a committee chairman or of both the clerk and deputy clerk from any meetings.

The resolution would have also updated the procedure to end debate among the legislature by “calling the question.” Support from two-thirds of the body would end debate and lead to the immediate vote on the matter in question. The Legislature already follows this process for ending debate; the change would simply update the phraseology while fully describing the action and subsequent steps.

Additionally, the proposed updates would have expressly required legislators to provide an explanation for the record for abstaining from any vote.

The lack of proposed amendments to the rules governing procedures for committees that review resolutions before they are forwarded to the full board for consideration was a major sticking point for some legislators.

The rules currently require standing committees to recommend the approval or disapproval of resolutions related to the purpose of the specific group by a majority vote. Regardless of the committee’s position, the resolution is ultimately forwarded to the full board for consideration and possible action.

Legislators are appointed to committees by the chairman of the Legislature with most groups calling for five members. Committees reviewing resolutions include personnel, public safety, economic development and planning, education and government, and health and human services. Members of the full board can attend the committee meetings and participate in discussion, but it is up to the committee members to vote on a recommendation.

During discussion on the proposed amendments to the rules and procedures during the Aug. 17 committee meetings, some legislators raised objections to the current protocol that sees resolutions advance to the full board regardless of the opinion of the reviewing committee. They argued committees should be able to vote down a resolution members do not support.

Other legislators backed the existing rules that leave the final decision on resolutions in the hands of the full Legislature. They argued the opinions of the committee provide food for thought to inform final decisions on legislation.

No changes to the committee structure were included in the updates considered Tuesday leading several legislators to renew their calls for committees to be granted the authority to “kill” resolutions that receive disapproval from members.

“Despite what your vote is, the resolution goes to the full board,” District 3 Legislator Roy Dimond said. “That’s the part I really have a problem with, I’m not sure why you would vote if your vote doesn’t count.”

He went on to say that he would resign from his committee appointments if the structure is not changed.

“If my vote doesn’t count, then it would be hypocritical for me to be here,” Dimond said.

District 4 Legislator Robert Headwell Jr. agreed, saying the current structure effectively limits the authority of committees to simply discussing legislation.

“I don’t understand what the whole purpose of voting yes or no in a committee meeting is if it really doesn’t make a difference,” Headwell said.

Those arguments were unconvincing to District 6 Legislator John Duchessi, who said the discussion brought out by committee members help inform the decisions of the full board.

Duchessi and District 9 Legislator Robert Purtell previously voiced strong opposition to empowering committees to vote down resolutions, arguing the final decision should rest with the full board and alterations to the committee structure would allow committee members to control the activities of the Legislature. Headwell contended this was not the case as any legislator could motion to introduce a resolution to the full board during regular meetings.

The discussion on Tuesday quickly resulted in an impasse as the opposing sides seemed unlikely to budge on their positions. Dimond motioned to send the resolution back to committee for further discussion, but that action was defeated 4-5.

Sweet, Diamond, District 5 Legislator Daniel Wilson and Chairman Michael Pepe supported the motion. Duchessi, Purtell and District 2 Legislator Brian Sweet voted against the action. The absences of District 1 Legislator Martin Kelly and District 8 Legislator Joseph Isabel registered as automatic no votes.

Headwell then suggested putting the resolution to a vote, the failure of which would allow the proposed amendments to be reintroduced in committee as a new resolution for renewed discussion. The ensuing vote failed 3-6 with Duchessi, Purtell and Sweet supporting the resolution as presented.

By Paul Wager