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Council using more abstentions

Absent conflict, reasons for not voting come under question

– When is a vote not a vote?

City Council members technically only have a choice of voting “yes” or “no” on the measures before them, but more and more often, some of the officials elected to represent Fort Wayne residents are making a third choice: abstaining.

“I don’t know why that’s going on,” said Council President Tom Smith, R-1st. “I really don’t.”

Just a few years ago, an abstention – which is technically not a vote – was a rarity, and when it happened the member abstaining almost always explained that they were not voting to avoid a conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest.

It happened rarely enough that when the abstention was not explained, media members would ask about it later.

Now the move is so common that some committee chairmen routinely ask whether there are any abstentions when taking a vote. Almost never does a member of the City Council explain the reason an abstention is necessary.

“They can vote for it, they can vote against it, or they can abstain,” City Clerk Sandy Kennedy said. “They don’t have to give a reason for abstaining. … I don’t know why they abstain, and no one asks them why.”

Given the hundreds of votes council members cast in a year, the number of abstentions is relatively small. But they are happening more often. There have been 38 abstentions in the past three years, according to city records.

Of those, 15 were uttered by Mitch Harper, R-4th. Councilman Marty Bender, R-at large, a deputy police chief who abstains from votes involving public safety and city employee benefits, voiced eight abstentions.

“You can’t make someone vote. You also can’t force them not to vote,” said Nancy Sylvester, an Illinois-based parliamentary procedure expert who has twice been named parliamentarian for the National Association of Parliamentarians. “But there sure is a responsibility, particularly in an elected position, to cast votes on all issues. An abstention is not to get away from voting, but to not vote when you have a conflict of interest.”

But because abstentions by City Council members are rarely, if ever, explained, there is no way to know the reason such actions were deemed necessary.

Councilman Tom Didier, R-3rd, said he believes it’s unfair that he has to take a public stance with an up-or-down vote on an issue while others can simply abstain with no explanation.

“I feel you should vote,” Didier said. “Mitch Harper abstains all the time and for what reason I don’t know. These guys don’t even explain their abstentions anymore.”

Smith said in the future he will consider asking members to explain why they are not voting.

“They have every right to abstain, but people would like to know the reason why,” Smith said. “(Not explaining) raises more questions than it answers. If you’ve got a good reason, just state it – no harm, no foul.”

But Sylvester disagrees. She said there is harm in abstaining when there is no legal reason to do so, such as a potential conflict of interest, because you’re failing to represent your constituents.

“You voted them into office to make decisions – not just the easy ones, not just the slam dunks. Heck, you could probably do without the easy ones – you voted them into office for the difficult decisions,” Sylvester said. “Abstaining when there’s not a conflict of interest is many times, not all, the action of a gutless wonder.”

Harper said he agrees elected officials have an obligation to vote. But he often abstains, he said, because they are issues the council should not be voting on.

For example, under state law, measures before the council must be voted on twice to be approved. The council holds a committee session every week where it does the majority of its business, and then a regular session every other week where it gives final approval to bills coming out of committee.

Harper said the council should not vote in regular session on bills that failed in committee, so he often abstains.

“I’m sorry, it’s dead,” Harper said. “Until it passes out of committee, it’s not ripe for action for the regular body.”

He said he also abstains on procedural grounds. The council’s job is to approve spending, he said, but contracts are often up for consideration. When the council approves the contract, the administration assumes it has also approved the spending, when that is actually not the case, Harper said.

He agreed that any council member abstaining should explain why. He said he has tried to in the past only to be shushed.

“I was trying to explain, and it was like, ‘You’re holding up the meeting,’ ” Harper said. “I’ve even raised my hand to try to explain, gotten a shake of the head ‘no,’ and off we go.”

Russ Jehl, R-2nd, has abstained four times in the year he has been on the council. He said he disagrees with the assertion that he is not taking a stand on an issue.

He cites the recent move by the city to give the Public Safety Training Academy to Ivy Tech Community College, saying he agreed with the move but didn’t think the city should be giving it away for free.

“It was just a poorly constructed deal,” Jehl said. “So I didn’t want to stand in the way of progress, but I also didn’t want to support something that didn’t exercise our fiduciary responsibility as council members.”

Another example, he said, was the purchase of new radios for police and firefighters. At the committee meeting, it was not clear how the city would pay for the radios.

“Obviously we need to equip our public safety officers,” Jehl said. “But I wasn’t willing to approve it without knowing where the funds were coming from.”

By the time of the regular session, he said, the funding was explained and he could vote in favor of it. That way, he said, he didn’t have to support improper spending but also did not hold up the purchase.

“I can understand that perspective (of needing to vote),” Jehl said. “But you can make your point without being an obstructionist.”

Sylvester said that Roberts Rules of Order – which the City Council follows – does not require that members explain why they are not voting, but much of the issue can be avoided if members do so.

“It’s so people understand it’s not that you’re running from a decision,” Sylvester said.

And she reiterated that abstentions should be used only to avoid a conflict of interest.

“Vote,” Sylvester said. “That’s what you were elected to do.”

To vote or not to vote?

Since January 2010, City Council has voted on nearly 700 measures at its weekly meetings. During that time there have been 38 abstentions by current or former members, according to city records. Here’s a breakdown:
Tom Smith, R-1st…0
Karen Goldner, D-2nd*…1
Russ Jehl, R-2nd**…4
Tom Didier, R-3rd…0
Mitch Harper, R-4th…15
Geoff Paddock, D-5th**…0
Tim Pape, D-5th*…7
Glynn Hines, D-6th…0
Marty Bender, R-at large…8
Liz Brown, R-at large*…0
John Crawford, R-at large**…3
John Shoaff, D-at large…0
*Members Goldner, Pape and Brown
left council at end of 2011
**Members Jehl, Paddock and Crawford
joined council at beginning of 2012

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