A better way to revise city ordinances

By Chelsea Maude Avirett | Oct 20, 2016

Rockland City Council has introduced two significant ordinance revisions recently: short-term rentals and the guidelines for power-generation facilities. Each involved significant discussion with the public, staff and even consultants. For both, significant revisions were made to the legislation at every step of the process, at committee level and as council reviewed it.

Such revision is unavoidable. Difficult questions must be vetted thoroughly. Often issues arise late in the process that weren’t apparent in the initial consideration. Councilors have strong opinions about the policy questions, and it takes time to come to consensus about those issues. Citizens often have competing viewpoints on an issue that must be considered.

While the process will always be complex, council could certainly be more organized about it. Currently, significant discussion of an ordinance revision is often delayed until second reading, which means that many changes occur as the process should be wrapping up. Instead, the amendments trigger a restart of the process, which takes up a lot of council time and staff time, because they have to be on hand to answer any questions that come up. While council has been experimenting with hosting workshops so that public comment does not occur at the end of the process as well, there’s no consistent procedure for when or how that happens.

In the October agenda-setting meeting, the mayor and city manager presented a procedure for streamlining this ordinance revision process. The proposed procedure is intended to allow staff time to fully review an ordinance revision and address administrative concerns they may have, especially with regard to how the ordinance would be implemented and enforced, and so reduce some of the last-minute amendments.

The proposed procedure has two significant problems. First, it largely removes councilors from the conceptual aspects of ordinance revision and so shifts the legislative and policy-making responsibility from councilors to staff. As a result, it also removes the conceptual work of policy-making from the public view and public comment. Because this is the proposed process for major ordinance revisions, it is absolutely vital that council direct the process and that the public be involved in the process.

The proposed process does not require or even prioritize explicit council direction of major ordinance revisions. It proposes that a councilor outline a potential ordinance revision to either the city manager or fellow councilors (in an agenda-setting meeting). Then, staff and (if relevant) a committee would review the concept and “a draft ordinance would be written,” reviewed by legal, and “presented to the councilor,” who would introduce it to council in first reading. The councilor proposing the change might be consulted in the staff review stage, but that is an option, rather than an assumption. Public workshops are not required or even mentioned.

The proposed procedure falters primarily because it muddles the distinctions between policy-making and administrative review. The process for determining the proper scope of an ordinance revision involves many policy decisions. Under this new proposal, such policy-making could potentially be left largely to staff as they draft the ordinance. While staff currently draft ordinances (and should, because of their legal and technical nature), this process should occur only after council direction and, ideally, public feedback.

A better solution to tidy up council’s legislative process would be to address the core problem: the lack of council-level and public discussion about specific ordinance proposals before they are drafted. This could be easily accomplished if councilors set aside time in each agenda-setting meeting to discuss upcoming legislation.

Such discussion should include determining whether there is council support for the legislation, a discussion of policy issues, outlining parameters council wants to set in the legislation, time for staff feedback on the administrative issues (either in person or in writing), and public comment. Major ordinance revisions probably would require a longer workshop with all of these items; minor ordinance revisions could be covered quickly.

After such discussion, staff could then take this clear direction from council and draft an ordinance that reflects council parameters while also making sense from an administrative perspective.

Such a procedure would require council to plan ahead — councilors would have to inform the public and staff about the general intent of a proposed ordinance revision sufficiently before the agenda-setting meeting and sufficient time would have to be set aside for these discussions and public comment. And councilors would have to think through and come to consensus on thorny issues before staff drafted those into legislation.

But this is not the only way the current process could be itself revised. Another flaw in the proposed ordinance review is that it was proposed as a new procedure to follow, rather than introduced as a discussion about staff’s legitimate concerns regarding a disorganized legislative process. A discussion would have allowed council to evaluate and to brainstorm possible solutions instead of debating the merits of one approach.

In the current process, the balance among policy decisions, public feedback, and staff administrative review is indeed inconsistent and sometimes one or the other is elided. Revising how council proposes ordinances should happen in November as a new council begins work, but councilors should not ignore their legislative responsibility or the necessity to have policy discussions in the public eye. When councilors do not direct these policy decisions, they abdicate their role as councilors.

Comments (1)
Posted by: David E Myslabodski | Oct 20, 2016 20:16

Re "The proposed procedure has two significant problems."

 

Two problems say you . . .

 

THIRD Problem: The proposal goes against Charter and Code.

 

FOURTH Problem: If the present members of city council would just read and follow Charter and Code . . .



ROCKLAND NEEDS TWO NEW AND INDEPENDENT COUNCILORS!



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