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Years of sniping between councillors, stumbling over Robert’s Rules of Order and open meeting law complaints from citizens already had the City Council reconsidering how it runs its meetings, but Mayor David Maher has added a streamlining of council committees to the list of potential changes for this two-year term.

The council refers complicated issues to its committees, which hold hearings and send back voting advice. Maher formed a Mayor’s Special Ad-hoc Committee last month that met twice and recommends combining related topics so the nine councillors wind up with 11 committees instead of the current 17. It also set quorums for each – at least three councillors for meetings of the nine-member Ordinance and Finance committees and at least two for the others.

The Government Operations and Rules committee, for instance, would be combined with the Claims committee, and the Economic Development, Training and Employment committee would be combined with the University Relations committee.

Demands were too great

“This is all being done to make the way we run and hold committee meetings more efficient and more palatable,” Maher said at Monday’s full council meeting. “If you look at attendance at committee meetings, I think quite honestly the demands on individual members with 17 committees was just too great. [This] makes it more manageable. My belief is committee assignments for the most part will fall where people’s interests are. If there are too many slots, what winds up happening is that you’re just assigning folks – and their interests may not align. It contributes to not having the best attendance.”

As a result, committees have held hearings where there are too few members to vote.

Councillors who hadn’t been part of the four-member ad-hoc group probed to see if there were even better options: making all committees “of the whole,” meaning listing the entire council as members as with Ordinance and Finance; shrinking the number of committees even more, to eight or nine from 17; and doing away with proposed four-member committees in favor of five-member committees. The quorum would still be two, councillor Nadeem Mazen said, but it would be easier to get a majority with an odd number of voters.

“Let’s try it on”

E. Denise Simmons, who was on the ad-hoc group, urged fellow councillors to try the rule changes proposed Monday.

“We did look at several iterations, and this was the best,” Simmons said. “This was a very thoughtful process … I would ask the council, let’s try it on, see how it works.”

She pointed out that with matters before the council already being referred to committees, the naming of their members shouldn’t be held up much longer. For the past two terms, protracted negotiations over who would be mayor delayed committee memberships through February. (Maher did go ahead and name vice mayor Dennis Benzan and councillor Dennis Carlone as co-chairmen of the Ordinance Committee for 2014-15, since its membership includes all nine councillors.)

The structure can be reworked again next term, and further questions could arise Monday when the changes are voted. It’s required that they sit on unfinished business for a week after discussion.

Suspending the rules

Councillor Craig Kelley votes routinely against suspending council rules for late policy orders, and on Monday expanded his objections to a vote change.

Councillor Craig Kelley votes routinely against suspending council rules for late policy orders, and on Monday expanded his objections to a vote change.

The ad-hoc group itself drew an open-meeting law complaint from John Hawkinson, a freelance reporter whose content has been hosted on Cambridge Day. Hawkinson complained that the group’s meetings – Jan. 21 and 27 – had been not been posted online for residents who might want to attend, although they had apparently been posted on a bulletin board in City Hall.

While “keenly conscious” that a four-member committee didn’t have to post notice at all, since four members of the council don’t constitute a quorum, Hawkinson wrote, “if a notice is going to be posted and a committee is to meet, in this day and age failing to post notice of the meeting on the city’s website is not excusable.”

With a legal opinion about suspending council rules for late resolutions and policy orders on the agenda, Maher acknowledged it was a little funny to be doing it – but he suspended the rules anyway so the city clerk and city solicitor could get started on a response to Hawkinson’s just-filed complaint. The problem with late orders, as councillors Leland Cheung and Craig Kelley noted when they raised the issue back in August 2011: By bringing orders and resolutions forward at the end of meetings, the council votes without hearing any potential public comment. Hawkinson has also wrangled with the city clerk over at what point in a meeting paper copies of late orders are delivered to the public.

Kelley votes routinely against suspending the rules for late matters, but on Monday he took a stand against another form of suspension – Simmons’ request to be recorded as voting to approve the city manager’s agenda for the meeting, when she’d been out of the room at the time of the actual vote for approval. The council has to approve such suspensions unanimously.

Getting sloppy

In the past term, then-mayor Henrietta Davis changed a key vote without getting the suspension of the rules needed from the council, and later then-councillor Minka vanBeuzekom sparked controversy with a request for suspension to change her vote and, when that failed, a demand for reconsideration of the vote as a whole.

“I’ve felt strongly that suspending the rules is just generally a bad thing. We wind up getting sloppy and forget what we’ve done and things get very confusing,” Kelley said. “I don’t know what difference it makes, this suspension, and I’m not supportive of this.”

“[Maybe if] it changed the outcome of the vote,” Kelley said. “We change our rules too cavalierly for a variety of reasons, none of which are too earthshaking, and I would like us to rethink how we do that.”

Mazen agreed there needed to be a conversation about when it was appropriate to suspend the rules to seem present for a vote, although he was willing to grant suspension this time and stressed that his thoughts were given “without any prejudice or insult” to Simmons.

No matter. Councillor Tim Toomey called the questioning of Simmons’ request “one of the pettiest things I’ve seen here in my years of service” and retaliated by saying it was time to consider also whether it was proper for councillors to be using laptops, tablets and smartphones during meetings, charging both that he doubted what was happening on them was all council business and that, if it was, maybe it should be open to public scrutiny.

Update on May 3, 2014: The council committee assignments for the 2014-15 term can be found here.