[image-1]At Tuesday’s Charleston City Council meeting, Councilman Bill Moody brought up an interesting procedural challenge that could have a wide-ranging effect on every decision city officials have made over the past several months and beyond.
To give you a bit of background, Councilman Rodney Williams was physically absent from June and July’s council meetings, casting his vote by speakerphone in a fashion very similar to the boss man from Charlie’s Angels. Also remember that it was during last month’s marathon meeting that the city narrowly reaffirmed its support of the West Ashley bike and pedestrian lane. During that meeting, Moody spoke out strongly against converting a lane of traffic into a dedicated bike lane, and concerns were raised about Councilman Williams voting by phone. Returning for Tuesday’s meeting of council, it was clear that Moody had done his homework — springing what I have dubbed “Moody’s Gambit.”
Citing a subsection of City Council’s rules of order, Moody argued that Williams’ votes should not be counted because they were cast over the phone. According to the stipulation governing the use of electronic devices, “No person shall possess or use an electronic device, including but not limited to mobile phones, pagers, and computers, that emits an audio alert or sound, unless such device is equipped for a vibration or other silent alert, in any meeting conducted by the city, including but not limited to meetings of city council, city boards and commissions or special meetings.”
[image-2]The section goes on to state, “However, in no event shall any person verbally communicate on a two-way radio or mobile phone during any city meeting. Nothing in this provision shall apply to the clerk of council’s office in executing the official duties of that position. Any person who violates this section shall be removed from council chamber and shall not be readmitted unless absent the offending device.”
If council is to contend that this rule does not specifically prohibit voting by speakerphone, Moody argued that they are required to default to Robert’s Rules of Order, which he said would also not allow Williams’ votes to stand. This was when the true scope of Moody’s House of Cards-style play came into vision.
[image-3]Looking back at July’s meeting, Moody said that the only decision made by council that would be affected is — you guessed it, the bike lane reaffirmation, which passed by a vote of 7-6. According to Moody, ignoring Williams’ vote would lead to a tie, at which point rules dictate that the matter at hand be “decided in the negative,” thus not reaffirming the city’s support of the bike lane. As a side note, it was also during this meeting that Moody said West Ashley had been handed a “crap sandwich,” which should have cost him $10 for swearing if you follow council’s rules of order. But back to the bike lane.
“If that’s the case, then what we end up doing is we completely reverse that vote. With that being said, you sent a letter to Charleston County saying that we had reaffirmed that commitment,” Moody told the mayor. “My point of order is that we did not reaffirm that commitment, and that vote should have never been allowed.”
With the bike lane seemingly in check, Moody’s fellow council members reminded him of the ramifications that this move could have on past votes, reaching back further than just this June.
“This has happened more than once, and if what you’re saying is true, then not only do we go through June and July, but we go through every single time that we as a body voted by phone,” said Councilman William Dudley Gregory. Councilman Mike Seekings, a strong advocate for the bike lane, pointed out that all council members voted by phone when they decided to close access to the Charleston peninsula during last October’s historic flooding.
Mayor John Tecklenburg, who ruled in a previous meeting as council chairman that Williams’ votes were permissible, said he had also been looking through council’s rules of order and the vote stands.
“I must most respectfully say that the part that you just cited, I believe clearly the intent was that we not be talking to folks on the phone during meetings. It wasn’t intended to address voting by phone or whether it’s allowed. And since I’ve been mayor, we’ve had three separate meetings where voting and participation has been allowed by telephone, not just committee meetings, but meetings of this council,” Tecklenburg told Moody. “From my perspective, it was allowed and we had a precedent. I asked the clerk of council and our attorney prior to the June meeting whether it was OK and got the same answer you all got when we addressed this matter, and that is in the absence of specific denial of allowing voting by telephone or electronic means that state law does allow it. Although Robert’s Rules is called into question, as long as state law allows it, that takes predominance.”
So where does that leave us and the bike lane reaffirmation? Well, Councilman Keith Waring said city officials should seek outside legal counsel, perhaps from the Attorney General’s Office, which Tecklenburg agreed to look into. In the meantime, who knows what is real anymore? Maybe the past few months have been all for naught? While attorneys look over what exactly has transpired, I guess the city gets to sit in a sort of limbo — waiting to see if Moody’s Gambit is anything more than a simple misunderstanding.