At the most recent council meeting (February 7, 2018) there was significant discussion related to the use of Emergency Clauses attached to ordinances – how and when to use them. The topic came up during the discussion around Ordinance 5-2018 to authorize an agreement with the City of Montgomery to allow the housing of some prisoners at the Springdale jail. The ordinance had an emergency clause attached due to ‘the need to execute the agreement at the earliest possible date.’ This language has been used in the past in cases where the City needs the flexibility to respond to bid responses related to public safety, respond to legal actions, and similar.
A little background on the legislative process, the current City Charter calls for proposed ordinances to be introduced in writing by a member of Council, before adoption the proposal must be read twice at separate meetings (on different days) before a vote can be taken to enact the legislation. If passed the legislation goes into effect 30-days from signature.
The City Charter allows flexibility, when the situation dictates, to waive portions of this process including the type of readings (full or just the title), number of readings (one or two), as well as the waiting period before the ordinance is effective. The decision to use any of these legislative options as well as determining if an emergency clause should be attached rests with City Council.
While I believe there are certainly times this method for legislation is appropriate I feel that the use of this clause should be done judiciously. The multiple reading process allows for public awareness and provides multiple opportunities for feedback and collaboration. The feedback from City Council to the Administration reinforced this operating procedure.
Why is this Important?
In my view there are two primary reasons why this is worth discussion (and additional time spent at meetings and for ordinances to pass):
- The current charter (which is a matter of law) says as council members we have a responsibility to enact ordinances this way.
- There is a meaningful difference between passing ordinances and informing the public of what we did compared with discussing what we intend to do and inviting feedback and collaboration. Frankly we live in an open democratic society, not a autocracy and the default position of public services should be open and deliberate.
In this specific case the City is considering bringing prisoners in from out of our city, a space sharing agreement we have with other nearby communities. The merits of the agreement are certainly debatable – what prompted the discussion on the Emergency Clause use started this thread. When asked for discussion on the urgency or risks to public safety, in my opinion, there was there was not sufficient justification so I motioned to amend the proposed legislation to remove the emergency clause (which was then seconded and the amendments passed). The legislation will be up for a second reading next council session.