Split council seeks harmony for meetings

Agenda rules changed after long discussion; lien waiver fails again
Reporter Editor

A fractured—and sometimes fractious—Rockdale City Council, changed the way it does business at council meetings Monday, seeking a way to make its public deliberations more efficient.

On a 4-2 split vote, following a lively and emotional discussion of almost an hour, the council voted to return to its pre-2009 way of placing items on its agenda.

Any two council members may still place items on an agenda but mayoral approval will now be needed. Currently, any two council members may act by themselves to place items.

The change drew strong condemnation from council member Melody Dawson and from former councilwoman Dr. Fannie Lovelady-Spain, who is Dawson’s mother.

Dr. Spain charged the move “circumvents public deliberation” and “sets a dangerous precedent.”

“You were elected so you can take care of our business if it takes all night,” she told the council.

Mayor Larry Jones said he placed t he item— co -w r it ten by himself and City Attorney Michelle Lehmkuhl—on Monday’s agenda after some council members came to him with concerns over council meetings so serious they were considering resigning.

The discussion featured several pointed exchanges between Dawson and Lehmkuhl and between Dawson and Jones.

Also Monday, on a pair of 4-3 votes, with Jones casting tie-breakers, the council refused to create a policy of forgiving liens placed on property where the city has either demolished a substandard structure or mowed and cleaned up a yard.

The council tabled for fine tuning an ordinance which would create the first-ever reservation system for pavilions at Veterans Memorial Park and Fair Park.

AGENDA—Jones said the agenda proposal was in response to a series of recent lengthy council sessions and the feeling among some members the deliberative body was using time and energy on “many items, not the kinds of things that have to be discussed in a council meeting, that could be resolved in other ways.”

Last month the council was to have heard a proposal to have regular sessions more than once a month, due to its series of lengthy meetings, but that discussion was delayed until November.

Dawson said she has received calls and comments from citizens saying they appreciate her efforts and added: “I’m not here to feel good. I’m here to work for the people.”

Dawson asked Jones to name the council members who had approached him over the matter.

Jones declined but, later in the session, Councilman Willie Phillips identified himself as one of those members expressing concerns.

“This isn’t me,” Jones said. “I don’t relish being the ‘bad guy.’ This is proposed as one solution. If you want to pursue other solutions, that’s fine with me.”

PHONE CALL—Lehmkuhl said the city council is “primarily a policy making body.”

“Not everything needs to be an agenda item,” she said. “A lot of things can get resolved by a phone call or an e-mail to the city manager.”

Phillips said he agreed with that assessment. “I think a lot of things could be answered before we even get here,” he said.

Council member Joyce Dalley said returning to the pre-2009 agenda rules did not eliminate the opportunity for citizens to bring concerns before the council.

She pointed out anyone can sign up to speak prior to any meeting. “I don’t see a whole lot of people lining up to do that,” she said.

TIME LIMITS—Lehmkuhl and Dawson agreed that the council could follow Robert’s Rules of Order more closely.

Lehmkuhl said she believes any council member could shorten lengthy discussions by simply “calling the question” for a vote once a motion has been made and seconded.

Councilman Doug Calame, after noting the council had now been discussing the matter for 45 minutes, asked if a time limit could be imposed both on council visitors and on council members during discussions.

Jones asked Dalley, who had made the original motion, if she wanted to amend it to include time limits.

She declined and the motion to change agenda policy passed 4-2 with Dalley, Calame, Phillips and Colby Fisher voting in favor. Dawson and Toby Johnson voted against.

In addition to two council members, items may also be placed on an agenda by the mayor and city manager. That portion of the policy did not change.

LIENS—In a continuation of a discussion from last month, the council decided not to create a policy of allowing persons to ask for lien forgiveness.

That discussion also featured an exchange between Dawson and City Attorney Lehmkuhl, who maintained such a policy would be contrary to Texas law as using public funds for a private purpose.

Dawson had raised the issue after Robert Lawhon requested removal of a lien on a piece of property, which he said he would purchase, then clean up.

She emphasized that Lawhon wasn’t told about the lien until months later, termed a “clerical error” by the city.

Last month the council asked Lehmkuhl to prepare a policy for consideration by the council to create a way for persons to come before the council and request lien forgiveness.

Lehmkuhl presented two policies, one creating a process for lien forgiveness, one prohibiting it.

“We got two policies, one saying ‘yes’ and one saying ‘no’,” Dawson said. “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen the city management do that.”

“Obviously, you can do something that’s against the law,” Lehmkuhl said. “But I’m not going to practice law by saying ‘here’s a way you can do it’.”

Dawson’s proposal to create a lien-forgiveness policy failed, then Calame proposed the “no lien” policy be adopted. That motion passed.

In each case the vote was 3-3 with Dawson, Johnson and Phillips voting in favor of a lien-forgiveness policy and Calame, Fisher and Dalley against.

Rockdale mayors vote only to break ties and Jones cast his vote against lien forgiveness in each case.

PAVILIONS—The council tabled for fine tuning, a proposal to institute a first-ever reservation system for pavilions at Veterans Memorial Park and Fair Park.

Knauf said in each case the reservation would be free. “It would still be on a first-come, first-serve basis most of the time,” he said. “The only time anyone would ever have to move would be if they were using it and someone showed up who had already reserved it.”

Knauf said reservations would be clearly posted at the pavilions.

In other business, council members:

• Rezoned property at 229 North Wilcox to facilitate a parking lot at Miller-Starnes Chevrolet Buick.

• Gave second reading approval to an ordinance lowering weekday fees at the Patterson Center.

• Discussed purchasing computers, sof tware and related equipment for the police department.

• Endorsed the Milam Appraisal District budget for 2013.

• Okayed an agreement with the Rockdale Volunteer Fire Department for sale and disposal of a 1992 rescue truck.

• Gave first-reading approval to the city’s ordinance prohibiting parking recreational vehicles in certain circumstances.

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