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By Shawn Raymundo
City councilors will reconvene for their first regular meeting of the New Year on Tuesday, Jan. 21. When they do, they’re expected to take up what’s likely to be a contentious discussion on amending the council’s procedural rule over placing items on the agenda.
Currently, when a councilmember requests to place a topic for consideration on the agenda—colloquially referred to as agendizing—it requires a three-vote majority of the council to do so. Mayor Pro Tem Laura Ferguson, however, is hoping to reduce the threshold to either one or two votes.
“I believe that the policy needs to change, because to make it a majority to place an item on the agenda, it limits the voice of the people. I think it’s very stifling,” she said, later adding: “It doesn’t mean I agree with (the item) or disagree with it, but it allows for discussion, for members of the population to be heard.”
During the most recent regular city council meeting on Dec. 17, among a fully impaneled council body, Ferguson asked to agendize such discussion, sparking lively debate on the dais, as well an assurance from Councilmember Chris Hamm that the minority will put “ridiculous things on the agenda” not supported by the majority.
“(I’d like) to take up the issue of number of members it takes to bring a topic on agenda for discussion,” Ferguson said, before launching into her formal request. “Do I have any support to bring this policy back for revisions?”
“We already voted on this, I believe, at the last meeting, and we said no,” Councilmember Kathy Ward quickly responded.
“It’s not a policy-oriented action, so I can bring it up again,” Ferguson fired back.
“OK, well, I’m going to say no,” Ward said.
Ferguson had previously made a similar request at the council’s Dec. 3 meeting, from which Hamm was absent and was also the first day on the dais for new Councilmember Gene James.
The mayor pro tem asked to revisit the policy then, suggesting to possibly reduce the threshold down to only one vote in favor of agendizing items for discussion. The motion received pushback from Ward, who said it’s always been the policy of the council to require a majority approval.
“I’ve been on here five or six years, and it’s always been three,” Ward said. “And there’s been times where I didn’t get something on . . . I didn’t always get something agendized, but it was fine.”
Ferguson turned to James to see if he supported the motion, but he responded that he didn’t at that time, concluding the discussion that night.
According to Ferguson, when she was new to the council in December 2018, she was handed the council policy that outlined the procedures for agendizing items. However, she said, the policy was unclear and appeared to only allow the city manager to place items on the agenda.
Last spring, councilors took up discussion on the procedures, resulting in their approving the three-vote majority rule, with Mayor Dan Bane and Ferguson losing their bids for a one- or two-vote threshold, the mayor pro tem explained.
Though her motion was defeated at the Dec. 3 meeting, Ferguson decided to make the request again on Dec. 17, after she had read social media comments expressing support for the change, she told San Clemente Times.
Bane had noted in the late December meeting that several cities only require a two-vote minimum for items to get on an agenda. That “doesn’t mean it’s going to get approved,” he added.
James also chimed in to explain that while he wasn’t prepared to address the issue before, he was then ready to express his support for Ferguson’s request.
“I did some study on it. It appears—I don’t know if you’d call it a best practice—but it appears to be common practice for two councilmembers to put something on the agenda,” he said. “So, I can support the discussion thereof.”
Acknowledging that the majority supported a discussion to amend the agenda procedures, Hamm opined that reducing the threshold to two votes, giving the minority more say in setting the agenda, would prolong city business.
It “doesn’t make any sense to me. And I’m speaking from the minority,” Hamm noted, later pleading with Bane: “I’m hopeful that the rational side of your brain is going to understand that discussing items that aren’t going to be passed is not rational or . . . useful of our time.”
Hamm went on to state that the council is wasting its time discussing the change.
“Kathy and I will be putting ridiculous things on the agenda,” Hamm said, pausing for emphasis, “that the majority doesn’t support. Do you understand what I’m telling you? We’ll have staff wasting time on issues that the majority of council doesn’t support.”
As of press time, Hamm had not responded to a request for comment.
Ferguson acknowledged that giving the minority more say in agendizing items could perhaps put additional work on the city staff’s plate, as they’re tasked with putting together agenda reports. But, she added, that “shouldn’t come at the expense of democracy at work.”
“And I won’t be . . . I can only speak for myself; I won’t bring forth any items that are going to, or at least in my opinion, be frivolous,” she said. “And I hope my fellow councilmembers won’t, either. I believe they’ll be well-intentioned items to improve our city.”
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.