We're not sure that we understand the need for the Albany City Council's "guest councilor" provision, which allows for absent councilors to designate a nonvoting stand-in during an extended time away.
The provision allowing these guest councilors was hatched in 2009, and it's been used since then exactly once: on Wednesday, when the council voted 4-2 to allow Scott Pierson, a member of the city's Budget Commission, to sit in as a nonvoting member while Councilor Mike Sykes is on a long-planned five-week vacation.
Before we move on, it's important to note that we have no objection to city councilors taking vacations, even extended vacations. It's not as if these council posts are paid positions. For all intents and purposes, serving on the City Council amounts to an extremely demanding half-time volunteer job. So it's fine for Sykes to take his vacation.
But do we need provisions for councilors to designate stand-ins? The stand-ins can't vote on matters before the council. They can comment on issues, but so can anybody in the audience who signs in to speak. The one big advantage a stand-in might have is slightly better seating arrangements at the front of the room with the rest of the council, but even that can backfire: It's harder to slip out the back during meetings if you're right at the front of the room.
The fact that this provision has been used just once since 2009 suggests that there's not a huge need for it.
And something else has changed since 2009: Thanks to the internet, even councilors who are out of town for an extended period easily can keep tabs on the council's business. The meetings themselves are streamed on the internet. The documents to be considered by the council are posted on the web. Absent councilors even could take advantage of old-school technology and participate in a meeting via a telephone call. And, even though we have no objection to councilors taking vacation, it is not outside the call of duty for them to keep tabs on events while they're away.
In fact, the vote Wednesday night to allow Pierson to sit in for Sykes required Sykes to phone into the meeting to provide the critical fourth vote required for any council business to move forward. So this newfangled telephone invention appears to undermine the need for the council to have stand-in members.
There was some fuss at the Wednesday meeting about whether Pierson should be allowed to serve as a stand-in for the duration of Sykes' vacation. We think the concern is misplaced: Instead of spending too much time worrying about that, the council should just get rid of its guest councilor provision.
And, while we're on the subject of stuff the Albany council should dump: Remember how Sykes had to phone into the meeting to provide the critical fourth vote to ratify Pierson's appointment, even though the question already held a 3-2 edge among the councilors?
As you may recall, three votes isn't sufficient on the Albany council, thanks to a provision in the city charter: Four votes are required for any council action to move ahead.
The reasoning behind the four-vote requirement appears to be that if the six-person council splits on a contentious issue, the mayor can break the tie and provide the critical fourth vote. But if there's no tie, the mayor can't vote, and so a measure before the council can die for lack of the fourth vote.
The four-vote requirement already has caused some mischief in the council, and it holds the potential to seriously hobble city government. Because the requirement is in the charter, voters must agree to amend it. But the council should launch the campaign to dump the requirement before it causes real harm. (mm)