CLAREMONT — A city discussion of governing practices this week covered an array of educational topics ranging from free speech, communication between elected officials and ways to run meetings more efficiently and orderly.
The Claremont City Council hosted an information discussion Wednesday night with city attorneys about local government, with the aim to educate the public and prepare future elected officials about governing practices and procedures. The topics included many that frequently spark debate in the Claremont community, including the conduct of elected officials outside of meetings.
Attorneys Shawn Tanguay and Christine Fillmore also discussed ways for the council to run more efficient meetings, problems for elected officials to avoid and sections in the city charter that may need review.
Below are some of the more interesting takeaways from the two hour discussion. To watch a video recording of the meeting online, visit the Claremont Community Television (CCTV) website at www.claremontv.org or the city’s Facebook page titled “City of Claremont, NH Government.”
Councils should not become bogged down by their own rules
Fillmore noted that the Claremont City Council’s meeting rules are “fairly specific” in regard to motions, debate and voting, including a direction to follow Robert’s Rules of Order in the absence of stated rules.
But having overly complicated rules can also lead municipal boards into problems, according to Fillmore.
“Defaulting to a set of rules [like Robert’s Rules of Order] that has a 200-page brief version may be setting a board up for failure,” Fillmore said.
While Fillmore did not evaluate the efficiency of Claremont’s council meetings, the challenges posed by the Claremont City Council’s rules are often evident to regular meeting attendees or viewers. There are frequent debates between councilors over rules not being properly followed, including significant amounts of time during meetings being consumed by disagreements or questions over correct procedure.
Fillmore said getting bogged down in debates over language and other procedural details is actually counterproductive to the purpose for having the rules, which is to “advance the content of the meeting.”
“The best rules as I have seen them are straightforward, relatively simple and understood by everyone,” Fillmore said. “That doesn’t mean everyone comes in and intuitively understands how it works. But something that can be put on one or two pages and make some sense often can work pretty well.”
The problem with Robert’s Rules of Order, despite being popularly considered the gold-standard for maintaining orderly public meetings, is that Robert’s Rules is designed specifically for large governing bodies such as Congress, rather than small municipal bodies, Fillmore pointed out. Robert’s Rules are so complicated that Congress hires professional parliamentarians to oversee the following of the rules on behalf of the legislators.
Fillmore reminded the council that the rules are supposed to serve the councilors.
“If something is working, that’s great,” Fillmore said. “If it’s not working, then think about changing it, because it is your meetings and your rules and they should work for you.”
Attorneys recommend changes to consider in the city charter
Tanguay, whom the city council asked to review the city charter and council rules, identified several items in the documents that the council “should consider changing down the road” and that could pose issues in the future if not addressed.
Tanguary said one area of concern is the number of council rules that attempt to control how individual councillors must conduct themselves during meetings.
Three examples in particular pertain to conflicts of interest, abstentions from voting and meeting absences, according to Tanguay.
“Under all three of those scenarios it appears that the council is the one that makes those decisions,” Tanguay noted. “Whether or not a councilor is to abstain from a vote, whether a councillor has a conflict of interest or whether a councillor is allowed to be absent from any portion of a meeting.”
Tanguay warned that the council possesses no legal right to make those determinations, as these issues are solely up to the individual to make those determinations.
While there are situations posing conflicts of interest that should be avoided, for example, the governing body cannot force that councilor to abstain.
Additionally, there is a clear distinction legally speaking between a “conflict of interest” and a legislator’s personal or official opinion, the attorneys said.
Fillmore indicated that it is not considered unlawful for a councillor to express a personal opinion outside a meeting about a legislative item under consideration.
For example, while many citizens criticized Councilor Jon Stone in May for posting nonfactual information on Facebook regarding the council’s mask-wearing proclamation, Stone’s actions were entirely legal, based on the attorneys’ explanation.
Nor would a councilor having a personal opinion regarding a legislative matter be defined as a conflict of interest, Fillmore said.
A conflict of interest problem would generally apply when the council has to respond to an appeals matter, rather than a legislative one, according to Fillmore. In an appeals matter the council takes on a “quasi-judicial role” in which the governing members are expected to be fully impartial. Under such a case, a councillor who publicizes one’s opinion prior to the councilor reaching a decision could result in costly legal action against the municipality.
Tanguay also advised the city to review the numerous residency requirements for city officials contained in the city charter and council rules, as many of these may not be constitutional.
“This is a bit of a sticky issue in the sense that case law says two different things,” Tanguay explained.
Historically residency requirements have been considered a violation of the state and federal constitutions, though a recent court case allowed an exemption to Seabrook to impose a residency requirement for its police chief and fire chief. But Tanguay pointed out that Seabrook had unique circumstances, because the municipality houses a nuclear power plant. Additionally Seabrook has limited road accesses. The court found that having a fire and police chief within the city was necessary to public safety in case of an emergency.
Tanguay also noted that Claremont’s residency requirement for its own fire and police chiefs may have legal standing because the requirement does not mandate those individuals live within the city limits but within a maximum radius of miles.
Tanguay also said he found a number of “antiquated provisions and verbiage” in the city charter that should either be removed or modernized.
“Language should be put into common, everyday speech that everyone can understand,” Tanguay said. “I had to read a couple of provisions a couple of times before I understood what they were trying to say.”