North Miami Beach council members have taken an initial step to keep City Council members from leaving city meetings before they’ve ended.
The council on Tuesday gave initial approval to a new ordinance that provides if a council member leaves a meeting in progress without stating an emergency, a voting conflict or another reason (like taking a bathroom break), that member would be subject to penalties from the Miami-Dade Ethics Commission.
The ordinance does not specify if those penalties would be fines or other discipline.
The item was approved on a 3-2 vote with Mayor George Vallejo, Councilwoman Marlen Martell and the item’s sponsor, Councilwoman Barbara Kramer, voting yes. Councilwoman Beth Spiegel and Vice Mayor Frantz Pierre voted against the ordinance. Council members Phyllis Smith and Anthony DeFillipo were absent.
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Spiegel, whose exit from the July 19 council meeting was followed by the departures of Smith and Pierre, said she couldn’t have predicted that the other council members would leave that meeting and cause the council to lose quorum. She said she was disappointed the ordinance was proposed and called it politically motivated.
There are other ways to address what has been going on up here, but it is not this ordinance. This is a knee-jerk reaction.
Councilwoman Beth Spiegel
“There are other ways to address what has been going on up here, but it is not this ordinance,” Spiegel said. “This is a knee-jerk reaction.”
Residents at the meeting were split between supporting the ordinance and questioning its necessity. Supporters said it would be a good step in curbing recent early exits and criticized the council members who have taken off before the agenda was complete.
“To walk out of a meeting where your voice and vote are required is like a child leaving the playground because he or she does not like the games that are being played,” said Saundra Douglas, a resident.
Tuesday’s vote came about two weeks after Smith left the dais and caused the council to lose the five-member quorum needed to continue the meeting. The Aug. 25 meeting continued after DeFillipo showed up and cast a vote.
That meeting, which contained only one agenda item — to choose a new health insurance provider for the city — was a special meeting, the city’s second within the past few months. Smith argued that the city seemed to be having too many special meetings lately. When Vallejo attempted to steer discussion back to the agenda item, she left the meeting.
To walk out of a meeting where your voice and vote are required is like a child leaving the playground because he or she does not like the games that are being played.
Saundra Douglas, North Miami Beach resident
Kramer said that the item wasn’t directed at any particular council member but was an effort to give the city an option if the early exits continue.
“This is not something that happens a lot, but in the past month it’s happened twice,” Kramer said.
Spiegel and some residents argued that the item was too vague to be truly enforceable. Other supporters said the item should have stronger penalties and council members should potentially have to pay the cost of rescheduling meetings.
“I see it as a piece of politically motivated, piece of junk legislation,” said Chuck Cook, another resident.
The ordinance states that the council member must “truthfully” disclose why he or she is leaving, and Spiegel questioned how that truthfulness could be determined.
She also expressed disappointment in city attorney Jose Smith for drafting the ordinance. Her motion to terminate Smith as city attorney Tuesday night failed with a 3-2 vote. Spiegel and Pierre voted yes while Vallejo, Kramer and Martell voted no.
Smith wrote the ordinance with assistance from the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics & Public Trust, and Joseph Centorino, executive director of the ethics commission, attended the meeting.
Centorino said that the situation was unusual and that nothing in the county ethics code covers this kind of issue.
“If this passes we will enforce it as best we can but I would hope that we would never have to enforce it,” Centorino said.
The ordinance will require a second vote before final approval.