Allegheny County Council budget chair silences panel's nonmembers
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Allegheny County Council Vice President Nick Futules wants to give "everyone a chance to be an adult" and resolve a dispute over who can participate in committee meetings.
Mr. Futules, the chairman of council's executive committee, last week postponed action on a bill that would guarantee the right of all council members to ask questions at committee meetings.
Much of the work of the county's part-time legislature is done in its nine permanent committees, which review and make recommendations on proposed ordinances, resolutions and motions. Final votes are taken by the full 15-member council.
William Robinson, longtime chairman of the influential budget and finance committee, announced this summer that council members who are not members of his committee could no longer participate directly in sessions that he chairs. Mr. Robinson, D-Hill District, said non-committee members who had questions or comments should direct their remarks to him, and he would decide whether or not to pose them.
Mr. Futules asked council President Charles Martoni to meet with Mr. Robinson and request that he reconsider his policy. Mr. Martoni, D-Swissvale, said he hoped to meet sometime this week with Mr. Robinson.
"I've known Bill for a very long time, and I want to be as tactful as possible with this issue," Mr. Martoni said. "But I think everybody should have the opportunity to speak."
While the council president appoints committee heads, those chairmen and chairwomen have broad authority to set their own rules.
Mr. Robinson said he believed he was following council rules and past practices. "In any committee meeting you have to get the acknowledgement of the chair before you start talking," he said Friday. "I'm going to wait until I hear from Dr. Martoni" before commenting further.
Councilwoman Heather Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon, proposed the measure. She regularly attends budget meetings and she and Mr. Robinson have clashed on several occasions.
"It's personal, obviously," Ms. Heidelbaugh said last week of Mr. Robinson's ruling.
Her measure says that "no Chair shall prohibit participation by any Member of Council, nor shall the Chair systematically refuse to recognize any Member of Council ..."
"My questions are not Democratic or Republican questions, but I am asking them for the good of the people," Ms. Heidelbaugh said during the executive committee's discussion of her motion. "The minority shouldn't be shut out. We deserve to be able to ask three or four questions."
Councilman John DeFazio, D-Shaler, said a committee chair's power already had limits. "Robert's Rules of Order" allows a majority of committee members to overrule Mr. Robinson on procedural issues, he said.
Regular debates and multiple votes on who can take part in committee meetings would be ridiculous, Councilman Vince Gastgeb, R-Bethel Park, warned. "Think about how silly we'll look."
Twelve years of precedents have allowed nonmembers to speak and ask questions in committees, Mr. Gastgeb said. Only seven council members serve on Mr. Robinson's committee, meaning that eight elected legislators -- six Democrats and two Republicans -- would be shut out of budget discussions.
Guaranteed participation was one of three changes to committee operations Ms. Heidelbaugh proposed Tuesday.
Her other two proposals would tighten quorum requirements and codify procedures for participation by telephone. Mr. Futules held those motions for further study as well.
First Published October 15, 2012 12:00 am