The Mayoral Vote is the Problem When You Have Odd Aldermen

This happened on Monday.

DeKalb’s council is made up of seven aldermen chosen by ward and a mayor. Aldermen seemed interested Monday in establishing a rule that would call for at least four aldermen to be in favor of a measure before it could pass.

On most questions brought before council, a simple majority vote is all that’s needed, and the mayor doesn’t (or at least isn’t supposed to) vote. Council already needs to have four in most situations.

What this potential proposal would do is impose the requirement of a super-majority vote on council if even one alderman is absent. And in the scenario of the non-voting mayor and four aldermen, unanimous votes would be required to get anything done. And for what good reason?

This is, in short, not smart. It’s a bad solution for a non-existent problem. It rarely happens that even two council members are absent for any council meeting. What’s more, one situation where we might anticipate the absence of several council members would be a special meeting to deal with an emergency. To be shackled with a super-majority or unanimous vote requirement could have awful implications when time is of the essence for decision-making.

No, as long as the quorum of five is met for conducting the city’s business, leave the voting rules for aldermen alone.

That being said, there is a structural problem with DeKalb’s voting rules.

“We’re kind of in one those conundrums,” 3rd Ward Alderman Michael Marquardt said, speaking [at the council meeting last Monday] about how, with DeKalb’s current rules, the mayor could create or break a tie.

Guess what? If we actually followed state rules for our type of government, the mayor would never be allowed to create a tie to nullify a vote as he did two weeks ago. See pp. 5-6 here:

The mayor may or may not have the power of veto in a statutory manager government. The mayor’s role in the legislative process depends on the manner in which aldermen are elected. In a city in which aldermen are elected by wards, the mayor votes only in limited situations such as a tie or need for super-majority, but may veto any ordinance and any resolution or motion creating a liability, appropriating funds, or selling property.

Monday’s discussion over how many “ayes” a motion should get was a bank of fog blown into our faces. The DeKalb city council voting problem is that the mayor votes when he shouldn’t. Where mayors of council-manager governments preside over councils elected at large, they vote on all measures; but we have a council elected from wards. In a ward system, the mayor only votes under certain circumstances: when there is a tie, or when there is need of a super-majority to pass a measure, or when half of the aldermen vote for a measure.*

So, tell me: what is half of seven?

Check out the councils of other council-manager communities around us. Their councils have six or eight members because half is half, and half is the state requirement, no matter DeKalb’s arbitrary rule of four comprising half of seven aldermen based on some bogus home-rule claim.**

If DeKalb wants its mayor to break ties, it should switch to an even number of wards the next time it has an opportunity to do so.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s habit of creating ties instead of using his veto power is probably litigation fuel awaiting a spark.

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*Among other things, this means DeKalb was not in compliance with state law when it passed voting rules in 2012 to allow the mayor to vote on all matters, which it repealed just last year when confronted by citizens who read the statute for themselves. I am bringing this up to encourage you to approach with great skepticism anything the city has to say when it comes to council’s voting rules.

Here’s the state rule, emphasis added to the relevant portion:

(65 ILCS 5/5-3-5) (from Ch. 24, par. 5-3-5)
Sec. 5-3-5. The mayor or president of any city or village which elects aldermen by wards or trustees by districts shall not vote on any ordinance, resolution or motion except: (1) where the vote of the aldermen or trustees has resulted in a tie; (or) (2) where one-half of the aldermen or trustees then holding office have voted in favor of an ordinance, resolution or motion even though there is no tie vote; or (3) where a vote greater than a majority of the corporate authorities is required by this Code to adopt an ordinance, resolution or motion. In each instance specified, the mayor or president shall vote. The following mayors and presidents may vote on all questions coming before the council or board: (1) mayors and presidents of cities and villages operating under this article and Article 4, and (2) mayors and presidents of cities and villages which do not elect aldermen by wards and trustees by districts.
Nothing in this section shall deprive an acting mayor or president or mayor or president pro tem from voting in his capacity as alderman or trustee, but he shall not be entitled to another vote in his capacity as acting mayor or president or mayor or president pro tem. (Source: Laws 1967, p. 3425.)

At the time DeKalb changed its rules to allow the mayor to vote on all questions, it was because a surface reading of this paragraph appeared to permit it. Trouble is, Article 4 is the article that governs the commission form of municipal government. DeKalb’s government is the managerial form, so the provision does not apply.

The city attorney either missed this, or hoped that everybody else would.

Oh, and do notice the mayoral vote “where one-half of the aldermen…holding office” have voted in favor of a measure. There is no wiggle room.

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**Although home rule powers are construed liberally, especially as concerns local affairs, it still takes a referendum to change the type of local government you have. Changing voting powers constitutes a change in government, and therefore is subject to approval via referendum.