Public not considered in new County Council procedures

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the developer impact fees bill, and the process by which it was amended and passed. In that post, I wrote:

The county council’s standard procedure is to hold a public hearing (work session) on each bill to allow the public to testify. Work sessions are held at 2pm on a Tuesday in Towson, requiring many people to take off of work and drive to Towson on a weekday afternoon to participate in the process. Then the council generally votes on the bill one week later, at a legislative session held on a Monday evening. Sometimes amendments are voted on at a legislative session, and even after amendments are added, the bill itself is voted on immediately after any amendments are added, with no opportunity for citizens to see the amendments or provide input on the amended bill.

The final bill should never be voted on in the same session as amendments, except in the case of emergency bills. If a bill is amended, then that should trigger another round of public input with an opportunity for citizens to see the amended bill, contact their council member, and testify at a work session.

Bill 15-18, passed by the Council last year and approved by voters on the 2018 ballot, amended the charter to allow 25 extra days for the Council to consider a bill. That additional time could be used for another round of public input on amended bills.

I subsequently spoke at the end of a County Council session, when the public is allowed to speak on any topic, and asked the Council to change their procedures to allow time for additional public input after a bill was amended. I was pleased to hear that the Council was working on amending their procedures, and that they would take that into consideration.

The County Council has apparently concluded that process, and Resolution No. 92-19 is now on the agenda for consideration. This resolution would amend the Council procedures to allow the Council to use that extra time if needed. However, the resolution doesn’t go far enough, and does not address the public need at all.

Here’s what it says, in part:

B. ON THE DATE A BILL UNDER CONSIDERATION IS SCHEDULED FOR FINAL READING AND VOTE, A MEMBER MAY MAKE A MOTION TO EXTEND THE DEADLINE FOR THE BILL AND, UPON A SECOND OF THE MOTION BY ANOTHER MEMBER, THE MOTION SHALL BE APPROVED ONLY BY THE AFFIRMATIVE VOTE OF A MAJORITY OF THE MEMBERS PRESENT. THE MOTION SHALL BE BASED UPON:

(1) THE NEED FOR FURTHER STUDY OF THE BILL, THE BASIS OF WHICH SHALL BE STATED BY THE MEMBER MAKING THE MOTION AND MADE A PART OF THE COUNCIL RECORD; OR

(2) AN AMENDMENT TO A BILL THAT THE MEMBER MAKING THE MOTION BELIEVES IS SUBSTANTIVE IN NATURE AND WARRANTS FURTHER CONSIDERATION, EXCEPT IF SUCH AMENDMENT IS CIRCULATED TO THE MEMBERS PRIOR TO THE WORK SESSION FOR A BILL UNDER CONSIDERATION.

So a Council member may make a motion to extend the time for consideration if a substantive amendment is made to the bill. That’s a good start, but there are two problems with it:

  • There’s no requirement to extend an amended bill to allow for further public input. A Council member may make a motion, but there’s no requirement that anyone do so, and even if someone makes a motion, it might not be seconded and might fail on a vote.
  • If the amendment is circulated to the members prior to the work session, even the option of extending it isn’t available. So any Council member can get around the possibility of an extension just by circulating their amendment to the Council members before the work session. The bill does not say that the amendment has to be made public. So there could be an amendment that the council members have seen, but which has not been shared with the public, and that amendment voted in at the next legislative session, followed immediately afterwards by a vote on the amended bill, with no recourse for the public.

The County Council will be holding a hearing on Resolution No. 92-19 tomorrow, Tuesday, August 27, at 2pm. If you can make the hearing, please come out and testify. (While you’re there, you can also testify in support of closing developer loopholes in the law intended to protect green space.) If you can’t make the hearing, please contact your Council member. You can look up your council member here or wmail countycouncil@baltimorecountymd.gov

Ask your Council member to please amend Resolution No. 92-19 to require a bill to be extended for additional public input if any amendments are added other than minor technical amendments, as long as extending it won’t take it beyond the 65 day limit, or to require that amendments are made available to the public at least a week before the hearing on the bill.

Transparency and public input are important cornerstones of democracy. The public deserves an opportunity to express an opinion on any pending legislation, including amendments.

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