News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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February 13, 2014

Terre Haute City Council votes down procedural rule change

TERRE HAUTE — After lengthy and sometimes emotional debate from those in the audience, the Terre Haute City Council voted Thursday night not to change a procedural rule that would have made it easier for the nine-member body to vote on controversial issues whether they are “germane” to council business or not.

The rule dates back to 2006 and states: “Resolutions or ordinances calling for declarations of policy by the Council on public controversies unrelated or not germane to the powers of the Council shall not be in order.”

That rule, which critics came to call the “Ostrich Rule,” was upheld last week during a special meeting, preventing the council from voting on a resolution urging the state legislature to drop an effort to ban same-sex marriages in the state constitution.

Councilman Todd Nation, D-4th, had asked the council last week to suspend the rule in order to vote on the same-sex marriage resolution. Members of the council refused by a vote of 7 to 1 with one councilman absent.

This week, another resolution put forward by Nation would have completely erased the rule from the council’s official procedures. After two and a half hours of debate with arguments on both sides by members of an audience of at least 120, the council chose to keep the rule in place by a vote of 7 to 2. Nation was joined by Councilman Don Morris, D-at large, in voting to remove the rule. The remaining council members voted to keep it in place.

Nearly every seat in the council’s chamber, the Terre Haute City Courtroom, was filled with folks on both sides of the question. They were many of the same people who argued last week either for or against suspending the rules to allow a vote on the same-sex marriage resolution.

Those favoring the rule said, among other things, it is not for the council to speak for the entire city on matters of great controversy. “Social issues belong at the ballot box,” said Councilman Jim Chalos, D-at large, referring to the fact that the same-sex marriage ban would have to receive a majority of votes in a public referendum before becoming part of the Indiana Constitution.

“I cannot see that it is in our job description” to vote on controversial resolutions that are not “germane” to council business, added Councilman Bob All, R-2nd.

Others argued that loss of the rule would open the door to numerous, time-consuming resolutions on topics over which the council has no authority. Councilman Norm Loudermilk was on the council in 2006 when it adopted the rule. He voted for it then and so would vote to keep it in place, he said.

“If we get rid of this rule, then it’s Katy bar the door. Here comes the floodgates,” he said.

Those wishing to eliminate the rule argued it is appropriate for the council to add its voice to controversies and to take a leadership role in such matters.

“We should err on the side of openness and transparency,” Nation said.

About a dozen people spoke for and against eliminating the rule. Despite sometimes strong emotions, the debate remained civil throughout the meeting, mostly staying focused purely on the rule, other times drifting into the matter of same-sex marriage.

“Why are we giving up the ability to do something [pass a resolution] that could make a difference?” asked Chelsea Howard of Terre Haute, who urged the council to drop the rule.

Speaking after the meeting, Wil Grundon, who also spoke in favor of dropping the rule, said he doesn’t believe it should matter that the council has no authority over an issue if a resolution is needed in support of a basic right.

“That doesn’t mean as representatives of our city they should just give up,” he said. “That’s not a healthy attitude for city government.”

• The council also voted Thursday night against another resolution calling on the state legislature to retain Indiana’s business personal property tax. That vote was 6 to 3 with All, Loudermilk and Nation voting in favor and the rest of the council voting against.

The state legislature is considering two bills – one in the House and one in the Senate – regarding business personal property tax. The Senate version would eliminate the tax for small businesses while the House version would allow counties to decide whether to retain or eliminate the tax.

In light of possible changes in the legislation or other steps in Indianapolis, “I’m not sure this [resolution says what we want to say,” said Councilman John Mullican, D-6th.

The resolution before the council simply called on the legislature to reject any bills that would reduce or eliminate the business personal property tax. Those opposing that resolution were council members Amy Auler, D-1st, George Azar, D-at large, Jim Chalos, D-at large, Neil Garrison, D-5th, Morris and Mullican.

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com

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