By moving to end motions and debate, the Sedgwick County Commission isn’t effectively serving citizens and taxpayers.
Yesterday’s meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission offered an opportunity to learn how we can improve local government.
The issue the commission was considering, significant in its own right, is not important to the following discussion. It’s the process that needs improvement.
There was a proposed ordinance. Commissioner Jim Howell offered two amendments — really substitute motions — that altered the proposed ordinance. Each failed by votes of three to two.
Howell had two more motions to offer. But Commissioner David Dennis moved a motion to end the offering of additional motions. In this vote the majority prevailed, and Howell was silenced. Commissioners voting to end debate were Chair Dave Unruh, Michael O’Donnell, and Dennis. Richard Ranzau and Howell opposed the motion to end debate.
The county commission is not a deliberative body like a legislature. The county does not have committees like a legislature. I’m not advocating for the county to form committees, but here’s what is missing from the county process: There is no opportunity for interested parties — often lobbyists, but also regular people — to testify before a committee as legislation is being developed. There is no committee mark-up process in which the text of a bill is crafted and finalized. There is no committee vote that decides whether to recommend the bill to the entire legislative body.
Some of this happens in Sedgwick County, of course, but mostly behind the scenes. There is the county staff meeting Tuesday morning, when the commissioners meet with staff in an informal setting. While this meeting is open to the public, there is rarely news coverage. (Hint to county staff: These meetings could easily be broadcast and archived on the internet without much cost or effort.)
In a legislature, when a bill is considered by the entire body, there is usually an amendment process. They may be many amendments that require time to debate and consider. This process was mentioned by two commission members who have served in the Kansas legislature.
But it seems a majority of Sedgwick County Commission members don’t care for this process.
I understand why some commissioners wanted to end debate. Sometimes amendments to legislation create a moment where legislators have to cast a vote on an issue, often a finely-grained issue. Sometimes that vote is used as a campaign issue in future elections. Those votes may appear in compilations of legislative activity that reveal how legislators vote.
But amendments and debate are part of the legislative process. Commissioner Howell had several amendments that he had prepared in advance. They were not off-the-cuff, spur-of-the-moment ideas. They were crafted to attempt to find a compromise that a majority of commissioners could accept.
But a majority of Sedgwick County Commission members didn’t want that.
Perhaps some commissioners where concerned about the meeting becoming lengthy. We see that from Wichita City Council members. They’re paid a part-time salary, so maybe there’s merit to their carping about long meetings.
But Howell’s amendments took just a few minutes each to consider. And — this is highly relevant — the members of the Sedgwick County Commission are paid a handsome full-time salary. They should not object to the meeting lasting all day, if that’s what it takes to serve the citizens. And citizens were not well-served by the commission’s decision to silence one of its members.