City Council defeats efforts to delay reform on vacancies


City Council President Mary Pat Clarke narrowly turned back an attempt by nearly half of the City Council to delay several proposals that would make more public the process of filling council vacancies.

In two votes last night that were 9-8 in her favor, Clarke managed to defeat motions to refer the proposals to committees.

Clarke had said she wanted the council to act on the vacancy-filling proposals before it recesses Monday for the holidays.

The council president last night introduced a council rule amendment to require a public hearing in which the remaining council members of a district where a vacancy occurs would interview candidates for the vacant seat. The hearing would be held within 30 days of the vacancy.

Those council members then would have up to 30 days to make a recommendation to the full council for a replacement.

The city is divided into six three-member districts.

The City Charter requires the council to approve a replacement "without delay." For decades, the council merely gave rubber-stamp approval to the choice made by the remaining council members of the district, an informal policy known as councilmanic courtesy.

Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, D-6th, also proposed a council rule change essentially similar to Clarke's except it would give the remaining members of a district the opportunity to conduct further interviews in private after the public hearing.

Councilman Martin E. Mike Curran, D-3rd, introduced a third rule change that would formalize as a council rule the practice of councilmanic courtesy.

Councilman Lawrence A. Bell, D-4th, proposed that a vacancy be filled by the candidate in the district who finished fourth in the voting in the previous primary election. His proposal came as a resolution that, if passed by the council, would put it before the voters in referendum. Bell's resolution was referred to the Judiciary Committee.

Councilman Wilber E. "Bill" Cunningham, D-3rd, moved that the three proposed rule changes also be referred to the same committee so they could all be heard at the same time and fully discussed.

The initial vote on Cunningham's motion was seven in favor and six against, with four members passing. Councilman John A. Schaefer, D-1st, is away on vacation, and his district colleague, Dominic Mimi DiPietro, left the council chambers shortly before the vote.

Clarke ruled that the motion failed because it lacked the nine votes necessary to constitute a majority of the 17 members voting.

Clarke's ruling was challenged, since council rules say a referral motion needs only a simple majority of those voting yes or no, and an abstention does not constitute a vote. The motion would thus have passed 7-6.

But as council parliamentarian Bernard F. "Buzz" Murphy was about to uphold the challenge, three of the four members who abstained changed their votes to no and one to yes, making the final vote 9 against the motion and 8 in favor.

An attempt after the first vote to refer the proposals to a council "committee of the whole" failed by the same margin.

DiBlasi said afterward he was going to talk with Clarke to see if his proposed rule change could be incorporated into Clarke's before a vote Monday night. Clarke said that appeared likely.

"If all DiBlasi is concerned with is the opportunity to sit down one-on-one and interview candidates privately, that's fine with me as long as there is some public process whereby those interested in the vacancy can apply and in an open forum present their case why they should be considered," said Clarke.

In other action last night, the council gave preliminary approval to a bill that would set the city's assessment increase cap at 4 percent.

That would mean, for example, that if a homeowner's assessed value of his or her property increased by 8 percent, the city could apply its property tax rate of $6.95 per $100 of assessed value on only the first 4 percent increase.

The city now can tax on the first 15 percent increase in assessed value.

The change resulted from a state law passed in the past session of the legislature, lowering the statewide cap of 15 percent. The change allowed each subdivision to set its cap as long as it did not exceed 10 percent.

The 4 percent cap was favored by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke as well as a near unanimous council even though the reduction from 15 percent to 4 percent would mean a loss to the city of an estimated $3.9 million in revenue a year.

Both the mayor and the council hope to combine the lower cap with a possible 7 to 10 cent reduction in the property tax rate for fiscal year 1992 which begins July 1.

The only council member to vote against the 4 percent cap, Anthony J. Ambridge, D-2nd, said he favored a higher cap, which would allow for a larger reduction in the property tax rate.

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