Anything But A Supermajority

When will some Chautauqua County legislators learn you don’t have to change the legislature’s rules in order to make good decisions?

Jamestown Democrats Bob Whitney and Lori Cornell were in favor of a resolution debated at June’s legislature meeting that would have increased the number of votes it takes to bring motions to the floor of the legislature from 13 to 17 votes. They reason requiring a supermajority of the legislature to discuss matters of state and federal policy would free up more time for legislators to discuss county issues.

The resolution was rightly defeated by Administrative Services Committee members and by the entire legislature at its June meeting. The same scenario played out in July 2012 when legislators, with some newly found money in the bank after the county’s annual budget reconciliations, proposed changing the number of votes to spend that surplus money from 13 votes to 17 votes. Some legislators wanted to protect the fund balance from being spent and thought the best way to protect legislators from themselves was to require a supermajority to spend the money. That resolution, too, was wisely defeated by the legislature.

Allowing a supermajority to govern minor spending or to set the agenda of legislature debate is a bad idea. It places more power in the hands of a minority. As we noted in July 2012, Alice Sturges, the godmother of parliamentary procedure, explained it this way.

“Some people have mistakenly assumed that the higher the vote required to take an action, the greater the protection of the members. Instead the opposite is true. Whenever a vote of more than a majority is required to take an action, control is taken from the majority and given to the minority. … The higher the vote required, the smaller the minority to which control passes.”

It’s never a good idea to change the basic governing system because legislators need to be protected from themselves. In July 2012, legislators had to be protected who had money burning a hole in their pocket. In June 2013, we had to protect legislators from themselves again because some legislators say they can’t budget their time or focus their attention given the sheer number of motions they have to discuss each month.

We applaud Cornell and Whitney for wanting to spend more time on county issues. We ask what is stopping them? Is the county charter really the reason they don’t have the time to discuss county problems? It is, after all, the job of legislators to fill the agenda. We elect legislators to govern, and part of that task is making sure county issues are discussed and dealt with appropriately.

Changing the legislature’s rules isn’t the answer if legislators can’t manage their monthly agenda. The answer is to change the legislators who are having a hard time managing that agenda. After all, that is the reason they were elected in the first place.