For the past three years, the Prince George's County Council has been plagued with [WORD ILLEGIBLE] problems. Members are frequently absent from meetings. Others show up late and force the council sessions to begin, in some cases, hours behind schedule.
Votes cast by "voice" go unrecorded and, at times, absent council members call the clerk later in the legislative day to cast votes on issues they may not even heard debated.
Last week, the council sought to put an end to the "relaxed" habits of some members by passing a resolution that will record each member's presence (or absence) at each meeting, and his or her vote on all major issues.
The bill, will "improve" county government by making it more "accountable," according to its sponsor, Council Member William B. Amonett.
One of Amonett's colleagues on the council observed, privately, that in an election year, the measure also will keep members on the political straight and narrow.
"This does not mandate the conduct of anyone," said Amonett, who as past chairman of the council tried to hold rein on the erratic behavior of 10 other council members. "A council members is not required to do anything by this bill. But it produces a record, and whether or not we as members of this council like it, it is for the residents of the county to have a record of our performance," he said.
The "performance" of the council in recent months has provided more than enough incentive for the council to attempt to clear its slate.
Since last summer, several council members have voiced concern over what they call the "extreme" absenteeism of one of their members. They cited an instance in which one member sought the voting record of a colleague to check on a possible conflict of interest, only to find that no record of the vote existed. The members had taken a voice vote on the issue.
And as spring moves into summertime electioneering, council members are taking more and more verbal swipes at each other across the podium each week.
Recently, two council members introduced legislation to control personal fund raising while in office and last fall an attempt was made to correct some other "loopholes" in the council's informal rules. At that time, two charter amendments were introduced to address the issues of attendance. They contained strong penalties, calling for forfeiture of office or fines and expulsion should members shirk their elected duties. Both bills died in committee.
There are no penalties in the resolution the council passed last week, but the debate and final vote on the strict new rules proved controversial anyway.
Several attempts to dilute the resolution by deleting key elements on roll calls and attendance were rejected after much debate, and the final vote, 8-0 with three abstensions, reflected hours of behind-the-scenes political trading.
The resolution, which more clearly defines the public role of council meetings, requires roll call votes for all legislative and procedural questions and for letters and appointments that are signed by the chairman on behalf of the council.
The changes also allow any group of six members to convene a council meeting 10 minutes after the appointed starting time should the chairman and vice chairman be absent. The clerk must also call the roll and keep specific records on each members attendance and votes.
Mandatory attendance at voting time and roll call votes proved to be the sorest spots for some members opposed to the bill. Vice Chairman Floyd Wilson, who says he is often late to meetings because of business conflicts, told the council that because of the new regulations they "would be sitting like little children in kindergarten and saying present."
Wilson, who abstained from voting on the resolution, said, "There's such a word as honesty - such a thing as integrity. Are you going to get a notary to sign an excuse (if we're not here or are late to a meeting)? We shouldn't sit as judge or jury on our peers."
Council Member David Hartlove said some members have abused their privilege of occasional absence. "What do you do when the clerk receives a call from a council member who says, 'I'm sick' and then that person goes to the cocktail lounge or to the golf course. I just see so much abuse to this. I'm here every week, they can be too."
Hartlove, who also abstained from voting on the resolution, said, "Everything in this resolution is needed. But we should have been doing it already. This can be handled in an administrative manner."
Chairman Francis White, who was the third person to abstain from voting, said the resolution "is an imposition." White led the opposition to roll call votes on letters signed by the chairman because, he said,
"It would take up too much time." It was generally acknowledge, by council members and staff alike, that whatever power the chairman holds over his fellow council members will be lost through the roll call and attendance requirements of this bill.
And while one council member called the bill "a right due to the electorate" and attendance was higher than usual at District Council and County Council meetings this week, some staff members said they wonder how seriously the resolution will be taken.
At the close of voting last week, Darlene White, a council member who has been severely criticized by her colleagues for frequent absences last year, asked, "May I be excused to go to the ladies room?"