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The Sound & the Parliamentary, Signifying…a Council Presidency…

Perhaps the Council should move to Marcus of Queensbury rules in the future. It may be less fraught. (via Focus Springfield)

SPRINGFIELD—For the first time in many years, the result of the year-end vote to nominate the next Council President was not a foregone conclusion. No contender had previously declared sufficient votes to be president in 2021. After their regular meeting, Councilors ultimately chose their colleague from Ward 5, Marcus Williams . He will be take office as the Council’s leader in January.

However, an unorthodox procedure upended the contest. While a contested presidency has not gone to the floor of the Council in 20 years, the body usually votes after all nominations have been put forward. On Monday, outgoing President Council Justin Hurst called for each nomination to receive a vote individually, ensnaring the body in a procedural morass that even featured an appeal from the floor.

Prior to the meeting, three candidates were in contention for the presidency. In addition to Williams was Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards and Hurst himself. Up until Monday night, none had the affirmative seven votes required to seal the deal.

In public, Hurst had playdown his quest for a third year as Council president—a rare, but not unprecedented occurrence. However, City Hall sources said a quiet campaign had been underway to collect votes for him. Edwards and Williams had been more open about their interest and solicitations of support.

Unless called upon to become acting mayor, practically speaking the Council Presidency is a limited fiefdom. While the president doles out committee assignments, their most pertinent duty is presiding over meetings, an important but not usually contentious responsibility. The vice-president presides in the president’s absence.

The selection of Council President and Vice-president informally occurs at the caucus held at the end of Council’s last meeting of the year. This allows the selection to occur in open session, compliant with Open Meeting Law and, in odd years, include any newly elected councilors. The actual installation of the president and vice-president occurs at the Council’s reorganizational meeting in January.

Well, it’ll be a Zoom gallery group photo next year. (WMP&I)

In most years, this caucus passes with little suspense since the incoming council president and vice-president have, by then, announced they had the votes. However, the three-way nature of this year’s race made that impossible. Thus, Monday’s vote was destined to become dispositive.

The last time councilors entered the caucus with such uncertainty was 2001. Councilors Angelo Puppolo and Bud Williams were prepared to throw down at the caucus, but the latter dropped out just before the final meeting that year. Puppolo became president.

At-large Councilor Tracye Whitfield’s nomination for Council Vice-president proceeded without incident. To nominate Whitfield himself, Hurst ceded the virtual dais to outgoing Vice-president Adam Gomez. She had already announced the unanimous support of her colleagues. When the vote came, they cast their vote by stating her name. Whitfield will be the first Black woman to serve as Springfield’s Council Vice-president.

Hurst in the Beforetimes. (Still via Focus Springfield)

When the nomination for Council President began, Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos nominated Williams. But rather than leaving nominations open, Hurst announced the Council would immediately vote on Williams’s nomination. As Hurst laid out his interpretation of the rules, if Williams did not receive seven votes, another nomination could be advanced.

Several councilors did not expect this and were clearly uncomfortable. Were this to proceed as described, councilors could only vote against Williams instead of stating the name of another councilor, like Edwards. That would seem to countermand the precedent councilors had used moments before during Whitfield’s vice nomination.

Though several councilors had every intention of voting for Edwards, many also did not want to affirmatively vote against another colleague—or cast a flimsy present vote on his nomination. At-large councilor Jesse Lederman, who telegraphed his intent to nominate Edwards, questioned the process Hurst had set down. All nominations, Lederman argued, should be made and then the Council would vote by voicing the name of their preferred candidate.

The meeting quickly tumbled into the maw of Robert’s Rules of Order. The Council’s own rules do not spell out how presidential nominations proceed. Those rules refer ambiguities to classical parliamentary procedure. Unfortunately, Robert’s Rules of Order offers multiple avenues to handle nominations while also stating that the presiding officer interprets the rules. Attempts to defer to the City Clerk and associate city solicitor only U-turned to Hurst and, by extension, the Council.

As councilors splashed around in parliamentary procedure, they split into two camps. One sided with Lederman’s view. The other did not uniformly back Hurst’s determination, but they felt the precedent was deference to the Council President. Nevertheless, Lederman announced an appeal of the chair’s ruling, that is Hurst’s. Under state law and Council rules, the body, not the presiding officer, has final say about procedure. Under the Council rules, it takes a 2/3 vote to overturn the presiding officer.

Melvin Edwards

Councilor Melvin Edwards slightly raising an eyebrow. (via Springfield City Hall)

By this point, Edwards himself chimed in. Calling what had been playing out an embarrassment, he announced he would not be a candidate for Council President.

Lederman still demanded a vote on his appeal, which failed 6-6 with Edwards abstaining. Councilors Ramos, Williams, Timothy Allen, Malo Brown and Michael Fenton joined Lederman in supporting the appeal. But by then, it was not enough.

However, Edwards’s preemptive withdrawal—before anybody actually nominated him—effectively ended the presidential race. Sources say Edwards’s camp knew he did not have the votes before the meeting. Had the vote proceeded only after all nominations and if Edwards had made little momentum in that vote, some of his supporters had been prepared to swing to Williams.

With Edwards out and the Williams’s nomination still pending, no deadlock formed. The latter had a clear path to seven votes. As councilors upheld Hurst’s process, there was no opportunity to nominate anybody else including Hurst. The vote for Williams was unanimous.

Williams gave some brief remarks. He noted what the city had been through with COVID-19 and thanking his colleagues for their support. Nominally, this process will repeat itself next month, but with far less drama and parliamentary whatnot. Afterward, Williams will take the oath as president. Councilors will then also draw lots for their seats in the chamber—for a time when virtual councils are no more.