The public part of Tuesday's city council meeting ended on a rather awkward note, as Mayor Joe Fontana acknowledged that council had not followed proper procedure on an earlier vote on the tax levy target for the 2013 budget. This was the vote on whether the target for the 2013 budget should be a zero per cent tax increase.
At the outset of the meeting, before any debate on the tax levy motion itself (the main motion), councillor Dale Henderson made a motion to "put the question" on the taxy levy, which means ceasing to debate the motion and moving immediately to voting on the motion. This is a common procedural tactic in deliberative meetings, often employed after an extensive debate, when the participants are starting to repeat themselves. However, since it puts an end to debate, it requires greater than a simple majority support to pass. According to the the council procedure bylaw, which governs council meetings, such a motion to put the question requires at least 2/3rds support to carry (see section 11.15). The error on Tuesday night occurred when Mayor Fontana declared that the motion to put the question had carried with eight councillors voting in favour (53%). The motion to put the question actually required the support of at least 10 councillors.
A motion to put the question has a lot of qualifications in the council procedure bylaw (see 11.14), including one that prohibits such motions when the matter involves approval of an expenditure by council of $1,000,000 or more.
To his credit, Fontana raised the issue of the improper decision later in the meeting and asked council if they wished to reconsider the main motion. Councillor Joni Baechler moved a motion to reconsider, but Fontana noted that a motion to reconsider the taxy levy target must be made by a member of council who voted in the majority. Further, a motion to reconsider also requires 2/3rds support. No one who voted in the majority (for no debate and in favour of zero) was willing to make such a motion, including, apparently, the mayor himself.
Now this may seem like so much procedural bafflegab, but it actually matters.
The vote on the taxy levy target is an important one. It sets a goal and establishes a framework within which all of the subsequent budget consultations and debates will occur. As this table of potential expenditure reductions under three different taxy levy scenarios shows, it means about $25 million in cuts, as opposed to $8 million or so if the taxy levy were to increase by 3.8%. Both proponents and opponents of the idea of a zero per cent tax increase agree that the issue is important.
Despite the importance of this vote, eight councillors voted in favour of pre-empting debate by putting the question. There were no arguments made in favour or in opposition to the tax levy target of zero per cent. Having employed this procedural tactic effectively (though improperly, as we later learned), the same group of councillors then proceeded to vote in favour of the tax levy target of zero per cent.
No debate on what was arguably the single most important item on city council's agenda that evening. Why?
It would seem that the coalition of councillors who are voting in favour of a zero per cent tax increase target are not interested in trying to convince their fellow councillors to support their position. Nor are they concerned that any member of their coalition is wavering in his or her support of the zero per cent tax increase. So they see no need to debate the issue. The outcome of the vote on this issue, it seems, is a foregone conclusion.
Of course, council has previously debated the issue of a 0% tax increase, in committee and as a council, with both debates ending in a 7-7 tie vote (tied votes fail), which brought the issue forward to Tuesday's meeting. But this specific vote on the tax levy target for the 2013 budget would finally decide the matter, and the implications for the 2013 budget are different from those in 2012 or 2011.
Most importantly, the purpose of debate on such issues at city council is not only to persuade councillors, but to justify the policy to Londoners, to articulate the rationale and to outline the expected costs and benefits. It would seem that the coalition of eight councillors can no longer be bothered to do so.
They will likely come to regret that decision.