December 13, 2012
Newly elected High Point
Mayor Bernita Sims on Thursday, Dec. 6 pulled off a power grab that hasn't been tried since 2003, when former Mayor Becky Smothers attempted it: abolishing the High Point
City Council's committee system and centralizing all control of the council under the mayor.
Sims made the changes at the first meeting after her Monday, Dec. 3 swearing-in, a meeting usually used to set up the committees.
The High Point
City Council has long operated under a system that is unusual among North Carolina cities but is immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with the workings of Congress or of state legislatures. Power on the City Council was diffused among several committees, each chaired by a councilmember, usually one with substantial time on the City Council.
The City Council had, under shifting names, committees for finance, public safety, planning and development and at times other issues. Issues that came to the City Council were referred to the appropriate committee. The committee heard presentations from staff members, researched the issues then voted to recommend that the City Council approve or reject the motion.
The City Council usually voted to follow the recommendations of its committees with little discussion. The committees, after all, had done the research on the issue, and most City Council votes were routine to begin with. City councilmembers were free to vote against the recommendation of a committee, or to ask for discussion on it, but rarely did so except on controversial issues.
That's how Congress and the North Carolina General Assembly work, and it's necessary for a large legislative body, in which hundreds of people can't hear every issue. It's more unusual for a small body such as a city council, although a city council is technically a legislative body.
The High Point
City Council often approved a week's worth of recommendations from a committee with one vote, unless one or more councilmembers wanted to break one off for discussion.
The net result of the system was to diffuse power among members of the council. Many issues were decided, and many proposals killed, in committee, usually out of sight of the mayor. Traditionally, High Point
mayors have not chaired committees.
That gave the committee chairmen unusual power, and also allowed them to use their expertise. Former Councilmember and current Guilford County Commissioner Bill Bencini, for example, is an expert on land-use planning. Former Councilmember and current state House Rep. John Faircloth was a former High Point
police chief, and so a public safety expert.
No more. Now, nothing will be done by the City County in a meeting not run by Sims.
Sims on Thursday completely scratched the City Council's entire committee system. To understand how she did so, you have to understand another oddity of the High Point
City Council's traditional way of doing business: the legislative fiction of the "committee of the whole." A legislative body acts as a committee of the whole when it wants all of the members of the body to hear the details of an issue before a vote. Congress hasn't used that mechanism since 1986.
For years, the Monday meeting that everyone considers a High Point
City Council meeting has actually been a meeting of the City Council's Committee of the Whole a fine distinction, but one that mattered in High Point
The fiction was a vestigial leftover from the days when the City Council regularly held its actual meetings on Thursday mornings, but met on Monday as a committee of the whole to hear recommendations from the other committees. The Committee of the Whole made recommendations to the City Council itself which were then voted on at the Thursday City Council meetings.
The City Council for years has almost never met as the City Council on Thursdays, instead reserving Thursdays for briefings by High Point
City Manager Strib Boynton and his staff. So, at the end of the Monday meeting, a councilmember would make a motion to make all action final meaning that a vote of the Committee of the Whole became a vote of the City Council, and a full City Council meeting wasn't needed on Thursday. That was useful for City councilmembers whose work schedules didn't allow them to attend daytime meetings.
The City Council system was unusual like many things in High Point
but worked. It was easy to make fun of the City Council for holding what were sometimes 20-minute meetings, but the system was indisputably efficient. And the City Council could always vote to not refer big issues to committee at all, avoiding the type of problem the Guilford County Board of Education created when it tried to handle a half-billion-dollar construction program primarily in committee.
The last time a mayor tried to eliminate the committee system was in 2003, when Smothers retook the mayor's chair from Arnold Koonce. Smothers, flush with victory, announced that she was going to scrap the committees and do all the City Council's business in meetings of the full council run by Smothers.
The results were not pretty. In 2003, the City Council was dominated by long-time councilmembers, many of whom chaired committees, and few of whom were willing to grant Smothers, fresh from a four-year exile from the City Council, that kind of procedural power.
A delegation of councilmembers, led by Bencini, sat Smothers down and told her the facts of life that there was no way they were going to vote for Smothers' attempt to centralize power under the mayor. The proposal died in that room.
The surprising thing about the major change Sims made Thursday in the City Council's way of doing business was that it met no such opposition.
The new City Council, having, over two years, lost Bencini, Faircloth and long-time Councilmembers Chris Whitley and Latimer Alexander, lacked the experience and to oppose Sims. And it's quite possible that some of the new councilmembers weren't even aware of what she was doing.
Sims actually did away with the committee system in a vote to approve the ordinance establishing the City Council's meeting schedule. Sims merely proposed a meeting schedule that did not include meetings of High Point
's traditional committees.
Ward 3 Councilmember Judy Mendenhall made the motion. Smothers seconded it. The motion passed 9 to 0, and that was that.
From now on, the Monday night meetings will be City Council meetings not meetings of the Committee of the Whole. And if any issues do need research and deliberation in committee, they will be done during the Thursday meetings, which will now be meetings of the Committee of the Whole.
In other words, all councilmembers will be expected to attend Monday's City Council meetings, chaired by Sims, and if a Thursday committee meeting is necessary, which it almost certainly will be, all councilmembers will be expected to attend and that meeting, too, will be chaired by Sims. Votes at the Monday meetings will be votes of the City Council, and will require no separate vote to be final....continued on page 2