AFTER READING our recent editorial chiding Richland County Council for choosing to hold its annual retreat to discuss public business out of town, a couple of members contacted me to make it clear they voted against the trip.
But the public wouldn’t know that, one council member said, because the council casts voice votes on almost every issue — whether it’s deciding where to hold the retreat or extending the life of a landfill that has contaminated ground water for another two dozen years.
Councilman Seth Rose wants to change that. He’s pushing for council members to hold roll-call votes on every item, much like Columbia City Council does. His proposal is expected to come up in committee this month.
There’s something to be said about citizens knowing how council members vote. After all, council members are rezoning property, spending money, determining service levels and making policy, all of which affects citizens.
Voters should be able to track council members’ actions and review their record, both to determine whether their votes lined up with their platforms and to help them decide whether they should be re-elected. Of course, I’m not so sure that every member is interested in voters — or their opponents, for that matter — having that information.
Still, it seems to me that it would be hard for council members to reject roll-call voting out of hand. How do you tell the public, “I don’t want to be held accountable”?
Besides, as much as politicians harp on running on their record, you’d think they would want there to be an actual record to reference.
Mr. Rose said he began considering the notion of roll-call voting after a citizen complained about not knowing how individual council members voted during debates over the controversial proposal to build a sewer system in Lower Richland.
“She’s right. We should know how people vote,” Mr. Rose said.
There’s no reason why County Council can’t hold roll-call votes, he said. “The Legislature does it, and the city of Columbia does it.”
He said it’s imperative to put votes on the record so the public knows who voted for what and also so that the council members can be held accountable for what they approve or prevent.
As things stand, the only way to get a recorded vote is for a member to request a “division” or revote when the outcome of a voice vote isn’t clear, he said. County ordinance allows any member to request that members record their votes to determine a clear vote.
But those who want the public to know how they vote shouldn’t have to continually call for an on-the-record revote, he said.
And some might not be willing to ask for one as often as they’d like because of how their colleagues respond, Mr. Rose said. “When you call for division everyone just huffs and puffs,” he said.
Besides that, requesting a revote doesn’t always result in a revote, as Mr. Rose knows too well. It was his attempt to get a division on a controversial zoning issue that fell on deaf ears this summer.
On July 22, the council was discussing the attempt to get an oversized mansion in St. Andrews rezoned from residential to office/institutional. Following a voice vote to defer the matter, then-Chairman Norman Jackson declared that the votes favored deferring the issue. Mr. Rose asked for a revote to make sure.
Mr. Jackson refused Councilman Rose’s request not once, but twice. That came as a surprise to some on the council and rubbed some citizens in the audience the wrong way.
It’s routine for a council member to ask for a roll-call vote when it’s not clear what the outcome was in a voice vote. It’s also typical for the chair to recognize that request. But Mr. Jackson refused to budge on his declaration that the vote to delay a decision passed, and he refused Mr. Rose’s request to have members raise their hands to vote.
I talked to a former chairman of Richland County Council who was dumbfounded, saying it was unprecedented for a chairman to deny a roll-call vote. Such a request takes precedence over any other item of business and is nondebatable.
Mr. Rose said the way he was treated isn’t what’s important. “To me, that’s not even the biggest issue,” he said. The bigger issue, he said, is that the council continues to make important decisions without the public knowing how members vote.
Mr. Rose said he can imagine some might object because they feel that roll-call voting would be too time consuming.
Will it take more time? Absolutely. But the question is how much and whether that’s a waste of time. While County Council can have lengthy agendas at times, it’s unlike the process in the state Legislature, which can vote on dozens or even scores of bills in a day, and where endless amendments can transform those bills.
Richland officials could explore ways to preserve time, such as not requiring roll-call votes for resolutions patting folks on the back and recognizing special days and events. Perhaps it might even make sense to omit consent items, which include routine purchases and actions.
I can’t imagine council members summarily rejecting this idea, but stranger things have happened. Even if they embrace it, there’s no telling how long it would take before a workable process is approved.
In the meantime, council members should call for a roll-call vote when it’s needed, no matter how much others might grumble. And when voice votes are taken, members who want their vote to be known should ask that it be put in the record.
But Mr. Rose is adamant about the need to make on-the-record voting the way the council conducts the public’s business. Voice votes let people off the hook, he said.
“People hide behind that,” Mr. Rose said. “That’s not right. We’re dealing with serious issues.”
“When you’re dealing with the amount of money we are, there needs to be accountability,” he said.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.