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It is a battle of the gavel at town council in Kilmarnock

Posted on Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at 10:01 am


Tempers flared and the mayor’s gavel banged repeatedly last Monday as questions arose over whether proper procedure was being followed by some members of the Kilmarnock Town Council.

On Feb. 25, a presentation by Town Manager Tom Saunders that was not listed on the meeting agenda triggered a line of questioning from Mayor Raymond Booth that other members felt was not appropriate for town council meetings.

At the request of the Administration and Finance Committee, Saunders presented a list of water and sewer repair expenses that were cataloged before and after the reorganization of the Utilities department in 2011.

Following Saunders’ presentation, Booth questioned the condition of the Water and Sewer department.

However, unlike the meetings in November, December and January, Booth did not relinquish the gavel to Vice Mayor Emerson Gravatt to make comments.

Last month, Gravatt refused to hand the gavel back to Booth and assumed the mayor’s duties after Booth decided to speak on another action item recommended by Administration and Finance.

Booth said that because they had “this impromptu presentation,” he did not feel it was inappropriate for him to ask questions about it.

“Are you passing the gavel?” Councilwoman Rebecca Nunn asked Booth.

“I don’t have to pass the gavel to do this,” Booth replied. “There’s no question here.”

“You’re supposed to remain impartial and you’re not supposed to speak,” Nunn told Booth.

“I’m merely asking questions,” Booth said. “This presentation wasn’t even on the agenda.

Booth proceeded to ask Saunders for more detailed numbers regarding the state of the Water and Sewer Department.

He also questioned Saunders, as well as Town Clerk Cindy Balderson during the meeting, about the allocation of labor to Water and Sewer.

“I don’t think this questioning is appropriate for a town council meeting,” Gravatt broke in as Booth questioned Balderson.

Before Gravatt could finish his sentence, Booth banged the gavel.

“You’re out of order. I have the gavel tonight, Vice Mayor Gravatt,” said Booth.

“You can keep the gavel,” replied Gravatt, who added that Booth’s discussion about town management and the bookkeeping of time should be done with the town manager outside of a town council meeting.

“Will you please let me proceed?” Booth told Gravatt. “You pulled your stunt with the gavel last month, you were wrong about that.”

Nunn stood up.

“This is all inappropriate,” she said. “This is not following Robert’s Rules of Order.”

She added that if council were to not follow Robert’s Rules of Order, then they should adjourn.

“The whole conversation about the gavel is certainly not appropriate,” she said.

Near the end of the meeting, Gravatt asked Town Attorney Chris Stamm if he was “out of line” to keep the gavel after it was passed to him during last month’s meeting.

“No, you were not wrong in not giving [the gavel] back,” Stamm replied. “However, you were wrong in taking it in the first place, because you spoke to the issue and it shouldn’t have been passed to you.”

Based on Stamm’s research of Robert’s Rule of Order, he told council that the only book they would use to interpret the rules from that point on was the 11th edition.

“It’s the most current thing that’s been purchased by the town and given to each of you,” said Stamm. “This is all we’re going to use from now on.”

He admitted that he was not using the Eleventh Edition beforehand and was therefore “going down the wrong path” with his interpretation of the rules during the January meeting.

“I apologize to you Mr. Gravatt for not stopping [the passing of the gavel],” said Stamm, who also apologized to Booth for “having been a co-conspirator in taking that gavel.”

Based on Stamm’s reading of the 11th edition, the presiding officer, or the mayor, has as an individual the same rights to debate as any other member.

“But the impartiality of the Chair in an assembly precludes his exercising these rights while he is presiding,” Stamm read.

Stamm added that the presiding officer should normally have nothing to say on the merits of pending questions.

But on certain occasions, which Robert’s Rules dictated should be extremely rare, the presiding officer may believe that a crucial factor relating to such a question has been overlooked.

At that point, Stamm read, the presiding officer’s obligation as a member of his or her governing body outweighed his duty to preside at that time.

“So to participate in that debate, he must relinquish the chair,” read Stamm, who added that the presiding officer must hand over the gavel to the next highest-ranking member…or in Kilmarnock’s case, Vice Mayor Gravatt.

However, if the Vice Mayor wished to speak to the matter or had already done so, then the mayor should pass the gavel to any council member of his choice unless the council members nominate someone else.

“In which case, the presiding officer’ choice is treated as a nominee and the matter is decided by a vote,” Stamm added.

Stamm also read that unless the presiding officer is extremely sparing in leaving the chair to take part in debate, he may “destroy the members’ confidence in the impartiality of his approach” to being the presiding officer.

Following Stamm’s comments, Booth and Gravatt shook hands.

“I hope the Vice-Mayor and I can work more closely and avoid any squabbles over this gavel in the future,” said Booth, to which Gravatt agreed.