At a meeting Tuesday, the council cast its first split votes since taking office in November. Councilman David Reddick voted against a comprehensive smoking ban in the city’s workplaces and public places, citing concern for businesses. He, along with Councilman Jay Jenkins, also failed to win the support of the rest of the council for an amendment to exempt e-cigarettes from the ban.
Before Tuesday night, all of the council’s votes had been unanimous, with abstentions or absences in just three votes. Now, nearly 97 percent of the council’s 187 votes have been 5-0. (A January vote on a request from a resident for a street light near his property saw the council members unanimously vote no.)
The council’s consensus and its voting record are much different than the council that came before it. In the first six months of the tenure of the council elected in 2008, nearly 28 percent of 257 votes cast were split. (That council took more votes in part because it held an extra meeting in December 2008.)
While the 2008 council’s split votes often led to — or arose from — heated arguments, the aftermath of the 2012 council’s first split has been calm. Reddick, speaking Wednesday, still expressed misgivings about the smoking law, but had praise for his fellow council members.
“The biggest thing we’ve got going is a mutual respect for one another,” Reddick said.
“A lot of people don’t think we’ve done anything because it’s such a smooth transition,” Reddick said. But, he added, that’s because “it’s usually a well-thought-out, well-planned decision when we make it.”
Tougher times ahead
Several of the council members said that the smoke-free ordinance was a prime candidate for a split vote because it was one of the most controversial issues the council has tackled in its half-year in office. Business owners and residents lined up to voice their concerns and support for the measure Tuesday at the council’s longest-running meeting thus far.
Council members also expect more split votes to come.
“When we start moving ahead with our strategic plan and we get input from the people is when you’re really going to start seeing some differences,” Councilwoman Millie Harris said.
Harris added that the council’s easygoing appearance does not mean the members shy away from bold steps.
“I think the thing is, we’re not afraid,” she said. “I’m not afraid to stand up and I don’t think these other people are either.”
Reddick noted the council has taken on the state Legislature in regard to a bill to allow the council to approve Sunday alcohol sales and made tough decisions about issues such as employee health benefits.
The council members seem to agree that their ability to cooperate productively is one of, if not the, largest accomplishments of their first few months in office. And they’ve agreed that it’s fine to disagree, as long as they remain respectful.
“We’re not going to always be in the same frame of mind,” said Mayor Vaughn Stewart, “but I think it’s very important that we’re always acting in the best interest of the city and in harmony in acting like adults.”
Reddick attributes most of the council’s success to planning.
“When we first got elected, everybody sat down, shared our goals, our plans for the city and what we wanted to accomplish,” he said. “That gives us a blueprint to work off of.”
That type of communication, he said, is part of the council’s record of consensus. “Typically, if there’s a disagreement with each other,” he said, “we try to work it out with each other before we put it on the agenda.” Reddick said he thought the council could have done more in his vein on the smoking ban.
A different track record
Jenkins, who was appointed to a vacant council seat in January 2012, is the only holdover to remain on the council.
“I think the difference here — it’s not that we agree on everything — I don’t think we do,” he said. “I think that the difference is we’re not carrying a grudge from a disagreement.”
Herbert Palmore, who represented Ward 2 on the previous council, said he could only speak for his own conduct.
“I always tried to be fair with everyone and honest about how I felt about whatever subject that came up,” adding that he never tried to rule over other members of the council.
Attempts to reach other members of the 2008 council for this story were unsuccessful.
Ultimately, his votes came down to what was best for the city, particularly residents of Ward 2, he said.
“I voted to help them,” he said. “I didn’t vote for anyone else.”
He said he answered only to himself, taking advice but not instructions from others on votes. “If you’re honest with yourself, you don’t care what other people say and do.”
What may be perceived as smooth sailing to residents should not lead to complacency, Councilman Seyram Selase said, adding that the democratic process is about accountability. He said he wants to see citizens stay engaged, communicating their priorities and concerns to the council members.
“Just because we’ve shown that we’ve done so well with cooperation,” he said, “does not mean the city should not continue to hold our feet to the fire.”
Staff writer Paige Rentz: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @PRentz_Star.