Three weeks ago I wrote about the Committee on Buildings meeting that aldermen Bernard Stone and Ray Suarez held on December 7--just the two of them. This had seemed like a pretty thin crowd for conducting official legislative business, and after the meeting was over I asked Stone, the committee chairman, what constituted a quorum, the minimum number of people needed to hold a meeting. He said it didn't matter, because the 14-member committee didn't technically need a quorum to hold a meeting. "The only one who can question whether there's a quorum is a member of the committee," he said, "and no one questioned it." Meaning Suarez hadn't.
Later I looked at the City Council's rules of order. Committees are covered under rule 39, which reads, "One-half (1/2) of the total number of members of each standing committee (excepting from such total the President Pro Tempore) shall constitute a quorum; a majority of the members appointed to each special committee and subcommittee which may be created shall constitute a quorum of such special committee or subcommittee. However, a quorum of the Committee on Finance and the Committee on the Budget and Government Operations shall be fifteen (15) members."
But the rule also says, "Whenever any committee shall find itself unable to proceed with the business before it at any meeting because of the lack of a quorum, the remaining members of the committee shall be competent to adjourn or recess to a date certain." I read this to mean that the lack of a quorum doesn't automatically rule out holding a meeting, since the aldermen who show up might feel perfectly able to proceed with business. I wrote, "Under City Council rules there's no minimum number of aldermen who have to be present to hold a committee meeting. As long as the members who show up think they can take care of business, they can."
A reader e-mailed to say I'd misinterpreted the rule, which he thought clearly stated that if there isn't a quorum the committee can't legally proceed. He added, "What we are dealing with here is a gentlemen's agreement by our Aldermen to all look the other way on the issue of quorum, but interpreting the rules to support this behavior is just wrong, and it's not even vaguely defensible."
I called the council's Committee on Committees, Rules, and Ethics, chaired by 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell. The alderman, whose wife recently died, hadn't yet returned to work, and I was directed to one of the committee's clerks.
"Basically--hold on one second," the clerk said, skimming through the council rules as he talked. "I just want to get the rules here so I get it right." He paused. "Is your clarification why some stuff gets passed when a quorum isn't there? I mean, by experience, a quorum has to be called....People have to request one. I mean, um, roll call....Hmm, this is for all the council. I mean, during the Vrdolyak 29....Okay, rule 39." Finally he said, "I don't know."
He sent me to Michelle Murphy, an attorney who serves as the assistant chief administrative officer for the Committee on Finance. "I get asked about this stuff only because I've been here the longest," she said, "and I know the rules better than most people in the council."
She said committee meetings are required to be postponed only if a member of the committee makes a quorum call--asks for an official head count--and the chair or vice chair determines that there isn't a quorum. If no one makes a call, the meeting can proceed with as few as two members: the chair or vice chair and one other alderman. "You need someone to make the motions," she said. "Now, sometimes they have to go looking for committee members in order to get a meeting started. It can be hard to coordinate all of their schedules."
Murphy could remember only four quorum calls in her 13 years with the finance committee. She said Third Ward alderman Dorothy Tillman had made one during a recent finance meeting, which ended up having a quorum. The previous call had been made by Tenth Ward alderman John Buchanan, who retired in 1999. "He used to like to make a quorum call to shake things up," she said.
Jason Liechty, a senior policy analyst for Cook County commissioner Mike Quigley, sent me an e-mail in which he maintained that the City Council regularly skirts the law by holding short-handed committee meetings. "Under Robert's Rules (which the Council uses as its parliamentary authority where not contradicted by their own rules), it is up to the chair of the committee to determine whether a quorum exists or not," he wrote. "The problem is that they seem to never actually check (or care) if there is one--i.e., they are failing in their duties (shocking, I know)."
Liechty noted that he'd recently watched the finance committee sign off on plans for the controversial new LaSalle Central TIF district with only 5 aldermen present--far short of the 15 the rules say are needed for a quorum there. "I was aghast," he wrote. "Unfortunately it was a moot point, because the full council voted for the TIF the very next day." That time there was a quorum--but no debate.