Sunday, March 22, 2015

Misuse of "motion to table" can result in Meetings Act noncompliance.

Richard A. Mola
Mayor of Elmwood Park
Following is my letter to Elmwood Park (Bergen County) Mayor Richard A. Mola and the Borough Council:

March 22, 2015

Hon. Richard A. Mola, Mayor and members of the
Elmwood Park Borough Council
182 Market St
Elmwood Park, NJ
via e-mail only

Dear Mayor Mola and Council members:

I invite your attention to the manner in which the Mayor and Council handled a motion to "table" at the Borough Council's February 19, 2015 meeting.  The meeting is on-line here and the portion of the video I refer to begins at 06:37 and ends at 07:42.

After Resolution 76-15, which sought a $30,000 expenditure for engineering services, was moved and seconded, Councilman Stephen Martino questioned the cost and wanted to "table" the pending motion to allow for further discussion with the engineering firm.  After the "tabling" motion was seconded, Mayor Mola started to ask for discussion on the motion and then abruptly said "no discussion" and went immediately to a vote.  The motion to "table" ultimately failed.

What occurred here is a common misuse of the motion to "Lay on the Table."  According to Roberts Rules of Order, Newly Revised 10th Edition, the motion to Lay on the Table is to be used only to set a pending question aside temporarily "when something else of immediate urgency has arisen."  According to RONR (10th ed.) p. 202, l. 4-6, "[the motion to table] is commonly misused . . . in place of the motion to Postpone Indefinitely, to Postpone to a Certain Time or other motions."

Councilman Martino wasn't seeking to delay consideration of the question because "something else of immediate urgency had arisen."  Rather, his stated purpose in making his "tabling" motion was to allow the Council more time to have discussions with the engineering firm.  Thus, his motion really was, and ought to have been considered, one to Postpone to a Certain Time rather than one to Lay on the Table.

So, what's the big deal?  I am writing because
By adopting a motion to Lay on the Table, a majority has the power to halt consideration of a question immediately without debate.  Such action violates the rights of the minority and individual members if it is for any other purpose than the one stated in the first sentence of this section (i.e. to set a pending question aside temporarily when something else of immediate urgency has arisen.  (RONR (10th ed.) p. 202, l. 8-13)
Note that Mayor Mola--apparently erroneously accepting the motion as one to Lay on the Table--did not allow any debate or discussion on Councilman Martino's motion.  And, such suppression of debate and discussion motivates me to write to you about this issue.  Had Councilman Martino's "tabling" motion passed, a debate on the main question would have been terminated.  But, had Councilman Martino correctly stated his motion as one to Postpone to a Certain Time (or had Mayor Mola accepted the motion as one to Postpone to a Certain Time), it would have been both debatable and amendable. (RONR (10th ed.) p. 174, l. 19-27).  Accordingly, discussion was suppressed that should have occurred.

Given that Councilman Martino's "tabling" motion failed, no serious harm was done.  However, absent correction, the Mayor and Council could, in the future, incorrectly pass a Motion to Lay onkk the Table when a Motion to Postpone Indefinitely was in order.  Such would allow a Council majority to effectively kill a motion proposed by a minority without having to discuss or debate the merits of the minority's proposal.  Prevention of this result is especially important in a municipality like Elmwood Park where the Mayor and Council consist of four from one political party and three from another.

The Legislature passed the Open Public Meetings Act because
the right of the public to be present at all meetings of public bodies, and to witness in full detail all phases of the deliberation, policy formulation, and decision making of public bodies, is vital to the enhancement and proper functioning of the democratic process. (N.J.S.A. 10:4-7.)
The Elmwood Park Council's misunderstanding of the Motion to Lay on the Table works against this Legislative pronouncement by suppressing discussion and debate that ought to have occurred.  Accordingly, I ask that the Mayor and Council review Robert's Rules of Order--particularly the sections dealing with the Motion to Lay on the Table--to ensure that the motion is used properly in the future.

Very truly yours,

​John Paff
P.O. Box 5424
Somerset, NJ  08875
Voice: 732-873-1251
Fax: 908-325-0129
e-mail: paff@pobox.com

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