The definition of “Emergency” was stretched recently when Councilmember Richard Clark introduced controversial Ordinance 2009-467; an emergency, no-bid appropriation for a $168,000.00 batting cage in Wingate Park. The Jacksonville Ethics Commission was called upon to examine his request and revisited the issue during their June 29, 2009 Commission Meeting. During this session, City Attorney Margaret Sidman walked the board members through a detailed explanation of City Council’s Emergency and Procurement rules. Although the Ethics Commission’s original findings indicated Mr. Clark’s bill was legally sound, under intense criticism from other Councilmembers and the media, Richard Clark withdrew the bill and sent it back to committee so it could be re-submitted with competitive bids and without its emergency status.
This bill has become such a case study in the ambiguities of City Council’s Emergency Status Rules, that the Ethics Commission Legislative Subcommittee will meet on July 23, 2009 at 1PM to discuss if and how those rules can be enhanced. Currently, City Council Rules 4.901 -4.906 do not explicitly define what constitutes an emergency and leaves the decision up to Councilmembers. This allows the definition of an emergency to be loosely interpreted, influenced by special interests and provides few safeguards to ensure that the public has adequate time to review and respond to “emergency” legislation.
According to Ms. Sidman, nearly 8% of 2009 legislation submitted to date rose to the level of emergency status; and Jacksonville hadn’t even seen its first hurricane of the season. She did indicate that there are formulaic, flow-charting procedures in place that Council Committees are urged to follow when designating emergency legislation, but they are merely suggestions and not mandates.
How often those flow-charting procedures are used remains a mystery. Councilmember Clark has yet to answer how these rules and procedures were applied in the case of Ordinance 2009-467. Flowcharts and deliberation aside, according to the rules Mr. Clark was technically allowed to decide that a batting cage was an “emergency” regardless if his constituents didn’t think so.
With any luck the Ethics Commission Legislative Subcommittee will be able to recommend tightening these rules so special interest bills are not fast-tracked before the taxpayers can see what they’re really paying for. Rules on emergency legislation need to be in place to guarantee open government for the public interest and not an open checkbook for pet projects.