City Council members who abstain from voting when they don’t have a conflict of interest are shirking their duty to the constituents they represent. The rising number of abstentions from some council members is an indication they would rather demur than take a public stance on the difficult decisions they were elected to make.
As Dan Stockman’s Sunday story explained, the once-rare practice of abstaining from a vote has turned into a routine occurrence at Fort Wayne City Council meetings. City records show there have been 38 abstentions in the past three years. Council members are also, increasingly, not sharing their reasons for abstaining.
But as Nancy Sylvester, an Illinois-based parliamentary procedure expert, explained, elected officials have a particular responsibility to cast a vote on all issues. The only time an abstention is appropriate is when the council member has a conflict of interest.
Mitch Harper, R-4th, has by far the most abstentions at 15. And he frequently gives no explanation for his abstentions.
More often than not, council members are given ample opportunity to explain their votes.
Councilman Marty Bender, R-at large, comes in at second with eight abstentions, but as a deputy police chief, he abstains from any vote involving public safety or city employee benefits to avoid a conflict of interest. Former councilman Tim Pape, a local attorney, abstained seven times during the same time period. All of his abstentions were because of conflicts of interest, which he explained when abstaining.
Russ Jehl, R-2nd, has abstained four times in his first year of service on the council. And not always because he has a conflict of interest, but because he did not fully support the proposal under consideration.
In the future, council members should abstain from voting only to avoid a conflict of interest. And they should always give a clear and concise – with a particular emphasis on the word concise – explanation for the abstention. Otherwise, if a council member disagrees with the proposal under consideration, he needs to vote no.