Planning and Development Director forces new motion after committee member votes mis-tallied
MANDEVILLE — A parliamentary snafu at the Planning & Zoning Commission meeting last night (June 22, 2021) left members believing that a motion to return an unfavorable recommendation to the City Council on a rezoning issue failed when it had actually passed, causing them to continue to debate and consider other options.
The commotion had the effect of riling up an already agitated, standing-room-only crowd, most of whom were there to voice their concerns over a proposed carwash development planned for West Causeway Approach.
But first they were forced to sit through what at times, according to one observer, bore a closer resemblance to an Abbott and Costello routine than a Planning & Zoning meeting.
The rezoning issue in question was concerning Item Z21-06-04, Omar Hamide’s request to rezone property on Livingston Street from R-1 Single Family Residential to R-3 Multi-Family. This type of rezoning is often referred to as “spot zoning” and city planners try to avoid it unless there are compelling reasons.
In these matters, it is the job of the Planning & Zoning Commission to make recommendations to the City Council as “favorable,” or not. The council is not obligated to abide, but more often than not, it does.
After a brief discussion on the matter, Commission Member Ren Clark made a motion: “I move that we recommend the City Council deny the request.” Typically, it is preferred to have motions stated in the affirmative, not the negative. This is what likely started the confusion that was to follow.
To make matters worse, some commission members weren’t following the parliamentary rules and procedures adopted by the commission.
Planning and Development Director Cara Bartholomew said that each member is supposed to state simply “for” or “against” to make it easy to record the outcome of motions and for the public to understand what is happening.
The Planning & Zoning Commission, like other government bodies, is subject to the Louisiana Open Meetings Law, also known as “the Sunshine Law.”
At this particular meeting, with the unusually large crowd, it was especially hard for everyone to follow what was going on. A number of commission members tend to lean back in their chairs and not speak into the microphones, making it even harder for those in the back of the room to hear.
This is how the vote played out (transcribed from the official video of the meeting, starting at the 39:25 mark):
The recording secretary began a roll call vote.
Planning Chairwoman Karen Gautreaux: “Against.” Initially, the secretary took this to mean she was against the motion, but apparently Gautreaux was trying to say that she wanted the City Council to vote “against” the proposal.
Zoning Chairman Nixon Adams: “I’m gonna vote against it too.” Moments earlier he had been making an argument against “spot zoning” and this seemed to be an about-face.
Bartholomew suspected that Gautreaux meant to say she was “for” the motion, based on earlier discussion, and asked for a clarification, or essentially, she was calling a “point of order” or “point of information.”
Even though the commission adopted its own form of parliamentary procedure, it still uses the well-established “Robert’s Rules of Order” as a failsafe. Any member or staff member, such as a parliamentarian, can call a point of order or point of information. This ability is crucial in open meetings because once a public body breaks its own rule or procedure — even by accident — the damage is done and it becomes part of the official record. This is what Bartholomew was trying to stop from happening.
Gautreaux said, “I’m sorry, I’m actually for the request to deny.” This meant she was in favor of the motion, and it didn’t help matters that she accidentally used the word “request” instead of “recommendation.”
Adams chimed in: “I’m actually voting against it… I’m completely waffling on this.”
Commission Member Ren Clark: “I’m for.” This was another vote “for” the motion. At least Clark is using the for-against phrasing members are supposed to use. So far, the tally is 2-1 in favor. But this is where the trouble started.
Next, Commission Member Mike Pierce uttered: “Deny.” He obviously meant that he wanted to recommend that the council “deny” the request, which was part of the wording of the motion. It meant his intention was to vote “for” the motion despite using the word “deny.” But Adams incorrectly perceived this as a vote “against” the motion.
Commission Member Brian Rhinehart also said: “Deny.” He too was saying he wanted to recommend that the council “deny” the request, which means he wanted to vote “for” the motion. But again, Adams thought he meant he was voting “against” the motion.
Adams now thinks the tally is 3-2 against when it really is 4-1 in favor.
Commission Member Jeffrey Lahasky: “Against.”
Commission Member Simmie Fairley: “I’m against.”
At this point, the motion should have carried 4-3 and the matter would have been closed with the commission not returning a “favorable” recommendation. Unfortunately, Adams thought the motion failed 5-2, and he immediately declared that it had failed.
Adams then moved the discussion to exploring other options. At one point he floated the idea of returning a “favorable” recommendation but with conditions. However, Bartholomew told the Mandeville Daily that in this case, that would not have been allowed.
It wasn’t long before Bartholomew noticed something was askew, asking for a clarification from the chair. She realized that two of the members, presumably Mike Pierce and Brian Rhinehart who both had said “deny,” intended to vote in favor of the motion, not against it as Adams had believed.
Bartholomew again tried to reign in the situation, saying, “You already made a motion and voted on it.”
Adams rebutted, “But that’s just a denial. It didn’t pass. You can make another motion.”
Bartholomew then stated incredulously: “The motion to recommend denial did not pass.”
She told the Mandeville Daily that because the commission is supposed to either return a “favorable” recommendation or nothing (in this type of rezoning case), and they had taken a vote that did not result in a “favorable” recommendation, the issue should have been over.
Bartholomew suggested they make a new motion, but this time make it in the affirmative and simpler.
However, more confusion was injected into the situation when Gautreaux said, “I think the motion would be to deny or vote negatively on the item to not recommend to the council to approve. What would be the proper wording for that?” A few audible gasps and chuckles could be heard from the crowd, obviously at the blatant double negative phrasing by Gautreaux just after Bartholomew suggested against that.
“You can make a motion … to recommend approval of the rezoning, and then you can vote yes or no,” Bartholomew told Gautreaux.
“So we can make an approval to recommend the re-zoning, and if we don’t agree with that we could vote no,” Gautreaux replied.
The motion as Bartholomew suggested was offered and voted on. It failed to carry by the same 4-3 vote that the original, negatively phrased motion should have carried earlier but was apparently mis-tallied, which would have resulted in the exact same outcome: the City Council would not receive a “favorable” recommendation.
After the vote, Adams tried to offer another motion on the subject, saying “I’ll try one.” This drew a loud murmur from the audience, as Bartholomew tried to explain to him that the failed motion means that the City Council will not receive a “favorable” recommendation, and the matter is settled.
Lahasky interjected, telling Adams, “You don’t have to get to an approval,” to which Adams quipped, “We don’t have to, but I’d actually like to.”
Adams said he wanted to make a recommendation to the council that the property owner would have to raise it eight feet among other things. To this, the 70-plus attendees seemed to grow even more discontent as their murmur escalated to a rumble.
Finally, Adams relented and the committee moved on to discuss the proposed carwash.