Less than two weeks ago, news broke that the Fresno City Council was considering a policy that would allow members to vote in advance on an agenda item, then leave the meeting before the matter was discussed.
On Thursday, the council did an abrupt about-face and unanimously passed a resolution prohibiting the practice.
What changed? In two words: public outrage.
“There was a lot of disappointment with the fact that we would do this,” Council Member Oliver Baines said.
The practice – called absentee or ghost voting – isn’t illegal, and had only been done on four votes by three council members over the past six weeks. The first was Steve Brandau, who recorded a vote and then left a meeting because he was sick. Council Member Clint Olivier later recorded votes on two items – one of which was later altered by council members – before leaving a meeting due to illness. Member Sal Quintero recorded a single vote and left the same meeting to attend a Christmas party put on by the Fresno Fire Department.
Because of those incidents, Baines asked City Attorney Doug Sloan about drawing up an official policy on the practice. Sloan researched the matter and could find nothing prohibiting it, though experts said the practice is rarely done, if at all. When a story on the practice ran late last month in The Bee, however, the public backlash was fast and furious. Within a day, Olivier said he would put forth a proposal banning the practice, with Brandau as a co-sponsor.
“It is a procedure that, I believe, is rife for abuse,” Olivier said. “Not by anyone up here today, but by future councils.”
Brandau, Baines and Council Members Esmeralda Soria and Paul Caprioglio, however, looked at it a different way. There was no abuse of the practice, they said, and there would not be had it been officially sanctioned. There were checks and balances, Baines said. Among them: all council members had to agree to a fellow member casting a vote and then leaving.
“It’s not something that’s ever been abused here on the Fresno City Council that I know of,” Brandau said. “Definitely not while I’ve been here. In that sense, it’s really not that big of a deal.”
But the four members agreed with their fellow members that constituent feedback was universally negative.
Initially, the practice looked like it might be headed toward official approval. Some members seemed supportive and others ambivalent. Only Council Member Lee Brand came out forcefully against the practice, saying that in his seven years on the council, he’s changed his mind on the dais several times after hearing public comment on an issue.
In the past, if a council member was missing for a vote, it went down as a missed vote. In the future, that is how it will remain.
Said Brandau: “I think this is a simple fix. A simple solution.”