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The St. Paul City Council — where ‘No’ meant no and nothing meant ‘Yes’ — approves a radical new move: talking

It’s a familiar refrain at St. Paul City Council meetings.

“Noecker-Prince-Thao-Tolbert-Bostrom-Brendmoen-Council President Stark,” a series of names read so fast that it tends to sound like a single word:

“Noeckerprincethaotolbertbostrombrendmoencouncilpresidentstark.”

Which is usually followed by: “There are seven in favor, none opposed. The resolution is adopted.”

All this because when members of the St. Paul council vote, “no” means no. But in a process unique to the capital city’s elected council, silence means “yes.” That is: if a council member supports whatever is being voted on, they simply say nothing. The clerk records their sentiments as “Yes.”

In fact, only when a council member has signaled to the clerk that they will be voting “no” does City Clerk Shari Moore stop after their names to give them the chance to speak up. And since most votes before government bodies are unanimous — consent items, resolutions, procedures — St. Paul council meetings can be a blur of single-breath, rapid fire votes with not a peep from the elected officials making those decisions.

Hence: “Noeckerprincethaotolbertbostrombrendmoencouncilpresidentstark.”

The St. Paul council's typical roll call, this from March 2 when it declared Bernadette Celene Benner Day in the city. It will now require council members to say "yes" when they mean yes.

If the point is efficiency, it works. St. Paul council meetings can move very quickly. But when he took over as council president last year, Russ Stark recognized that the St. Paul Way might be confusing to residents and others in attendance. So during his tenure, Stark has taken to explaining it to those in the chamber and watching on TV before votes are taken.

That should no longer be necessary. Starting next week, after a change in rules approved Wednesday, council members who want to vote yes will have to say “Yes.” As the resolution states, they will shift to the “voice vote method,” which means roll calls on the St. Paul city council will look — and sound — like roll calls in most other representatives bodies.

“The point of having silent votes was for efficiency,” said Council Member Dai Thao before the meeting. “But I would like to vote ‘yes.’”

The change came at the suggestion of new Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who recalled being puzzled by the process when she would attend meetings as a citizen.

“I had no idea what was going on,” she said. “I thought maybe they used electronic voting. As a council member, it just struck me how easy it would be to have an important issue pass without us saying anything.”

It was the first council action for which Noecker was the lead sponsor since joining the council in January.

Council member Dan Bostrom, at 20 years of service the longest serving member, said the silent treatment has been used since at least his first term. No one appeared to know how long the non-voice vote method has been in place.

Bostrom ultimately opposed the change. He preferred a roll call on each vote with each name being called. On some motions, the council votes together, as in "All those in favor say  ‘aye.’ All those opposed, ‘nay.’”

Stark said he is all for the change, believing it’s good both for transparency and for efficiency. How so? Won’t each roll call take a bit longer?

Yes, Stark said (out loud). But at least now he won’t have to go through his explanation of how silence meant approval.

But not before there was one last moment of silence, mostly. When it came time to vote on the change Wednesday, Council Member Amy Brendmoen wondered how they were supposed to vote — the old way or the new way. Stark said that since the resolution must be signed by Mayor Chris Coleman, it won't become part of the rules until the next meeting, “not the next vote.”

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 03/17/2016 - 11:43 am.

    it’s the little things

    The “automatic yes” thing symbolically reinforces the idea that City Council doesn’t do anything, or rubber stamps city policy. So yes it’s a nice change.

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