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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Larry Dirks's Coup

Our Lake Herman Sanitary District meeting last month produced some good public discussion... as well as a budget that taxes 23% more than it actually spends and increases our 1100% budget reserve. The meeting also produced what I think I can categorize as an attempted coup.

To review: I preside over the sanitary district board. Lawrence Dirks is our treasurer. The third seat is vacant, as it has been for three of the last four years. Thus, to get anything done, Larry and I must agree.

Heading into our August meeting, I proposed levying no tax and spending down our reserve. Our August meeting brought up some good ideas about pursuing legislative action that would allow the sanitary district to use its resources for water quality projects. Larry supported increasing the tax levy to the maximum opt-out amount and saving up to someday apply for federal grants to build a central sewer system.

Hoping to reach some workable agreement after lengthy discussion at our September meeting, I suggested we levy $1600 to cover projected FY2010 expenses. Larry's response:

I don't know why the sanitary district has to negotiate with you.

As we continued to work our way toward a vote, a gentleman attending the meeting suggested that the president of a board can only vote when there is a tie. Larry seized on this idea, saying I could not vote, proposed a levy to his liking, and declared it passed on a vote of 1–0.

Larry proceeded to favor me with what I think may qualify as the biggest poop-eating grin I have ever seen. I welcome readers to submit more apt terms.

I also welcome readers to scour the law books and submit their legal opinions as to the validity of Larry's solo budget vote and my subsequent action.

Essentially, Larry was trying to stage a bloodless coup, appropriating to one person the corporate power of the board. I'm uneasy with the idea of one person assuming the authority to tax my neighbors. I thus felt comfortable ignoring Larry's "vote" and continuing the discussion until we settled on a number the board could agree on.

But what of this suggestion that the presiding officer can only vote to break ties? I've heard this canard before. So have the good folks in charge of Robert's Rules of Order, to whom I turn in the absence of any clear by-laws addressing this situation. Their #1 Frequently Asked Question addresses this very issue:

No, it is not true that the president can vote only to break a tie. If the president is a member of the assembly, he or she has exactly the same rights and privileges as all other members have, including the right to make motions, speak in debate and to vote on all questions. However, the impartiality required of the presiding officer of an assembly (especially a large one) precludes exercising the right to make motions or debate while presiding, and also requires refraining from voting except (i) when the vote is by ballot, or (ii) whenever his or her vote will affect the result.

When will the chair's vote affect the result? On a vote which is not by ballot, if a majority vote is required and there is a tie, he or she may vote in the affirmative to cause the motion to prevail. If there is one more in the affirmative than in the negative, he or she can create a tie by voting in the negative to cause the motion to fail. Similarly, if a two-thirds vote is required, he or she may vote either to cause, or to block, attainment of the necessary two thirds. [RONR (10th ed.), p. 392-93; see also Table A, p.190 of RONR In Brief.]

Of course, on a board with two members, parliamentary games are rather silly. Neither person alone constitutes a majority or even a quorum. A two-person board is hardly a board: it is more a conversation that produces either consensus or inaction. Fortunately, Larry Dirks's coup did not succeed, and we found a consensus that, if nothing else, achieved the goal of getting the meeting done before dark.

You never know what will happen at a sanitary district meeting. Stay tuned for our next thrilling exercise in local government!


  1. What is the problem with getting a third board member? No one willing to serve on a board that has such an immediate impact on their water rates and direction of future use?

  2. We had a surge of interest in board affairs during our budget talks, but previously, apathy has kept the seat from being filled. One of the problem is that we don't have much to do. In 30 years, the board hasn't built a sewer system or done much of anything else. (There are no water rates for us to govern.)


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