Slight change to city meetings comes after alderman said rules of order weren’t being followed

Published 4:02 pm Wednesday, March 1, 2023

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NATCHEZ — Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson, elected in 2020, on Tuesday made a slight change to the order in which he conducts city meetings.

The change came after Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard said the mayor was using the phrase “call to the question” to stymie discussion on an issue before a vote is taken.

Ending a debate early without a two-thirds majority vote of the board goes against Roberts Rules of Order, which the city uses in sync with the city’s Code Charter to conduct its meetings, Dillard said.

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“We are a work in progress,” Gibson said during Tuesday’s aldermen meeting. “The city works so hard to do everything properly but we always can stand to have some input and feedback. Roberts Rules of Order is something that we adhere to in our city meetings along with and in sync with our code charter. Part of that in moving the conversation along is our use of ‘call to the question,’ which is acknowledged when it appears that it’s time to move toward a vote and a voting majority wishes to do so. In the last two and a half years, as a matter of expediency, when I look around and feel like we have had discussion and it’s time to move to a vote, I acknowledge that and we move on.

“If you have noticed tonight, I’m going to begin doing things a little bit differently and we will do it this way from now on. Once a call has been made, I will ask if that is suitable for everyone or if there is an objection. If I hear no objection, that will mean, in my opinion, that we don’t need to vote on a call to the question and we’ll go straight to a vote. If it appears that more discussion is warranted and a majority of the board wants that, we will continue with the discussion.”

This change satisfies Dillard, who said previously the mayor and two aldermen could prevent other aldermen from speaking. This issue came up at a Feb. 22 special called meeting.

Ward 3 Alderman Sarah Carter Smith, who chairs the public safety committee, made a motion to post the city police chief position to any existing, qualified police officers rather than advertise for a new chief externally.

Ward 1 Alderman Valencia Hall seconded her motion. After the motion was made and seconded, Dillard began questioning why the search for a new police chief was narrowed to existing employees only. Ward 2 Alderman Billie Joe Frazier and Ward 1 Aldermen Felicia Bridgewater Irving objected to the issue being taken up at a special called meeting when it was added to the agenda the same morning. Discussion continued when Hall called the question, meaning she made a motion for the debate to end and to proceed to a vote on Smith’s original motion. Smith seconded Hall’s motion to call the question amid other aldermen talking over each other.

“You can’t ‘call to question’ to stymie discussion just because you don’t like what is being said,” Dillard said over Smith’s second to the motion.

Gibson cut off the debate three minutes after the question had been called and seconded without taking a vote from the board to end the discussion. The motion to advertise for a new police chief internally passed 4-2, with both Frazier and Dillard both voting against it.

Dillard said Tuesday that he counted the minutes of the discussion before a vote was taken and, in total, it was 12 minutes and 35 seconds of discussion.

“It has just happened recently where the call to the question came so quickly in the discussion that it limits the discussion,” Dillard said. “I don’t think 12 minutes is too much time to have a discussion on important topics that affect the City of Natchez. In 12 minutes, you can’t even get in and out of a Walmart checkout line.”

Dillard said he has since studied Roberts Rules of Order alongside the city’s Code Charter and discovered the Code Charter “has its own procedural process.”

“The underlying fact there is that we have to allow a full discussion and for those who oppose the discussion to be able to have their points made,” he said. “It goes to our democracy. It’s not the freedom of speech to agree with everyone. What good would that do? It is the freedom of speech to be able to disagree with the issues at hand. … In an orderly manner, you can have a discussion and you can disagree, but you have to be civil about it and you have to be constructive about it.”