Opinion: Use of abstentions to manipulate policy is undemocratic

A Pandora’s Box was opened inside city hall this month.

Commissioner Ovita Thornton
Commissioner Ovita Thornton

Unless resolved, the mayor and commission may end up with gridlock, increased obstructionism and even more factional bickering among commissioners at the expense of residents. The good news is that there is still time to slam the box shut and prevent our democracy from eroding any further at the local level.

The problem arose during Commissioner Ovita Thornton’s inappropriate series of votes on the fiscal year 2024 budget earlier this month, specifically her abstention on Commissioner Jesse Houle’s budget proposal. Check the link if you’re not familiar with what happened during the budget vote, but the short of it is that Thornton used a disingenuous procedural trick to prevent Houle’s proposal from passing, despite it having a slim majority of support on the mayor and commission.

How abstentions should work

Similar to a recusal, an abstention happens when a commissioner declares they are not voting yes or no on a particular issue. 

Abstentions happen for a number of reasons, some of which are perfectly legitimate, others downright unethical. For example, if a construction company asks the county for a building permit, any commissioner with a financial stake in that company is expected to abstain. Abstaining is not only legitimate in that case, it’s ethically required.

Other times, a commissioner might be faced with a difficult political decision and doesn’t want to offend either side. They might be tempted to abstain out of political cowardice even though that would arguably be a bit unethical. Finally, a commissioner who disagrees with the mayor on a particular topic might abstain if the vote is likely to be close, so that the final result doesn’t end up tied. An abstention like that could change the outcome of the vote in an undemocratic way. 

Let me explain.

According to the Athens-Clarke County Charter, ordinances must have a minimum of six votes to pass. When the commission is tied 5-5, the mayor is normally allowed to break the tie and provide the necessary sixth vote. But the mayor can only exercise this power in an exact tie, not in a 5-4 vote. That’s the way our charter is written.

Therefore, an abstention can do more to block an ordinance than a no vote in certain situations. To a dedicated obstructionist, an abstention is essentially worth as much as two no votes, effectively doubling the abstaining commissioner’s voting power.

That’s one reason why the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia recommends in their parliamentary procedure manual that an “abstention should not be allowed unless a conflict of interest exists.” 

That’s it. That’s the only appropriate use of an abstention in Georgia.

Unfortunately, no law or other policy is currently on the books in Athens or in the Georgia code to enforce this governmental best practice, and it’s been a problem across the state. For example, Augusta has been dealing with parliamentary gridlock for decades in part because of this very problem

Unethical abstentions are a real problem, but only in places that haven’t taken action against them. Unlike Georgia, Florida has strong laws against weaponizing abstentions. Florida statute 286.012 prohibits abstentions across the entire state “unless, with respect to any such member, there is, or appears to be, a possible conflict of interest.”

Why inappropriate abstentions are dangerous to democracy

So, why is this important? In the case of the budget vote, there wasn’t much of a difference between Houle’s and Hamby’s budget proposals, so some might be tempted to overlook this one-time indiscretion. Perhaps, as she said at the time, she hadn’t been very involved in the budget discussions anyway because of the untimely death of her husband. Some might want to forgive Thornton for abstaining and move on.

In my view, that would be a mistake.

First of all, don’t be fooled, Thornton knew exactly what she was doing and why she was doing it. Second, Thornton’s reason for abstaining, especially inappropriate as it was for a mayor pro tem, was shown clearly to be a lie when she turned around and voted on the budget at the very next opportunity. After all, Hamby’s proposal couldn’t have passed if she had continued abstaining, so she was forced to drop the charade almost immediately.

But most importantly, the reason why this is so dangerous is the precedent it sets. No one has ever used an abstention to obstruct the will of the majority before in ACC history. Now that it’s happened once, it will happen again. Possibly soon. The mayor may never get the opportunity to break a tie again, the charter be damned. 

If unscrupulous politicians have the ability to double their voting power, they’ll do it, and the rest of us will suffer for it with bad policy and the degradation of our democratic institutions.

Furthermore, commissioners are elected by only 1/10 of the voters in Athens, but the mayor represents all 127,000 of us. When the mayor’s voice is silenced, we are silenced. When a commissioner knowingly takes away the mayor’s power and uses it to benefit themselves and their rich constituents, they’re taking away the power of our entire community.

That’s unacceptable. When our democracy is threatened, no matter our political affiliation, we should stand up and put a stop to it. If we don’t, we’ll lose it.

Solutions

Now that this has happened once, we have to take the threat seriously and finally fix the vulnerability in our charter. The Association of County Commissioners in Georgia has some ordinance language that the commission can adopt to solve this issue, if they so choose:

“Neither the chairperson [mayor] nor any commissioner shall abstain from voting on any matter properly brought before the board for official action except where the chairperson or commissioner has a conflict of interest which is disclosed in writing prior to or at the meeting and made a part of the minutes.” [emphasis added]

Another option would be to allow the mayor to vote in every case, not just during ties. However, that solution would certainly require changing the charter, making it possibly a bit more difficult (it’s unclear to me if the ACCG ordinance above would require changing the charter or not). 

A final option would be to continue allowing commissioners to abstain for any reason, but to count abstains as ‘no’ votes when determining if the mayor would be allowed to break a tie.

Athenians deserve an honest government that strives to represent us, our will and our varying interests proportionately when making decisions. To that end, badly written or vague parts of the charter must be brought in line with current standards and government best practices. That’s why we must adopt one of the solutions above before this unprecedented, undemocratic and unethical use of abstentions becomes normalized.

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