Friday, May 15, 2015

Research Q of th Week: Counting Votes—Did That Pass? (5/15/15)

Question: If something needs a majority vote to pass, what if a council member is absent that day? Is it the majority of the council, or a majority of those present?

Answer: It seems like it should be so simple. The city council meets and most of the members vote yes on something. It passes, right?

Ah, now for that annoying legal response—it depends.

Let’s break it down.

Assume you have a quorum of councilmembers present (three of five members for most statutory cities). Many motions and resolutions pass if a majority of those present vote yes.

Now for the tricky bits.

Ordinances must garner a majority vote of all members of the council to pass an ordinance. That means to pass an ordinance a five-member city council must have three “yes” votes—even if one or more council members are absent.

And, if you’re messing with zoning in your city, it takes two-thirds of the council to vote “yes” to change the classification of property from residential to either commercial or industrial. Think of this as “the peace and quiet rule,” keeping businesses somewhat separate from homes.

Interestingly, in a geeky sort of way, it takes four “yes” votes on a five-member statutory city council to publish just a summary of an ordinance, rather than the entire ordinance. The same rule, four "yes" votes from a five-member statutory city council also applies to accepting gifts (like that new slide for the park) or to vacate a street, unless everyone near the street petitions for the vacation.  In all these scenarios, the actions just won’t pass if only three members of council are in attendance at a meeting. The law requires four votes.

Of course, as soon as I say that, the exceptions to the rule comes to mind. If there is one vacancy on your council, or one person cannot vote on a matter due to a conflict of interest, the required number of votes drops down to three “yes” votes.  And as always, charter cities must check the charter as that may prevail on voting riddles. Let’s just say it’s complicated. So call or email LMC's Research and Information Service. We love these head-scratchers: (651) 281-1200 or (800) 925-1122.

Written by Jeanette Behr, research manager with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: or (651) 281-1228.

This blog post conveys general information. It’s not legal advice. Please check with your city attorney before acting on this information.

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