Call the Tune: Dangerous precedent set by position on abstentions

We were taken aback during a meeting of the Sunset Hills Board of Aldermen last week when City Attorney Robert C. Jones declared an alderman’s abstention to be a “no” vote.

We certainly don’t have Mr. Jones’ many years of legal knowledge or expertise, but we must respectfully disagree with his call. He believes that elected officials are required to cast a vote unless “disqualified by law.”

We believe that position establishes a dangerous precedent.

Just consider the Home Depot fiasco that occurred back in the late 1990s in the city of Green Park. As some may recall, when that city’s six-member Board of Aldermen was considering an ordinance to grant up to $4.5 million in tax-increment financing to Home Depot, three aldermen voted in favor of the ordinance and three aldermen abstained.

To adopt the ordinance, then-Mayor Larry Kuban changed the three abstentions to “no” votes to create a 3-3 board tie. To approve an ordinance in a fourth-class city such as Green Park, a majority of the members of the Board of Aldermen must vote in favor of it and mayors of fourth-class cities can vote only in the event of a tie.

After declaring the abstentions as “no” votes, Mr. Kuban cast the deciding vote in favor of the ordinance.

Many, including this newspaper, didn’t believe Mr. Kuban’s decision was lawful, and after a lengthy legal battle, then-St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge Kenneth Romines ruled in September 1999 the ordinance was not lawfully approved.

“There was no tie. Abstentions are not votes and cannot be counted as such to satisfy the statutory requirements for enactment of ordinances,” he stated in his ruling. Judge Romines now serves as chief judge of the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals. In his ruling, he also stated, “… This court will not and cannot in-quire into the motives, thought processes and reasoning behind the votes or abstentions of individual municipal legislators.”

We’re certainly not advocating abstentions by elected officials. One well-known former elected official compares abstaining to taking a shower with your clothes on — at first it feels great, but as time passes, you feel more and more uncomfortable.

That said, we agree with Judge Romines’ ruling on abstentions. Counting abstentions as “no” votes in Sunset Hills makes no sense and potentially could embroil the city in a legal battle.

And we believe such a suit would be a loser for the city and its citizens.