Employee, attorney question School Committee vote

In contract dispute
Thu, 06/06/2019 - 6:45pm

When is a vote not a vote? When a person eligible to vote at a meeting says, “I abstain.”

To abstain means to take no position on a matter, either for or against it.

Marsha Gutierrez’s contract dispute with the New Shoreham School Committee could turn on whether the Committee actually approved a motion intended to end the controversy; or whether the motion did not pass because two of the four members present abstained.

At its May 28 meeting, the Committee considered a motion declaring that Gutierrez’s employment contract as Administrative Assistant had expired on June 30, 2018, indicating she does not currently have a contract in force and is therefore effectively denied postemployment health benefits upon her retirement.

Gutierrez has worked for the Block Island School for over 36 years, and maintains that her three-year contract with the School Committee, originally set to expire on June 30, 2017, was renewed for one year and then “rolled over” to end June 30, 2019 because the Committee did not act within a set time. The contract contains a provision stating that the School Committee will continue paying for Gutierrez’s Medicare supplement premiums after retirement, for life.

The vote to define 2018 as the end of the contract was two in favor — Chair Bill Padien and member Annie Hall — none opposed, and two abstentions — members Kara Stinnett and Persephone Brown. The fifth member, Jessica Willi, was not present.

The result of the vote was unclear during the meeting. Padien asked Supt. Michael Convery, “Okay, so two abstained, so it’s not a quorum. Is that correct?” “That is correct,” Convery replied.

Padien later told The Times that the motion had passed. He maintained that the vote was valid because four of five members were present – a quorum – so with the two members abstaining, two yea votes were sufficient to adopt the motion. “An abstention is a non-vote according to Robert’s Rules of Order,” he said.

Gutierrez’s attorney, Mary Ann Carroll, was not so sure. Last Friday, after The Times went to press, she said that her office was researching the rules regarding abstentions. Carroll added that the meaning of the School Committee’s motion was unclear, repeating her opinion that the Committee “did absolutely nothing.”

Carroll had previously indicated that she would file a lawsuit in Rhode Island Superior Court over Gutierrez’s contract dispute with the School Committee.

A separate complaint she filed with the R.I. Attorney General’s office claims that the School Committee violated the R.I. Open Meetings Act by going into executive session to discuss Gutierrez’s contract without notifying her in advance.

Robert’s Rules of Order is a standard manual of parliamentary procedure, the formal rules governing the methods of procedure, discussion, and debate by corporate boards of directors, legislatures, boards and committees at all levels of government. The manual recommends that any board or organized group adopt some written procedural rules for conducting its business, either the current edition of Robert’s Rules or ones that they have written themselves, and specify those rules in their bylaws.

Bylaws typically define a quorum – the minimum number of persons entitled to vote and make decisions for the organization – and may define how many votes are needed to approve a motion and when a person may abstain from voting. The “basic requirement” in voting procedure, according to Robert’s Rules of Order, is a majority vote, “more than half of the votes cast by persons legally entitled to vote, excluding blanks and abstentions,” when a quorum is present at the meeting.

Has the New Shoreham School Committee adopted Robert’s Rules for its use? Or does it have its own rules of procedure that specify how many yea votes are needed to adopt a motion?

“Not that I’m aware of. I’m not even sure they’ve adopted” Robert’s Rules, said School Committee Clerk Marsha Gutierrez. “Not in my tenure, as far as I know.”

Compared to the Town Council

“The Town Council has specific rules of procedure” for conducting its business, Town Clerk Fiona (Molly) Fitzpatrick said. Those rules, part of the town’s ordinances, set a quorum of the council as “a majority of the whole number of members of the Town Council.” Three of the five councilors must be present at a meeting to conduct business.

The same “whole number of members” rule applies to votes by the Council, with three affirmative votes required to approve any action. If one or more members have a conflict of interest, a majority of the remaining members must vote yea. There are no limits on abstentions: “Any member may abstain from voting on any matter before the Council” and the abstention does not count as a vote for or against the action.

Boards, commissions and committees appointed by the Town Council follow similar rules of procedure with the same definition of a quorum and the minimum number of votes needed for passage. The major difference is that committee members may not abstain from voting unless they have a conflict of interest.

Fitzpatrick pointed out that neither of the town’s procedural rules apply to the School Committee, because its members are elected by voters and not appointed by the Town Council. School Committees are, however, bound by the Open Meetings Act, she added.