City council members must have a good understanding of voting laws and what is needed to approve motions, resolutions and ordinances. In addition, council members need to know when they should abstain from voting due to a conflict of interest. These fundamental voting regulations are pivotal to operating effective council meetings and conducting proper votes.
Motions, Resolutions and Ordinances
To conduct business, the city council takes one of three actions: motions, resolutions or ordinances. Motions are used to handle routine business of the city at council meetings and are recorded in the minutes. Actions typically addressed by a motion include approval of the minutes, claims, licenses, permits and giving direction to city staff on a particular issue.
A resolution is a statement of policy. Examples include setting council rules and procedures, setting wages and salaries and establishing investment and other financial policies. In certain cases, the passage of a resolution is required by Iowa law, such as when adopting the annual city budget.
An ordinance is a city law of a general or permanent nature. Ordinances cover all areas of municipal authority from setting speed limits on city streets to establishing water and sewer rates.
Motions require a majority vote of the quorum at the meeting to pass. For resolutions, ordinances and amendments, a majority of the total number of seats on the council must vote affirmatively for passage. All council members is defined to include any vacancy and any council member who is absent but does not include the seat of a council member who does not vote due to a conflict of interest. Resolutions can be passed with a majority of votes at one meeting. Ordinances and amendments to ordinances must be passed by the majority at three council meetings before becoming final. However, city councils can waive the requirement to have three votes to approve an ordinance or amendment by approval of at least three-fourths of the council.
In most cities, the mayor has no authority to vote on city council business. The mayor-council form of government is the most common form of government in Iowa. Under this form of government, the mayor is not a member of the council and cannot vote, with one exception. Section 372.4 of the Code of Iowa authorizes mayors in cities with an even number of council members to break a tie on motions not involving ordinances, resolutions or appointments made by the council alone. A vacancy on a five-member council does not make the council have an even number – the number of seats is still five.
In special charter cities operating with 10 council members, the mayor may vote to break a tie on all measures. Under the commission, council-manager-at-large and council-manager-ward forms of government, the mayor is a member of the council and can vote on all matters before the council.
Conflicts of Interest
The Code addresses conflicts of interest in various parts while court cases have also provided direction. When a conflict of interest exists for a council member regarding a matter before the council, that council member is required to declare the conflict, decline to vote, and should not participate in any discussion of the measure.
The state code addresses two specific items related to conflicts of interest:
- A measure voted on is not invalid by reason of the vote of a council member with a conflict of interest, unless that vote was decisive to passage. (Section 362)
- The vote on a measure must be computed on the basis of council members who are not disqualified by reason of a conflict of interest. Essentially, if a member of the council declares a conflict of interest and abstains from voting, the outcome of the vote is computed on the basis on the number of members who do not have a conflict of interest. (Section 380.4(2)).
Please see our conflict of interest page for additional information.
Neither the Code nor any Iowa cases explicitly address the legal consequences of a failure of a council member to vote on a measure when abstention is not required due to a conflict of interest. While there appears to be no Code sanctioned reason for failing to vote on a measure for any reason other than a conflict of interest, there likewise is no provision in the Code by which a council member can be compelled to vote. Therefore, it cannot be said it is unlawful to fail to vote on a measure.
If abstentions from voting for reasons other than conflict of interest become an issue in your community, consider the course of action taken by Iowa City. In 2000, Iowa City adopted a resolution that established a standing rule regarding the effect of a council member’s abstention. The Iowa City rule is “that an abstention for reasons other than a conflict of interest shall be deemed a vote with the majority or, in cases of a tie vote, a vote in the affirmative.”
Adoption of such a rule is consistent with the majority rule of the courts, and with the underlying policy of giving effect to the failure to vote by a council member attending a council meeting.