Council hopes to decrease disputes; town officials vote to put rules in place

FORTVILLE — For the first time in its history, the Fortville Town Council has adopted a set of rules to govern the behavior of its members during public and private meetings.

The board voted unanimously this week to approve an ordinance that puts in place guidelines for “decorum and debate” at meetings, citing heated arguments that were common among former councils as reason for the addition.

The short document outlines how board members should behave when an agenda item sparks disagreement. It instructs member not to talk over each other or at the same time, and calls for them to avoid personal attacks, including questioning the motives behind fellow members’ actions. It gives the council president power to calm tensions and decide which person will be allowed to speak first when two members begin to comment on an issue at the same time.

Residents accused boards in the past decade of fighting so often it delayed town progress, officials say. Members have publicly promised to put squabbling behind them through the years. They never moved forward with a written document, though it is common for many municipalities to include such rules in their town code books, officials said.

In its first few paragraphs, the new ordinance captures the sentiment of a need for peaceful procedure, stating that the “manner of how government reaches a decision can be as important as the actual decision.”

The rules outlined in the ordinance apply to public meetings and executive sessions, and include a confidentially clause that bars board members from discussing what happens in closed meetings with the public.

If a member breaks any of the rules, they could be the subject of a censure — a written statement of disapproval — from their fellow board members. If violations continue, the member would not be allowed to speak during a board meeting except when others members vote to allow him or her time to comment.

Board member Robert Holland and town attorney Alex Intermill sat down late last year to begin drafting the document. The final version was presented and approved Tuesday during the board’s regular meeting.

The document ensures that town business is conducted in the best manner possible, Intermill said, as it calls for officials to be efficient, fair and transparent while remaining courteous and respectful to each other.

Board president Bill Hiday said he’s pleased the current council has conducted business in a peaceful way, but wishes the ordinance had been in place during his first years on the board (he was first elected in 2010) when arguments were commonplace, at times seeming to overpower progress.

He’s glad the town’s current elected leaders are taking steps to make arguments a thing of the past.

But board members will have to hold each other accountable to truly ensure the new decorum rules are followed, member Michael Frischkorn said.

The informal, almost casual atmosphere in which the current council conducts town business has been successful so far; but the new ordinance will be important if discussions ever get heated, he said.

“In the history of Fortville town councils, there have been times where it has been less than civil,” Frischkorn said during the meeting. “I think it’s good to have something to fall back on during conversations that need more structure.”

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.