- By Ken Herman American-Statesman Staff
To make some Austin City Council sessions an even odder experience, Mayor Steve Adler has adopted a digital system to measure council members’ intensity of support for an item or idea.
This is not newfangled digital as in computers. This is oldfangled digital as in fingers, as in hold up none to five to indicate intensity of support.
The system was used Tuesday at a council work session on CodeNext, the proposed comprehensive plan that will require you to allow Starbucks to open a store in your guest bathroom.
As you know, anything involving fingers often devolves into discussion of one particular finger. Sad, but true.
Being a periodically mature American, I shall endeavor to get through this without referencing said particular finger. But I can make no such pronouncements regarding anybody else whom I might quote about finger voting at City Hall.
Adler has used finger voting, though not at formal council meetings. Local lawyer Bill Aleshire is apparently not a fan of finger voting and, in an email exchange with Our Mayor, expressed his feelings.
Aleshire said he was contacted by a local resident concerned about the process.
“I’m told that each (council) member silently holds up their hand for intensity finger voting, a closed fist for zero support and up to five fingers to show full support,” Aleshire told Adler. “The problem raised by your constituent is that the finger vote by each member was not announced orally, and (the) camera did not show how each member voted. We don’t know yet if each fist-to-five finger vote is even going to be reflected in the minutes.”
Aleshire said the local resident who contacted him is wondering if finger voting somehow violates the Open Meetings Act. FYI, Aleshire copied all the other council members on the note.
In a same-day response, Adler told Aleshire: “The point is well taken. Regardless of whether or not there’s a legal duty, I’ll try to make that verbal indication of where folks are. Part of the purpose of the exercise is to daylight folks’ positions. It’s more in the nature of debate, folks expressing opinion through a gesture rather than votes. Votes will surely come later.”
At Tuesday’s council work session, Adler did a good job of announcing how many fingers each council member was holding up. So we got to hear announcements like this from Hizzoner during the CodeNext discussion: “Jimmy’s a three. Pio’s a five. Ann’s a four. Greg’s a two. Ora’s a four. I’m a five. The mayor pro tem is a four. Council Member Alter is a three. And Leslie’s zero. And Delia’s a two.”
This was an improvement over a work session last week when Adler sometimes didn’t attach a name to a number when announcing finger votes.
By way of review, Adler on Tuesday gave the council this refresher course on fingers and their meaning:
“A five is ‘I’m very enthusiastic about the proposal.’ Four is ‘I like it. No substantive changes.’ Three is ‘I could support it as proposed, but I believe they could benefit from modifications.’ Two is ‘I feel the proposed (something mumbled) are OK, but they have some key gaps that would need to be addressed before I could support it.’ One is ‘I feel that the proposed (something mumbled) are way off the mark. I would require significant changes.’ And zero is ‘Not only do I not support it but I would actively work to block it.’”
“So what we’re going to do is if we get eight people that are three or more, we’re going to move on,” he said. “If we don’t, we’re going to linger on it for however long people want to linger on it. And then we’ll either get to an eight or we won’t and we’ll move on.”
Interesting. And I like that we get to hear things like Council Member Leslie Pool say, “I am a zero,” a sound bite that, taken out of context, could turn up in a potential opponent’s TV ad against her.
I appreciated Aleshire copying me in on his back-and-forth with the mayor. And I appreciate Aleshire sharing his ruminations on the further potential of finger voting.
Anybody who’s been in town more than a few weeks knows that Aleshire, a former Travis County judge, long has been generous in sharing his ruminations on any number of topics. Nothing wrong with that. Civic participation is to be encouraged, even (especially?) on topics such as finger voting.
So go ahead, Aleshire, share away: “As I thought about this new method of council voting, I got the idea that such ‘finger voting’ (to show intensity of support) should be applied to election ballots. By each candidate’s name on the ballot could be a picture of a hand so the voter could fill in as many fingers as they wanted. And if the voter only supported a candidate with the intensity of one finger there would be no restriction on which finger they filled in. Imaging how many more people would vote if they could give a candidate the finger!”
So there you have it, the inevitable conclusion of a discussion about something known as finger voting. But you knew that was where we were headed.