Mayor's veto power curtailed by legislature

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

LITTLE ROCK -- The state legislature removed a mayor's ability to veto a city council's action in filling a vacant council seat.

Gov. Mike Beebe signed Act 185 into law Thursday. The bill passed through the legislature as House Bill 1085, and under the new law, council can fill a vacant seat on the council with a majority vote, provided a quorum is present.

Previously, a mayor could veto any legislative action taken by council at the table. Special Judge John Lineberger ruled in October that voting to fill a vacant council position was an action similar to passing an ordinance, and he noted the same process of motion, discussion, and voting.

Lineberger said a mayor could not veto administrative decisions by a council, such as setting meeting times or deciding limits on public comment.

A circuit court judge in Marion County ruled in 1990 that a council performed an administrative act in filling a vacancy. That case was not appealed, however, and no other case law covered the situation.

Since that 1990 case, several Arkansas attorneys general have issued opinions saying a mayor could indeed veto a council appointment. Beebe himself issued such an opinion as attorney general.

HB 1085 was sponsored by state Rep. Lindsley Smith of Fayetteville. Eureka Springs Mayor Dani Joy, in an interview Friday, said, "It is unfortunate that Rep. Smith did not attempt to contact my office to establish details on the veto." Joy added, "It is also interesting that a legislator from another district would take this on without being completely informed on the issue."

Joy said she did not hear about this bill until it passed the house by a 65-28 margin. The bill would later pass the senate by a 35-0 margin.

Mayor Joy said she acted within the law when she vetoed the council's 3-2 vote to replace resigning alderman Charlotte Buchanan with Pat Matsukis in December 2007. "My action on the veto was completely within the law at the time that it was issued," she said. "I based that upon the AG's office, an opinion rendered by then-AG Mike Beebe." The mayor said she also based her decision on the wishes of her constituents.

The new law may have an adverse effect on the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches, Joy fears. "The checks and balances in the form of veto, and then the council having the ability to overturn that veto, has now been taken away," she said. In his ruling, Lineberger had pointed out that council always had the power to override a veto, and council's inability to override Joy's veto demonstrated that the remaining aldermen did not agree on the selection of Matsukis.

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