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Montgomery County legislators need to own up to abstentions

Someone once told me, “An abstention is a no vote.” Because I’m a stickler for word usage, my reaction was, “No, an abstention is an abstention and a no vote is a no vote. They’re two different things.”

An abstention is not a no vote, but it can have the same effect as a no vote; it can result in a resolution being defeated because it didn’t receive enough yes votes.

We saw that happen twice at last week’s organizational meeting of the Montgomery County Legislature. Motions nominating Barbara Wheeler and Roy Dimond for chair of the legislature were defeated because each received only four yes votes, one short of the five needed for passage.

In each case, only one negative vote was cast. District 6 Legislator John Duchessi voted against Wheeler, and District 1 Legislator Martin Kelly voted against Dimond.

But legislators Terry Bieniek, Thomas Quackenbush, Joseph Isabel and Robert Purtell abstained on both motions; combined with the single no vote, that meant both fell one vote short of passage.

That, in turn, cleared the way for Quackenbush to nominate Bieniek for chairman, and this time, no legislator abstained. The vote was seven in favor and two against. Weitz and Wheeler voted no.

Why did the four legislators abstain instead of voting no? Wheeler and Dimond are adults; they could have endured four no votes. Surely they both knew the abstentions amounted to the same thing.

Nowhere can I find a definitive list of reasons for abstaining from a vote–at least not as definitive as, say, reasons for going into executive session. In that case, there is a prescribed list of legitimate reasons, and it is up to the legislative body to comply.

Certainly, if a legislator would benefit in any way–financial or otherwise–from passage of a certain resolution, that legislator should abstain from voting on that resolution.

Personal involvement or interest in a particular situation often is another reason for abstaining. For example, District 6 Legislator John Duchessi’s son, Jamie Duchessi, is an election commissioner in Montgomery County. In my opinion, Legislator Duchessi is correct when he abstains on all votes pertaining to the county election process.

Also, District 4 Legislator Ryan Weitz is a trustee of Fulton-Montgomery Community College. Weitz also abstains on all votes pertaining to F-MCC

Quackenbush offered his own reasons for abstaining, but it sounded to me like he was involved in a deal.

“Roy, I abstained. I didn’t vote no because I do think you’re capable [of being chairman],” he said. “Barbara, I abstained. I didn’t vote no because I do [think you’re capable], but I made a commitment. I’m not going to go against my word, which is what you want me to do.”

Interestingly, there is a clause in the proposed rules of procedure that would require a legislator to explain his or her reason for abstaining on any motion. Those procedures haven’t been approved yet, but suppose they had been in effect. Can you imagine Bieniek, Quackenbush, Isabel and Purtell having to explain why they abstained? Forcing them to explain their abstentions might put them in an awkward place.

When legislators run for election, you often hear them say, “We need to move beyond politics as usual.” One way to do that would be to stop hiding behind abstentions and stop making deals.

About John Becker

John Becker is both a Reporter and Consulting Editor for The Compass. He and his wife Pat operate Abbey Farms in Amsterdam NY.

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