Plecnik Publishes Article on Three Reading Rule in The News-Herald

Professor John Plecnik published an article entitled “Three reading rule explanation” in The News-Herald.  The text of the article is available below.

Three-reading rule explanation

The three-reading rule requires legislation to be “read” or considered three times prior to a vote.  The U.S. Senate and House, Ohio General Assembly, and Ohio municipalities all embrace some version of the rule.  However, the rule is far older than Ohio or even the United States.

The Canadian Parliament, which also follows the rule, traces its source back to 15th and 16th century England, when it became the usual practice for the House of Commons.  However, multiple-reading rules are older still.  In the Reforms of 403 B.C., the Athenian Assembly adopted a two-reading rule, whereby each ordinance was read, then posted in the marketplace, and then read a second time prior to a vote.  Athens learned about the dangers of rash legislation the hard way.  In 406 B.C. during the Peloponnesian War, the Athenian generals failed to rescue their drowning sailors from the Spartan navy.  Over Socrates’s objection, the Athenian Assembly immediately voted to execute their generals.  Of course, without their generals, the Athenians soon lost the war.  Realizing their mistake, the Athenians adopted their two-reading rule.

Today, the three-reading rule is oft-criticized as inefficient.  In emergencies, most versions of the rule allow waiver by super-majority vote.  Critics waive the rule in most cases.  In fact, a survey by the Northeast Ohio Media Group shows that many Cleveland suburbs waive the rule nearly 90% of the time.  Before my election, Willoughby Hills also waived the rule in most cases.

Why object to waiver?  It might be more efficient to have a dictator, king, tyrant or mayor make all of our decisions.  But government is not a business and efficiency is secondary to fairness.  The three-reading rule is an ancient right of the people to a deliberative process and to participate in all the workings of their legislature.

According to Jeremy Bentham, the rule has five purposes:  “1. Maturity in the deliberations, arising from the opportunities given to a great number of persons, of speaking upon different days, after they have profited by the information which discussion has elicited; 2. Opportunity afforded to the public, to make itself heard—and to the members, to consult enlightened persons out of doors; 3. Prevention of the effects of eloquence, by which an orator might obtain votes upon a sudden impulse; 4. Protection to the minority of the assembly, by securing to it different periods at which to state its opinions; 5. Opportunity for members absent during the first debate, to attend when they perceive that their presence may influence the fate of the bill.”

But what of delay?  In true emergencies, the three-reading rule should be waived.  In all other cases, Bentham replies, “terrible decrees of urgency, the decrees for closing the discussion, may well be remembered with dread:  they were formed for the subjugation of the minority—for the purpose of stifling arguments . . . .” 

But why would your council wish to stifle argument? 

Sometimes, in the words of Professor Lawrence Keller of Cleveland State University, it is simply “sloppy government.”  Some councils are too lazy for three readings.  Sometimes, however, there is a more sinister reason.

In Willoughby Hills, our first major legislation of the year was passing appropriations for road and sewer projects.  Three council members, myself included, insisted on following the three-reading rule. In response, another council member claimed the service superintendant told him—absent immediate action—a dangerous sinkhole could develop on SOM Center Road.  By the third reading, we learned there was no immediate danger of a sink hole.  Worse still, we learned that the same member who warned of a sinkhole voted on similar appropriations for years that were ultimately paid to a company named Landco.  Public records show that Landco was not only the member’s employer, but owned by his parents.  Had council voted immediately, in all likelihood, more city money would have been paid to Landco before these revelations.

Some may say things have changed since the dawn the democracy, and modern technology obviates the need for three readings.  But the internet is no substitute for deliberation or confronting your council members face-to-face.  The three-reading rule has stood the test of time for good reason.

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