Democrats Amend Bylaws

BylawsPittsburgh, Feb 8, 2009 – The Allegheny County Democratic Committee (ACDC) held a convention yesterday to amend its bylaws. The bylaws had not been amended since the 1980s primarily due to the inability to obtain a quorum. Through the fine efforts of the ACDC leadership, including a lot of advance planning and notification (and probably a fair amount of reminding), a quorum was achieved plus about 20%. I attended this convention and I’d like to share with you some of my observations.

The convention was held in a large auditorium at the IBEW headquarters on Hot Metal Street near the South Side Works. On the way in we had the opportunity to meet a number of candidates for common pleas judge seeking committee member votes for the endorsement election next month. Once inside, the venue was almost large enough to seat everyone who showed up and there was a nice projector to a huge screen on the stage where the text of the proposed changes was displayed in a size large enough for everyone to read. A copy of the amendments is attached to this story.

I found a group of other Mt. Lebanon members (including a couple of MESH members) and took a seat. The convention was well run by Committee Chairman Jim Burn. I think he did a good job of explaining each of the proposed amendments, including why he felt they were necessary. He also made sure to let discussion run its course before each question was called to a vote. Questions about parliamentary rules and procedures were aptly handled by (Jumpin’) John DeFazio.

All this does not mean that there was no controversy. We are Democrats after all, so a certain amount of disagreement is a given and often some good, as we will see below. A handout was being circulated by one contingent urging members to vote No on the amendments. They opposed the inclusion of city ward and municipal committee treasurers as voting members because they felt it would shift power from the city to the suburbs, adding a net of 127 suburban voters to the full committee. They also opposed the proposed Code of Conduct for a variety of reasons. This contingent apparently believed the entire block of amendments would be proposed as a whole, and this is what I had heard as well, but Burn wisely proposed them individually.

He started with some no-brainers, or “housekeeping amendments” as he called them. For example, the names of the various elected offices have changed considerably in the last 20 years and the bylaws should reflect that. These were approved quickly. Then there were a few amendments having to do with residency requirements for members and member responsibilities. After a little discussion these too passed.

Next Burn tackled the treasurer question. I felt treasurers should have the vote because they have a lot of responsibility and often a heavy workload. Some people felt it gives the committee chairs too much power because they appoint the treasurer, effectively giving them two votes. I did not find this convincing because this would often not actually be the case and even when it might be, I for one don’t mind if committee chairs do get two votes. The chairs do more work than any other members in their committees and probably deserve a little extra influence on outcomes. Incidentally, I noticed a couple of members from South Park speaking for letting treasurers vote. When the vote came, the ayes and nays were both quite loud so Burn called for a show of hands, after which it was apparent to all that the ayes had it and now treasurers will get to vote as soon as next month in the party endorsements.

Next Burn took up the code of conduct (Section IV) at which point the discussion really took off. I was initially in favor of the amendment myself. After all, there needs to be a way to keep some form of discipline so the party can achieve its goals. Some people worried that the hearing procedure did not have adequate safeguards such as we’d expect in a court of law. I was not too worried about that myself but I could see their point.

For me, the kicker came when someone mentioned President Obama. I realized that my involvement in the committee came about as a result of my work in the primary. Remember that many party leaders endorsed Senator Clinton in the primary. The ACDC itself did not endorse either candidate but if it had and I had been a member of the committee during the primary I would not have been allowed to work on the campaign or even put up a yard sign. I could have faced discipline up to and including expulsion. In the future, I would not like to have to make that choice.

More importantly, Obama’s campaign and eventual win have also turned out very well for the Democratic party both statewide and here in Allegheny County as party ranks have swelled to a majority, in large part due to the enthusiasm his candidacy has engendered. Our own MESH owes its very existence to just this sort of movement. To the extent that official party endorsement could prevent this from happening, it would be detrimental to the party’s own goals.

Mayor CaliguiriPresident Obama is not the only example either. Someone correctly pointed out that in 1977 Richard Caliguiri (whose statue, shown at left, graces the steps of our City-County building) once broke with party ranks, ran for mayor as an independent, and won. Under the proposed code of conduct one of Pittsburgh’s best mayors ever would probably have been expelled from our party.

So I changed my mind about the amendment. I now feel that the possibility of unendorsed candidates being better overall for the party is great enough that there should not be too severe a penalty for a committee member who campaigns for an unendorsed candidate.

In the convention, before the amendment could be called for a vote, someone motioned for it to be tabled. That vote was taken and again the ayes and nays were too close. However, the show of hands clearly was for tabling the amendment, so it will not be made part of the bylaws for now and won’t be reconsidered until the next convention, which should be in 2011. I guess this is the same as a nay vote because I’m sure it can be revised by that time.

In the end, the whole thing was fascinating for me and I was very glad to have taken part.

ACDC Bylaws.doc98.5 KB