Municipal Law Alert, August 2010
The question of whether a roll call vote is required often arises at municipal board meetings. There is no simple answer, but there are some straightforward guidelines to follow. The first rule of thumb is: if you have to ask, then go ahead and have the roll call vote. One of the principles of good government and an informed electorate is that citizens are entitled to know how their elected representatives voted, especially on important and controversial matters.
Roll call voting is never prohibited. Mayors, presidents, chairs and other heads of boards may call for a roll call vote if they are unsure or if it is a close call. In addition, under Wisconsin’s open meetings law, any council or board member may require that votes be taken “in such manner that the vote of each member is ascertained and recorded.” Wis. Stat. § 19.88(2). This might be accomplished by a roll call vote, or by a show of hands carefully recorded by the clerk. But, arguably, roll call votes are the best way to go when the vote of each member must be “ascertained and recorded.”
A true roll call vote, where each member is individually polled one at a time, is almost never required by Wisconsin Statutes. However, many municipalities have adopted their own local procedural rules, so the answer may lie in local ordinances rather than state law. If your local rules require a roll call vote on certain matters, then a roll call vote should be taken. For example, the City of Menomonie has an ordinance that requires a roll call for certain spending matters: “A roll call vote shall be taken and recorded on all appropriations.” Menomonie Ordinance 1-6-2(F). Thus, it is critical to consult your local ordinances to know for sure if a roll call vote is required. Municipal boards quickly get into trouble when they don’t follow their own local rules.
It is common for municipal councils and boards to call for a roll call vote on spending matters, and given the guidelines and principles mentioned above, this is certainly a good idea. Cities face a special requirement in Wis. Stat. § 62.11(3)(d), which requires the recording of aye and no votes in the journal in matters of taxes, money, or creating liability. This requirement for cities may be the historical reason why spending matters often call for a roll call vote.
It appears there is only one statute expressly requiring a true “roll call” vote, found in Wis. Stat. § 70.47(8)(g), which requires a board of review to take a roll call vote when making a determination on an objection to a property tax assessment. However, there are numerous requirements for votes to be taken such that the “vote of each member is ascertained and recorded in the minutes.” For example, Wis. Stat. § 19.85(1) requires the vote of each member to be recorded before going into a closed session. A roll call vote will certainly meet this requirement.
The bottom line is: when in doubt, call for a roll call vote. In addition, check local ordinances and procedures and make sure you follow your own rules. If the municipality’s established practice is to roll call vote on spending matters, continue to do so. Finally, it is wise policy to always call for a roll call vote in controversial matters.