Commissions and Transparency

Jan 9, 2019 | City Council

At this week’s council meeting we talked about issues that are of special interest to me. Below is my explanation of a couple of them.


In 2008, City Council passed a resolution expressing the desire to make commissions more consistent and uniform in their bylaws. That resolution was referenced in this week’s revisions to the Environmental Commission Bylaws. Because the city aims to have consistency and uniformity, I read these revised bylaws with the thought/question: is this the best way for all of our commissions to be organized? In our written questions to the agenda, I raised a few concerns. I ultimately voted to approve the revised bylaws but as a long-term goal, I would also like to see our city change some policies.

I shared with some residents this summer: I would like to see a more inclusive process for our boards and commissions. Currently, nominations are received and approved in a way that is fairly exclusive. Nominations are funneled through the mayor or the one or two council members who sit as liaisons on a specific commission. The city doesn’t do a very good job of publicizing open positions, a lot of the same people are filling seats (or have been in them for a very long time), and when council votes to approve various nominations we have no idea how many other people applied for them. I think we can do better.

I am currently studying the policies of other cities re: boards and commissions to find strategies that would accomplish a few things:

  • Promote boards and commissions to a larger pool of candidates across our city, so that we can truly draw from the full range of skills and talent in our community.
  • Create a more transparent process where all members of council can engage in the activity of making nominations and helping choose who ultimately sits on boards and commissions.
  • Establish a candidate database of resumes for willing volunteers, so that as board and commission openings become available we can both publicize the opening and reach out to residents who have previously shown an interest in such a position.


This week, city council discussed amendments to the current City Seal and Flag Ordinance. The ordinance was passed only six months ago (7/2/18) and within weeks, the city was called out by Michigan ACLU for having written it in a way that is unconstitutional. In questions to the agenda this week, council members raised many concerns about the origins of the ordinance, what problems it was meant to solve, and how the city drafted it in such a way as to prompt such harsh criticism from the Michigan ACLU.

Typically, council questions are made a part of the public record so that residents and media alike can see how staff answered them. However, this week, council questions to staff on the topic of the city seal ordinance were concealed as confidential, under “attorney client privilege.” This is the first time I have seen communication about a non-privileged agenda topic (i.e. a topic we plan to openly discuss outside of closed session) hidden in this way.

It is not clear to me how these questions and responses warrant such secrecy, so I have concerns about how this use of attorney-client privilege keeps information out of the public eye. This summer, our city passed an ordinance that triggered negative attention from the Michigan ACLU almost immediately. Multiple FOIA’s have been filed on this topic, so there is both general and specific public interest in understanding it. Before the second reading (and ultimate vote) on the ordinance later this month, I hope staff choose to make all of our questions (and staff responses to them) publicly available.