This week, I recorded a meeting of the Council Administration Committee. Current members of the Committee are Christopher Taylor, Erica Briggs, Jen Eyer, Travis Radina, and Chris Watson. These meetings are public and theoretically accessible for anyone to attend, both in-person and via phone, My recording illustrates the poor quality of phone access – unlike other meetings held by boards and commissions via Zoom, the audio quality of phone-access is so poor that it is extremely difficult to hear what is said much of the time.
One of the topics on this Committee’s agenda was Council work sessions. Last November, a new City Council unanimously approved a calendar that included no work sessions for the budget or any other topic. I wrote about it at the time:
At last week’s Committee meeting, Council Member Radina introduced the idea of adding work sessions back to the calendar:
“I have been approached a couple of times by colleagues who would like to better understand what the process is for requesting a work session on a given topic. I know we’ve had these questions before about, not necessarily bringing back a standing work session and then trying to make up content for it but rather as topics might come up.”
The need to “better understand” is not surprising among this particular Council. Out of eleven members, five members were elected in November 2020 and another five members were elected six months ago. Ten members of the current Council have served an average of nine months. Only the Mayor has served a full term – he was first elected in 2008.
Council Member Eyer reiterated Radina’s comments and added:
“The way it was done in the past was a standing thing and, you know, just trying to make up something, some reason for meeting.”
Council Members Radina and Eyer’s characterization of work sessions is not accurate, but Mayor Taylor did not correct them. Council work sessions have historically originated with staff and the City Administrator in close collaboration with the Mayor and the Council Administration Committee. No staff or City Administrator has ever tried “make up” content to fill a calendar – in fact, many scheduled work sessions were cancelled.
At least one Committee member framed the value of work sessions in terms of public perception. Council Member Radina explained (emphasis added):
“Hearing some of the public comment at the last Council meeting, at the budget presentation around in years past it felt like there was a lot more discussion of the budget and it felt like there was a lot more questions, I think a lot of that is now being lost on the public.”
A City Council that has voted unanimously (and repeatedly) to reduce their own workload is now eager to address the public perception that they are not actually doing the work.
Last week, the Committee also contemplated the value of work sessions in terms of “engagement” within the body of Council. Deputy City Administrator John Fournier assessed work sessions of the past:
“Most of the work sessions were… they were all a lot of work, most of them didn’t have the kind of engaged discussion but some of them did and so, you know, roughly, two to four times a year there was really active, really important work session that was really valuable.”
Mayor Taylor re-iterated:
“I’m not sure I would have given, like John suggested, a 25% success rate. Maybe… I don’t know that I’d go that high.”
Work sessions have been the forum for Council to be informed about City issues, however tedious or dry. In theory, Council members have a basic obligation to be informed about work happening at City Hall, whether or not the topics are interesting or engaging. City government is just one part of a network of government entities and service providers in our community – many issues that impact the city are actually managed at the state and county level. I.e. Not all topics of community interest are under City control.
At last week’s meeting, City Administrator Dohoney explained that members of the current Council have requested a work session on a topic that is not actually handled by City government.
“The items that Council Member Briggs and others requested regarding homelessness, that’s more of us facilitating a meeting because we’re not going to be the presenters. We’re simply inviting other people from the community to come tell you what they’re doing. I’ll be there to maybe introduce people but there would be no City presenters.”
In years past, the City Administrator and staff would identify issues under City control and plan public work sessions in order to help elected leaders make informed decisions. That model was abandoned last November, when Council removed work sessions from the calendar. It appears that a new Council may pursue a different model: scheduling public work sessions on topics of public interest, whether or not those topics are directly relevant to work of City government. This is almost precisely the definition of political grandstanding.
The Committee reflected on the budget process of the last two months, during which Council members were invited to watch pre-recorded YouTube videos and submit questions; answers to their questions were posted in five batches on the City website. Unlike previous budget processes, when Council received presentations live (in-person or on Zoom) and could ask questions in a public meeting, this year’s process resulted in many similar and repetitive questions. Council Member Eyer proposed an alternative to public work sessions:
“There’s something lost with the Council Members not hearing each other’s questions in the work sessions… I wonder if there’s a way for Council Members to see in real time what our colleagues have asked.”
Council Member Watson described the value of this strategy as “knowing what’s floating around in other people’s heads.” Eyer re-stated the problem as “I don’t know until the questions come out what everyone else is asking.”
The problem described by Watson and Eyer would be valid in many situations. However, in the context of City Council, their wish – to track and anticipate the thoughts and opinions of colleagues – is exactly why the Open Meetings Act exists. Council Members are supposed to debate and exchange ideas in public meetings.
Link to Michigan Open Meetings Act: https://www.michigan.gov/ag/foia/open-meetings
Earlier in the meeting, Eyer wondered if work sessions could be scheduled without a Council vote.
“I don’t know if we vote on it as a body, you know, if enough people want to have one… maybe five, you know, just so it doesn’t have to be at Council?”
Adding a work session does actually require a vote of Council, just like the annual calendar. In recent years, Mayor Taylor sponsored two resolutions – one since Council Member Eyer’s election – for the whole of Council to vote on, amending the calendar in order to add work sessions.
- April 15, 2019 Amendment to the Council calendar, adding a work session “for budget purposes to discuss the topics of Ann Arbor Housing Commission and Downtown Development Authority (DDA).” https://a2gov.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=3909560&GUID=9B75751F-8AFE-4123-A396-103D72FA5D5E
- June 21, 2021 Revision to the calendar, adding two work sessions: July 12, 2021 for a presentation from John Tropman and November 8, 2021 for a presentation on pavement ratings. https://a2gov.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=4985694&GUID=A27E967B-9145-49EC-9ED4-7E28138913EA
Virtually all City meetings – with the exception of regular Council meetings – include open public comment at the end. At the end of this Committee meeting, a public commenter spoke in response to action taken at the most recent regular Council meeting. His remarks in part:
“At the May 1st Council meeting, at the very end of the meeting after closed session, you went back into open session, you amended the agenda to add a new agenda item instructing the City Attorney to write a public opinion in the California Restaurant Association versus the City of Berkeley case… it bothered me when it happened because there was no opportunity for public input into this resolution.”
Until very recently, the resolution in that May 1 meeting would have been subject to public input or at least public response at the end of the meeting. In November 2022, Mayor Taylor led a majority of Council in eliminating open public comment at regular Council meetings. Public comments at Council meetings now require registration hours in advance of the meeting. What this means is that any last minute change or addition to the agenda will never be subject to public comment/response afterwards. The Council Administration Committee was the first opportunity – since May 1 – for this commenter to offer feedback in a public meeting with multiple Council Members.
This Committee meeting revealed one other detail that seemed to be a surprise, even, to the Council Members in attendance: In his budget presentation on April 17, City Administrator Dohoney proposed a reimagining of City Hall that would include building market rate housing on the site. Dohoney explained that this will move forward unless a member of Council moves to amend the budget. In Dohoney’s words:
“Assuming there’s no categorical opposition to it, you begin with a structural analysis of the site, what is the load that the site can handle, that gives you a clue as to how vertical you can be. The “what” to me is a market rate transaction that can generate revenue that comes back to the City. In looking at the site, it’s not just the promenade area, its the parking area adjacent to it, you got to look at the whole footprint to determine what’s possible”
“Assuming that we get past the budget on Monday, and council doesn’t say ‘don’t do it’ starting May 16th, I’m off!”
Dohoney then clarified exactly what this would look like:
“It’s high end, market rate, high level finishes, you want to charge as much as possible, you want this thing to generate as much cash as possible, that’s why I did not say let’s use it for affordable housing.”
I suspect that most people have no idea that this idea will move forward without further public discussion from Council. However, if you have opinions about the City becoming landlords and using city resources to develop yet more luxury housing, now would be the time to reach out to City Council.