Below is an essay that I wrote the day before our national capital was invaded by people hoping to overthrow our federal government. I delayed posting it when national events seemed much more significant than City politics. I am committed to our local government, even as I feel anxious about people and circumstances that threaten our federal government.
I’ve heard more than one of my colleagues say that long meetings stretching late into the night are “undemocratic,” an obstacle to public participation. I appreciate that as leaders we should do everything we can to help the public engage with, monitor, and sensibly understand the work of City Council. The connection between constituents and representatives should be closest and strongest at this local level of government.
The work of Council should be transparent and knowable, both in advance of and after our meetings. I believe in this, deeply, and I have done everything I can to help the public engage with the work of Council. I compile and publish both agenda summaries and voting charts because I am committed to public participation in our process. I write essays like this to make my own thinking clear and explain where I stand.
Several of my colleagues suggest that shorter Council meetings enhance public participation, accessibility and “good government.” This idea is worth unpacking.
Public participation is most important and relevant before Council meets: your perspectives and concerns are most influential before Council votes on an agenda. However, once a City Council meeting has begun – and during the hours it actually happens- opportunities to engage and participate are extremely limited. Participation happens in one of only two ways: as an observer and as a public commenter.
Council meetings are available for viewing online and on the CTN cable network. Portions of a meeting that might happen late at night can be viewed at any other more reasonable time, online, or when they are re-broadcast on CTN. The primary obstacle to observing our meetings is not timing but, rather, available technology and internet. This is even more true now that our meetings do not happen in a physical space that can be visited in-person.
Is there a special, added “participation” value to watching a Council meeting live, as it is happening, rather than afterwards, at a convenient time? Almost certainly not. Once a meeting is under way, Council members must focus on discussion and debate among colleagues, staff, and others in the meeting; Council rules prohibit us from engaging in electronic communication or other private distraction like social media. After a meeting has begun, the opportunity to influence Council members via email, phone call, social media or other communication has already passed.
Our meetings include the opportunity for ten public comments at the beginning of our meetings, unlimited public comments in the middle (on specific topics of public hearings), and unlimited public comments at the end. Each comment is time-limited to three minutes. In allocating the ten comments at the beginning of our meetings, the City website describes a policy of “priority for those who have not spoken at the last two meetings and for those calling on Agenda items.”
Council agendas intentionally place the ten allocated slots and all public hearings at the beginning of the meeting, before Council votes on relevant issues. No matter how long Council discusses other issues on the agenda and no matter how long the Council meeting drags on generally, these two public comment periods – ten slots and the public hearings – always happen early in the evening.
Do late night Council meetings make it harder for residents to participate as public commenters? Yes, but only during the comment period at the end of the meeting. A shorter meeting increases “accessibility” and participation only for those members of the public who would choose to share remarks after all votes have been taken. A public comment at the end of a Council meeting has as much functional influence on Council policy decisions as an email or a phone call the next day.
There is ample recent evidence that this end-of-meeting comment period – unlimited as to number of speakers and effectively unregulated as to topic or person – is much less likely to be substantive or related to Council business.
In the last six months, Council has increasingly heard public comments from people who live outside of Ann Arbor (some outside of Michigan), people speaking on topics not on the agenda, and people speaking briefly on an agenda item only to then indulge in angry personal attacks on Council Members. Most recently, public comment has included unfounded rumors, speculation and profane language directed at Council Members. We have seen, at a national level, what happens when leaders allow policy debate to be dominated by emotion, misinformation, and interference from outsiders with non-local (or purchased) agendas. None of this supports or improves our democracy.
Our Council Rules acknowledge the potential for control and restriction of public comments. A section called “Disorderly Conduct at Meetings” explains:
The Chair may call to order any person who engages in personal attacks, (which are unrelated to Council Business) who uses obscene or grossly indecent language, who speaks longer than the allotted time, who disrupts the proceedings or who otherwise violates the rules of this Council. Failure to come to order may result in the microphone being shut off, the forfeiture of any remaining speaking time, or, at the request of the Chair, expulsion from the meeting. Furthermore, if a speaker or a member of the public does not follow applicable rules during a Council meeting, disturbs the peace at a Council meeting or endangers the safety of the Council or the public at a council meeting, that individual may also have further restrictions placed upon them as necessary, including forfeiture of their right to speak at or right to attend future Council meetings. Such actions are to be determined by Council and shall be consistent with the Michigan Open Meetings Act.
I encourage people to look at recordings of recent Council meetings and fast forward to the end of them to hear end-of-meeting comment periods. You can read Mlive’s reporting on one of them here:
After the remarks of that 1/4/21 meeting, one of my colleagues said: “I want everyone to feel welcome to call in….Any limitation that I would be working on with others around brevity of meetings is really just, as others have mentioned, to make sure that we don’t have meetings that go late into the night.” When anyone suggests that shorter meetings are important to promote accessibility and participation, they are referring to this end-of-meeting comment period. This increasingly off-topic, non-local, and furious comment period is the forum that they would like to see expanded.
I’ve seen it argued that shorter meetings would be a mark of efficiency and “good government,” that it’s merely a question of respecting process. Rules and process do matter. During my first two years on Council, an internal Rules committee met regularly to discuss the rules and process of our meetings. This committee no longer exists, but when I served on it, we took the task seriously. E.g. The former Rules committee changed the scheduled timeline for submission of written questions to the agenda, to give staff more time to prepare answers and give Council more time to read and review those answers.
Other rules regulate how our meetings are run. For example:
A member shall not speak more than two times on a given question, three minutes the first time, three minutes the second time, except with the concurring vote of 3/4 of the members present.
Like any rule, the value of this one depends entirely on strategies of enforcement. Two years ago, the Rules Committee considered the challenge of applying this three-minute rule in an even-handed way among Colleagues. We heard arguments that the responsibility of enforcement was too awkward and uncomfortable for our meeting Chair (the Mayor). We briefly discussed less direct methods – timers and alarms – to address the issue. The choice not to enforce our rules was framed as one of courtesy and respect: it was better to urge self-regulation among our members than confront colleagues at the table.
A good example of courtesy and respect happened at our most recent meeting. The short Council agenda on 1/4/21 included a motion to re-consider a purchase order that had been approved at the previous meeting. Typically, an agenda item is brought back for reconsideration by a member of Council who wishes to change their own vote and only when this change will likely alter the result.
In this case, the purchase order had been approved unanimously at our previous meeting without any discussion at all. When a member of Council raises a motion for re-consideration, Council must approve it and agree to more discussion. Such a motion is rarely denied – we assume good intentions and good reason from the colleague who asks for a re-consideration.
Ahead of that 1/4/21 meeting, I assumed that the reconsideration was for the purpose of either 1) addressing a problem with the purchase order that was previously not discussed or 2) recommending that the subject of the purchase order be sent to a board or commission for review. Instead, at the start of discussion, it was agreed that this purchase order was not problematic; questions to staff simply re-affirmed that the previous decision was valid. Additional Council comment speculated about potential and hypothetical problems not implicated in the decision before us (the purchase order). For thirty minutes, Council engaged in questions that were not necessary to form any decision and could have been answered outside of our meeting. Even so, the whole of Council was courteous and respectful enough to permit this discussion without interference.
Council members can choose to be generous and I believe that we were. Sometimes, however, we are not.
We have now seen three attempts from a Council member to interrupt substantive debate of an agenda item and end discussion. During a November meeting, a Council Member attempted a clumsy effort to “call the question” (it failed). At a December meeting, the Council Member directed insults at a colleague, characterizing his questions to staff as “mundane” and a waste of time. At the most recent meeting, this Council member tried to end discussion of single-family-zoning by asserting that it was “off-topic” – Council was preparing to vote on a staff recommendation for single-family-zoning, despite a property owner’s request for higher density zoning. In each of these instances, the same Council Member interrupted to end public debate before engaging in or contributing to discussion.
FOR THE GOOD OF THE BODY
It is easy to throw around vague terms like ‘efficiency’ and ‘good government.’ However, definition of these terms is inherently subjective and, at times, arbitrary. E.g. The three-minute speaking time limit for Council members exists so that our meetings run more smoothly. I rarely speak for three minutes, so I could argue that this time limit should be two minutes instead. Others who speak longer might argue that it should be four minutes. This is why we vote to approve rules and policies: we acknowledge the range of perspectives, consider and debate them. Likewise, in the context of substantive discussion at the Council table, we do not ever apply one individual member’s opinion of what is relevant or germane. That would be inconsistent with our rules, truly undemocratic.
Not every topic will be of interest to every Council member. Not every Council member will be motivated to ask questions about or even discuss the topics on our agenda. However, we should feel some collective responsibility to consider every issue thoughtfully.
The work of a Council Member is unavoidably time-consuming and includes many hours of evening meetings. Some of us commit to additional hours that are not required – hosting coffee hours and attending caucus – precisely because we value public participation and accessibility. I ran for City Council knowing that the job was hard but aiming to do my best in the position. I would not have run for office with the idea that I could re-define the job to make it easier.
FOR THE GOOD OF THE COMMUNITY
We are an educated community that should elevate and promote serious, political debate. Instead, Council considers how we might abbreviate that debate in order to make room for more personal hostility and resentment. For some, these priorities may feel like clever political strategy, but it has absolutely nothing to do with “good government.” I urge my colleagues to consider our service to the whole of community and for the good of the community.
It’s unfortunate that this year, Council leadership effectively eliminated the Rules Committee. Another Council committee (Administrative) has assumed the responsibility of Rules; this committee is dominated by members who are new to our body and unfamiliar with our procedures and conventions. Existing rules are not effectively implemented or enforced. Our meetings are long because our agendas are long and the issues discussed are complex.
I am sympathetic to what is clearly a steep learning curve. That curve will be less steep if we choose to listen and learn from each other.