This week’s agenda includes a fairly routine item – setting of the Council Calendar (DC-4) – that marks a departure from past practice. Currently, only one member of Ann Arbor City Council (Mayor Taylor) has more than two years of experience, so it is possible that many elected representatives may not fully grasp the significance of this agenda item.
SCHEDULING THE WORK OF COUNCIL
The Council calendar in DC-4 sets the 2023 schedule for both regular Council meetings/sessions and additional meetings called Work Sessions. Regular meetings happen twice a month, when elected leaders vote on specific items and make decisions. Work sessions are public meetings in which elected representatives meet to receive and exchange information among each other and from City staff. No votes are taken in these public meetings; no policy, spending, or legislative decisions happen in a Work Session.
Historically, work sessions have been open meetings that allow the public to see their elected leaders hear and share ideas. In years past, every Council calendar has included multiple work sessions in anticipation of important issues that come up and require additional consideration. E.g. In years past, the annual budget process has previously included multiple Work Sessions leading up to final approval of the budget.
THEN AND NOW
Every previous calendar has assigned a significant amount of time to both regular meetings and work sessions, though the amount of time spent in work sessions can look very different from year to year. Below, see the number of Work sessions included in the annual calendar, plus the number of Work sessions that actually took place.
2019 Calendar: 10 work sessions scheduled / 15 work sessions held
Ten Work Sessions included staff presentations on the annual budget, solid waste, water quality, and capital asset management. Five additional Work Sessions allowed for open public discussion of the Gelman plume contamination, affordable housing, the Downtown Development authority, marijuana regulation, and candidates for Police Chief.
2020 Calendar: 11 work sessions scheduled / 8 work sessions held
Eight work sessions included staff presentations on the annual budget, development of affordable housing on City-owned property, the A2Zero plan, a financial recovery plan, and non motorized transit.
Note: One work session was cancelled due to the Presidential Primary and two work sessions were cancelled in March, due to COVID-19 isolation protocols.
2021 Calendar: 11 work sessions scheduled / 13 work sessions held
Eleven work sessions included staff presentations on the annual budget, diversion and expungement programs, the Downtown Development Authority, and water system facilities. Two additional work sessions allowed for public discussion of City pavement conditions and the development of affordable housing on City-owned properties.
2022 Calendar: 11 work sessions scheduled / 0 work sessions held
All Budget and general work sessions for 2022 were cancelled. The City/DDA joint meeting was cancelled. The City planning session originally scheduled for December 2022 was rescheduled to January 2023.
The proposed 2023 Council Calendar includes only three Work Sessions:
January 30 — 2023 planning session (rescheduled from December 2022)
October 10 — Joint planning session with the DDA
December 11 — 2024 planning session
This is the first year that general Work Sessions – and Budget Work Sessions, in particular – have been wholly eliminated from the Council calendar of public meetings.
“REGULAR MEETING” VERSUS “WORK SESSION”
The significance of this shift – dispensing with Work Sessions – is more notable due to recent changes in Council Rules. Last month, Council eliminated open, unreserved public comments at the end of regular Council meetings. All public comments now require pre-reservation with City staff (before 5 p.m.) and no public comments can happen at the end of a regular meeting unless and until the numbers of pre-reserved public commenters exceeds fifteen.
Additional meetings of Council – non-regular meetings – treat public comments differently. E.g. In addition to regular meetings, Council may call Special Sessions that are not included in the annual calendar. According to Council Rules, the agenda of any Special Session includes public comment at the end, rather than the beginning. Likewise, the agenda of any Work Session includes public comment at the end, instead of the beginning; however, public comments at Work Sessions must begin “no later than 8:45 p.m.”
The three Work Sessions scheduled for January, October, and December of 2023 are now the only certain, scheduled opportunity for anyone to offer public comment at the end of (and in immediate response to) what they observe in a Council meeting.
WHY THIS MATTERS
Pre-pandemic, Council Members regularly attended multiple work sessions to hear presentations from City staff and ask questions. These public meetings were opportunities for community members to hear directly from City staff at the same time as Council Members, and offer public comment at the end. At these work sessions the public could observe the attendance, participation, and engagement of all Council Members in learning about and understanding the annual budget and other City issues.
In March 2020 – at the very beginning of COVID lockdowns – two budget work sessions were cancelled (and substituted with staff videos) because ZOOM meetings were not yet in place. In 2021, Budget Work sessions happened in public meetings via ZOOM. In 2022, the approved Council Calendar included work sessions, none of which actually took place. Instead, the Council Administration committee approved a plan for pre-recorded staff produced videos that Council could opt to view at their convenience. This year, a new Council has not scheduled any Work Sessions to discuss the Budget or any other important topics.
Since 2020, a majority of Council has consistently worked to reduce their own obligations as elected representatives. A majority led by Mayor Taylor has delegated policymaking to unelected Mayoral appointees, crafted rules to limit debate and shorten Council meetings, and wholly eliminated unreserved public comment in response to whatever debate does (or doesn’t) occur in a short Council meeting. This week, the Council Calendar takes one more remarkable step: eliminating a whole category of meetings where the public can observe the work of Council and respond to it.