A June 13, 2013 meeting of the Ann Arbor city council’s rules committee has resulted in proposed revisions to the council’s rules, many of which affect speaking turns and time – for members of the public and for councilmembers.
The revisions will be considered by the full council at its June 17 meeting, as agenda item 13-0767. [.pdf of marked up rules for June 17, 2013 council meeting]
Among the changes is a proposal that an opportunity for general public commentary explicitly be included in the standard agenda template for the council’s work sessions – scheduled for the second and fourth Mondays of the month.
However, the length of public participation speaking turns is proposed to be reduced – from three minutes to two minutes – across all categories of public input, at both work sessions and regular meetings. Types of public speaking turns that would be limited to two minutes include: formal public hearings; general public commentary; and the 10 speaking slots that can be reserved in advance of a council meeting.
The procedure for reserving one of those 10 slots is also proposed to be revised. Only people who did not address the council at its immediately previous meeting would be eligible to reserve a slot. And of the 10 slots, eight would be designated for those who want to address the council on agenda action items. Two slots would be provided for those who want to address the council on any topic.
Given the council’s two meetings per month, the change would mean that a person would potentially be able to reserve a slot at the start of a meeting once a month. But anyone would still be able to address the council during general commentary time at the end of any meeting. The right to address public bodies during their meetings is provided by Michigan’s Open Meetings Act.
Speaking time for councilmembers is also proposed to be reduced. For each item considered by the council, councilmembers get two speaking turns. Councilmember speaking time is proposed to be reduced by a total of three minutes – from five to three minutes for the first turn, and from three to two minutes for the second turn.
Other changes are meant to give some clarity to the timeline for preparing the council’s agenda. The goal is to ensure that a regular meeting agenda is less susceptible to late additions of items or the late addition of supporting informational material for the items.
Added after initial publication: On the regular meeting agenda template, the time for mayoral communications, which include nominations to boards and commissions, is proposed to be moved from near the end of the meeting to just after the initial public commentary reserved time at the beginning of the meeting.
A rule is also proposed that would prohibit councilmembers from using mobile telecommunications devices while seated at the council table during a meeting.
The rules committee is also proposing to change the meta-rule about how the council’s rules can be changed. Currently, the meta-rule requires that the councilmembers not vote to adopt rule revisions unless they were presented with the changes at a previous meeting. The proposed change is to require only that councilmembers are provided with the proposed rule changes in advance of a meeting – as part of the regular agenda preparation process. Under the existing meta-rule, the council would need to wait until its July 1 meeting to adopt the new rules.
However, based on the rules committee discussion on June 13, the intent is to ask the full council to adopt the revised rules at its June 17 meeting – in accordance with the revised meta-rule on rule changes. Rules committee members indicated on June 13 they’d be content to use another provision in the rules – a 2/3 majority vote to suspend temporarily the existing rules – to adopt the rules changes on June 17.
The proposed rules changes come in the context of a council “workshop” held on April 29 when representatives of the Michigan Municipal League (MML) gave councilmembers advice about how to manage their meetings more effectively. The council’s April 15 meeting, for example, lasted until around 3 a.m. at which point the council voted to postpone all remaining agenda items until its next meeting.
At the council’s May 6 meeting, the council used a different strategy, voting to recess its meeting and to resume it on May 13. The proposed new rules include that parliamentary option explicitly in the list of possible council actions. When a meeting is resumed at a later date, that subsequent session of the same meeting need not include the reserved public comment time or public hearings that were held when the meeting started.
Also part of the context for the MML workshop was a series of council work sessions this spring on the city’s budget that featured at least some deliberative interactions by councilmembers. Because there was no opportunity for public commentary provided at those work sessions, the council was in apparent violation of Michigan’s Open Meetings Act. The new rules, which explicitly include public commentary on work session agendas, would eliminate the potential for that violation, and allow councilmembers to engage in unfettered deliberations.
The Ann Arbor city attorney’s position has been that it’s possible to convene a gathering of councilmembers and to limit their verbal behavior to just asking questions, thereby avoiding “deliberations.” That would leave such a gathering short of the threshold for a “meeting” as defined under the Open Meetings Act. On that basis, the council had not previously included an opportunity for public commentary at its work sessions.
Coco Siewert, a professional parliamentarian with MML, spoke with Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) before the council’s April 29 workshop about the nature of the council’s work sessions. Responding to the idea put forward by Higgins that Ann Arbor councilmembers did not deliberate during work sessions, because they confined their remarks to asking questions, Siewert told Higgins:
… the moment you ask the question, to me, you are deliberating. You are pointing out a piece of it that is of interest to you. And invariably, city councilmembers say, “But isn’t it true that if … isn’t it true that if you do that, that this will happen?” And I call that deliberation.
The council’s rules committee consists of Marcia Higgins (chair), Sabra Briere (Ward 1), Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) and mayor John Hieftje.
The Chronicle could not survive without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of public bodies like the Ann Arbor city council. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!