Column: Time for Birthdays and Buses

What a difference 43 years make for city council meetings

This past week’s Ann Arbor city council meeting did not adjourn until nearly 2 a.m. Several factors contributed to the length of that meeting.

"On the eve of his senility ..."

“On the eve of his senility …” From a 1970 Ann Arbor city council resolution wishing city attorney Jerry Lax a happy birthday.

But instead of writing a few thousand words analyzing those factors, I’d like to point out something that was absolutely not a factor. The council did not lay claim to the public’s time by considering any resolutions last Monday that wished someone a happy birthday.

But that was the sort of thing the Ann Arbor city council of 43 years ago did.

I was alerted to this by Jim Mogensen, whose name some readers will recognize as a resident who will reliably appear to comment at various public meetings on topics like transportation and social justice. One of Mogensen’s favorite rhetorical tactics is to tie current events to decades-old actions and to remind people of some forgotten historical point.

Mogensen spoke at the Ann Arbor city council’s Nov. 18 meeting urging the approval of a resolution that added Ypsilanti Township as a member of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority. He called it the continuation of a process that began over 40 years ago. And ultimately the council voted 11-0 in favor of adding Ypsilanti Township to the authority.

Three days later, at Thursday’s meeting of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority’s board, Mogensen’s remarks served to bridge that four-decade span – between the Jerry Lax of Pear Sperling Eggan & Daniels P.C. who currently provides legal counsel for the AAATA, and the Jerry Lax who was Ann Arbor city attorney back in 1970.

Mogensen bridged those four decades by reading aloud a city council resolution from 1970 recognizing Lax’s birthday, which, as luck would have it, is today.

The full text of the tongue-in-cheek resolution is presented below. But it’s not just the hilarious text of the resolution that I thought was worth sharing with readers. It’s something else from that page of the council’s minutes that I thought was even more remarkable.



WHEREAS, time’s steady trickly [sic] of sand ever continues; and

WHEREAS, those who were once young stay young no longer; and

WHEREAS, the youngest city attorney in recent memory is now approaching middle-age; and

WHEREAS, on the eve of his senility we all regard him with fondness and affection,

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, That the City Council of the City of Ann Arbor hereby wishes city attorney Jerry Lax Happy Birthday on the 23rd day of November, 1970, being the occassion [sic] of the 29th anniversary of his birth.

Moved by Councilman Kazarinoff that the Resolution be adopted. On roll call the vote was as follows: Yeas, Councilmen Curry, Kirshet, Faber, Weaver, Kazarinoff, Edwards, Weber, Stephenson, Stadler, Fairbanks, Mayor Harris, 11
Nays, 0

Chair declared the motion carried.

There being no further business to come before the council, chair declared the meeting adjourned at 8:40 p.m.

Harold R. Saunders,
City Clerk

The council adjourned its meeting at 8:40?!

I’ll grant you that our local governance has become more complex now than it was in 1970. And it might well be that the 8:40 p.m. adjournment on that occasion was a notable exception – as I have not conducted a systematic study of meeting adjournment times from that era. Still, I don’t think it’s controversial to suggest that a meeting like last Monday’s, which pushed toward 2 a.m., reflects a certain dysfunction.

But how late is too late? To be clear, I am not suggesting that the council try to regulate the duration of its meetings by developing a rule. But what is a reasonable goal and expectation to set for meeting length?

In the spirit of one of Mogensen’s favorite topics, I’d suggest this guideline:

People attending a city council meeting should be able to stay until the end and still catch the last fixed route public bus leaving downtown.

Allowing time to walk from city hall to the Blake Transit Center, that would currently mean the council meetings would need to wrap up around 10:15 p.m.

The AAATA’s 5-year improvement plan, which the authority will likely ask voters to support with an additional millage next year, includes extension of operating hours until later in the evening.

So if councilmembers want to hit that guideline, but still extend their meetings longer than 10:15 p.m., all they’d need to do is encourage voters to support the AAATA millage when it’s floated.

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  1. By Bob Martel
    November 23, 2013 at 11:09 am | permalink

    I believe that the amount of time spent on municipal government (and I mean by the active participants, not the reporters covering the events) is indicative of an inability to prioritize by said participants. In the big scheme of life, some things are just not important enough to stay up until midnight. I also suspect that the exhaustion created by these overly long and tedious meetings results in less than ideal decision making. As a society, we just need to accept that not every issue will get the attention that the last person believes it should and move on. Oh, and get to bed too!

  2. By Eleanor Pollack
    November 23, 2013 at 11:20 am | permalink

    Mary, when I came to Ann Arbor in 1975, it was not uncommon for Council meetings to run into the very wee small hours. While I wasn’t really paying attention so much back then, I worked briefly for the Housing Commission during a time of restructuring within which Sy Murray, City Manager, oversaw the running of the Commission. There were plenty of Tuesday mornings when Sy would come in to review the work of the day that he would comment on the lateness of the past night. 3 and 4 AM were not unusual. In fact, midnight was seen as civilized. Of course, back then it was also a clearly defined 2 party Council.

  3. November 23, 2013 at 1:06 pm | permalink

    Even with the “enhanced” service, AAATA hours for most routes will only be extended until roughly 11 p.m., so that wouldn’t solve most council transit problems.

    I think part of the scheduling problems originate with the numerous special recognition and presentation moments that begin each meeting. As far as I can recall, that was an innovation of the current mayor’s. Agendas could also be tighter with some movement of high-pressure items to different weeks. I’ve lost track of what Council committee sets agendas, but I’d suggest that they should never schedule two items requiring a public hearing that indicates substantial participation on one night, unless necessary for processes to occur in a timely manner.

    The Board of Commissioners long had an agenda meeting where some of these timing issues were dealt with. The agenda was then fixed with publication several days in advance. Last-minute items were almost never added to the agenda. I hope that as part of Council reforms going forward, that practice will be severely discouraged.

    The wrong answer would be to limit Council discussion. There are already Council rules that impose some limitations. But this is the true work of the Council and should not be curtailed.

  4. By Junior
    November 23, 2013 at 4:18 pm | permalink

    There is a very good point here.

    Why are City Council meetings taking as long as 3:00 a.m. before adjournment?

    If we are outta there by 12:30 a.m., I feel some relief, but many meetings go past 1:00 a.m.

    Maybe it’s the number of commission and board seats? Appointments are usually uncontroversial, but some like Al “Ice Cream Cone” McWilliams have consumed a lot of time for council discussion. 100 public bodies each having 10-12 seats to fill on average, with expirations.

    The iconic phrase “That’s all from the hard benches” also underscores the fact that seat cushions would be helpful – can we get a budget allocation to cushioned benches in City Council chambers?

  5. By liberalnimby
    November 24, 2013 at 9:17 am | permalink

    Nothing like offering some healthy, if misspelled, perspective! Thank you for that.

    I’d like to better understand the rules surrounding speaking times and turns. To many council watchers, there is little value-added beyond the first 5 or so minutes of what comes out of each council representative’s mouth. Same with the line of questioning that results from interaction with staff (when a council member deems it necessary to solicit an expert perspective). My impression that these rules are casually enforced.

    In an ideal world, we could enter a time warp at every public meeting and pretend that council members and the public do not have lives outside of public service. We have a hard enough time encouraging quality people to volunteer their limited time to the city. Whether or not meetings ever went beyond midnight in the distant past is irrelevant: there is no reason for it to happen as much as it does. It’s bad for decision making, bad for public input, and bad for our democracy.

  6. November 24, 2013 at 11:46 am | permalink

    Re: “I’d like to better understand the rules surrounding speaking times and turns.”

    From the council rules:

    A member shall not speak more than two times on a given question, five minutes the first time, three minutes the second time, except with the concurring vote of 3/4 of the members present.

    A motion to call the previous question (call for cloture) immediately ends all discussion and shall be out of order until all members have had an opportunity to speak twice to the question on the floor, and shall require a concurring vote of 3/4 of the members present.

    This past summer, the council considered, but ultimately did not enact, a change to rules on public speaking time as well as councilmember speaking time. The council contemplated reducing the length of its own speaking times to 3 minutes and 2 minutes for the first and second turns respectively. Some of that discussion took place at the council’s July 15, 2013 meeting. [That meeting report includes a pie chart break down of how the council spent its time on that occasion, which was a relatively short meeting.]

    I’ve included above the council’s rule on “calling the question” – because for our council the requirement that everyone have the opportunity to speak twice before that motion is even in order makes it practically useless as a way for councilmembers to move along a mired debate.

    Re: “Same with the line of questioning that results from interaction with staff (when a council member deems it necessary to solicit an expert perspective). ”

    The rule limiting speaking times as typically interpreted by Hieftje, who chairs the meetings, doesn’t apply to questions asked of staff. But at the council’s Nov. 18 meeting, Hieftje noted that Lumm had interspersed her questions with editorial commentary and as a result he was considering her to have already spoken twice. That was something of an historic first, I think.

    I think it would be helpful if councilmembers did not take as their model for deliberations a panel of the U.S. Senate conducting an inquiry. The various questions they pose to staff have at least four discernible functions:

    1. Illuminate subject matter for the benefit of the public. But more often than not, the subject has been covered in the written caucus questions councilmembers have posed in advance of the meeting and to which staff have provided written answers. It would be vastly more efficient and more beneficial to the public, to upload those responses to Legistar as a standard work flow. Then councilmembers could cite those answers during the meeting, without hauling staff up to the podium.
    2. Get staff to endorse the councilmember’s rhetorical position. This is the staff-as-witness-at-trial function. Typically staff are wise to this tactic and it rarely works.
    3. Follow a councilmember’s curiosity about a subject. The average-bear elected local official is going to be somewhat intellectually curious, so it’s not inherently an indication of a problem. But the average-bear elected local official is also going to have a healthy enough ego that they think it’s a fine use of the public’s and their colleague’s time for them to learn from staff how something works, not that it will even remotely affect how they vote on the item.
    4. Grandstand for constituents who will note that the councilmember is “asking the tough questions no one else is willing to ask.” To hope this practice would end is like wishing that politicians wouldn’t behave like politicians, so I’m not sure there’s a whole lot to be done about it. But some of it might be curtailed if councilmembers kept in mind that the primary audience for their verbal behavior should be other councilmembers. So if their questions of staff aren’t designed ultimately to elicit information from staff that will be persuasive to their colleagues, then there’s a diminishing return to all of that questioning.
  7. November 24, 2013 at 1:14 pm | permalink

    Re (6): I agree that the last three reasons should be avoided. But I don’t agree that putting material on Legistar is a good alternative. People take in information in different ways. The flow of verbal discussion at Council meetings is one important way of elucidating a subject and an online summary is not a substitute. (Of course, I look forward to having Dave Askins summarize.)

    The motion to call the question issue is interesting. I agree that the council rule makes it almost useless. By the time that 11 members have had 8 minutes each, 1 1/2 hours have elapsed. I think that the practice on the BOC when I was there was to allow each commissioner to speak at least once, but I don’t know that it was a formal rule. As you likely know and have somewhat indicated, calling the question is non-discussable. Therefore this heavy instrument should not be able to quash discussion from any member of the board (i.e., calling the question before certain people have had a chance to weigh in). There is a balance needed here.

  8. By liberalnimby
    November 24, 2013 at 10:13 pm | permalink

    Thank you for the thorough responses.

    A key question is, Who are council meetings for? And I think this nails it: “[T]he primary audience for their verbal behavior should be other council members. So if their questions of staff aren’t designed ultimately to elicit information from staff that will be persuasive to their colleagues, then there’s a diminishing return to all of that questioning.”

    Long-winded and unproductive grandstanding and interrogations are difficult to sit through, but I suppose if you throw enough junk against the wall, and a few snippets sound like “tough talk” when quoted in writing, it helps get you votes and reinforces this behavior. Is total speaking time (including staff questions) quantified by council member somewhere?

  9. November 25, 2013 at 11:25 am | permalink

    Re: “Is total speaking time (including staff questions) quantified by council member somewhere?”

    The timestamps from The Chronicle’s live updates allow reasonable conclusions – based on simple clock-arithmetic step – about how much time was spent on a given item. However, it would be very tedious to use those timestamps to try to analyze each councilmember’s speaking time. (A new timestamp doesn’t necessarily correlate to a change in speaker.)

    Also I’m not coming up with some other easy way to figure out how much of each meeting can be attributed to each councilmember, based on data that’s already collected.

    If you wanted to set out to measure this in a fine-grained way, you’d need something like an 11-way chess clock. As an off-the-top-of-my-head solution to this I’d suggest using a spreadsheet with four columns: councilmember initials, start time, end time, a computed duration [column 3 minus column 2]. As you’re following the meeting, when a different councilmember starts talking, slam their initials into column 1, use a keystroke short-cut for inserting the current time in columns 2 and 3. When the meeting is done, make a pivot table on that to gather up the sums of all the times broken out by councilmember. There’s probably more elegant solutions.

    But honestly, maintaining that kind of timesheet doesn’t seem like a good way for any human being to spend time. Also, I think it’s premised on the idea that over-long meetings can be blamed on some one councilmember or some subset of councilmembers. Ultimately, the council gets judged by its accomplishments as a group. If the meeting is over-long, then that’s on the council as a whole for not working to establish a work process and culture that leads to a meeting that serves all of its needed democratic functions, without dragging into the wee hours of the morning.

  10. November 25, 2013 at 11:52 am | permalink

    A l-o-n-g time ago the AA News printed a clock indicating how much time each Council meeting took. The inference was that long meetings were bad.

    I’d rather have a long public meeting than have everything “worked out” behind closed doors ahead of time.

  11. By Jack Eaton
    November 25, 2013 at 12:29 pm | permalink

    I think that the length of meetings problem has a number of contributing factors. One that I think might be easiest to address is the process by which Council addresses a problem.

    Let’s take the pedestrian ordinance as an example. Members of the community came to Council seeking resolution of a couple of related problems. The Council first “fixed” those problems in 2010. I do not recall how much time was taken in discussion of that effort, but it must have taken some time. The new pedestrian ordinance was again addressed the next year because it was not working. Again, tweaking the ordinance took some time. We are again revisiting the ordinance because many residents find the unique ordinance ineffective.

    Now imagine that Council had approached pedestrian safety with a methodical process. When the community brought its concerns to Council, that body should have identified the discrete problems that needed to be addressed. Looking back, I see two related problems in the citizens’ presentation to Council. First, drivers were not obeying the existing ordinance. Second, at some crosswalks, pedestrians found no break in traffic that allowed them to enter the crosswalk and establish their right of way.

    Having identified those problems, Council could have directed staff, including police officers and traffic engineers, to study how best to resolve the problems. It would be at this point in the process when a citizens committee should be formed and consulted.

    The staff and citizens process should result in recommendations for the Council to consider. Having the expertise of our well qualified staff weigh in before Council adopts an ordinance might have led to ideas that would not require repeated tweaking. Allowing citizens, both pedestrian activists and vehicle drivers, provide input would have helped reach a balanced outcome.

    While I am not an expert in any of this, I would suggest that the problem of non-compliance might have led to suggestions of increased education and enforcement. Perhaps the problem of crosswalks at sites where traffic is too heavy to safely cross would have led to improved signals based on traffic engineer recommendations rather than on cost considerations.

    Instead, Council has had to revisit this ordinance again and again. The City’s unique pedestrian ordinance may not have made pedestrians any less safe, but I don’t think we can argue that it has made them more safe, either. Council should not be making safety decisions without first allowing qualified personnel to gather and analyze available information and make professionally competent recommendations.

    Ordinances related to pedestrians, or marijuana dispensaries or various other topics repeatedly come back to Council because the original process was flawed. Hours of Council meeting time have been consumed by these discussions because we tend to follow a method of “ready, fire, aim”.