Last spring, The Chronicle began systematically publishing detailed previews of Ann Arbor city council meeting agendas. Part of that effort includes pointing readers to the city’s online agenda management system, which is hosted on a software platform called Legistar.
Legistar is an information-rich archive for upcoming as well as past meetings. I’ll grant you, it is not perfect. Legistar can at times be sluggish to respond or counterintuitive in its user interface. But Legistar will mostly cough up what you’re looking for.
The city of Ann Arbor has been using Legistar as part of its record management for Ann Arbor’s government for six years. By now I’d guess residents have figured out for themselves as much as they need or want to know about Legistar. So my purpose in writing is not to provide a tutorial on its use.
In this column, I’d like to focus on one feature of Legistar: the ability to classify meeting agenda items by category. The city of Ann Arbor’s Legistar system is set up so that an agenda item can be classified as: appointment, introduction, minutes, ordinance, proclamation, public hearing only, report or communication, resolution, resolution/public hearing, work session. Of those categories, I’d like to focus on just one: introduction.
I think that a more robust and meaningful use of “introductions” by the city council could lead to better public notice of upcoming council work, and more efficient use of limited city staff resources.
The change I have in mind wouldn’t be difficult to implement, and wouldn’t require changing the city charter to do it. But I’ll wrap up this column by noting how a change to the council’s approach to “introductions” could help get the ball rolling on a possible effort to review the city charter.
What Is an Introduction?
The “introductions” section on the Ann Arbor city council’s agenda pre-dates the use of Legistar. Over a decade ago, for example, at the Jan. 6, 2003 council meeting, an “introductions” slot appeared on the agenda. It was filled with a presentation on the city’s annual audit.
Even now, presentations like that are fairly typical for the way “introductions” are used by the Ann Arbor city council. Most typically, items classified as an “introduction” are presentations of information, not items on which the council takes any action requiring a vote. Items not classified as an “introduction” sometimes appear in the “introductions” section. For example, those items classified as “proclamations” also get slotted in under “introductions.”
So what exactly gets “introduced” during the Ann Arbor city council’s “introductions” section of the agenda? A fair description would be: (1) people (through proclamations), or (2) information (through presentations).
What about legislation? Does legislation ever get introduced during “introductions”? No.
Introducing Legislation: Through First Reading?
Every schoolchild who has ever had a lesson in “how a bill becomes a law” knows that legislation must first be introduced. So what is the Ann Arbor city council’s standard procedure for introducing a new or amended local law? Answer: It’s placed on a meeting agenda for a first reading.
Sometimes councilmembers will use their communications time at a council meeting as an informal heads-up. They’ll alert their colleagues during communications that sometime soon they intend to bring forward an ordinance or resolution on a particular topic. For example, on Oct. 21, 2013 Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5) announced during council communications that he’d be bringing forward an ordinance that would regulate outdoor smoking. The Chronicle’s report of that meeting last year included Warpehoski’s remarks. The council’s minutes from that meeting also reflect Warpehoski’s remarks on his intent to bring forward the new ordinance.
But the first occasion for a new piece of legislation to become formally visible on the council’s work plan is when it’s placed on the agenda for a first reading. By that time, a councilmember will typically have laid claim to some amount of time from city staff – in the city attorney’s office and in the city department affected by the content the ordinance. It shouldn’t have surprised anyone who was paying close attention to the council’s work to see that Warpehoski placed the outdoor smoking regulation on the council’s agenda for a first reading on Feb. 3, 2014. But it was the first occasion on which the item actually appeared on the council’s agenda.
The council’s current custom on introducing new topics is less than optimal in two respects. First, formal notice could come much earlier. Second, formal notice could come before laying claim to limited staff resources. Is there some better way to do this?
A Better Way to Introduce a Law: By Introducing It
The Ann Arbor city council’s own rules provide some insight here. Compared to current custom, the council’s rules appear to contemplate an additional step in the ordinance enactment process. It’s a step with an outcome that is not necessarily to take a vote on the question of giving initial approval to an ordinance. Specifically, the council’s rules indicate a step where a natural outcome of that step is to “refer” the matter to another authority [emphasis added]:
RULE 13: Ordinances, How Introduced
Proposed ordinances shall be introduced by one or more individual members of council. Ordinances may be referred to any or all of the following: the city Attorney, the city administrator, appropriate agencies, and council committees, for study and recommendation.
I don’t think it’s accidental that the Ann Arbor city council’s list of allowable motions during debate includes a motion to refer:
RULE 11: Motions in Order during Debate
When any question is under debate, no motion shall be received but the following, and they shall have the precedence in the order in which they stand arranged [emphasis added]:
- To call the previous question/cloture
- Motions to Adjourn
- To Lay on Table
- To Postpone to a Time Certain
- To Refer
- To Postpone Indefinitely
- To Recess a Meeting to a Date Certain
I don’t recall the council ever taking advantage of a motion to refer in the last five years. So I’d like to propose a modification to Rule 13, which I think should include not just ordinances, but also resolutions:
Rule 13-P: Ordinances and Resolutions, Necessity and Method of Introduction
Proposed ordinances and resolutions by councilmembers should first be placed on a meeting agenda as an item of introduction, before being placed on a meeting agenda as an item to be voted on for initial or final approval. Outside of their work on a council committee to which a matter has been referred by the council, councilmembers shall not lay claim to time and effort from a city staff member or a city board or commission related to an ordinance or resolution, unless the council has voted to refer the matter to the staff member, the staff member’s department, or the city board or commission.
Using Introductions to Introduce: Supporting Arguments
An approach to introducing legislation that makes literal use of an “introduction” is not novel for a city government. New York City’s approach to the process is visible in the NYC city council Legistar system.
That’s right, NYC uses Legistar software. And a search for “introduction” items in the NYC Legistar system does not give a results list that is dominated by informational presentations, as does a similar search in Ann Arbor’s Legistar system. Instead, NYC’s Legistar system turns up a screenful of titles that begin with “A Local Law to …”
And if you click through to read the history of some of those items, what you’ll find is a NYC city council action to “refer” those items to some kind of committee. For example, a NYC local law in relation to creating a task force on the sport of cricket was referred to the committee on parks and recreation.
But pointing to NYC’s example is, I think, a pretty weak argument in favor of Ann Arbor’s adoption of an introduce-then-refer approach to governance. In fact, it could be cited as an argument against Ann Arbor’s adoption of this kind of procedure: In a smaller community like Ann Arbor, governance should be simpler than in the largest city in the country.
But the idea that things should be simple, I think, weighs in favor of the introduce-then-refer approach. If every ordinance and resolution requiring staff time is first formally introduced then referred, it becomes simple to keep track of the to-do list. It’s a to-do list that the Ann Arbor city council is creating for city staff and other boards and commissions. That to-do list takes the form of a search on “introduction” items in Legistar. So, about that NYC local law in relation to creating a task force on the sport of cricket: I will not be following up on the legislation that might result from the council’s referral to the NYC committee on parks and recreation. But because it went through a process of introduction, I could easily track it on Legistar if I wanted to.
The introduce-then-refer approach can also keep things simple by providing an early opportunity for the council, as a group, to nip an initiative in the bud, without voting against it per se. If Warpehoski had literally introduced the outdoor smoking item in October last year, the council might not have chosen to refer it to the city attorney’s office or the park advisory commission. If it had not been referred, then it would have died relatively early – before any significant staff time had been consumed by the effort.
And I think that conservation of staff time and resources should be a significant consideration for the council as it thinks about how to set the city’s work plan. That’s especially important as the city’s total staff has decreased over the years. It strikes me as completely reasonable that any initiative that requires staff time should have the support of a majority of council for the expenditure of that staff time.
This introduction-then-referral approach in the proposed Rule 13-P would also ensure more transparency for the council’s work. Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) surprised nearly everyone on Aug. 9, 2012 when he put an item on the agenda that called for placing a public art millage on the ballot. He’d been working behind the scenes with the city attorney’s office on the matter. If Rule 13-P had been in place, he would have been forced to be more transparent in his approach.
That’s because Taylor would have needed to get the backing of a majority of councilmembers to refer the matter to the city attorney’s office, before he could have tapped city attorney resources to help him work on the issue. I imagine the council would have backed Taylor’s initiative at that earlier stage. And the outcome on the council’s action would have probably been the same: The millage would have been placed on the ballot.
The difference? The process from start to finish would have been more transparent, and the possibility of a ballot question would have been day-lighted to the public much earlier. That difference might have led to a different outcome on voting day. [The millage failed.]
Introducing: Charter Commission?
One issue that has generated some interest across the community over the last few years – though not enough to result in any council action – is the possibility of switching Ann Arbor to non-partisan elections for mayor and city council. That change would require a charter amendment, which could be placed on the ballot for voters to decide.
What I think is actually needed, instead of a one-off amendment, is a comprehensive review of Ann Arbor’s city charter. The mechanism for conducting that review involves establishing and electing a city charter commission. Getting the wording right for a city council resolution – and the development of background educational materials so that councilmembers could weigh the wisdom of establishing a charter commission – would require a significant time investment from the city attorney’s office.
To get things rolling toward establishing a charter commission – in a completely transparent way – wouldn’t require adoption of Rule 13-P. Existing mechanisms could be used that allow for, but do not require, introduction then referral.
Action could take place as early as the March 3, 2014 meeting, if anyone on the council wanted to move this forward. A councilmember could introduce a resolution – literally as an “introduction” item on the agenda – to establish a city charter commission. That resolution could be very much a draft – a councilmember’s own best shot at the required wording. One starting point might be to track down similar resolutions that other municipalities, including Ypsilanti, have used for this purpose. And a councilmember could use one of the possible motions during debate to refer that resolution to the city attorney’s office.
If a majority of the council agreed, we might expect to see an actual resolution for a charter commission placed on the council’s agenda sometime this year. That’s no guarantee that the council would approve the resolution, but at least it would put the issue on the table for discussion.
The Chronicle could not survive without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of public bodies like the Ann Arbor city council. We sit on the hard bench so that you don’t have to. 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!