Column: Learning Governance from Legistar

By first introducing ordinances and resolutions, the Ann Arbor city council could operate more transparently and better manage limited staff resources

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.

Extracted screen shot of Legistar interface that allows search of Legislative items by category.

Extracted screen shot of Legistar interface that allows search of Legislative items by category.

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]:

  1. To call the previous question/cloture
  2. Motions to Adjourn
  3. To Lay on Table
  4. To Postpone to a Time Certain
  5. To Refer
  6. To Postpone Indefinitely
  7. 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.

Screenshot of New York City Legistar system search results for items classified as "introduction."

Screenshot of New York City Legistar system search results for items classified as “introduction.”

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!


  1. By Steve Bean
    February 17, 2014 at 9:36 am | permalink

    “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.”

    I agree. I tried to find a counterpoint, but couldn’t.

    One somewhat/potentially contradictory matter relative to your proposal, Dave, is that commissions both make legislative recommendations to council (though not as much as they might) and get the support of staff time and other resources (as well as include council members among their voting members). Of course, most commissions have a (standing or specific) charge from council for their work. i wonder if you have thoughts on whether commission functioning might be “day-lighted” in a similar way. I imagine that you don’t have as much insight into that area as you do council, but I’d be glad to learn if you do have an awareness of ‘what goes on there’.

  2. February 17, 2014 at 9:54 am | permalink

    Um, can’t agree with a couple of your suggestions.

    If council members can’t ask for some preliminary staff assistance in proposing new resolutions, the council would lose the ability to produce spontaneous innovations and proposals. What you are really asking for is a pre-vote on any initiative, but those would not be checked out and vetted for legality. The council member would then be reduced to introducing a flawed and preliminary draft, easily shot down. This would relegate all council business to staff introductions or possibly the mayor working with the city administrator.

    A wholesale charter revision: No, please! As with constitutional conventions, this allows for all kinds of mischief and unintended consequences. It would be a terrible burden on the citizenry at large because the charter affects all aspects of city government and its revision would entail huge meeting and reading investment. Much better to continue with the one-thing-at-a-time charter amendment procedure.

    I’m a process person, but sometimes it is better not to rigidify process too much. Leave a little slack in the system so that it remains fluid, with controls.

  3. By Steve Bean
    February 17, 2014 at 10:31 am | permalink

    @2: You found a counterpoint where I didn’t, Vivienne. I’m open to the possibility of it being valid. The question that comes up is, how would the threat of an introductory request for staff time be more likely to be shot down than current first readings of ordinance proposals? From a logical perspective the two would be roughly equivalent. Do you not see council acting logically with regard to this? Of course, some time after such a change had been enacted, council members (whether current or elected in the future) might forget how things used to be and no longer see an introductory request as being ‘just like the old first-reading step’. But would that result in the leap you describe to a situation where council would never introduce legislation? I doubt it. Another way to put all that is, how did anything ever get through first reading in the past?

  4. February 17, 2014 at 10:48 am | permalink

    Steve, there is a big difference between a fleshed-out resolution (which typically includes some safeguards and reservations that might satisfy otherwise dubious members) and a preliminary concept.

    An important point here is that city staff, while they presumably work for all of us, report to the City Administrator. Actually, council members have no right to dictate city staff usage. They are merely more informed and familiar citizens. (They do, however, evaluate the Administrator.) The City Administrator is responsible for being sure that staff time is not misused. A wise council member will check with the Administrator before putting any more than a request for a briefing to a city staff member. A wise Administrator (and I am convinced that Steve Powers is one) will keep the reins fairly loose so that council members can exert creativity and leadership without imposing unduly on his staff. But he’ll know how to inform a member (respectfully) if bounds are overstepped.

    As for your question, “Do you not see council acting logically with regard to this?”, have you heard of “politics”? It happens.

  5. By Steve Bean
    February 17, 2014 at 11:07 am | permalink

    “It happens.” Maybe. (When has it with regard to this matter? How many times in recent years?)

    Again, how is it that first readings ever pass if politics is such a threat?

  6. February 17, 2014 at 11:08 am | permalink

    Another point: resolutions do not get a “first reading”, only ordinances.

    Yet another point: Council meetings are too long as it is. Imagine if they also had to consider every half-baked idea in embryo as well. Debate could ensue.

  7. By Chuck Warpehoski
    February 17, 2014 at 11:29 am | permalink

    Regarding whether or not a motion to refer has been used in the recent past, I believe Sandy Smith’s resolution regarding proceeds from the sale of city-owned property was referred to the budget committee.

    When I look through the introductions in the NYC Legistar, I see texts that are relatively well constructed. They go beyond the “I am looking into an ordinance that would allow the city administrator to designate parkland as smoke free.” Instead, they have initial text of what a the legislation looks like, including what sections of city code are to be amended. I find it unlikely that such draft legislation emerged without the input of city staff. I know it certainly would have been an error to ask me to draft an preliminary smoking ordinance without guidance for the attorney’s office.

    To add a nuance to Vivienne’s point, the City hires the Administrator and City Attorney. Each of them have the responsibility to ensure that the time of their staff members is not misused, but it is not the Administrator’s purview to oversee the legal department’s staff time.

  8. February 17, 2014 at 11:34 am | permalink

    Re: “If council members can’t ask for some preliminary staff assistance in proposing new resolutions, the council would lose the ability to produce spontaneous innovations and proposals.”

    I think, on the contrary, the introduce-then-refer approach would lower the threshold for placing an item on the agenda, and could potentially free councilmembers up to float ideas onto the agenda without having every detail nailed down, thus actually promoting innovative proposals.

    Re: “The council member would then be reduced to introducing a flawed and preliminary draft, easily shot down.”

    In the context of current custom, resolutions and ordinances introduced at first reading could be fairly characterized very much as “first drafts.” For example, even with the assistance of the city attorney’s office, the wording of Chuck Warpehoski’s resolution regulating outdoor smoking was significantly flawed in two places. That is what in part led to his own immediate proposal to postpone at first reading. I think that if a councilmember working by themselves or with other councilmembers or citizens cannot produce a draft that is sufficient to win approval from the majority of council to refer for further study, then I think that draft probably deserves to be shot down. Will politics happen? Absolutely. But it’s a way more efficient use of the everyone’s time, if those politics lead to an early and merciful demise of a proposal, instead of leading to a marathon of suffering that ultimately ends in a defeated proposal.

    Re: Steve Bean’s introduction of the topic of boards and commissions

    I thought about exploring this introduce-then-refer mechanism as it would have applied to the energy commission recommendation on fossil fuels. I think its consideration by the council might have unfolded in somewhat smoother fashion than it did if the energy commission had placed the item on the agenda as an introduction. A next logical step could have been to refer the resolution to the council’s budget committee. Instead, what unfolded was defeat, reconsideration, amendment, postponement, and finally approval. That’s an important reminder that some boards and commissions, like the energy have “agenda access.” But I didn’t want try to tackle that issue in the context of this column. It’s worth pointing out that Rule 13-P wouldn’t apply to members of boards and commissions, only to members of the council.

  9. By Lou Glorie
    February 17, 2014 at 2:36 pm | permalink

    I think an overly formal process for using staff to explore issues would hinder innovation. It would also allow a majority to permanently hobble a minority’s ability to gather the necessary info to propose ordinances and resolutions. Streamlining is not always in the best interests of democratic process. Efficiency is best seen as a means rather than an end in itself.

  10. February 17, 2014 at 5:11 pm | permalink

    I agree with Vivienne. A charter commission would result in a serious disaster which would probably be rejected at the polls.

    As to non-partisan elections, people can already run as candidates with no party affiliation. So why take the choice of running as a Dem/Repub/Whatever from folks?

    I know “goo-goos” are sometimes drawn to nonpartisan elections, for reasons that are hard to fathom. This attraction is a bad tendency that should be militantly resisted.

  11. By John Floyd
    February 18, 2014 at 1:27 am | permalink

    To my mind, Vivienne has won the day on all her points.

    Dave (Cahill)

    1) Exactly who are these “Goo-Goos”? I once heard of an all-girl band called “The Go-Gos”. Are your Goo-Goos a new band, or did your fingers slip when writing your comment? And why do they care about Ann Arbor elections?

    2) I’m still not hearing a coherent argument for the civic benefit of maintaining partisan elections in a one-national party town. Exactly what information is contained, in a local election, by referring to national political brands? Is “% for Art” a program of the national Democratic Party? Then how come so many local democrats (e.g., David Cahill, Esq.) are agin’ it? Or does national party affiliation tell us nothing about “% for Art”, nor about who is for it and who is against it?

    There are several juicy conspiracy-theory rationales for maintaining partisan elections in a one-party town. My personal favorite is that “Democrats fear that if elections were strictly about local issues/personalities, and local voters weren’t distracted by national party brands, people who call themselves ‘Democrats’ wouldn’t get elected to local offices, and so they want to tie local elections to nation brands”. Beyond parlor game fun, conspiracy theories don’t contribute to civic life, and distract us from substantive issues.

    Around here, in local elections the big money, and big media attention, goes to people who identify nationally as Democrats. The result is that the August Democratic primary is where issues – like zoning, park land “leases”, get decided. On local issues, the big money, and the big media, should be around the general election. This is why everyone else in Michigan (save Ypsilanti and one other town I cannot recollect) hold non-partisan elections.

    I see no reason that national Democrats could not identify themselves a such in campaign publicity. They just would face off against (most likely) another national Democrat in the general election. This is what non-partisan elections get you. Running as an independent in a partisan local race generally doesn’t achieve having the two biggest vote-drawers (and the issues they support) face off in the general.

    Got any demo tapes from them Goo-Goos?

  12. February 18, 2014 at 1:34 am | permalink

    Re: “goo-goos” That refers, I think, to “good-government guys.”

  13. By John Floyd
    February 18, 2014 at 11:27 am | permalink

    Good government guys? Ah, well, that explains

    1) Why Mr. Cahill is so militant: only a nut case would want good government.

    2) Why we hear so little about Belinda Carlyle these days

  14. February 18, 2014 at 4:53 pm | permalink

    Elections that are exclusively non-partisan generally lead to voter confusion and low turnout, as Councilmember Eaton has commented here before.