Column on Caucus: Make It a Real Event

A template for a more productive city council caucus
Larcom Building 2nd Floor Bulletin Board

Larcom Building 2nd floor bulletin board

Already on Wednesday of this past week the decision had been made to cancel city council’s Sunday caucus. I received a two-sentence email that morning – sent in equitable fashion to both The Chronicle and The Ann Arbor News by Mayor John Hieftje: “We have another light agenda for Monday night so caucus has been cancelled for this Sunday. Enjoy the evening.”

But the way I enjoy my evenings on the Sunday before a regular city council meeting is to attend caucus. You can’t cancel the thing I enjoy and then invite me to enjoy myself. Well, you can, actually, as Mayor Hieftje proved. But you can’t do it without causing me to ask some questions. Like: How was this decision made and who makes it?

Before diving into that, let me address a possible point of skepticism in readers’ minds. I do enjoy caucus. Really, I do.

Why I Love Caucus

Caucus has grown on me since I started attending around this time last year, and threatened councilmembers who were present: I would appear at every subsequent caucus if they did not “do the right thing” in passing the right kind of backyard chicken ordinance at their upcoming meeting. Early returns on the Chronicle survey suggest that some readers are sick of reading about backyard chickens, so I’ll simply note that I don’t think they did the right thing, and the rest is history. I don’t think I’ve missed a caucus since.

I’ve come to see caucus  as a social mingling, where you get to meet some people you might not otherwise have ever heard of, or you get to meet people face to face whose names you’ve only seen on email lists. Because I’m an early arriver, often I will be the first person that a first-time attendee at caucus will encounter – and frankly I enjoy being able to say whatever welcoming words I can come up with.

I like being the guy who knows how stuff works, who can explain it to you. But I might not have a welcoming effect on everybody.  So, yes, I have contemplated the possibility that a first caucus encounter consisting of a conversation with me could very well be the reason that a person never comes back. The fact of poor public attendance – with the exception of those occasions when citizens have organized to oppose a development in a particular neighborhood – is uncontroversial.

I’ve covered all the Sunday caucus meetings for The Chronicle since it launched in early September 2008. From a professional point of view, it’s a chance to get some questions answered: I know that there’ll be at least a couple of councilmembers there, and if nothing else, there’s a built-in opportunity to build up background information, even if the facts I gather don’t make it into an article.

Also from a professional point of view, caucus is one of the easier meetings to cover. We get credit with readers  for covering it as a public meeting, even though compared to some other meetings, caucus gatherings are much easier to write up. Relatively speaking, it’s “cheap” credit with our community of readers.

But none of these reasons really represent a compelling public interest in convening a caucus meeting, if councilmembers think it’s not a useful or not an essential exercise. And I’ve discovered that some don’t think it is, either in general or at least on specific occasions.

Caucus from Council’s View

I think it’s fair to take the characterization of caucus on the city of Ann Arbor website as reflective of an “official” policy on caucus.

Caucus meetings are optional [emphasis added] meetings of the mayor and members of council to discuss and gather information on issues that are or will be coming before them for consideration. They may be partisan (the councilmembers of the same political party) or joint (councilmembers of all political parties) caucus meetings.

Caucus meetings are open to the public, and provide an opportunity for citizens to informally speak with councilmembers about items that are on the Council agenda.

Their optionality was a point that Mayor Hieftje stressed at the last caucus, pointing out to the public attending that many councilmembers had family obligations, but that such meetings were optional and not required in the way that regular council meetings were. The Chronicle recognizes the optionality of caucus by not reporting members who don’t attend as “absent.” [A question I'm following up on on a low-priority basis is to what extent regular council meetings are really "required" – if someone refused to go to any meetings, we might not re-elect them, but could we oust them before then?]

I understand from this description of caucus that it is primarily an opportunity for councilmembers themselves to discuss upcoming issues in a public setting, not necessarily those items that are on the very next meeting’s agenda.  Otherwise put, it’s an opportunity for councilmembers to talk in public with each other about the kind of emails and phone calls they’ve been receiving from constituents, how they’re approaching their information analysis on issues (like the budget), and an opportunity to educate each other on the minutia of government – like what all those rezoning items are about, or why they even need to vote on a contract to buy road salt.

It’s only a secondary function of caucus, as I understand the website’s description, that the public gets an opportunity to speak to councilmembers.

Yet it’s this secondary aspect of the caucus that seems to figure most prominently in everyone’s thinking about it, both for councilmembers and for the public. It’s rare that anyone from the public comes to caucus just to listen to councilmembers interact with each other. It’s almost always the case that members of the public are there to deliver a  roughly  three-minute oratory, even though there’s no time limit.

Some councilmembers place little value on caucus as a mechanism for receiving input from residents. For example, Leigh Greden (Ward 3) wrote in reply to an email query about caucus:

I find Caucus unproductive.  It has dissolved into an unfocused discussion about issues that are often not on the agenda and that can be better addressed with the individual member pursuing it with staff. There is minimal public participation; we’re lucky if ten people show up. I believe other Councilmembers have similar experiences, which is why attendance by Councilmembers has been so poor. In summary, I believe that Caucus is not – under any stretch of the imagination – a good vehicle for public involvement.

And Christopher Taylor (Ward 3), addressing the question of  the cancellation of a single occasion of caucus wrote:

We all email, we all phone, we all meet with essentially anyone who asks. If the public is interested in an issue, we hear about it. Caucus does play some role, but in my view its omission does not render us unaccessible or materially squelch public-council communication.

I tend to agree that if the sole function of caucus is to facilitate public-council communication then its omission on one occasion is not particularly consequential. For that matter, its complete eradication from the calendar  would not be particularly consequential. As Taylor points out, there are myriad ways that councilmembers are accessible. For example, I believe that councilmembers do make heavy use of email as an effective tool. Not just because Taylor says so, but because readers sometimes send me blind copies of messages they send to councilmembers and forward the replies they get back. Or they mention unsolicited that a councilmember has emailed them with some kind of response. For example, Carsten Hohnke has apparently taken an interest in a resident’s car-bike accident.

Deciding to Cancel

So if caucus is understood to be just one more way to receive input from the public, then it’s understandable why Mayor Hieftje would characterize it as an “easy decision” to cancel caucus for Sunday. Hieftje’s approach to the question was from the point of view of a member of the public who might show up expecting to be able to address a large collection of councilmembers and be disappointed that more had not attended.

If he knew that a large number of councilmembers would not be able to attend, Hieftje felt it was best (especially because of the light agenda) not to create a false expectation for attendees from the public that more than a few councilmembers would be present. He also stated that he thought it was a benefit to have councilmembers like Hohnke and Taylor now serving, because in the past council had not had many members with young children. And he felt it was appropriate to give them the evening off when there was an opportunity to do so. Hieftje added that he suspected that caucus stalwarts like Mike Anglin (Ward 5) and Sabra Briere (Ward 1) would appreciate a Sunday night off every once in a while.

In the case of this most recent cancellation, Taylor and Hohnke reported that they’d emailed the mayor (unsolicited) early in the week indicating they would not be able to attend due to family commitments. Anglin said that Hieftje had not inquired about his availability. Briere wrote: “I don’t know who he’s hearing from, or who is letting him know that attending Caucus – which is voluntary – isn’t a priority. However he’s polling, he isn’t asking us all, and he’s canceling it.”

Cheap Credit for Working Hard?

There are some Chronicle readers who will give the decision to cancel caucus a cynical analysis: Relieving  Hohnke and Taylor of what Hieftje called “the burden of expectation” of appearing at caucus could be a way to protect them from the criticism for their lack of appearance there – a reward for their support of the police-courts facility, and a way to prevent Briere and Anglin [who both opposed the police-courts facility] from reaping the credit for showing up to caucus, which they generally do without fail.

That’s an analysis that requires the exploration of the contents of other people’s minds, so it’s likely not productive. However,  I think if there’s a willingness to accommodate councilmembers with small children by canceling caucus, it’s worth noodling through what accommodations might be made for members of other demographics to facilitate their council service – students for example.

Based on my own observations over the last year, there is disappointment on the part of residents who show up to find only a few councilmembers present, and that disappointment is directed at those who aren’t there. Councilmembers who’ve shown up are given props just for being there. It’s “cheap” credit for working hard, but it’s available to any councilmember who wants to collect it.

I asked the mayor what his thoughts were on a policy that would cancel caucus only if there was no councilmember who was willing to guarantee they’d be there. I asked specifically if it’s not reasonable, through such a policy, for caucus stalwarts to be able to collect this “cheap” credit if they’re just willing to show up. Among the thoughts he offered along the way to an answer summarized as “I don’t know,” he mentioned the cost of the resource of opening council chambers for the meeting, as well as the suggestion that Briere and Anglin could reap the same credit by holding their own open office hours in a coffeehouse or some similar location.

Caucus Vision: Councilmembers Publicly Communicating with Each Other

I exchanged some emails with some former councilmembers about their recollections of Sunday caucus. I was struck by the mention of its value in interaction among councilmembers themselves. Wrote Jane Lumm, who served as a Republican in the  mid-1990s through the mid-2000s:

In reflecting back, I would say that the council caucus was a useful way to obtain further public and council [emphasis added] feedback on pending actions, and a way to expedite and gather our staff questions in advance of the council meeting. Compared to council meetings, caucus discussions amongst councilmembers tended, in general, to be less rigorous – but it was also not the “venue” for determining/persuading an outcome/result.

Going back to an era when Democrats felt like outsiders at the joint (Sunday) caucus, because there was a time when there was a Republican majority, Susan Greenberg, who served as a Democrat in the early 1980s, recalled:

It seems that the joint caucus developed when Ingrid [Sheldon] was mayor, but it may have started under Liz Brater. The few times I did go down when the joint caucus was in its early stages, I found it difficult to feel any part of the issue. The elected folks didn’t want to share their thoughts with the audience. I found that quite dissatisfying since often the public would like to be helpful, and can be most helpful when they know what the issues may be.

My takeaway from Greenberg’s comment is that it was frustrating for a Democratic councilmember that Republican members were reluctant to share their thoughts.

I think caucus could become a more useful tool if it were thought of primarily as a way for councilmembers share their thoughts and to do their work in a public way, and only secondarily as just  one more way to for councilmembers to receive comments from the public. It could become a real event.

Here’s what a caucus meeting template could be like:

  • Proactive Summary of Resident Input: Councilmembers begin the meeting by demonstrating to the public they’ve been reading their email and listening to phone calls, by summarizing the concerns they’ve been hearing. If councilmembers prove that they already have a thorough understanding of  residents concerns about an issue, they not only score the public relations point, but  each resident perhaps would be less likely to feel like they’ve got to deliver their full 3-minute oratory. If no are residents there, at the very least The Chronicle will be there to write down the summary.
  • Question Time: Residents asks questions of councilmembers in the way that reporters would at a press conference. But if someone wants to deliver a three-minute oratory, I don’t think anybody should stop them.
  • Board and Commission Openings: Boards and commissions are a key way that Ann Arbor residents can participate in government, and the mechanics for appointment are well known: mayoral nomination followed by council approval. Less understood is how a name is selected for nomination. This could be the opportunity to illuminate that process by discussing any terms for boards or commissions that are expiring and generating some interest and publicity around the board or commission so that people interested in serving can be made aware of openings and how they can indicate their interest: “Has anybody asked Citizen A about serving on the XYZ commission?” “I don’t know, but she lives in my ward, so I’ll float it past her.”
  • Agenda Run-Through: Every item of the Monday agenda gets at least ticked through, just to establish what the items are about. Everything. Including the most mundane sale of an easement. Probably an easement sale wouldn’t generate intense debate. But attached to that sale could be a policy change on what proceeds of land sales are used for. The fact that a vote is taken on live television doesn’t make a decision transparent. It needs at least some minimal commentary by somebody saying what it is. For example, at Sunday’s canceled caucus, some councilmember could have said: “This $5,000 for speed bumps comes from a neighborhood request. The initial plan didn’t have enough buy-in from neighbors, but the revised plan did. The relevant policies that apply are available on the web at the following URL.” That’s 10-seconds or less, and even added up over multiple agenda items, it’d be a minimal time investment.

Depending on how councilmembers approached this format for caucus, I think it could actually save them time and effort in preparation for meetings. At least some of the time that they already invest in preparation could be spent at caucus instead. Instead of councilmembers rotating responsibility for just showing up, they could rotate responsibility for the Caucus Agenda Run-Through. If some night Leigh Greden takes a turn doing the Agenda Run-Through, then on that occasion Christopher Taylor and everyone else’s burden of preparation is lessened.

I think such an approach to caucus might in itself increase public attendance.

But I think some effort on the part of council to promote and market caucus as an event would help even more.

  • The “communications from council” section of a council meeting could be used to promote caucus: “I just want to encourage everyone watching to come down to caucus on Sunday, April 5, because I’m going to be there, and I’m going to do the Agenda Run-Through.”
  • The GovDelivery email alert system could be used to promote caucus in the same way it’s used to promote other public events.
  • Individual councilmembers’ emailed updates, like the one that Carsten Hohnke rolled out recently, could be used to promote attendance at caucus.
  • Signage at city hall outside indicating to residents that caucus is convening that day, and that they’re actually in the right place.

I’ll be at the next caucus on April 5. Hope to see some unfamiliar faces there.


  1. By Tom Whitaker
    March 16, 2009 at 8:37 am | permalink

    FYI: Mike Anglin has been holding informal coffees once a month at different locations. The last one was at Washtenaw Dairy and included a free donut for attendees, courtesy of the Dairy! Unfortunately, I had to miss it, but thank you Mike (and Sabra) for making yourselves so accessible. Along with with Mike and Sabra, Carsten has also gone beyond the call of duty to be responsive and to attend our Germantown meetings when he can. We appreciate all three and hope to include the Mayor and other Councilmembers in our future events.

    With a single party in power, caucus may not seem very relevant to some on Council. I’m a Democrat, but it seems the weak turn-out indicates a lack of competition for elected offices in Ann Arbor. Or, more cynically, that Council decisions have already been made by the majority behind the scenes. That may only be a perception, but perception is about all we have to go on as humans.

    What I enjoyed about the Caucus meeting I attended in early January was that the Councilmembers were actually paying attention to the public. No one had their nose stuck in their laptop, sending IM’s back and forth like many of them do at Council meetings. (Those laptops should be closed during public hearings, at a minimum, in my opinion.) Kudos to the Mayor for not being one of these laptop kissers. His attention seems to be focused on the speakers at all times.

  2. By LauraB
    March 16, 2009 at 8:45 am | permalink

    Wow, you have gone over the deep end if you like caucus.

    What I think you are missing in all of this is that they hold it most of the time. It makes great sense to call it off when there is not much to talk about and thereby optimize the meetings when there is a lot to discuss.

    I have been to two caucuses in the past two years. At one there was a healthy debate on the issue I wanted to hear about, at the other, there were three people with nothing to say. Is that a productive use of council members time?

  3. March 16, 2009 at 9:27 am | permalink

    Sabra Briere recommended that I go to caucus when I saw her and Margie Teall at Caribou on Saturday morning when I went to pick up my Ann Arbor News there before heading to Farmer’s Market. She said it’s the best city meeting to bring your kids to.

  4. March 16, 2009 at 9:56 am | permalink

    Aren’t all of AA’s council and the mayor Democrats? Why even have a council meeting at all? The party caucus can just decide everything then eat cookies just like in the old Soviet Union. One party rule is really efficient and very cool.

  5. By Alan Goldsmith
    March 16, 2009 at 10:02 am | permalink

    “She said it’s the best city meeting to bring your kids to.”

    Even better than the Historic District Commission aruging for months on the correct color people can paint their front door?

  6. By Dave Askins
    March 16, 2009 at 10:17 am | permalink

    Re: “The party caucus can just decide everything …”

    Just wanted to clarify a point that I didn’t do a good job of bringing out in the piece: Sunday’s caucus nowadays is meant to be “joint” and non-partisan. If a Republican or a Green were to be elected to serve on council, they’d be included in the Sunday event. The quote from Jane Lumm alludes to the “joint” caucus as contrasted with the partisan caucuses that used to both exist.

  7. By Vivienne Armentrout
    March 16, 2009 at 11:05 am | permalink

    I have been watching the Chronicle’s coverage of both the council caucus and the county administrative briefing with equal parts of delight and interest. Here are my points:

    1. It has been a great window on the real discussions that go on behind decisions. Thanks for this coverage.

    2. However, it may be an example (by analogy) of the “observer effect” sometimes called the Heisenberg principle. That is, by observing and recording these meetings, you are altering them and perturbing their real function, which is informal and unofficial discussions prior to the official meeting. The more you report what is actually said, the less the elected officials involved will conduct an open discussion. I predict that there will be several defensive moves similar to the cancellation of this week’s caucus. At a minimum, officials will learn to be close-lipped and will conduct their real discussions by other means.

    3. Though the two meetings seem similar, they are not identical. The Administrative briefing is really an agenda review (for the Board of Commissioners) meeting, conducted by the administrator, and sometimes items are dropped from the agenda or altered because of unfavorable response. It was not designed for public input. The caucus is actually a completely unofficial meeting that began as you have described, with the embattled Democratic minority of the time. It is the one forum with open exchange between councilmembers and citizens.

    4. The two meetings have moved to adhere to the Open Meetings Act in different ways. The AB is posted, the door is left open, and a record is kept by staff of who attended and what the topics of discussion were. There is an opportunity for public comment though that is not the purpose of the meeting. All those are accommodations of the OMA from what began as a private meeting. The caucus mostly ignores the Open Meetings Act. It is posted, but that is about it – unless things have changed, no record is kept. Sometimes in the past actual deliberation was occurring, contrary to the Act since no minutes were kept.

    I think it will be interesting to see whether the tradition of the caucus endures. It is contrary to the current culture of placing barriers between the council’s activities and the public. And there is no formal requirement that it take place.

  8. By LauraB
    March 16, 2009 at 11:28 am | permalink

    Vivienne: It doesn’t look like caucus is in danger of going away or that anyone is trying to place any “barriers.” Why would they hold a meeting when there is little or nothing to discuss and 3 or 4 people “might” attend.

    It’s a waste of time for all involved except maybe Dave who seems to love it but then that’s his job and he does it well.

  9. March 16, 2009 at 11:36 am | permalink

    You forgot to mention the best part….. free homemade chocolates!


  10. By Joan Lowenstein
    March 16, 2009 at 12:42 pm | permalink

    I attended Caucus in the days when there were separate party caucuses and when we decided to join them since there was only 1 Republican. It was often a useful opportunity to discuss issues together in public (as required by the Open Meetings Act)and to hear from constituents. That being said, a virtual caucus may be more efficient. That is, as has been mentioned, when constituents email or call councilmembers and when councilmember send “caucus questions” to the administrator to get additional information that is needed to make decisions on agenda items. Councilmembers often refer to these caucus questions in discussions at council meetings.

    My younger son always referred to my Sunday evening meetings as “carcass,” which may be apt at this point.

  11. By Steve Bean
    March 18, 2009 at 12:31 am | permalink

    Vivienne, your prediction seems to be a pessimistic (if not cynical) view. Dave presented a more optimistic view. The key is not how council members respond to his challenge, but how we citizens do. We can choose to not follow their lead, but they have little choice not to follow ours.

    As Joan said, caucus is an opportunity. For those that see it as a waste of time, it’s a lost one. For those who make the most of it, it can be a realized one.

    I appreciate your pro-democracy thinking, Dave, with one exception: the characterization of council members earning or scoring “points”. I think a more positive one, maybe referencing service or responsibility, is possible.

    By the way, the environmental commission is the exception to the rule. Council, not the mayor, nominates new members. We currently have one open seat.

  12. By Steve Bean
    March 18, 2009 at 12:40 am | permalink

    Following up on another of Joan’s thoughts, the technology exists to do better than email in terms of a virtual meeting. A WebEx or similar setup (I’m sure other readers know more about them than I do) could provide visuals and also allow for audio via phone for those without a computer (though access is available at the library branches.)

  13. By My two cents
    March 18, 2009 at 10:45 am | permalink

    “The more you report what is actually said, the less the elected officials involved will conduct an open discussion.”

    Vivianne, I actually think the chronichles coverage will encourage open discussion.

    If people think their comments are going to be quoted accurately and not “spun” by the “anti-whatever-the-issue-is” crowd they will feel more comfortable about being more open. The public can reads their words and actually decide for themselves what their intentions are. There have been too many times in the past when I have watched council, understood what everyone’s viewpoints were and then heard local activists “spin” the comments into nothing that resembled the original comment.

    (Of course this also depends on neutral reporting which the chronichle has done a good job on so far.)

  14. By Vivienne Armentrout
    March 18, 2009 at 2:01 pm | permalink

    I agree that the Chronicle has done an excellent job of neutral and complete reporting, and I rejoice in it.

    The only prediction I made was this: “there will be several defensive moves similar to the cancellation of this week’s caucus. At a minimum, officials will learn to be close-lipped and will conduct their real discussions by other means.” My advantage is that the second sentence can’t be proved or disproved. As to the first sentence, if the council does substitute a web-based question and answer session for the current face-to-face caucus, my point will have been won. “Efficiency” is not the value here.

    Here’s a quote from Sydney J. Harris: “An idealist believes the short run doesn’t count. A cynic believes the long run doesn’t matter. A realist believes that what is done or left undone in the short run determines the long run.” I am squarely pegged in the realist slot.

  15. By Dusty
    March 18, 2009 at 4:43 pm | permalink

    I don’t get the point some are trying to make.
    The council had a couple of “light agendas” so they called off the caucus which all acknowledge is attended by only a few citizens when there is not much going on as with a “light agenda.”

    This seems like a smart move. Have the caucus when there is something to talk about. Take a break when there is not. Why wear people out? This applies to both council members and citizens.

    Must be the economy, people are so uptight.

  16. By Steve Bean
    March 18, 2009 at 5:35 pm | permalink

    Dusty, one possibility for why you don’t get it is that you’re making an assumption and a generalization. The assumption is that a light agenda means that there’s nothing to talk about. There’s always something (of value) to discuss–no need to limit our thinking to what’s on this week’s agenda.

    The generalization (perhaps overlaying another assumption) is that the meeting has the potential to “wear people out”. The obvious exception is Dave. He clearly stated that he likes attending. Other possible exceptions (and particularly relevant if you were referring specifically to council members) include Briere and Anglin. Finally, those “few citizens” presumably would be attending for a reason. The meeting apparently has a value for them beyond what they could get from some phone calls or other alternatives–Greden’s inability to stretch his imagination notwithstanding. For them, the particular Sunday in question may also be a rare opportunity for a face-to-face discussion with council members.

    Rather than taking a passive stance on caucus, Greden could find a way to make it productive or else proactively steer potential citizen attendees to a better “vehicle for public involvement”, whatever he believes that to be.

    I think it would be reasonable for the mayor to poll the council members as Briere alluded to.

    Okay, Vivienne, if your prediction wasn’t pessimistic, can we call it narrowly realistic? ;-)

  17. By Dusty
    March 18, 2009 at 6:20 pm | permalink

    OK, I’ll accept that a few people may have things they want to talk about and they don’t want to pursue the other approaches, email, coffees, and I think the mayor still has open office hours every week or whatever. So if only a few council members can be there, and only a few citizens who don’t want to pursue the other methods may or may not come, is that a productive use of time?

    I still ask what is wrong with doing what they do now and have caucus most of the time and skip it when it is slow?

  18. By my two cents
    March 18, 2009 at 8:33 pm | permalink

    I agree with Dusty. We are a city of over 100,000 residents and 5 people might show up at caucus in a good week. If the councilmembers respond to emails, have coffee hours and use other methods to respond to the residents complaints than it is not only inefficient, but actually quite a waste of time to mandate an open meeting for an average of 5 residents. It should only be optional.

    I thought caucus was held so that there could be a more in depth and informal discussion about agenda topics. It was not supposed to be used for a meet and greet of the council members. If the agenda is light for that week then it is should be completely acceptable to cancel caucus. Councilmembers can and do to set up their own office hours or coffee hours with their constituents.

    If the city ran all the city departments in such a wasteful manner, there would be uproar over the waste.

    Their are many alternative ways to get in touch with your councilmember to discuss issues, so there is no true loss of contact, unless of course the residents purpose is to make statements in front of a crowd and grandstand. But you can do that at the actual council meeting.

  19. By Steve Bean
    March 18, 2009 at 11:09 pm | permalink

    The logical conclusion to the first paragraph of #18 is not that caucus should be optional, but rather that it shouldn’t be held at all. If it’s inefficient for 5 citizens to meet with several council members it must be even less efficient for more citizens to meet with more council members. So maybe it’s not about efficiency.

    Maybe it’s–in part–about the value of having more than two people in a discussion. Maybe for some people it’s about having time on Sunday evening but not during the week when coffees and office hours are held. I have to say “maybe” because I can’t speak for 100,000+ people. Can you?

    In my limited experience it’s not about grandstanding. And, yes, the last caucus I attended with four council members (including the mayor) and about six or seven residents (including Dave) was productive. The mayor facilitates well and there’s little off-topic chit chat.

    Dusty, it’s less a matter of what they do than of how they do it. Who decides and how? Is it the mayor’s caucus or the council’s caucus? If one council member wants to sit in council chambers for ten minutes to see if anyone shows up, that’s their business.

    Do you two really object to the possibility of a little more democracy by willing participants? If there are no willing participants (from council), of course it would/should get cancelled. However, that’s not what’s being discussed because no evidence has been presented that that’s been the case and no one has argued against such an obvious decision.

  20. By My two cents
    March 19, 2009 at 8:32 am | permalink

    I don’t object to caucus being held as optional, but would like to see it not become mandatory. There is a difference. If there were no other options and this meeting was the only way for someone to discuss issues with their councilmember, then, yes, it would be absolutely necessary, but this is not the case.

    The caucus has always been optional it is not a new idea. While some of you may think mandatory is better, what does that actually accomplish? Residents have access to group discussions throughout the city and can organize their own meetings and invite the mayor/councilmembers ( yes, they do show up-at least in the 4th ward they have). What is the real intent of making this mandatory? I am results orientated person. If there is not an increase in productivity or attainment of goals, then it is most likely not necessary.

    Some have wanted to make it appear that certain councilmembers are shirking their duties by not attending, while implying that other councilmembers are more dedicated. This is a political game and does not have to do with democracy. As long as councilmembers are accessible to the residents of Ann Arbor that is all that matters.

    Keep in mind that city council is supposed to be a part time job. (I actually wonder how many hours they really put in) Most of these people hold a full time job and have families with children along with their city council service. If we keep mandating more and more hours from them, our city council will be comprised of all retirees. We should avoid wasting people’s time so that people who are willing to serve, can, without having too much hardship put upon them due to unnecessary meetings.

    If caucus became mandatory, I don’t like the fact that I would have to follow two official meetings to keep up on issues in the city. If Monday night city council is the official mandatory meeting, I know that all relevant public discussion will be at the meeting. If you mandate the caucus, some things will be discussed there, considered by the council, and might not be brought up at the Monday night council. Sunday night caucus will then need to be televised so that all are informed.

  21. By Vivienne Armentrout
    March 19, 2009 at 9:01 am | permalink

    Two Cents is onto something there. Perhaps I put it too delicately earlier, but this unofficial event is a strange hybrid that does not conform to our laws. Its value has been that citizens can communicate without the severe constraints of the public meeting,(for example, council can ask them questions and get answers) but to the extent that any deliberation takes place, it invokes the need for Open Meetings Act requirements. I remember when a consultant from outside the city praised the council for the good discussion “at the working session”. He was referring to the caucus – developers used to take that opportunity to make a pitch. People on council looked embarrassed, as they might have.

  22. By Juliew
    March 19, 2009 at 9:41 am | permalink

    Personally, I think caucus should be abolished, or should be made more official, with television coverage, agenda, published minutes, invitations to those who were sent notices about an agenda item, and so on. It definitely favors those “in the know” in any agenda item going before Council. I first learned of it after a Council meeting when we had gotten up to speak our allotted three minutes and found out the developers of the project we were speaking against had not only had unlimited access to staff prior to the Council meeting, but they had also had several hours in front of Council at caucus the day before, where the issue had essentially already been decided. It was pretty shocking to hear lots of discussion during the Council meeting of how they had already addressed the whole plan at caucus when we had no idea such a thing even existed. I really don’t understand the purpose of caucus and why the issues brought up there can’t be brought up at a regular Council meeting. If it is a place for Council members to talk about issues, perhaps that would be better addressed during the working group sessions. As caucus currently stands, I think it is a detriment to most citizens, not a help.

  23. By Steve Bean
    March 19, 2009 at 2:53 pm | permalink

    MTC, I don’t see that anyone has argued for making caucus mandatory. You’re the first commenter to use that word. I also haven’t seen any comments questioning the dedication of any council members or lauding some over others. It’s all been descriptive and thoughtful, not judgmental, in my opinion.

    Why would you feel differently about the need to keep up with it if it were mandatory, but not if it were optional (which, again, it is)?

    Vivienne, my understanding of the OMA is that it doesn’t apply if a quorum isn’t present. That’s not meant to be an argument, just a clarification. I suppose the potential value of considering that might be that council could have (up to) five slots for caucus attendance, depending on what the purpose of caucus is ultimately determined to be. I wonder what council attendance has been historically over the last ten years or so.

    Julie, what do you think about Dave’s proposal?

  24. By Vivienne Armentrout
    March 19, 2009 at 3:10 pm | permalink

    I’d like to hear JulieW’s response, but meanwhile I’ll comment that Dave’s proposal would in fact move the caucus toward being a real meeting, so that it would require OMA refinements and whether mandatory or not make it more difficult for councilmembers to miss.

    Steve, it might be possible to adhere to the letter of the law with OMA by staggering attendance, etc. but that would not meet the spirit of the law, which is meant to ensure that discussions amounting to deliberation of an issue are recorded and open. It could also prove to be unworkable, since some councilmembers might wish to be present when a particular issue was discussed and it was not their “turn”.

    When I was on the BOC, we instituted a caucus for a while – it was meant for Democratic commissioners but a Republican attended sometimes without incident. We posted it (with an agenda ahead of time) and kept minutes. I don’t recall any member of the public attending and it didn’t get much attention. We discussed having these meetings with a subquorum but on the advice and with the wisdom of our corporation counsel, we decided to play it above board.

  25. By My two cents
    March 19, 2009 at 3:56 pm | permalink

    The above article requests that caucus be a main event, which implies a real scheduled meeting where everyone is expected to attend, which in my mind, implies that it will be mandatory.

    It just does not seem right to have a meeting labeled optional, skirt around the OMA and pressure people to attend (but of course, not all attend together.

    As for Dave’s proposal, couldn’t all those things be incorporated into the monday council meeting.