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.