Conan Smith, chair of the county board, began Wednesday’s meeting with an announcement: “This will be the last administrative briefing.”
Administrative briefings have been held for about a decade, taking place a week before the board’s regular meetings, which are scheduled for the first and third Wednesday of each month. They are public but informal, held in a small conference room at the county’s downtown Ann Arbor administration building – not in the boardroom. The meetings, which usually last no longer than an hour, are focused on reviewing the upcoming agenda for the back-to-back Ways & Means Committee meeting and regular board meeting the following week.
Several commissioners say they benefit from the discussions that emerge at these briefings. But Ronnie Peterson, who has never attended because of his objections to the format, has been a vocal critic, calling them “backroom” meetings where deliberations occur that he believes are too far out of the public eye – even though they conform to the Open Meetings Act.
He raised the issue again at the Feb. 16 board meeting, which resulted in a lengthy debate about whether administrative briefings and the board’s budget retreats are sufficiently accessible to the public. The outcome of that debate was a vote at the Feb. 16 meeting to hold future retreats after the board’s regular working sessions – both would be televised. However, an attempt to relocate and televise administrative briefings failed, with support only from Peterson, Kristin Judge and Wes Prater.
On Wednesday, Smith – who on Feb. 16 argued for keeping the administrative briefings unchanged – said that after discussions with county administrator Verna McDaniel, they had decided to eliminate the briefings in favor of a weekly agenda-setting meeting with staff and just three commissioners: Smith, as board chair; Rolland Sizemore Jr., chair of the Ways & Means Committee; and Yousef Rabhi, chair of the working sessions. Because the meeting will not involve a quorum of commissioners, it will not be required to be open to the public.
McDaniel told commissioners that the briefings had begun under the previous administration – led by Bob Guenzel, who retired in May of 2010 – as a way for the three chairs and three vice chairs of the board, Ways & Means Committee and working sessions to touch base prior to the official meetings. The briefings began when the board consisted of 15 commissioners, so the gathering of six board leaders did not constitute a quorum.
However, when redistricting occurred after the 2000 census and the number of districts decreased to 11, six commissioners then constituted a quorum, and the meetings were required to be open to the public. Other commissioners began attending as well. [The Chronicle has attended nearly all of the briefings since this publication launched in September 2008. The meetings are rarely attended by members of the public or other media.]
Smith pointed out that the briefings have been a point of contention in the past, when they were cited in one of the complaints in a 2006 lawsuit filed against the county by the townships of Ypsilanti, Salem and Augusta over the cost of police services. The lawsuit claimed that the notice of meetings weren’t properly posted under the state’s Open Meetings Act because the notices didn’t indicate that a quorum of commissioners might attend. [Notices now state: "A quorum of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners may be present at this meeting."]
Smith said that eliminating the briefings is a way to address concerns that had been raised by Peterson, Judge and Prater at the Feb. 16 board meeting. Among other things, the three had argued that since deliberations occurred during the briefings, those discussions should be more easily available to the public – for example, by being conducted in the county boardroom, where the meetings can be televised on Community Television Network, simulcast on the county’s website and posted for replay online. They were particularly concerned about this as the board pursues strategies to eliminate a projected $20.9 million budget deficit for 2012 and 2013, and as the administration enters into negotiations with the 17 union bargaining units representing county employees.
At the Feb. 16 meeting, Leah Gunn had proposed instituting new rules that would curtail deliberations at the briefings, as one way to deal with the concerns. During that Feb. 16 meeting, corporation counsel Curtis Hedger advised her to bring the proposal forward at the next Ways & Means Committee meeting, on March 2. [Resolutions are considered and voted on first at Ways & Means, a committee on which all commissioners serve and which meets immediately prior to the regular board meetings.]
Ultimately, Smith said he and McDaniel felt a better solution would be to eliminate the briefings. At the Feb. 23 briefing, Smith said they’d rely on Rabhi – as chair of the working sessions – to make sure those meetings filled the gap in dialogue, and he encouraged the rest of the board to speak up if they felt there was something that needed more discussion.
Smith also told his colleagues that he knew this wasn’t an ideal solution. “I love these meetings,” he said, referring to the briefings.
Rob Turner – one of the board’s four new commissioners, who took office in January – agreed, saying he enjoyed the briefings and was going to miss them. He’d made similar statements that the Feb. 16 board meeting, arguing to keep the informal nature of the discussions. Because commissioners could ask questions of staff at the briefings, it cut down on the amount of time questioning them at the more formal board meetings, which are conducted according to Robert’s Rules of Order.
Sizemore also said he found the briefings useful, and said he feared that eliminating them would make the board meetings much longer.
Rabhi suggested an alternative – changing the board rules to codify the briefings, making them one of the official meetings of the commissioners. The rules now include a list of official meetings of the board, but the briefings are not among those cited. [.pdf file of board rules] But Smith said the crucial issue would remain: How to accommodate all the many and competing interests that were raised regarding the briefings.
Smith said if the new approach doesn’t work out or if any of the commissioners feel they aren’t getting what they need, they could revisit the issue. “It’s our calendar to build or deconstruct as we like,” he said.
Joanna Bidlack, who as a staff member with the administrator’s office leads the briefings, pointed out that the board had previously approved the 2011 calendar of meetings, which included administrative briefings. Rather than post a cancellation of each meeting for the rest of the year, she proposed bringing forward a resolution at their next meeting to revise the calendar, without the briefings.
Smith told commissioners that in lieu of the briefings, the three chairs would meet with administrative staff, then Bidlack would send out a draft agenda with explanatory notes during the week prior to their board meeting.
The Feb. 23 Briefing: A Summary
In addition to the discussion about the briefing itself, the Feb. 23 meeting focused on – as it typically does – a review of the agendas for the upcoming meetings of the Ways & Means Committee, regular board and working session. The first two meetings will be held back-to-back on March 2; the working session is the following evening, March 3.
Bidlack led the group through the three agendas, providing background information on each item.
Three resolutions will be considered at the Ways & Means Committee meeting, all of them related to federal funding that requires board approval to accept on behalf of the county’s Employment Training & Community Services (ETCS) department:
- $141,409 in federal funding for the Food Assistance Employment and Training Program, which is expected to serve over 100 residents.
- $1.161 million in federal and state funds for the Jobs, Education and Training (JET) program, which last year provided over 1,400 residents with job placement and other services.
- $148,532 in federal funding from the Workforce Investment Act for job-training and job search services.
In addition, the Ways & Means agenda includes a presentation by Kirk Profit, director of Governmental Consultant Services Inc., a Lansing-based lobbying firm employed by the county and several other local governments. Profit originally had been scheduled to address the board at their last board meeting, during the same week that Gov. Rick Snyder released his proposed state budget. Commissioners requested that his presentation be rescheduled, to allow time for Profit and his staff to assess the budget and its possible impact on the county, including changes to state shared revenue.
At Wednesday’s briefing, McDaniel told commissioners that they should let Profit know if there are any key issues they want him to address during his presentation.
“Money,” quipped Sizemore.
In reviewing the agenda for the regular board meeting, only one item drew discussion: a resolution to recognize that the United Way of Washtenaw County is a local nonprofit, and authorizing the county clerk to complete a form from the state’s charitable gaming division.
Corporation counsel Curtis Hedger explained to the board that the resolution is required by the state’s Bingo Act in order for the United Way to hold a charitable fundraiser that includes gambling. It’s extremely rare that these kinds of requests come to the county board – typically, they are handled by the local municipalities where the events will be held. Dan Smith, who previously served on the Northfield Township board of trustees, and Alicia Ping, a former Saline city councilmember, both reported getting multiple requests of this kind each year. When Smith asked why the county board was being approached instead, McDaniel said it’s because she and Sandy Rupp, executive director of the local United Way, are “buddies.”
Some commissioners expressed mild concern about the aspect of gambling, and Hedger clarified that the county was not accepting any responsibility for the event itself. Rabhi recalled that he had been involved in a similar fundraiser for another nonprofit, and described it as “the sketchiest thing I’ve ever been a part of.”
Prater also weighed in, saying, “If I were that organization, I’d be a little concerned about the image it conveys.” Rabhi agreed, adding “but that’s their problem.”
Gunn noted that the event was to raise money for charity.
“I know it’s for charity,” Prater said, “but it’s still gambling.”
The last agenda reviewed at the Feb. 23 briefing was for the March 3 working session, which includes two main items: (1) a closed executive session to discuss labor strategy, and (2) a wrap-up of the board’s budget retreat discussions.
The board had been briefed at its Feb. 17 working session about upcoming labor negotiations. Diane Heidt, the county’s human resources and labor relations director who gave that presentation, had told commissioners that she’d be talking with them at the March 3 working session to get some parameters for her and other staff to use in negotiations, as well as to talk about their general labor relations strategy.
The retreat discussion previously had been scheduled to follow the administrative briefing. [The board has held two budget retreats earlier this year: for five hours on Saturday, Jan. 29, and for two hours following the Feb. 9 administrative briefing.] But the final retreat was rescheduled following a debate at the board’s Feb. 16 meeting, when Peterson argued that it should be held in the boardroom and televised.
The working session will also include a board discussion on how to engage staff and the community in developing the county’s 2012-2013 budget.