Column: Let’s Park This Meeting on Thursday

Parks charter amendment: higher degree of difficulty than mtg schedule

This year, primary elections fall on Tuesday, Aug. 7. So reflecting its habit and custom, the Ann Arbor city council will be meeting on Thursday, Aug. 9 this week, instead of following the more typical first-and-third-Monday-of-the-month pattern.

The Thursday meeting custom for election-day weeks appears to be traceable to the city charter and the council’s own rules – but a close reading of those documents indicates that the council should probably be convening a regular meeting on Monday, not Thursday.

And that’s ironic – because the importance of close reading, with attention to details of possible new charter language, could actually be a theme of Thursday’s meeting agenda.

Most prominently, the council’s deliberations could include a discussion of the exact language for a proposed charter amendment on parkland protections, which the council might choose to place on the Nov. 6 ballot. As considered at the council’s previous meeting, on July 16, 2012, the possible charter amendment would require that certain long-term leasing arrangements on city parkland be subject to a voter referendum. In 2008, voters had already approved a charter amendment that subjects any sale of parkland to a popular vote.

On July 16, the council had postponed action on the proposed ballot resolution until its Aug. 9 meeting. In arguing for postponement, some councilmembers cited a desire to have the city’s park advisory commission (PAC) weigh in on the proposed amendment. PAC will convene a meeting on Aug. 8 to consider the matter, and to make a recommendation to the city council.

Another reason given for postponement was the need to examine more closely the meaning and practical significance of the charter amendment language. And in the interim, councilmembers and staff have been mulling additional contractual arrangements on parkland – which could be explicitly added to the charter amendment’s text. Among those arrangements would be any contracts for construction of buildings on parkland that are not “customarily incidental to the principal use and enjoyment of such land.”

If the council chooses to postpone the resolution again, it could vote at its Aug. 20 meeting to place the parks charter amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot, and still meet the statutory deadline for certifying ballot language to the county clerk.

I’ll predict that the council postpones the resolution again, until Aug. 20. And I don’t think that would be an unreasonable outcome for the Aug. 9 meeting. Compared to the annual scheduling of regular city council meetings, the parkland charter amendment deals with topics that are far more complex. And it’s just a way bigger deal.

If the language in the council rules for scheduling meetings can be muddled – enough so that the council has not been interpreting the rule as written – then it’s easy to imagine that the parkland charter amendment could easily be muddled, too. So I think the wording of a charter amendment on parkland deserves the kind of discussion by councilmembers and vetting by the public that would result from robust deliberations on Aug. 9, followed by a vote on Aug. 20.

Spoiler alert: If you don’t want to know the result of the city council’s deliberations on Aug. 9, don’t tune in to CTN Channel 16 and don’t watch it stream live over the Internet on Thursday, starting at 7 p.m. Just watch the Olympics on NBC instead. If you do choose to view the live council proceedings, or attend in person, please note that no medals will be awarded – despite the intense all-around competition in verbal gymnastics.

After the jump, I lay out what the city charter and the council rules have to say about city council regular meeting times. 

Meeting Calendar

Toward the end of each year, the city council votes on a resolution that establishes its regular meeting schedule for the next calendar year. Last year that vote took place at the council’s Dec. 5, 2011 meeting.

That schedule provided for meetings on Aug. 9 and Nov. 8, instead of the Aug. 6 and Nov. 5 dates that would be expected, given the regular pattern – that council meetings are held on the first (and third) Monday of the month.

City Charter Requirements

The city charter does not prescribe that the meetings be held on Monday or any other day. But it does require at least two meetings a month, and it sets forth a remedy, in case a regular meeting happens to fall on a holiday. That remedy is this: Hold the meeting on the next “secular day,” unless the holiday is an election day. If the holiday – on which the regular meeting date falls – is an election day, then the charter prescribes that the council’s meeting would be held on the following Thursday.

Meetings of the Council
(a) The Council shall fix the time and place of its regular meetings and shall hold at least two regular meetings in each month. If any day prescribed for a regular meeting of the Council is a holiday, such regular meeting shall be held at the same time and place on the next secular day, except that when such holiday is an election day, the meeting shall be held on the following Thursday. [Ann Arbor City Charter]

Just to illustrate, based on the Ann Arbor city charter it would be possible for a city council to set a schedule of regular meetings where the pattern is this: Hold city council meetings on the first and third Tuesday of the month. If that were the pattern, then the charter prescribes two different ways of dealing with regular Tuesday meetings scheduled for holidays. If July 4 falls on a Tuesday, then the Tuesday meeting should be held one day later, on Wednesday, July 5. But for a regular meeting that fell on election day, the charter would  prescribe that the meeting be held two days later, on a Thursday.

There’s no charter requirement that has the impact of moving a regular Monday meeting to a Thursday during the week of an election. Nor is there a charter provision allowing for such a change after the regular meeting times have been fixed.

Council Rule Requirements

So what does the set of formal city council rules have to say about meeting times? It’s the council rules (not the city charter) that prescribe first and third Mondays as the regular meeting time. And the rule appears intended to mimic exactly the wording of the city charter – because it includes a provision about what to do in the event that an election day is involved [emphasis added]:

RULE 1 – Time of Council Meetings.
Regular meetings of the Ann Arbor city council shall be held on the first and third Monday of the month at 7:00 p.m., in the council chamber at city hall. When the date for a regular council meeting falls on a holiday the meeting shall be held the next secular day (Tuesday), except during an election day, when it will be held on Thursday of that week. [Council Rules]

The wording that I highlighted is, I think, an attempt to make the council rule parallel to the city charter – without due attention to the practical effect and likely intent of the charter requirement. Further, as its written the council rule cannot reasonably be interpreted to mean what the council has for several years taken it to mean – that during an election-day week, a regular Monday meeting will move to the following Thursday.

So what is the practical effect of the charter requirement? It ensures that when a regular council meeting falls on an election day, then that meeting gets moved two days later, to a Thursday. So for the framers of the city charter, two factors were apparently important: (1) meetings shouldn’t be held on election day; and (2) meetings shouldn’t be held the day immediately following election day. It’s (2) that distinguishes election days from other holidays, which can have meetings immediately following them. The framers of the charter did not appear to mind if a meeting was held the day immediately before an election.

But a regular Monday meeting regime, as stated in the council rule, would never result in a regular meeting falling on election day – because election day is always on a Tuesday. So the charter itself doesn’t allow or require shifting a regular Monday meeting to a Thursday when it is followed by an election day.

What about the council’s rule – does it require or allow shifting a regular Monday meeting to a Thursday, if it’s followed by a Tuesday election day? Well, no.

That’s because the logical condition set forth in the rule – which must be met before applying any of the changes in regular meeting scheduling – is not, in fact, met. Take Aug. 6 as an example. That’s the date of the regular meeting that would result from the first-and-third-Monday pattern in the first part of the rule. The condition is this: “When the date for a regular council meeting falls on a holiday…” But Aug. 6 is not a holiday. So for evaluating  the regular Monday meeting date of Aug. 6, we can safely ignore everything that follows that unmet condition.

When would the italicized portion of the council rule apply? Theoretically, it would apply whenever there is a Monday holiday immediately preceding a Tuesday election day. Then, the “when” condition would be met, and the meeting would, by rights, be shifted to the next day, Tuesday – but the “except” clause would push that meeting to Thursday.

Language Reflecting Actual Practice

It’s possible that what the council rule’s authors were really trying to achieve was a prescription for what’s become the actual custom and practice – a provision that for election-day weeks, the meeting would always be shifted from Monday to Thursday. The somewhat odd phrasing “during an election day” is a clue that perhaps the work of authorship was left in an unfinished state. Here’s some wording that would reflect the current custom and practice:

RULE 1 – Time of Council Meetings.
Regular meetings of the Ann Arbor city council shall be held on the first and third Monday of the month at 7:00 p.m., in the council chamber at city hall. When the date for a regular council meeting falls on a holiday the meeting shall be held the next secular day. When the date for a regular council meeting falls during an election-day week, the council meeting will be held on Thursday of that week.

Why did I just invest 2,000 words in the arcana of the city council meeting schedule?

My point is this: If it’s a challenge to craft clear language for setting regular meeting dates, then for crying out loud, it’s an even greater challenge to craft clear language that accurately captures citizens’ expectations for public participation in decisions about parkland.

So I will not mind if the council takes the Aug. 9 meeting just to thrash through alternatives to conditions and wording of the proposed parkland charter amendment – and establishes as a goal for that meeting to settle on draft language that citizens can study between then and Aug. 20.

That’s time enough for citizens to read it, understand it, and weigh in with their elected representatives for or against placing the question on the ballot.

By Aug. 20, it’s reasonable to expect a council vote on the resolution.

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