Column: City Council as Entertainment

"... a city council meeting probably falls somewhat short of the Netflix series 'House of Cards' or the ABC series 'Scandal.' That's actually OK with me – because journalists in those dramas have been shoved in front of trains and shot dead on the street."

About the author: Dave Askins is editor and co-founder of The Ann Arbor Chronicle. He’s covered  every Ann Arbor city council meeting since September 2008.


This is a mock-up of how the city of Ann Arbor might provide a text box with councilmember amended text in real time, just underneath the online CTN video stream of council meetings. (Art by The Chronicle.)

If you’ve never watched an Ann Arbor city council meeting in person or on Community Television Network, you really should give it a try sometime. The next chance to watch your local elected officials in action is April 7, 2014 with a scheduled start of 7 p.m.

As an entertainment option, I’d allow that a city council meeting probably falls somewhat short of the Netflix series “House of Cards” or the ABC series “Scandal.” That’s actually OK with me – because journalists in those dramas have been shoved in front of trains and shot dead on the street.

But any long-running TV series is more entertaining to watch if you understand exactly what is going on. If you have elderly eyes, for example, you might not be able to see if that text message Frank Underwood received was from Zoe Barnes or Olivia Pope. It makes an episode hard to follow, if you don’t know who sent Underwood that text message.

One of the hardest parts of a city council meeting to follow – even if you are well-versed in the subject matter – is any deliberation featuring wordsmithing of amendments to text.

So in the interest of making Ann Arbor city council meetings more entertaining, I’d like to propose a simple step toward helping the viewing public understand exactly what’s going on: Let the public see amended text in real time.

How could councilmembers, in real time, make visible to the public proposed amendments to text already under consideration?

An easy technical solution already exists.

It’s free, and it requires no registration or creation of user accounts. And it’s not Google Drive.

How Does Text Currently Get Shared?

As city councilmembers debate a resolution or an ordinance, it sometimes happens that someone will propose an amendment. Sometimes that amendment is so substantial that it amounts to a substitute for an entire paragraph (or more) of text. Other times, it’s a matter of striking a word or a phrase.

The council has an established procedure during a meeting for sharing among members of the council proposed amendments to text: email. The council rule allowing this electronic communication reads as follows [emphasis added]:

Rule 8: Council Conduct of Discussion and Debate

Electronic communication during Council meetings shall pertain only to City matters. During Council meetings, members shall not send electronic communication to persons other than City Staff; provided however, that members may send draft motions, resolutions, and amendments to all members. Members shall not respond to member-distributed draft language via electronic communication. All draft language sent by electronic communication during Council meetings shall be read into the record prior to discussion by Council.

How is the viewing public supposed to follow along? The media might be able to help disseminate fresh text; however, councilmembers are prohibited by rule from emailing the media during the meeting.

Still, in the past Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5) has simply flouted that rule, at the same time announcing that he was breaking the rule, in the interest of providing greater accessibility to the council’s work. From the Nov. 18, 2013 live updates filed by The Chronicle during council deliberations on a revision to the ordinance regulating the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority’s TIF capture:

10:47 p.m. Lumm is reciting the reason she’s supportive of the ordinance. It’ll mean a 55% growth in TIF for the DDA over the next three years. She thinks it would have been better to impose the cap sooner so that sharing with the other jurisdictions would have began sooner. [Lumm's voice is failing her – she sounds under the weather.]

10:48 p.m. Warpehoski says he’s violating council rules to share the amendments with the media.

10:49 p.m. Eaton says he would have preferred a lower cap and a shorter term limit, but applauds the effort of the committee. Taylor says he won’t support it. The DDA has proven itself as a reliable steward of taxpayer funding. He recites familiar arguments in support of the DDA.

More recently, that approach has been eschewed in favor of one that abides by the letter of the council rule: Councilmembers have on occasion emailed the city clerk  and requested that the clerk disseminate the new text to the media.

Whether it is a councilmember or the city clerk who sends an email to the media during a meeting, that’s a pretty clunky way to proceed. In actual practice that probably results in at least a 10-minute delay between the council’s access to the new text and the public’s access to it.

Besides the delay, I don’t think members of the public should be required to rely on the media as an intermediary in order to understand exactly what is going on during their local city council’s meeting.

How Could Text Be Shared in Real Time?

My guess is there are several technical approaches that would allow any councilmember to dump some text into a box on their computer screen so that it would immediately become visible to everyone else – on the city council or in the public.

The specific solution that I stumbled across is stunning in its elegance: WriteURL. It’s a solution brought to you by a couple of guys with a Swedish address with Swedish-looking names.

The whole approach would be based on the existence of two URLs. One URL would be known to those who have editing privileges (councilmembers) for a document. The other URL would be known to people who just want to watch text in the document change in real time.

Here are five easy steps that would establish a suitable sharing environment provided by WriteURL:

  1. Do not create accounts or user names or establish passwords of any kind.
  2. City clerk visits WriteURL website and clicks once to create a new document.
  3. City clerk names the new document something like “Council Meeting Scratch.”
  4. City clerk sends the writeable access URL for “Council Meeting Scratch” to all councilmembers.
  5. City clerk includes readable-only access URL of “Council Meeting Scratch” as part of the meeting agenda information packet that is disseminated to the public.

As a demo, I created a document called “Council Meeting Scratch.” Here’s the URL for the read-only access version: “Council Meeting Scratch.”

That kind of read-only URL would not depend on The Ann Arbor Chronicle or any other media outlet. Of course, The Chronicle would likely want to embed a view of that read-only document in our live-updates that we typically file from council meetings, something like this:

And as the lead art for this article suggests, the city of Ann Arbor might provide that same kind of embedding on the city’s website, in conjunction with the online live video stream of council meetings.

In conclusion, yes, I know that Frank Underwood would never receive a text message from Olivia Pope, because she’s in “Scandal” and he’s in “House of Cards” – so that would not make any sense. Also important: Frank Underwood is a fictional character, as are Olivia Pope and Zoe Barnes. They are fake.

But the Ann Arbor city council is not fake. It is real. And real always has the potential to be more entertaining than fake – if you know exactly what’s going on. For that reason, I think the city council should give something like WriteURL a try.

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  1. By Peter Honeyman
    March 24, 2014 at 4:47 pm | permalink

    Best reality show on TV!

  2. March 24, 2014 at 5:05 pm | permalink

    I am an equal opportunity proponent of theater in all public spaces. The loud guffaws and gasps of terror, ahhhhhh…

    Good times.

  3. By bob elton
    March 24, 2014 at 6:56 pm | permalink

    I used to go all the time, but then I got a life.

  4. March 25, 2014 at 8:38 am | permalink

    So fun.

  5. March 25, 2014 at 10:14 am | permalink

    So, so fun.

  6. By Jeff Hayner
    March 25, 2014 at 8:58 pm | permalink

    It is much better in person, you can see everyone glaring at each other, you don’t get that dynamic in the CTN one-shots.