Stories indexed with the term ‘closed session’

Deja Vu: Special Meeting, Planning Session

The annual budget planning session of the Ann Arbor city council will start sometime after 4 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 9 in the jury assembly room of the Justice Center adjoining city hall. The uncertain actual start time of the planning session is due to a special meeting of the council that has now been called to start at 4 p.m. in city council chambers.

City administrator Steve Powers, Jane Lumm (Ward 2)

City administrator Steve Powers and Jane Lumm (Ward 2) just before the Nov. 18, 2013 council meeting started – a conversation Lumm wrote about after the meeting in an email thread to other councilmembers.

The special meeting will include a closed session – based on written attorney-client privileged communication and land acquisition. The land acquisition likely relates to the pending sale of the Edwards Brothers property on South State Street to the University of Michigan for $12.8 million, which was announced in a Nov. 27 press release. The business had signaled its intent to put the property on the market in late July.

A right of first refusal on the property is held by the city of Ann Arbor as a condition of a tax abatement granted by the city council almost three years ago, on Jan. 18, 2011. Purchase by the university would remove the property from the tax rolls. Washtenaw County records show the taxable value of the property at just over $3 million.

The closed session to be held on Dec. 9 follows some friction among councilmembers about the way information was shared with the council about the sale. That friction resulted from comments overheard by Jane Lumm (Ward 2) just before the council’s Nov. 18 meeting started, which prompted her to email her council colleagues expressing her dissatisfaction that not all councilmembers had been kept in the loop.

The email thread, provided to The Chronicle in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, goes on to include a query by Lumm to UM director of community relations Jim Kosteva for information about the status of the Edwards Brothers property, followed by an admonishment to Lumm from Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) that there were scenarios under which Lumm’s inquiry could potentially be detrimental to the city’s interest. The thread includes a note from Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5) that indicates concern that the issue should appropriately be discussed in a closed session under the state’s Open Meetings Act, not in an email thread among all councilmembers.

The email thread includes a clarificational inquiry to Taylor from Jack Eaton (Ward 4), as well as a note from Sabra Briere (Ward 1) about news coverage of the Edwards Brothers property sale. Eaton, Briere and Lumm signed the call to the Dec. 9 special meeting, which any three councilmembers can do under the city charter.

After the special meeting and its closed session, the council will move to the jury assembly room at the adjoining Justice Center for its annual budget planning session. That session could include an airing out of the issue of shared information – under an agenda item labeled “Articulating Mutual Expectations.” More specifically, the item indicates that the council will “identify and discuss mutual expectations for governing together” with the following desired outcome: “Articulate and agree on mutual expectations for members of the governing body.”

The background materials that have been provided to the council in preparation for the planning session include draft copies of reports with results from the National Citizens Survey that was conducted in the fall of 2013 by mailing a questionnaire to a random sample of 3,000 city residents, 778 of whom completed surveys. [.pdf of draft Ann Arbor National Citizens Survey report] [.pdf of responses, benchmarks, methodology and questionnaire]

The survey covered a broad range of topics. For example, 55% of survey respondents indicated that they rely at least somewhat for their news and information on online newspapers and media. That compares to 37% who said they rely some for news on printed newspapers. More respondents than that said they rely on news from the city website specifically (44%) or on radio stations (41%).

But questions about public safety – one of the top three priorities identified at last year’s planning session – will likely be of greater interest for councilmembers who will be weighing budget decisions at this year’s session. In general, under the community characteristics portion of the survey, 89% of Ann Arbor survey respondents rated their overall feeling of safety as good or excellent, with ratings for neighborhood safety at 97% and for downtown/commercial area safety at 92%. Those numbers are similar to the set of benchmarked communities that participated in the survey. The council’s measure of success for public safety includes the idea that residents should perceive the community as safe.

For the open-ended response survey item, which asked respondents to identify the city leaders’ top three priorities to maximize the quality of life in Ann Arbor, public safety was one of the top three items, with 19% of the open-ended responses identifying safety, crime and police as a concern. Also cited in 19% of responses were government, taxes and communication. However, the dominant concern in the open-ended responses was mobility issues – as 57% of responses were coded as related to roads, transportation, traffic, traffic enforcement, bikes and pedestrians.

That survey result mirrors the wide participation by the community in the recent debate about the repeal of the city’s crosswalk law. That debate ended in a city council vote on Dec. 2, 2013 to modify significantly the existing ordinance. But mayor John Hieftje announced immediately following the vote that he intended to exercise his power of veto.

The priority placed on the topic by the public and by councilmembers will also be reflected in two anticipated agenda items for the council’s Dec. 16 meeting. Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) is expected to bring forward a resolution directing the city administrator to present a plan for funding elements of the recently adopted update to the city’s non-motorized transportation plan. And Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) has told The Chronicle he expects to bring forward a resolution on Dec. 16 that would allocate $500,000 from the general fund reserve this year to pay for police overtime to conduct traffic enforcement.

How police officers use their time while on duty is part of a report the council has been provided in preparation for the Dec. 9 budget planning session. Initial results from a newly implemented (Jan. 1, 2013) electronic timesheet logging system appear to indicate that police officers have at least 40% of their time that’s either unassigned or dedicated to proactive policing and community engagement. At last year’s planning session, the council had defined a success statement for public safety that included a goal of 25-30% time available for proactive policing.

The sequence of a special city council meeting followed by the budget planning session was also played out last year in mid-December. That’s when the council convened a special meeting to take a vote protesting the establishment of the southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority. Like last year, the council’s budget planning session will be led by Julia Novak of the Novak Consulting Group.

Material presented in this article includes an annotated email thread about the Edwards Brothers property sale – which started in the Nov. 19 early morning hours, after the council meeting ended. [Full Story]

City Council Special Meeting: Dec. 9, 2013

A special meeting of the Ann Arbor city council will be held starting at 4 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 9, 2013 in the council chambers at city hall, 301 E. Huron St. The special meeting is being called for the purpose of holding a closed session under Michigan’s Open Meetings Act. In the call for a special meeting, two exceptions to the OMA are cited as the purposes for holding the closed session: discussion of attorney-client privileged communication, and discussion of land acquisition issues.

The land acquisition component of the closed session likely relates to the pending sale of the Edwards Brothers property on South State Street to the University of Michigan for $12.8 million, which was announced in a press release … [Full Story]

Ann Arbor Council: Special March 11 Session

The Ann Arbor city council has called a special session for March 11, 2013 starting at 6 p.m. in city council chambers at 301 E. Huron St.

The purpose of the special meeting is to go into closed session to discuss written attorney-client privileged communication. One possibility for the topic the council will cover in the closed session relates to a possible moratorium on site plan review for D1-zoned areas of the downtown, which the council has considered but postponed at its two most recent meetings.

The council already had a budget work session scheduled for the same time. So the budget work session will start at 7 p.m. instead.

Ann Arbor Adds Flashers, Alters Traffic Law

Ann Arbor city council meeting (Dec. 19, 2011): At its last meeting of the year, the council ended the current round of discussion on the city’s pedestrian safety ordinance by finalizing changes that clarified conditions under which vehicles are required to stop for people who are trying to cross the street.

Jane Lumm crosswalk ordinance approaching air quotes

Jane Lumm (Ward 2) made air quotes around the word "approaching" as the council discussed the city's ordinance on crosswalks. (Photos by the writer.)

The current ordinance amendment maintains an existing requirement that motorists accommodate not just pedestrians who are “within” a crosswalk, but also those who are verging on entering a crosswalk. What’s different is the way the concept is expressed. In July 2010, the council chose to describe pedestrians who are about to enter a crosswalk as “approaching” the crosswalk. The version of the ordinance finalized on Dec. 19 requires motorists to accommodate “… a pedestrian stopped at the curb, curb line or ramp leading to a crosswalk and to every pedestrian within a crosswalk …”

As part of the previous amendments made in 2010, the council also had removed language that specified a half of the roadway where drivers needed to accommodate pedestrians. This time around, the council restored similar language, which reads, “… when the pedestrian is on the half of the roadway on which the vehicle is traveling or when the pedestrian is approaching so closely from the opposite half of the roadway as to be in danger.”

In other crosswalk-related business, the council approved an expenditure of $81,000 to install five rectangular rapid flashing beacons (RRFB) on existing pedestrian islands in the city. Four of the locations are along Plymouth Road, at Georgetown, Traver Village, Beal and Bishop. The fifth location is at Seventh and Washington.

Also at the Dec. 19 meeting, the council ended a long process of review by the city and negotiation with neighbors by approving a change to the zoning of the Hoover Mansion property on Washtenaw Avenue, which University Bank uses as its headquarters. The change will allow University Bank to build 13 new parking spaces on the east side – behind the main building, allowing the bank in accommodate expanded employment.

Towards the end of the council’s meeting, a relatively rare debate unfolded about a mayoral nomination to a city board. At issue was the nomination of a city employee – transportation program manager Eli Cooper – to the board of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. He’s replacing another city employee on the board, public services area administrator Sue McCormick, who left her position with the city in mid-December. In the end, Cooper’s nomination was confirmed with dissent from two councilmembers. A separate vote on a general policy opposing nominations of city employees to boards and commissions received only four votes of support.

The council considered two compensation-related issues – one for its city attorney, Stephen Postema, and another for election workers who staff the polls. After a closed session to discuss Postema’s performance review, the council voted with dissent from one councilmember to award Postema the ability to cash out 250 hours of banked time. The council delayed its vote on pay increases for election workers, on the possibility that their pay could be increased more than what’s proposed, to match the amount specified in the city’s living wage ordinance.

In other business, the council approved a bond re-funding, authorized reimbursement for a broken electromagnet at the materials recovery facility, accepted additional federal money for solar projects, and heard about a possible strategy for addressing vacant and dilapidated properties. [Full Story]

Column: Lawsuit Aftermath – 6 Months Clean

At a Jan. 18, 2011 hearing, the 22nd Circuit Court judge Melinda Morris entertained two motions by the city of Ann Arbor in response to a lawsuit filed by The Ann Arbor Chronicle.

The lawsuit alleged that during a July 19, 2010 session held by the city council, the council had violated the Michigan Open Meetings Act – by voting to enter into a closed session to discuss written attorney-client privileged communication, but instead straying from that narrow purpose to reach a public policy decision about medical marijuana businesses.

It’s uncontroversial that the council did make a decision in an open session on Aug. 5, 2010 to develop an ordinance that would ensconce medical marijuana businesses in local zoning regulations, by first establishing a moratorium on establishing additional medical marijuana businesses. What The Chronicle essentially alleged was that the Aug. 5 decision to develop local legislation on medical marijuana businesses had already been determined at the July 19 closed session.

The first motion by the city of Ann Arbor was rejected by Judge Morris. The city had asked her to find that The Chronicle’s suit was frivolous, not managing even to state a claim, and further asked that sanctions and fines be imposed.

However, on the city’s second motion – which asked Morris to find that there was insufficient evidence of an OMA violation to warrant subjecting councilmembers and the city attorney to depositions, and that she should dismiss the claim – Morris ruled in favor of the city of Ann Arbor.

In reaching the conclusion that additional discovery of facts should not be allowed, Morris appeared to give significant weight to councilmember depositions affidavits, which they all signed, asserting that they had voted to go into the closed session on July 19, 2010 in part to discuss a May 28, 2010 legal advice memo written by the city attorney, Stephen Postema. All the affidavits further asserted that the council had not made any decision during the July 19 closed session. Morris also appeared to give significant weight to the idea that even if an OMA violation occurred on July 19, then it would have been “cured” by the council’s deliberations and decision made during their open session at the Aug. 5, 2010 meeting.

In this report, we will review some points of legal interpretation on which we disagree with Judge Morris, including the significance of a surprising omission in the affidavits signed by the city attorney and the mayor.

But we begin with the observation that since being served The Chronicle’s lawsuit six months ago – about a closed session conducted on the claimed basis of attorney-client privilege – the city council has not held a single closed session of that kind. That’s easily the longest closed-session-free span the council has achieved for attorney-client privileged-based sessions in more than two years.

That seems to reflect an implicit acknowledgment by the city attorney and the council that they’d been holding more of these kinds of closed sessions than were actually warranted. We gave serious consideration to filing an appeal in this case. The council’s apparent change in behavior has convinced us that our decision not to allocate additional financial resources to an appeal was the right one. Part of our goal was to rectify a specific pattern of inappropriate behavior on the council’s part, and we appear to have achieved that.

Compared to the possibility of establishing new case law on a specific point, we think a more general approach to reform of the Michigan Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act, through legislative efforts, is likely to yield stronger and longer-lasting improvements in these open government laws. [Full Story]