Stories indexed with the term ‘transparency’

Column: City Council as Entertainment

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. [Full Story]

Ann Arbor SPARK to Post Financials

The economic development nonprofit Ann Arbor SPARK will be posting its financial statements on its website, according to a letter written by SPARK executive director Paul Krutko on Dec. 4, 2013. Krutko’s letter was sent to Washtenaw County board of commissioners chair Yousef Rabhi and Ann Arbor city administrator Steve Powers – both of whom are members of SPARK’s board. The letter came after an Ann Arbor SPARK board of director’s meeting on Nov. 25, 2013.

The meeting and the letter came after SPARK had declined several previous requests for its financial statements – from rank-and-file residents, journalists as well as elected officials. SPARK’s previous decision not to release past statements became moot when Ann Arbor resident Kai Petainen … [Full Story]

A2OpenBook: Now With P-Card Use

The city of Ann Arbor’s A2OpenBook accounting now includes P-Card (purchase/procurement card) use. P-cards can be used by a limited number of city employees to make purchases for relatively small amounts of money – under $3,000.

Roughly 100 cards are in circulation. Individual cards can be tailored for daily or monthly limits or by type of merchant. For example, if an employee is issued a P-Card for some specific type of purchase related to their job, then other uses – for travel or food, or computer purchases – could be prohibited as part of the card’s configuration. [.pdf of city policy on P-Cards]

The P-Card data had previously been available online through the city’s DataCatalog in the form of very … [Full Story]

Ann Arbor’s Finances Now an A2OpenBook

At the Ann Arbor city council’s Sept. 19, 2011 meeting, city CFO Tom Crawford announced the launch of A2OpenBook, an online tool that residents can use to follow the city’s revenues and expenditures. The information on the system is refreshed daily from the city’s LOGOS financial system.

The online system allows users to look at expenses and revenues by service area, by fund and by expense type. The information is download-able in MS Excel format so that users can search for and manipulate data as desired. Information is available for expenses beginning July 1, 2010 through today – data is updated daily.

There’s a possibility that P-Card data might be added in a second phase of the project.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link] [Full Story]

Washtenaw Launches OpenBook Website

Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners working session (Oct. 7, 2010): At its recent working session, the board heard presentations on two topics: 1) a new initiative called OpenBook, which is making more of the county’s financial information available online, and 2) an update on efforts to create a coordinated funding model involving the Washtenaw United Way, Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, Washtenaw County, the city of Ann Arbor and the Urban County.

Screenshot of Washtenaw County's OpenBook website

A screenshot of Washtenaw County's OpenBook website, which launched this week. (Image links to

Mary Jo Callan, director of the Washtenaw County/city of Ann Arbor office of community development, gave the coordinated funding update and fielded several questions from commissioners. She’d given a similar presentation at last month’s meeting of the Urban County executive committee.

Andy Brush, the county’s webmaster, made a presentation on the OpenBook project, which launched to the public on Friday. Commissioner Conan Smith questioned the amount of staff time involved in the initiative, and asked that they monitor usage of the site, to determine whether it’s worth the resources they need to invest. His comments earned a sharp rebuke from commissioner Kristin Judge, who has spearheaded the project. Minimal staff time is involved, she said, and taxpayers have a right to this information, noting that the push to transparency was a directive from President Barack Obama. Both Judge and Smith are Democrats. [Full Story]

County Board Moves Ahead on Land Bank

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (July 7, 2010): Commissioners spent most of their July meeting on two contentious issues: re-establishing a land bank, and a possible expansion of the county road commission.

Jeff Irwin, Leah Gunn

Washtenaw County commissioners Jeff Irwin (District 11) and Leah Gunn (District 9) confer before the July 7 board meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

After more than an hour of discussion, a majority of commissioners approved a step toward bringing back the land bank, which they’d voted to dissolve in March. Several commissioners raised concerns over funding for the land bank and the expense of property maintenance and rehab, though most said they supported the entity in concept.

A land bank allows the government – through a separate land bank authority – to take temporary ownership of tax- or mortgage-foreclosed land while the county works to put it back into productive use. Commissioner Ronnie Peterson, whose district in Ypsilanti and parts of Ypsilanti Township has been hit hard by foreclosures, has been an advocate for the land bank for several months, and expressed his impatience and frustration during the meeting. A motion to rescind the dissolution of the land bank was not considered at the July 7 meeting, but might be brought forward next month.

The board also held a public hearing on expanding the road commission from three members to five – three residents spoke at the hearing, all opposing the expansion. An animated discussion with a somewhat unclear outcome followed the hearing – with Wes Prater moving to stop the process of expansion, and getting support from the majority of the board. Calling that move “symbolic,” Jeff Irwin said he plans to bring a resolution to the Aug. 4 board meeting that will officially propose the expansion.

Several other items related to financial matters. The board approved an initiative to put more government information online, especially regarding budget and finance. They discussed and authorized re-funding bonds requested by Dexter Township, and noted with some concern that Dexter Township isn’t alone in its struggle to meet bond payments. And county administrator Verna McDaniel signaled her intent to hire Kelly Belknap as the county’s new finance director, replacing Peter Ballios, a 38-year veteran of the county who retired at the end of 2009.

The board also approved a brownfield plan for a project in downtown Ypsilanti, and set public hearings for Aug. 4 regarding two additional brownfield plans – the Near North housing project and Zingerman’s Deli expansion, both in Ann Arbor. The board is also expected to vote on those plans at the Aug. 4 meeting. [Full Story]

Washtenaw Land Bank Debate Continues

On a summer cycle of once-a-month meetings, the Washtenaw County board of commissioners were briefed last week about the agenda for their July 7 meeting. Much of the briefing was spent discussing an item that likely won’t be up for a vote – resurrecting the county’s land bank.

The board dissolved the land bank – a tool used to help the county deal with foreclosed and blighted properties – at their March 2010 meeting, but commissioner Ronnie Peterson has pushed to bring it back. He initially proposed putting a resolution on the June meeting agenda, but later agreed to a request by board chair Rolland Sizemore Jr. to hold off until July. But at the June 29 briefing, Sizemore and Conan Smith, who chairs the board’s Ways & Means Committee, said they were not putting a resolution on the July 7 agenda either, though discussion on the topic is scheduled for the meeting. Peterson did not attend the briefing.

A range of other items are on the agenda, including a public hearing on possible expansion of the county road commission, and a resolution regarding a transparency initiative that’s been in the works for several months. Led by commissioner Kristin Judge, the effort aims to put more of the county’s public documents, especially financial information, online.

Commissioners expressed some concern over one agenda item: Restructuring the debt for a Dexter Township wastewater system, with the goal of lowering payments – payments the township might otherwise have trouble making. The item led some commissioners to ask for a report on debt held by local townships that’s backed by the county’s credit. [Full Story]

Ann Arbor Dems Primary: Ward 4 Council

On Tuesday evening, the Ward 4 Democratic Party hosted a forum at Dicken Elementary School so that residents could pose questions to primary candidates for one of the ward’s two city council seats. Margie Teall, the incumbent who has held the seat since 2002, and Jack Eaton, who has been active in politics on the neighborhood level, answered questions for a bit more than an hour.


Jack Eaton and Margie Teall, candidates for the Ward 4 city council seat, engage in the subtleties of negotiation over who would deliver their opening remarks first. (Photos by the writer.)

City council representatives are elected for two-year terms and each of the city’s five wards has two seats on the council, one of which is elected each year. Also in attendance at Tuesday’s forum was Marcia Higgins, the Ward 4 council representative who won re-election in November 2009, defeating independent challenger Hatim Elhady.

Besides Higgins, other elected officials and candidates for office who were introduced at the forum included: LuAnne Bullington (candidate for the 11th District county board of commissioners seat), Ned Staebler (candidate for the 53rd District state Representative seat), Leah Gunn (county commissioner representing the 9th District of the county and seeking re-election), Patricia Lesko (candidate for Ann Arbor mayor). All the candidates are Democrats.

Eaton’s main theme was a need to focus more on infrastructure – those things we need, not the things that might be nice to have. Eaton was keen to establish that his candidacy was not meant as a personal attack on Teall, saying that he expected his supporters to focus on the issues and to conduct themselves in a civil way. His opening remarks were heavy on thanks and appreciation for Teall’s long service on council, particularly with regard to the creation of Dicken Woods, which is now a city-owned nature area.

In the course of the forum, a pointed question to Teall on her biggest regret while serving on the council elicited an acknowledgment from her that she regretted her contribution to the problem last year with city councilmembers emailing each other during council meetings. Eaton was quick to give Teall credit for publicly apologizing in a timely way for her role in the scandal.

For her part, Teall focused on setting forth accomplishments while serving on the council. Those ranged from the longer-term budgeting strategies that she said had helped ensure that Ann Arbor was weathering the economic crisis better than other Michigan cities, to the budget amendment she introduced and the council passed in May, which proposed using $2 million from the Downtown Development Authority, plus more optimistic estimates for state revenue sharing, to eliminate the need to lay off some police and firefighters.

The candidates exchanged different views on basic infrastructure issues like the Stadium Boulevard bridges and stormwater management, to single-stream recycling and leaf collection, to Georgetown Mall, and the transparency of government. [Full Story]

Column: Email and Open Meetings

As we reported more than a month ago, a Freedom of Information Act request made by the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center – in connection with a possible environmental lawsuit against the city of Ann Arbor – yielded records of email correspondence between Ann Arbor city councilmembers made during some of their regular council meetings.

In that article, we indicated that the “the content seems to fall into two categories: (i) adolescent humor, and (ii) apparent ‘backchannel’ discussion of issues before the council, which raises more serious concerns.” The content of some of those emails has now been published in various forms in other media outlets.

We begin our own treatment of this episode in city politics by providing historical context for the Ann Arbor community’s concern about city council email exchanges during council meetings – one that predates the FOIA requests by GLELC.

In that context, we’d like to consider one of the email exchanges in more detail and use it to illuminate ethical issues surrounding the use of electronic communications during official meetings. And on that basis, we’ll explore some possibilities for the use of technology to push information to the public, instead of using it to screen decision-making processes from the public. In addition to the ethical and informational issues, there are legal questions that arise from these FOIA-ed materials. Those legal questions relate to possible  violation of the Michigan Open Meetings Act, as well as the city’s preparedness to meet the requirements of FOIA when electronic records are requested. [Full Story]

Ann Arbor’s Year in Crime

The map below depicts the better part of the year in crime for Ann Arbor in 2008. The first two weeks of January and the last two weeks of December are not included. So the data presented here should not be considered complete or official. The zooming slider allows a closer examination of individual neighborhoods. Clicking on the markers causes a balloon to appear that includes the date and category of the crime. The map itself appears after the jump. [Full Story]