Transparency Begins With the City Council

I began in my last post to discuss open government and how it can be achieved.

One aspect of open government is what is often called “transparency”.  This means simply that governmental operations and actions are open to scrutiny.  (The opposite is “secrecy”.)

Of course, an important beginning is to have all relevant documents accessible to public view.  This has improved in Ann Arbor in recent years, but is by no means perfect yet.  Ed Vielmetti has long had a (fortunately not lonely) crusade to obtain much government information by FOIA (Freedom of Information Act).  See, for example, his weblog on the subject.

But more about that later.  The first, most important step for city government transparency is to make City Council deliberations clear and open.

How can citizens engage their government?  First, their council members are their direct line to government.  Because citizens choose them by election, Council is accountable to citizens.  But this only works if citizens have adequate knowledge and understanding of actions Council is preparing to take, and can follow deliberations on each item.

That word deliberations is significant.  According to the Michigan Open Meetings Act (this useful link also describes the Freedom of Information Act), public bodies are not supposed to “deliberate”, i.e. discuss and decide, matters before them except in public session.  There are exceptions for certain confidential legal proceedings.  In practice, many discussions occur as a matter of practicality over a cup of coffee, in subcommittee meetings, in an administrator’s office, etc.  But actual deliberation of how a vote is to proceed is not to occur in private.  The gauge usually applied is whether a quorum (usually half the number of members plus one) is present.  So in our case, councilmembers should not be meeting in groups of 6 or more without making it a “public meeting”.  The OMA then imposes specific conditions.

But let’s take it further.  How can deliberations be transparent if the council members themselves are not informed?  I have noticed a number of deficiencies in the way individual council members are informed and brought into the discussion.  As noted in’s interview with Jane Lumm, information is sometimes provided late in the day, and substantial items can sometimes appear on the Council agenda at the last minute.  For example, the meeting of November 7, 2009 (the last meeting for CM Leigh Greden, who was defeated in a primary that August), had an agenda item added at the very last minute that approved the Memorandum of Understanding with the University of Michigan to initiate the Fuller Road Station project.  By adding such a substantial item late in the day, citizens are not able to comment or contact their councilmembers and even the members of council themselves who are not within the tight inner circle where decisions are being made can’t possibly have time to make a rational decision about the issue.  Of course, citizens interested in an issue should not be required to check the agenda repeatedly the day of the council meeting, as is now sometimes the case.

I come from a different tradition, the Board of Commissioners.  There items were placed on the agenda about a week before a meeting, and the agenda was made fully public, with all relevant documents available online, days before the meeting.  If elected, I will be watching carefully to see how information on important items is transmitted to members of council and the public.


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