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Wednesday, September 29,2010

Committee talk

Why does the Public Safety Committee meet so much, anyway?

by Andy Balaskovitz
Tim Kaltenbach was surprised when he heard the news that Jessica Yorko, his successor on the Lansing City Council, had missed 27 of 33 Public Safety Committee meetings in roughly seven months.

Then he got to thinking. “They had that many meetings in six months’ time?” Kaltenbach, who also served on Public Safety, asked himself. “Seems like an awful lot.”


Indeed, while news coverage focused on Yorko’s attendance, it might have missed the point, which is why the committee, chaired by Councilwoman Carol Wood, meets so much.


Yorko, who was elected last fall to represent the Fourth Ward, calls the mostly discussion-based meetings “inefficient,” while Wood is unapologetic about her own style.


In the time of Yorko’s absences, the committee has reported out medical marijuana and fireworks ordinances along with sending homes to the make safe or demolish list, making board appointments and placing traffic control orders, like replacing stop signs.


A bulk of those committee meetings were discussions of the previous two ordinances, a proposed manufactured homes ordinance and whether to let sex offenders use public facilities. One nearly two-hour discussion in June was on the Lansing Police Department restructuring. There was also discussion of allowing the media easier access to FOIA requests and of a noise ordinance regulating ice cream trucks’ noise that later failed on the City Council floor.


One way of judging the efficiency and effectiveness of a committee, Kaltenbach said, is by seeing how many agenda items are referred to a public hearing and acted on by the Council. When it becomes a matter of holding discussions, it serves as more of a way to interact with the public.


“There are meetings of fact finding, when people come in to vent, but that is not like drafting an ordinance,” he said. “Not covering a substantive issue that has been referred to them is kind of like (public relations) for the members.”


Wood, an at-large member, disagrees.


“Sometimes in order to determine whether there needs to be an action done by committee, it’s good to discuss the issue,” she said. “It allows us to work with (the administration) and allowing the public to speak.”


Wood’s tone grows stern when told that not everyone, including Yorko, believes discussion on issues, sometimes up to two hours, is appropriate for everyone’s schedule.


“No one is forcing you to sit there (on committee),” she said. “If (the discussion) is not something you’re fond of or believe you can contribute to, get off the committee.”


Outside of Public Safety, Yorko’s attendance is on par if not better than other Council members’ for Committee of the Whole and Development and Planning.


Wood said Yorko never approached her during that long string of Public Safety absences about reworking schedules.


In early June and again in late August, Public Safety met three times in a week. In mid-July, it met four times in eight days.


“I’m not going to apologize for how I run my committee,” Wood said. “And I’m not going to apologize for my work ethic. Others have to justify what they do to put their time out there.”


The Council president appoints Council members to committees at the beginning of the year and sets meeting times that get loosely followed.


Wood is the only Council member who works full time at City Hall, albeit for part-time ($20,000 annually) pay. She said a lot of her work deals with “research and constituency work” and sitting on neighborhood boards and committees, as well as fielding calls and e-mails “all the time.”

But don’t all City Council members have these duties?

“I would hope that’s the case with every Council member,” Wood said.


Wood conceded that she would be more concerned about Yorko’s attendance if her absences meant that Public Safety was unable to meet a quorum. She also believes that City Council should remain a part-time job, rather than full time.


Yorko said she will make an effort to at least come to City Hall for committee packets that outline what will be discussed, but did not guarantee better attendance. As chairwoman of the committee, will Wood change the way meetings are run?


“We are going to continue to do what we have been doing,” she said.

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