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Wednesday, August 17,2011

City clerk: Council meets too often

City clerk says the annual number of Lansing City Council meetings is ‘excessive.’ What do Council candidates think?

by Andy Balaskovitz
The eight candidates vying for City
Council seats are split on the city clerk’s proposal to cut the number
of yearly Council meetings in half.

While five candidates support or are open
to City Clerk Chris Swope’s proposal that he says would cut costs and
align Lansing with nearly every other city in the state, two are against
and one is undecided because they say Council hardly accomplishes its
business in 50 meetings a year.


“Fifty meetings is excessive and
unnecessary when you think about the costs of staff time and the
distribution and production of minutes and agendas,” Swope argues. “I
can’t see the need for it.”


Swope said while those staff members are on salary, “there is other work we could do or could be done.”


Swope said Council members’ work loads likely wouldn’t be impacted.


Swope’s research shows Lansing and Detroit are the only Michigan cities where its councils meet weekly. 


On May 12, Swope wrote a letter to
Council members with an attached resolution that suggested the Council
consider doing what Grand Rapids did in 2006: Voters in Grand Rapids
approved 73 percent to 27 percent a resolution to allow the City
Commission to meet twice a month instead of weekly. 


The change would require amending the
City Charter, which says the Council must meet at least 50 times a year.
Swope’s proposal would reduce that to “at least twice a month.” Charter
amendments require voter approval. Swope said the move would cut
administrative costs, though he couldn’t say how much, and make the
procedure work more efficiently.


The resolution was taken up by the
Council’s General Services Committee Aug. 1, but was voted down
unanimously by Council members Eric Hewitt, Derrick Quinney and Carol
Wood. Quinney and Wood are candidates to keep their At-Large seats. 


Wood is against the idea because she
thinks Council barely completes its business with weekly meetings.
Quinney said he is at least open to the idea but voted against it in
committee because he said Hewitt and Wood expressed “opposition” to the
idea “from the very beginning” and he saw “no need to have a discussion
at that point.”


The other two At-Large candidates, Thomas
Stewart and Rory Neuner, both support the idea of fewer Council
meetings and asking voters to approve.


“First and foremost, it will make things
more efficient,” Neuner said. “It was really disappointing for me to see
the votes from the committee. It’s an idea — let’s consider it.”


Neuner suggested “more work could be done
in committee meetings. I don’t know what makes Lansing so incredibly
unique that we have to meet more often than other cities our size.”


Stewart said along with falling in line
with other cities, less meetings in a month “gives people time to be
more proactive about policies and ordinances and doing a little more
legwork with constituents. I think honestly that’s a good thing.”


Neuner and Stewart both referred to the
medical marijuana dispensary ordinance, which was adopted at the
Council’s last meeting before the moratorium on new businesses expired
July 1. “Part of the issue is (Council) rushing now because they don’t
have time to think. It actually allows us to be much more proactive as
opposed to always having to react. I think that’s what we find ourselves
in now. … It’s crisis politics,” Stewart said.


1st Ward candidates Jody Washington and
Lynne Martinez are split on the issue. Washington is against the idea of
two meetings a month; Martinez supports it.


“It appears to me that constituents want
more from their Council, not less,” Washington said. “It seems whenever
an issue comes up, we’re told there’s not enough information. I don’t
think reducing the number of meetings would help them have more
information. It appears they don’t have enough time together.” 


Washington scoffed at the idea that fewer meetings means more time for members to get out in the community.


“If anyone can speak out, I can. I am out
in the community all the time,” Washington said, who works full time
for the state Department of Corrections and part time as a nursing
assistant at the Pines Health Care Center. She’s also president of the
Eastside Neighborhood Organization and secretary on the Lansing
Neighborhood Council board. “I don’t see how every other Monday would
allow them to get in the community more.”


Martinez said even though the General
Services Committee rejected the idea, she would still vote yes to put
the proposal before voters.


“(Fewer meetings) would give us a chance
to put committee meetings in the evening so more people could attend. It
would give us a chance to have meetings with neighbors and groups and
work with the city and other local municipal governments,” Martinez
said.


Incumbent 3rd Ward candidate A’Lynne
Robinson said she supports Swope’s proposal “in concept” while her
opponent, Jason Wilkes, is undecided on whether Council should meet less
often.


“We should listen to the recommendations
of professionals who have researched this matter,” Robinson said,
referring to Swope. “It certainly warrants additional consideration and
discussion.” She supports the concept of “allowing Council members
additional time between meetings” to gather information.


Meanwhile, Wilkes said he wants more
information on potential cost savings and whether the proposal would
allow for less public input. But he thinks things are going just fine
now.


“I don’t see an issue with the way things are going now,” he said.




Elsewhere


Grand Rapids city commissioners are paid
part time just like Lansing City Council members, Grand Rapids City
Clerk Lauri Parks said. Voters approved amending the Grand Rapids City
Charter in 2006 by a wide margin and that was after the Commission
“piloted” twice-monthly meetings for two-and-a-half months before voting
to put the resolution on the ballot, Parks said.


Parks was unable to attach a cost-savings
number to going to twice-monthly meetings. She said it does reduce the
number of meeting minutes and electronic agenda packets that have to be
prepared — “all the ancillary costs of staff putting that together.”


The Ann Arbor City Council meets twice a
month, but it also has 19 Council committees, two ad-hoc committees and
has liaisons on four different commissions, the city’s website shows.
The Lansing City Council has eight committees, and members are appointed
to 14 boards and commissions.


The Ann Arbor City Council also holds
caucus meetings twice a month, which are “optional meetings of the mayor
and members of council to discuss and gather information on issues that
are or will be coming before them for consideration,” the city’s
website says. Ann Arbor Council members are elected on a partisan basis,
unlike Lansing’s. The meetings are open to the public and “provide an
opportunity for citizens to informally speak with councilmembers about
items that are on the Council agenda,” the city’s site says.


The Lansing City Council would need to
approve ballot language by Aug. 30, but Swope said that’s unlikely to
happen now because proposals to amend city charters have to be approved
by the Governor’s and state Attorney General’s offices. “At this point I
am not pushing to move forward on it this year.”


However, Lansing voters will be asked
Nov. 8 if the City Charter should be “generally” revised. The Charter,
which was adopted in 1978, sets up automatic votes “at the November 1987
General Election and every twelve years thereafter” asking if the
Charter should be rewritten. It hasn’t been yet. If voters approve, they
would then elect a nine-member Charter Commission to do so. Swope said
the issue of Council meetings could be addressed there, but he’s hoping
voters don’t approve a general Charter revision.


“I don’t think we need a wholesale review of the City Charter,” he said, adding that the process could be a “big expense.”


As for meetings, Swope thinks it’s one necessary Charter “tweak.”


“We need to realize the Charter needs to be updated like
other cities have done. I’m not sure that it would really directly
impact the workload of actual Council members all that much. We’re still
going to need the same number of city actions and relatively the same
number of resolutions — just do them in a more effective manner.”


At a time of budget deficits in the city,
Swope said it makes sense to be as efficient as possible: “In a time
when we’re laying off police officers and closing fire stations, really
to have administrative staff doing work that isn’t necessary is just a
shame to me.”

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