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Tuesday, April 30,2013

Kids in the Hall

Budget hearings round 5: Several budgets and Computergate rekindled

by Sam Inglot

Tuesday, April 30 — Although there were some budget discussions, Monday night’s Lansing City Council meeting was highlighted by a “Computergate”-inspired policy that was approved — but which is also totally unenforceable, according to the city attorney. 


The Council’s Personnel Committee has spent its past 12 meetings revising a computer and technology policy. The changes were approved Monday night 5-2, with Council members Tina Houghton and Kathie Dunbar opposed. Councilwoman Jessica Yorko was absent. Dunbar said the policy changes were directed at her after an incident involving her city-issued laptop that broke during an argument with her husband. An investigation by the City Attorney's Office cleared Dunbar of any suspected criminal and ethical wrongdoing in the matter.


However, City Attorney Janene McIntyre said the committee work was done in vain because the policy is not enforceable: Council members can’t discipline other members, short of a criminal act, based on City Charter rules.


“You can’t enforce it. So therefore, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on,” McIntyre said in an interview after the meeting. “Plus, there are a lot of issues with the document itself. But even with some of those things being addressed, they can’t enforce what they’re trying to enforce.”


Councilwoman A’Lynne Boles-Robinson gave a breakdown of the policy. It would restrict the use of city-issued computers and cell phones to the Council member whom it was assigned to — no one else would be permitted to use the equipment. If Council members wanted to take their computer out of City Hall, they would have to sign it out.


The policy states that Council members can’t use city-issued computers for entertainment, religious or political purposes and are barred from using any type of social media sites, like Twitter and Facebook.


The policy also addresses damages to city technology. If damage is less than $100, the expense does not need to be reported to the Council. If the damage is between $100 and $500, the Council president and vice president must approve the cost to repair the damage and they will notify Council of the expense. If the cost is over $500, then the whole Council would be notified and would have to pass a resolution to pay for the costs.


Any violation of the technology agreement could result in the forfeiture of technology privileges, according to the policy. Problem is, McIntyre said, Council members can’t enforce the rules on other members.


Boles-Robinson, who chairs the Personnel Committee where the document was spawned, said the goal of the policy — even if it’s unenforceable — was to get to a “starting point.” She said the responsibility of fixing the policy so it is enforceable now lays “squarely on the shoulders of the city attorney.” She said after changes are made, she’d like to see the policy back in committee.


Houghton, who voted against the changes, questioned that if some Council members have interns, would they be able to use the computers? Boles-Robinson said they would not.


Dunbar — whom the policy was at least in part directed at according to the fourth paragraph of the resolution (“WHEREAS, in 2012 the President of Council was notified by a staff member of an incident with a Councilmember concerning a computer;”) — spoke long and hard about her opposition to the policy. She took the opportunity to chastise the Council for even bringing up the policy because she said she knew the whole thing was about her and her laptop that broke during an argument with her husband.


“I know it’s about me,” she said. “It’s a ridiculous policy. Don’t pretend this is not about me.”


Dunbar said to work on a policy for three months and to have it wind up being unenforceable was a waste of time. At one point, Council President Carol Wood gaveled Dunbar down because she talked so long.


Pick up Wednesday’s City Pulse for more on this one.


In other Council business, an amendment to the city’s special land use ordinance was sent back to the Development and Planning Committee and is slated to be up for a vote at the Council’s next regular meeting on May 6.


The amendment was inspired by the Niowave pole barn fiasco that’s raged on in the Walnut Neighborhood for over 10 months. The amendment would make it so that the Council would be notified of and approve any construction over 1,000 square feet on a special land use site. The amendment would also require a public hearing be set for the proposed construction and that neighbors within 500 feet of the site would be notified.


***


First up on the list of budget hearings during Committee of the Whole meeting was the 54A District Court. The court budget shows a 4.8 percent funding reduction for next fiscal year, which is related to the elimination of furlough days and employees paying more health care costs.


To help save money, District Court Administrator Anethia Brewer said because of a 20 percent reduction in staff from last year, the court has been busy cross-training its deputy clerks to be more efficient and to be able to handle more cases.


Apart from reductions, there is a $244,830 allocation for technology upgrades to the court budget, which Brewer said was necessary because of its heavy reliance on electronic case management systems and electronic ticket payment.


***


The Council also heard from Joan Jackson Johnson, director of Human Relations and Community Services. The department oversees services for low-income, homeless and at-risk residents as well as equality and diversity programs.


The proposed department budget shows a 4.1 percent increase in funding. However, even at slightly higher funding levels, Jackson Johnson said running the department is a “challenge from day-to-day.”


There wasn’t much time for questions, as Jackson Johnson spoke at length about the services the department provided, but several people on the dais thanked and praised her for her work.


***


The Planning and Neighborhood Development Department has five separate divisions: administration, building safety, planning, parking services and development. The department oversees lead-safe programs, microlending for small businesses, historic preservation, zoning and land use as well as building safety permits.


In total, the department’s proposed budget is 14.6 percent smaller than this fiscal year.


The director of the department, Bob Johnson, talked at length about the success of the city’s new parking meters on Washington Avenue. He also talked about the city’s parking ramps and how low-use rates could be fixed if the city gave the department more flexibility in setting the monthly parking rates.

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