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Wednesday, February 26,2014

A question of power

From seating charts to setting the agenda, the Lansing City Council tangles over questions of authority

by Andy Balaskovitz
On Monday night, for the second Lansing City Council meeting in a row, Council President A’Lynne Boles and Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar argued over procedural rules average voters probably don’t care about.

In both cases, Boles found Dunbar out of order, gaveling her down from the president’s chair in the middle of the dais.

“This is ridiculous,” Dunbar finally proclaimed Monday night after a several-minute exchange with Boles in front of the public. It was uncomfortable.

At issue Monday was whether an individual Council member can, prior to a meeting, place items on the agenda to be taken up by the full body. Dunbar, City Clerk Chris Swope and at least two other Council members believe Council rules allow for it. Boles believes it’s up to the Council president to approve each agenda item.

But that’s not really what this is about. Indeed, the Council’s annually contentious choice for Council leadership is still playing out, a month-and-a-half into the year. First it was an argument over whether the Council president can change the dais seating arrangement. Now it’s over an interpretation of Council rules. The underlying theme is authority: Boles believes she’s exercising it as president, Dunbar and others think she’s taken it too far.

“The issue is whether A’Lynne has the authority to unilaterally make (certain) decisions,” Dunbar said in an interview. “It’s turned into a much bigger issue of power and control.”

Boles defended her interpretations of Council rules on Monday.

“If it’s inappropriately placed on the agenda, it gets pulled,” she said. Committee chairs are free to place items on the agenda, as are four members who back an item, she said. Boles added that the policy stems from the need to clarify the process for a “relatively new office manager,” Sherrie Boak.

“My goal is to run efficient and effective meetings,” Boles said.

Yet Dunbar’s and Boles’ colleagues are getting increasingly fed up with the squabbles, inconsequential as they are, dealing with seating arrangements and agenda procedure.

“I just find this whole thing ridiculous,” Councilwoman Carol Wood said last week, referring to both the agenda issue and the dais seating arrangement. For one, Wood said, no one made a big deal when she changed the seating arrangement as president last year, moving the mayor’s seat from the dais to the floor.

As for whether Council members can introduce agenda items on their own, Wood believes Council rules allow them to do so — but that in the past, common courtesy prevailed.

“The rules say a Council member can put resolutions on the agenda,” she said Friday, in apparent disagreement with Boles’ interpretation of the rules. “Out of courtesy, we check with the president before the resolution went on.

“I think, again, this whole thing has just gotten blown out of proportion.”

Councilman Derrick Quinney agrees with Wood’s interpretation that Council members can introduce agenda items, but “out of courtesy,” there has typically been a discussion with the Council president beforehand.

“Now that we’ve got the seating thing behind us, I think we can move forward in a way that is functional and everything is going to work out well,” Quinney said Monday, “so we can move on to bigger things.”

During the past two Council meetings, Dunbar attempted to introduce a resolution that would have given the Council president authority to make seating changes, which is the power Boles has asserted all along. However, Dunbar acknowledged Tuesday that there are not five votes to pass it. She does not support it because it conflicts with a city attorney opinion stating the Council president can’t change the seating arrangement. It was a tactic to show that Boles didn’t have the support of the majority to change seating arrangements.

Before it went up for a vote, Boles removed the resolution from the agenda, saying it was improperly placed there.

Over several email exchanges with Swope since Feb. 12, Boles outlined a four-step process for introducing agenda items. It includes the Council president having the final say for items on an “overview” agenda, which is forwarded to Swope’s office. It’s then sent back to Council staff for final approval by the president, which is then sent out to the public. In a Feb. 21 letter, Boles extended an olive branch to Swope, saying she looked “forward to honoring your desire” to sit next to the president again, “once this situation is clarified.” Swope sat immediately to Boles’ right on Monday.

“In a good faith effort to jump-start our future cooperative work I am hopeful the move of the City Clerk seating position next to the President at the dais will communicate a clear and sincere willingness to work within our respective roles,” she wrote.

But Swope is wary. In a response letter to Boles on Monday, he called her interpretation for “absolute control over the preparation of the agenda … overblown and misses the mark.” He added that the four-step process “directly conflicts with clear and unambiguous rights of individual Council members” based on Council rules. “To the extent this Rule contradicts the agenda process you propose, it simply cannot stand.”

Councilwoman Jody Washington, who was out of the country the past two weeks as this was transpiring, said Monday: “At this point I’m baffled and I’m refusing to get involved. I’m so tired of this. It’s almost March and we’re still arguing about these things.”

On Tuesday morning, Dunbar said that she has spoken with Councilwoman Judi Brown Clarke about setting up a retreat for Council members “to talk about this and personality struggles. There’s an obvious conflict that’s there that doesn’t have anything to do with the city.”

“The point is, it’s not about the seating anymore,” Dunbar said. “It’s about this absolute control, power grab.”

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