A Lansing State Journal editorial today (Thursday) says that a recent change in how the Lansing City Council holds its meetings is a step backward in efficiency.
This is somewhat true. Until this year, Council would hold two major meetings per week: A Monday night business session to pass legislation, and a Thursday afternoons Committee of the Whole to discuss legislation and other matters for the subsequent Monday meeting.
Council President A'Lynne Robinson has changed the system. Council still holds a weekly Monday night meeting, but now every other Monday Council resolves into CoW. On such nights, no legislative business is scheduled. Council starts a regular meeting at 7 p.m. and, in theory, is done with ceremonial business — the pledge of allegiance, Council member comments, public comment, etc. — by around 7:30 and then resolves into CoW.
The LSJ points out that normal Monday meetings last two hours on average and posits that adding CoW to this will drag proceedings longer. Robinson's new system happened for this first time this past Monday. Council resolved into Cow at approximately 7:36 p.m., and it lasted until around 10 p.m.
Monday's meeting was not long because of the regular meeting, but because CoW by nature is always long — usually at least 2 and 1/2 hours.
It is conceivable that CoW might not start until around 8:30 or 9 p.m. if ceremonial business drags that long. But that is not how Robinson designed this new system. The key is that there is no legislative agenda on CoW nights.
One problem with Robinson's change, so far, is that it effectively eliminates two rounds of public comment (a win for clock-watchers, a loss for public comment lovers). During CoW, members of the public used to get as much time as they wanted to speak on any issue; and on Mondays, the public always had a chance to speak under "public comment on legislative matters" and "public comment on city government related matters." But since the Monday meetings with CoW have no legislative agenda, there is no public comment on legislative matters. And on Monday, Robinson told members of the public that the comment on city government related matters would serve as their chance to speak that night — so, no public comment during CoW.
A larger knock on this new system is how it was communicated to the public. Robinson told me that the public was notified on the agenda of the first meeting of the year (held on a Thursday afternoon) and that it was broadcast on city government TV. There was no verbal announcement neither to the public nor the media. Would it have been so hard to send out a press release? (Robinson's day job, by the way, is community relations chief for Jackson Public Schools.)
Another issue is the agenda. For Monday meetings, City Clerk Chris Swope has devised an excellent system where on the Friday before he sends out an agenda and provides a meeting "packet" that contains the requisite documents pertaining to legislative items through e-mail to a large group of recipients (he also mails this information to people who don't have Internet access). Council staff handles CoW, and they keep a different e-mail list. At-Large Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar has suggested the two lists be merged, and First Ward Councilman Eric Hewitt has suggested that a CoW packet be included, but no one had the foresight to do this before the new system went into place.
At any rate, the LSJ is right that this new change will cause longer meetings every other Monday — because CoW is by nature very long — but a bigger issue may be a few communication missteps and less opportunity for the public to address its government.