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City Officials Spoof Council Meetings

June 9, 2009

Ann Arbor News   7 June 09

emails between council members-

8:14 – Hohnke to the group: “Hey! Don’t forget the Earth Hour … the nonbinding resolution to dim your lights to help global warming.”

8:15 – Taylor to the group: “Dim lights are a natural constituency for some of us.”

8:16 – Greden to the group: “Mostly the 5th Ward.”

8:21 – Taylor to the group:

“Yep ; -)”

Editorial: Ann Arbor City Council’s e-mailing shows disrespect

by The Ann Arbor News      7 June 09

Photo illustration: Tammie Graves | The Ann Arbor NewsLeigh Greden, from left, Christopher Taylor, Carsten Hohnke, Margie Teall are members of the Ann Arbor City Council.

There’s a lot that’s wrong with the practice of Ann Arbor City Council members e-mailing each other during council meetings.

It prevents the public from fully understanding the workings of the council, and from knowing council members’ opinions on certain matters. It calls into question the council members’ focus on the job at hand. It at least skirts violations of the Open Meetings Act. And it’s just plain rude.

As detailed in Judy McGovern’s story on Page A1 today, this comes up now as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request from an environmental group. The filing yielded some e-mail exchanges among members of the City Council that took place during council meetings, using the laptops and e-mail accounts council members are provided as part of their positions.

Not everyone on the council engaged in the hijinks. At least in this batch of e-mails, Mayor John Hieftje and Council Members Mike Anglin and Sabra Briere did not participate at all, while Sandi Smith and Stephen Rapundalo kept it to a minimum. Leigh Greden, Margie Teall, Christopher Taylor and Carsten Hohnke were the most active; Marcia Higgins and Tony Derezinski fell in the middle.

The content of the e-mails isn’t particularly nefarious. At least in the snapshot this batch gives us, there are no secret deals being made. The bulk of it is high spirits - council members teasing each other for “pandering” and so on. At one point Greden takes a playful shot at the residents of another city ward.

However, there are times when the discussions get much too close to conducting public business out of the public eye - for example, Teall asking Greden, “Will you actually vote for this?” about a resolution before the council. Or an exchange about postponing a particular vote.

With no court decision or attorney general’s opinion directly on point, smart people can disagree about whether things like that violate the letter of the Open Meetings Act. But they certainly violate its spirit.
The law exists for a reason: The public’s business is supposed to be done in public. This practice evades that principle. And for that reason alone, it’s inappropriate.

But there are other reasons too:

• Some of the exchanges show disrespect for people and issues before the council. On one of the nights in question, the council passed a resolution backing the dimming of lights in tall buildings as a protection for migrating birds. Yet it undercuts the sincerity of that action to discover it touched off a tongue-in-cheek email exchange about how surely there must be something else that needs protection.

• It’s just not the right way to treat people. This is an electronic version of whispering behind someone’s back. Whether the real target of the humor is the public or the council members themselves - as those who do it maintain - is beside the point. The whole practice is exclusionary, unprofessional and downright childish.

• Finally: For crying out loud, the council members should simply pay attention to what’s happening during the meeting. If what’s being said while these e-mails are providing background entertainment is so unimportant, then why bother saying it at all? Expecting council members to actually listen to whoever’s speaking is setting the bar pretty darn low. But even that seems to be too high for some.

Council work involves some drudgery and meetings can be dull. It’s easy to see how something like this could develop. But this is the job these folks signed up for. There’s just no defense for this. It ought to stop, and an apology is in order, too.

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