New rule bans e-mail exchanges between Ann Arbor City Council members during meetings
In recent months, the quiet exchange of e-mails between Ann Arbor City Council members has led to a lawsuit against the city, a council member being voted out of office and a flurry of debate over the legality of unseen electronic deliberations during public meetings.
Now it's the subject of a new council rule: No more e-mails, with few exceptions.
The City Council voted 11-0 on Tuesday to approve changes recommended by the council's Rules Committee. Under a section about council member conduct, the rules now state: "During Council meetings, members shall not send electronic communication to persons other than City Staff; provided however, that members may send draft motions, resolutions, and amendments to all members."
That rule goes on to read: "Members shall not respond to member-distributed draft language via electronic communication. All draft language sent by electronic communication during Council meetings shall be read into the record prior to discussion by Council."
Essentially, the rule puts an end to the sometimes snarky and joke-filled e-mails some council members have made a habit of exchanging with each other during meetings. It also puts an end to behind-the-scenes deliberations in which council members have traded e-mails discussing items pending before the council.
The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and two local businesses last month filed suit against the city, alleging that council members violated the state's Open Meetings Act by secretly e-mailing each other during a discussion on the proposed $59 million underground parking structure being built on Fifth Avenue in downtown Ann Arbor.
"The committee had quite the discussion about it," Councilwoman Marcia Higgins, D-4th Ward, said of the e-mail issue. She said it was something brought to the attention of the Rules Committee.
Sabra Briere, D-1st Ward, another member of the Rules Committee, pointed out the rules don't address matters of ethics. She said a separate ethics policy would be needed if desired by the council.
"This is not about how council members conduct themselves, and I wanted to make that clear because I think there are some people in the public who are expecting council rules to deal with ethics," Briere said.
Councilman Leigh Greden, D-3rd Ward, will mark an end to his six years on the City Council in November - in part thanks to e-mails he exchanged during council meetings over the past year. Several voters in last month's primary, in which Greden was ousted by challenger Stephen Kunselman by six votes, said they were voting against Greden because of e-mails he sent.
Greden has apologized for the e-mails and acknowledged a lapse in judgment. The e-mails were made public by the news media through the Freedom of Information Act.
Kunselman has vowed to bring forward an ethics policy when he takes office to restore the public trust in city government.
Councilman Mike Anglin, D-5th Ward, reminded fellow council members Tuesday night that he plans to bring forward a resolution about e-mails at the next council meeting Sept. 21. He's asking the city's staff to create a free online database where citizens can sift through all e-mails traded by council members dating back several years. He said it's about one thing: transparency.
Ryan Stanton covers government for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or 734-623-2529.