FOIA Friday: Never miss a meeting, the Ann Arbor City Hall tack strip and other meeting notification tools
In January of 2010, I wrote an essay on the Michigan Open Meetings Act and the public posting of notices. In it, I described how one crucial component of the City of Ann Arbor's exercise of its official duties to notify the public of public meetings relies on a humble tack strip. Official notices of public meetings, including those which concern approval of multi-million dollar development projects and the expenditure of public funds, are tacked up next to air quality monitoring results.
Here's a guide to the various and several City of Ann Arbor systems that you, as a citizen interested in the process of government, might need to watch and monitor in order to never miss a meeting. A warning: there are more systems to watch than you might expect.
The tack strip
(Edward Vielmetti | AnnArbor.com)
On my visit to city hall Thursday afternoon, I found on this notice board a notice of a meeting of the city's Brownfield Redevelopment Committee, to be held on Monday afternoon at 5:30 p.m. That tacked up piece of paper is an official notice, and suffices under the law as a reminder that the meeting will be held.
The topic of the Monday meeting is a brownfield proposal for redevelopment at Packard Square, a site that currently houses the Georgetown Mall. This meeting is of evident interest to many neighbors of that now-shuttered property, based on the attendance by over 100 residents at a recent meeting.
The glass case
Unlike the tack strip, the glass case on the first floor of City Hall has instructions. City departments that want access to post notices to the glass case can ask the City Clerk's office to post notices for them there.
The case includes the schedules of many of the city's boards and commissions that meet frequently, with an annual meeting schedule prepared in advance. There will also be notices of meeting cancellations, some notices of special meetings, and other publications which are generally required by law under the Open Meetings Act to notify the public of upcoming meetings.
Checking the glass case is a good old fashioned way to see what's coming up. It is, however, not enough. You must check the tack strip to see if someone has put a meeting on the calendar without notifying the City Clerk's office. The brownfield committee's meeting is not in the glass case.
By posting a notice through the clerk's office to the glass case, several other processes are also set into motion. The city's Legistar system, which is used to update an official city calendar of meetings, agendas, and meeting minutes, is updated by the Clerk's office when that office receives a piece of paper to be posted. This generally keeps event notification in sync, because another party receives the notice and logs it into their system, providing a transaction which proves that the notice was published on time as required by law.
Legistar is not without its quirks. Not every board and commission in the City of Ann Arbor government uses it, and so its calendar of upcoming meetings is incomplete. As an example, the brownfield committee meeting is not in Legistar as of this writing - because the committee has not met for some time and thus was not yet set up to use it.
Checking Legistar is a good idea if you don't want to miss a meeting, but also check the glass case - and the tack strip.
The City of Ann Arbor uses GovDelivery, a commercial service which allows citizens to subscribe to notifications of changes or updates for the departments, organizations, and projects that the city has under way. There is an icon on many a2gov.org web pages that lets you subscribe to updates for pages, and you can be notified when changes occur. Other units of government also use GovDelivery, and you can get the word when there are changes to your bus route. It's handy when it works, and not too chatty.
GovDelivery is not without its quirks. Not every change to every web page results in a GovDelivery notification, and not every public meeting and event from every department goes out through GovDelivery. As an example, the Planning Services page from the City Planning division has a handy icon to let you subscribe to planning updates, but the red highlighted text at the top of the page marked New! that announced this brownfield meeting did not originally result in a GovDelivery message going out to notify those who had subscribed to the page.
I spoke with Jill Thatcher of the city's Planning Department after seeing the notice on the tack strip, to ask if I should have gotten a notification; a few hours later, the notice was sent out via GovDelivery.
Signing up for GovDelivery is a good idea if you don't want to miss a meeting, but you should also check Legistar, the glass case - and the tack strip.
Requesting notification of meetings under the Open Meetings Act
The Open Meetings Act specifies that an individual can ask a public body for a subscription to notices of public meetings, to be delivered by electronic mail or via the post. Agencies are allowed to charge a reasonable fee for this service. The actual language reads:
(1) Upon the written request of an individual, organization, firm, or corporation, and upon the requesting party's payment of a yearly fee of not more than the reasonable estimated cost for printing and postage of such notices, a public body shall send to the requesting party by first class mail a copy of any notice required to be posted pursuant to section 5(2) to (5).
If you really, truly, need to never miss a meeting, you should request notification of each meeting to be sent to you in writing. Yes, it will cost a little bit, and it will be a bit of an inconvenience. Weigh that inconvenience against the hassle of looking at the tack strip every day to make sure you didn't miss something of importance.
Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.