COUNCIL CAPSULE: How Council Works

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014, 5:00 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

This week City Council is not meeting because of failure to have a quorum (a minimum of three Council members), so we’re taking the opportunity to help ELi readers understand how City Council works—and why we think Council Capsule is important as a result of how Council works.

What does the Council do? In East Lansing, the City Council is fairly powerful; it is the legislative and governing body of the City. It can approve or disapprove budgets, it hires and fires the City Manager and City Attorney, it passes ordinances (laws) and resolutions, it approves development applications and tax plans, it appoints people to boards and commissions, etc. A great deal of day-to-day life in East Lansing is ultimately under the power of City Council.

Five members: East Lansing has five City Council members, all elected by the whole city for four-year terms. (No one represents a particular district.) At the first meeting after a Council election, the five Council members elect the Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem (kind of like a lieutenant mayor) from among the five. Any Council member could be elected Mayor or Mayor Pro Tem, but in practice Council has tended to give these positions to the individuals whose “turn” it is perceived to be.

Mayorship: The Mayor is recognized by the City Charter as the Chief Executive of the City and in practice has a fair bit of power, including in terms of setting the draft agendas for the Council, being privy to a lot of the inside working of the City, etc. If the Mayor is absent or cannot otherwise fulfill her or his duties, the Mayor Pro Tem functions as the Mayor.

Pay: The Mayor is currently paid $9,260/year for his position and the rest of Council is currently paid $8,011/year each.

Meetings: City Council usually meets on Tuesday evenings and in practice Council tends to have a meeting every week. These are divided into two kinds of meetings: (1) official Council meetings and (2) “work sessions.” Historically “work sessions” were used to work out complicated details on draft ordinances, contracts, etc. Nowadays, significant business often takes place at “work sessions”—including votes—which is causing some controversy among Council because work sessions are relatively inaccessible to the public. That means that a lot of business is happening in a forum that is difficult for the public to watch.

Broadcasts/recordings: Official Council meetings (i.e., non “work session” meetings) are videoed, broadcast live and made available on the City website for viewing later as well. (Click here to go to the City page where you can watch Council live and view archived recordings.) By contrast, meetings that are declared “work sessions” are not videotaped, nor are the audio recordings made easily available. That means if you want to know what happens at a work session, you have to attend the session or get the information from someone who attended. This is a major reason ELi brings you Council Capsule; paradoxically, our Council Capsule reports on “work sessions” may be more important than our reports on other meetings because you can always watch replays of the other meetings.

Agendas and minutes: Agendas for City Council are typically made available to the public on Fridays before Tuesday meetings. In practice, it is sometimes the case that key attachments are not made available to the public in a timely fashion. Minutes tend to be extremely vague. Again, this is a major reason ELi brings you Council Capsule.

Public comment: Anyone can write to City Council (at council@cityofeastlansing.com) and when someone does, the communication is recorded in the minutes, but generally goes unnoticed by the public. More noticeable are public comments made at meetings, especially at broadcast meetings. In the past few years, Council members have tended not to respond to public comments, but this year it has been more common for Council members to engage in active dialogue with citizens bringing forward comments. Council does not allow members of the public to use technology like PowerPoint to make presentations, but citizens can bring hand-outs.

Have a question about City Council or some other aspect of life in East Lansing? Use our contact form to submit your question.

 

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