Council Members Skirmish Over Power to Set the Agenda

You are on, ELi's old domain, which is now an archive of news (as of early April, 2020). If you are looking for the latest news, go to and update your bookmarks accordingly!


Tuesday, September 17, 2019, 8:00 am
Alice Dreger

Above: Council member Aaron Stephens. Photos by Raymond Holt.

Council member Aaron Stephens is tired of being asked how Mayor Mark Meadows feels about an item Stephens wants put up for a Council vote. As a result, East Lansing’s City Council will vote tonight on whether to change how the business agendas are set.

The current policy gives agenda-setting power for business agendas to the City Manager, not the Mayor or the other four Council members.

At the September 3 discussion-only meeting of Council, Stephens asked his colleagues to consider a change to the Council’s operating procedure that would allow any item to be put on a business agenda if (a) the Mayor wants it there or (b) two members of Council want it.

Meadows (above) countered that Stephens’ suggested policy change would give him more power by specifying that the Mayor can put anything on the business agenda.

Technically, it is true that Stephens’ proposal gives the Mayor more power than he now has in writing. But in practice, the change proposed by Stephens would reduce the Mayor’s power and increase other Council members’ power.

That’s because what’s been happening in reality is that City staff are asking if the Mayor is OK with a proposed agenda item before putting it on. Comments by Council members and responses to Freedom of Information Act requests confirm that is the case.

Meadows has said that if staff is blocking items from the agenda because they think he doesn’t want them on, “that may be staff’s perception.”

Regardless, if Stephens’ proposal passes tonight, any two members of Council will be able to put anything on the business agenda, no matter what the Mayor, City Manager, City staff, or anyone else thinks.

But wait: The agenda for tonight’s meeting shows that Meadows has now done Stephens one better.

Meadows has now proposed a policy change that would allow any single member of Council, not just the Mayor, to put anything on the business agenda.

Both recommended changes will be up for votes tonight.

A long-running point of frustration for Stephens and Draheim

This Council has been unusual in the number of times we’ve seen the same 3-2 split vote, with Erik Altmann, Ruth Beier, and Mark Meadows on one side, and Shanna Draheim and Aaron Stephens on the other.

This specific 3-2 division has happened on two votes to allow taller buildings downtown, a vote to add rental restrictions in the Hawthorn Neighborhood and in Shaw Estates, the decision in 2018 to extend Tom Yeadon’s contract as City Attorney without opening it up to other applicants, the decision in 2019 to give Yeadon three more years as City Attorney with a 25 percent increase in his contract, a vote to give the Mayor more power in responses to Freedom of Information Act requests, and several more minor issues.

Now, both Stephens and Draheim have alluded to times when they wanted something on a Council agenda for a possible vote and that item simply did not appear.

Draheim (above) has said she has been asked “Where is the Mayor on this?” or “Is [a majority of] Council supporting this?”

Meadows insisted by email to ELi, “The Mayor does not have a veto on what goes on the agenda and no council member has ever been told they cannot put something on the agenda, at least while I have been on council.”

But Stephens and Draheim say that, in practice, they’ve been stymied.

“I have had issues in the past that I’d like added to the agenda and been asked whether I had Mark’s OK with it,” Draheim told ELi by email, referring to staff checking with Meadows.

She says she cannot say for sure that she was expressly ever told “no” by staff or the Mayor, “but it was certainly implied on occasion and/or where I had asked for things to make the agenda, they just weren't on there when it went public.”

She gave a specific example: “This happened last summer with medical marijuana.” On that, “We had discussed that it would be on a business agenda in August, and when that agenda came out — it wasn’t there.”

Draheim wants to make clear that “This may have been misunderstanding among all of us and staff about how the provisions of [Council’s policy] is to be implemented. That is the reason for Council member Stephens’ proposed changes to the policy. … If we pass it, this will be a good policy move in my opinion. It gets everyone on the same page.”

If Council is keeping off the agenda items for which there is not majority support, it means, in effect, a violation of Michigan’s Open Meetings Act, because decisions about what will pass or not pass are being made out of the public view.

But in a previous contentious argument about agenda-setting almost exactly one year ago, Altmann said publicly he did not see a point in holding a public hearing on an item if it was unlikely to pass. (Altmann as Mayor Pro Tem was then acting as Mayor, because Meadows was in Spain on a six-week vacation.)

What Altmann and Beier have said lately about agenda-setting

In the recent public discussion about agenda-setting, Altmann (below) pointed out that any two members of Council can now add an item to a business agenda at the meeting itself.

Again, that’s technically true, but Stephens noted that doing it that way gives the public no notice of an item, the way putting it on a published agenda does. Draheim agreed with Stephens, saying it was an issue of transparency.

For her part, Beier (below) said on September 3 that she didn’t want East Lansing’s Council to become like that of Berkeley, Calif., where, she said, people do not “respect the agenda.” She said people there put forward resolutions “about everything” just to show off “their liberal bonafides.”

Altmann said that if any Council member could put anything on the agenda, he expected “political theater” to break out. He said there had to be a balance between voices being heard and getting things done efficiently.

To that, Stephens pointed out that if Altmann wanted, he could move at a meeting to take something off an agenda.

About it all, Stephens told ELi via email, “This was absolutely an issue that needed to be addressed. We as Council members should have equal legislative ability. We were all elected to the same position, and we should all have the ability to represent our constituents effectively.”

The terms of Draheim, Meadows, and Altmann are now drawing to a close. Draheim has decided not to run for re-election, while Meadows and Altmann are up against four challengers.

How you can weigh in:

If you want to weigh in on this subject or any other, you can write to City Council via email or speak in person at the meeting, which is generally more effective. The meeting will begin at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 17, in the second-floor courtroom of City Hall. You can speak during the “public comment” section at the beginning of the meeting.




Related Categories: © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info