Draheim Says Council Members Pulled “Bait and Switch” on Leaves of Absence
Above from left: Council Members Shanna Draheim, Erik Altmann, and Aaron Stephens.
“I feel like this was a little bit of a bait and switch….I feel like East Lansing City Council is about serving my community members, I feel like it’s about good governance, and I don’t think it [should be] about political game-playing. I’m frustrated that for the next two months we’re going to basically sit on our hands and not really conduct any real business.”
So said Council Member Shanna Draheim at Council’s meeting this Tuesday evening, as she announced that it had become clear to her she never should have voted to grant Mayor Mark Meadows and Council Member Ruth Beier leaves of absence.
According to an interpretation of the City Charter now provided by City Attorney Tom Yeadon, while Meadows and Beier are away, the three remaining members can’t move forward on any business unless all three agree.
This is not just a theoretical problem. On Tuesday, Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann refused to go along with Draheim and Council Member Aaron Stephens’ desire to schedule two public hearings – one on medical marijuana provisioning centers, the other on residential street parking permits.
Draheim and Stephens wanted to schedule the hearings for when Meadows would be back in October. But Altmann made clear that – even with the two members that often vote with him gone – he still effectively holds the power of veto.
Draheim said that if she had received clear counsel on what these leaves of absence would really mean, she would have voted against them on August 14. If she and Stephens had voted against, the leaves would not have been granted.
“I am disappointed that when this came up and was thrown on the agenda at the last minute, we did not get good counsel and good guidance on what a leave of absence meant,” she said at this Tuesday’s meeting. “I assumed that that meant we were down to three council members and that we could go forward with the business off this city.”
“I’m mad at myself for trying to be a good colleague,” she said. “I should have stuck with my guts and voted ‘no’ that night, to not excuse that leave of absence.”
Draheim told ELi in a follow-up telephone interview, “I am disappointed at the way the process has played out. I am frustrated that, in granting a leave of absence to council members, it has impacted our operating procedures. We can’t effectively do some of the business of the city, and that’s disrespectful to residents and businesses.”
Draheim continued, “It doesn’t support efficient and good governance. I’m especially frustrated that it happened when we’re coming out of summer when we don’t meet as much, it makes for a long lag time in addressing significant policies that would otherwise be ready to move forward.”
Stephens told ELi via email, “I am honestly at a loss. I voted for those leaves of absence understanding that life happens, and we should be accepting of that, but I did that, maybe out of ignorance, with the confidence that we as a city would continue to operate in our full capacity. Apparently, I was wrong.”
He went on, “People deserve to have their voices heard on every issue. And what I heard [from Altmann at the meeting], which is the scariest part of all, is that public hearings aren’t useful unless something is going to pass. The idea that getting public input on a matter, having the people that we represent come to us and weigh in, has no effect on a decision that we make, is insulting.”
For Stephens, the issue is one of transparency: “I don’t walk into a City Council meeting knowing exactly how I am going to vote each time. I like to hear from our staff, other councilmembers, and most importantly, the people I represent. I learn from all of that, and sometimes it even changes my opinion about something because that’s how it should be. Democracy shouldn’t be about us, it should be about the people we serve. That meeting was very disappointing to say the least.”
Beier declined to speak on the record to ELi on the matter. Meadows responded from abroad that he cannot watch the video from there but is "happy to address all questions when I return and review." Altmann did not respond to emailed questions.
Tensions flared as Altmann explained his position:
Meadows is on vacation in Spain through October 1, leaving Altmann to function as mayor. Beier will miss much of Council’s meetings this semester because the meetings conflict with a class she’s taking at MSU.
Back on August 14, with Beier absent, four members of Council voted to grant Meadows and Beier leaves so that they would not lose their seats for missing meetings. The City Charter provides that a member who misses four consecutive meetings without being excused automatically loses her or his seat.
Early in this Tuesday’s meeting, Altmann made clear he believes that a 2-1 vote at Council is a “failed” vote because of a City Charter provision which requires 3 affirmative votes to pass “resolutions.”
He explained his reasoning: “Under these conditions, there is a Charter provision that comes into play that I wanted to mention, which is that it takes three affirmative votes to take action on a matter no matter how many members are present and voting. And that essentially means that anything that happens at a meeting when we’re at a skeleton crew like this would also happen when we’re at full strength because there are three votes. What it means for today is, if you happen to see a motion fail despite two votes in favor and only one opposed, that’s what’s going on.”
That’s just what happened when Draheim attempted later to set the two public hearings for October 16. In both cases, Altmann said he thought giving more time before a public hearing was a good idea. Additionally, he said he did not think there was a point in having a public hearing if it was unlikely an item would pass.
City Attorney weighs in, aligning with Altmann:
In apparent frustration, Draheim asked City Attorney Tom Yeadon to clarify how the Charter provision applies in the case of setting public hearings.
“I understand that, according to our Charter, no ordinance or resolution can be adopted except as an affirmative vote of at least three members,” Draheim said, “but this is not a resolution or an ordinance. This is a motion to set a public hearing.”
Yeadon explained that the City Charter defines a resolution “pretty broadly.” He pointed to clause which defined “resolution” as “an official act of the Council in the form a motion,” which included “affairs or concerns of the city government.”
“I’ve done some research on this and Charter amendments are supposed to be read as to the intent of the Charter provision,” said Yeadon. “It’s my opinion that any agenda item that needs a motion is a ‘resolution’ pursuant to the Charter Provision and that it needs to have, in this case, unanimous consent to be affirmed.”
Draheim countered that under Council’s Policies and Procedures ordinance, the definition for what would be considered to be a resolution would be any action which would “direct the City Manger or Attorney to act or not to act, or which would approve or disapprove a proposed activity.” She said that a motion to set a public hearing would not direct anyone to act and therefore should not be considered a resolution.
Yeadon then explained that, because the motions before them were on the business agenda for the night, rather than on the consent agenda, they required an action by council to approve them, and therefore they qualified as resolutions under his interpretation of the Charter.
As Draheim noted during the meeting, normally motions to set public hearings are on the consent agenda.
But the mayor decides where an item will fall on the agenda, and in this case, in an extraordinary move, Altmann – acting as mayor – put the motions for the two public hearings on the business agenda. That allowed for Yeadon’s interpretation that Altmann’s votes against mean the motions fail.
More frustration expressed:
Tensions flared most intensely during discussion of the last agenda item, which was the motion to set a public hearing regarding medical marijuana provisioning centers for October 16. Draheim took this opportunity to speak about the situation.
She expressed frustration over the short amount of notice that was given to Council members regarding Mayor Meadows and Council Member Beier’s leaves of absence, saying that they were added to the agenda at 2:10 on afternoon of the day that they were to be voted on.
“We have nothing in our charter that deals with leaves of absence. This was really about missing meetings,” Draheim continued. “I was frustrated and more than a little angry. I could have voted no that night and I didn’t, because I am trying to be a good colleague, I am trying to accommodate people’s needs.”
Altmann responded by saying, “If someone is going to come and present at a public hearing…take the time out of their evening to deliver remarks, and then it turns out that we were just kidding, because there weren’t three persuadable votes in the first place, then if I were the person speaking, I would be a little ticked at that. So there is actually a cost in my mind to setting a public hearing.”
He added, “we don’t know if there are three votes for this version” of the marijuana ordinance before them. So, he said, “we can take another month to find out whether there are three votes for this.”
Speaking directly to Altmann, Stephens responded that he found it troubling to set a public hearing only if Council already knows an item will pass: “I think there’s an incredible amount of benefit to having a public hearing when you don’t know whether something is going to pass or not.”
During her comments at the meeting, Draheim said that a provision in the City Charter allows two Council members to vote to compel other Council members to show up for a meeting. She said she had not yet decided whether to move to do that, but suggested she is considering it.
Update: Mayor Mark Meadows answered email shortly after this article was published, and his response was added to the article as follows: "Meadows responded from abroad that he cannot watch the video from there but is "happy to address all questions when I return and review."
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