I continue to be utterly baffled by the way politics works in this town.
The latest comes from documents obtained by FOIA of emails sent among members of city council during the council public meetings. These messages provide council members with a sub rosa back channel to discuss items on the public agenda and evidently to tease (or ridicule) members of council that they don't agree with.
UPDATE: Two Ann Arbor News stories by Judy McGovern:
Some question appropriateness of mocking e-mail banter during Ann Arbor City Council meetings
Sent from city e-mail accounts, the messages were released by the city
in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Great Lakes
Environmental Law Center.
The Detroit-based law center was seeking communication about the
city's planned underground parking structure on Fifth Avenue. What it
got, in addition, were a series of live e-mail exchanges among council
members during three meetings in February and March.
of the messages discuss business on the council's agenda – such as
whether a vote will be postponed – but more often they spoofed the
Not all Ann Arbor City Council meeting e-mails were horseplay
In addition to quietly poking fun at individuals and groups before
them, some Ann Arbor City Council members apparently used their city
e-mail accounts during meetings to discreetly discuss city business.
I don't know who all has sent in FOIA requests yet, or what will be printed – the best guess I have at this point is that something will show up in the Sunday paper. I've seen copies of what is evidently a very selectively edited set of messages from one meeting, in which one member of council sends email to most but not all members of council, awarding a "golden vomit award" to a council member not included on the email. Is that teasing, ridicule, or an effort to influence future voting? Hard to say.
The Michigan Open Meetings Act is not clear on the status of email communications as meetings. An article in the Citizen Media Law Project site says
Governmental bodies may hold meetings by by written, telephonic,
electronic, wireless, or other virtual means. However, an electronic
meeting is still subject to the notice requirements and must be held at
a designated place and time. While the law is not certain on this
point, it appears that email communications between members of a
governmental body may constitute a meeting if they involve deliberation
on public business.
There's Open Meetings Act litigation underway in Texas, where the questions of balancing First Amendment rights to speech threaten to change laws across the country. I don't understand all the repercussions, but here's the story from the Austin American-Statesman paper:
It started as a minor prosecution of two Alpine City Council members
accused of discussing city business in private e-mails and not, as
Texas law requires, in a public forum.
Now, with a recent U.S. appeals court ruling, the 2004 incident is
mushrooming into a national issue — bringing denunciations from
open-government advocates who fear the decision will cripple laws that
ban elected officials from conducting public business behind closed
The controversy surrounds a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling
that the Texas Open Meetings Act compromised the Alpine council
members' free speech rights and may have to be overturned or rewritten.
The Big Bend Sentinel, the local paper for Alpine, TX, notes that this case may reach the Supreme Court based on the intervention of attorney generals from multiple states.
ALPINE – The recent federal appeals court ruling
in an Alpine Texas Open Meetings Act case that a public official’s
right to free speech is the same as a private citizens may eventually
find its way to the Supreme Court of the United States, an attorney in
the matter said this week.
“Nineteen states have weighed in saying it (the ruling) could change
their open meetings laws,” Alpine attorney Rod Ponton said. “That makes
it a national issue that would need to be decided by the Supreme Court.”
On April 24, a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals, sitting in New Orleans, Louisiana, reversed a ruling by U.S.
District Judge Rob Junell, who initially heard the civil lawsuit
brought by former Alpine City Council members Dr. Avinash Rangra and
As I noted I expect more on this issue in the Sunday June 7 2009 news.