Kristen M. Clark

Council delays release of agendas

By Kristen Daum

The State News


East Lansing city staff has changed the day when City Council agenda packets are available to the public.


The change in availability decreases the time community members will have to review the specifics of agenda items, while giving the same amount time to council members and city staff.


The agenda packets — which are available by request — are no longer released on the Friday before council meetings. In an effort to be "fair" and give council members adequate time to review the material, city staff said it changed its procedure Friday. The packets will now be released to the public on Mondays prior to meetings.


The packet includes the meeting's agenda and subsequent attachments, which provide background information on the discussion items. The agenda itself is still released online Friday afternoons, when City Council members and staff also receive their packets.


City Manager Ted Staton said council members and city staff receive phone calls on the weekends from media and/or concerned citizens, and "we didn't think that was courteous to them or fair to them.


"Staff had certainly mentioned it — even they hadn't had a chance to get through the packet before calls," he said.


Although Staton said the change was in the name of fairness to City Council, he added it was solely a city staff decision.


"I hope East Lansing residents would understand that the council deserves an opportunity for a period of time, whether it's a couple of days, to address an issue before it's made open to the public," Staton said.


Council member Beverly Baten said she wasn't involved in any discussions about giving council members more time to read the packet than the public is and was told of the policy change by The State News.


"Usually, it's enough time, unless it's a lengthy packet," Baten said.


"Most of the times what we have, we've discussed at a work session or during a meeting. We pretty much know the things that need in-depth consideration and usually prepare accordingly."


Other council members agreed many issues brought to the council are ones they've seen before, but some said they still appreciate the extra time to prepare.


"I've had calls from reporters or members of the community, and I might not be prepared to answer and I'll call them back," Mayor Pro Tem Vic Loomis said. "It's rare that I get one before Tuesday morning -- Sometimes you get calls on Saturday and that simply isn't enough time."


The policy change comes just after the kickoff of national Sunshine Week, which lasts from March 16-22. It stresses the importance of open democracy and accountability of public officials, through open meetings laws and the Freedom of Information Act.


The later release date of the City Council's agenda packet — when the agenda is still available at its usual time — is an action opposite of what Sunshine Week stands for and might call into question the openness of East Lansing's government, said Jane Briggs-Bunting, director of the MSU School of Journalism and a media lawyer.


"The intent behind the Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act is to provide the free flow of information," said Briggs-Bunting, who also serves as the president of The State News Board of Directors. "There's nothing illegal about what they're doing, but it certainly doesn't help the public."


But Staton and several council members said this policy change doesn't diminish the transparency of city government.


"We are more than free with information; we make ourselves available," Staton said. "You have virtually unfettered access to staff. You want to speak to someone at the university, you talk to (MSU spokesman) Terry Denbow. We're making the actual public officials responsible and available to the media regularly, routinely, openly.


"It's completely free-flowing, and we're not changing that at all."

March 20, 2007 • News • Page 1A