By GABRIEL GOODWIN
Sunday Times Newspapers
ALLEN PARK — The city administration committee Wednesday discussed potential changes to the way council meetings are conducted to make “everything run more efficient and get residents’ questions answered correctly.”
The committee — comprised of Councilman Angelo DeGuilio, Councilman Harry Sisko and Councilwoman Tina Gaworecki — acknowledged city council meetings are not run the way residents should expect and presented their concerns with the rest of the council members.
Gaworecki said the committee worked on improving how the council conducts business and thinks they “came up with a way to become more efficient.” She proposed the council begin meetings with an outline of the rules the council expects of itself and residents.
“I think this would allow the opportunity to begin building respect between the council and residents of this city,” Gaworecki said. “If we mention the rules at the beginning of the meeting and enforce them, then residents would know what we expect from them and what they can expect from us.”
Other changes proposed included: a Thursday deadline for items to be put on the final agenda, more input from the city attorney on maintaining order during the meetings, and a stipulation that residents’ questions be written down and submitted to the council. Sisko said these changes could take away from the appearance that the city is “unorganized or dysfunctional.”
“This is not a suggestion that comments shouldn’t be made and not to say residents can’t ask questions during a meeting,” Sisko said. “But, it would ensure the questions would get answered correctly and there would be some record of that.”
The use of a form for the residents to ask their questions, Sisko said, would allow the council to ensure questions would get answered correctly and allow the time for the council to contact the right department.
He said councilors are not trying to limit residents’ comments during meetings and welcomes their comments, but the council has to do a better job with getting the right information to residents.
“A lot of times residents will step up to the podium and fire off questions in quick succession, which can seem like an interrogation,” Sisko said. “It is not fair for any city official to be bombarded with that many questions without the proper time to prepare.
“Out of good intention we try to give the residents the answers they are looking for, but sometimes that leads to a partially correct or blatantly incorrect answer. We are not the experts on any city matter and believe the department heads should provide those answers to the residents.”
Councilman Bob Keenan proposed department officials be required to attend meetings because they are considered the “experts of their field” and can give “clear, concise” answers to a lot of the questions brought up during meetings.
“A resolution was passed, during my time on this council, to have the department heads present at our meetings,” Keenan said. “But, due to potential overtime, the emergency manager deemed it a cost-saving measure for the city and that stopped.”
When the changes go into effect, the council would like to have all proposed questions answered by the next council meeting and agreed they want to be accountable for that promise being kept. They are still trying to iron out a tracking system that would update them on the status on any question and “could hold not only them, but the right city employee accountable for the timely and concise answers to the residents’ questions.”
“We are in the information age and the way we are going about presenting information is actually choking out what residents need to know,” Sisko said. “It is hard to retrieve misinformation. Residents start to distrust the council when we are constantly correcting ourselves.”
Allen Park City Attorney Randy Kalmbach said residents writing questions down is not a violation of the open meetings act and other entities have asked residents to submit their questions before meetings in the past, such as the Allen Park and Dearborn school boards.
“This process could allow residents more time to make comments and make the council more accessible to all residents because the meetings don’t fit into everyone’s schedule,” he said. “This way, more residents have the opportunity to have their questions heard by the council without their physical presence.”
Keenan said the city attorney should be more involved with the meetings because it would help facilitate the meeting in an “orderly manner” as long as it can be done discretely. Kalmbach said he had “no problems” with more involvement and said he would like more of an advisory role to help the mayor maintain a high level of order during the meetings.
The council made sure to note that residents would still have their chance to comment on any item on the agenda, like they are used to, but this process would allow an efficiency and accuracy that they may not be used to.
The council also addressed the need for timely rebuttals and the perceived “adversarial attitude” because a more “respectful, business-like atmosphere” needed to be promoted.
All council members said they would like for an opinion to be shared in its entirety before a response is made, but it should not be held so it comes across as an individual trying to push an agenda or attack someone.
“The council has been believed to take on the adversarial role against the residents and we need to avoid that,” Keenan said, “We should not appear to be attacking any resident’s opinion during council comments because it makes the entire council look bad.
“A timely rebuttal can ease a lot of the tension within the council chambers. We understand people aren’t always going to see eye-to-eye, but no one should leave feeling intimidated or that a council member is trying to push some sort of agenda.”
Since the meeting was a council study session, it was said these changes could not be voted on then, and would be brought to a future council meeting for consideration. The committee members said they wanted to ensure they were going in the right direction with their recommendations and would begin finalizing their proposals soon.
(Gabriel Goodwin can be reached at [email protected])