So I’m always talking about how Democracy is awesome. But do I ever do anything about it? No.

Well, today I went to a city council “Caucus” meeting. These are informal meetings held the night before the real city council meetings. I don’t know what, exactly, I was expecting, but this was not it.

It turns out, it was just me, Sabra Briere – one of the two city council members from ward 1, and Dave Askins of the Ann Arbor Chronicle, sitting on the floor in the lobby because the door was accidentally locked. Democracy in action!

Now, I get a little political bug in my ear every couple years and think “I should participate.” Last time that happened, I helped Yousef Rabhi get elected to Washtenaw County commission. That was cheating, though, cuz all I did was make his website. So that’s not like actually getting involved in politics. The time before that, I started a little habit of going to city council meetings. When I was there, I got the distinct impression that all the decisions were made long before anything actually got on the agenda at the council.

Eventually, I learned that these “Caucus” meetings were a place where I could get some actual information. Now, I’m a little bit challenged when it comes to absorbing and recalling details that I read about complicated things such as politics. I have a hard time absorbing newspapers. Most, I’ve found in my life, aren’t much use to a person interested in becoming an active citizen. But when I do read an article that is useful, it slides off of me. The only way I’m going to get a grip on what is going on ever is if I go meet these people myself, find out what’s going on, and take notes. I might as well write up what I hear in case anybody else can benefit from my “journey of discovery”. If it looks like I’m going to be doing this a bunch, I’ll start a real blog. I may start a wiki to keep track of names of people and such, or I may contribute to ArborWiki. I heard a lot of names tonight.

Anyway, so there I was sitting on the floor tonight. Let’s talk about what I learned.

We discussed the things that are on the agenda for tomorrow’s (Monday, 2011-08-15’s) city council meeting.

"Act 88" millage

Okay, so this is actually a county issue. The county has the ability to levy millages, under Michigan Public Act 88 of 1913. Unlike millages passed by the city, these don’t need to be approved by a referendum of voters. Apparently, there would be a budget shortfall for the county this year if the millage is not passed.

The millage is small. They were saying numbers like $0.60 for each $1,000 of taxable value of a property. Unfortunately, I did not have my computer out at this time and was not taking notes, so I don’t have exact numbers. Also, the city council agenda is insufficiently detailed to include this information. The agenda for the 2011-09-07 Washtenaw county commission meeting has not yet been posted.

However, good note-taking is one of the things that separates an idle blogger from a “journalist”, so I shall refer to the Ann Arbor Chronicle, which has covered this very issue in the past. So, apparently, what’s on the table is raising the millage from 0.043 mills to 0.05 mills. This will supposedly raise $688,913 for the county each year.

Okay, so like every millage, this one will end up with taxpayers paying a vanishingly small amount and raising a large sum of money for the county. What will this money be spent on? Well, if you followed the millages, under Act 88 link above, you’ll know that these monies must be used for advertising the advantages of doing business in the county. Spurring business, in other words. A commendable goal, in “this economy”.

In Ann Arbor, a major recipient of this money is Ann Arbor SPARK, a business incubator. Dave Askins tells me that this organization was an idea from Rick Snyder back in the day. According to Dave Askins, SPARK was supposed to have measurable cause-and-effect style results, where you could say “THIS is how many jobs we created. THIS is what businesses we created”. The real effect, according to Sabra Briere has been a little more nebulous – they’ve created a culture that makes it easier for business to flourish and for startups to start up. But can you point to one particular business and say “SPARK did this. Without SPARK, this wouldn’t have happened”? Not so much. It’s hard to say. (Sorry, I didn’t take the time to get a cite for Rick Snyder’s vision of SPARK, or for the actual results.)

Anyway, so let me summarize what we know about this issue so far: On the agenda for the 2011-09-07 meeting of the Washtenaw county board of commissioners is the question of whether to raise the “Act 88” millage from 0.043 to 0.05 mills. It’ll raise $688,913 for the county each year, and balance the county budget. In Ann Arbor, SPARK is a major recipient of this money.

But wait! You would be right to wonder: This is a county issue. What does this have to do with the Ann Arbor City Council?

Well, tomorrow, the council will vote on a resolution in support of this measure. The resolution would urge the county to pass this proposal.

Anyway. It was the feeling of some city council members (Hohnke, Smith, and Teall are the sponsors of the bill) that the county may require a little extra boost of support in order to get this passed. Apparently, last time this issue came up, it was passed with only 7 yeses, out of 11 commissioners.

So there you have it.

Okay, so apparently I remembered more of what they said than I thought I did. I wonder how much I’m going to write about the stuff I did take notes on!

Pooled Investment Fund Loan

Okay, so remember how, back in 2008, the city of Ann Arbor built an extravagant new city hall building? The money for this was raised by selling $27,660,000 of bonds (warning: extremely inappropriate use of powerpoint. I’m citing page 17, where it says “The Ann Arbor Municipal Center Fund sold $27,660,000 of bonds to fund the construction of the City’s new District Courts & Police facility addition to the existing Guy C. Larcom Building.” I couldn’t find the actual passage of this bond issue, otherwise I’d quote that.) How were these bonds to be repaid? Through many sources. One of these sources was the sale of the parking lot on first and Washington, expected to raise $3,000,000. Weelllll, apparently, the sale has not yet been finalized, even three years after the approval of the sale. So how are we to pay for this fabulous new city hall building we have?

This proposal is for the city to “borrow” money from itself. Specifically, to borrow money from the “Pooled Investment Fund”, which is money that the city has squirreled away over the years and put into investments. What does the “Pooled Investment Fund” pay for? According to Sabra Briere, the city’s retirement fund is among the things that the fund pays for (she wasn’t actually sure, though). I tried to find a description of all the funds, but I’m getting a little too tired. Here’s the webpage of the city’s financial department, though. Maybe you can find it.

So, what is the plan to pay back this “inter-fund loan”? Why, the sale of that First and Washington lot will go through one day. We’ll just pay it back then! And what if it doesn’t go through? Sabra Briere pulled out her city-issued laptop and pulled up the full text of the proposal. Apparently, if the sale doesn’t go through, the city’s “general fund” is supposed to pay for it. This sounds to me like they’re saying “how will we pay for it? SOMEHOW!” Good plan, guys. That sounds to me like using your credit cards to pay off your student loans. This, I have heard, is unwise.

Anyway, that’s on the agenda for tomorrow.

Change the composition of the Board of Trustees of the City’s Employee Retirement System Board

So here’s how it works right now: The city has a retirement system fund with a special board of trustees. The board of trustees is composed of the following people: The city administrator, three anybodies appointed by the city council, two anybodies elected in a general city election, and two people elected by the police and fire departments. This is all laid out in section 17.2 of the Ann Arbor city charter.

But wait: The city administrator is a major beneficiary of the retirement fund. Isn’t it a bit of a conflict of interest for this person to serve on the board of trustees? Apparently, some people think so, because tomorrow’s council meeting agenda contains a proposal to change this state of affairs, and make the city administrator not be on the board of trustees. I didn’t catch who it was who brought this up. I figured I could at least get the sponsoring council members’ names from the agenda. This is not so.

This is a change to the city charter. This must be approved in a city-wide referendum vote. Therefore, the thing on the agenda for tomorrow is not the proposal to change the law. It’s a proposal to authorize a referendum. If this passes, the issue will come to the people’s ballot in the next election (when, exactly? I could probably find out).

Now, is this change entirely necessary? Maybe not so much, anymore. You see, we are about to get a new city administrator. I didn’t catch his name, but he hasn’t started yet. With the new administrator, there’s a new arrangement. The new city administrator will not be a beneficiary of the city’s retirement fund. Instead, he will pay into a 401(k). So that eliminates the conflict of interest.

Now, this change is part of the new city administrator’s contract, so it may not be a permanent structural change. So, as far as I can tell, future city administrators may once again have this conflict of interest.

It’s a consideration.

By the way, didn’t I say that the city retirement is paid for out of the “Pooled Investment Fund”? Why does the retirement fund have its own separate board, then? Well, I’m not exactly sure. For one thing, Sabra Briere wasn’t entirely sure that the pooled investment fund paid for retirement. But if so, my guess would be this: The city has a lot of funds like this, where they have to invest and save for the future. The retirement fund is only one of them. Therefore, instead of each fund deciding separately on how to invest, they create this pooled investment fund, and each of the separate city investment funds just contributes to that and gets paid out of that. Therefore, you only have to have one staff managing the investments of all these funds. And I would guess that the board of trustees for the retirement fund looks at what the pooled investment fund is doing and decides whether to stay a part of it, or makes suggestions of how that money could be better invested.

That’s just my guess. To be sure, I’d have to contact the members of that board.

Permanent easement

I wish that I had permanent easement in my life.

But apparently that’s not what those words mean. Here’s the deal: Back in the 60s, the city bought up a bunch of land. They were gonna demolish the buildings there to build a “Packard/Beakes bypass” that would allow people to skip right through downtown and on to the soon-to-be-built Briarwood Mall.

Well, the bypass was never built, so the city slowly sold the land back to various people.

One of the current holders of some of this land is Peter Allen. This is the building that now houses Salon Vox. This dude wants to sell the building, but there’s a super technical problem preventing the sale. There was an error when the city sold the building, and so the property does not include the back-door access. Having this back-door access is a legal requirement because there’s apartments up above Salon Vox. So there’s a proposal to grant a permanent easement that would allow this sale to go through.

Somebody pointed out, though, that there may be a monetary value to this easement. This person may have been city attorney Chris Frost or Kevin MacDonald. They said that the city should make Peter Allen pay $12 per sq.ft. There are about 100 sq feet at issue here. Rumor has it (from Sabra Briare) that Sandi Smith called this price “inaccurate” and wants to get the city assessor involved.

Anyway, you can hear all about the Super! Exciting! Drama! tomorrow at the city council meeting tomorrow. Also, Sabra Briere mentioned a building commission meeting tomorrow that would be discussing this. I couldn’t find it. Perhaps she meant the city planning commission? But that doesn’t meet until Tuesday, 2011-08-16, the day after the city council meeting. Go fig.

Also, you won’t find this issue on the city council agenda. It’s a SNEAK ATTACK! agenda item, because the language still hasn’t been finalized. I don’t know what happens in this situation. Perhaps the council has to vote on whether or not to hear the issue.

Medical marijuana licensing fee

Okay, here’s the deal: Y’know how medical marijuana is legal in Michigan now? Well, apparently the city of Ann Arbor has passed two ordinances restricting medical marijuana.

One such restriction sets zoning requirements on marijuana dispensaries, saying that you can’t operate a dispensary within 1000ft of a school, and that you can only operate a dispensary on land that meets certain zoning requirements. I haven’t read that thing yet, so I’m not entirely sure what the requirements are.

The other restriction was an ordinance requiring that dispensaries be licensed. Only a certain number of licenses will be granted. In order to get a license, you have to prove that you were operating before August 5, 2010. This was the date on which Ann Arbor passed a moratorium on new dispensaries.

There’s something like ten dispensaries operating right now. When the licensing law goes into effect, all the people who are currently operating will have 60 days to apply for a license. Also, the number of licenses they give will be roughly equal to the number of dispensaries currently active. If there’s any spaces left, then new dispensaries will have 15 days to apply for a license.

A couple of the dispensaries in operation now are in violation of the new zoning laws. They are petitioning to have their zoning status changed, so that they can continue operating.

However, don’t get too excited. This is all in the past. It’s a done deal. I know I have opinions on this stuff, but it would do little good to voice them at this point. That’s why I want to stay on top of things - so I can speak up at the right times.

The only issue on the agenda tomorrow is this: How much do you have to pay in order to apply for a license? The proposal: $600. Note that this is just the fee to apply for a license. If you are granted a license, you’ll have to pay more for the actual licensing fee. How much more? This has not been set yet.

Incidentally, would you like to hear some gossip? Apparently, Wendy Rampson is the Planning Manager down at the city planning department. She is in charge of getting people to apply for these licenses. She sent a letter to those people that are known to be operating dispensaries. Ten people in all. So, in order to be eligible for the first round of applications, you have to prove you were operating a dispensary before 2011-08-05. Wendy Rampson asked for the following proof: An affidavit that you were operating a dispensary before this time; patient rosters; receipts that prove you’re buying and selling medical marijuana equipment.

Well, these ten businesses replied and gave the affidavit, but did not supply the other information because, Dude.

So Sabra Briere goes over to Wendy Rampson and is all “Dude, you don’t decide who gets these licenses. Just let ‘em apply, dude. The licensing board will determine who actually gets the licenses.”

Who is on that licensing board? It’s not decided yet. It’ll have 1 city council member, 1 member of the public, and 3 physicians. Sabra Briere has sent her recommendations to the mayor, who I guess is in charge of appointing them. No word on when those appointments will go through. I’m sure the composition of the board is all spelled out in the licensing ordinance I linked to above. I haven’t read it yet, though. :-#

Idling ordinance

There is some sort of ordinance dealing with leaving your car idling. This was proposed by the environmental commission, so it’s saying something along the lines of: Don’t leave your car idling. The city agenda links to the text of the proposed bill. It’s a 17 page document that talks about how bad idling is for the environment. The law says that you can’t leave the car idling when you’re not in it, and that you can’t leave your car idling for more than 5 minutes when you are in it.

How will they enforce it? Well, there will be penalties on the order of $100 for reg’lar folks and $500 for commercial folks. But mostly, they just want to put up signs and do education.

The council will be talking about this ordinance tomorrow. However, the vote is not about whether or not to pass this ordinance. If they vote yes, what will happen is that the city staff is authorized to clean up the bill and bring it back later. They may have changed it. They may not bring it.

I’m not exactly sure which “city staff” is dealing with it. Is this how all the laws are passed? I hope not, because the environmental committee contains elected representatives whereas the city staff does not. I hope that the city staff doesn’t have the power to scuttle any bill they feel like. They probably don’t, though, so I’m probably misapprehending this in some way. Or perhaps this is something particular about this bill? I don’t know.

Okay, well that’s about all I learned about. I wonder if I will keep it up this time? We’ll see. Being a good citizen does appear to be a time-consuming activity, though. I went to this meeting at 7pm and it is now 1am. That’s 2 hours meeting and 4 hours writing about it. And I should probably go to the actual city council meeting tomorrow and then talk about it on the radio in the morning. I’m on 88.3fm, Tuesday mornings, 6-9am.

If it looks like I’ll be writing about this kind of stuff often, I’ll spin it out into a separate blog, so that this website can continue to just be a chronicle of my awesome dreams.