City Gains Meeting Approval

August 18, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — One issue on the recent primary ballot went largely unnoticed, yet it has the capacity to affect how the city conducts business for many years to come.

Voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the city charter that allows the city commission to meet on a biweekly basis instead of each week. Nearly three-quarters of the 18,087 residents that voted on the measure agreed to make the pilot meeting schedule the commission has followed this year permanent, and a busy Mayor George Heartwell was more than satisfied with the outcome.

“I was pleased with it as much for other commissioners as I was for myself. I don’t know that it is going to significantly change my regular work schedule. But rather than being in commission meetings, I’m freed up for other city-related activities on every other Tuesday,” he said.

Heartwell characterized the result as a “strong show of support” for the change and said the final tally was a sign of “confidence and trust” in the city’s elected leadership. Adding to his enthusiasm for the outcome was that the issue flew well below the radar screen.

“There certainly wasn’t a lot of information out there about it. There weren’t campaigns for or against. There were no billboards or yard signs or radio ads,” he said. “So whatever they understood about it, they understood either through word-of-mouth or by reading about it in the local media.”

The biweekly meetings held in the trial period have resulted in larger agendas and more decisions to make at one sitting, in essence crunching what was two weeks’ work under the old schedule into a single session. A recent agenda packet contained 361 pages.

A bigger agenda has also stretched the Committee of the Whole meeting past its targeted one-hour time limit on more than a few occasions and has pushed back the start of other meetings commissioners attend, which often include citizen participation.

Commissioners discuss agenda items at the Committee of the Whole meeting before they formally vote that evening.

But despite the heavier workload found at most meetings, Heartwell hasn’t sensed that fellow board members are being snowed under by the agenda.

“I haven’t gotten that feeling. We work hard and put in long hours starting with the 8 a.m. committee appointments meeting and going through the standing committee meetings at 8:30 and Committee of the Whole at 9:30. Usually, it’s rapid fire from one to the other,” said the mayor.

“But we’ve been able to, and I think very effectively, accomplish the city’s work. If there is an issue that needs more discussion, and there is occasionally, I’ll carry it over to the next meeting. If it’s an emergency in nature, you can’t do that,” he added.

Heartwell thought the city has held more public hearings under the two-week meeting schedule than have been held under the old schedule, which has resulted in more chances for public comment. He also thought the city commission’s workflow has been efficiently managed during the test schedule.

The change to the charter doesn’t limit the commission to only meeting on a biweekly basis, and the board can return to a weekly schedule whenever commissioners need or want to do so. For instance, commissioners met each week this spring during the pilot period to put together the current fiscal year budget.

Two commissioners didn’t support the charter change. Second Ward Commissioner Rick Tormala and 1st Ward Commissioner James Jendrasiak spoke publicly against the biweekly meetings. They voiced concerns over the larger agendas and less commission involvement with city staff on important matters.

“But the other five had expressed, either publicly or privately, their support,” said Heartwell.    

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