Democracy is contingent upon a government’s ability to acknowledge its citizens’ voices. After controversy this summer about the transparency of the Ann Arbor City Council, the council will consider an amendment next month to ban council members from using private e-mail accounts to exchange information related to city business. The amendment is a condition of the settlement of a lawsuit filed against the city by three Ann Arbor businesses. The ban would help hold councilmembers more accountable and would promote the transparency that is inherently a part of a democratic government. City Council should approve the amendment in order to restore the trust of Ann Arbor citizens in their government.

Last summer, e-mails from a Feb. 17, 2009 city council meeting were released to the public, showing that City Council members had been privately sending e-mails to each other regarding a $50 million proposal to build an underground parking structure on South Fifth Avenue — the very topic being debated at the meeting by the public. A group of businesses near the proposed parking structure filed suit against the city in August, accusing the city of violating the Michigan Open Meetings Act, which requires governments to make all records of meetings available to the public. As part of a settlement reached on Mar. 22, City Council must consider a proposed amendment to force members to “use their city e-mail accounts when sending e-mail communications about substantive city business.” The amendment isn’t mandatory — councilmembers still have the option to vote it down.

But they shouldn’t ignore the importance of the amendment. Backroom discussions during open debate reflect poorly not only on the individuals involved, but also on the entire City Council. City Council decisions affect the daily lives of Ann Arbor residents and University students. Council members are elected to represent and listen to the voices of the people of Ann Arbor, but the controversial e-mails show that certain councilmembers weren’t considering their constituencies during important debate. Councilmembers should care about city residents’ opinions, but the e-mails make it seem as though some are more concerned with their own agenda. City Council’s acceptance of this proposal would show that it is dedicated to being an open governmental body.

The technical legality of the e-mails remains in question, but they are symbolic of a culture of exclusiveness in City Council that is unacceptable in a democratic body. To ensure that councilmembers are being honest with the residents they represent, it’s necessary to enact regulations that would require council members to keep all important discussion in the public sphere. And though the wording associated with the proposed amendment is slightly ambiguous, it would still be a valuable endeavor to encourage council members to be more open.

City Council has a responsibility to be completely upfront with the citizens it serves. The amendment would help guarantee that the public’s views are taken into account and allow residents to hold City Council accountable for its actions. City Council should adopt the amendment to show Ann Arbor residents that it is dedicated to an open, transparent democracy.

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