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Elizabeth Nelson's City Council Blog

I write a City Council newsletter with my summary of agenda items coming before City Council. Sign up to receive it first via email, or read it here later on this blog.

An Inconvenient Truth: There Is Only One Faction

This week’s news about state-wide redistricting is a reminder of political elections happening in 2022. In the coming weeks, we can expect to hear more and more announcements from candidates declaring their intention to run for different offices, including our local seats on City Council.


BACKGROUND: ELECTED REPRESENTATIVES

Our City charter divides the City into Wards, grouping neighborhoods of common interest together because different parts of town have location-specific concerns. Every neighborhood has two elected Council representatives— these representatives are most closely connected to Ward concerns and advocate on behalf of constituents. The two members of Council elected from a specific ward should be most informed about (and the strongest advocates on behalf of) neighborhood concerns in that ward.


Where local neighborhood interests are inconsistent with or incompatible with broader city interests, our system anticipates advocacy, debate, and potential compromise among the eleven members of City Council. Two Ward representatives can advocate on behalf of a local neighborhood concern but they must also debate the issue with nine other colleagues; the whole of Council considers and decides the issue. The success of our local democracy depends on two very basic concepts:

1. Council Members are elected to represent the residents of local Wards and

2. The whole of Council is tasked with debating and reconciling a range of perspectives


Our local government is quickly shifting to a new model — a majority of our City Council sees its role very differently and has actively worked to reduce opportunities for representation and public debate.


A MESS

This week, MLive journalist Ryan Stanton wrote an article about the “mess” of our current City Council. That article includes a remarkable quote from Council Member (and Mayor Pro Tem) Julie Grand, who commented on the four Council Members who don't necessarily vote with her in the majority:


“I really do wish they could learn to count sometimes. It would make our meetings go a lot faster.”


https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2021/12/ann-arbor-is-one-of-michigans-great-cities-so-why-is-its-government-such-a-mess.html


This comment is remarkable insofar as it acknowledges the team voting of the Council majority and also suggests that these Council Members are immune to any advocacy or debate. Council Member Grand validates concerns that I wrote about earlier this year (2/16/21):

https://www.a2elnel.com/post/reflections-on-feb-16th-council-meeting


In my three years on City Council, I have witnessed two very different styles of government. Below, I explain the most dramatic changes we have seen in the last year.


TRANSPARENCY & DEBATE

In 2020, a new Council declared that our meetings were too long, that the work of City Council was too time-consuming. They insisted that short meetings with less debate were “good government.” I raised the alarm about this new approach almost a year ago (1/8/21):

https://www.a2elnel.com/post/local-democracy


The current Council majority has aimed to reduce the length of our public agendas by wholly removing issues from Council consideration. They have worked to delegate policy decisions around roads, spending, and development to City staff and unelected Mayoral appointees. Efforts to eliminate Council responsibility began soon after 2020 elections; I wrote about it here (1/16/21):

https://www.a2elnel.com/post/council-responsibility


Our local government is now significantly less transparent than it once was: there is less time for debate and fewer issues even land on our public agendas for a vote.


When issues do land on our public agendas, a new majority regularly derails policy debate by taking turns repeating off-topic talking points. Typically, Council members take turns attacking specific colleagues or invent their own ideas about “process” and “collaboration” to wholly avoid substantive discussion of policy. These tactics were on display at a meeting this fall and I wrote about it (9/12/21):

https://www.a2elnel.com/post/political-games-and-distractions


Residents who watch our meetings now compare City Council to the movie “Mean Girls.”


Council Member Grand’s comment to MLive this week - her wish that Council Members would “learn to count” — is insightful. There is voting data and it can be counted. The whole of our community could learn a lot from how Council votes.


THE MYTH OF TWO “TEAMS”

City Council is often described as having two teams: every elected member of Council is theoretically allied with a faction of colleagues. I prefer the word “team” instead of “faction” because our local democracy is now much more similar to team sporting events: public competitions planned for spectators, with the goal of defeating or eliminating opposition. The two-teams theory assumes that no member of Council is a truly independent representative for their Ward, that every elected member is influenced by (and supported by) a loyal group of colleagues.


The public record of City Council does not support this theory of two teams.


In 2019, Dave Askins (of the former Ann Arbor Chronicle) studied three months of Ann Arbor City Council voting records. Using a statistical technique called multidimensional scaling, Askins plotted voting patterns. He found evidence of one and only one faction/team of Council members from different Wards. In this model, an algorithm clusters Council Members who vote similarly to other Council Members, and spaces out Council Members who vote differently.

https://daveaskins.com/2019/06/09/analysis-breaking-down-the-two-faction-framing-of-ann-arbors-city-council-politics/


Below, my husband and I extended that analysis to include all voting data from November 2018 through November 2020 (approximately 860 items).


The Council of 2018-2020 included seven members who voted independently and four members who voted as a “team.” Voting patterns in the last year show that these team politics have gotten much much worse. Below is an illustration of voting patterns from November 2020 through December 2021 (approximately 450 items)



COUNTING THE VOTES

The visualization above is helpful in understanding relative difference. The closest proximity of dots in the illustration above shows where Council colleagues voted together, greater distance illustrates where Council colleagues vote differently. Below is an explanation of it in numbers.


Since the November 2020 elections, Council Members have participated in approximately 450 votes. In all those votes, a block of seven Council Members voted independently (non-unanimously) fewer than thirty (30) times. The tightest cluster of dots reflects the fact that Council Member Song (Ward 2) and Council Member Grand (Ward 3) and Council Member Eyer (Ward 4) voted differently fewer than ten (10) times.


A point of reference: from 2018-2020, Council Members participated in approximately 860 votes. In all the votes during those two years, seven Council Members - those who did not ally themselves with Mayor Taylor - voted independently (non-unanimously) over 275 times.


WHY THIS MATTERS

There is only one group of elected representatives that predictably vote together, but people still cling to the idea of two voting blocks. Why? The interests of our community are better served when elected leaders consider issues thoughtfully and vote independently. Elected leaders who don’t think or vote independently would like the community to believe that NO elected leaders think or vote independently. Pretending that there are two “teams” is an obvious, defensive posture: “everyone is guilty” and the problem exists on “both sides.”


For residents who see Council members as their elected representatives, it is especially important to understand: City Council currently has one team of seven who vote mostly in lock-step together. These seven Council Members vote together while theoretically representing five different constituencies in five different parts of the City. Unfortunately, Council Member Grand’s remarks to MLive paint an accurate picture of our current City Council. Residents who would like their Ward representatives to advocate for local neighborhood concerns are likely to be disappointed— the whole of our community must learn to count to seven.


I regularly see myself described as allied with one or another of my colleagues in a “faction” or I am described more generally as “against” the Mayor.


I am allied with Ward 4 and the residents who reach out to me with ideas and concerns. I am now the only member of Council who holds regularly scheduled coffee hours. I recognize Council's obligation to reconcile a range of viewpoints. I am often persuaded by debate at the Council table, when we are able to discuss the real impact and consequences of the decisions before us.


I am against recent efforts to reduce Council’s accountability to residents and the larger community. I am against the distortion of facts and political games used to avoid (or distract away from) serious policy debate. I am most vehemently against a political machine that vilifies dissent and cements divisions in our community. I have written on that topic repeatedly, but most recently here (8/14/21):

https://www.a2elnel.com/post/q-a2-nonsense


MESSAGING VERSUS REALITY

In 2020 campaigns, Mayor Taylor made the wild claim that “a conservative Council majority threatens to push Ann Arbor in the wrong direction.” The direction that Mayor Taylor apparently prefers - what now exists, since the 2020 elections - is an elected body that votes as a block and will not be persuaded by debate or advocacy from residents. We have seen the dangers of a seven-member voting block, how it can be exploited for the benefit of special interests.


E.g. Regulation of short-term-rentals (STRs) is undeniably a progressive issue; STR’s are recognized as a threat to housing supply and housing affordability generally. The City Council of 2018-2020 approved strict regulation of these businesses, despite loud opposition from property investors. Shortly after their election, Mayor Taylor’s new “progressive” Council majority (five of whom were endorsed by the Ann Arbor Realtors Association) voted together in approving huge loopholes in that ordinance, for the benefit of a small number of property investors. Six months after our “progressive” majority voted to protect property investors, Republicans in the Michigan Legislature voted to protect property investors statewide. I wrote about it here:

https://www.a2elnel.com/post/state-house-bans-local-regulation-of-short-term-rentals


More recently, the same majority has opposed discussion of TC1 affordable housing premiums, delayed study of sustainable municipal power, and voted against workplace protections for a whistleblower. If Ann Arbor aims to be responsive to community concerns and genuinely progressive, a voting block of any sort (but particularly one led by Mayor Taylor) is clearly not the way to get there.


LEARNING FROM THE PAST

In 2020 Council elections, five candidates campaigned as a team while claiming to be grassroots, thoughtful, independent thinkers. Five candidates were endorsed by the Mayor and spent an unprecedented amount of money (over $150,000) to win elections to represent five different Wards. During her campaign, then candidate Linh Song insisted to Mlive that she and the four other candidates endorsed by Mayor Taylor were “not coordinating with Taylor” and that they were “independent thinkers in command of their own policy choices.”

https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2020/02/ann-arbor-library-board-leader-announces-city-council-campaign.html


In 2022, a new roster of candidates are likely to make similar claims about independence and “not coordinating” with the current block of votes on Council. Residents who pay less attention to local politics almost certainly do not realize what is happening. I urge everyone who cares about our local democracy to think about the impact you can have, talking to friends and neighbors. Our community deserves a City Council that does more than count to seven.