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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.

City Council Newsletter (Jan 1, 2022)

Hello neighbors!

Welcome to everyone who is new to this newsletter! Before every Council meeting, I write up my own summary of each agenda item and try to pull details that I think are most relevant to understanding them. My hope is that these summaries can help residents keep track of what City Council is doing. For issues that matter to you, I encourage you to follow links (next to each agenda item) to the City's Legistar website, where you can find all the background information.


This week City Council is scheduled to have its first in-person meeting since March 2020. Members of the public can participate in our meeting either in person at City Hall or via phone. See the Legistar meeting link below for more information.

https://a2gov.legistar.com/MeetingDetail.aspx?ID=911693&GUID=4BFFA852-AAE0-4DA1-BE42-06D728EBD40A


Members of the public who attend our meeting in person will be expected to wear a mask in Council Chambers and the City will provide them. An alternative location (with remote access to our meeting) will be provided at City Hall for anyone refusing to wear a mask.


Our agenda is extremely short, with three public hearings (two for ordinances at second reading) and only two items of new business. I encourage everyone to take special note of communication item AC-1, a memo outlining recommendations for Unarmed Public Safety Response Program. You can find that memo here:

https://a2gov.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=5365438&GUID=8F62BB3F-47AA-451F-B7AD-F56D00DC67E6


As we start a new year, our community faces familiar challenges related to the coronavirus. My family chose to stay home this holiday break because travel still feels like an unnecessary risk. Over the last two weeks in Ann Arbor, I had more free time to visit local indoor public spaces, shops and businesses - I have been surprised by how many people I see out and about without masks. University staff and students have reached out to me with fears about their upcoming in-person semester, given local infection rates. I appreciate that when our public schools take days off and offer remote learning, the impact on parents and children is huge. However, I also see how our school district is struggling to respond to increasing infection rates, quarantine protocols, and other staffing issues. These problems are real and there are no easy solutions. The last two years have been extremely difficult.


American Rescue Plan Update

Over this holiday break, the City announced a public engagement plan to discuss American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds. Background: on October 1st, Assistant City Administrator John Fournier presented ARP spending recommendations to Council and recommended that they be finalized by December 6th. That memo can be found here:

https://a2gov.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=5158268&GUID=86E594B0-B3AA-4F8C-BF98-F84C6800DE73


I raised concerns about this rushed timeline and Council ultimately extended it to March 1st, 2022. Four days of public engagement meetings will allow residents to learn about and offer feedback about ARP spending proposals:

https://www.a2gov.org/departments/systems-planning/Pages/American-Rescue-Plan-Act-Funding--.aspx


From the City's website, there will be one overview session, and seven project focused sessions:


Wednesday​, January 12 from 6-8 p.m.

Funding Overview and all general question and answer session on all projects.


Project Focused Q&A Sessions

Thursday, January 13

12-1:30 p.m. Miller-Catherine Bike Facility & Vision Zero Implementation

4-5:30 p.m. Community and Law Enforcement Public Safety Data Platform& Unarmed Response

6-7 p.m. Galvanized Water Service Line Replacement


Wednesday, January 19

12-1:30 p.m. Housing for Homeless Households & Property Acquisition for Affordable Housing

4-5:30 p.m. Fire Station 4 (Huron Parkway) – First Net Zero Fire Station in Michigan & Solar on City Facilities

6-7 p.m. City Clerk Election Center


Thursday, January 20

4-5:30 p.m. Universal Basic Income & Coordinated Funding Support


Zoom meeting links are unavailable at this time, but I will share them as soon as I am made aware of them.


I previously wrote about the ARP spending recommendations here:

https://www.a2elnel.com/post/prioritizing-american-rescue-plan-funds


Holiday Tree Disposal Fundraiser

For anyone looking for a good way to dispose of a holiday tree: the Pioneer High School Baseball team is having a fundraiser to collect trees anywhere within 8 miles of the school. January 3rd is the deadline to schedule for pickup on January 9th. More complete information can be found here:

https://a2pioneerbaseball.square.site

 

COVID Emergency Rental Assistance

Anyone who is behind on rent or concerned they will be behind on rent should apply for COVID Emergency Rental assistance through Washtenaw County - this post has more information and a link to the County's website.

https://www.a2elnel.com/post/covid-emergency-rental-assistance


Barrier Busters

Residents in need of financial help during this crisis (e.g. to avoid eviction, pay utility bills, cover emergency medical expenses) can find resources at this link:

https://www.washtenaw.org/2818/Barrier-Buster-Agency-Provider-List


Housing Access for Washtenaw County

Housing Access for Washtenaw County (HAWC) is Washtenaw County’s central intake for individuals and families who are homeless or at-risk of homelessness. If you are homeless or experiencing a housing crisis, please call HAWC at (734) 961-1999

http://www.housingaccess.net/


Coffee Hours

Sunday Jan 2nd 3:00pm

I hold coffee hours Sunday afternoons at 3pm before City Council meetings. This week I will be holding them on Zoom. Please email me for a link: contact@A2ELNEL.com


City Council Regular Meeting

Monday Jan 3rd 7:00pm

Note that starting in January, Council Meetings will be IN PERSON at City Council chambers. Public commentary is still available via phone - see this Legistar link for details.

https://a2gov.legistar.com/MeetingDetail.aspx?ID=911693&GUID=4BFFA852-AAE0-4DA1-BE42-06D728EBD40A

 

A2ELNEL.com Website Updates

In addition to writing this newsletter, I post updates to my website with my perspectives on how issues were resolved at City Council and details on how Council voted at each meeting. I also post information about meetings and issues that affect Ward 4 residents, along with news that affects all city residents.

You can see a listing of all my posts here: https://www.a2elnel.com/blog/

City Council Voting Chart for Dec 20, 2021

https://www.a2elnel.com/post/city-council-voting-chart-for-dec-20-2021


Monthly Winter Curbside Compost Collection begins Jan 3, 2022

The City will collect curbside compost carts during the first weeks of January, February, and March 2022. That means THIS WEEK the City will be collecting curbside compost in addition to the usual garbage and recycling collection.

https://www.a2elnel.com/post/monthly-winter-curbside-compost-collection-begins-jan-3-2022


A2ZERO Ambassador applications due Jan 18 (Program starts Feb 2022)

The third cohort of the A2ZERO Ambassador program will begin in Feb 2022, and the City is looking for 30 participants. Applications are due Jan 18, 2022.

https://www.a2elnel.com/post/a2zero-ambassador-applications-due-jan-18-program-starts-feb-2022


American Rescue Plan Public Engagement Sessions Jan 12-20, 2022

This post describes the eight public engagement sessions as listed in the introduction to this newsletter.

https://www.a2elnel.com/post/american-rescue-plan-public-engagement-sessions-jan-12-20-2022

 

A2COUNCIL Updates (A2COUNCIL.com)

For anyone interested in understanding and analyzing the recent work of Council, I have created a resource at A2COUNCIL.com with summaries of issues and direct links to City documents. For each City Council meeting since November 2018, you can find links to the City's Legistar website, CTN's YouTube video, and links to my newsletters and voting charts. I have listed agenda items of interest from each meeting, along with articles I've written and articles published on MLive.

https://www.a2elnel.com/a2council

http://a2council.com

 

Council Meeting Agenda 1/3/22

Below is my summary of some issues on the City Council Agenda this week, with links to more information about each of them. If you have comments about any of these issues, feel free to email me at my official City email: ENelson@A2gov.org

The full agenda (including a link to the latest published PDF agenda) can be found on the A2Gov Legistar website:

https://a2gov.legistar.com/MeetingDetail.aspx?ID=911693&GUID=4BFFA852-AAE0-4DA1-BE42-06D728EBD40A

Ann Arbor City Council Monday Jan 3rd (7:00pm) Electronic Meeting


City Council meetings are broadcast live by CTN on Comcast (channel 16) and AT&T (channel 99). They are also streamed live on YouTube and Viebit: https://www.youtube.com/user/ctnannarbor

 

Questions to the Agenda

In preparation for a Council meeting, Council members can ask questions of staff about scheduled agenda items. Questions must be submitted by noon on the Wednesday before a Council Meeting, and answers are returned the next day (Thursday) by 5pm.

Agenda Response Memo and eComments

This agenda item has a PDF attachment with all questions raised by Council Members, and the answers provided by staff. Note that because of the holiday weekend, this response memo will be delayed until Monday afternoon.

 

Communications from the Mayor


MC-1 (21-2262) Appointments - Confirmations

These appointments from the Mayor were presented at the previous meeting, and will therefore be voted on at this Council meeting.

  • Alexa Nerdrum - Employees’ Retirement System Board of Trustees

  • Beverly Willis - Historic District Commission

  • Megan Brovan - Transportation Commission

  • Suzette Wanninkhof - Transportation Commission

  • CM Jen Eyer - Economic Development Corporation

MC-2 (22-0005) Nominations and Appointments for January 3, 2022

This appointment from the Mayor is being presented at this meeting, and will therefore be voted on at the next Council meeting.

  • John Splitt - Downtown Area Citizens’ Advisory Council

 

Consent Agenda

Below is the list of items included on the Consent Agenda. If no one on Council specifically requests that an item be pulled for discussion, the whole of this list will be approved in a single vote. I encourage you to look at this list and offer suggestions to me about anything you would like to see pulled for discussion.

CA-1 (21-2215) Resolution to Approve the City’s Contract with Delta Dental Plan of Michigan, Inc., for Claims Administration Services for the City’s Dental Plan through December 31, 2024 ($713,834 in 2022, $785,217 in 2023, and $866,276 in 2024)


CA-2 (21-2244) Resolution to Approve the Renewal of the City’s Contract with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan to Provide Administrative Claims Processing Services and Related Stop-Loss Insurance Coverage Through BCS Insurance Company for the City’s Health Care Plan on Behalf of Employees and Retirees and Their Dependents, and to Authorize the City Administrator to Execute the Necessary Documentation ($2,165,695)


CA-3 (21-2276) Resolution to Approve Deficit Elimination Plan as of June 30, 2021 for the Alternative Transportation Fund

 

Public Hearings

Anyone wanting to comment on these issues may speak for 3 minutes, without having specifically reserved time. Issues subject to public hearing will also be up for a vote by Council later in the meeting.

PH-1/B-1 (21-1956) An Ordinance to Amend Sections 5.22.3 (Storm Water Management and Soil Erosion) and 5.29.6 (Site Plans) of Chapter 55 (Unified Development Code) of Title V of the Code of the City of Ann Arbor (ORD-21-37)

An amendment to the Unified Development Code will change the city process for revision and approval of site plans. Site plans not associated to rezoning petitions will now be reviewed by the city Planning Commission, rather than City Council. Site plans will no longer be required for construction of up to four residential units (current threshold is two units). Up to six residential units may be approved by the Planning Manager, without the review of Planning Commission.


PH-2/B-2 (21-2060) An Ordinance to Amend Chapter 14 (Purchasing, Contracting and Selling Procedure) of Title I of the Code of the City of Ann Arbor (ORD-21-41)

Consistent with ballot proposals approved last month, City ordinances will be amended to reflect changes in the City’s procedures for contracting and purchases. A set of criteria aimed at achieving “best value” will be used to make purchases and enter into contracts over $75,000. Additionally, City Council is empowered to sell “surplus” property by the same standard. From the amended ordinance: “City Council retains the right to dispose of City real and personal property in a manner that provides the best value to the City, with or without competitive bids, in City Council’s determination.”


Note that the following public hearing will NOT be voted on at this meeting


PH-3 (21-2268) Public Hearing to Consider the Establishment of an Industrial Development District at 3874, 3990, 3886, 3994, 3950, and 3958 Research Park Drive for Land Currently Owned by Sartorius BioAnalytical Instruments, Inc.

This public hearing is for the establishment of an industrial development district comprised of 16.9 acres of land at 3874, 3990, 3886, 3994, 3950, 3958 Research Park Drive, owned by Sartorius BioAnalytical Instruments, Inc. Establishment of this district would allow Sartorius to apply for industrial facilities exemption certificates, which have the effect of creating certain tax abatements. State law allows up to 50% property tax exemption for up to 12 years. Local governments have discretion on whether to grant abatements, and the length of the abatements. For more information:

https://annarborusa.org/news/ebook-industrial-facilities-exemption-pa-198-best-practices/


The most recent example I could find of an industrial facilities exemption certificate happened in 2012, granted to Barracuda. You can read details about that in the archives of the Ann Arbor Chronicle:

https://annarborchronicle.com/2012/10/01/barracuda-gets-tax-break-from-ann-arbor/index.html

 

Ordinances - Second Reading

In order to amend the city code, Council must vote to approve the change, via ordinance, at two Council meetings. The following proposed ordinances were approved at a previous Council meeting, and are also subject to a public hearing as listed above.

B-1 (21-1956) is the same as PH-1 above.

B-2 (21-2060) is the same as PH-2 above.

 

Ordinances - First Reading

In order to amend the city code, Council must vote to approve the change, via ordinance, at two Council meetings. The following proposed ordinances are being introduced for "first reading". If approved, the ordinance will be voted on at a subsequent Council meeting ("second reading"), where it will also be subject to a public hearing.


C-1 (21-2255) An Ordinance to Repeal and Replace Section 9:62 of Chapter 108 (Disorderly Conduct) of Chapter IX (Police Regulations) of the Code of the City of Ann Arbor

A city ordinance regarding disorderly conduct would be repealed and replaced to add existing penalties, alter pronouns for gender neutral language, and remove provisions already covered by state law (Crime Victim’s Rights Act of 1985). These amendments are part of a Reform Project and will go into effect on April 15, 2022.

 

Motions and Resolutions

The following agenda items are motions and resolutions, which are approved or rejected in a single meeting. Agenda items marked "DC" are proposed by Council members, items marked "DB" are proposed by City boards and commissions, items marked "DS" are proposed by City staff.


DC-1 (22-0012) Resolution to Improve Pedestrian Safety at Crosswalks with Reliable Illumination in the Short Term and Optimal LED Streetlights Within 5 Years

In response to outages of streetlights owned and maintained by DTE, this resolution directs City staff to collaborate with DTE and University of Michigan to develop a proactive system and repair process to ensure maximum safety and streetlight reliability. The City and DTE would develop a five-year schedule for replacing all DTE-owned and City-owned streetlights with LED fixtures that comply with Dark Skies ordinance.


 

Additional thoughts…

I also published this on my website:

https://www.a2elnel.com/post/an-inconvenient-truth-there-is-only-one-faction


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.



Thank you for helping me represent Ward 4!

Elizabeth Nelson


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