FOLLOWUP: Police Oversight & Accountability

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting (Feb 19, 2019), there was a very unpleasant conversation at the Council table about issues related to our independent police oversight commission. I have written about this issue before:

https://www.a2elnel.com/blog/police-oversight-on-the-feb-19th-council-agenda


My resolution was met with significant hostility and anger. Several members of Council claimed that it had caught them unreasonably by surprise, that I had failed to reach out in any meaningful way, and that the concerns I raised were nothing more than “rumor.” It was suggested that raising my concerns at an open council meeting was “disrespectful” because such issues were best handled privately (i.e. “You could have called me”).


Among City Council, the private conversations we have one-on-one help us build the positive relationships we need to work together, learn from each other, and trust each other. However, I will not resort to private conversations for the purpose of keeping city policies hidden from the public. On Tuesday night, I did not share details of my communications with Council members because I did not think it was necessary, I did not want to embarrass anyone. Unfortunately, my own discretion allowed for quite a lot of mischaracterization on Tuesday night. I was too stunned to refute it at the table, but I see the need to clarify it now.


“RUMOR”

On February 6, I had a meeting with two community members and one of the CM liaisons currently tasked with making appointments to the police oversight commission (there are four such liaisons). The three of us were told by this CM that the Mayor was participating in meetings to assist. The CM told us that this was appropriate because it was “his” (the Mayor’s) ordinance. The two community members and myself were alarmed and shared our concerns. In the context of discussion about the task of sorting applications, this same CM liaison casually mentioned that the applicants might be subject to criminal background checks.


That same day, I reached out to the city administrator, asking for clarification about these two points: 1) who participates in the deliberations of the four CM liaisons tasked with sorting applicants and 2) the possibility of investigating the criminal backgrounds of applicants. We had a conversation and ultimately decided that I should direct my concerns to the Mayor.


On February 7, I reached out to the Mayor and he made himself available for conversation. I was grateful for his willingness to meet with me. We did not agree on either issue, but I credit the Mayor for engaging with me in a respectful and direct manner. It’s not necessary for me to share details of that conversation beyond the fact that we saw things differently.


Shortly after this meeting, the Mayor called me, to explain that criminal background checks were not a possibility because of the need for explicit consent (no applicant had offered such consent). We discussed the appropriateness of less-formal inquiries, via city departments. Again, we disagreed.


None of the concerns I raised on Tuesday night were mere “rumor.”


PRIVATE/PUBLIC conversations

On February 7, I asked the city administrator to help me craft a resolution that would raise both of my concerns at a public meeting, so that we — the whole of Council— could openly discuss them and exchange perspectives. The city administrator and I had several conversations before the final version was written. I hoped for a public forum in which the whole of Council could clarify the process, agree on what was appropriate, and affirm a shared understanding of the commission.


On February 14 (five days before the Council meeting) I emailed the whole of council to alert them about my resolution. I described my concerns, explained the conversations leading up to them, expressed appreciation for the Mayor’s time, and shared my desire for a respectful public exchange about the issues at the Council table. I received one response to this email: a CM thanking me for the heads up and explanation.


I have written all of this to clear the record. In response to my efforts to prompt a public conversation, a few of my colleagues used words like “disappointed” and “insulting” and “disrespectful.” I could use the same words myself.


I was disappointed that a discussion about policy and values was twisted into so much personal attack and postured outrage. It was insulting that some of my colleagues knew very well that I was not dealing in “rumor,” yet they quietly listened to others use that word. Finally, it seemed to me fairly disrespectful that any of us on Council would express a preference for private conversation (rather than public debate), around issues that matter so deeply to members of our community.

I continue to believe that our local government should strive for transparency. For me, this means opening up our city policies to public debate and public scrutiny. This is a core value for me. City policies should be legitimate topics for discussion at the Council table. There is no accountability when our city policy is driven behind the scenes in private conversations.

Elizabeth NELSON

DEMOCRAT for Ann Arbor City Council Ward 4

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PO Box 2243. Ann Arbor. MI 48106-2243