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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.

Making Local Government Accessible

This summer, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to residents and explaining my work representing Ward 4. I’ve met a lot of people who do not follow our local government at all, and I have explained my orientation to our local politics these last four years. As I look ahead to Tuesday, it feels like an appropriate time to reflect on my service.


POLITICAL LANDSCAPE

I was first motivated to run for office in 2018 after watching a particularly contentious debate at a Council meeting in which Council members repeated talking points, aggressively simplified, and effectively distorted a fairly complicated legal issue. I wondered: why were the talking points in that debate so disconnected from the facts of the issue? Why was this issue being framed as simple/obvious when it was actually complicated? Why were people distorting this issue and pretending that there was no room for debate?


In 2018, I had a lot of conversations with residents and community leaders, trying to figure out WHY our politics were like this. I heard very broad explanations of their own political beliefs and their assessment of others’ political beliefs. I recognized that issues of controversy were regularly exaggerated or distorted to amplify differences. Instead of acknowledging the complexity of an issue and digging into the substance of it, elected leaders (and other loud voices in our community) would simply define one position or another as wholly righteous or entirely wrong. I noticed also: residents who had very strong opinions about our local politics often focused on people: whom they liked or whom they disliked.


Many residents complained that the work of City Council was difficult to anticipate, that they had no way of knowing what decisions their elected leaders were preparing to vote on, so they had no opportunity to weigh in. Residents only learned about big issues after decisions were already made, after their elected representatives had voted in a way they didn’t like.


IDENTIFYING A PROBLEM

In 2018, I wanted to understand the record of the incumbent I was challenging, but the actual record of our City Council was nearly impossible to find. Local media coverage was understandably limited. The public record of decisions and votes was literally buried in meeting minutes (published over a week after the meeting). I found this concerning: how could anyone in our community assess the record of an elected official if they literally could not find the facts of what Council had done?


Since my election, my work on Council has focused on three goals:


Promoting fact-based debate and understanding of our local issues of controversy

I have published newsletters in advance of every Council Meeting, organizing and compiling as many direct links as I could to help residents find primary sources of information about all the issues on the agenda. I am now the only member of City Council who has regularly scheduled coffee hours in advance of our meetings, open to anyone who wants to show up and ask questions or raise concerns.


Making the decisions of Council - and my own record - as clear and transparent as possible

I sponsored a resolution asking that draft meeting minutes be published within days after our meetings. I have published nearly 100 voting charts - within 24 hours of every meeting - to illustrate the votes taken by City Council in a way that is clearer and more accessible than meeting minutes. I’ve written dozens of blog posts articulating my positions on issues of controversy. I created a database at A2COUNCIL.com, organizing links to all information related to every Council meeting: official agenda and meeting minutes, YouTube recordings, my own content related to that meeting, and relevant MLive articles.


Listening to and responding to the concerns raised by residents of Ward 4

Nearly all of the work I have done on City Council originated with resident concerns. We passed an ordinance addressing discrimination in rental housing because a Ward 4 resident told me about this problem and I pushed it forward. I advocated for regulation and licensing of short term rentals (Airbnb) because a resident alerted me to what she saw in her own Ward 4 neighborhood. I asked for accelerated improvement of and additional funding for resident-requested paths and sidewalks because Ward 4 residents asked for it. I have fought for tenant protections because residents in Ward 4 (and beyond) educated me about serious problems in our rental market. In between, I have helped countless residents navigate the bureaucracy of City Hall, helping them get answers to questions about city policy and procedures


WHY THIS MATTERS

In the last two months, people have noted considerable similarity between my policy positions and those claimed by my main opponent. Residents have asked me “what is the difference” between me and other candidates in this election. I tell them: I have a record of service, fulfilling the campaign promises I made around public engagement and working hard on behalf of residents in Ward 4. Many residents have raised alarm at the misinformation they have seen: distortions of my record that have been spread in mailers, online, and by text message. I’ll admit that I was quite surprised. For years now, I have worked very hard to make facts and truth readily available to our community. I did not expect misinformation to feature so prominently in any campaign against me.


Most recently, people have noticed and raised concerns about a network of established politicians (nearly all from outside of Ward 4) who lend support to my opponent, despite my strong record as a local representative who promotes transparency, increases public engagement, and truly listens and advocates for resident concerns. A relatively small number of powerful and wealthy people have leveraged considerable resources to remove me. One third of my opponent's finances come from fifteen very large donations ($1000 or more); thirteen of these big donors live outside the ward or outside the city entirely. Residents are disturbed to see so much money and influence from outside of Ward 4 pushing back against local representation.


Whatever happens on Tuesday, I am grateful for the many residents who appreciate serious, representative government at this local level. I have worked hard to make our local government more accessible to and responsive to the community we serve. If nothing else, the last few years have been an experiment in democracy!


If you have not already made a plan to vote on Tuesday (or you have a completed absentee ballot sitting on a kitchen counter), now is the time to do your part and participate in our democracy!