Elizabeth Nelson's City Council Blog

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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.

Political Games and Distractions

Since our 9/7/21 meeting, I’ve talked to several people who were very invested in (and informed about) the topics under discussion. Their reaction to our last meeting has included words like “confusing” and “baffled.”


I sponsored two items on the 9/7/21 agenda. Each item prompted talking points which were repeated by a majority of Council: individual members of Council cannot and should not offer agenda items for public discussion without permission and acquiescence from others. This idea is increasingly presented as a normal and reasonable convention. It is neither.


AGENDA ITEM DC-1

Resolution Directing the Energy Commission to Consider the Question of a Feasibility Study Regarding a Public Power Utility

https://a2gov.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=5117131&GUID=979FF072-2E55-4EC9-A3A5-04F92EBFDEA6


In response to the recent power outages and with input from members of the Energy Commission and advocates from Ann Arbor for Public Power, I wrote a resolution to accelerate the timeline for a Council decision about a feasibility study for a municipal power utility (DC-1). The purpose of my resolution was to solicit the opinion of the Energy Commission on whether a feasibility study should take place, in advance of Council discussing the topic at our next regular meeting (9/20/21). The topic has been discussed for many months and many community members are ready for us to take preliminary steps forward. I wrote about DC-1 on my website on Aug 21st:

https://www.a2elnel.com/post/feasibility-study-for-a-public-power-utility-in-ann-arbor


Agenda item DC-1 was posted on our public Council agenda three weeks ago and I emailed it to Council the same day, explaining the purpose and inviting cosponsors (8/20/21). It now exists on Legistar as Version 1. The publicly noticed resolution was not actually discussed because the chair of our meeting (Mayor Taylor) did not permit it to be introduced. Instead, DC-1 was immediately substituted with an entirely new resolution (Version 2), by Council Member Radina. Radina emailed his substitute resolution to individual Council members hours before our meeting.


It is worth noting: as a matter of norms and regular practice, resolutions brought by Council Members are introduced and explained by their sponsors. In cases where the primary sponsor is obvious and clear, the chair of our meetings often calls on members of Council to introduce the item, without even the formality of raising a hand to be acknowledged. At our meeting, I was not permitted to introduce DC-1, despite having physically raised my hand and despite the fact that I was its primary sponsor.


The immediate substitution of agenda item DC-1 meant that instead of debating any of the merits of the original agenda item - posted on a public agenda for three weeks - our discussion centered on a last-minute resolution distributed privately among Council just a few hours before our meeting.


Here you can read both the original (Version 1) and substitute (Version 2) resolutions using the "Version" switch in the upper left corner of Legistar (there is no way to directly link to each version)

https://a2gov.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=5117131&GUID=979FF072-2E55-4EC9-A3A5-04F92EBFDEA6&FullText=1



The preliminary WHEREAS clauses of the substituted resolution builds a narrative of deference to the Energy Commission. The substituted RESOLVED clauses include lots of extra general explanation about options and choices but in substance, it primarily delays action for three months. In Council discussion, the same talking point was repeated by several Council members and the Mayor: resolutions (like the one that had been on our public agenda for three weeks) should never be brought without deferring to specific individual Council members, appointed volunteer commissioners, and City staff. A majority of Council praised the last minute substitute resolution for demonstrating proper and appropriate deference and collaboration.


This substitution and posturing around process had a clear purpose: distract from the actual policy difference. In this case, that policy was timing/delay. On a topic that many in our community would like to see acted on sooner rather than later, a majority of Council prefers to delay action for three months. The repeated talking points around “process” and “collaboration” muddled the issue so effectively that this change was confusing even to advocates watching and following along.


When residents ask City Council to act on a policy issue, it is completely appropriate for us to raise the issue for discussion and advocate for action. On an issue as straightforward as pursuing a feasibility study, Council can take action with or without advice from volunteer commission members. The original, publicly noticed version of DC-1 aimed to do both: raise an issue for Council discussion and explicitly request advice from the volunteer commissioners who have been considering the issue for months.


One of my colleagues has defended the meeting maneuvers of DC-1 as technically in compliance with Robert’s Rules. This is a pitiful explanation. At the national level, when leaders find ways to curtail and prevent public debate and reduce transparency, they are typically criticized, even when such strategies are not-technically-wrong. E.g. The Senate obstruction of Merrick Garland is recognized as shady political tactics, despite technical compliance with Senate rules. I believe that Ann Arbor City Council Members can choose to be a bit better than not-technically-wrong. The residents of Ann Arbor deserve meaningful public debate on the merits, rather than political gamesmanship.


To read more, see this MLive story:

https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2021/09/ann-arbor-voters-could-ultimately-decide-on-shift-away-from-dte-energy.html



AGENDA ITEM DC-2

Resolution in Support of Good Food Procurement Policies

https://a2gov.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=5117475&GUID=C9BFB8E0-089B-41A1-8DE4-84D07EE08D7D


This summer, I was contacted by a Ward 4 resident, who educated me about a national movement for public institutions to adopt better, more sustainable food procurement policies. She wondered if Ann Arbor could implement such policies. She and I scheduled and had meetings with Dr. Missy Stults (head of our Sustainability department) and Colin Smith (head of our Parks and Rec department) to craft a resolution. That resolution was on last week’s agenda as item DC-2.


Council discussion of DC-2 was eerily similar to discussion of DC-1. The same general talking points were repeated: the resolution didn’t show proper deference or collaboration and was inappropriate, despite the fact that I had actually deferred to and collaborated with high level City staff. A majority of Council agreed that I should have consulted with one person in particular: the temporary Acting City Administrator. Our temporary Acting City Administrator (previously Assistant City Administrator) made this remarkable statement:

I would appreciate resolutions that direct the administrator in terms of values but allow the staff to kind of determine based on our professional expertise the path forward and who we should be speaking with and what recommendations we might bring forth… my request would be that when we’re crafting resolutions of this type, the resolutions I think should maybe be focused on topics and values and less on directing the administrator specifically on how to get the work done.

In response to these remarks, CM Eyer offered an amendment to strike out the two resolved clauses that the temporary Acting City Administrator found problematic: one clause directed the collection of information within city departments and the other clause asked for collaboration with local food stakeholders (e.g. Washtenaw County Food Council and the Farmers Market). Both of these clauses had been drafted weeks earlier, with input, recommendation, and feedback from Dr. Stults and Mr. Smith.


To read more, see this MLive story:

https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2021/09/ann-arbor-aims-to-lead-by-example-while-promoting-sustainable-plant-based-diets.html



WHY THIS MATTERS

A majority of Council now aims at two very political goals: 1) invent and distort procedures, to silence or wholly avoid substantive debate of policy and 2) reduce the direct accountability of Council to residents. This week, we saw how both goals can be quietly achieved, by empowering people who hold unelected positions but whose positions depend on favor from the Mayor and a majority of Council.


At the 9/7/21 Council meeting, a last minute substitution without any public notice was repeatedly framed as adhering to a better “process” in order to avoid debate about the actual policy difference within it: months of delay. Also this week: a wholly uncontroversial resolution (crafted in collaboration with and consultation with high level City staff) was framed as overly prescriptive, in order to support an extremely undemocratic idea: that the judgement of an unelected administrator should trump the advocacy and public debate of eleven elected representatives.


If you believe that your local government should be transparent and accountable to voters, I urge you to pay close attention to how your representatives frame their opposition to ideas presented at Council. A current majority now regularly repeats talking points to avoid policy debate. Positive sounding words like “collaboration” and “respect” and “better process” are frequently used to promote the exact opposite of what those words actually mean. Ann Arbor deserves leaders who are willing to talk about the substance of issues and take responsibility for making decisions that are in the best interest of our community.