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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.

Reduced Accountability, Less Debate, Concentrated Power

I have spent the last week in many conversations with residents and local leaders who follow Council closely and are alarmed at what they have seen in the last year. I am grateful for the many people who have reached out in support of me personally and politically, but the principles at stake now are much bigger than me or any other other individual elected official.


Unsupported allegations and aggressive attacks on individual members of Council are part of a broader strategy to distract away from several very clear goals: reduce accountability to residents, eliminate debate, and concentrate power outside of the cycle of elections.


This week’s Council agenda included three items which illustrate each of these themes.

https://a2gov.legistar.com/MeetingDetail.aspx?ID=829784&GUID=2058E4ED-C615-4260-873A-16F3583869F7



REDUCED ACCOUNTABILITY TO RESIDENTS

This week, amendments to the Uniform Development Code were approved at first reading. In substance, these amendments would simplify the process for developers submitting site plans to the City for approval. The amendments would remove additional steps of review and approval by either Mayor-appointed volunteers on the Planning Commission or by elected members of City Council. I expect to write more on this topic when the amendments come back for second reading, but discussion this week was remarkable.


In debate over the relative value of Council review, one of my colleagues argued that “92% of the time” Council simply agrees with the decision of unelected appointees on the Planning Commission, anyway. She reasoned that very few of these site plans are rejected and when they are rejected, that decision invites litigation. (It should be noted that this is the same Council Member who said of zoning changes that “if we can be sneaky, it’s better” in order to avoid public scrutiny.)


On this topic, another of my colleagues aggressively argued that whenever a Council member opposes a site plan that meets zoning requirements, that Council member is being “dishonest with their constituents in thinking that we can do something.” When her use of the word dishonest was challenged, my colleague doubled down: “I could also use manipulate, mislead, maybe lie.”


It’s true that Council usually affirms the recommendation of our Planning Commission. It is also true that Council very rarely rejects a site plan that conforms to zoning standards and that when it does, litigation is possible. However, opposition to a site plan can also result in negotiation and compromise. When a site plan appears on a Council agenda, it is an opportunity for residents to express concerns to their elected representatives. Council can and does respond in some circumstances.


A recent example of this was the Trinitas (“The One”) development on Pontiac Trail. Many residents opposed the Trinitas development and on September 18, 2018, City Council voted unanimously to reject the proposed site plan, despite the fact that it met zoning requirements. Two current members of Council - Council Member Grand and Mayor Taylor - participated in that vote. After months of negotiation, a different Trinitas site plan was approved in July 2019. Ryan Stanton of MLive wrote about the changes and compromises that happened between September 2018 and July 2019:

https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2019/07/ann-arbor-settles-lawsuit-with-student-housing-developer.html


This week, Council Member Briggs tried to cite Trinitas as evidence that Council opposition to a site plan accomplishes nothing. (When asked to confirm this theory, our City Attorney rightly refused.) Current Council ignorance about this issue is understandable: five members of Council have never participated in the negotiation that actually happens after Council rejects a site plan.


A majority of Council wants to reduce our direct accountability to residents on not just development issues, but other issues as well. E.g. In their fifth meeting, a new Council voted to delegate major road reconfigurations to City staff. Lanes of traffic on major streets and corridors can now be removed without a vote of City Council. This past March, I wrote about that issue:

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



LESS DEBATE & DISCUSSION

In agenda item DC-3, Council voted to approve a ballot question for a Climate Action Millage. As originally proposed, the millage would have prompted a special election in May. Ahead of our meeting, Mayor Taylor amended the resolution to place the question on a regular November ballot (eleven months from now).


After Council approved the ballot question, we considered an accompanying “Resolution of Intent” for how the millage money would be spent (DC-4). Over twenty years, this millage will collect approximately $6,800,000 per year, which the Mayor proposes to spend on a wide range of projects: e.g. solar panels, multiple public education programs and forums on various topics, community centers, weatherization, electrification, bike lanes and pedestrian paths. The list of potential uses for this millage is long and the Mayor has offered recommendations about how much should be spent on each.


Recognizing the eleven months between now and the November ballot question, I asked for a two month postponement of the Resolution of Intent. I suggested that postponing until February would allow for more discussion of these spending priorities, specifically within the City’s relevant advisory commissions: the Energy Commission and the Environmental Commission. The Energy and Environmental commissions are appointed to advise Council on the very topics that we aim to fund with the Climate Action Millage, yet neither of those commissions were ever invited to offer input on it.


I was very surprised when a majority of Council argued against a postponement and against any further discussion of these spending recommendations. According to some of my colleagues, there was not a moment to waste because we will need the whole of the next eleven months to convince people to support this millage. One of my colleagues explained: "We have a matter of several months to communicate to residents what this millage will pay for and the tangible benefits they will receive from it. This postponement means we lose two to three months of that education."


My colleagues insisted further that there was no reason for our advisory commissions to discuss prioritization of this money because the wide-ranging list of potential uses were all consistent with the A2Zero Plan, which had been “fully vetted” by those commissions. This argument is a clue about what our community can expect in future discussion of this millage: any concerns or questions about spending priorities will likely be dismissed as “anti-climate action” or “anti-science" or opposition to the A2Zero Plan itself.


In the last year, Council has regularly promoted the idea that less debate and less discussion is a sign of “good government.” New rules have reduced the amount of time Council members can speak on issues. Some of my colleagues have argued that extended debate and discussion is “undemocratic” because long meetings are inconvenient for an outside observer to watch. This past January, I wrote about the new Council’s efforts to reduce debate and discussion:

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



CONCENTRATED POWER

In agenda item DC-2, a majority of Council approved a roster of appointed liaisons to boards and commissions that wholly excludes one elected Council Member and targets two other elected members for partial exclusion. This action is unprecedented and defies past practice. Our process of appointments does not explicitly require that every member be recognized as a duly elected representative, but every previous Mayor and Council has respected this principle.


Written Council rules assume that our Mayor and a majority of Council would adhere to basic democratic norms: the voters in each Ward choose their representatives in elections that happen on a regular schedule. After an election, the member that is chosen by the voters will serve as a Ward representative on Council. In the last year, the Mayor and a majority of Council have worked to distort this system and diminish the role of elections in choosing our community’s leaders. Their theory of government: after and in between elections, an individual Council Member’s ability to fully serve in an elected position will be decided by a majority of Council colleagues.


We know exactly what happens when elected leaders fail to recognize their positions within a larger democratic system. Our country has seen exactly what happens when elected leaders use their power to dismantle our democratic systems rather than work within them. This past June, I wrote about it:

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



THEN & NOW

In the last week, I have reached out to elected officials who served in the recent past but in the years before I took office. I am talking to former elected leaders who remember a different City Council: one that recognized and respected each member’s position as an elected representative when a daily print newspaper helped residents track local issues. In years past, accountability to residents was a guiding principle rather than a criticism (“dishonest”). Former elected officials see it clearly: Council is now replicating the very same ugly and divisive political tactics that have exploded nationally and currently threaten our national democracy.


A majority of my colleagues do not believe that Council should be accountable to residents, even when stakes are high and residents expect to have a voice. A majority of Council wants less public awareness of decisions that generate controversy or would have a direct impact on residents. The current Council believes that some elections count for more and other elections can count for less - a majority of Council will decide which elected members are allowed full participation as your representative.


If we believe in representative democracy, we cannot passively accept these ideas as new norms for local government.



LOOKING AHEAD

I believe that our local government is stronger when the community is able to monitor the policy work of elected leaders. I am doing everything I can to promote that goal, but there are limits to what I can do to inform and engage residents. Many people are not interested in the detail of local policy or don’t have time to invest in understanding it. That gap in information and engagement is now regularly exploited in online forums and, increasingly, by members of Council.


Political theater will displace policy debate if we do nothing to stop it.


If you are a regular reader of this newsletter, I thank you for taking the time to understand the work of Council. I urge you to consider how many of your friends and neighbors might be less informed, how many of them might not be paying attention to local politics and might not understand why it matters. A healthy democracy depends on an informed electorate holding elected leaders accountable. I will continue to do everything I can to promote public information, engagement, and accountability.