He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday.
-Stephen Colbert, mocking President George W. Bush (2006)
The results of our Council meeting on Feb 16, 2021 were not what I expected. I know I am not the only member of our community who was surprised. Three issues before us - snow removal, regulation of speech, and a street closure - led to Council discussion that mostly ignored context, relevant facts, and new information.
An item on our 2/16/21 agenda contemplated a pilot program for more effective snow removal downtown, to improve pedestrian safety. The resolution asked our City Administrator to consider the “cost and feasibility” of better snow removal strategies to make our crosswalks, bus stops, and sidewalks safer. The resolution focused specifically on the area of our city that sees the largest concentration of pedestrians, the highest number of accidents involving pedestrians: downtown.
The important context for this idea: it was brought to Council by Ali Ramlawi, who owns a business downtown. In the two years Ali has served on Council, he has collaborated with all the relevant downtown entities (both private and public), to address a range of problems facing that area. Though this resolution was not going to generate immediate results, it was going to prompt immediate analysis and problem-solving with a ready set of partners.
The day of our meeting, I got a call from one of my peers on the Commission on Disability Issues. He was pleased about the snow removal resolution because of his own experiences downtown, using a van equipped with a wheelchair lift. He helped me understand a concern worth adding to the resolution: on-street parking that is identified as accessible (and reserved for the benefit of people who need it) is often made inaccessible by piles of plowed snow in the right-of-way between curbs and sidewalks. I talked to CM Ramlawi about adding specific reference to this in his resolution. I had an amendment drafted before our meeting.
I was never able to offer my amendment because, inexplicably, CM Ramlawi’s resolution was set aside. On the same day that our pedestrian infrastructure was overwhelmed with snow, Council rejected the idea of even contemplating a better response to the problem. My colleagues explained that an immediate assessment of cost/feasibility was not-quite-right, that one of our commissions was already tackling this problem with an alternate plan. Since our Council meeting, the chair of that commission admitted on social media: “Just to clarify, there is no current plan. There is a draft of a proposed plan.”
We need to do a better job of understanding - and accurately describing - the context of the decisions before us.
REGULATION OF SPEECH
Another item on our 2/16/21 agenda asked for reconsideration of Council Rules, approved at the previous meeting. I have already written about my own concerns regarding the stated goals of these Rules (less substantive discussion and debate), the vague wording of the Rules, and the highly discretionary process of enforcing them. I believe there is a public interest in thorough discussion of the issues before Council. I also believe that rules regulating behavior should be as clear as possible and objectively measurable, particularly where enforcement rests with a single person or just a small committee of people.
A week after approving new Council Rules on 2/1/21, Council received a legal memo on First Amendment concerns re: public speech at our meetings. At an earlier meeting, I asked that a memo on this topic be prepared for public release, but that idea was rejected by a majority of Council and, ironically, framed as “pro-censorship.” That decision is unfortunate, because (predictably) the privileged legal memo received by Council offers excellent explanation of how and why regulations on speech must be content neutral, the value of debate on public issues that is uninhibited, robust, and wide open.
As drafted (and approved 2/1/21), the newly amended Rules create an ethics violations for speech that is interpreted to “assail, question or impugn the integrity, character, or motives of another Member.” This rule applies to comments made during meeting as well as comments made in “any other public venue.” Insofar as any of us consider our policy choices and voting record a reflection of our values, virtually any critique of a political decision could be interpreted as a question of integrity or character. These rules are wildly imprecise in terms defining a violation; enforcement is very likely to present issues of viewpoint discrimination.
Before the new Council was seated, I served on the Rules Committee for two years. During that time, I pushed for better regulation of Council behavior but found little support for it. In that time, it never occurred to me that we should create a tool for our Committee (or the chair of our meetings) to penalize duly-elected colleagues for criticism or dissent. When I served on the Rules committee, I wanted greater transparency and accountability for Council Members in situations where facts - rather than feelings - could drive enforcement. I urged the Mayor to enforce existing speaking time limits with the use of timers (there was little interest). I wanted Rules about absences, a requirement that Council Members provide some general explanation for missing a meeting. I asked how a Council Member could be subject to criminal prosecution and not have any obligation to report it to the body.
Regarding these new Council rules, I had recent conversation with a local attorney, who pointed out the potential “chilling effect” of them. I was told that the local ACLU could review the Rules and offer an outside assessment of them. When we reconsidered the Council rules on 2/16/21, I hoped that my colleagues would be open to this, interested in a better understanding of First Amendment concerns. Unfortunately, the tallied vote rejecting the Council’s need for this information was the same as the vote rejecting public information about First Amendment rights at our meetings.
As Council members, we need to do a better job of embracing relevant information as well as supporting public debate of relevant information.
ST. PATRICKS DAY STREET CLOSURE
Council’s consent agenda for 2/16/21 included an item that would have raised no concerns at all in 2019 or earlier: a local bar requested a street closure on St. Patrick’s Day, to facilitate an outdoor event. Our consent agenda is a list of decisions that are typically passed all at once in a single vote, unless and until a member of Council pulls an item for more discussion. The 2/16/21 Consent Agenda included 22 items. My colleague, CM Ramlawi, asked for discussion of this street closure.
CM Ramlawi opposed this street closure because he felt it was too soon to facilitate such a public event at this stage of the pandemic. He offered his perspective with qualification: he felt conflicted about it, because he knows how much downtown businesses are suffering, he knows how much they need additional revenue. Ali has a downtown business and he sees himself as an advocate for policies that support our downtown businesses, generally. His explanation at the table prompted me to think more seriously about my own vote.
I voted against this street closure. Staff description of this event included safety precautions, but CM Ramlawi urged Council to think about it differently. It’s true that last summer and fall, Council approved similar measures to support downtown businesses, most notably street closures to facilitate outdoor dining. However, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations scheduled to happen from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. are very very different from socially distanced outdoor dining. Anyone who has ever visited downtown on St. Patrick’s Day knows that this is true. I walked through downtown once on St. Patrick’s Day (taking my child to a birthday party at Pinball Pete’s). As a downtown business owner, I imagine that CM Ramlawi has seen it a dozen times, at least.
I did not expect approval of this street closure to inspire such anger in the community. I’ve seen frustration among residents who believe it prioritizes parties and profits ahead of public health. Parents have connected this decision to school issues: anything we do that increases community infection rates will only further delay (or validate arguments that delay) the opening of our public schools for in-person instruction.
In the last six weeks, Council has received many emails urging us to step in and assert whatever influence we can to re-open Ann Arbor Public Schools for in-person instruction. Many residents have probably gotten responses from Council Members, explaining that the School Board is an independent body, that they are elected to make decisions about the schools and that Council interference wouldn’t be appropriate. I have written this myself, with added explanation that I feel helpless, too.
Several of us on Council have students in the public schools, so we are experiencing the challenge of virtual learning along with the rest of the community. However, for most of us, our lives reflect relative advantage. Most of us are not struggling financially, the age of our children is older, only a few of us work jobs that increase our risk of exposure outside of our homes.
I might have a unique perspective on this issue because in addition to having a child enrolled in AAPS, I teach preschool in-person three days a week. I know how many safety protocols we have been put in place at my school, how much we adapted, and how much more work it has been. I previously taught in AAPS classrooms for a relatively short time (less than three years) but that experience has given me additional insight. I think about how my small preschool has adjusted and I recognize what an enormous task it would be, scaling that up in an organization as large as AAPS. I understand the frustration of families who feel like this task should have been done, that their children deserve that effort. I also respect the authority of our local school board as a duly elected body, just like Council.
The street closure for St. Patrick’s day legitimately does highlight Council’s responsibility.
Local infection rates are a significant argument against a return to in-person schooling and a St. Patrick’s day celebration is very likely to contribute to community spread of the virus. I voted against the street closure because I considered the general risk to public health. Considering community frustration about the lack of in-person learning at our schools, I believe approval of this street closure sends a terrible message about how we balance risk and benefit. The benefit of a St. Patricks Day gathering is far outweighed by the risk of increasing community spread of COVID-19 and delaying the re-opening of our public schools.
This decision could be re-visited. Any one of my colleagues who voted in favor of it could bring it back for reconsideration and another vote. This is a regular part of our process, specifically because people sometimes make mistakes. Council should always be open to new information, especially when that comes from the constituents we represent.