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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.

Runnymede Path: Listening to Ward 4 Residents

I pulled a resolution off of the May 5, 2022 agenda due to three absences I learned about ahead of our meeting. Mayor Taylor, Council Member Briggs, and Council Member Radina were not present at City Council this week.


WARD 4 ADVOCACY

On the May 5, 2022 Council agenda I sponsored a resolution - based on very specific advice from City staff - asking our City Administrator to enter negotiations for an easement in order to leverage grant money to improve a pedestrian path in Ward 4. This resolution directed negotiation about one possible solution not previously contemplated, a solution preferred by the Ward 4 residents who asked me for help. Nothing in the resolution committed any City action beyond negotiation. The resolution was clear that any agreement depended on “terms acceptable to the City Administrator and City Attorney” and would have been subject to an additional vote of Council on May 16th.


This was the entire text of the resolution, as reviewed by the City Attorney's office:


Resolution to Negotiate an Easement for Runnymede-Pauline Path

Whereas, The private asphalt path between Runnymede Boulevard and Pauline Boulevard is in need of repair;

Whereas, This path is an important connector for pedestrians accessing Dicken Elementary to the south and bus stops to the north;

Whereas, This path is on property owned by the Walden Village Condominium;

Whereas, The community value of this path is significant and used by many neighborhood residents outside of the Walden Village Condominium;

Whereas, Resident owners of the Walden Village Condominium have expressed a willingness to grant an easement for this path to the City; and

Whereas, In order to seek grant funding to defray City costs of repairing the path, it is preferred to have an easement agreed upon in advance of Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) grant application deadlines at the end of June;

RESOLVED, That the City Administrator is directed to negotiate a public easement for the Runnymede-Pauline path from Walden Village Condominium to the City; and

RESOLVED, That if Walden Village Condominium agrees in principle to easement terms acceptable to the City Administrator and City Attorney, that the City Administrator bring the proposed easement terms to the May 16, 2022 City Council meeting, so that City Council may consider acceptance of the easement and budgeting for repairs to the path.


A Council debate of this resolution would have raised legitimate policy questions: what is the relative value of this path for public investment? What is the relative priority of fixing this path as a neighborhood connector? What is city policy around paths like these? Are there other options available? Last week in my newsletter, I explained my own perspective and process in exploring all of these questions:

https://www.a2elnel.com/post/runnymede-path-proposal-for-city-easement


I also posted on my website when the agenda item was pulled from the agenda:

https://www.a2elnel.com/post/runnymede-path-update-may-5-2022


In the days before our Council meeting, a discussion that should have happened among your elected leaders in a public meeting happened, instead, on various platforms of social media.


In response to my resolution, one of my colleagues posted a string of claims on multiple platforms of social media: disputing the fact that I had worked with City staff, inflating the actual cost of the project, insisting that I had somehow interfered with a process that was close to success, and disparaging the Ward 4 condo residents I had been talking to. On social media, those messages prompted many more attacks on residents of Ward 4 and attacks on anyone outside of Ward 4 who supported the proposal. Ward 4 residents were vilified for simply seeking a solution to a problem.


There was a silver lining to this social media firestorm: the day before our Council meeting, staff drafted a memo (since removed from the City Legistar site) detailing ideas about the path referenced in my resolution. I have made that memo available here:

https://4aa24807-457d-4d5a-8cd8-d99df50d15a1.usrfiles.com/ugd/4aa248_d305ad60a6be4f85b94bc65a040440df.pdf


I am told that some of this memo is not completely accurate as to historical facts regarding similar paths. Some of the memo directly contradicts staff explanation I received just a few days earlier. It also mischaracterizes the position of the Ward 4 residents who reached out to me. However, this memo is also the most lengthy document I have ever seen on the topic of this particular pedestrian connector. I am hopeful that this issue is going to be resolved. I look forward to a discussion among the full Council and in a public meeting with substantive fact-based debate. As a Council Member, I want to ensure that Ward 4 residents are heard. That can happen when this issue is addressed in the appropriate forum.



WHY THIS MATTERS

I talk to many people who scoff at the idea of social media as a force in our local politics, because they recognize it as toxic and are happy to avoid it. For people who want accountable leadership and thoughtful discussion of local issues, most social media is an unwelcome distraction: shifting our policy debate away from direct conversation between residents and leaders, away from meaningful connections between neighbors and local advocates, and away from the public record of communication and open public meetings.


Many Ward 4 residents directly impacted by this week’s resolution had no idea how they were pilloried online by their own representative and residents from across the City. For anyone alerted to it, the worst, most intimidating messages posted online were quickly erased from existence: moderated, removed, or edited.


Beyond Ward 4, most City residents have no idea how much their elected (and appointed) leaders regularly indulge in these online social media platforms to promote anger and resentment within our community. More and more people recognize the toxic nature of these online forums: extreme hostility, anonymous trolling, loud misinformation, and echo chambers drowning out dissent. On social media, transparency and accountability is extremely limited: the worst social media behavior is seen only by the small subset of people who choose to participate in the platforms.


Nationally, we have seen the terrifying results when elected leaders use social media as a substitute for the serious work of policymaking and substantive debate in open and public forums.


When I was out biking yesterday, I saw activities related to graduation ceremonies at the University of Michigan and Dr. Anthony Fauci’s presence as their featured speaker: both the crowds of celebrating families and a caravan of protesters. Dr. Fauci’s comments in Ann Arbor yesterday are particularly relevant. As reported in the Detroit Free Press:

In his brief speech, Fauci called on graduates to seek out truth and critically evaluate what is going on in public life. He didn’t shy away from tough words, calling out “egregious distortions of reality” by people on social media, by “so-called news organizations and sad to say, certain elected officials in positions of power.”

https://www.freep.com/story/news/education/2022/05/07/dr-fauci-university-of-michigan-2020-commencement-ceremony/9689170002



WHERE I STAND

If you read my newsletters, you already know my commitment to increasing the accessibility of City information, and promoting transparency in our local government. I share my perspectives on a website that is open and available to everyone who has access to the internet. I use social media in the same way that the City of Ann Arbor does: directing people to website links to find more information.


Anyone who is interested can see my point of view and contact me with feedback. In addition to accessibility by phone, email, or scheduled meetings, I am now the only member of Council who holds regular coffee hours before every Council meeting.


A year ago, residents urged me to push back against inflammatory social media attacks from a colleague. At their urging, I wrote on my blog, outlining facts and linking to primary and local media sources.

https://www.a2elnel.com/post/pattern-of-attack


When I posted a link to that blog post on my Facebook page, I introduced it with a statement I am happy to repeat: I do not aspire to be the leader of an angry mob and I will not indulge in angry, superficial rhetoric. I am interested in thoughtful and fact-based conversation about issues that are relevant to local government.