US versus THEM: The Guilty Pleasure

In our local politics, a fiction persists — despite evidence to the contrary — that there are two organized and unified “factions” on council. This view of local government is unhelpful for many reasons, but perhaps most of all because it simplifies complex decision making as right/wrong, good/bad, and (most destructively) “us versus them.” To the extent that this model doesn’t reflect reality, our community should wonder why anyone clings to it.


SEEING FACTS/IGNORING FACTS

In my campaign last summer, I tried to do my own research about Council voting to understand: was it true that members of council were voting in blocks, did we really have majority/minority “parties” among the (almost all) Democrats on Council? My own difficulty in answering this question — vote records are embedded in longer Council meeting minutes — prompted me to make the voting charts on this website. I believe that the public should be able to see how and where their representatives have voted on issues. I had expected that my voting charts might help, also, in illustrating how and where members of council are (or are not) voting together.


Many readers of this newsletter may have already seen the analysis of Council votes by Ann Arbor Chronicle editor, Dave Askins. Using the public record of Council voting history, Askins was able to illustrate patterns of how similarly/differently Council Members vote relative to one another. In case you haven’t seen this chart, it is linked below:


https://daveaskins.com/2019/06/09/analysis-breaking-down-the-two-faction-framing-of-ann-arbors-city-council-politics/


To look at the chart, there is only one cluster of council members who vote together. There is one faction, not two. In response to this data, I have read various conspiracy theories about coordinated dissent, vote-counting, and intentional “throwing us off the scent” voting behavior. The mythology of two unified factions — most especially for the purpose of defining right/wrong, good/bad — is so strong that, for some, facts do not matter anymore.


The analysis by Dave Askins should not be surprising to anyone. One “faction” openly advertises its unity. E.g. Last summer, the Mayor sent emails across the city, organizing “days of action” in support of specific incumbents he favored for re-election. I benefited from no such coordinated effort. The Mayor used his significant email list to advertise the faction that openly promotes itself and does, in fact, vote as a block. Yet conspiracy theories persist about a second “faction”, uncoordinated and unsupported, an imaginary “faction” that does not, as a matter of record, vote together.


THE NEED TO BE INFORMED

Last spring, I was frustrated by the kind of conflict I was seeing at City Council: local leaders who, in the context of policy disagreement, eagerly attacked each other with generalities and distractions. Debate that should have been about policy detail was increasingly full of wild accusations, unrelated to the matter at hand. What pushed me to actually run for office was a conversation with a council member who had very limited understanding of a big city issue and could only explain his position on it as one that came directly from city staff. Later, I had a similar conversation with another council member, who described more generally how Council simply follows direction from staff. It was clear to me: at least some council members felt no need to actually understand and consider all the issues before them.


Our city government relies on the expertise of professional, full-time staff to advise us and recommend alternatives toward best practice. City staff help us understand what options are available/allowable and identify the advantages/disadvantages of each choice — they do a great job of providing us with information. However, I would be embarrassed if someone asked me about a position I took on an issue and my answer was that staff simply told me what to do. That is not good representation for anyone. In my newsletter, I write summaries for agenda items to clarify my own understanding of them and, hopefully, help you identify issues that might be of interest to you.


In my view, Council Members have an obligation to assess the recommendations from staff so that we can better represent Ward and city interests. If you don’t have time to watch the whole of our marathon meetings, you can see some evidence of this in the published Council questions to the agenda — the agenda responses highlight who is asking questions and who is digging deeper into the issues we vote on.


I will continue to ask questions about the Council issues before us and I will continue to vote in ways that I can defend and explain. I will continue to publish my voting charts so that you can easily see how I (and the rest of Council) voted and also ask me why. Since my election, I have held two to three coffee hours a month, in addition to attending Council Caucus the Sunday nights before council meetings.


I’ve chosen to write about this now because I’m seeing this “two factions: one good, one bad” theme expressed by increasingly high-profile community members. It appears to be a specific and intentional strategy, to discourage serious debate and promote divisions; for some, there is comfort in having formed a team and satisfaction in concocting a definition of who is the “opposite” team.


We are an educated town, with critical thinking skills, so it upsets me to see our public discourse dumbed down in this way. It is an insult to our community when policy debate is treated like a high school sport: “teams” with cheerleaders and booing sections. I strongly believe that Ann Arbor is smarter than that; our town can choose to be informed and engaged.


We should all be asking the question: who benefits when residents are encouraged to identify enemies, imagine conspiracies, and find fault with dissent?

Elizabeth NELSON

DEMOCRAT for Ann Arbor City Council Ward 4

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PO Box 2243. Ann Arbor. MI 48106-2243