Absolute Righteousness

Jul 31, 2021 | City Council

In my service on Council, I have had a front row seat to political rhetoric that aims to magnify policy differences, prompt emotional outrage, and define hard positions that are either constructive or destructive (in Ann Arbor speak: “progressive” or “ANTI-progressive”). At this local level, issues with a real impact on residents (e.g. sidewalks, traffic planning, and housing development) should generate serious debate and meaningful compromise. Instead, these issues are distorted into a zero-sum game in which one position asserts absolute righteousness.

A new majority of Council actively campaigned on the idea that dissent and debate was a negative: more debate makes meetings run longer, and (according to a new majority) long meetings are “undemocratic.” New Council Rules aim to explicitly limit debate and dissent, targeting anyone who might contribute to it. In campaign messaging last year, the Mayor supported this move away from substance and policy — he simply declared all of his own positions “progressive” and labelled any dissent as “conservative.”

Until recently, this political rhetoric has aimed at only one casualty: fact-based, thoughtful policy debate. This month, that rhetoric targets a new casualty: a member of city staff and his professional reputation.

This week, Council moves forward with a decision to end the employment of a city administrator who has served our city with distinction for nearly seventeen years and carried our government through multiple crises. That decision (and its justification) wholly contradicts the findings of an independent investigation. That decision also ignores the investigator’s recommendation to get more information across the whole of the organization. I wrote quite a lot on this topic one week ago. A relevant part:

In the last month, I have pleaded for my colleagues to seek more background and context, anything that would help inform decision-making. Mr. Crawford’s work record within our city organization is significant and knowable. I asked that new Council Members take the time to review and study recent staff assessments to better understand if reports were a concerning pattern, reflective of a bigger problem. It was suggested that new Council Members review the staff survey that preceded Mr. Crawford’s hiring. There was no interest. Moving forward, Mr. Crawford welcomed further scrutiny of his leadership across the whole of our organization and under the specific direction of the Human Resources director and a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion officer. A majority of my colleagues did not believe any more information would be helpful.

Rationalization for this Council decision is an escalation of the same political strategy we have seen before. Where previously, policy questions have been simplified as binary choices (wholly correct or wholly unacceptable), now we see where people and individuals are quickly characterized in the same way. A strategy of simplification and mischaracterization is now applied to both policy and people.

Facts that we know with specificity are clouded with vague and imprecise qualifiers. My colleagues (and members of the community in support of my colleagues) choose words like “multiple” and “repeated” to avoid stating a number that is known: five. A majority of Council believes that the leadership of our organization — about 2200 employees, about 750 of them full-time —should be removed based on disputed allegations from five anonymous people. Each individual allegation is substantiated by a number of people fewer than five.

I challenge anyone to read Mr. Crawford’s response and identify where he is lacking in terms of holding himself accountable, opening more channels for communication, and accepting direction from others for his own improvement and growth:

Tom Crawford’s Response to Investigation Report

What this means for city staff moving forward: certain categories of allegation cannot be disputed (by an employee or even an independent investigator). There is no apologizing or making amends, either. Our city recognizes no room for reconciliation.

This precedent should concern anyone who might contemplate leading our city: any administrator can now be removed based on disputed, undocumented allegations from fewer than five people. A new majority on Council will reject the findings and recommendations of an independent investigation. We make drastic decisions based on the minimum amount of information, as quickly as possible.

I truly believe that our local government can be better than this. I have written on this topic before:

At the local level, we have the power to make our own decent, principled government. When we wrestle with issues of controversy in our shared community, there is maximum opportunity to hear perspectives, understand them, and reconcile differences if we listen to each other and focus on facts. If we value serious and informed government, we can facilitate that by inviting questions (to be answered) rather than dismissing them, sharing information (to be assessed) rather than ignoring it. Locally, we should be less vulnerable to political manipulation because – no matter how often a lie or mischaracterization is repeated – relevant truths (and direct conversations with each other) are readily available. At this local level, decisions and their consequences are right in front of us for everyone to see clearly, without the distortion of political framing and posturing.

The circumstances of Mr. Crawford’s removal have highlighted and underlined how quickly we conclude that problems are unsolvable, relationships are irreparable. Pointing fingers at our neighbors — declaring them unacceptable and irredeemable —is surely easier than the work of listening and learning from each other.

This divisive climate is not the community I want to live in. It is not good for our city. I thank everyone who has reached out to me in the last two weeks to express concerns about what is happening.