As elected representatives in a democracy, City Council is tasked with voting on issues of controversy. I believe that if we aspire to have a truly healthy democracy, three things must be true:
- COMPETING INTERESTS: Leaders are elected to consider and balance the competing interests and range of perspectives that exist in our community. Compromise should be accepted as a legitimate strategy to reconcile concerns.
- REPRESENTATION: Members of City Council are elected to be representatives and are accountable to the community they serve. Elected leaders should accept responsibility for serving their constituents, not special interests.
- PUBLIC SCRUTINY: Decisions will happen in public meetings, under public scrutiny. Public meetings should include the public and offer reasonable opportunities for community members to show up and react to how the decisions are made.
The agenda for this meeting provides three remarkable instances where City Council can choose to adopt or reject these principles. This week, residents have sent dozens of emails to City Council, expressing opposition to TC-1 zoning at Stadium/Pauline (B-1) as well as opposition to the removal of street parking on S. Seventh (CA-3).
Agenda items B-1 and CA-3 will have a particular impact on west-side residents in Ward 4 and Ward 5. However, a third issue – amendment of our Council Rules – will have an impact on every member of our community. The Council Administration Committee has proposed amendments that compromise everyone’s ability to engage with and respond to the work of your local government.
COMPETING INTERESTS: TC-1 rezoning of Stadium/Maple
PH-1/B-1 (22-1472) An Ordinance to Amend Chapter 55 (Unified Development Code), Rezoning of 190 Parcels in the W Stadium and N Maple Area to TC1 (Transit Corridor District), City-Initiated Rezoning, (CPC Recommendation: Approval – 6 Yeas and 0 Nays) (ORD-22-16)
I have written at length about the TC-1 proposal for rezoning on the west side of Ann Arbor and it has been a topic of community conversation for some time. This summer, City staff led formal public engagement meetings. Feedback from those meetings prompted City Staff to recommend a range of compromises. I wrote about it in the “Additional Thoughts” section of my October 1st 2022 newsletter:
City staff identified the concerns of local stakeholders and suggested where a rezoning plan could be amended to address those concerns, while achieving the goal of more housing and mixed use. Staff suggestions were summarily ignored by unelected Mayoral appointees to the Planning Commission. This rezoning – without any adjustments or changes – was approved by Council at First Reading last month. A majority of Council Members validated the approach of setting aside and wholly ignoring local resident concerns.
Reasonable people can share the same goals and disagree on strategy — in a healthy democracy where elected leaders accept responsibility for serving the whole of our community, disagreement and debate should lead to compromise.
CA-3 (22-1651) Resolution to Prohibit On-Street Parking on the West Side of South Seventh Street from Scio Church Road to Lawton Elementary School and Incorporate Additional Speed Management and/or Traffic Calming
A relatively small issue on S. Seventh (south of Scio Church) – the removal of street parking to create a buffered bike lane – is going to have a disproportionate impact on local residents who live in that part of Ward 4. As happened with the TC-1 zoning issue, City staff conducted public engagement with local residents and made suggestions based on neighborhood needs and concerns. The proposal in CA-3 is the result of unelected Mayoral appointees to the Transportation Commission rejecting both City Staff recommendation and local resident input. I wrote about it in the “Additional Thoughts” section of my October 15th 2022 newsletter:
In September, members of the Transportation Commission insisted that this north/south buffered bike lane was for safety, to help students commuting to Lawton Elementary. Unfortunately, it happens that nearly all of the kids who might commute to Lawton by bike actually live to the east and to the west. In other words, this north/south buffered bike lane is not a route actually travelled by most of the school children. However, the street parking is used quite a lot by families driving in from much further away. (I saw this for myself when I subbed there for two months.) Relevant information like this is why local, resident input matters.
The plan in CA-3 will remove street parking on Seventh that is regularly used by residents and Lawton Elementary school families in order to make room for a buffered bike lane. The resolution also directs the City Administrator to collect speed data and implement traffic calming elements on Seventh. Dozens of local residents in this area have sent emails to City Council explaining that this corridor needs traffic calming, not a buffered bike lane.
The issue at S. Seventh/Greenview is a good example of where local residents expect to be heard by the leaders they elect. Ward 4 has two elected representatives who, theoretically, represent them. When an overwhelming majority of Ward 4 residents share a local neighborhood concern, they expect support from their elected representatives.
The City is divided into Council Wards for a reason: every neighborhood is meant to have representation.
PUBLIC SCRUTINY: Council Rules
DC-2 (22-1789) Resolution to Approve Amendments to the Council Rules
In the last two years, a majority of Council has repeatedly exploited our internal processes and rules to marginalize voices of dissent within the elected body: limiting speaking time for Council Members, restricting how issues and topics can be added to agendas for public discussion, and targeting specific Council Members for exclusion from Boards and Commissions. Agenda item DC-2 is a remarkable attempt to marginalize resident voices of dissent. It is notable insofar as it directly contradicts talking points that a majority of Council repeated last year.
Agenda item DC-2 will wholly remove open public comment at City Council meetings. In a convoluted two-step sign-up process (8 a.m. to 1 p.m., then 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.) new Council Rules will require every public commenter to register ahead of time, hours before the meeting starts and well before anyone knows what will happen in that meeting.
THE CURRENT SYSTEM
In the two hours before a Council meeting, new items can be added to a public agenda. In the course of a Council meeting, items on the agenda can be wholly substituted, drastically amended, postponed, or tabled. In Council meetings, elected leaders may argue positions and make votes that disappoint or otherwise invite criticism from residents.
Historically, an open public comment at the end of the meeting has been an opportunity for community members to watch a Council meeting, observe how issues were debated and decided, and react to the work of their elected leaders in the same forum where that work takes place. Pre-pandemic, anyone who took the time to show up and attend a City Council meeting could stand up at the end of a Council meeting and offer a three minute comment. Typically these comments have not been numerous and they have not extended our meetings by much.
Since the pandemic, access to this open public comment has increased significantly because anyone with a computer or a phone can now contribute public comments. Community members who were previously unable to physically attend our meetings can now watch a meeting from home and offer public comment by phone. In theory, this opportunity promotes more inclusive and substantive community response to the policy work of City Council.
During the campaign season of 2020, a few people – including a PR professional from California – started exploiting public comments to swear and yell on topics unrelated to policy. Hiding behind phones, end-of-meeting public comments increasingly devolved into personal attacks and obscenities targeting the same Council Members over and over. In response to a sudden (and new) influx of comments that were neither local nor substantive, more than one of my colleagues asked our legal department for possible solutions. E.g. Could we ask callers to identify themselves and their location? How did existing rules against “disruption’ and “obscenity” comply with First Amendment rights? When I sponsored a resolution asking our City Attorney to provide public information on the latter question, a majority of Council deflected the actual issue (a legal memo) by simply repeating over and over again that they opposed censorship. They insisted that the legal memo would “chill” speech.
Several members of the public eagerly jumped on the idea that a request for a legal memo about the First Amendment was, in fact, a nefarious effort to prohibit speech. In the process of repeating and validating that talking point, a UM law professor contributed this public comment at the 1/19/21 Council meeting:
“Let’s be clear: City Council, having created the public comment period cannot now turn around and restrict the citizen’s say in this forum when they find some comments vulgar, offensive, uncomfortable, or even hate-filled. .. One of the jobs of a public official is to listen to citizens, even angry citizens, even citizens with views the official finds abhorrent or views that are expressed in vulgar terms.”
Another local attorney explained:
“The rules give us a brief opportunity to directly address you, our elected representatives regarding the matters before Council. This kind of speech is the literal core of what the First Amendment is intended to protect. It is limitable here only in the narrowest way. And only for the most extraordinarily compelling reasons… We don’t need the City Attorney to educate us on the Constitution, we do need a Council comprised entirely of people who want to listen to us, who treat the public commentary periods during these meetings as sacred even when the words are harsh, critical, or profane and who listen to the public professionally, courteously, and unfailingly without interruption.”
At the same meeting, Council Member Eyer said:
“I’m not about to work against these [First Amendment] rights now that I’m seated at the table of power. I just want to end on a note about power: as a journalist, I was taught and in turn I taught others that our job was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable and I think we need to be really clear: we at this table are the comfortable. It’s our job to listen to the afflicted, not to censor them”
These remarks were made in response to a request for a legal memo. Council Members who – just eighteen months ago – postured alarm about “chilling” critical speech now propose that we implement rules that actually remove that critical speech.
WHY THIS MATTERS
The amendment in DC-2 is overly complicated and includes small tweaks that are clearly designed to obscure its primary purpose. At our last meeting, one Council member postured the disingenuous (and patently false) argument that new rules are an “expansion” of public comment to make it “easier” for people, so they do not have to wait around to comment. These claims are intentionally misleading.
Currently, the public can pre-register to use one of ten public comments scheduled to occur at the beginning of a Council meeting; the proposed amendment increases that number to fifteen. Meanwhile, what has previously been an open opportunity for anyone to comment at the end of a public meeting – without pre-registration – is completely removed. At least one Council Member thinks that the public will swallow her characterization of this as an “expansion” of public comment. Our community is surely smarter than that.
Agenda item DC-2 eliminates the specific forum that residents have traditionally used to respond to what they have just seen in a City Council meeting. In my four years on Council, I have listened to many cumulative hours of such public comment when residents expressed support, praise, surprise, anger, or frustration about specific actions of Council. Recently (and increasingly), public comments at the end of our meetings include corrections of fact because wrong information has been shared by elected leaders at the Council table. Such end-of-meeting public comments have no influence over decisions already made, but they do become part of the public record in a way that phone calls and emails do not.
I don’t doubt that this has been very uncomfortable for many of my colleagues. Avoiding that discomfort does not strike me as a compelling reason to wholly eliminate such public comment.
The timing of this amendment is particularly brazen, given the fact that a new Council is about to be seated. If DC-2 is approved at the November 10th meeting, an outgoing Council will fundamentally change the rules in order to shield an incoming Council from public criticism at their first meeting on November 21st.
That incoming City Council represents hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on coordinated and professionally managed campaigns which were funded by a common network of large donors (including the two lawyers who offered public comment in 2021), huge amounts of money from out of town/state, and PACs. Moving forward, every single elected member of City Council will have been approved and recommended by one person (Mayor Taylor), while theoretically representing five diverse Wards.
A new Council claims a “mandate” of overwhelming public support for how they will govern, but this amendment suggests that new members would not want to hear the public respond to how they actually govern. I believe the new Council should decide whether or not they are willing to hear public criticism at their meetings. Some of the new members may agree that one of the jobs of a public official is to listen to citizens.