The most recent Council meeting (March 6, 2023) highlighted just how rapidly a new Council is delegating responsibility to unelected City staff, reducing their own responsibility and accountability for decisions that impact the City and its residents.
Last week, I wrote at length about proposed ordinance amendments that eliminate the City’s Insurance Board and Council participation in it.
In short, Council members will no longer review claims against the City. Nearly all of these claims come from individual residents who have suffered a loss (damages) due to City action or inaction. The ordinance amendment also specifically removes publication and accountability requirements that now happen via Council approval of Board meeting minutes. As part of the proposed change, the current threshold for Council approval of specific claims will jump from $10,000 to $75,000. The ordinance removes significant Council oversight and transparency, delegating those responsibilities to the City Administrator or his designee.
At various points in discussion last week, Council Members acknowledged transparency concerns and offered vague ideas about what could be done. Council Member Eyer proposed one specific suggestion: publishing all claims information on the City website for anyone to view at any time. However, no amendments were offered to codify any such requirement. The new ordinance explicitly removes requirements around the availability of this information.
Original language of subsection “Accounting” (emphasis added)
An account of properties constituting the risk fund, of acquisitions and expenditures, and of other matters concerning it shall be kept by the City Treasurer and shall be available at all reasonable times to the Board of Insurance Administration and to the City Council.
New language of subsection “Accounting” (emphasis added)
The City Treasurer shall keep an accounting of all matters concerning the risk fund, including acquisitions and expenditures, and all moneys, credits, securities, and properties constituting the risk fund. The accounting shall be available to the City Council upon request.
One of the challenges of government is setting standards and protocols that can be implemented with integrity. That is done through our code of ordinances, not soundbites or speeches in public meetings.
At the March 6th meeting, one item was pulled off the Consent Agenda for discussion: CA-2, a resolution approving seasonal street closures downtown.
CA-2 (23-0325) Resolution to Approve Downtown Street Closures for Restaurant and Retail Use
These street closures were first approved in 2020, during the height of the pandemic. Since 2020, Council has revisited the issue annually and approved downtown street closures with input from the businesses and associations that benefit from them. The timing and location of these closures have been adjusted year to year, based on community feedback.
The approved street closures for 2023 are:
- Main Street from William to Washington
- West Liberty Street from Ashley to Main
- East Liberty Street from Main to Fourth
- West Washington Street from Ashley to Main
Closures will begin on Thursdays at 4:00 pm and end on Mondays at 6:00 am, except for the closure West Washington Street which shall be for 24 hours a day and for seven days a week
The resolution in CA-2 included these details for 2023 and, moving forward, delegates authority to the City Administrator to determine future seasonal street closures. From the staff memo for CA-2:
This Resolution seeks to continue these closures on an ongoing basis without the need to seek annual Council approval.
Council Member Ghazi Edwin pulled this item off the Consent Agenda for discussion. She described a private meeting that she had with a member of City staff that “went really well,” in which they discussed “potentially having, or designating” more accessible parking spots for older people or others who cannot walk a long distance. Her remarks were the whole of Council discussion on this issue.
Council unanimously approved these street closures without adding any provisions – or language directing staff to add provisions – for accessible parking spots. A solution to “potentially” meet this community need is left to staff discretion. Moving forward, every other aspect of these street closures is left to staff discretion, because Council has explicitly delegated that responsibility. Decisions about the closures will no longer be subject to even a once-a-year Council review, discussion, and approval in a public meeting.
Accessible parking spots are precisely the kind of community need that is appropriately raised in a public meeting of City Council. It is also a solution that Council could establish as policy, if it chose. Raising an issue privately with staff is a poor substitute for consideration and policymaking in a public meeting.
Last week’s Council meeting included close to an hour of public hearings about a development at Pontiac Trail and Dhu Varren, called “The Village.” Developers of that project submitted a Brownfield Redevelopment Plan: a request for $31 million in public subsidy, reimbursing the developer for environmental and non-environmental activities that support redevelopment of their building site. Brownfield funds are made available through grants and loans from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.
For a project like “The Village,” the process of application and award of Brownfield funding includes a requirement for approval from the “local unit of government” (i.e. City Council). Requests are then reviewed and approved at the County level.
Four members of City Council – CMs Cornell, Eyer, Ghazi Edwin, Harrison – serve on the Brownfield Plans Review Committee. That committee meets on an as-needed basis to discuss and review requests for Brownfield funding; they hear the details of a developer’s plan and consider the merits in discussion with City staff, including City attorneys. Recommendations of the Brownfield Plans Review Committee (BPRC) must then be approved by the whole City Council.
Process at the County level is similar: requests for Brownfield funding are reviewed by a board that includes one elected commissioner, three representatives of County Municipalities, four representatives from Environmental Professional/Legal/Countywide Development Organization, and one representative from the Community At-Large. Recommendations of the County Brownfield Development Authority must then be approved by the whole County Commission.
At last week’s Council meeting, public hearings for “The Village” Brownfield plan prompted several complaints and concerns from residents who had studied it closely. In response, the developer explained that the City’s BPRC had approved it unanimously at their January meeting. The minutes from that January meeting are not yet published but the agenda is available on Legistar:
At their January meeting, the BPRC considered two agenda items: $31 million in brownfield funding for “The Village” and a proposal to do away with the commission entirely:
Staff recommends approving the motion that recommends the elimination of the Brownfield Review Committee.
The City’s boards, commissions and Council committees exist to provide meaningful and thoughtful review of complex issues in advance of Council consideration. The complexity of these brownfield plans – and the need for serious review of them – is obvious. For example, the 28-page Brownfield Redevelopment Plan for “The Village” can be found here:
Staff explanation of the plan can be found here:
The City’s BPRC is where plans related to cleanup and economic development of environmentally complicated locations – as well as millions of dollars in public subsidy – are discussed in detail, in advance of a vote by the whole of City Council. The BPRC meets only when there is a Brownfield Plan funding request to consider and since 2020, it has only met three times. Dissolution of the BPRC would spare four Council Members the time and effort required to attend these infrequent meetings and provide meaningful consideration.
Meaningful consideration of these plans is unlikely to happen among the whole of City Council, at meetings that currently include minimal debate and discussion.
Our representatives are elected to respond to community needs and establish clear policy that meets those needs. That role is reduced every time leaders choose to delegate policy making to an unelected bureaucracy. Fundamentally, the work of local government requires people to show up. Our democracy is diminished when elected representatives are not interested or choose not to be engaged in the details of local policy.
For anyone interested in more details about Brownfield funding and policy:
A brief summary/fact sheet about Brownfield funding:
A step-by-step description of Ann Arbor Brownfield funding process: