Diversity of Ideas

Jul 2, 2019 | City Council

This morning, a resident asked me to explain why I voted against a candidate to the Human Rights Commission.

All appointments happen entirely at the discretion of the Mayor and Council. Candidates for appointment are obviously not accountable to voters, the only accountability is the process of approval at the Council table. More crucially: some appointments originate with Council (i.e. a specific candidate can be submitted by a council member) and some appointments originate with the Mayor (i.e. a specific candidate can be submitted by only the Mayor).

There are very few circumstances when I would vote against appointing a qualified volunteer. Last night was one of them. I explained that my vote related to concerns about the treatment of Vivian Chang, former co-chair of the Human Rights Commission and an Asian American member of our queer community. I offer the explanation above to clarify the impasse we are in: I strongly believe that Vivian Chang’s re-appointment should have been subject to a vote of council, but the Mayor has refused to submit her name for consideration. I have had serious conversations with the Mayor and others at City Hall about this issue, I am not the only CM concerned about it. I am upset by the political motivation for withholding her name, it goes against the very unique intents and purposes of the HRC. In my view, it is wrong to prevent a simple vote on Ms. Chang’s appointment. Last night, I voted against appointing someone else to the HRC even though that other person will certainly be a serious and thoughtful commissioner. My choice to vote “no” had nothing to do with that candidate’s qualification to serve and everything to do with concerns about who we are shutting out.

While it was not my primary motivation for voting “no,” there is also debate around the idea of a dual appointment in this particular case (i.e. one person will now fill two seats: a seat on both HRC and the Independent Community Police Oversight Commission). A dual appointment reduces the opportunity for more people to participate; we include fewer voices and perspectives when one person takes a second seat that could have been filled by someone else. Drawing the circle of participation smaller is especially concerning to me, given what has happened to Vivian Chang. Of all our boards and commissions, I believe that the Human Rights Commission should be most committed to expanding the circle, including a greater diversity of voices. Last night, CM Griswold proposed that we consider formalizing a policy of dual appointment between HRC and ICPOC (as exists between other commissions). That is a debate worth having because it is not currently part of any written commission policy.

I have tried to articulate to people as much as possible my own definition of the word “qualified,” because these appointments do matter. While Council has complete discretion on this issue and do not have to explain our votes in the meeting (city attorneys have told us this repeatedly), I think all of us should be able to defend how and why we vote on specific appointments. In appointing people, I feel very strongly about choosing folks who are thoughtful, serious about hearing and understanding all perspectives, and committed to informed debate. I’ve heard other council members express ideas about policy direction re: these appointments, but I don’t share that view.

I have voted in support of commissioners who disagree with me strongly and emphatically: commissioners who reached out to me with detailed explanation of why I am wrong on an issue and invited me to explain my perspective. These are the conversations we need to be having as a community, but most especially on Council and within our boards and commissions. Ann Arbor is stronger when we can engage in debate about policy and practice vigorously and thoughtfully. I support commissioners who share my commitment to serious dialogue: listening to understand each other (and persuade each other) rather than dividing up into “teams” against each other. I have voted against and will continue to vote against candidates for appointment who I know to be resistant to engaging others, eager to over-simplify issues for the purpose of mockery, or determined to promote “us versus them” dynamics in our community. Those attitudes are not consistent with an educated, progressive community. More importantly, that approach is the worst possible strategy for resolving issues of controversy and finding the best solutions for Ann Arbor.

Thank you to everyone who has ever contacted me to share your perspective (or ask for clarification of mine). I welcome these conversations and I look forward to many more!