Elections Have Consequences

Oct 3, 2019 | City Council

Every year, City Council votes to approve various Council member appointments to boards and commissions. These “liaison” appointments sometimes grant a Council member a vote on issues before a board or commission, but not always. Typically— even when acting as a “voting” member— that Council member is only one of nine or one of twelve. Appointed resident volunteers comprise the majority of most city boards and commissions. The role of a Council member on a commission is mostly a seat at the table: as a participant in the meeting and a messenger, sharing and reporting on the work of that commission to the rest of Council.

On June 30, 2019, CM Ackerman’s term as Council liaison to (and voting member of) the City Planning Commission expired. Starting in early June, city staff pointed out the need to anticipate this expired term and City Council began asking the Mayor to consider a different appointment. (According to state law, it is the mayor’s responsibility to present appointments for the planning commission, i.e. as Council members, we cannot present a candidate for appointment, we can only respond to the candidates proposed by the Mayor.) At our meeting on September 3rd— two months after CM Ackerman’s term had expired— the Mayor finally presented his planning commission appointment to City Council for discussion. He proposed that CM Ackerman be re-appointed. As the Mayor would/should have been able to predict, the majority of Council opposed CM Ackerman’s re-appointment.

There have now been two (soon to be three) Council meetings since that vote and the Mayor has still not acknowledged the majority vote of Council, the six Council members who would like to see someone else appointed as Council liaison to the City Planning Commission.

According to state law, a member of a municipal planning commission (including, in this case, a voting member from Council) remains a member “until his or her successor is appointed.” This clause anticipates the danger of a planning commission so small that it cannot function or maintain quorum (i.e. membership numbers must be preserved in order to perform duties). In this case, however, the state law does not protect Ann Arbor from a non-functional commission. There are “successor” candidates readily available for appointment as Council liaison to the Planning Commission. The Mayor could easily make an appointment that would be approved by Council; in the name of politics (and simply because he CAN), he chooses not to.

The state law is now a mechanism/loophole for preventing the natural consequence of elections: a significant change in elected members of Council should inevitably lead to changes in the work of City Council, changes in appointments.

Results of 2018

In 2018, Ann Arbor voters chose a Mayor and five Council members. Among Council members, one candidate stepped down (Kalisapathy), three incumbents were defeated (Westphal, Krapohl, and Warpehowski), and only one incumbent Council member was re-elected (Grand). Our two mayoral candidates were the incumbent (Taylor) and a sitting Council member (Eaton), who happened to be in the middle of a term. The mayoral race was the only city contest in which a resident could vote “against” a candidate (Eaton), knowing that he would continue to serve as a voice on City Council. The nuance of this is important, particularly if anyone were to argue that one of the six city elections was more meaningful than the others.

It is a safe bet that Ann Arbor voters who participated in the elections for Council members expected that, as elected members, we would have some influence. It is fairly common knowledge that the ten Council members work together with the Mayor to vote on issues that impact the City. It is likely that the majority of residents who voted to unseat incumbent Council members knew that they were voting for a different power dynamic and different perspectives (this is especially likely, given the fact that the Mayor actively campaigned for all of the incumbents).

This Planning Commission appointment is a good example of where a different composition of City Council should have generated a relatively small change. A single vote on Planning Commission is rarely decisive, but a different voice at the table might ask different questions and prompt different discussion. MLive reported on Council debate around this issue, but did not quote me. At that September 3rd meeting, I said this:

The way I see it, we have a lot to be grateful for in terms of how much time CM Ackerman has invested in the planning commission and the amount of responsibility that he took on. I think we can appreciate that at the same time as we acknowledge the appropriateness of shifting this responsibility onto somebody else. We’ve had a number of closed sessions, in the short time that I’ve been on Council, around legal issues about our planning decisions and about developments that are coming down the pike. I think it’s time for us to have somebody on planning who has a stronger legal background— I am not volunteering myself because I don’t have the amount of time that CM Ackerman has put into this job. I am grateful for the communication that I have had with my colleague around his job as our liaison to planning. I don’t mean to diminish any of that and so I would just like to make the comment that we can move forward with a decision to choose somebody else and it’s not about anyone being mean to anyone else, it’s not about a lack of respect, it’s just about making a different choice. Those are the reasons why I support somebody else on planning, specifically CM Eaton. Thank you.

I encourage you to read the MLive article to see what some of my colleagues had to say.

A Pattern

This is actually the third time that the Mayor has unilaterally blocked a majority vote from Council; the other two times were mayoral vetoes.

On April 1, 2019, Council voted in support of two resolutions related to the public safety and community mental health millage rebate: one preserved the budget allocations described by a previous Council’s non-binding resolution, the other formally stated that budgeting of this rebate was subject to annual review. These two resolutions, together, were meant to be a compromise— a way of pledging money for one year while also recognizing the legal fact that these rebate funds will enter our budgets in the future, untethered as to purpose, i.e. legally, future City Councils will always have discretion to re-direct funds like these as they see fit. I was still receiving grateful emails from advocacy groups (satisfied with this compromise) when the Mayor issued his veto of the second resolution. His veto came with the remarkable admission that it had no practical effect on budget or funding, “Not by one penny.”

On July 1, 2019, a majority of Council voted in support of a ballot question re: non-partisan elections, to be put to the voters on this November ballot. Again, the Mayor issued a veto. This veto was perhaps more stunning than the first. Where the first veto had no meaningful impact on anything, the second veto had the very real impact of preventing voters from engaging in our democratic process. Non-partisan elections were proposed as a way of including more voters in our local contests, shifting the local elections out of low-participation primaries and into higher turnout general elections. A ballot question on this issue would have been subject to the same community conversations, debate, and advocacy as any other issue put to a vote. With his veto, the Mayor sent a clear message: our community of voters cannot be trusted to debate or decide the question.

I am concerned by what I see as a pattern of behavior which amounts to denial of the results of 2018 elections and rejection of voter intent, generally. I hear desperate, illogical arguments that suggest we only had one local election in 2018, rather than six (e.g. “If Council Member Eaton wanted to appoint himself to the Planning Commission, he should have won the mayoral race”). Bizarrely, some folks seem to support use of legal loopholes and Mayoral vetoes in any situation, regardless of purpose or effect. So far, the impact of these unilateral Mayoral decisions have ranged from zero (“Not by one penny”) to explicit opposition to voter engagement. The Mayoral veto is in our charter as part of our local process, but the record of when and how it has been exercised recently is very strange. I sincerely hope that this pattern of behavior does not continue. I also hope that, as a community, we can agree that elections— all of them— matter.

In a CTN interview this past month, one of my colleagues asserted that, since the 2018 local elections, our City Council has become “hostile to each other… hostile to the public.” He cited an “unwillingness to consider ideas that are not necessarily things that you believed in” and recommended that Council should be “more professional, more considerate of one another, of the public, and of the process.” I agree.