Insider Democracy in Washtenaw County

May 5, 2024 | City Council

Last week was the deadline for filing to run as a partisan candidate for local offices in Washtenaw County. Our County is now overwhelmingly “blue,” so democratic party primaries have become the decisive election that chooses who will fill these elected positions. Some of last week’s filings were surprising and some were expected.

SURPRISING

Last week, two democratic incumbents effectively ‘passed the baton’ in a way that blocked any meaningful contest for the seat they now hold. Evan Pratt, who had filed for re-election as County Drain Commissioner, withdrew his filing at the last minute so that Gretchen Driskell (former Mayor of Saline) could file in his place. Driskell will now be the only candidate on the democratic primary ballot for County Drain Commission. Similarly, Catherine McClary had also filed for re-election as County Treasurer, but withdrew her filing at the last minute; Letitia Sharpe filed in her place, and will now be the only candidate on the democratic primary ballot for County Treasurer. You can read MLive reporting on it here:
https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2024/04/2-washtenaw-county-democrats-accused-of-election-engineering-to-pick-successors.html

The maneuvers of Pratt and McClary frustrated many people. Local democrats who might have been interested in the positions of County Drain Commissioner or County Treasurer were unwilling to challenge an incumbent but would have considered competing for an open seat. It’s unknown if anyone else coordinated with Pratt or McClary in choosing Driskell and Sharpe.

EXPECTED

Last week, four City Council incumbents were pleased to see that no one dared file as a candidate to challenge them. A fifth incumbent will be challenged by someone who has run unsuccessfully twice, earning fewer than 500 votes. The whole of Council is effectively unopposed.

This is an expected result for anyone paying any attention to our local elections and how they now happen: a fortress has been built from big donor/PAC/out of town money, coordinated campaigns, and reciprocal endorsements among Democrats across the county. The lowest level of elected office in Ann Arbor now has a $40,000 price of admission. Residents who care about our community see that there is no path to participation unless you are willing to join the ‘team’ that controls large sums of money and endorsements. Ryan Stanton from MLive reported on these uncontested seats:
https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2024/04/4-of-5-ann-arbor-city-council-races-uncontested-as-primary-filing-deadline-passes.html

A handful of people pulled petitions to challenge incumbents this year but ultimately realized that they could not scale the walls that have been built to keep new people out.

“NOT ALLOWED”

This week, I talked to someone who is running for political office in Washtenaw County. She has been endorsed by an outgoing incumbent and will compete against another candidate who filed earlier. The earlier candidate filed to run for this office before the incumbent announced her plan to vacate the seat, i.e. entering the race as a direct challenge to the incumbent.

In discussing this election, the incumbent-endorsed candidate told me that what her opponent had done – challenging an incumbent – was “not allowed.” When I suggested that these elections are open to anyone and that everyone has a right to compete (even against an incumbent), her response was interesting: “Well, not if the incumbent is doing a good job!” My reply to that: according to who?

A small local network of money and influence now promotes a very limited model of “democracy”: elected offices will be distributed by and among the people who are currently in power. Power will be transferred agreeably within a closed network so that there are fewer candidates and fewer contested elections. A challenge to this system is offensive and “not allowed.”

ENTITLEMENT

The strategic candidate filings for County Water Resource Commissioner and County Treasurer highlight a problem much bigger than the four people involved. It’s true that the community has been deprived of choice in democratic candidates for these offices. Perhaps more shocking: a small network of party insiders was deprived of choice in who would benefit from their considerable money and coordinated endorsements.

I wonder: if anyone had filed to challenge incumbents Evan Pratt and Catherine McClary three months ago — when everyone still expected that they were running for re-election— would party insiders have cried foul and said that the challenge was “not allowed”?

Our City offices now mirror the clubby sense of entitlement that exists at higher levels of county and state government. This year, when a few brave souls pulled petitions to run for City Council, one person was tracked down at work by the incumbent who was desperate to run unopposed. Residents will have no choice in another uncontested race: an outgoing Council Member has endorsed someone whose local connection is his marriage to another politician. People with deep roots in our community or strong support from regular residents cannot compete against the concentration of money and power that now ‘owns’ these seats.

Democracy is meant to provide opportunity for participation— most people participate as voters but some people might hope to participate as candidates. Ideally, those who aspire to be candidates are motivated to serve the public. The best candidates for public office understand their responsibility and obligation to the broader community, not just the power brokers.

COMMUNITY-CENTERED PRIORITIES

There is something special about the lowest level of elected office— policy and decisions are more visible to the people who are directly impacted by them. Elected representatives are accountable and accessible in a way that is more challenging at higher levels. E.g. When I served on Ann Arbor City Council, our home addresses were published on the City’s website. (Note: his information was quietly removed shortly after the election of new Council members in 2022.)

This week, there is a public hearing on the Fiscal Year 2025 budget. If approved as currently written, this budget will grant every single Council Member an annual expense account of $5,000 to fund personal travel:

Beginning July 1 of FY 2025, each policymaker will have up to $5,000 available to attend conferences or take a city government related trip for fact finding or training. The intent of this funding is to support policymakers being able to gain additional knowledge and insight into subject matter that is relevant to the City of Ann Arbor.

For anyone who has not served on City Council: this expenditure is bizarre.

Since the introduction of a new, unanimous City Council in November 2022, absenteeism has tripled. The illustration below shows that for a few recent meetings, both representatives from a given Ward were absent— one fifth of the City had no representation at these meetings. (Note that these charts do not include multiple other board and commission meetings that Council Members have failed to attend as liaisons).

Ann Arbor City Council absences from Nov 2022 through April 2024

In response to criticism about poor attendance, one Council Member declared that she and colleagues had more important personal responsibilities. She casually dismissed previous representatives as old and retired and cheerfully explained that the current Council simply had “a lot going on.”

WHY THIS MATTERS

I know the work of serving on City Council. For four years, my Council email was a fairly even split between people advocating for local policy and requests for help in navigating City process to solve problems in neighborhoods. I regularly biked to places in Ward 4 and across the city to connect with residents and better understand the local impact of Council decisions. Understanding local policy requires “fact-finding” in Ann Arbor. Considerable “knowledge and insight” comes from showing up to meetings and hearing from local residents.

Our elected City Council is no longer focused on the community it serves. At public meetings, Council Members now regularly boast about the networking activities they’ve engaged in outside of the City. Meanwhile, residents notice frequent absences and complain about unanswered emails. If the FY2025 budget is approved as is, residents will subsidize up to $55,000 in travel for City Council members to network outside of the City— residents will pay for local leaders to be even less accountable to and engaged with the local community.

This financial benefit is in addition to pay raises that Council will receive this July and again in July 2025. See here:
https://a2gov.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=6441904&GUID=7037A075-9FBC-44C0-967C-3E91C82FBCCE&Options=Advanced&Search=&FullText=1

Elected leaders who already do not prioritize local responsibilities now expect taxpayers to fund personal travel outside of our community. If history is any guide, this budget will be approved unanimously.