Thoughts on the November 2021 Ballot

Oct 2, 2021 | City Council

In the last six months, City Council voted to put a number of proposals on the November 2021 ballot. I generally support the idea of putting issues on the ballot for voters to decide. At Council, I voted in favor of all the ballot questions below, with the exception of Proposal D. Below is explanation about the proposals Council approved for this upcoming ballot:

Proposal A

Ann Arbor City Charter Amendment Related to Best Value Purchasing

Shall Section 14.3 subsection d of the Charter be amended to require the City to award contracts for supplies, materials, or public improvements, to the bidder that is deemed the best value to the City rather than the lowest responsible bidder?

Resolution approved July 20, 2021 authorizing this ballot question (Sponsors: Eyer, Radina, Taylor, Briggs, Nelson, Song, Griswold)

This proposal was brought to Council by labor union advocates, to give the City more flexibility in awarding contracts. This ballot question has prompted an advertising blitz of mailers (one of which has my picture on it as an endorser) and yard signs. I appreciate the skepticism around this ballot initiative as evidence that people are approaching it thoughtfully. When numerous glossy mailers arrive at your house, it is appropriate to wonder who is funding them and why.

Current City Charter language directs us to spend the least amount of public funds necessary on contracts, requiring that the City award contracts to the “lowest responsible bidder.” The word “responsible” is vague and not well-defined but is meant to clarify the obvious: the City does not aim for the cheapest and least expensive option in every situation. Staff exercises some discretion already to make sure that all contracts are awarded to companies and organizations that can accomplish the whole of the job.

In 2020, labor union advocates pointed out that the City was awarding contracts to companies that are less likely to employ union labor and therefore less likely to do quality work. In response, Council passed an ordinance amendment to more specifically define the phrase “responsible bidder.” The changes would apply in cases where the City receives bids for construction projects in excess of $25,000. Bidders would (among other things) be required to verify appropriate licensing for all contractors and subcontractors and state what percentage of their workforce (contractors and subcontractors) resides in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw county. Bidders would also have to document pay rates/benefits, insurance coverage, references from the last five years as well as completed projects from the last five years. The whole of this ordinance would help guide our choice of contractors, so that it more directly reflects our values:

The current proposal for “Best value” is on the ballot due to the City’s failure to apply last year’s ordinance amendment. I have endorsed Proposal A, but I appreciate where and how it is controversial. The most significant criticism I have heard is this: The proposal offers no objectively measurable standards. What will prevent the City from simply awarding contracts to friends and politically connected people?

This was my biggest concern when I first heard the proposal. In discussion of the issue, Council talked broadly about standards and rubrics, without specifics. During the Council meeting I asked staff:

“What is the process we anticipate for building that rubric? [Is it] purely a policy question that Council is sort of cooking up or is it something that staff is likely to provide input on?”

Legal staff answered:

There are many criteria contained in the definition of “responsible bidder” currently. However, the Charter restrains us on doing a more weighted, value-based or subjective, discretionary decision making with the answers to those criteria. So some of those criteria and maybe others would be incorporated into the rubric. I would point to the current RFP [Request for Proposals] process where there is some discretion to evaluate those criteria but within the objective framework and then weight is given, which is kind of that discretionary component. That is currently how the RFP process works and that is oftentimes laid out from Council in resolutions, recommending a contract for award.

It is worth noting: in July 2020, Washtenaw County Commission adopted a similar policy for awarding contracts, which includes this explanation:

WHEREAS, Responsible Contractor Policies are not necessarily the same as “lowest responsible bidder” policies. Responsible contracting policies, or “best value” policies, seek the lowest and most responsible bid, while lowest responsible contractor policies seek the lowest bidder who is minimally qualified;

The Washtenaw County website has a page about the Responsible Contractor Policy:

The complete July 1, 2020 Washtenaw County resolution can be found here:

I recognize concerns about how Prop A will be implemented. In assessing “best value” for a contract, the City must apply a rubric that is objectively measurable. Clear standards must be the starting point, even if we ultimately use discretion in identifying (“weighting”) priorities. I am comfortable supporting this proposal because, moving forward, I expect to have influence in setting policy and monitoring how we apply it.

Proposal B

Ann Arbor City Charter Amendment Related to Ranked Choice Voting for the Election of City Officers

Shall the Charter be amended to provide that the Mayor and City Council members are to be nominated and elected by a Ranked Choice Voting method when it is authorized by State Law?

Resolution approved Aug 2, 2021 authorizing this ballot question (Sponsors: Disch, Grand, Eyer)

This proposal is not going to have any impact in the near future because ranked choice voting (RCV) isn’t likely to be permitted under state law anytime soon. Ranked choice voting is generally considered to be a better expression of voter intent— it measures voter support for more than one candidate. Under our current system, any election with more than two candidates can potentially ‘split’ the vote by non-majority percentages. A RCV process prevents a candidate from winning with less than majority support, because voters can rank every one of the candidates. As applied directly to our local election system (i.e. candidates chosen in August primaries), RCV does not represent a significant improvement; RCV would be a significant improvement if we had nonpartisan elections, inclusive of all possible candidates competing in a November election. If the state permitted RCV, I hope by then we would have implemented nonpartisan elections as well.

In 2019, Council approved a ballot question for nonpartisan elections, so that voters could consider the issue. The Mayor vetoed that ballot question. I wrote about my support for the ballot question and the Mayor’s veto here:

In 2020, Council considered (and rejected) a ballot question for ranked choice voting. I wrote about my support for that ballot question and why it would be most useful in the context of nonpartisan elections:

Proposal C

Ann Arbor City Charter Amendment Related to Emergency Procurement

Shall Section 14.2 of the Charter be amended to require City Council to establish, by ordinance, the procedure by which the City Administrator may make emergency purchases.

Resolution approved Aug 2, 2021 authorizing this ballot question (Sponsors: Eyer, Taylor, Radina)

This is a clarification of the charter to make it consistent with necessary (current) city practice. In answer to Council questions about the need for this (examples of where/how emergency expenditures happen), staff identified the water main break that occurred this June on North Maple which required immediate repair.

Proposal D

Ann Arbor City Charter Amendment Related to the $25,000 Dollar Limit

Shall Section 14.2 of the Charter be amended to permit the City Council to delegate to the City Administrator the authority to approve purchases and to enter into contracts when the cost to the City is equal to or lesser than $75,000, to be adjustable for inflation.

Resolution approved Aug 2, 2021 authorizing this ballot question (Sponsors: Eyer, Taylor, Radina)

Council was told that internal spending authority has not been adjusted upwards since 1995. Many expenditures appear on public agendas for City Council, e.g. in our Consent Agendas, Council often authorizes millions of dollars in spending without any discussion. A change like this means that many expenditures would not appear on public agendas; staff report that this adjustment would cut our public agendas nearly in half. That is an element of transparency that we lose when we adjust these numbers up. In the interest of transparency, I did not support putting this particular question on the ballot.