That’s All She Wrote

Well, the election is over and I lost.  See the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s summary here.

There are always a lot of opportunities for second-guessing after a campaign, and I’ll admit that I hoped it would at least be a little closer (I had 1320 votes out of 3029, or 43.5%).  There are a few obvious answers.

1. My opponent, Chuck Warpehoski, was simply a very credible candidate, well-spoken with a previous public presence, and an attractive young family.

2. He garnered not only many political endorsements but those of many respected citizens.

3. He is exactly half my age (34 to my 68), which is a great advantage in door-to-door as well as presence.

4. In what is now known to be the hottest July on record, he and his surrogates managed an effective door-to-door campaign.  I attempted to visit doors but was undone by temperatures in the 90s, which I don’t tolerate well

5. There was also a last-minute “bomb” of postcards and doorhangers from his campaign, professionally produced.   They featured, largely, his endorsement list.

I think beyond all those, it was simply that his message was better received.  Though he kept it very vague and often seemed to mirror many of the themes I began the campaign with, he clearly is of the vision of Ann Arbor as a center for economic development in a regional economy.  I stressed the local community and its needs. I suspect that many young professionals found that his message, which promises more opportunity, resonated with their own hopes for the future.

I didn’t expect to run for office again but this effort had certain rewards.  One is that I became much more familiar with a wide range of current issues affecting the city.  I’ll have to take these into account as I return to being simply a blogger.  Another is that I got to work with a wonderful group of supporters who gave of themselves in astounding proportions.  It made me remember again why I love Ann Arbor.  It’s the people.

Top-down Government: A Source of Dissatisfaction

In yesterday’s post I promised some specifics of likely outcomes, depending on how tomorrow’s election goes.  Actually, it is impossible to predict how individual issues are likely to be resolved in a new Council, even supposing that all four “challengers” (including me) win.  (The alternative is that the Mayor’s supporters, including my opponent CW, win).  That is because, as I also promised, we are unlikely to vote as a bloc.  If you examine the voting records of the existing “dissenters”, you will see that they have often split their votes on specific issues.  This is likely to continue as a pattern in a council that no longer has a commanding majority for the Mayor.  And that’s a good thing.

A truly vigorous discussion on the merits of specific issues is likely to be the occasion of shifting allegiances on a particular measure.  One effect is that the top-down government often exhibited by what a friend of mine has called “the Hegemony” will be replaced by a good old democratic, argumentative, messy negotiation with each other and the public.  No, I’m not talking about gridlock (we don’t have the system that makes Congress tie itself into knots), but about an end to efficient passage of measures that have not been tested adequately.  This efficiency is a result of  “top-down” decision-making.

The reason for so much of the unhappiness that has been expressed by citizens in recent years has been a sense of not being consulted on priorities or major decisions.  That is why we must drive by an ugly and overpriced city hall, a remarkably small, not very functional, sculpture in front of it, a decreasing police and fire presence, and threats to our park system.  Someone else has been setting the priorities and making the decisions.  A governing coalition who feels that they know the best course for the city nearly built a conference center and hotel on the Library Lot after putting the city in debt to install an underground parking structure that has been structurally reinforced to support a very heavy building.  And no one asked us.

Top-down government, in which the governing body makes decisions, then tells the rest of us what the deal is, is very efficient.  Here is how it works:

  1. A leader or group of elected or appointed individuals has a good idea, perhaps copied from another community, or learned in a workshop.  Or perhaps they are simply approached by an interested party with a proposal.
  2. The group has a number of internal discussions about how this can be accomplished (perhaps over coffee or breakfast, in small groups).  Interested parties are consulted.
  3. Staff support is secured and details of implementation are laid out.
  4. A background memo, budget, source of funding and timeline are prepared.
  5. Staff makes a presentation at a working session showing how the idea fits all the goals previously adopted by the body, and is a natural progression of the order of things.
  6. The item appears on an agenda for action by the body (Council, for example).
  7. The item is passed, perhaps without fanfare.
  8. The public reads about it after the fact.

This is a rather extreme scenario, of course.  Most items coming before Council have at least a little bit of prior notice or discussion in a committee.  But the example of Fuller Road Station fits it well.  (See the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s excellent timeline.)  After Leigh Greden (one of the Mayor’s major supporters and advisers) was defeated in a Democratic primary, the Council was asked to approve a relatively trifling amount ($213,984) for an environmental assessment and study (August 17, 2009).  As I recall, the item was added late in the afternoon on the day Council met. On the last day of Greden’s term (November 5, 2009), the Council approved a Memorandum of Understanding with the UM for a joint project with the UM for a combined parking structure and multimodal transit station.  It took quite a while for the public to integrate the fact that what had sounded like a rather visionary concept was actually the equivalent of a contract with the UM to pay 22% of the cost of a multimillion dollar parking structure for the UM, on city parkland.

Top-down governing is efficient.  It gets things done, saves time.  But it can leave the public feel as though they have been blindsided.  Citizens can be forgiven for not scanning the Council agenda twice monthly to see if anything significant is coming along.  Yet once a new policy has been formed, a long process of public protest and contention can be frustrating to all concerned.

I’ve studied this question (how to involve the public meaningfully) for years.  Citizens should not have to assume the responsibility of making all decisions, yet they feel the need to be consulted on things that will affect them.  Elected and appointed officials and staff are there to do the heavy lifting.  They are literally paid (whether in position or monetary compensation) to do that work.  There are major questions of where to find the funding, what the law allows or demands, what is technically possible, what hired staff are able to accomplish.

I’ve read some authoritative essays on the subject and agree with this conclusion: the answer is to involve the public in early stages of setting policy, then taking their viewpoints into serious consideration.  (A public hearing on the night that Council votes does not achieve this objective.)

The Jackson Road issue is a good example, and one that I will pursue if elected.  Council rather suddenly voted to ask MDOT to prepare a plan for conversion of the 4-lane road to 3 lanes with bike lanes.  Similar “road diets” have been implemented elsewhere successfully in Ann Arbor, and it fits Council’s adopted Complete Streets policy.  It also fits with a longstanding grievance of the residents along this busy street that is trying to be a highway.  But this has caused an outcry.  Strong feelings are rising both in support and in vigorous opposition to the idea.  The good news is that the actual reconstruction of the road, which will precede painting the stripes, does not take place until 2014.  Meanwhile, MDOT continues to collect traffic data and to evaluate the situation.  Meanwhile, even as a candidate, I’ve heard from a number of thoughtful citizens on various sides of the issue.

If elected, I’ll proactively reach out to the affected neighborhoods.  All of us want traffic to move smoothly and uneventfully, so that interest will be represented as well.  I believe that Ann Arbor residents have the intelligence and interest to help work out solutions that eventually will at least be able to win consensus.  We have some excellent staff at the city, and MDOT is very motivated to resolve the problem to the satisfaction of everyone.  I’ve already heard from several citizens with some very solid thoughts and questions.  We’ll put our heads together.  Then it will be up to the skilled professionals and the elected officials to make a decision.  But I expect it will be one that we can all understand.

The model I am proposing takes a lot of extra work on the part of citizens.  But at least they can own the result.  It is opposed by the ruling coalition, who apparently see it as a form of mob rule.  Joan Lowenstein has explained this view point quite eloquently, including in a recent comment on the Ann Arbor Chronicle, where she complained that we would “advocate frequent referenda that weaken the representative system” (her concept there is we get to do what we think right, vote us out if you don’t like it).  Perhaps you agree.  Top-down, efficient government gets things done without a lot of interference by citizens.  Or perhaps you simply like the direction the Mayor has been taking the city altogether.  In that case, you should certainly vote for my opponent, whom he has endorsed.

Probably 95% of what Council does is housekeeping that doesn’t require a lot of community consensus.  But it can require decisions that affect the lives of Ann Arbor residents and local businesses.  For those actions, you need people working for you who have your interests in mind.  That is why I have stated my priorities up front: to serve the interests of Ann Arbor residents and local businesses.  And I know how to do this.

What is at Stake for Ann Arbor in the Primary Election of August 7, 2012?

I’ve made an effort ever since filing for Ann Arbor City Council, 5th Ward, City Council to make the campaign be about the issues and my qualifications to serve.  I’ve always found “oppositional” campaigning to be repugnant and I’ve been fortunate in an opponent who was willing to campaign in a gentlemanly manner as well.  He is Chuck Warpehoski,  a decent, sincere guy with an appealing family.  (I’ll just refer to him as CW from here on out, with respect.)

But it has become increasingly apparent that 5th ward voters are not receiving the information they need to make this choice, and this election, like so many others, does have consequences.  In our literature, we often seem to be saying the same thing (apart from my references to experience); indeed, CW’s latest mailing, with its emphasis on neighborhoods, local architecture and business, and community engagement, could almost have been lifted from my early literature.

But we do in fact have very different styles and policy stances, and which one is elected makes a difference to the City of Ann Arbor as a whole.

One inescapable thing about this election is that it is to some extent a referendum on the direction Ann Arbor has been going for the last 10 years (and more) under the leadership of John Hieftje as Mayor.  It is also inescapable that there are four candidates (of whom I am one) who are in opposition to many of the policy directions of recent years.

The news media have picked this up.  Perhaps you saw the article in the August Ann Arbor Observer titled “End of the Party” (a sly reference to the term I created for the Mayor’s majority bloc, the “Council Party”) Reporter Jim Leonard frames the entire election for Council as a contest between the Mayor’s allies and his potential opponents.  As Leonard says, “At stake in the August 7 Democratic primary election is the council majority of Mayor John Hieftje – and with it, the future direction of Ann Arbor.”

The article by Ryan Stanton on reaches similar conclusions.  As he says, “Mayor John Hieftje and his political allies hold a 7-4 majority right now on the Ann Arbor City Council, but the ruling coalition’s ability to pursue its agenda is in jeopardy with four hotly contested council races on the Aug. 7 primary ballot.”  (In addition to the 5th Ward race, Jack Eaton and Sally Hart Petersen are opposing incumbents Margie Teall and Tony Derezinski, and Sumi Kailasapathy is opposed by Eric Sturgis, who enjoys many Council Party endorsements.)

Is it fair to lump CW in with the others of the Mayor’s allies?  Seems so, since he has been endorsed not only by the Mayor and by the retiring Council Party incumbent Carsten Hohnke (who reputedly recruited CW as his successor), but by many other members of the Ann Arbor political establishment, from Congressman John Dingell to kingmaker County Commissioner Leah Gunn (Gunn has endorsed and often been on the  campaign committee for virtually every one of the Council Party’s members, and the Mayor himself).  All these politicians must know what side he is on.

So what about the contenders on the other side?  We don’t have a cute name, at least none invented by me.  And actually, we are all individuals.  There is no common agenda or “slate”.  We have had only incidental conversations and have not coordinated our positions at all, though many elements turn out to be similar.  Probably one of the outstanding characteristics is that we are all rather independent and not likely to surrender to pressure to vote en bloc.  Not even our bloc.

I have few endorsements, but they are good ones. Mike knows that I can be counted on for a vigorous defense of my views, as well as an obsessive attention to detail.

Jane gets this too. Note the “independence” theme. I expect that if I am elected, I’ll be having good heated discussions with Mike and Jane. We won’t vote in lockstep. We’ll improve each other’s understanding. We’ll still be colleagues and fellow advocates for the citizens of Ann Arbor after each meeting.

Don’t think of this as a choice between partisan factions.  Think of it as liberating the Council for serious consideration and debate on important issues. (Most housekeeping issues are passed through by Council without dissent and I expect that to be unchanged.)

I’ve said repeatedly in debates and interviews that what I want to see is a “deliberative” council.  Sad to say, even when Council has had endless meetings into the small hours of the morning, it has often been about vanishingly small details of language and to some extent about posturing for the camera.

I hope and believe that the next Council will be one where issues are thrashed out at their core, beginning with early notice to both the Council and the public of major initiatives, and a good public debate about their value.

Let’s decide the future of Ann Arbor on the merits, after full disclosure of details, consequences, and the views of our citizen/voters.

Tomorrow: what are some specifics of likely outcomes, either way?