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.



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