The Council Emails and Political Culture
I have not always found myself agreeing with the editorial stance of the Ann Arbor News, but their recent editorial about the council emails was right on course.
The editorial, paired with not one but two articles about the revelation that some council members were sending each other truly nasty emails about other council members – as well as discussing council business in an apparent violation of the letter (and certainly the spirit) of the Open Meetings Act – was a source of considerable satisfaction to one (me) who is still dismayed, though no longer shocked, about the inherent nastiness of politics.
Here are the actual council emails that the article seems to be discussing.
The emails surfaced with discussion of a potential lawsuit in a letter from the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center against the city, with reference to the approval of the underground parking garage under the “library lot”. As reported earlier, the letter alleges that the parking garage will cause environmental damage. (The Ann Arbor Chronicle story linked to in the previous sentence explains all the details.) But the significance to local politics is that for once, someone with sufficient institutional backing has chosen to challenge the way business is being done at the City of Ann Arbor. This brought about a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request to the City for emails during council meetings during a certain period. The City has formerly made this sort of request very hard to pursue (by imposing outlandish charges, for example), but in this case they were successful.
Others will parse and argue the Open Meetings Act violations. Briefly, the question is likely to be whether email communication to a group smaller than a quorum, in the midst of a public meeting where there is a quorum, and deliberation is taking place, is a violation of the act. (A quorum is a majority of the body, in this case six.) I say that this is a side discussion within a meeting and should have been subject to public scrutiny.
But the other point the emails highlight is the toxic nature of current Ann Arbor politics. For some years now, a coalition that we could call the power circle, the In Group, or the council majority, have been in command. When I first moved to Ann Arbor, the council was divided between Democrats and Republicans. The Republicans could reliably be expected to take up the causes supporting business and the Democrats, all the traditional liberal causes (except for parks, which required a citizen initiative). Then gradually all the people on council bore the label of Democrat (including a couple of former Republicans). Since the local Democratic party was mostly organized to support Democrats against Republicans in the general election, this put a monopoly in power, and they were able to enjoy several years unchallenged except by token and easily vanquished Republicans. (The last serious Republican candidate for Mayor, Jane Lumm, had no chance against the tide of Democratic votes for Kerry in 2004.) Once in place, a Democratic incumbent was seldom challenged, and usually there was no contest even in a first election. This was made even smoother by a practice of appointing chosen candidates to fill vacated seats, so that there was an instant incumbent.
But a few wavelets began to appear in this smooth sea. The chosen candidates of the ruling coalition began to encounter challenges. In the troublesome First Ward in particular, first Kim Groome (2002) and then Ron Suarez (2006) were elected. They weren’t with the program (which I will characterize loosely as pro-development without arguing all the points). As a result, they were treated badly. Although I’ve never heard this directly from her, it is thought in some circles that Kim Groome was driven out of town by nastiness.
How does a group control unruly members? By the classic methods: shunning, nasty comments, and body language. In the case of an elected body, this is called “marginalization”. When the target speaks, everyone’s attention is elsewhere. Nasty comments are applied directly or to others. Smirks behind not-too-well held hands. Meetings are held without the target’s being informed. Appointments are made only to unconsequential committees. Emails and other messages are either not returned or are given short or nasty twists. Note the references to pandering (actually paying attention to one group or another) and the “Golden Vomit Award” given to Sabra Briere (I’m sure that whatever comments she was making at the time were considered and well-spoken). If this were a gang of chimpanzees, similar methods would be used, perhaps using more fruit and fewer electronics. Some commenters on Arbor Update have defended this behavior as “juvenile” but essentially trivial. But should our government be run by a bunch of schoolyard bullies? We’d like to think that issues are deliberated and decided rationally and with the public good in mind, not by intimidation.
When I lost the primary for the 5th Ward seat last summer, I asked for a recount (the final tally showed that I lost by 53 votes out of over 3,000). As reported at the time, my observers for the process were campaign supporters: my opponent Carsten Hohnke brought mostly city council members from the ruling circle. Only the newly elected ones (Tony Derezinski and Christopher Taylor) acknowledged that I existed and spoke to me. Carsten and the others were stony-faced and ignored me. It was sadly indicative.
UPDATE: The Ann Arbor Chronicle has posted a very thoughtful analysis of the deeper policy implications of the council email revelations.Explore posts in the same categories: politics
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