Ann Arbor in the Goldfish Bowl
We hear a lot these days about transparency and openness in government. What that refers to is having all business done in public view. That was the intent of Michigan’s Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act, both enacted in the mid-1970s. The Open Meetings Act sought to make all deliberations leading to legislative decisions subject to observation by the public, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) gives the public the right to view or request copies of documents (including correspondence and notes) generated in the conduct of government business. But that was so Seventies. As noted by Noah Hall of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center in a recent Workantile Exchange seminar, governments often put up barriers to this access. Hall has an impressive grasp of the tactics needed for full access and has applied them frequently in pursuing issues of interest to GLELC. His most recent moment in the spotlight followed his FOIA of Ann Arbor City Council emails, in the context of a letter to the city regarding the parking garage planned for the Library Lot. (We linked to some of the emails in an earlier post, and recently released emails are available here.) The resulting flap has provided some welcome entertainment but has also revealed that the council majority has not exactly embraced the whole transparency paradigm.
Here’s the problem. Once deliberations, negotiations, and deal-making come into view, all interested parties start to ask questions, make demands, and generally cause a fuss. As Mayor Hieftje commented (not happily) in a DDA committee meeting I attended some years ago, “We live in a goldfish bowl”. Transparency is inhibitory to getting business done in an efficient way. After all, once you have all the information that you yourself require, and you know the agenda and purpose you want to pursue, why involve a lot of backseat drivers? You don’t really need “public input”.
The council majority clearly does have a set agenda and the emails show how directly they are pursuing it. The February 17 emails include discussions within the group heading off a possible postponement of a resolution to authorize bonds for $55 million, partly to pay for an underground parking structure.
“The Bonds are to be issued for the purpose of financing the construction of a 677 space, four story underground parking structure and streetscape improvements along Fifth and Division Streets. The project includes a new street running west to east on the north side of the Ann Arbor Public Library, utility improvements under Fifth Avenue and Division Street, and a new downtown alley. The footprint of the project will be from the west side of Fifth Avenue to the west side of Division Street and under Fifth Ave from the northern edge of the current parking lot to William Street. The parking structure will be built in a manner to allow future construction of an up to 25-story building on the site. The project will also include the construction of streetscape improvements on Fifth Avenue and Division Streets from Beakes to Packard including improved crosswalks, new streetlights, trees, sidewalks, bike lanes, and curb.”
But prior to that February 17 vote, there were plenty of other discussions. As was mentioned in an earlier post, a private plan for a conference center was presented at the January council retreat. Subsequently, CM Sandi Smith (only recently elected after a long tenure on the DDA Board, of which she is still a member) issued an invitation to all her council colleagues for a January 23 meeting at the DDA office with engineers designing the underground structure. “Before this comes to council, I want to hear where the project is now. I also want to investigate the ideas about what can be built on top of the structure…” Now, it would have been possible to make this meeting legal according to the Open Meetings Act. The meeting could have been posted (announced on a bulletin board, at least), open to the public, and minutes could have been taken that were subsequently available to the public. I have not attempted a FOIA to establish whether or not any of these things were done. So – potentially the entire council had a substantial discussion, prior to a formal vote, on the underground parking structure and its potential use for aboveground building, without being in the goldfish bowl. And, as we have reported, the Council has now passed a resolution calling for an RFP for the aboveground structure (a.k.a. the conference center?).
Efficiency is satisfying. It gets things done. Those who employ it may even believe that they are performing a public good. But the purpose of transparency, with its ensuing public discussion, though messy, is both to guarantee the public an opportunity to respond to major initiatives and to guarantee that good and honest decisions are being made. I hope that the Mayor and the council majority will consider this before making additional commitments to major projects.
Note: The email transcripts published on the Neighborhood Alliance website, of which one set is linked to here, were excerpted and edited by an individual other than myself and I cannot make any representations as to their complete accuracy, though I believe the excerpting to be a good-faith attempt.
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