Process, Procedure, and Governance in Ann Arbor

In contemplating the budget trainwreck, I suddenly realized that much of our civic despair stems from the most basic of problems.  Our system of governance is broken, not (only) because some of us disagree with some other of us or that certain personalities are dominant, but because the mechanisms to make decision-making orderly and done in such a way as to arrive at some sort of consensus are lacking.

About consensus:  I’ve heard that defined as the solution that everyone can live with.  If you are working with a group, you can reach decisions in two possible ways.  One is to take a straight-up vote.  The solutions that get 50.0001% of the vote are the winners.  One advantage of this method is that the result is unambiguous.  It makes people take responsibility for their decisions.  Also, it is efficient.  Once you cut off debate and vote, it’s over.  Decisions are made cleanly without being talked to death.

In a consensus decision, the chair or moderator looks around the room and says, “is everyone ok with that?”.  This creates a certain amount of social pressure to stay quiet, though there is always someone who will keep insisting till the rest of the group quiets him down.  Usually there will just be a few comments, some compromises will be made, and the group accepts a particular outcome.  Some people didn’t get their first preferences, but they can live with that.

Both of these have disadvantages.  With a majoritarian vote, what if the losers literally can’t live with the solution being imposed on them and are bitterly unhappy?  This leads to a tyranny of the majority situation that is guaranteed to lead to a fair amount of civic discontent.  Using the consensus method, the group may be pushed into an unwanted solution by a few strong voices that rule by intimidation.  People who would have voted “no” are induced to remain silent through social pressure.

In practice, we need to use straight-up popular votes for some things (millage votes, major ordinance changes), but most decisions being made at the local level do need to pass the consensus test.  I may not like the decision that council made last night, but if I can shrug it off with a little grumbling, we’re ok.  But if I am enraged and lose sleep nights over it, and if I am joined even by a sizable minority of my fellow citizens, then there’s trouble in (Huron) River City.

There has been a confluence of research in neuroscience, behavioral science, and evolutionary psychology that suggests that we are “hard-wired” for a sense of fairness and justice.  It is my belief that this is the reason for laws in general and why process and procedure are so important.  If we feel that our government has sorted through all the arguments, that we’ve had a chance to have our say, and that there has been an effort to be fair, usually we can “live with that”.  Sometimes process seems a little silly and often it is inconvenient.  But it is important in helping us arrive at a consensus.

As we’ve discussed before, transparency and openness is an important part of this process.  One of the redeeming facets of this bleak period in Ann Arbor’s history is that our major local media outlets are both quite aggressively pushing transparency.   The Ann Arbor Chronicle came out with a stellar piece about the actions of the city attorney in keeping “advice” to council secret.  Both the Chronicle and AnnArbor.com have been aggressive in using FOIA for council emails and other formerly secret materials.  AnnArbor.com even has a column called FOIA Friday.   I also credit AnnArbor.com, who did a FOIA on the Library Lot proposals, for turning the city around to making these public on the city website.  Ann Arbor city government has been much too secretive and prone to back-door decisions, but they seem now to be improving their ways somewhat.  There is still a good way to go.

One of the problems Ann Arbor has experienced in recent years is that we have indeed had a group of people, including some council members, who have been all too willing to use the raw exercise of power to push through an agenda even though they understood that there was no consensus.  An example was the decision to build the new city hall. There was so much palpable disagreement and unhappiness about this that a citizen petition drive for a referendum was launched (it was discontinued after collecting over 6,000 signatures of a needed 9, 400 but with no time to obtain the rest).  In the article linked to here, both city administrator Roger Fraser and then-CM Chris Easthope both cited the concept of “representative government”.  According to them, this concept means that once you vote an official into office, you have to accept any decision he makes.  Of course you can throw him out of office at the next election, but meanwhile he is free to make all decisions without any input from you.  I actually heard Easthope comment at a number of meetings that “the voters would never approve a millage to build a city courthouse”.  He may have been right, but that apparently didn’t inhibit him (or others) from pushing through the measure against considerable citizen opposition – because he had the power (votes on council) to do so.  Now we are watching that huge building go up while we are being told that we may have a choice between giving up police protection or selling off parks.  (Our fund balance, or cash reserve, was drained to support the project.) It would have been better if we had been able to vote on it.  Now we must live with the consequences of this decision that we had no part of.

What I have noted, though, is that there are process problems that are inhibiting even well-meaning council members from finding solutions to our problems through a community consensus.  Some of these are the way the council does its business, and many are related to the council-administration interface.  I hope to elaborate on these in a future post.

UPDATE: With regard to the city hall decision, an article on AnnArbor.com discusses progress on the building and its budgetary impacts. Dismayingly, the operating costs for the new building will be $275,000 more once it is fully occupied.  So not only have we lost financial reserves, but are going to have a higher cost of operation.   There are a couple of hints in quotations from city administrator Roger Fraser and CFO Tom Crawford that the city was somehow taken by surprise with the financial downturn.  But Michigan was already in recession and we already knew that Pfizer would be closing and the city would lose its biggest taxpayer in late 2007 and early 2008 when these decisions were being made.

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5 Comments on “Process, Procedure, and Governance in Ann Arbor”


  1. Striving for consensus is important for good governance, especially in local politics. A few other thoughts:

    1. Consensus is not always possible. I doubt there will be a consensus response to the Ypsi School District financial situation, for example. So a goal of consensus cannot be an excuse for inaction. I’ve seen a desire for consensus be almost fatal nonprofits (and I say this as a Quaker, which is a faith tradition deeply committed to consensus);

    2. I think the breakdown in decision making is much greater that a focus on majoritarianism vs. consensus. I don’t think our public engagement process works. My wife went to a recent City Council meeting, and after being there for 2 hours the meeting proper still hadn’t started due to public comment and public hearing. I understand the reason for the public comment system, but the effect of it is that the important decisions and discussions are put off into the wee hours. That doesn’t help transparency.

    Furthermore, there is a systemic imbalance on what voices can be heard. I’ve turned out for some public meetings, but don’t have kids, I don’t work 2nd shift, and I don’t have a long commute. The current public involvement system favors people who can make it to long, evening meetings and put a lot of time into research outside of meetings. Those voices should be heard, yes, but they shouldn’t be the only ones.

    Of course, I’m doing one of the things I dislike. I’m complaining about something without having ideas about how to fix it. I’m not satisfied with our current public engagement system, but I don’t know how to make it better.

    • varmentrout Says:

      Good comments, Chuck, and I agree with all of them.

      One of my objectives in the next post or so is to suggest some changes in the mechanics of council meetings and other meetings. What you have said will give me some good points to pick up on.

  2. Steve Bean Says:

    I like — love, actually — the focus of this post, Vivienne. I’m looking forward to the next one. I’ll share thoughts when I have some time.


  3. [...] Process, Procedure and Governance in Ann Arbor  (February 9, 2010) (Good comments from my opponent on this post which however seem to question the value of long public comment sessions.) [...]


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