The County Leadership Quandary

Posted September 30, 2016 by varmentrout
Categories: politics, Regional

Much of the current confusion on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners comes down to this: they are attempting to resolve what the future direction of the County is, and what type of leadership should be on board to take it there. 

As we have remarked, the BOC failed to choose between two top candidates for County Administrator, and terminated the process in April 2016.  The resolution to do this  has a useful description of the quandary the BOC found themselves in. They had a “leadership assessment” done for each of their two top candidates, and then failed to reach a consensus among themselves as to which “style” was right for the County.  There was no indication that both candidates did not have the requisite experience and qualifications.  Rather, it had to do with the character of leadership each would bring to the position.

The resolution also includes a significant bit of history: the BOC first “spent a number of months looking at the various types of County government to insure that an appointed County Administrator was the best type of government for the citizens of Washtenaw County”.  In other words, whether to continue with the current structure in which an Administrator is hired by the BOC and answers to them; or an elected Executive who answers only to the voters county-wide.  (Washtenaw County has several top administrators who are elected county-wide, including the Treasurer, the Sheriff, the Prosecutor, and the Water Resources manager.)  Only a few counties in Michigan have an elected County Executive.  This has most often resulted in a near fiefdom and often the BOC has relatively little influence on policy.  L. Brooks Patterson, the CE of Oakland County, is the most notorious example.  Most other Michigan counties have the same structure as Washtenaw. Evidently the BOC decided to stay with the current structure.

So what would be the factors that might enter into the “leadership” question?  There are two choices:

Should our County government concentrate on fulfilling its obligations (the county has a mandate to provide most state- and Federal- directed and funded programs) and providing services to its residents and taxpayers?, or

Should the direction be to make the County Be Something – a more muscular approach in which the County sets a regional direction, initiates new programs, is the leader among local governments, gets noticed regionally, statewide or even nationally for innovation and economic success?

The leadership style of the executive is crucial to these two very different visions of what the county should be.  Do you want a good administrator who keeps the mechanism running smoothly, or a “big picture” person who is restless if not pursuing new ambitions and garnering new influence, new achievements, new visibility for the county and him/herself? Often the second version opens up opportunities for others and can contribute to growth and economic development.  But such leadership can be ruthless in where priorities are assigned, and it is often not to simple service delivery.

The decision looms

If the BOC is trying to choose between those two styles of leadership, no obvious choice for the aggressive leader jumps out from their four top candidates.  Those are Bob Tetens, the current head of Parks and Recreation; Muddasar Tawakkul, Director of compliance and purchasing for the Detroit­/Wayne County Mental Health Authority; Gregory Dill, the current Interim Administrator; and James Palenick, currently Director of economic & business development for Fayetteville, NC.  All of them have solid administrative credentials.  Tetens has a planning background and was previously the director of WATS (the body that oversees transportation planning for Washtenaw County).  He has been a well-respected top administrator at the County for well over a decade and can be expected to have a breadth of understanding of County government.  Dill has been in a variety of County administrative positions, including with the Sheriff’s department, and at one time was in charge of building programs in the County.  Tawakkul is an attorney and has had a number of high-power assignments; his technical knowledge is evidently impressive.  Palenick has a long varied resume from many locations (he has moved around a lot) but at one time long ago was the Dexter Village manager.  It is difficult to see why any of them should be the “visionary” type of manager, though Palenick hints that he views himself that way; “I sincerely believe that I can bring the kind of innovative and strategic leadership that Washtenaw County needs and demands at this time in its organizational evolution”.

As we have detailed, the process is now on fast track and a decision will be made on October 19.

Another piece of the puzzle

But another factor in County leadership is still pending.  That is the opening for the Director of the Office of Community and Economic Development.  As described in the last two posts, the conclusion of that search is still pending.  The question was partly whether Greg Dill, as the Interim Administrator, would choose to fill it before a final decision on the County Administrator.

The OCED position is one of the most powerful of the appointed department chairs.  It is the result of combining three former departments and administers a great many Federally funded programs.  Its previous director, Mary Jo Callan, exerted a great deal of leadership and caused the County to conduct a major study of inequality (of income, housing, circumstance) in the county which has been used as a basis for new policies.  The director of this department, if appointed prior to the hiring of a permanent administrator, could compete with a new administrator in setting directions.

Conan Smith’s application for this position has brought the decision into high focus, as already described, partly because he was a sitting Commissioner.  Smith has been influential on the BOC in the past; he has been Chair in a couple of terms. Now he has resigned his seat – but may be re-elected come November! and meanwhile, it is evident that he has also lost his long-time (well-paid) position as the executive director of a nonprofit organization (Michigan Suburbs Alliance).   All of this is happening in the mix of decisions to be made about the direction of the County as determined by choice of its chief Administrator.  More detail on this melodrama in the next post.

 

The County Saga Continues: the Search for a County Administrator

Posted September 19, 2016 by varmentrout
Categories: media, politics

Washtenaw County’s Board of Commissioners are finding themselves in the public view.  Now they are providing more transparency about the County Administrator search.

In our last post, Breaking News when the News is Brokewe tell how Mary Morgan broke the story of the vacant opening for a high-paying, high-responsibility County staff position (Director, Office of Community and Economic Development, or OCED) and the effort by a sitting commissioner, Conan Smith, to apply for that position while retaining his seat as a commissioner, with her open letter to the BOC, posted on Facebook.  As we commented in a series of three posts about the difficulty in getting local news in Ann Arbor, it has been difficult to learn what is happening at the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, at least through news media.

Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, 2014-2016. Conan Smith at far right with mouth slightly open.

Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, 2014-2016. Conan Smith at far right.

Possibly because of Mary’s coverage (and we helped publicize it), the BOC seems to have wakened up a bit and they are now addressing some pending issues with alacrity. Things happened pretty fast after the potential conflict of a sitting commissioner applying for a staff job was highlighted on social media.  Conan Smith resigned as the Commissioner for District 9. (Coverage by the Ann Arbor News.) The BOC held a very open process for applications to fill the seat.  Jen Eyer was appointed by a unanimous vote.  (See previous post for updates.)  But whoops.  Smith is still on the ballot for November.  As detailed in the followup in the News,  he could still be the District 9 commissioner in January.  The newly appointed commissioner and possibly some others will be on the ballot as write-ins.  Whether Cmr. Eyer can surmount the considerable obstacles to winning as a write-in in a Presidential year (especially since Michigan has a straight-party option for voters) is yet to be seen.

The Search for A County Administrator

The question of Conan Smith’s seat as a County Commissioner has been resolved for the near term. But the matter of timing and overlap into next year still persists with respect to the conflict of interest between his appointment to the OCED position and the appointment by the BOC of a new County Administrator.  As things stand, Acting Administrator Greg Dill could at any time propose to hire Smith into the lucrative staff position.  (We explained the different roles of the BOC and the Administrator in the last post.)  But Mr. Dill is himself subject to review and appointment by the BOC if he is to be hired as the permanent Administrator.  So this presents a couple of scenarios:

I would like to make it clear that I am not alleging in what follows that Greg Dill would behave unethically by making such an appointment solely with regard to his own advantage.  In fact, this situation puts him into a difficult position.

  1. Dill makes a decision about the OCED position before January.  He chooses Smith.  Smith will then resign his seat as a commissioner in January and the BOC will appoint his successor.  Smith himself has no influence on whether Dill is hired before or after January.
  2. Dill makes a decision about the OCED position before January. He chooses another person to fill the position other than Smith. Smith resumes his seat as Commissioner.  He has a role in the decision to hire Dill after January, but not if the Administrator position is filled before then.

Actually, Scenario 1 is not without its dangers for Dill.  The other commissioners will presumably evaluate his handling of this situation as they make a decision about the Administrator position.  (Until recently, it was not known whether Dill was a candidate for the permanent Administrator slot.)

Note: the position description for the OCED position is no longer on the County website, and the other applicants for the job are not publicly known.

Down to Business

Fortunately for all around, the BOC has moved with some alacrity to resolve this situation.  On September 14, they voted in a resolution that will resolve the question of the County Administrator with a definitive choice by October 19, 2016. A position vacancy was opened August 13-September 13.  There were quite a few applicants. Greg Dill is one of them. Application packets and information about the process are posted here. 

The process calls for Corporation Counsel (Curtis Hedger) and Human Resources (presumably Diane Heidt) to do a first-round elimination of some candidates from the list. (Such initial sifting usually is done on the basis of obvious suitability in terms of background and experience for the position.  It is usually quite neutral with regard to personal attributes.)  The survivors will then be scored according to qualities pertaining to six aspects of performance.   The BOC will vote to include 4 finalists on September 21, presumably at their regular business meeting.  (It has not yet made it onto the agenda.)  Meanwhile, there is an effort to obtain public comment.

Interviews with the finalists will be at a special meeting on October 15 (Begins at 8:00 am. The public is invited!)  The commissioners will, wisely, not vote on that day.  The interviews will evidently be taped and made available for viewing.  On October 19 (a regular scheduled meeting), the BOC will “vote” on the four finalists.  The mechanism is very subtle – rather than a show of hands at the meeting, each Commissioner will submit his/her top choice to the Clerk ahead of time.  If no candidate has the majority of the “votes”, the BOC will continue with a straw vote (show of hands) until a majority is reached for a candidate.  They will then vote on the formal resolution to hire a new County Administrator and direct the Corporation Counsel to negotiate an employment contract.   Neat and tidy!

The list of applicants to be considered is long – very long.  There are 31. List here. I’m curious about how the notice was phrased and how it was distributed.  Some of the applicants are startlingly under-qualified.   “Cashier at CVS in Southgate” “Maintenance/grounds employee for University of Liggett School in Grosse Pointe Woods”.  Some candidates evidently have more suitable backgrounds, but perhaps a spotty job history.  “Not currently employed. Former city administrator for several Michigan communities, including Ecorse, Middleville, Homer and Battle Creek.”  But there are a number of suitable candidates, including the former top two finalists (Muddasar Tawakkul and Bob Tetens) and the current Interim Administrator (Greg Dill).  There are also Michael Norman , County administrator for Branch County, Michigan, and Larry Collins, City of Ann Arbor Fire Chief (oh oh).  I’m not listing several others who might pass that first filter; evidently the BOC will have a good list of finalists to choose from.

It will be a relief to see the resolution of this first half of the uncertainty around the situation created by Conan Smith’s move to secure a high-placed County position.  It’s good to see the Commissioners move so resolutely.

UPDATE: An item has been added to the Board of Commissioners agenda for September 21, under Report of the Chair:

D. A resolution to address the hiring process surrounding the Director of Washtenaw County’s Office of Community and Economic Development

NOTE: Apparently this was postponed till October 5, per Mary Morgan’s post from the September 21 meeting.

We’ll stay tuned.

A list of top candidates with scores made by Yousef Rabhi

A list of top candidates with scores made by Yousef Rabhi

SECOND UPDATE: (September 21, 2016)  A conversation on Facebook (where else?) reveals the top 4 candidates for County Administrator.  It includes the former top two contenders along with the current Interim County Administrator.  The image is of the candidates ranked by scores, from the hand of Yousef Rabhi (posted on Mary Morgan’s Facebook post).  They’ll be interviewed on October 15 as described above.

THIRD UPDATE: (September 26, 2016) Those who follow Dave Askins’ Twitter account were treated today with access to images of the letters of application to the OCED position.  Dave had done a FOIA to obtain them and he has now made them available on DropBox.  We will try to provide detail in another post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breaking News When the News is Broke

Posted September 5, 2016 by varmentrout
Categories: media, politics

All about a major political tangle that has scarcely been noted in the news.  But consequences for the future of our local Washtenaw County government could be profound.

As we’ve been saying – we are sadly short of local news coverage now.  In the last post, we suggested that a number of sources can be consulted to learn what is happening locally.  Some may have thought that the suggestion of Facebook was a bit ridiculous.  But in fact, that was the source of breaking news about local politics just recently.   And Twitter followed after.

OK, to some extent this was cheating.  Remember the much lamented Ann Arbor Chronicle?  Apparently, though Mary Morgan and Dave Askins have closed their newspaper, they haven’t quite given up on local news.  Mary has, in fact, founded a new enterprise,  The CivCity Initiative, which aims to engage citizens with their local government.  The methodology is complex but the point is that citizens will be informed and will then involve themselves in issues, and will vote reliably in local elections.  Dave has other pursuits but, based on his tweets, has not lost his curiosity or his reporter’s habit of burrowing down under the surface.  So both of them are remaining connected to the currents running through our local governments.  (That is, the Ann Arbor City Council and the Board of Commissioners [BOC] of Washtenaw County .)

Washtenaw County is a layer of government that was seldom covered by the Ann Arbor News.  It was the “invisible layer” of local government until Mary Morgan offered full reporting on the Chronicle.  Evidently she has not lost an interest in the County, and has retained some of her contacts. Thus, it was on Facebook that Mary first revealed her letter to the BOC about a strange situation. She had learned that Conan Smith, who for some years has been the commissioner representing the west side of Ann Arbor (District 9), was evidently maneuvering to be appointed to an open staff position.  In the letter, she expressed in the strongest terms how unsuitable it is for a sitting commissioner to be applying for a highly-paid staff position while also serving as an elected commissioner. “It is an obvious ethical problem when an official seeks a publicly funded, highly compensated staff job while still in a position of power and authority over the person responsible for hiring that job”.  Within a few days,  Smith announced that he was resigning from his seat. (This one event was reported by the Ann Arbor News, though without the background.)

The position Smith is applying for is as the Executive Director of the Office of Community and Economic Development.  This is one of the most powerful and important offices in the County.  It also carries a salary in the neighborhood of $120,000 per year.  The department was the result of merging three different County departments in the not too distant past.  It dispenses Federal grant dollars to many disparate programs, especially in housing and economic development.

It is necessary to understand the power relationships in order to comprehend all facets of the situation.  The BOC has the power to hire exactly one person at the County: the County Administrator.  All other hires are the responsibility (and under the authority) of the County Administrator.  The County Administrator runs the mechanism of the County.  In theory, he/she can be fired by the BOC if the job is not done well.  (Hardly ever happens; this is the “nuclear option”.)  But this time is different.

The last County Administrator, Verna McDaniel,  retired early last year.  She then spent some months as a consulting replacement, supposedly while the BOC found a replacement.  Indeed, the BOC interviewed candidates and narrowed to two.  (The current acting administrator, Gregory Dill evidently applied but withdrew, probably because he was not encouraged to continue.)  Then, in an outstanding failure of leadership, the BOC failed to choose one of the two candidates.  In a special meeting (translation: one in which the public was not adequately informed), they abandoned the search process and appointed Gregory Dill as interim acting administrator.

So here is the situation: Greg Dill can be terminated at any time by the BOC.  But he is likely the person who would choose the ED for the OCED.  And if he tries in the near future to be hired by the BOC as the permanent County Administrator, one of their number who has been quite influential in the past is the leading candidate.  There is a Chinese finger puzzle element to this.

So why would Conan be so anxious to obtain this position?  One can only speculate that not all is going well in his current job.  He has since 2002 been the ED of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance.  (Recently, the organization has been transmogrifying itself into “Metro Matters”.  Detroit is much sexier now than “the suburbs”. ) His salary there has been in the neighborhood of $120,000 – about the same range as the OCED spot.  I’ve often wondered why the Detroit suburbs were willing to support this organization, which is basically an economic development shop paid for from municipal budgets of several Detroit-area communities.  Possibly it is getting shaky.

All in all, a questionable situation and one that should not be supported by the BOC.  But that body has shown some pronounced tendencies recently toward cronyism and has failed to act in a number of high-responsibility situations (the administrator position being only the most recent).  Mary Morgan, in her letter, said it best:

Over the years I’ve frequently observed the willingness of public officials to look the other way when someone who’s part of their political or social network crosses ethical lines. When this kind of casual corruption takes place at the local level – when there are no repercussions – then such behavior becomes part of the accepted political culture. It spreads to all levels of government, and leads to even greater corruption, which correlates with distrust and disengagement of the electorate. When we see it happening, we must speak out.

The Ballot Issue

So has Conan Smith resolved ethical conflicts by resigning his seat?  Not quite.  Because he announced this after the August primary (in which he was unopposed), his name is still on the ballot for November.  So by doing nothing, he will once again be a County Commissioner in January.  He has risked nothing.  If he gets the OCED job, he can resign in January and the BOC can appoint a replacement.  If he doesn’t get it, he is back in his seat – and in a position to make a decision as to whether Greg Dill can succeed to a permanent position as County Administrator.

Meanwhile, the BOC (as they must) announced that Smith’s seat was open for appointment.  A number of District 9 residents have announced their interest.

Bob King

Michael Miller, Jr.

Charlotte Jameson

Elizabeth V. Janovic

Jen Eyer

Jeremy Peters

Daniel Ezekiel

Mike Henry

According to the initial announcement, this appointment is to be made on September 7.  But a review of the BOC agenda does not indicate that this decision is on the agenda.  There is a rumor that there may indeed be a special session in place of the Working Session (September 8).  Oh, the odor of gunpowder.  Those who are familiar with the Ann Arbor community will recognize several of these names, and there will be organizing on behalf of some of them.  Of course, since the meeting is not being properly noticed, only those who are “in” will know to be there and involved.

But once appointed, what will this newly seated commissioner do about January?  If Conan Smith doesn’t get his desired job, he’ll be the commissioner again.  If he once again resigns, the BOC will have to go through the appointment routine.  Could politics cause a switch-out?

Could a write-in candidate win?

District 9 mapOne option would be for aspiring commissioners (appointed or not) to declare themselves as write-in candidates on the November ballot.  This is not a hopeless situation.  I myself was involved in a race where the write-in won.  But it takes organization.  Campaigning in District 9 would be necessary, and the public would really have to be informed of the situation, as well as about the candidate.  How does one get the word out, in a town with no news coverage?

Put it on Twitter, of course.

LWV District 9UPDATE: In response to the posting of this article on Nextdoor, LWV-AA President Nancy Schewe provided confirmation and scheduling for the forum.

lwv-sched-ndSECOND UPDATE: The BOC has now posted a notice of a special meeting on September 8 at 6:35 p.m.  “The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners will be interviewing applicants for,
then selecting and appointing a sole candidate for District 9 Commissioner.”  There was a Working Session scheduled at 6:30; it is likely they will convene it, then vote to adjourn in favor of the special meeting.

THIRD UPDATE: Dave Askins kindly supplied this link to the application materials from candidates for the District 9 position.

NOTE: The letter written by Mary Morgan to the BOC (August 15) appeared in the September issue of The Ann magazine as a commentary.  Good to see it in a print medium.

FOURTH UPDATE: The Ann Arbor News woke up and covered the BOC meeting where candidates were interviewed and spoke.  They appointed Jen Eyer, a former reporter for the News.  Notably, the News deleted two comments that I made on a previous story to link to this blog post.  Could there be a little sensitivity there?  I have been critical.

FIFTH UPDATE: (September 30, 2016) Dave Askins has published (via Dropbox, on Twitter) a set of excerpts from a FOIA he sent to the City of Southfield.  Southfield has been one of the funders of Conan Smith’s long-time agency, the Michigan Suburbs Alliance.  The FOIA includes a number of emails to and from Conan Smith by the MSA board.  They document thoroughly that his employment with that organization is at an end.  Most of the emails are procedural (the correspondents are mostly bureaucrats).  But some colorful expression breaks through.  From Steve Duchane, City of Eastpointe: “when I examine the record of deliverables over the past three years it is impossible to find one solid accomplishment while records of money spent on pizza are clearly available”.

 

Going to the Source for News of Ann Arbor

Posted September 4, 2016 by varmentrout
Categories: media

In our previous two posts (1  2) we bemoaned the lack of media that support local news reporting.  In the absence of conventional media coverage for News of Ann Arbor, how may one keep up?  It requires persistence and constant attention.  (My comments are geared toward civic issues, politics, and the factors that affect the health and resilience of our community.  If your interests lie elsewhere, you may use some of the same approaches but they may differ from mine in source and emphasis.)

1. Sign up for email newsletters.

Many local groups publish regular newsletters with information about a particular interest.  For example, the Arts Alliance has a rather complete coverage of (no surprise) events and news relating to the local art scene.  Sign up for the newsletters that relate to your interest whenever you see one offered. Several City Council members have regular, or not so regular newsletters.  Mayor Taylor also has an email list.  Regardless of whether you live in the ward the CM represents, these can be a good source of information about what is happening at City Hall, and usually you can be added to a list upon request.  Chuck Warpehoski has an occasional blog that offers a thoughtful analysis of some current issues. The outstanding example of a Council newsletter is Sabra Briere’s regular (tied to the agenda!) news, with full links and heavy on the information while light on opinion. (Find Council email addresses here.)

2. Sign up for automatic notices.

The City of Ann Arbor offers automatic notices on an amazing variety of topics.  These will come to your mailbox before a certain action is scheduled.  For example, Planning Commission action on development plans and related matters (using their software, Etrackit, is a little fussy; you have to cut and past the address into the page).  This is how you can be informed before these projects even get to Planning Commission.  Sign up here for all topics that interest you. Be alert to this service from other agencies. I receive MDOT notices, for example. These had a lot of early information about our recent highway projects like M-14.

3. Make good use of social networks.

Perhaps the whole world is on some social networks by now.  But some of them may be geared more to entertainment than to newsy discussion.  I have found Facebook and Twitter to be very useful. Another source for very local news is Nextdoor, which is an application meant for neighbors to share details of daily life. Sometimes a good deal of enlightening discussion occurs there too. (Remember, we are looking for LOCAL news.)  A recent Nextdoor discussion went into extensive description of power outages in western Ann Arbor, a full couple of days before any news story appeared about this pervasive problem.

Facebook is organized around the “friend” system and it matters who you follow.  Of course, you likely follow your own actual human friends and enjoy their family photos and jokes. But it is also useful to follow “influencers” – people who are involved in the life of the city.  Often candidates for office or sitting elected officials have FB pages.  There are also institutional FB pages which can be “liked”.  Through these, you can eventually follow connections so that you share in some discussions or hear news ahead of any media mention.  In addition, there are interest groups that have their own FB page.  If you are admitted to the group, you can post and read others’ posts.  These often contain some hints to local news.

Twitter is, of course, full of a lot of silly stuff, but a judicious use of follows can be very informative.  I follow a number of news sources and reporters, as well as government feeds. (Since we are talking local, you’ll want to follow the City of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County.)  I’m not trying to give you the addresses because Twitter has a good search mechanism.  I also find a number of local people to be well worth following, both for sometimes sardonic comments and also for good links and information about current happenings.  The University of Michigan has quite a few feeds.  You can also search by hashtags, like #a2council, to get topical information.  Twitter will begin to suggest people you could follow, and I find their suggestions are often good.

Since I know my readers are all sophisticated users of the digital world, I’m not trying to tell you how to use these well-known applications.  I just want you to see them as a source of local news.

4. Join affiliations.

Ann Arbor is full of groups pursuing specific interests and concerns.  This could be clubs, neighborhood groups, churches, people organized around special topics like a current development or millage issue, avocations like gardening or cooking or local foods (you may be picking up where I settle) etc. The important point is that groups often organize around an email list or a FB list or both, and they are a great source of interaction and information.  I don’t encourage you to be a false member or “lurker”, but these are a very good source of news about the community.  Be a joiner.  The email discussions can be very useful.

5. Learn to watch for continuity.

Many governmental processes, especially, but also business developments, have a long track before they suddenly become “hot”.  If you learn how the system is organized, you’ll come to notice trends and understand the significance of new events.  The important thing is to be alert and follow threads that seem important to you.

Pulling it all together

So at the end of the day, is all this equivalent to reading a local newspaper with good coverage and decent articles?  Clearly not.  Actually, what you have done is to make yourself the journalist – checking sources, following clues, pulling inferences and facts together into a coherent picture.  Maybe you should start a newspaper.

ADDENDUM: The most direct way to find out what is current in local government is to go to the agenda.  Ann Arbor uses Legistar (where you can also find agendas for many city commissions). Search for the nearest date. “Meeting details” is the best choice to download documents.

Board of Commissioners (Washtenaw County) agendas can be accessed here (note the extensive archives as well).  Don’t forget that the first action on items is usually taken at Ways and Means, and that agenda usually has the documents available for download.

 

 

 

Seeking the News about Ann Arbor

Posted August 20, 2016 by varmentrout
Categories: media

One event that really brought home the consequences of our news deficits occurred on Nextdoor (a social network application geared toward helping neighbors exchange information).  There was some commentary going on about the August primary results.  A person who identified herself as of voting age, but in her late teens, complained that “no one told me there was an election”.  The election had in fact been covered rather extensively by Ann Arbor News reporters, including coverage of debates.  But clearly this person never read the online newspaper.  Of course, much of the year the coverage probably did not draw her attention.  Doubtless she spent most of her time online using various social applications like Instagram, Twitter, etc., which are self-selective in terms of the coverage you choose. (My Twitter feed is heavy on news sources and governmental publication.  Others follow celebrities or politicians. We are not seeing the same universe.)

Part of the problem with finding a good source of local news about Ann Arbor is that newspaper publishing as an industry and a cultural phenomenon have changed nationwide.  Print publications are being discontinued everywhere, and it is difficult to find a business model for an online full-service news publication.  This study by the Pew Research Center outlines some of the issues. Part of the problem is the movement of the public to using digital applications geared toward immediate news in short bites.  Good journalism is often a time-consuming process involving a lot of hours on the reporter’s part.  Investigative journalism is not a good fit with the kind of news operations requiring a 24-hour feed.  The movie Spotlight is in some ways a sad memorial to the traditional big-city newsroom.  Could the deep digging that led to the revelation of a widespread clergy childhood abuse problem ever be done with today’s newsrooms?  Yet the trend toward fragmented digital coverage does not reward that type of deep investment.

Another problem is that Ann Arbor is rather isolated.  We are a small city in the exurban fringe of the Detroit Metropolitan region.  Really, our concerns and Detroit’s concerns are quite different.  Detroit still maintains two newspapers with good reporting staff, the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News.  Trouble is, no coverage of Ann Arbor.  Crain’s Business Weekly has really brushed up its local news coverage and added state legislative coverage.  But Ann Arbor is mentioned very rarely.  Detroit also has some excellent online news and analysis sources, likely supported by foundation funding.  Data Driven Detroit, for example, is amazing.  Another good source of Michigan statewide issues and Detroit Metro topics is Bridge online magazine. (They really covered the Flint water issue, and some amazing coverage of the Detroit riots and the history of that period, with some stunning pictures.)  But little of Ann Arbor there.

So since we essentially do not have a local newspaper, how do we find out what is happening in our community?  We do have at least one traditional print vehicle remaining, the monthly Ann Arbor Observer. (I contributed articles to the Observer for a couple of years.)  The Observer is distributed free to most households in Ann Arbor and is made available in bookstores for a token price.  It is supported primarily by advertising, one of the few venues in Ann Arbor for finding some good extensive advertising information.  But its monthly format restricts the type of coverage it can offer. There is an online version in which articles are published weeks after the print version, making it even less current. All articles are done by freelance reporters, which makes the coverage somewhat uneven though usually of high quality and interesting.  (The UpFront and Inside Ann Arbor sections are a good place to find some news not available elsewhere.)  Unfortunately, their political reporter offers rather glancing analysis and seems to be adverse to research (he generally accepts statements by interviewees at face value).  I read the Observer cover to cover when it first comes.  But I think that many, especially younger readers, may never see it.

In previous posts about Ann Arbor media, I suggested that local blogs could fill in some of the gaps. Unfortunately, many blogs have vanished or turned into rather short and incidental postings.  After all, a blog is personal.  One is not required to do in-depth reporting.  (Mark Maynard‘s Ypsilanti coverage remains excellent, but it is definitely not Ann Arbor.)

So what does one do?  It is necessary to be very interested and very determined.  More on that later.

ADDENDUM:  I omitted a couple of sources of local news.  A notable one is the commendable personal effort by a blogger who is now doing serious reporting about the Ann Arbor Public Schools.  The site is AnnArbivore and the information is timely and of good journalistic quality.

There is also a monthly publication that often has a significant main story (much of the rest is more about lifestyle).  It is The Ann Magazine.  It does have an online presence, but is really aimed at the print version and my impression is that main stories are not posted immediately online.  At one time it was available via the Ann Arbor News print version, but now I only receive my copy in the New York Times.  I suspect that it is available in bookstores.

Concentrate is an online magazine that has evolved somewhat over the years with the loss of its original editor.  It was a development promoter in the early days and still has something of a “biz” character, but hires free-lance writers whose articles are not always obviously promotional.  I read it when it comes to me.  (Free subscription.)

 

 

The News About Ann Arbor

Posted August 20, 2016 by varmentrout
Categories: media

Some days I think that Ann Arbor is like a town that I saw in some movie once – a collection of buildings and landmarks that slowly begins to grey out, then turn to mist and disappear. Poof! We may think of ourselves as quite special (think of all those lists!) and there are certainly quite a few things going on here, but it is getting increasingly difficult to find any source of news about them.

While we used to have a local newspaper (The Ann Arbor News) that landed on our doorstep each evening with general local announcements as well as feature stories, that era ended a long time ago.   As detailed in this history from Wikipedia,  the print publication ceased in 2009 and was replaced with a rather quirky online publication called AnnArbor.com.  (Its logo was an acorn, presumably pointing toward Ann Arbor’s burr oak seal.)  But it was soon absorbed into the parent company’s system (MLive).  After a brief flush of decent reporting by a host of young reporters, staff cuts led to less and less coverage and most recently MLive disclosed major cuts statewide.  Fortunately, we retained our civics reporter, Ryan Stanton, but his responsibilities are now very wide and therefore diffuse.  I noticed he is even doing some business coverage.

What all this means is less and less actual coverage of Ann Arbor news.  I get an email each morning, supposedly with today’s top stories.  But so often these are recycled from the previous day or even the previous three days.  For example, today’s headlines (August 20, 2016) include a report from City Council action on South Pond – dated August 16.  Another story (on the fate of the former Bell’s Pizza building) is datelined August 18.  I think this is the third day it has appeared.  Many other stories are actually from other communities.  The free-lance reporter who covers Ypsilanti has been quite busy, but many of his stories have been recycled as well.

Of course, we are all still mourning the loss of the Ann Arbor Chronicle.  But even at its best (and it was very good), it did not substitute for a local newspaper.  (Here is an interview with the two principals that provides insight into why they felt compelled to close this brave venture.)  Happily, they arranged with the Ann Arbor District Library to archive their output, so you may still type in annarborchronicle.com and pull up the old articles. These are still useful as a historical reference but are no longer current.

So what is happening?  We have less and less of an informed citizenry.  The reason is that the only way to keep up is to follow a variety of social media, look at government websites, subscribe to every email newsletter in sight, and generally keep your eyes and ears at alert.  Even so, there are major gaps.  Some information is only accessible via an informed reporter who uses journalistic approaches (like asking the right questions of the right people).

 

 

Ann Arbor Deer: The Survey

Posted April 10, 2016 by varmentrout
Categories: Sustainability

The City of Ann Arbor is soliciting feedback from residents about the deer management program.  The questions are simple and direct.  (Apparently this year the City sought some expert advice.)  It doesn’t take long.

The survey is important because it will provide data not only about attitudes but also the actual experience Ann Arborites have had with deer.  These data will be valuable in assessing the deer-human interface – an important question when trying to estimate what population of deer in the city is too much.  The survey also contains questions about methodology – a lethal cull as was conducted this year, or an experimental approach using contraception.

Here is the announcement of the survey, with a link to open it up.  You’ll need to register with Open City Hall in order to have your response counted.

The deadline for answers is April 29, 2016.  Hurry!

Note: A compendium of blog posts on this subject, reports from other media, and general reference material is found on our page, What Do We Do About the Deer?

This summary page is updated continuously.