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.

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7 Comments on “The Council Emails and Political Culture”

  1. I’m not sure I will ever understand Ann Arbor city politics – I’m not sure I even have a reference point to measure it against. Thanks for filling in a few of the blanks.

    • varmentrout Says:

      Thanks – my original post included a long history of recent council races that I clipped out. Maybe when I have time I’ll add a link to it for possible interest.

  2. Tom Whitaker Says:

    Just a clarification…The GLELC did not actually file a lawsuit. They sent a letter advising the City that, in their opinion, the City’s approval of building the parking structure without an environmental impact study was potentially a violation of the Michigan Environmental Protection Act. They went on to describe how a lawsuit over this issue could delay issuance of bonds, etc. I think the intent is to force the City to prove (other than with anecdotal comments from a few merchants) that a true need actually exists that would justify the construction, and all of the environmental impacts it would cause, including the luring of more vehicles to the downtown.
    Sorry to be in proofreader mode today. Just getting caught up on my reading!

    • varmentrout Says:

      Proofreading is welcome! I reread the Chronicle story and it does make clear that no lawsuit has yet been filed, but then does a long analysis of the basis for such a lawsuit. I’ve edited the post for accuracy.

  3. Jack Eaton Says:

    Fifth Ward Council Member Mike Anglin has announced that he will propose disclosure of all Council emails without cost to the public.

    Please write to the Mayor and Council Members and express your support of Mr. Anglin’s proposal. Today, I sent the following message by email:

    Mayor Hieftje and Council Members:

    I support Mike Anglin’s proposal to disclose to the public without cost all Council Members’ emails from 2000 to the present. I ask that you vote in support of his proposal at Council’s next meeting.

    The content of emails between Council Members remains as a source of community distrust of its leaders. I expect that the Council rules committee will make proposals to address the use of emails, prospectively. That prospective action leaves unanswered the question of what matters were discussed in past emails and how long we will revisit the issue as individual FOIA requests maintain a trickle of disclosure for many months to come. Complete disclosure will allow the Council to remove the appearance of secrecy and start fresh with an era of transparency under its new email policy.

    Additionally, I believe it is time that we all fully acknowledge the significance of the August 4 primary election results. Third Ward Council Member Leigh Greden was able to attract only 36% support in his reelection bid. He is a capable political strategist. He provided extensive constituent service. He was a three term incumbent. Yet, his failure to fully account for the scope of his email misconduct (it was not merely childish behavior) and his refusal to respond to media inquiries on the subject surely cost him the election. Mr. Greden will likely return to public office after a period of Nixonian political rehabilitation. How better to begin that rehabilitation than to disclose all of the emails council members have exchanged over the years.

    For other Council Members, disclosure will allow the candor missing from Mr. Greden’s half-hearted apologies and dismissive denial. Voters have demonstrated their displeasure over Council’s conduct and its failure to address the appearance of secrecy in its deliberations. Council can restore public trust by being forthright and open with voters about everything that was said in those past emails.

    While there will be a cost associated with compiling, redacting and converting the emails to a digital form, the value of restoring public trust justifies the expense.

    Mr. Anglin’s proposal is not made merely on behalf of the voters of the Fifth Ward. Mr. Anglin is representing voters throughout the City when he proposes openness and transparency. Mr. Anglin, a one term incumbent facing a well-organized, capable opponent, was able to increase voter turnout and attract 65% of the vote on August 4, in great part because he was not embroiled in the email scandal. I recommend that other Council Members follow his good-government leadership.

    Thank you.
    Jack Eaton

  4. […] brought to Council. As for Hohnke’s admiration of Sabra Briere, a year later, in 2009, Freedom of Information Act requests for Council members’ emails sent during open meetings reve… that Mr. “bridging differences” Hohnke had joked right along with former Third Ward […]

  5. […] who recently ran for City Council a second time, described “Grooming” thusly in a 2009 blog entry: Since the local Democratic party was mostly organized to support Democrats against Republicans in […]

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