Breaking News When the News is Broke
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.
Michael Miller, Jr.
Elizabeth V. Janovic
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?
One 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.
SECOND 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”.
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