Disruption, Dysfunction, and Dismay: Ann Arbor’s Governmental Power Struggle (1)

This is a chaotic and potentially hazardous time in Ann Arbor. The next posts will attempt to set recent events into context. They should be read after first reading Rescuing Ann Arbor’s Budget.


Disruption is a favored concept in the business of technology. “Disruptive technology is an innovation that significantly alters the way that consumers, industries, or businesses operate. A disruptive technology sweeps away the systems or habits it replaces because it has attributes that are recognizably superior.” (Investopedia) One well-known disruptive technology that has changed our politics is Facebook and other social media. Mark Zuckerberg, in earlier days, made his motto “Move fast and break things.” (It was changed in 2014.)

Ann Arbor’s Mayor, Christopher Taylor, has clearly taken this concept to heart. As we discussed in an earlier post about Taylor and disruption, he has been using that word and stressing that concept for many months. “Disruption is not something we do terribly well in Ann Arbor. Business as usual will not be acceptable. Things are going to have to be different.” And as quoted in our previous post, “The old way of running an economy, the old way of doing business, the old way of operating civil society is subject to change…”

It was not always so. In running for re-election (2018), a sunnier Taylor had this to say about Ann Arbor:

I like Ann Arbor the way it is, and it’s changing every day. I think we have a great thing going on here in our community. We are, I believe, going in the right direction. We’re a community that strives to balance character and affordability and demand and vitality. We need to make sure that the development we have in our community is smart and sustainable and that it doesn’t adversely impact residents’ quality of life. Change will come. We just need to make sure that it’s channeled, that it’s change that is good for us all today and tomorrow.

Mayor Taylor in 2017

At the time, Taylor ran on assurances that basic services would be a first priority (important to residents). We would even maintain quality of life. Things began to change after he ran into a hitch in an important achievement, the sale of the Library Lot to Core Spaces. With his 8-3 majority on Council, he easily won approval (April 2017). But a group of citizens stubbornly plowed along to collect signatures on a petition for a ballot issue to prevent the sale. One week after signatures were complete and as the ballot issue looked likely to materialize, Taylor ill-advisedly rushed the completion of the sale contract on a weekend without taking the agreement back to Council as the Charter prescribes. (Only Taylor, City Administrator Howard Lazarus, and City Clerk Jackie Beaudry signed the contract.) This occasioned a lawsuit from two Council members. In addition, the group seeking a win on the ballot filed a lawsuit via Thomas Wieder, a well-known litigator.

Mayor Taylor looks as though he has things on his mind. (February 2020)

But though Taylor himself handily won re-election in the primary election of 2018, he suffered a major blow. Three incumbents were displaced, losing him his Council majority. Then in the November election the citizen’s ballot measure passed, making the Library Lot a public space. This was suffered in disbelief for nearly two months; finally the City settled the two lawsuits (January 2019) and notified the purchaser of the Library Lot that the agreement was off.

One can almost sense that Taylor’s feelings for residents of Ann Arbor may have shifted with these sequential losses. He became noticeably tense and snappish. And he moved decisively to correct this power imbalance. As we reported in our post, Disruption in Ann Arbor: It’s a Promise, he recruited an impressive slate of challengers and backed them up with strong criticism of the incumbents. Money poured in and the challengers received twice as much in donation dollars as the incumbents, in addition to strong social media support from Ned Staebler’s Inspire Michigan PAC. (See our post, Factions, Frictions and Futures: Election Time in Ann Arbor.) The incumbents were overturned and Taylor had his majority back again. The new majority took office in November 2020 and set about undoing many of the actions of the previous Council, especially those in regard to property and development. As we have noted in the past, this is a  new political direction and a major shift in policy from earlier years in Ann Arbor. With the new majority, Taylor is succeeding in moving in that direction rather rapidly, at least in terms of Council decisions (cue the disruption). A March article in the Detroit Free Press highlighted the differences between the remaining incumbents and the new slate. But what it doesn’t quite show is how many 7-4 votes have occurred, many of them overthrowing the decisions previously made by the old majority. The effect has been to make more of Ann Arbor’s valuable land area accessible to developers.

A2Zero and Development

In November 2019, Council passed a resolution calling for the City to become climate neutral by 2030. A plan was to be prepared by Earth Day 2020. The A2Zero plan (April 2020 is still the current version) was finally accepted on June 1, 2020. The Welcome letter is signed by Mayor Christopher Taylor. It is a call to action:

achieving carbon neutrality within a decade will necessitate that we all work together. It will necessitate collaboration, innovation, and disruption. If we are to achieve our goal,  Ann Arbor 2030 must be vastly different from Ann Arbor 2020.

A close reading of A2Zero is that it is a roadmap to a much denser city. While the premise is to make Ann Arbor carbon-neutral, that means only in terms of carbon dioxide generated within the borders of the City. A major theme is to bring automobile users to live here, and ideally to use non-motorized transportation.

A2Zero provides Christopher Taylor with a popular and credible premise (to address global warming) for making policy to facilitate dense development. The entire strategy as proposed will be incredibly expensive. The proposed overall budget is $1 billion over 10 years. That is 1000 X $1 million, or 10 X $100,000,000. The City general fund revenues for the current fiscal year (as budgeted) amount to $118,316,0321. (See Rescuing Ann Arbor’s Budget.)That is going to take some creative bookkeeping. At one time we would have assumed that our CFO (and then City Administrator) would ensure that good process was followed. However, it appears that this procedural obstacle has been removed with Tom Crawford’s dismissal.

Taylor is indeed succeeding with the strategy of “Move fast and break things.” The dismissal of Tom Crawford clears the way for him to solidify his power base and to accomplish the major rearrangement of our community that he has promised. He is now making some moves to eliminate inconvenient Councilmembers. Students of history will recognize all the classical elements of the palace coup. To some extent, the voters of Ann Arbor may yet exert a weak influence, but he very nearly has his power base secure. He should be smiling again before long.






Explore posts in the same categories: civic finance, politics

5 Comments on “Disruption, Dysfunction, and Dismay: Ann Arbor’s Governmental Power Struggle (1)”

  1. poodlechild Says:

    Bravo, Vivienne. Sad but true.

  2. Mark M. Koroi Says:

    There is no doubt that Mayor Taylor had a well-organized and well-funded slate of opponents to defeat incumbents whose policies did not mesh with his own.
    Mayor Taylor himself got swept in himself in 2008 the same way when he beat Steve Kunselman by 26% in the Democratic Party primary for aa Third Ward seat. He had no prior experience in elected office and rode an endorsement from then-mayor John Hieftje into elected office.
    I was at the Pizza House on November election evening of 2008 when Taylor, Carsten Hoenke and a number of city political insiders were celebrating their victories – these included Chris Easthope winning a 15th District Court judgeship – Barack Obama was elected the same night in sweeping victories for the Democratic Party.
    Fast forward 13 years later and no one remains on City Council except Taylor. he reportedly still communicates regularly with his mentor, John Hieftje.
    Hieftje created a political machine and was succeeded by his protege, Christopher Taylor. Political machines do not typically exist in college towns but John created his own – with political hacks often being appointed to board and commission seats rather than merit-based appointments.
    Hieftje, Easthope, Joan Lowenstein, Leigh Greden, and Mike Anglin were all there that joyous evening in 2008 and all have left the political scene in Ann arbor long ago. But Hieftje’s legacy lives on. Compare him to Richard Daley or Coleman Young for his creation of a political machine that has survived in spirit – and is characterized by a pro-development bias.

  3. Lisa Patrell Says:

    A2Zero requires broad scrutiny among all residents. I have been on-board peripherally since it’s inception. What is clear that 80% of carbon emissions can be reduced with 20% of the money set forth in the original findings. Instead, most of the effort is going after 20% of the carbon with 80% of funds.

    There has been much staffing up and much window dressing of actions, such as stickers for major home appliances instead of group bulk buying plans and planting 1000 baby trees while mowing down the mature trees that do the work of carbon sequestration.

    Further, there is a game of hide of ball as a local citizens group, Ann Arbor Public Power ( https://annarborpublicpower.com/ ) proposes real structural change that is in-line with state and national plans with DERs (Distributed Energy Resources) and follows models profitable down in other municipalities including several in Michigan. This is baffling, unless one considers that the Taylor’s constituents are the University and DTE.

    I truly wonder who is getting paid or has been made personal profitable promises.

    • Yes, I studied this in some detail last summer and have written a couple of posts. I intend to return to it because I regard much of it as ineffective against the stated problem. Also, there has been resistance against providing any kind of metrics or progress reports.

  4. bradleygroup Says:

    Thanks, Vivienne, for an insightful post. A sad reality is that we have the same kind of disfunctional government at the local level as we do nationally. A small number of highly committed and vocal folks dominate the process… and largely get their way.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: