Disruption, Dysfunction, and Dismay: Ann Arbor’s Governmental Power Struggle (2)

This is the third in a series of posts about the crisis in Ann Arbor’s City Council.


With the stunning overturn of all Council incumbents in August 2020 and the installation of an entirely new slate of Councilmembers, it was reasonable to expect some new directions from Council, with the leadership of Christopher Taylor as Mayor. Taylor had often clashed with the previous Council majority. But this is Ann Arbor. Our town literally has the highest number of citizens bearing advanced degrees in the nation and we consider ourselves to be cultured, liberal, sophisticated, and rational. Surely our Councilmembers could collaborate, negotiate, and come to solutions that would benefit the citizenry of our town. We are civilized people, after all. I certainly expected this. The new CM are all well-respected citizens, many with previous public service and all well-qualified to have assumed this responsibility. Sadly, this has not been the case. We have experienced shocking and even embarrassing event piled on event. And sadly, the comity between the two factions has been almost completely absent. The new lineup has consistently voted according to the evident directions of their Mayor, and 7-4 decisions have been almost universal. But most sadly, the early indications here and there of collegiality have disappeared.

Taylor’s new CM. From left, Lisa Disch, Jen Eyer, Erica Briggs,Linh Song. Travis Radina not shown.

Perhaps this should not be surprising. The style of politics in this entire country has been on a steep decline. Yes, James Carville said that “politics ain’t beanbag” but apparently that expression goes back to the 19th century.  (Disclosure: I have actually played beanbag, in church camp. You throw little pillows that are loosely filled with beans at each other. No one gets hurt.) It now seems that lies (even Big Lies), character assassination, and the occasional kidnap attempt are our new political reality. When Congressmen call the January insurrection culprits “political prisoners”, all bets are off.

But so far in Ann Arbor, the main weapons of choice are simply unbridled nastiness. The principal field of battle is social media, with occasional breakouts into overriding all procedural niceties on the Council floor in order to condemn others. I’m fond of the term “toxic political tornado” (this is the MLive article detailing efforts to establish some rules).

Denying Dignity and Credibility

While we understand that there will be differences, in the old politics one could at least grant one’s opponent the benefit of the doubt. Respect even for those who disagree, and a recognition of different perspectives is a sort of civil discourse that used to be customary. Evidently what we used to call “civility” is out of fashion.

Artist’s rendering of a portion of the Valhalla project

One small example: On June 7, Council discussed rezoning to accept a new development called Valhalla. This has been controversial and has several issues, including neighborhood opposition and complaints from the UM. It is extremely dense and several buildings could be called “high-rises”. It does not fit the Master Plan but the Taylor faction praised it for its ability to accept new families so that they could stop commuting into Ann Arbor (this is part of the A2Zero concept). Evidently CM Kathy Griswold commented that children do not do well in high-rise apartment buildings. She also asked about other accommodations for children. The project was approved, 7-4, with all of the Taylor contingent voting “yes”.

After the meeting, this twitter conversation was held. (#a2council is a twitter tag used for frequent observers of the Council meeting, most of whom favor Taylor’s programs.)

Note that “Cabrini Green” was an infamous Chicago housing project. According to Wikipedia, “Crime and neglect created hostile living conditions for many residents, and “Cabrini-Green” became a metonym for problems associated with public housing in the United States.” It was torn down in 2011. Using that comparison would be serious hyperbole, and it did not sound like CM Kathy Griswold’s style. In a personal interview, she denied mentioning that name at all. She explained her comment about children in high-rises on the basis of her training and experience (she is a MSW social worker and at one time worked in Detroit in that capacity).

In the 1970s I attended a workshop on urban design in Toronto and learned that there were issues that have been identified with the
well-being of children living in low income high-rises. Later, as part of my MSW coursework and as a social worker in Detroit, I became familiar with public housing projects in other cities. I noted that our public housing for families in Ann Arbor has been designed as townhouses around common play areas to provide “Eyes on the children.” The phrase is similar to “It takes a village.” The design fostered a sense of community and support so the children could be watched by neighbors.

So in this one particular case, a CM with specific experience and knowledge is mocked for a statement made on the solid ground of that experience. Further, she is misquoted, misinterpreted, and then labeled as racist, classist, and anti-renter based on those misrepresentations. (That last word is a euphemism for “lies about the person”.)

Sadly, this is not an exception. CM who are not on the Taylor lineup are routinely disparaged in social media and in the actual meetings.

This means that all decisions are being made by the one tight coalition, without actual deliberation or an attempt to benefit from what other CM offer in terms of expertise or insight. It is harmful to our democracy, unproductive for the business of our City, and unfair to the persons who are representing their constituents after winning free and fair elections. One should not be subject to abuse in the course of doing one’s elected office. It is sadly reminiscent of some of the appalling behavior that we are reading about in Congress.




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18 Comments on “Disruption, Dysfunction, and Dismay: Ann Arbor’s Governmental Power Struggle (2)”

  1. Mark M. Koroi Says:

    In addition to being predominantly anti-development, most Ann Arbor residents – or most any Michigan suburb – do not want housing developments that are going to attract large numbers of low-income renters. They lower property values in the adjoining areas and Cabrini Green is an excellent example of the type of problems that those developments create.
    In Detroit, many of the ambitious public housing projects to accommodate poverty-stricken families were likewise shut down after a number of years in operation and became abandoned structures. They were crime-ridden during their operation. The Detroit Police Department until the late 1970s had the “Housing Police” unit actually patrol these areas to try to suppress criminal activity – including drug dealing and robberies.
    Ann Arborites do not need a “Cabrini Green” and citizens need to voice their opposition to City Council.

    • I agree with your statements about high-density projects of the past, and I think the point is that these are not favored now as low-income housing. This is not an area I read a lot about, but as CM Griswold says, Ann Arbor chose to make its public housing low-rise. There are a number of one-story public housing units right on S. 7th that are very decent places to live. (I was in one of them once.) I don’t think low-income people should be incarcerated in those types of high-rise buildings.

      But the funny thing here is that Valhalla is supposed to be market-rate and they are marketing it to families of commuters. How many children should be housed in such a situation? Even children of mid-income families? I think CM Griswold was saying that these are not good for children of any income.

      I don’t think your comment about housing that attracts low-income renters is pertinent to this project, and it is also rather offensive. But that is not what is contemplated here. Density itself creates problems, regardless of the income of the residents. That is why the potential neighbors are protesting.

      • Mark M. Koroi Says:

        The truth of the matter is that “low income renters” is not meant to be offensive to this socio-economic class.
        The actual state of affairs is that a substantial percentage of low-income renters are persons who are unemployable or difficult to employ due to criminal records, drug addiction, mental illness or other infirmities. When you have a comparatively large percentage of a tenant base that belong to these groups, you will have adverse issues in your development.
        In psychology, this has been explained as the “drift hypothesis” – that mentally ill tend to drift toward the inner city – and by extension housing developments for low-income persons, due to a safety net of social programs nearby designed to assist them.
        I have no doubt that the vast majority of residents of Cabrini Green were hard-working persons – as are most other public housing projects – but the fact remains that most homeowners do not want public housing developments geared toward low income residents in their neighborhood.

  2. Susan Donnelly Says:

    It seems as if an intelligent council would have asked for clarification of Griswolds comments in the moment rather than jumping to conclusions and then spreading rhetoric after the fact, on social media. That’s a bit childish and unprofessional.

    Before approving more multi story projects the council should collect data on all of the projects built in the last 6 or 7 years to see if they are in full use and who are renting/buying those spaces rather than just assuming the result and moving forward.

    • Libby Hunter Says:

      Julie Grand’s out-&-out lying in public (social media) about Griswold stating the name, Cabrini Green, is a serious offense. But we will never see consequences for her.

  3. PeteM Says:

    Vivienne, I enjoy this site and am glad to see you posting again. While I don’t follow the nuances of every city debate my sense is that the level of acrimony on council has increased in recent years.

    That said, your post seems to suggest that the lack of collegiality comes largely one side of the local debate. Is that your view? Perusing the debates within different local politics platforms on social media I don’t see where any individual or grouphas a monopoly when it comes offering harsh critiques.

    • When you say “group” you are implying to my ear both the CM and their supporters. We then move into tenuous reality, because while there are supporters on both “sides” the CM themselves may or may not agree with them and can’t be responsible for what is said on their behalf. I certainly don’t care for some of the expressions I see in support of my favored representatives, or against others. But there are no group consensus mechanisms.

      I think we can expect to hold actual elected CM responsible for their public utterances. My impression is that the CM I admire have been relatively close-lipped and have spoken in general terms, while other CM speak in their own voice to denigrate others. I’d welcome a contrary evidence.

      • Mark M. Koroi Says:

        I think A2 City Council has gone downhill since Tom Partridge stopped appearing at meetings.

      • PeteM Says:

        I think what constitutes a general critique and what is more specific can be a matter of interpretation. I would just note that Mlive’s article on last night’s suggests that strong words were expressed by both sides of the debate.

      • There are strong words and there are personal attacks. I’m sure some of the CM on “my side” said some strong words but I’m not trying to learn much more about the meeting. I’d be surprised to hear that any of them used any personal attacks.

  4. You are a treasure, Vivienne. Thank you for writing.

  5. Jeff Crockett Says:

    Brilliant analysis, Vivienne!

  6. Vivienne, Thanks for another great series of blogposts.

    Forgive me for picking a nit, but it wasn’t James Carville who originated the phrase, “Politics ain’t beanbag.” According to Taegan Goddard’s Political Dictionary: “The term originally comes from a 19th century novel by the writer Finley Peter Dunne. One of Dunne’s characters is an Irish American named Mr. Dooley, who likes to sit in his favorite Chicago bar and talk about politics.”

    Here’s a quote from James Carville:

    “You know, back in 2000 a Republican friend of mine warned me that if I voted for Al Gore and he won, the stock market would tank, we’d lose millions of jobs, and our military would be totally overstretched. You know what: I did vote for Al Gore, he did win, and I’ll be damned if all those things didn’t come true.”

    • Yes, did you read what I said? I linked to a description of 19th century source. Not that James Carville originated it, but that he said it (and was famous for it). I guess you were speedreading again.

      • Will Hathaway Says:

        Sorry! I blew right past your link to the original source. I should have known that you would have known that Carville wasn’t the originator (he doesn’t strike me as being a “bean bag” type).

  7. bradleygroup Says:

    Vivienne, thanks for a thoughtful, well reasoned set of comments on this crazy situation!

  8. Ziggy selbin Says:

    This just reinforces my absolute glee that I’m in scio twp. Feckless virtue signaling such as CM engages in makes it so.
    Mr. Koroi your contention that Tom Partridge is missed tells me you are keenly aware of the absurdity of this smug self righteous council

  9. Vivienne, you are so impressive! Thanks for your research and clarity in explaining our local issues.

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