A Matter of Balance: Ann Arbor’s Loss of Equilibrium

Skaters demonstrating Newton’s Third Law. credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ann Arbor’s politics is getting to be more and more Newtonian. I’m sure that Sir Isaac wasn’t thinking of local politics when he formulated his Third Law. That’s the one that we learned in school as “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction“. Most every object in our physical universe is simultaneously being acted upon by forces, and acting on other objects by forces of its own.

We have been getting actions and reactions in our civic discourse that are more and more extreme. Indeed, it has become so prominent that Ryan Stanton, the reporter for MLive, was moved to write about it.  His question:  “why is (Ann Arbor’s) government in such a mess?” In it, Lisa Disch, Councilmember for the First Ward, offers a fair analysis:

The current council is the product of the last several years of elections, during which there have been two shifts in the power balance and some dysfunctional interpersonal dynamics have developed, she said. Combined with disagreements over policy implementation, things can get heated, she said.

The stakes get higher when people feel like they’re fighting a battle for control and not just fighting a battle for policy,” she said. “And I think we’ve seen the effects of kind of a prolonged battle going back and forth for control.

We have been writing about the factions in Ann Arbor politics for some time. The primary election for Council in 2018 was pivotal. As we noted in a later post, Mayor Taylor suffered some serious losses, retaining his own seat but losing almost all the rest of his coalition. On top of that, the effort to sell the Library Lot for a substantial development (Core Spaces) foundered because of a ballot proposition prohibited the sale of the lot and required the retention of the area as a public space. But in 2020, Taylor’s faction came roaring back, with a strong slate of candidates (vigorously promoted by Taylor) who were extremely well funded (receiving more than twice the campaign contributions of the previous incumbents).

All of this has been dizzying. As CM Disch noted, it is about control. The two sides have seriously different agendas and goals for the City of Ann Arbor. But as the battle has continued, the animosities have mounted, and now we are seeing norms violated that at one time we might have expected to be observed. The sheer nastiness, both at the Council table and on social media, would have been shocking at one time but now is commonplace. (I have contributed somewhat by labeling the Taylor followers on Twitter as “jackals”, a label they have happily adopted.) Meanwhile, the recently seated Council seems to be in a rush to undo everything that the previous majority did. Action and reaction. But what this does is to exert more and more force on the system, as more and more drastic decisions and actions are taken.

Possibly one of the most quoted poems in this last decade (and probably the least understood) has been William Butler Yeats’ The Second Coming. Yeats was propounding a theory of history in which “gyres” (spirals) represent cycles of history. He saw a movement into chaos (It was written just post World War I and already there was instability in Germany.) Here is his vision:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre…  
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

In other words, events and movements are spinning so fast that reality itself is being transformed. I fear that we are doing something like this. Forces and contrary forces are making it difficult to see a deliberate and orderly development of policy and governance so that those of us “on the ground” are likely to be confused and startled at rapid changes of situation. (Mayor Taylor has indeed promised us this: he has repeatedly predicted “disruption”.) As quoted in the Michigan Daily a couple of years ago:

“All lines of work, all manners of doing things, are open to interrogation. The old way of running an economy, the old way of doing business, the old way of operating civil society is subject to change, subject to reexamination, subject to improvement. As we figure out where we go next, reconstituting as a functioning society with the goal of carbon neutrality will be a part of our recovery.”

Off With His Head

There is perhaps no better example of these rapid, forceful actions than the events that overtook Tom Crawford, our City Administrator until August last year. Tom was our Chief Financial Officer, beginning in 2004. As such, he was in charge of the Budget and, generally, the management of the City finances, reporting to whichever City Administrator was on board at the time.  When the then Administrator, Howard Lazarus, accepted termination in early 2020, Tom became the interim administrator, and then was appointed City Administrator in September 2020. Unfortunately for him, he was appointed by the victors of the 2018 election, who had already been defeated in the August 2020 primary. He was terminated by the new Council less than a year later.

We have speculated (and I do not withdraw this opinion) that he was relieved of his position so that the Mayor and his followers could have control of the Budget without interference. See also Rescuing Ann Arbor’s Budget. Mr. Crawford was long known as a strict constructionist as far as budget discipline goes, and the City had a number of budget shocks because of the COVID economical effects. There were some grim reports through 2020.

But it can’t be discounted that part of the reason to terminate him was that he just wasn’t their guy. And it was clearly payback for firing Howard Lazarus, whose agenda was compatible with Taylor and his friends. Here is a comment published on Twitter by Joan Lowenstein, the doyenne of the Taylor faction (and the Treasurer for many associated candidates).

A Short, Sharp Shock

So after nearly 18 years of service to the City of Ann Arbor as a well-respected and authoritative administrator, Tom Crawford was relieved of his position, in a manner that many of us found to be poorly justified, abrupt, and brutal. The accusation was that he had said racially insensitive things. He denied some of these. The actual quotes had no documentation other than the statements of a very few employees, who were not identified. (See this article and our previous post.) Among other things, the original report by a consultant (Jennifer Salvatore) did not recommend termination, and Crawford himself did not obtain legal support in those initial stages, but instead wrote a memo apologizing for any hurt he had caused and offered to do training and take other steps to ameliorate the situation. As we detailed in the earlier post, a series of emails obtained by FOIA appeared to indicate that the presentation of the accusations was primarily guided by and possibly dictated by the City Attorney and his deputy. At the end, Mr. Crawford was simply shown the door, in such a way that he was also not entitled to any severance pay.

Oddly, a second investigatory report was made public by Council in January 2022, long after Mr. Crawford’s exit. Why was this necessary? Was it to attempt to justify Council’s action after the fact? It definitely came across as a case of “hitting him while he was down”. There was a vigorous objection by Ralph McKee, a retired attorney who has been following this procedure closely. Critique of Salvatore Followup Report Re Tom Crawford is a lightly edited and reformatted version of an email which was sent to Council shortly after the action. McKee presents a detailed analysis of the flaws in the procedure and the report.

That’s Enough

There was enough force behind this violation of norms to evoke a reaction from another member of the community. Bruce Laidlaw, a well-known local attorney, took notice of the behavior of the lawyers who were prominent in this case. Laidlaw was at one time the Ann Arbor City Attorney, has represented the City before the Court of Appeals, and has also served as an attorney for numerous local townships and villages. He has been involved in law at the local government level for over 30 years and is well known and well respected.

It is one thing to dislike actions of elected officials (Council members) who may not understand the law or the culture of the legal profession, but another thing to see established legal professionals who should know better behave outside the proper boundaries. Laidlaw was clearly outraged on a professional level. He undertook a personal mission to study all the details of the Crawford case, and also of a separate report that Salvatore produced in response to the complaint made by Tom Guajardo. As explained by this article in MLive, the former HR director made a formal complaint about the treatment he received from the Assistant Administrator, John Fournier. The Salvatore report exonerated Fournier, who had essentially (and embarrassingly) been accused of similar faults to the ones that brought down Crawford, or worse. From the article:

Fournier, who was acting city administrator at the time, created a hostile work environment, Guajardo alleged, accusing him of harassment, discrimination and illegal directives.

As a result of this report, Fournier was declared exonerated. Again, from the MLive article:

The report is a full and unequivocal exoneration,” Mayor Christopher Taylor said in a statement. “It concludes that Mr. Fournier’s actions were justified, lawful, consistent with policy, and, to be clear, non-discriminatory. Period.”

Laidlaw has done a careful study of these events, beginning with a number of FOIA requests for documents and also for the invoices and time sheets submitted by Salvatore. He has been constructing an account of his findings which he expects to publish online eventually.

In late February 2022 he sent an email addressed to the City Attorney, Stephen Postema, Jennifer Salvatore (the consultant) and Mayor Christopher Taylor, who is also an attorney and partner at Hooper Hathaway. (It is copied to Council; reproduced here with Mr. Laidlaw’s permission.)

In the email, he compared the actions of these attorneys to those who supported the Joseph McCarthy hearings in the 1950s. Those of us who actually remember that time understand that it was the classic example of character assassination for political grandstanding purposes.

Here is the major part of the text of Mr. Laidlaw’s message.

With the help of persons unknown, you managed to compile a list of arguably insensitive comments by Tom Crawford. That was used as an excuse to fire him. He signed a termination agreement that didn’t even provide the severance payment to which he was entitled. But you had to further assassinate him.

Having ruined Crawford’s professional career, you contrived a new report accusing Crawford of illegal employment discrimination. I have searched City records and watched City Council videos, but have found no excuse for that report. I didn’t find who authorized spending $8,000 to prepare it. I can’t think of any public purpose for creating it. It appears to have been a Joe McCarthy type of attempt to ruin the reputation of a dedicated public official.

But he is not stopping at a simple complaint. These actions have brought forth a reaction.

As a member of the State Bar, I feel I have a duty to report highly unprofessional conduct by attorneys. The efforts of the three of you to attack the reputation of Tom Crawford were unprofessional. If you cannot rationally explain those efforts, I intend to file a grievance with the State Bar.

Obviously, it is too late to retrieve the damage done to Tom Crawford. But it will be interesting to know whether this additional forceful response will have any long-term effect. And what will be the next reaction? I hope that it does not result in an even more striking departure from norms. This chaotic behavior in search of power does not benefit our community.

UPDATE: Mr. Laidlaw has now created a website, A2Views, where he has written a narrative and linked to a number of important documents.

SECOND UPDATE: An article in the Michigan Daily discussed the second Salvatore report and quotes Mayor Christopher Taylor.

Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor said he supports the conclusions from the report, and explained the city attorney was in close contact with Salvatore for the duration of the investigation. He also said that while the city attorney may not agree with the conclusions made by the external investigator, the attorney did verify the facts presented in the report.

In an email to all of Council, Laidlaw requested a clarification of that comment. He stated that if the City Attorney disagreed with the conclusions in the report, that calls for a public explanation.

THIRD UPDATE: As reported in MLive, Tom Crawford has now filed suit against the City. The defamations in the second Salvatore report have made it impossible for him to seek employment.

“In a 10-page cease-and-desist letter sent to the city attorney’s office April 8, Crawford’s private attorney Mark Heusel argued City Council publicly released an inadequate and incomplete investigation report in January that potentially ruined any opportunity for Crawford to get a new job in the public sector or any comparable job.”

FOURTH UPDATE: Mr. Crawford was kind enough to supply a full copy of his attorney’s letter and it is published here with his permission. Crawford Request Retraction Letter

FIFTH UPDATE: Mr. Laidlaw’s suit against the City of Ann Arbor for their FOIA denial was dismissed. This was old news, since he had obtained the required information previously. No individuals were named in the Salvatore report, only job descriptions.

SIXTH UPDATE: (January 1, 2023) Tom Crawford has announced that he has been recruited to join Ann Arbor SPARK as its Chief Financial Officer. This is very welcome news on several fronts. One is that the Ann Arbor community will not lose his skills and knowledge. Another is that despite the disgraceful way he was treated by Christopher Taylor’s Council, his personal and professional life will be back on track. (Taylor now has a unanimous Council of his own followers. This will presumably tone down some of the self-congratulation.)




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One Comment on “A Matter of Balance: Ann Arbor’s Loss of Equilibrium”

  1. John+Smith Says:

    I have suspected from the beginning that the Salvatore “investigations” were sham investigations with predetermined outcomes–they started with the expected result and sliced & diced the facts to fit. Hopefully, A2 will be relieved of another Salvatore “Investigation” once the State Bar looks at all of the facts.

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