Archive for the ‘politics’ category

Density and Sustainability in Ann Arbor

October 18, 2022

Our failures with city neighborhoods, are, ultimately, failures in localized self-government. And our successes are successes with localized self-government. – Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Density for Density’s Sake

As we have noted perhaps too many times (see Disruption in Ann Arbor: It’s a Promise), the heavy emphasis on dense development (“densification”) has been a consistent feature of Christopher Taylor’s tenure, both as a Council Member and as Mayor. This has accelerated in recent years, as summarized in this overview from MLive. While some developments follow the guidelines in the Comprehensive Plan, others have required special allowances and modified site plans.

Rendering of the 19-story building to be built behind the Michigan Theater, next to the old Liberty Square parking structure on the right

The culture of Ann Arbor has not always been so accepting of dense, tall development. As I described in an early article (2005) published in the Ann Arbor Observer, the fate of development downtown was intensely debated. But by 2010, the rezoning of downtown Ann Arbor was completely accomplished, via a process called Ann Arbor Discovering Downtown (A2D2). Since then, and especially when Christopher Taylor had a majority of his supporters on Council, downtown has been growing taller and taller. This was facilitated by generous height premiums for residential buildings. Perhaps the ultimate example is the building now underway behind the Michigan Theater. It will be 19 stories, according to the Ann Arbor News the tallest building in 50 years But as pointed out in the Ann Arbor Observer, with changes in the height premiums offered to require more affordable units, this era may be coming to an end. Still, the look and feel of our city has unalterably changed, as was well described in this article: Ann Arbor’s Small-town look fading as Downtown Reaches for the Sky.

Not all of downtown is available for this push to the sky. With Main Street and State Street historic districts, some of the precious land will stay at human scale for the time being. More recently, the effort has been to grow “downtowns” elsewhere by the simple expedient of rezoning parts of the city to accept less onerous height and density restrictions. The development site formerly known as Broadway Village was zoned as a PUD over a decade ago, but rezoned at the request of the current owner to C1(A/R), in a vote much criticized by Lowertown neighbors. As described in this review by the Ann Arbor News, till now this has been the most flexible or generous zoning classification. But the new TC-1 zoning, recently applied to the area around Briarwood, offers “downtown-style development” away from downtown.

This rush to development has been justified by the premise that more residential development (increase in housing units) of any kind will make housing more affordable in Ann Arbor. As Taylor was quoted in the discussion about TC-1 zoning,

“I’m very excited about this step we’re taking today…Supply and demand is not a joke, it’s the law, and what we are doing is we are enabling the market to create substantially more — thousands perhaps more — units of housing in the city of Ann Arbor to house future neighbors.”

While in the past, more permissive zoning like that granted in PUDs or the more recent affordable housing premiums for downtown have been tied to developer concessions and donations of “community benefits” like affordable housing funding and parks support, the tide has turned against any impediment to development. In the TC-1 discussion, some CM lamented the lack of requirements for a move toward carbon neutrality in accordance with the A2Zero plan approved by Council. But the no-benefits coalition won the day.

“Council has heard many people call for making developers propose fully electric buildings or include affordable housing in order to get approval for taller buildings, but requiring that could make projects more difficult and more expensive, (CM Lisa) Disch said, expressing concerns it could disincentive development.”


Cui bono?

So who benefits from all this development and the resulting growth? Obviously, the developers, who do this work to make a profit. Property owners make a sale, realtors and agents collect fees, many workers in construction trades, suppliers of building materials, construction managers, architects, survey companies find work. Taxing authorities acquire a higher tax base. And yes, politicians who support these policies are in turn supported by campaign donations. (We are not alleging corruption here. Individuals donate to candidates who support their goals, all open and aboveboard.) Growth of the GDP for a locality in general benefits many who do business in it.

But who benefits from the resulting density? That is a different question. There is a new urban science (beyond “emergent” and now well established) that seeks to define cities as entities that operate within the scientific/mathematical concept of complexity. One of the foremost practioners is Luis M.A. Bettencourt, author of the definitive textbook Introduction to Urban Science; Evidence and Theory of Cities as Complex Systems. For years, he and his colleagues have been conducting empirical work, collecting data of many types from cities globally, and constructing models and mathematical representations that reveal the many similarities in how cities are organized and grow. And when we say “grow”, we mean as an organism grows. This is a feature of complex systems. Bettencourt’s introduction says:

This emphasis on the connections between many different aspects of cities —  their built space and land uses, their infrastructure and services, their social life and its outcomes — is the business of complex systems as a relatively new field of scientific inquiry…The integration of ideas and concepts from many disciplines also forces each piece to shift and change as it is constrained and enabled by others into new frameworks.

Some of the key qualities that define cities in this science (and it requires a book to explain them) are property of scaling, presence of networks, energy flows, diversity and neighborhoods. Social aspects are very important in whether a city will be a success (in the sense of serving its populations and attaining longevity).  Michael Batty, whose recent book, Inventing Future Cities, is a philosophical but cogent overview of the science, quotes an earlier author, Lewis Mumford (What is a City).

The city in its complete sense, then, is a geographic plexus, and economic organization, an institutional process, a theater of social action, and an aesthetic symbol of collective unity. The city fosters art and is art; the city creates the theater and is the theater.

So the takeaway is that the city is about its people and their interactions. The more dense the city, the greater frequency of interactions. There are numerous studies showing linear relationships between population and many other outcomes. For some activities, the relation is superlinear (increases more rapidly than merely proportionately). There are hundreds of datasets recorded by numerous authors mapping these relationships. Here is one (Source: Yang et al., Phys. Rev. E 100, 032306). Several relationships are superlinear but one is merely linear.

Because the number of interactions increases with the population, there are numerous outcomes, both positive and negative. We are all familiar with the congestion that comes with increased population density. More people means more cars on the road, more crowds on sidewalks, less room in public facilities. It also means more demands on public resources such as water utilities. But more people also means more business interactions, better availability of some services (transit, for example). Of special interest to the technology culture is the result of intense collaboration (note the increase in patents submitted in the figure).

The question of the impact of density has been studied by many, using historical examples and also collecting contemporary data. Here is a simplified diagram illustrating an overview.

Note that net social benefit increases linearly with density of social interactions until an optimum is reached, then benefit declines until system becomes unstable.

The conclusion from this could be simply stated that growth is beneficial to success of the city, but only to a certain point, and after that is deleterious. How could we predict what this point is for Ann Arbor? There must be metrics that could be considered.


Ann Arbor’s discussion of the current rapid moves in unzoning much of the City has been severely limited, especially as to prediction of likely outcomes. Planning is supposed to indicate the direction that policies we put in place will take us. There is supposed to be some sort of consensus within the community about the outcomes. Typically a comprehensive plan begins with a “vision statement” that serves as a grounding for actions within the plan. Actual implementation is supposed to reflect those outcomes and mechanisms should be in place to achieve them. Here is the vision statement for our last comprehensive plan (n.b., the actual document is called a “Master Plan”, but some members of our community find that to be offensive, so most plans are now referred to as a “Comprehensive Plan” instead. It still means that the Plan is supposed to serve as a template for planning).

“The City of Ann Arbor will be a dynamic community, providing a safe and healthy place to live, work and recreate. It will be a place where planning decisions are based, in part, on the interconnectedness of natural, transportation and land use systems. Natural systems, including air and water, natural features, native flora and wildlife habitats, will be improved and protected. It will be a place where the Huron River is a cherished part of the community and a focal point for recreation. Downtown will continue to be a vibrant part of the community that ties all parts of the city together. Transportation systems will include enhanced opportunities for public transit, extensive opportunities for alternative modes of travel and improved management techniques to reduce the impact of traffic on existing streets and neighborhoods. Land use systems will be compatible and complementary, and will include residential, recreational, commercial, office, educational, institutional and industrial uses, which will provide extensive choices in housing (including low cost housing), shopping, employment and recreational activities. Historically significant buildings and neighborhoods will be preserved. The quality of life in Ann Arbor will be characterized by its diversity, beauty, vibrancy and livability and ultimately will depend upon the positive interaction of these systems.”

It sometimes seems that our only “vision” now is to utilize every square inch possible for residential development, achieving density both by increasing the building envelope footprint (reduction of setbacks) and increased height, and definitely by increasing the number of units per acre. Single-family zoning is under attack, and now (with the TC-1 zoning proposal for W. Stadium) one of our principal commercial service areas is under threat of being directed into a monoculture of tall residential buildings with no real commercial presence. There have been vigorous protests from many sectors of the local neighborhoods but it is uncertain how Taylor’s Planning Commission and his solid Council majority will heed those. What is at risk is a major commercial and service area that serves much of the West Side of Ann Arbor. Are those residents to be ignored?

The premise for the current set of transformative policies has not been explained, except in the most simplistic form. To repeat (again and again) that increase in supply of housing units will eventually, inevitably, result in affordable housing. As Taylor said in the statement already quoted here, “Supply and demand is the law”. (Presumably he means a natural law.) But there is ample reason to contest that conclusion (it will have to be in another post). And the notion has been advanced that anyone who wants to live in Ann Arbor should be able to find housing here. But that suggests that Ann Arbor is infinitely expansible. Is it growth for its own sake? To attain some social goal? (Sometimes the suggestion is made that this will advance racial equity, but the mechanism is unclear.) Does Ann Arbor have limits, other than the obvious one of our fixed border? What are the limits of density before the city becomes unlivable or even dysfunctional?

I wondered whether our Planning Department was working from a model that had not been explained. So I asked our Planning Director, Brett Lenart, if there were such a model (I didn’t want to put him in a compromising position, so I copied the email to the City Administrator). Here was his answer.

As for mathematical models for City development, the Economic Equity and Affordability Analysis performed by the County in 2015 modeled the needs of affordable housing units in the City, and other communities. The City’s current Comprehensive planning documents reference densities in some areas specifically, and in other indirect ways, lead toward density when discussing outcomes such as increased transit mode use, which becomes more possible with increased densities, though not always defined in City planning documents as a specific number.

Another strong policy statement and justification for many changes in configuration of the City, including transportation, is the A2Zero plan. A good deal of the City Budget is aimed at fulfilling this plan. And we have also been informed that there will be a request on the November ballot for a 1.0 mill tax to support these aims. Taylor has been clear that this is a major thrust of his. It is hard to argue with climate change.

Kian Goh, in her book Form and Flow, asks, “In the face of climate change and uneven social and spatial urban development, how are contesting visions of urban futures produced and how do they attain power?” She examines three case studies of urban areas facing issues from climate change. They are New York City, Rotterdam, and Jakarta. In each, “insurgent” community groups rose up to challenge institutional solutions. Her thesis, based in “urban ecology”, is that top-down approaches from “hegemonic” powers are being contested by grassroots community groups, and it is clear where her sympathy lies – and it is not with those engaged in “modernist urban planning”.

“…one aspect remains constant among those in power. There is a strong…belief that there are urban development solutions to climate change problems, if done properly…But how can this be the case when it is those same systems of urban development that created, and continue to perpetuate, those problems?”

Really, in the current efforts by Taylor and his supporters to transform not just the form but the complex and diverse social character of Ann Arbor, one is reminded of the 1950s urban renewal wave that forever displaced and marred neighborhoods in the United States (Ann Arbor, miraculously, escaped). The tools they are using include the threat of climate change, but A2Zero, if examined closely, is simply a framework and defense of growth.

UPDATE: A recent study examined the “supply question” with reference to affordable housing. A common assertion among development advocates has been that increased supply of housing (provided via development) will result in housing being more affordable. This study examined outcomes of upzoning over a broad range of U.S. locations and basically refuted that assumption. This data-dense study is being widely quoted.

Ann Arbor Elections – The Season of Poison

July 17, 2022

Every two years, Ann Arbor has an election of members to its City Council. Councilmembers are now elected to four-year terms, as is the Mayor. Here is the Ann Arbor Observer’s description of the Council races this year.

For the last couple of elections, the results have been momentous. We summarized some of this in the post Disruption, Dysfunction and Dismay (I). Briefly, Mayor Christopher Taylor, who was anticipating great things, had some disastrous losses in 2018. He then won much of it back in 2020, with his handpicked slate of strong candidates (well-supported by donations, including support from the Michigan Talent Agenda/Inspire Michigan PAC), who knocked out incumbents of opposing views (more on that contest in the post Disruption in Ann Arbor: It’s a Promise). The new Council wasted no time in undoing much of what the previous one had done. As we commented recently, our politics has gotten to be very reactive. But it has also gotten seriously nastier and less honest. Much of this can be laid at the feet of the Taylor machine.

Yes – I believe that Taylor has constructed a classic political machine. As Wikipedia says, this is defined as “a party organization, headed by a single boss or small autocratic group, that commands enough votes to maintain political and administrative control of a city, county, or state“. It also notes that the term is often considered pejorative. But I believe that in Taylor’s case, it is simply descriptive.

Christopher Taylor was first elected as Mayor in 2014, strongly supported by the Michigan Talent Agenda/Inspire Michigan). The Michigan Talent Agenda is the educational/marketing entity, supported by a PAC, Inspire Michigan. The overall agenda is described in our post, The Placemaking Agenda and Ann Arbor Politics. Briefly, the concept is to build a vibrant and attractive urban center that will attract “talent”, typically young people skilled in the high-tech industries. Or, as stated in their most recent postcard (July 2022) endorsing three candidates in the upcoming election:

The Michigan Talent Agenda is a statewide platform that seeks to drive public policy outcomes to develop, attract, and retain the highly-talented, highly-educated citizenry that Michigan needs to succeed in today’s knowledge economy. This requires a commitment to building and investing in the sorts of communities that mobile talent values.

Since then, Taylor has been gaining power and influence by accretion. At least two nonprofits that also do some business with the City, the Washtenaw Housing Alliance and the Ecology Center, openly participate in campaign-season activities (remember the Climate Voter signs? And the WHA was similarly involved in the Neighbors for More Neighbors campaign). Taylor has had the power of appointment to boards and commissions for eight years, and that builds up a very strong support base. For several campaign cycles he has received maximum campaign donations from Oxford Properties’ owner and other real estate interests, as well as a University of Michigan regent. Most recently he has begun receiving donations from the Michigan Laborers’ Union (note his endorsement by LiUNA!). And now he is endorsed by multiple officeholders and candidates for state-level offices, including County Commissioners.

All this is giving him real muscle. He has been using it in the last election and this one to recruit and support strong candidates who will be loyal to him. His purpose appears to be that he wishes to preside over a unanimously supportive Council, with no discussion. I believe that if you examine the voting record since the 2020 election, you will find very little dissent from members of his slate. And now it is clear that he is determined to eliminate two of the troublesome incumbents who have been effective in criticizing and questioning his leadership on numerous items. He has put his full support behind Jenn Cornell (running to oppose Ali Ramlawi in the 5th Ward) and Dharma Akmon (running to oppose Elizabeth Nelson, 4th Ward). His treasurer, Joan Lowenstein, is their Treasurer. At one point Taylor called upon his own supporters and volunteers to turn out for a massive field day to support Akmon in the 4th ward. (I have been told that Cornell received the same assistance recently.) And it is evident that the same agency (Blue Path Solutions, according to the Observer) prepared their campaign postcards. That is perhaps unfortunate, because the postcards resemble each other both in their mischaracterizations of certain actions, and also in the graceless effort to smear the characters of both incumbents. (Click on the figure to view larger version.)

Happily, I am not obligated to explain Elizabeth Nelson’s response to these items, because she has done that herself. Read it in her own words. The Difference is Clear 

What jumped out at me was that the very first thing on the list was the silly issue of Jeff Hayner’s clumsiness. As explained in MLive at the time, he fell into a trap of his own making by quoting a paragraph that contained a word that is offensive to LGBTQ people and then defended his right to quote literature while making another quote containing the N-word, to a Black reporter, no less. I have always found Jeff to be troublesome, but I believe along with many others that he was not actually expressing his feelings but simply being stubborn and insisting on his rights. (Nelson is clear in her statement that she rebuked him for this usage.) Regardless, Taylor’s people have found this to be immensely useful, to the point at which acolytes have suggested on social media that a Black candidate (Angeline Smith) was likely a friend of his because they both live in the First Ward and implying that she was racist! Is this really the issue on which the future of the City of Ann Arbor should hang?

And then the second item is Howard Lazarus’ firing. Actually, he resigned after some serious negotiation and I noticed that he has now found a job as County Executive elsewhere. The Taylorites will never stop mourning his passage, but is this a forward-looking issue?

Taylor himself does not engage in the nastiness. He has a flock of acolytes to carry his message of character assassination and mischaracterization of actions throughout social media. (Most of them are the #a2council twitterers I affectionately call the Jackals.)

So why are we constantly being assaulted with nasty implications, insults, and false descriptions of actions by Council? Because they want to change the subject. Taylor has made it clear that he represents a major change of direction and agenda for the City, and many of his agendas are aimed at bringing in a new population and in inciting growth and economic development. Densification, replacement of current homes and businesses, tax increases and other changes of performance by our government do not favor current residents and small businesses. What his slate emphasize in their anodyne statements is “quality service”. Jenn Cornell, for example, extols “clean water, reliable trash and recycling, safe roads and sidewalks, and parks that are maintained and activated”. That is reassuring to hear, but we hope those things were already in place. (Oddly, Taylor’s recent postcard mostly emphasized his gender sensitivity in placing tampons in public restrooms.) We are not discussing the big issues like how to pay for A2Zero, what radical rezoning will likely look like for the future, or how community members can have a full role in determining the City’s future shape.


We are lucky to have brave souls who are still willing to run for office against all this power. Here are my recommendations.

First Ward: Angeline Smith. She is connected with Arrowwood Cooperative, a strong community that preserves affordable housing and democratic ideals. Her sermon at her Zoom meeting on “trickle-down housing” was a treasure. In addition, she has experience with financial matters that will serve us well.  Her opponent Cynthia Harrison seems to be a good person and has a moving life story, but she can be counted on to be one of the Taylor yes votes.

Second Ward: Chris Watson is running unopposed. He will offer a fresh youthful voice.

Third Ward: Ayesha Ghazi Edwin is running unopposed. She has endorsed Taylor and his slate.

Fourth Ward: Elizabeth Nelson. She is an incredibly diligent, intelligent, and thoughtful representative who also has a sense of humor when permitted to exercise it.

Fifth Ward: Ali Ramlawi is thoughtful and brings a valuable perspective as a downtown businessman. He is very fiscally prudent and makes efforts to bring people together, though it has been tough lately.

Mayor: Anne Bannister has taken on a steep hill to climb against an incredibly powerful and well-funded incumbent Mayor, but she is doing a superb job of voicing a vision that is oriented toward the citizens of Ann Arbor rather than toward developing a successful economic engine. She deserves attention and has my thanks and respect.

UPDATE (July 24, 2022): Christopher Taylor’s postcard is similar to those for Akmon and Cornell, with a series of negative but questionable accusations. The political newsletter, Ann Arbor Independent, has an exhaustive discussion of these points.

Section of Christopher Taylor’s campaign postcard with comparisons against Anne Bannister

SECOND UPDATE (July 27, 2022) As reported in the Ann Arbor News, Taylor’s candidates did indeed receive disproportionate cash contributions, approximately twice those of the two incumbents and Angeline Smith. This was exceeded by contributions to Taylor’s own campaign, again reported by the Ann Arbor News.

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

March 3, 2022

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.)




Disruption, Dysfunction, and Dismay: Ann Arbor’s Governmental Power Struggle (3)

September 19, 2021

We have just witnessed a classic power grab, using dubious methods to dislodge a responsible administrator. Will the City of Ann Arbor ever be the same? Probably not, if the makers of these events are successful.

Ann Arbor City Administrator Tom Crawford

The news hit the community like a bomb. With almost no warning (the July 20 agenda item was posted just the day before) and certainly no foreshadowing, suddenly we learned that our respected and trusted City Administrator was being terminated. Evidently the action was preceded by a couple of closed Council Sessions (these are confidential and secret and do not appear on the City’s calendar). The July 20 meeting provided little information except that he had been accused of insensitive and inappropriate speech toward employees. The report (dated June 29) from an attorney who had been contracted to investigate, Jennifer B. Salvatore, was subsequently released in redacted form after a vote from Council. This news story summarizes some of the report.

Citizens reacted with shock. Of all the City officials we have known for years and rely on, Mr. Crawford stands out. I personally did not agree with him on all counts (he tended to value tax base over other values) but I could always know that his work and conclusions were based on solid fact and knowledge. At a subsequent meeting, public comment was a flood of objection (though not universal).

Councilmembers hastened to explain. Here are three posts with discussion.

Councilmember Elizabeth Nelson, 4th Ward

Elizabeth Nelson did not support the move. In a blog post  (An Irresponsible Termination) that contained an extensive analysis together with a comprehensive list of source material, she concludes:

A majority of Council would like the community to believe that the decision to terminate Mr. Crawford’s employment was supported by facts, consistent with recommendations, and dictated by city policy. None of that is true. A majority of Council introduced the idea of termination, based on disputed reports from five people. A majority of Council intentionally ignored other available information and rejected specific recommendations to seek out more information.

Remarkably, the justification for their decision contradicts the investigation report and introduces new, wholly unsupported suggestions of policy violation. The example offered as evidence of “past practice” is a 2019 incident involving a city employee and the then City Administrator. Investigation into the then City Administrator stands in stark contrast to what was offered to Council this week: in 2019, the 112 page report included written documentation, five times as many witnesses, as well as two years of past job performance appraisals of the then City administrator. The tiny scope of the Crawford investigation and the comparatively enormous consequence of the resulting Council decision do not come close to conforming to past practice.

Note: while it is true that a numerical majority did vote to remove Mr. Crawford, CM Nelson’s use of the word here is an oblique reference to the current majority of Council members who support Mayor Taylor and ousted incumbents in the fall 2020 election to seize power.

Councilmember Erica Briggs, 5th Ward

Erica Briggs, who supported the termination, wrote an explanatory post. CM Briggs expresses some regret but insists that Mr. Crawford is disqualified because he does not seem able to administer DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) matters. Her main focus is on the complaints by the employees. City Administrator Investigation contains some interesting context, especially this history:

Ann Arbor’s current City Administrator is Tom Crawford. He was hired as Administrator in September 2020. He served previously as Chief Financial Officer for the City since 2004. In May 2021, some City employees approached Mayor Taylor regarding statements made by Administrator Crawford that they found insensitive and offensive. They did not bring these concerns to the HR Director because the HR Director reports to the City Administrator. In response, Mayor Taylor sought the advice of City Attorney Stephen Postema and a meeting was held in late May between Mayor Christopher Taylor, Pro Tem Julie Grand, Mr. Postema, and Mr. Crawford. Following this meeting, Mr. Crawford authorized an outside independent investigation by Human Resources (HR) Attorney Jen Salvatore to examine concerns about his behavior brought to the Mayor’s attention. Council was notified of this investigation on June 1st. Council was urged to not jump to any conclusions until the investigation had been completed.

Councilmember Lisa Disch, 1st Ward

Lisa Disch, who voted for the termination, sent not just one but two letters to constituents explaining her position. She clearly had some reservations and used the word “struggled” at two different points. CM Disch is fairly new to City politics and this was a hefty decision for a new CM to make. She concludes:

I struggled with the question whether this pattern of remarks rises to the level that warrants concluding Mr. Crawford’s employment. Council received a memo by Human Resources director Tom Guajardo advising Council that to be consistent with past practice in cases like these, separation would be the proper course of action. I cast my vote based on that advice as well as on my own assessment of the import of Mr. Crawford’s remarks.

An Irregular Proceeding

There are many unusual and irregular aspects to the way this sentence was rolled out. One of them is the haste with which it was executed. You might have thought Mr. Crawford was guilty of assault, combined with embezzlement, from the haste in which he was removed from his position of trust and responsibility. The July 20 resolution (item DC 7b) dictated “That the City Attorney work to establish the details of the conclusion of Mr. Crawford’s employment as the City Administrator by the first Council meeting in August”. (This was exactly two weeks from the date of the resolution.) Crawford was to be terminated by September 1. As we noted in our previous post, Rescuing Ann Arbor’s Budget, there were previous indications that Mr. Crawford’s rigorous budget approaches were causing some friction with Mayor Taylor. This timetable of events is certainly suggestive.

The secrecy with which the process was accomplished was pronounced. At some unknown time in May, evidently a small group of employees approached Mayor Christopher Taylor with some complaints. According to the account by CM Briggs (see above), “a meeting was held in late May between Mayor Christopher Taylor, Pro Tem Julie Grand, Mr. Postema, and Mr. Crawford.” The investigator already had a contract in hand when she began her investigation on June 1. She completed her report on June 29. Council held closed (secret) meetings on July 6 and July 12. Mr. Crawford responded to their concerns with a memo (July 13) in which he expressed remorse for his verbal carelessness, gave himself a five-day suspension, and suggested a plan of study to enhance his DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) skills and practice. Sample: Complete the city’s DEI certificate program. The two remaining sessions are Inclusive Leadership and Tips for Talking about Taboo Topics. It was to no avail.

But at least some Councilmembers were concerned about the secrecy and item DC-7 (introduced by CM Ramlawi and CM Griswold) on the July 20 agenda called for release of a redacted version of the Salvatore report to the public, with the stated goal of transparency. It passed, but not without addition (DC 7b) of the call to terminate the City Administrator.

Investigator Jennifer B. Salvatore

There were many procedural irregularities which would have been questioned strongly if any legal proceedings had been involved. (Mr. Crawford was not represented by an attorney, and he did not contest the decision. He brought in an attorney only to negotiate a separation agreement.)

Ralph McKee, a retired attorney with experience in litigation, wrote to Council with  a detailed analysis of the investigation and the sparse explanation given in an “agenda response memo” by HR Director Tom Guajardo. Mr. McKee has generously given us permission to attach his analysis. I recommend that if you have an interest and time, you read McKee’s statement in whole. But this is not a bad summary:

The investigation conducted by attorney Jennifer Salvatore was incomplete, and her investigative report is incomplete, imprecise, internally inconsistent, and logically flawed. It leaves numerous ambiguities and other flaws that undermine its factual conclusions.

Tom Guajardo, Human Resources Director

McKee contrasts this report with the Stark report, which was prepared in 2019 as an investigation of allegations against the former Human Resources Director, Robyn Wilkerson. Like this incident, the issue was about speech attributed to Ms. Wilkerson. It resulted in her resignation and the management of this situation was implicated (informally and by rumor) in the eventual termination of the former Administrator, Howard Lazarus.  This article in the Ann Arbor News contains many of the details. It also identifies the new Human Resources Director, Tom Guajardo, who began work for the City of Ann Arbor on January 25, 2021.

The Wilkerson case has been used as the antecedent for the judgment of Crawford. But there were significant differences in the investigation and report. In the previous case, there were actual text messages that had been retained. There were 25 witnesses, who were known to the investigator but who were identified only by number.  In contrast, the Salvatore report was based only on comments by 5 employees, and there was no textual evidence. McKee comments (excerpted)

The report, unlike many of this type (such as the Stark report) unfortunately does not identify which witnesses made which complaints and/or other statements.  (I am not suggesting that the witnesses interviewed should be identified by name or position, only, as is typical, by number).  So it is impossible to tell, for example, whether one witness made, say, 5 of the complaints, and the other witnesses one each, or whether one of the witnesses made all of the complaints deemed most serious by Salvatore and/or the agenda response memo. 

… Salvatore uses ambiguous terms like “multiple” and “several”, instead of, say, “3” or, better, “witnesses, 1, 2  and 5”.  This results in some pretty confusing possibilities on key points.  First, “several” typically means 3 or more.  Salvatore notes that “several” witnesses (so, 3 or more) said that they didn’t think they could work with Crawford after the complaints (interestingly, the context suggests that either Salvatore discussed other complaints with each of the complaining witnesses or they discussed them with each other), and “several” thought Crawford “meant well”, suggesting that they could still work with him. 

Quoting from the Salvatore report, “While Mr. Crawford denied outright several of the most troubling allegations (i.e., he denied the comment about hiring minorities; the comment about the African American employee; and the use of the term “the blacks”), I do not find Mr. Crawford’s denials in this regard credible, particularly where multiple individuals either heard the comments or heard about the comments at the time.”  But McKee comments

These conclusory comments, particularly re the “most troubling” allegations, are not well supported by Salvatore’s earlier imprecise descriptions of the actual interviews, and Crawford’s denials are pretty strong as to those particular allegations. 

Again, reading the McKee analysis in full is highly recommended. These excerpts miss many important points made in the full analysis.

According to Salvatore’s own description, she interviewed five (only) employees from remote locations via Zoom. She did not record the interviews, but took notes. She does not indicate that she transcribed the interview (which would be a verbatim account), but merely that she “took notes”. As most habitual note-takers will acknowledge, written notes can be taken in a sort of personal shorthand which necessarily are filtered through the note-taker’s own language usage, thus are subject to introduced overtones. This is particularly concerning since she was grouping conclusions from these different individual interviews.

Salvatore’s analysis and conclusions about the veracity of the complaints were startling. While Mr. Crawford denied outright some of the allegations and sought to give explanatory context to some of the others, she chose to dismiss his denials. None of the individuals who reported the comments had any discernible motive to lie about them.” This is a remarkable statement, considering that he was a top manager in the organization and many employees have general gripes and dissatisfaction with management in most organizations. As the longtime financial manager, Mr. Crawford could have made numerous decisions over the years that would cause dissatisfaction. Considering the weight and potential impact of the testimony, she should have sought some additional information.

Finance Department conflicts

Before taking on the role of Administrator, Tom Crawford spent many years as the City of Ann Arbor’s Finance Director (sometimes alluded to as the CFO, in imitation of corporate titles). McKee points out that the Stark report documents serious friction between Finance and Human Resources regarding a payroll system. Since we don’t know who the complainants are, we don’t know what managerial decisions may have affected them at some point. And we learned later that a number of high-ranked employees were considered to be underpaid. As we noted earlier, budgets and fiscal responsibility were a major focus of Mr. Crawford’s administration. The Administrator’s budget passed in May included eliminating some positions and placed limitations on the expanding Sustainability department. In 2020, with the pandemic that had just hit Ann Arbor and the rest of the state, Crawford proposed salary freezes, salary cuts, and held out the possibility of voluntary furloughs. Top officials did take temporary salary cuts, including the Administrator himself. These uncertainties and possible salary reductions would have been sure to cause resentment.

And then, in case her dismissal of any motivation on the part of the employees was not sufficient, Salvatore then makes the startling allegation that Crawford had “memory issues“. Really? Was there a diagnosis offered by a mental health professional? Were there examples that could document this condition?

One can only imagine the course of events if Mr. Crawford had thought to obtain legal counsel. But as it was, he accepted his fate and negotiated a settlement, after which he resigned gracefully with this letter: Crawford Resignation Letter. In the letter, he does not admit to any specific offense but acknowledges that “I have not always been at my absolute best, which I now understand created hurt, distrust and anxiety amongst some staff” and apologizes to those who were affected.

Bypassing Human Resources Director

One of the many irregularities in this process was that the standard accepted means of bringing complaints about behavior (in this case, mostly comments about race issues) within an organization is to take them to the Human Resources department. HR departments generally moderate and investigate such complaints and attempt to determine their veracity and to suggest a course of action, whether it is remedial training, compensation for damages, or termination in extreme cases. In this case, the “investigator” (Salvatore) appeared to play the role of HR, with a series of judgments as to which provision of the HR policies were or were not violated. She also suggested remedial action. More DEI training, a separate DEI administrator (this had already been decided by Council), and

the City should consider incorporating into Mr. Crawford’s annual performance evaluation process a robust 360 review soliciting feedback from Mr. Crawford’s direct reports on his management style and leadership around DEI issues in order to better understand if there are further and additional concerns in this area beyond the issues that have been the subject of this investigation.

(The suggestion of a 360 review seems a sensible solution. These are often conducted in organizations. Anonymous comments on a person’s job performance and behavior are solicited from other employees in every relation to the person being evaluated. So supervisors, peers, and subordinates are invited by a (typically) outside consultant to submit frank evaluations, which are then summarized in such a way as to avoid identification of the commenters. This presumably gives a well-rounded perspective.)

Ms. Salvatore does not suggest termination, and the general tone of the conclusions appears to indicate that this is a fixable problem.

The new HR Director, meanwhile was left completely out of the loop. The justification given by CM Briggs is that They (the complainants) did not bring these concerns to the HR Director because the HR Director reports to the City Administrator.  This is disrespectful to both men. It assumes that Mr. Crawford would take punitive action, and that Tom Guajardo is incapable of managing this situation as any HR professional would.

A Last-Minute Intervention

As stated here, the Salvatore report did not suggest termination, and instead offered means by which the future behavior and performance of the Administrator could be ameliorated. There was no particular basis for the Council to fire him, based on this report. The last tool available was to bring in the Human Resources Director, who up to now had not been involved.

The agenda for July 20 included an item (DC-7) that would make the Salvatore Report public, with redactions, as well as Tom Crawford’s July 13 memo apologizing and promising to amend his own actions. The item was introduced by CM Ali Ramlawi and Kathy Griswold, in an effort to bring public transparency to what had so far been a secret discussion. But at the last minute, an amendment to this resolution, sponsored by Mayor Taylor and CM Erica Briggs, Jen Eyer and Linh Song, was offered.  It contained these phrases:

RESOLVED, That the City Attorney work to establish the details of the conclusion of Mr. Crawford’s employment as the City Administrator by the first Council meeting in August;

RESOLVED, That the City Attorney advise the City Council on relevant details and any necessary agreements concerning the conclusion of Mr. Crawford’s employment as City Administrator before the first meeting in August

The Agenda Response Memo

On Council agendas, it has been customary to include an “Agenda Response Memo” at the beginning of the agenda. This is usually issued by the Administrator in response to Council questions. Generally the answers to specific questions are prepared by appropriate staff, depending on the department to which the inquiry is directed.

At times this period is also used to introduce new staff or to have a staff answer questions in person, if the intent is to allow Council to seek information about a particular program.

In the case of the Crawford termination, an agenda memo appeared on the Council agenda only hours before the actual meeting. It proved to be critical in justifying the termination of Mr. Crawford. The authors were indicated as “John Fournier and Tom Guajardo”.

Note that the title indicates that this is a staff introduction.

A series of emails sent between officials on that very day laid the basis for a Human Resources contribution, which as noted had not been solicited to date. A FOIA initiated by former CM Jack Eaton is excerpted here: Email Thread 7.20.21

The July 20 email thread makes it clear that Mr. Guajardo, who up to now had been excluded from all consideration of this case, was not particularly aware of developments.

  • At 8:29 a.m. Mayor Taylor sent a request to staff: “Please provide information regarding HR policies and practices in the City concerning protected class inappropriate comments or conduct.”
  • Sara Higgins, the staff person who was responsible for arranging the agenda, replied “I will note this as a staff introduction request for agenda item DC-7.”
  • Higgins then emailed the HR director, “I will add you as the contact for this staff introduction request for agenda item DC-7 and I will also send you the meeting request with the Zoom link for the Council meeting.”
  • Guajardo replied, “Sara – Can someone please clue me in as to what DC-7 is? This would probably be good information to have if I am having to speak to it.” 

It is still not quite 9:00 a.m. But at 9:19, John Fournier, the Assistant City Administrator, writes to Higgins, Guajardo, and the City Attorney, Stephen Postema, as well as Margaret Radabaugh, an Assistant City Attorney.

  • Team,
    Let’s let Stephen take the lead on this one. If he sees utility in including Mr. Guajardo, then we will accommodate. But we will defer to him.
    TG, let’s talk about it at 10 am. (TG refers to Guajardo.)

So you will note that having included the HR Director in this discussion, he is now being backed out. At 9:20, Margaret Radabaugh writes to the group:

  • Tom,
    Stephen is going to talk to the Mayor and recommend that the reply be in writing. I am copying Stephen on this email for further guidance (along with John for awareness). (4 lines are redacted here.)
    @Postema, Stephen will be in touch with you on this issue and I am also happy to help. Call anytime.

At 4:21 p.m., Postema writes,

  • Here is final version with edits. I think the request should be added. John is going to add statement that while the request was concerning a late add Resolution , the HR Director was able to provide a written reply.

(So instead of an in-person appearance by the HR Director, where he could have been asked questions, he is represented by a group-edited statement. And it is clear that this course has been steered by Assistant City Administrator John Fournier.)

At 5:09 p.m. (Council meets at 7:00 p.m.), Higgins sends this message: (emphasis added)

Mayor and Council,
Attached is a staff response to an additional July 20 Council Agenda question that was sent to us late. This memo will be included as a written communication from the City Administrator on the July 20th Council Agenda. While normally a late agenda question would be answered as a staff introduction, Mr. Guajardo was able to prepare the answer today in writing and so it is being forwarded in lieu of a verbal briefing.

Thus, rather than a response actually authored by the Human Resources Director under his own guidance, the Council is presented with an authoritative statement at least partially dictated by John Fournier and Stephen Postema. In addition, he is not given the opportunity to appear before Council to answer questions.

Evidently, this tips the balance or at least justifies actions by individual Councilmembers. It contains the following sentence:

My general practice concerning substantiated discriminatory comments would be to recommend to terminate employment immediately (though this could be effectuated by way of a resignation or separation agreement in addition to termination).

Note that this is not a specific recommendation in the Crawford case. It is presented as a hypothetical. Yet this was cited by some CM as the reason they voted to terminate. CM Lisa Disch, for example, wrote: “I cast my vote based on that advice“.

One can only imagine the course of events if Mr. Crawford had thought to obtain legal counsel. But as it was, he accepted his fate and negotiated a settlement, after which he resigned gracefully with this letter: Crawford Resignation Letter. In the letter, he does not admit to any specific offense but acknowledges that “I have not always been at my absolute best, which I now understand created hurt, distrust and anxiety amongst some staff” and apologizes to those who were affected.

The Why of It

There are clearly many questions and items of dispute remaining about Tom Crawford’s dismissal (formally, he resigned instead of being fired, but no one was confused). It will remain a serious disagreement between two factions of Council who must somehow manage to work together. But it is clear that he got what is colloquially known as the “bum’s rush” – ejection without ceremony.  But why? What was the urgency? The alleged reasons are obviously inadequate. He was careless in his language. But he did not demean any individuals, and the hired consultant stated that she did not believe he actually caused any employee trouble with their job.

…the allegations at issue in this investigation did not involve any claim that Mr. Crawford has taken any adverse employment actions based on race, gender or any other protected category. Accordingly, based on the issues that I reviewed, I do not believe that a preponderance of the evidence supports that the City’s Non Discrimination Policy has been violated.

The lack of propriety and fairness in the process used clearly had a strong motivation. What we have just witnessed was a “palace coup”, which is the takeover of a legitimate government by insiders. What did the instigators hope to achieve? There are several possible explanations, some proposed by other people and some we have already put forth.

Mayor Christopher Taylor on Facebook, August 29, 2021

Overriding a FOIA. It has been bandied about that resentment about Crawford’s releasing material that had been denied in the FOIA process. Crawford reversed an earlier decision and released a police report on a matter that embarrassed Jen Eyer, one of the most powerful Councilmembers, who is thought to have far-reaching political aspirations. But Christopher Taylor, in a recent Facebook “town hall” denied that categorically. He stated,

There is one reason why the administrator resigned that is because the administrator’s workplace statements in the areas of minority hiring, race, and LGBT experience that were unacceptable to the workplace – when a leader makes statements of those kinds, the leader’s not in a position to provide leadership to an organization such as ours. That’s just the way it is. That is the beginning and ending of the conversation.

I consider the FOIA incident unlikely as a motivation as well.

Factional hatred and payback for earlier events. There is discussion of this motivation in “Crawford Out” (the Ann Arbor Observer September issue). There were particularly hard feelings about the firing of Howard Lazarus (he also formally accepted a settlement rather than being fired). Lazarus did not get along with the majority in Council following the 2018 election and he was strongly supported by the Taylor faction. The reporter alluded to this in his conclusion. There is no question that the Council was and is divided along factional lines with regard to opinion about the Lazarus issue. Whether Crawford’s termination was directly seen as payback is questionable. However, some of Taylor’s supporters seem fairly certain.

A tweet from one of the frequent #a2council commenters

Power and Money, or Power over Money. There is considerable reason to suppose that this is the motivation behind Crawford’s ouster.

Over Crawford’s long experience with the City as its Finance Director, he always recommended or imposed a strong budget discipline. It was he who introduced many safeguards and understandings of the logic behind the Budget.

The Budget for any government is a legal document that lays out how money may be spent. Typically money is segregated into designated fund compartments, and transfers between them is frowned on. These fund compartments may have either legally constrained revenue sources (for example, grant funding for a particular purpose must not be used for a different purpose), or they simply reflect the will of the Administrator and the Council working together on priorities. Budget battles are often fought over establishing those priorities and the dollar amounts that come with them. Crawford often made a point of Ann Arbor’s structural deficit – the point that our tax base does not match our expenditures. In the recent budget cycle, (see Rescuing Ann Arbor’s Budget) he spoke gloomily of the possible need to dip into reserves or delay contributions to pension funds, for example.

He also stressed the difference between one-time revenue (like the American Rescue Plan [ARP] funds) and recurring revenue. The point was that you could not budget by using one-time money to pay for recurring expenses.

A “kitchen table” analogy would be that if the rent is due, you might manage to pay it this month by selling a few possessions. But when the rent comes due next month, what will you use then? You need to have a regular source of income if you will be able to pay your rent every month.

The total City budget for FY 2022 is about $470.5 million. But that includes many funds that are not accessible for any but their intended purpose (restricted funds). The General Fund, which can be used for discretionary purpose, is only  about $118.2 million. These are the dollars that Council can spend for priorities, including most salaries and favored projects. The ARP is promised to be about $24.2 million. That is about 20% as much as the entire General Fund for the year. But it is clear that Crawford would not have favored using this windfall just to top up this year’s spending. In informal conversation, he mentioned that there should be plans to address some major issue with it, possibly in collaboration with Washtenaw County.

To return to the kitchen table, an unplanned extra sum of money might be used for investment. A new roof, perhaps, and some addition to the savings account. Not too many extra vacations or other treats.

Enter John Fournier

The Assistant City Administrator, John Fournier, was hired by Howard Lazarus to assist with day-to-day responsibilities. This position had never existed in Ann Arbor City government previously. When Lazarus was terminated, Tom Crawford became the Acting Administrator. When Crawford was appointed City Administrator, John Fournier was still in the Assistant position at a salary of $153,000. He has now been made Acting Administrator as of August 16 and is receiving a salary of $223,600. He has not applied for the open position of City Administrator, and the Council has decided to hire an outside candidate as Interim City Administrator, likely to serve until 2023.

Fournier has shown himself willing to step forward and take action. As we have recounted above, he took charge of the agenda item which led to the termination of Tom Crawford. He stepped in to guide the production of the “agenda memo” which was used as justification for the termination. When Elizabeth Nelson suggested that he had written it (because he did sign it), he sent her a stern letter (Fournier letter) reprimanding her and demanding an apology. In the letter, he denies any role in writing the memo itself, but it is obvious from the emails that he was instrumental in seeing that the final document was a group-edited memo rather than a personal appearance by the HR director.

Even before the formal termination date for Crawford, Fournier announced a number of pay raises for top-ranked staff. One of those is the new HR Director, John Guajardo, who was so recently involved in the “termination memo”. As he states in his August 29 memo to Council (Fournier pay memo),

The day after I was appointed to serve as the acting city administrator (n.b., August 18), I asked the human resources director, Mr. Tom Guajardo, to prepare a pay equity analysis of non-union staff. Over the last several weeks I have met with the human resources director, members of the human resources staff, the city’s senior staff leadership, and city attorneys to formulate a response to our pay equity issues.

I think we could regard that as moving with alacrity. Note that some of these salary raises could be as much as $10,000 per year. Only 10 days after being appointed to a temporary position, a rather far-reaching expenditure is proposed. Fournier references a pay equity study done in 2017, though it is not clear how much that has influenced the current decisions.

Tom Crawford, as we have said, is a budget maven and was likely slow to increase salaries for non-union personnel, especially in this last year. Any governmental money manager knows that FTE (full-time equivalents, or employees) are one of the most expensive items in a budget. There are fringe benefits and pension contributions that add to the base salary cost. Over time, an increase in base salary can add volumes to the final expense of an employee. There is a multiplier effect.

Could it be that Crawford, by restraining growth in compensation for already well-paid administrative staff, garnered ill will? This is not an inconsequential question for someone who was just terminated based on anonymous staff complaints. In any event, it is clear that Fournier is not feeling inhibited to spend money.

It is also evident that he is in the catbird seat, at least in the near future. A choice has not yet been made between the candidates for Interim Administrator, and there must surely be at least a month or two before one will be installed. Even then, Fournier will have considerable influence, as “the man on the scene”.

Mayor Taylor, Missy Stults, and A2Zero

Mayor Christopher Taylor has been very, very clear. He is thoroughly committed to the issue of Ann Arbor’s carbon reduction (we’ve promised to be carbon neutral by 2030).  As we have quoted him a number of times, he has basically promised disruption, transformation, a complete change of the way we do business. (See here again.) There are various estimates of how much A2Zero will cost, (here is last year’s: A2Zero Investment Plan ), but it has been said to be roughly $1 billion over 10 years. The City General Fund is only slightly more than $100 million per year ($118 M). This would consume nearly the entire City discretionary budget.

Missy Stults, who was brought on by Howard Lazarus to direct the new department of Sustainability and Innovation, is clearly a very ambitious and pro-active leader who also generally seems to command respect and appreciation. Here is what John Fournier said in his recent memo:

…with three years of hindsight it is clear that Dr. Stults has created an ambitious, transformative, and effective city unit of more than a dozen staff members who are working with partners across the organization and community to create a more sustainable future. I have come to regard her work as essential to the city’s operations, and her unit of government has become a true enterprise function within our organization.

There are only two problems with the broad-ranging A2Zero program (other than its cost). In my estimation, it won’t achieve its goals, and there are no metrics in place to indicate progress toward them. (See our discussion of this.)

And also, many of its elements are either currently illegal under Michigan law, or impractical for other reasons. But then there is also the fact that it would consume almost our entire governmental structure. What services that we have come to expect as a matter of course will be challenged? This is unknown, but not impossible to foresee. Further, our Mayor has repeatedly promised surprises. In the preliminary document provided prior to last year’s Council vote, Stults indicated that some other City departments and programs could be attached and used. For example, Solid Waste and the Stormwater fund. Certainly, if we are spending over half the City Budget on this program, it will be spreading its wings over many functions.

Power unleashed

It seems clear that there is a strong coalition within City Hall that is seeking to gain control of the money, and the control, of many aspects of our City government. Note that the ARP plan, which was supposed to be presented by October 1, is not spoken of. In contrast, the Board of Commissioners has had County-wide discussion and come up with a draft plan. It is admittedly controversial, but appears to be a solid and considered attempt to address priorities. What will happen to our allocation? I would be pleased to hear that Council is considering alternatives. But frankly, I think that A2Zero is able to absorb the entire amount. Mayor Taylor has already put forth the idea of a new millage to further support it, but it has evidently been postponed till next year.


The City of Ann Arbor is in the midst of a very troubling time. It goes far beyond the usual squabbling over unwelcome developments or ordinances. This is an uncertain time for the world, the nation, the states, the people. We have been relatively fortunate in Ann Arbor because of our inherent wealth (in terms of resources) and our well-educated population. We also seem to be fortunate in terms of the weather, compared to many other places. But our governmental structure seems to be dissolving.

One truly dismaying factor is the divisiveness and outright nastiness. Of course, we have had that Greek chorus of #a2council jackals on Twitter for some time. (There is a lot they don’t like about many of us who live here.) But the complete collapse of civility and discourse in our City Council is truly a source of dismay. See Disruption, Dysfunction and Dismay (2). There appears to have been established a culture of character destruction against elected Council members and others who simply have different notions of what the City should supply to its residents, or what its character should be.

Evidently this is a general trend within our culture. A recent essay in the Atlantic Monthly by Anne Applebaum, The New Puritans, describes it with chill-making accuracy. Typically, someone simply uses a term or a turn of phrase that is deemed offensive. Then there is an outcry, a shunning, a dismissal, all without any mediation or search for true meaning. People have lost their jobs, their friends, their reputations, basically through mob action.

This method has now been “weaponized” right here in our little enlightened city. First, there was the destruction of Jeff Hayner (though he still sits on Council). I’m not going to try to argue Jeff’s case here, but at any distance it would have been seen as incredible to have numerous Council actions against him for the injudicious use of two words in quotations, not aimed at any individual.

Having succeeded so well with that, it was evidently determined to use the same tool against our City Administrator. The timing of the complaints was very convenient, and odd. Most of the attributed comments had evidently been made some time ago, perhaps months. Suddenly, as we have already described, five employees chose to meet with the Mayor and complain about a variety of verbal offenses. The meeting occurred just after the City was announced to be receiving a big pot of money. If these two events are not connected, the universe is very strange indeed. And now we are seeing a rapid move to change the allocation of money, since the budget guard is gone.

How can this be happening in Ann Arbor, Michigan? It is hard to comprehend.

UPDATE: We speculated that the American Rescue Plan funds were a major reason for the unceremonious dismissal of Mr. Crawford. Sure enough, a “plan” appeared almost immediately from Acting Administrator John Fournier. This post by CM Elizabeth Nelson sheds some light on how that happened.

SECOND UPDATE: (March 18, 2022) The City of Ann Arbor has announced that the resolution to appropriate funds from the ARPA Covid relief monies distributed by the Federal Government will be acted upon at the April 4, 2022 Council meeting. Here are the recommendations from the Administration  ( ARPA 2022 ).

THIRD UPDATE: The City Council approved the final dispensation of the ARPA funds on April 6, 2022. Here is the web page that outlines the items in detail. The new City Administrator, Mr. Dohoney, is to be commended for the public participation sought in this process.

There were many adjustments and changes made to the original list provided by John Fournier.  One outstanding change was the shift to housing and human services. $4.5 million was designated for housing and $1.68 million to the human services (social safety net) fund managed by Washtenaw County. These are certainly appropriate to the intended use of ARPA (to soften the blow of the COVID pandemic).  A total of $6.5 million was directed to A2Zero priorities (including transportation). Two items are questionable in budgetary terms, $3.5 million for “unarmed response” (alternative to 911 for emergency calls) and $1.6 million for a Universal Basic Income pilot. There is no obvious source of funding for these new programs in the future and under budgetary discipline one would not expect to see a one-time pool of money used to create programs that will possibly be orphans in the future. There were also a couple of good solid infrastructure allocations (as one would have expected with a one-time windfall). Galvanized Water Line replacement $2 million; Gallup Park Bridge $2.3 million; and an improved City Clerk facility $1 million were all the sort of one-time investments that will have long-lasting effects.

The City Budget is a much larger subject than this one fund, however. It will take some watching under the new regime. The declaration that “there is no structural deficit” is going to take some study, especially since this year’s budget used a withdrawal from reserve funds to balance.


NOTE: Readers should know that comments are moderated on this site. In the past, all comments were automatically posted but some people made unacceptable comments and forced me into moderation.

I will not be allowing any more comments about the Jeff Hayner situation unless they have new information (not rumors) or excellent insight. These comments are generally not productive.


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

August 1, 2021

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.




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

August 1, 2021

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.






Factions, Frictions and Futures: Election Time in Ann Arbor

July 28, 2020

Endorsing candidates for all five City Council seats in Ann Arbor. Ward 1: Anne Bannister. Ward 2: Jane Lumm. Ward 3: Tony Brown. Ward 4: Jack Eaton. Ward 5: David Silkworth. Here’s why.

Ann Arbor’s Democratic primary election on August 4, 2020 is probably going to be the most consequential election in Ann Arbor for the near future. By choosing a new City Council, voters will also be choosing a future path for the City, and depending on the outcome, there will be no going back.  Although we have always had agendas and differences, there has rarely been a divergence so sharply defined.

What is at stake?

Although there are many themes and questions (how can we deal with housing affordability? what about the roads? taxes – who should pay? what about Climate Change!), this election is simply about power.  It is about votes and whether Mayor Christopher Taylor controls them. It is about the direction and purpose that our civic body, the City of Ann Arbor, will take, and how that will affect its various constituencies. So while we have 10 likely candidates running for 5 seats (and really, they are all good and sincere people with minds of their own) – the question for Ann Arbor voters is – which faction do we want to win?

Lately several articles have attempted to define these factions. The most recent article about the election on MLive is my pick for the time being: “Disrupters vs. Defenders“. The Ann Arbor Observer likes to point to the Back to Basics Caucus, while Taylor’s Slate is the Activist Coalition. In his recent well-received blog post Sam Firke used the terms Protectors and Strivers. (In each case, the Taylor faction is in red, while those who oppose the direction he is taking the City are in blue.) If you ask any of these candidates whether they are members of a faction, they are likely to declare that they are independent thinkers with individual viewpoints, but reality says that we are choosing between two boats with different crews.

Regardless of which name you apply to the faction, Disrupters (who are Taylor’s candidates) will support his agenda for a complete change in the form and governance of Ann Arbor. He will continue to promote development and density, with a view to exploiting the high value of Ann Arbor’s real estate. If the result is displacement of the current residents, that is not all bad. He is fond of words like “transformative”, and “disruptive”, and often his initiatives are couched in broad visionary terms alluding to such liberal objectives as racial equity, housing for the “most vulnerable”, or preventing climate change. He is fond of soaring rhetoric. From his letter introducing A2Zero:

We recognize that this is an ambitious goal, but we know that Ann Arborites have the passion, intellect, creativity, and the compassion necessary to see it met. To be clear, 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.

Taylor’s Slate can be expected to carry out his promise of Disruption, though you will not find any of them using that term. If Taylor regains a Council supermajority, there will indeed be a whirlwind through our City, especially in terms of development and growth initiatives.

A central theme is the elimination of single-family zoning throughout the City. Although Taylor denies in the recent MLive article that this is his intention, this was the effect of the A2Zero language he endorsed. In the article discussing the campaign, he offers some vague reference to a future Master Plan revision process. (For a review of this, see our post, The Master Plan and Ann Arbor Emergent.   This planning process has been put on hold for budgetary reasons for the present.) But read the comments from the Slate. Lisa Disch was perhaps the most forthright about the concept. Here are her comments as reported in that recent MLive article.

Many who live in single-family homes in Ann Arbor are benefiting from a building boom that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, Disch said, adding it was surely disruptive then. It will be disruptive today to go through another boom, Disch said, but those who enjoy the benefits of homeownership owe it to future generations “to give back and to accept disruption and change as part of what makes a city thrive.” Disch said she’s concerned it’s illegal to build anything but single-family homes in much of Ann Arbor. “Single-family housing is not only the most expensive housing, it’s also the most energy-intensive,” she said. “And so we need to change our zoning codes to allow for more diverse forms of housing throughout the city.”

(Note: Disch is incorrect that single-family zoning makes it “illegal” to build anything but single-family homes. The zoning simply imposes restrictions regarding setbacks and lot sizes. Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are already permitted in R1 zones, with restrictions. See our discussion of single-family zoning in this post. Also, many other R zones are designed to accept duplexes or other additional structures and there are areas where this is prevalent.)

The Defenders, on the other hand, in general support the wishes of current residents to have the City government provide a continuity of community and maintain a level of services and protections that empower residents to continue Ann Arbor as their home.

Here are my chosen candidates’ views in their own voices (copied from their campaign websites, which are linked to their names):

Anne Bannister (Ward 1)

There are significant debates in Ann Arbor that you all need to be aware of: How much density is appropriate for Ann Arbor? Should neighborhoods be up-zoned to allow the replacement of single-family homes with apartment buildings? I believe those decisions should be up to neighborhood residents and should not be imposed by city government. I promote community involvement in the upcoming Master Plan Revision, giving the citizens a voice in shaping future development to meet the needs of all of us.

Jane Lumm (Ward 2)

I’ve also worked hard to increase meaningful resident and neighborhood engagement in decision making. That, too, will be especially important going forward as the city considers major policy questions on land use and zoning as well as in the necessary prioritization of scarce financial resources.

  • Opposed provisions of A2Zero Plan permitting apartment buildings and mixed uses in any single-family neighborhood

Tony Brown (Ward 3)

I support a community-oriented approach to neighborhood vitalization that keeps pace with our city’s modest growth. Ann Arbor’s downtown is an important part of our city, but within a much larger picture. Ann Arbor is its neighborhoods: Burns Park, Pittsfield Village, The “Woods,” Lower Burns Park. Ann Arbor city government must continue to invest in, improve and maintain the parts of our city where the majority of our residents live.

Jack Eaton (Ward 4)

Jack promotes development and City policies that generate public benefit. He negotiated affordable housing contributions from a developer and works closely with neighbors and developers to achieve positive outcomes. Many of the problems the City has had in the recent past are due to our economic success. Housing shortages, congested streets and flooding are the consequence of rapid growth. Jack believes the recession provides the City with an opportunity to seek economic equilibrium, where growth does not outpace our ability to improve our infrastructure.

David Silkworth (Ward 5)

Our affordable housing problem won’t be solved by simply increasing density with quadraplexes and ADUs in single-family residential neighborhoods. The solutions, and yes that’s plural, will only come from everyone working together, including developers, realtors, bankers, non-profit foundations, and politicians to create housing that is affordable for low- and middle-income folks. We can’t just keep building more market rate housing for upper-income people.

Since I am not attempting to provide an unbiased assessment of the two sets of candidates, I will not attempt to further characterize the viewpoints of the Slate individually here, though they are quoted extensively by MLive.

Adding up the numbers

Here are the power dynamics in the Ann Arbor City Council. There are 2 Council Members in each ward (10 in all). Then there is the Mayor. This is a total of 11 voting members. The Mayor has limited powers, but one of them is the veto.

As we described in this post, Taylor has had a rough time of it lately. He went from a supermajority (8 votes, which are required for certain high-consequence decisions, including purchase or sale of City property) in 2016 to a majority of 7 votes in 2017 (enough to pass most resolutions) to a disastrous 4 votes with the wave election of 2018. Now that we have Council elections only on even-numbered years, this (2020) is his first chance to recover the power that allows him to pass his full agenda without impediment. Currently, the Defenders have 7 votes, which means they are able to pass resolutions (most require 6 votes), but Taylor can veto them, which he has been doing more and more freely. Since it requires 8 votes to overturn a veto, the two groups are currently at a standoff.

The T-shirt for Taylor’s Slate. It has been seen out and about.

Two of Taylor’s reliable CM (Ackerman and Smith) are not running for re-election. That means that he will have only 2 votes unless he takes all or most of the seats currently being contested. Three of the Defenders (Lumm, Bannister, Eaton) are running for re-election. If they retain their seats but no others, the situation will continue in the standoff (7-4), since Hayner, Griswold, Ramlawi, and Nelson usually vote with the Defenders. Just one more victory (Silkworth in the 5th Ward, Brown in the 3rd) will mean 8 votes for the Defenders, which will seriously cripple Taylor’s ability to push his own agenda without a consensus. He really, really needs the entire Slate to win.

This need above all to win has been evident in the way the campaign has been waged. This is not a polite debate on issues. Forces have been gathered and weapons have been put into action.

The No-Holds-barred Campaign

Taylor’s direct involvement: For some time now, Taylor and his surrogates have been denigrating the very character of his opponents. He sent out an email to supporters with seven points about the incumbents’ record, all of which refer to particular disagreements but none of which are accurate. Unfortunately each of these would require almost a blog post in itself to explain the details and decisions involved. Here is just one:  “Voting no on affordable housing“. In fact, the incumbents have voted for numerous affordable housing initiatives, including non-profits’ projects, extra funding for affordable housing, a plan for using the old Y lot for affordable housing, and a request for the Housing Commission to evaluate City properties for affordable housing. They also voted for the pledge that Council passed unanimously. I suspect that the Mayor is still sore about Core Spaces (it had a few units in its plan). But as phrased, this is simply a lie; it can’t even be dressed up as “misstated” or inaccurate. His phrasing has been repeated by several commenters and bloggers on social media without modification.

Campaign contributions: The Slate has been blessed with generous campaign contributions. (This information is available on the Washtenaw County Campaign Finance database.) They received in total more than twice the contributions than the Defenders. Jane Lumm, who has been cultivating her donors through many campaigns, was the only one who received an approximately equivalent sum. (Jack Eaton loaned his campaign $10,000, which makes his figures illusory.) Linh Song made very substantial contributions to her own campaign. Note that these figures are for the entire election cycle, so include some contributions from 2019. Many of the contributions to the Disruptors were at the top allowed figure of $1000.

Total contributions for each candidate

But that is not all the assistance they received. At least one PAC (political action committee) was also active. Inspire Michigan, which is a PAC run by Ned Staebler (Staebler is from a Michigan political dynasty and is an active commenter on social media), is the funding source for the Michigan Talent Agenda. This organization has been active in Ann Arbor politics since at least 2014, which is when Christopher Taylor first succeeded John Hieftje. They are dedicated to bringing “talent” (think tech) into Ann Arbor for economic development purposes. This year they hired Change Media Group, which describes itself this way:

“Sophisticated targeting techniques allow us to ensure the right message reaches the right people at the right time, and gets results. We specialize in integrating digital, social, mobile, and more into comprehensive multi-channel campaigns that are proven to drive results.”

One outcome was a postcard that endorsed Lisa Disch, Jen Eyer, and Erica Briggs. There were other activities, as revealed by their Expediture Report filed with the Michigan Secretary of State. Many of the items in that report are payments to Facebook. They are notated as “oppose Jane Lumm” “oppose John Eaton” “support Jen Eyer” “support Lisa Disch” “support Erica Briggs”. Evidently the sophisticated targeting made use of Facebook algorithms. (I never saw any of them.)

Postcard from the Michigan Talent Agenda.

What is the agenda?

There are a number of specific call-outs on Taylor’s agenda, which are reflected in the positions of his Slate. Many if not most of them are directly linked to the wish to upzone Ann Arbor, and specifically to eliminate single-family zoning. We provided a lengthy discussion of that issue in our previous post. Briefly, here is our summary of the argument advanced by Taylor’s supporters.

By allowing greater density in the many parts of Ann Arbor that are still single-family, housing will become more affordable. As a consequence of this, it will also become more racially diverse and more economically equitable. (Because a unit in a quadplex is smaller and presumably more affordable, and also because it is presumed that more supply will reduce the effect of demand.) This is often signaled as “inclusive”. Also, because people who could formerly not afford to live in Ann Arbor can live close to work and take transit or use bikes, we can reduce the carbon load. Young people who have not been able to afford a house in expensive Ann Arbor can finally have a home (but not a single-family house) near the core and escape expensive rents.

A great many people, especially the frustrated and sometimes angry young (Millennials, etc.), have bought into this argument. It can be dismantled piece by piece, but not in this blog post.

Kingsley Condominiums. Price range $450,00 to $1,755,000

As indicated in the candidates’ statements, the Defenders don’t buy it. They recognize that these changes are likely to lead to displacement of current residents. A theme that one sees in social media is a suggestion that people who are squatting on single-family parcels would do well to sell out and move elsewhere. Transformative. Disruptive. Indeed. But the result will not be what many of its hopeful supporters believe. An advantage of this agenda is that it will release the untapped value in Ann Arbor real estate. There is wealth to be earned. We have seen what has happened in the neighborhoods near the core, where most parcels were formerly occupied by single-family houses or small apartments, and now host large expensive condominium complexes. This is what density looks like. But it is not affordable.

Ann Arbor – Tree City

As I see it, the Defenders will support change and all the progressive ideals that we share with most of the people involved in Ann Arbor’s civic affairs. But the issue of upzoning with its destruction of Ann Arbor’s neighborhoods is off the table. The Master Plan revision coming up in another several months or a year will involve full community input and review, and it will not displace the current residents of the city. Ann Arbor will continue to be the place we all made home.

Special note: It may not be obvious from coverage of the campaign, and he doesn’t make an issue of it, but the candidate for 3rd Ward, Tony Brown, is a lifelong Ann Arbor resident who is Black. He is also a well-informed long-time journalist who is familiar with the issues of the day and who speaks to them cogently and with great articulation. Isn’t it time we had a person of color on our Council? He could provide the type of leadership we have been missing.

Important information about the election: The Ann Arbor primary election is on August 4, 2020. Polls will be open for physical voting, with appropriate safeguards for physical distancing. If you prefer to vote by absentee ballot, it is highly recommended that you use the convenient drop boxes at City Hall (301 Huron St., Ann Arbor). The Clerk’s office is open on Saturday, August 1, from 8:00 to 4:00. Voters may request an absentee ballot (no reason is necessary), vote by turning in that ballot, and/or register to vote on that day. (Did we mention that we have a City Clerk, Jacqueline Beaudry, who has won awards for being a superlative Clerk?)  Vote as you like. But vote.

UPDATE: MLive has an article today (July 30, 2020) which is unfortunately behind a paywall. I subscribe but their use of “exclusive” for election-related coverage is questionable for what is our last local paper. The article is a good one, though. It reviews the campaign donations for the two factions and accurately points out the high proportion of development interests who have donated to the Taylor slate.

CONCLUSION: The Slate won handily. One has to say that the voters have clearly chosen the view of the future presented by the Mayor and in November Ann Arbor will have a different governing body. All incumbents were defeated. Here is a news report.

EPILOGUE: On a recent Friday (the 13th of November), new Council Members were sworn in. They immediately announced their intention to “densify” the city, in many cases by overturning decisions that were made in the previous term. Here is a key section, quoting Mayor Taylor in the MLive article.

Political opponents and critics have worried the new council will act to eliminate single-family zoning in the city, though Taylor earlier this year called that “classic election nonsense.”

Still, Taylor and his allies have made clear they support increased housing density and growth, and some have said they want to facilitate a broader community conversation about how the city is zoned through a master plan review process, including taking a look at what some call the racist history of single-family zoning.

“We have to have a reckoning with our past history,” Song said on the campaign trail. “What City Council can do is think about more inclusive zoning, talk about more dense housing, actually speak to and work towards affordable housing so that we have the diverse community I think that we expect from Ann Arbor.”

Disruption in Ann Arbor: It’s a Promise. (2)

July 12, 2020

In our previous post, Disruption in Ann Arbor: It’s a Promise (1), we discussed the oncoming primary election in which Mayor Taylor has put forth a Slate with a unified message. In particular, he has been promising some major changes in Ann Arbor for months, using the signal word “Disruption“. We concluded:

The message is very clear. No more business as usual. A different community. And most of all, more density. Whether we like it or not. As Taylor has experienced more and more barriers to his direction-setting for the City of Ann Arbor, he has grown more and more shrill. And the key factor appears to be density. Why is that?

Density and Development

There is quite a history of the effort to develop Ann Arbor more intensely. Tall buildings downtown were an issue for a long time. Here is a nice history of Tower Plaza. For a long time it was the tallest thing downtown. Several historic districts were formed just to keep this sort of thing from happening again (one reason our Main Street is so attractive). But starting in 2003 with the Downtown Residential Task Force (sponsored by the Downtown Development Authority, which had just been granted a 30-year charter), there was a push to bring dense high-rises downtown.  This entailed changing the zoning code. The Ann Arbor Discovering Downtown (A2D2) process, beginning in 2006, accomplished that. But first there was a major push to educate and inform Ann Arbor citizens about all the ins and outs of intense development downtown. A well-known consultant, Peter Calthorpe, presided over a mapping exercise where we residents sat at tables and put little stickers where we thought more density could work. The discussion is described here, in an article from the Ann Arbor Observer (2005) Our Town vs. Big City . The Calthorpe report was, in fact, not much followed in future planning.  It makes for interesting reading to see what might have been. Now our downtown is scarcely recognizable from what it was only a little less than 20 years ago. Ryan Stanton of the Ann Arbor News has been doing a good series to describe these changes, including this article.

ADDENDUM: Evidently Tower Plaza is still the tallest building downtown. I haven’t actually made a census of the rash of high-rises. But I was probably thinking of the planned 19-story high-rise that was approved last December. But now that project (to be constructed on Washington, behind the Michigan Theater) is on pause because of the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ll see if Mr. Frehsee’s optimism is warranted.

The Library Lot

Rendering of proposed Core Spaces building as proposed to Council.

Downtown was the location of a recent battle between the densifiers (development advocates) and residents. The Library Lot (LL) has been a key focus of the competition for the future of Ann Arbor and its use by its own citizens for years. We reviewed that in Core Spaces and The Soul of Ann Arbor. Taylor’s Council supermajority voted on April 17, 2017 to sell the development rights for the LL to a developer, Core Spaces, to build a 17-story building. It was important that Taylor had the 8-vote majority because it takes 8 votes to approve certain types of City action, including the sale of City property. But note: this was not the final sale. There were still numerous steps to go through, including a site plan approval and a final sale contract. In August 2017, Anne Bannister was elected to fill Sabra Briere’s former Ward 1 seat. (Jason Frenzel was appointed by Taylor to fill it when Briere left, and he was that vital 8th vote.) So upon her seating in November 2017, a new Council was sworn in and Taylor no longer had his supermajority. On May 31, 2018, Taylor and City Administrator Lazarus signed the Agreement of Sale with CBRE, the developer for Core Spaces’ building. But Taylor failed to bring this contract to City Council, and instead signed it on their behalf. On June 18, 2018, two Council members, Sumi Kailaspathy and Anne Bannister, filed suit against the City, the Mayor, and the City Administrator (the Clerk was also named, as she was required to sign the document) on the basis that this was an illegal contravention of the City Charter requiring the Council to vote on all such sales of city property. Kailaspathy was on the previous Council (and did not vote for the initial resolution) and Bannister represented the new Council, sworn in as of November the previous year. (This lawsuit is the reason that some campaign materials accuse Bannister of having sued the City.) The lawsuit was finally settled with a Council vote on January 22, 2019. The settlement prohibits the City from selling the development rights to the LL.

After an effort of many months to collect signatures, in May, 2018, a couple of citizens’ committees finally submitted petitions to place a measure on the ballot for the November, 2018 election that would prohibit the sale of the Library Lot and cause it to be made into a public area (a commons or park). This was obviously a cause for alarm on the part of Taylor and others who firmly supported the Core Spaces’ building. (Note that the contested contract signing occurred after these petitions were submitted.) The battle was now truly on, with committees forming on both sides of the issue, which became known as Proposal A.  Voters for A Responsible Ann Arbor included many recognizable Taylor supporters among their contributors, including, notably, current Council candidate Linh Song, who donated $5000 to the cause of defeating Proposal A. Ann Arbor Central Park Ballot Committee similarly received donations from many Taylor opponents, including current CM Anne Bannister. Most of those donations were modest, excepting the $7200 (in several separate donations) from the long-time stalwart supporter of a Central Park, Mary Hathaway (now deceased).

There was quite a concerted effort to defeat the ballot proposal. Apart from the campaign committees, a number of prominent citizens spoke up on both sides of the issue. Linh Song was highly visible in the opposition, as was YIMBY spokesperson Jessica Letaw. The Washtenaw Housing Alliance, a non-profit headed by real estate broker (and former Council member) Sandi Smith, came out very strongly against the proposal. And of course, Christopher Taylor himself sent out a message to supporters urging the proposal’s defeat. When the voters approved the measure by 53% in November 2018, Taylor described it as a “gut punch”. (It can’t have helped that he also lost his majority on Council in the August primary.)

Why was this such a devastating loss? It was the money. The lot was to be sold for $10 Million. Half this cash was to go into the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, thus it was a big payday for affordable housing advocates, especially Jennifer Hall, the Housing Commission director who has taken the lead on most such programs. The other $5 Million was to buy back the Y lot (later the Council simply borrowed the money).  But a $10 Million (or more) addition to the tax base, once the building was complete, would have served as a great addition to the General Fund. In his plea to voters, Taylor estimated this as $600,000 per year. But also, this was a defeat in showing that the mood of the voters was not entirely complicit with the development program.

Eliminating Single-Family Zoning

The initial impetus behind the downtown density explosion was, ultimately, the need to provide for housing for the huge inflow of students to the University of Michigan. This has been nicely documented until recently by Ryan Tobias, the publisher of the blog TreeDownTown. His 2018 post explained how the downtown density has just kept up with growth in student enrollment. We are waiting anxiously for an update. And of course the COVID-19 pandemic may have an effect on that demand that we can only speculate about at this point.

Most recently, the focus has been on density in residential areas of the city.  The current zoning and master planning for the city has resulted in large areas zoned for single-family housing (especially the R1A classification). The Strivers have been emulating efforts in other cities, including Minneapolis, to eliminate single-family zoning in order to permit more densely built housing (sometimes called “missing middle” housing, referring to duplex, triplex, or quadplex buildings) in traditionally single-family neighborhoods.

This effort has been given voice by a group who were self-named YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard). This has been a nationwide movement, brought to Ann Arbor by DDA board member and housing advocate Jessica Letaw. She opened up a Facebook page under the name A2YIMBY. The theme has been simple and straightforward: Build more densely, increase the supply of housing, housing becomes more affordable and therefore more equitable. YIMBY was a term chosen to counter the NIMBY label (Not In My Back Yard), a pejorative often used against people who simply want to keep their neighborhoods intact. But lately the YIMBY term has itself become a pejorative.  Recently, the YIMBY Facebook page has changed its name to Ann Arbor Humans Who Wonk. (Try putting that into an acronym.)

Neighbors for More Neighbors sign being distributed in Ann Arbor

Another group that is emulating efforts by advocates elsewhere is Neighbors for More Neighbors. This appears to have sprouted from Minneapolis as well. Our local group has its Facebook page and has produced signs and other material. It also has a Twitter feed. But it is not obvious who is behind it. No actual persons’ names have been used. Yet the group is taking on a shadow identity. NFMN also signed on to the Washtenaw Housing Alliance pledge to seek affordable housing in the county. This from an organization without any identified principals. It is not listed as a PAC in the Washtenaw County campaign finance pages. Perhaps all this would be less noteworthy if its signs were not showing up on lawns joined with the Slate’s campaign signs. Someone is putting substantial effort and money into it. But who? Note that campaign signs like this cost approximately $1000 per 250 signs.

Finally, a clue. NFMN held a “kickoff” on March 24 at BLØM Meadworks. Here is the announcement.

The little note says it is a special project sponsored by the Washtenaw Housing Alliance. But the “project” is not mentioned on the WHA site itself. And what does “sponsored” mean? Is WHA using its own funds to pay for the signs and other expenses? WHA is a 501(c)3 nonprofit (this information is buried inside a recent financial report). So they should not be using funds to support candidates. But are they? Perhaps not. It’s just that their signs cohabit many lawns with the Slate’s campaign signs.

It was initially thought that abolition of single-family zoning would be accomplished via the Master Plan process. The Master Plan is specifically mentioned in A2Zero. Here is some background about the effort to embark on a new Master Plan. In that post, I speculated that it was about eliminating single-family zoning in our city (though the RFP does not specify that). However, the Master Plan required substantial funding for a consultant to take us through the process. That has been “deferred” in the new City budget planning because of the COVID-19 crisis, which has caused a considerable shortfall. The price tag (initially $500,000) has been subtracted from expenditures for the near term.

Density in Ann Arbor’s Residential Neighborhoods

So why is there such a push for density in our residential neighborhoods? The answer keeps changing. Early on, we were all concerned about suburban sprawl. The townships around us were turning into tract developments. It was simple economics. Farmers got old and their property was worth more for development than to farm. It was seen as their 401K. After several attempts to pass land-protecting measures at the County level, the Ann Arbor Greenbelt millage was accepted by Ann Arbor voters (2003). As explained at the time, it was to keep down sprawl and also prevent congestion from the new homeowners who would be commuting into Ann Arbor. Unfortunately, after it passed we were presented with an unwelcome linkage – it was claimed by development interests that we had also voted for density! (That was not on the ballot, nor on the campaign material.) So ever since, it has been claimed that we must develop densely in Ann Arbor in order to prevent sprawl.

Then we came into the Placemaking age. As we explained in The Placemaking Agenda and Ann Arbor Politics, economic development in Ann Arbor was tied to lifestyle issues. These were important to attract “talent” (read, tech workers). These young people like downtown action, biking to work, and a generally condensed and readily accessible lifestyle. So we were to remodel our core neighborhoods to fit these needs. This general push seems to have worked, in that new companies and enterprises have succeeded in building an increased demand for near-downtown housing.

For the last couple of years, the YIMBY argument of the need to increase supply in order to make housing more affordable has been the dominant argument. This has continued despite the lack of any evidence that it has worked here in Ann Arbor (or really, anywhere that has a similar real estate value situation). As old houses in near-downtown neighborhoods like Kerrytown or Water Hill come down, expensive condominiums go up. They are typically occupied by wealthy retirees or affluent employees of the UM or downtown companies. But still, the YIMBYs hope that somehow by increasing supply, the younger members of our community can achieve a lower rent, or homeownership.

Note: “affordable” means many different things to different people. There is a well-accepted rule that no household should spend more than 30% of their total annual income on housing. This ceiling has long been exceeded for many, including relatively affluent households. For lower-income households, there is limited subsidized housing in which the cost is held below the market value by grant programs. This housing is often what is meant by “affordable housing”. But for many people whose income is below the median, but does not match the thresholds for subsidized housing, “affordable” simply means a place where they can afford to live. Unfortunately, most market-based housing in Ann Arbor does not match that need.

While the subject of this current post touches on affordability, it is not intended as the major topic. There is a thirst in the community to discuss affordability, but this post is meant to make a different point.

Our Housing Commission Director, Jennifer Hall, has of late been bringing up the timely racial angle. She presented all our Council members with a copy of the book, The Color of Law. The book has an excellent summary of past history in recounting how Federal law, mortgage policy, and activity such as “redlining” and covenants in housing developments actively and knowingly discriminated against African Americans in housing. Her conclusion has been that single-family housing (because it was the result of zoning decisions during that time) is racially discriminatory on its face, including today. Recently she administered a scolding to Council members on this basis. (She is referring to neighbors of 415 W. Washington.)

The very latest wrinkle has been nicely summarized by UM professor Jonathan Levine. (Dr. Levine’s special field is transportation planning.) His recent op-ed in the Michigan Daily has drawn in climate change as a reason to increase density, with a good dose of racial equity thrown in. The premise is that with denser housing (more dwelling units), fewer commuters will be traveling by automobile into the city, and instead will use mass transit or non-motorized travel (i.e., bicycle or walking) to work. He was writing the piece in support of the A2Zero Plan, recently approved (June 1, 2020). In the earlier version (2.0) of the plan,  eliminating single-family zoning was identified as a method of moving Ann Arbor toward “carbon neutrality”. Although single-family housing is not identified, the phrase “by right” means that the zoning restrictions involved would be lifted.

As a compromise during the Council deliberation of the plan (June 1, 2020), this language was modified (Strategy 4.5 Diversity of Housing) to remove the key phrase “by right”, though most of the language of that section remains confusingly the same (it is not clear how the objectives will be met since the actual mechanism is no longer specified).

In recent social media posts (7/11/20), Taylor has stated flatly that “I don’t propose that we eliminate single family zoning. ” It appears that he is literally correct. However, he has been a forceful proponent of the A2Zero plan as originally drafted (see above), even writing the introductory letter to the plan, in which he stated “carbon neutrality means that we must adopt new land use strategies.”  In using that phrase “by right”, the zoning changes proposed would eliminate single-family zoning. Explanation follows.

What is single-family zoning?

The definition of zoning districts is contained within the Unified Development Code (Chapter 55).  “Single-family” refers to one of the R1 districts (see this table). The differences between R1A, R1B, R1C, R1D and R1E are basically the required lot size and the required setbacks. There is also a height limit. More than one building can be present, but it must adhere to the setbacks and the minimum distance between buildings. In practical terms, this means one house per lot for most lots.

If the provisions of the original A2Zero plan were followed, presumably these setbacks and area limitations would resemble those for multiple family districts. Note that while R1A requires a total of 20,000 square feet per dwelling unit, R4A requires only 4, 300 SF per unit. While the front setback for R1A must be 40 feet, for R4A it is 15 feet. So as long as new construction obeyed those limits, many more dwelling units could be built in an existing single-family lot. This is what is meant by “by right”: it is implied permission to build whatever you like as long as the restrictions for that zoning code are followed. The actual setbacks, height, etc. would have to be determined through a planning process if this change really took place.

City Place student apartments. They took the place of historic houses on S. 5th Ave. Not exactly the character of the neighborhood.

Single-family zoning does not actually guarantee one little house on a lot. The zoning code is actually more flexible than that. Unfortunately, from the neighborhood viewpoint, too flexible. Some of the zoning classifications (R2A and R4C) allow a modest number more of units to be built on a “single-family” lot, but restrain them in size and setback. But the lots can be combined and this changes the parameters of any planned development (remember, it’s all about the setbacks). We saw this completely played out with the City Place fiasco. This is a development on South Fifth Avenue where a single developer (Alex de Parry) owned a whole row of historic houses which had been rentals for years. The neighborhood was just beginning to be recolonized by homeowners and the lovely old houses to be fixed up. City Council went through months of debate before de Parry simply claimed “by right” to build a dense development on his combined lots. By combining lots, he was able to defeat many of the safeguards in the setbacks and area limitations and the result was a student-style development in a residential neighborhood. Some of the residents moved away and many historic structures were lost. It should be noted that the original structures, though somewhat deteriorated, were already serving the need for student housing and were more affordable. In other words, less profitable. Meanwhile, this had the effect of displacing a whole neighborhood. There was outrage about this, and a committee was formed to examine the role of R2A and R4C zoning. They produced a report after months of productive work. Oddly, the recommendations in the report were then and are still now ignored by the Planning Commission.

So how would this be handled if we abolished single-family housing by changing the zoning code to something like R4A? The proponents imagine tidy little duplexes, triplexes, and quads tucked in amid single homes, with relatively little change to the character of the neighborhood. But what provision will there be to administer a case where several parcels are combined? How large a complex might then be built in a block of formerly single-family homes?

Who benefits from development in residential zones?

Regardless of which explanation you chose for the abstract benefits of increased density, there are many interests who benefit directly (in monetary terms) by development. Let’s assume that we have a half-acre lot in a single-family zoned neighborhood. Under provisions of something like R4A zoning, this could hold 4 units (attached or not). Now, if the original owner continues to live in the house on that lot, they are not really of a lot of value to most other people. Yes, they will pay their taxes. They’ll buy goods, we hope locally. They’ll employ local services. They might even make donations to local charities. But frankly, pretty much of a dead letter in terms of bringing a lot of money into the pool. It is even worse for people who have lived here for some years. Because of Michigan Proposal A, there are limitations on how much property taxes for residential homeowners can increase from year to year. The taxable value (TV) can increase only 5% a year, or inflation, whichever is lower (inflation has been lower through most of the life of this law). So a nice little neighborhood of long-term residents essentially becomes a little tax-evasion garden, from the viewpoint of taxing authorities. Once the property is sold, it is taxed at its current value. Avoiding this “pop-up” tax is a major influence in keeping neighborhoods static. And, more troublesome, those residents persist in requesting services, which can get to be costly.

Development has a wide set of beneficiaries. Right up there at the top is the taxing authority, and also the people who actually get to spend those tax monies. The City Council and Mayor, City Administration, and career staff need money to fulfill various visions and projects. With everyone set in place, it mostly gets wasted providing services.

New development is much sought after for that reason. This answer to the pertinent question during the latest budget discussion illustrates the stakes.

Actually, $1 million per year isn’t much for the average budget these days, but I think if we could see this on a yearly basis you’d see a bigger bump in more recent years.

When the property is sold for development, money flows in many directions.

1. The owner. Most likely bought the house at a much lower price, but has put a fair amount of money since then into maintenance and upgrades. Still, in a good market, this is a way many people extract some equity from their property. If the zoning has relaxed so that the parcel can be developed more intensely instead of just selling an old house, the yield might be bigger.

2. The realtor and people involved in the property transfer. (Title companies, lawyers, inspectors)

3. The developer. This is the deal-maker. With luck, they’ll buy the property at a favorable price and then leverage that with lots of financing.

4. Banks and investment entities. Making money from money.

5. Construction contractors, demolition contractors, excavators, building materials suppliers, land surveyors, architects, decorators, furniture stores, paint stores, landscapers.

6. Brokers and rental agents. Once built, sales to customers begin.

7. And don’t forget the taxing authorities.

The Oil Well in Your Backyard

Here’s the thing. Ann Arbor is now such a desirable place to live that its real estate has essentially become an extractible resource.  Just like an oil well or a gold mine, each little piece of ground is a fungible bit of wealth. For one thing, actual City of Ann Arbor area is geographically limited because we can no longer annex land (other than occasional township islands). So our land availability is inelastic, which is known to increase housing prices. In other words, there just isn’t enough land to meet our demand, especially in the choice areas near the core. This can be a good thing, if you own the land and want to sell. But there are considerable downsides as well. As the Joint Center for Housing Studies (Harvard University) explains, the cost of land is a driving factor in the expense of housing. As land prices increase, it becomes more and more difficult to build moderately-priced housing. And the value of the land is likely to cause a replacement of existing structures with higher-value ones. We have already seen examples of this, with teardowns in the areas near the core and big-footprint houses (or, where zoning allows, expensive condominiums). For example, a decent house on Spring Street was bought last year for $400,000, immediately demolished, and a 3000-square foot house built. (The zoning would have accommodated a duplex.)

Increases in cost per acre within Ann Arbor zip codes per FHFA

The Federal Housing Finance Agency has been tracking the cost of land using a complicated formula which takes into account the cost of replacing an existing structure. (Note that not all parcels in these zip codes are within the City of Ann Arbor; also note that most parcels are less than one acre.)  The value of these parcels will be much higher if they can be used to develop a higher-value structure.

So what would be the effect on single-family neighborhoods if zoning were changed to allow duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes? Inevitably the value calculations will drive the sale of parcels and the house on them (which could be a rental, or owner-occupied). Because of that sale, the assessed value of similar parcels will increase. (Assessed value is based on current market value.) This will have some tax consequences, depending on the status of each remaining parcel. A house that was accompanied by a house on each side will gradually find itself flanked by larger structures (just how large depends on how the setbacks are drawn and what the height limitations are). Inevitably, because more households now occupy the block, there will be more congestion, more noise, more issues with neighbors. This is not a tragedy but will change the quality of the originally quiet neighborhood. And, of course, there is the possibility that a developer will succeed in assembling several parcels and a City Place type of structure will be built. (Remember, it is all about lot area and setbacks.)

More to the point, this value profile will mean that more and more current residents will be displaced for one reason another, perhaps because a landlord or relative has decided to cash out, or because costs of remaining may increase. This pattern is familiar to all gentrifying neighborhoods. Water Hill, currently in full flush of gentrification, was once a segregated Black neighborhood and has gone through many of these changes already.

Often it is assumed that older residents would welcome this opportunity to sell and bank that equity. But the cost of living in any part of our metropolitan area has now increased to a level that this is not going to be easily feasible. (There is an “Ann Arbor bleedover” effect.) A new residence (if purchased) will be at a new higher tax rate. There is the loss of nearby friends and helpers. There is also an expense and trouble in moving. There are many reasons why many prefer to “age in place”. So the notion of being displaced from one’s home is a frightening one.

Disruption, indeed.

Those Troublesome Voters

Over the last several elections, it has become clear that the residents of Ann Arbor, especially in the settled neighborhoods, just can’t be trusted to vote against their own preferences and best interests. This is our home, our city, and we expect our elected representatives to address our concerns. That is not to say that our Council should not represent our ideals and aspirations. We are among the most liberal populations in the State of Michigan. We respect good leadership and confident, competent government. But we do believe that we deserve a say in the direction of our community.

Ann Arbor does indeed face many challenges in an uncertain future. As we have commented in the past, as in Ann Arbor and the Climate Crisis: Policy and Outcomes, we need to match our policies with the need to adapt to changing conditions, including the climate crisis. (And we really didn’t plan for a pandemic.) Instead, we are being confronted with a wealth agenda. The proposed changes (disruption!) in our City’s organization appear all to be oriented toward growth. Growth and real estate development are the source of wealth. And it is likely that current residents are not considered to have much of a place in this scenario.

Taylor’s Slate. He would like you to vote for them.

It is clear why our Mayor, Christopher Taylor, has become so frantic and is now campaigning so strenuously for his Slate. Unless he regains his supermajority, all these “disruptions” will be at hazard over and over again by the troublesome voters of Ann Arbor. Every election matters, but this one (the Democratic primary, August 4, 2020) really could be the turning point.




Disruption in Ann Arbor: It’s a Promise. (1)

July 10, 2020

A two-part examination of the driving force behind this August’s primary election

The Election

It’s that season again. As all those who have lived in Ann Arbor for some years must be aware, we go through this stressful exercise every time there is a City Council election. Now that Council terms are for four years instead of two, elections are only in even years, so at least we get a little bit of a break. Because we still have partisan elections (thanks to a mayoral veto of a referendum to ask the voters which they prefer), the important election is held as the Democratic primary. And our ballots still allow for straight-line party votes, so many voters don’t even bother to get down to the bottom of the ballot in the  November general election. Thus, the only real vote for our Council members will be on August 4, 2020.

Mayor Christopher Taylor, February 18, 2020

The dominant figure in this election is someone who is not on the ballot. Christopher Taylor has been our Mayor since 2014, when John Hieftje (whose agenda he has emulated) retired as Mayor after a long successful tenure. Taylor was re-elected to a four-year term in 2018. But he has had a struggle. Though Hieftje maintained a solid majority of his supporters on Council, the numbers were starting to decay. There were continual efforts by dissenters to win places on Council, and by 2014 they were making headway. By November 2014, six Council Members who were not reliable Taylor votes were seated (though they differed on many specific issues and did not vote as a block). (There are 10 CM, plus the Mayor, a total of 11.) They were Sumi Kailaspathy, Sabra Briere, Jane Lumm, Stephen Kunselman, Jack Eaton, and Mike Anglin. Since the number of CM required to pass a resolution is 6 votes, but many other actions by Council require 7 or 8 votes, this presented something of an impasse and a barrier to very many really ground-breaking initiatives.

In 2015, the balance shifted, with Zachary Ackerman replacing Kunselman, and Chip Smith replacing Anglin. Thus the “insurgents” were reduced to 4 votes, which still gave them some power when 8 votes was required, but little ability to defeat most issues. When Sabra Briere left town and Jason Frenzel was appointed in her place, Taylor finally had the desired “supermajority” of 8 votes.  In 2017, Anne Bannister ousted Frenzel, so that we were back to the armed standoff for big items. Finally, in 2018, tables got turned again, so that a new majority of insurgents have an almost decisive 7 votes. Again, the not-Taylors are not a unanimous bloc and there are often dissenters on particular issues. But Bannister, Hayner, Lumm, Griswold, Eaton, Nelson, and Ramlawi often oppose major actions by Taylor.

These elections take on a bit of Groundhog Day vibe since we always seem to be arguing about the same things. In a recent amazingly even-handed discussion of our local politics, Sam Firke identified two Ann Arbor political factions, Protector and Striver.  Protectors: “They love Ann Arbor, have deep roots in the community, and want to preserve its goodness.” He mentions tall buildings, among other things. Strivers: “They want to keep growing the things that make it so special. They are also more likely to see the ways in which Ann Arbor can do better. ” He accurately identifies me as one of the Protector clan. (I’ve given our two groups a number of different names over the years, but these are better.) Taylor is, of course, the leading figure for the Strivers. The not-Taylors on Council represent the Protectors.

But Firke misses the essential difference. Protectors represent the residents, especially the longer-term residents, of Ann Arbor. Strivers seem to be envisioning a new, improved set. We highlighted this years ago with The Placemaking Agenda and Ann Arbor Politics. It was all about “talent”. But the themes keep changing, with the fashions.  Each new theme comes back to the same thing: more development within the City of Ann Arbor. And its current residents are, simply, in the way.

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

Given the rocky ride he has had, it can be understood if Taylor is getting rather frustrated. Once the sunny smiling charm purveyor, he has gotten openly combative, with more and more emphasis on his slate winning. He has actively recruited and endorsed candidates for the last several elections. This year he has assembled a slate of substantial candidates, who have accepted the assignment cheerfully, even wearing T-shirts with all five names on them (Lisa Disch, Ward 1; Linh Song, Ward 2; Travis Radina, Ward 3; Jen Eyer, Ward 4; Erica Briggs, Ward 5), and all pretty much singing from the same hymnbook. None are incumbents.

Recently he sent an email to supporters with his endorsement for the Slate and outlined their platforms.In this, he explicitly condemns the incumbents in three wards (Anne Bannister (Ward 1); Jane Lumm, Ward 2; Jack Eaton, Ward 4) with a set of misleading and inaccurate characterizations.  I will not attempt to discuss these at length, but there is some discussion of them in this MLive article. There is an increasingly desperate tone to Taylor’s statements, and those of his supporters. It is dispiriting to see the Mayor of a city like Ann Arbor, which has one of the highest proportions of well-educated people in the nation and is the home of an internationally respected University of Michigan, engage in such deceptive and inflammatory rhetoric as he has in recent messages. What is driving this desperation? We can give him the benefit of the doubt, that he sincerely believes in the ideals he espouses, but that should not prompt this type of behavior.


Lately Taylor has introduced a rather fearsome theme: disruption. He has been preaching this for quite a few months now. Here is an excerpt of his comments on February 18, 2020. He was discussing the affordable housing pledge the Council had just unanimously endorsed.

Putting this pledge into effect will require disruption. 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. … It means that density is something we need to countenance in areas where it has previously not been acceptable.

Prior to the vote for the expansive A2Zero plan (finally passed on June 1, 2020), Taylor again promised disruption.  The Plan explicitly called for zoning changes to allow  denser development in currently single-family zoned areas. That language was slightly modified in later drafts. But attention was drawn early on to the cost of the Plan (said to be $1 Billion over 10 years) and then the hit on the city budget from the COVID-19 pandemic. Taylor was defiant and once again promised disruption (from the Michigan Daily).

“Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor said the plan will be disruptive…Ann Arbor 2030 will be materially different than Ann Arbor 2020… It’ll be a denser community, a more electrified community, a community that emphasizes renewable energy.”

The message is very clear. No more business as usual. A different community. And most of all, more density. Whether we like it or not. As Taylor has experienced more and more barriers to his direction-setting for the City of Ann Arbor, he has grown more and more shrill. And the key factor appears to be density. Why is that?

Next: Density and Development.

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Ann Arbor and the Climate Crisis: Policy and Outcomes

September 20, 2019

Thoughts on the day of the global climate strike

They can break your heart – all those beautiful children with their bright happy faces and hand-made signs. And the teenagers, with their energy and conviction. Greta Thunberg, with her solemn deliberate face and assured delivery. We (all the humans living and dead since the beginning of the Industrial Age) have let them down. Sorry, kids. Too bad. After all, even the people in high places have known about this for decades. This has been well documented: Losing Earth: A Recent History, by Nathanael Rich, is an excellent example.  (I found that I had to sit down and read it cover to cover, like a novel.)  Most of the people living before the 20th Century might be excused. They were just busy living. But first small voices, then louder ones have been telling us that we were ruining the planet. I still have my original copy of Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance (1992).  Later he made a movie, An Inconvenient Truth (2006) which was very explicit about the causes and effects of global warming. I sat in the audience at the Michigan Theater and like most, I felt that the case had been made. And yet…  Here we are. On the brink. The average global temperature has been continuing to rise, though the 2018 average was slightly lower than the preceding three years (about 0.8° C above the historical mean, according to NOAA).

We noted a number of important studies in the post Climate Change and Ann Arbor: Investing in the Future. The IPCC report issued in 2018 was a substantial one. As somber as it was, it was also a political document (many nations did not want to sign on to the limitations suggested by a temperature increase limited to 1.5° C above the historical average). Not a lot of progress has been seen since then; indeed, we go backwards, especially in the U.S., where we withdrew from the very weak Paris agreement and our EPA has been busily undoing the rather partial attempts at limiting CO2 that were instituted in the Obama administration. Do you believe that Mitch McConnell and other powerful people from the coal states are really moved by those shining child faces?

There are no shortage of reminders. Every day we hear of new disasters and see heat maps. But the effects on our global system are far beyond rising seas and stronger hurricanes. The danger is that the effects on every physical and biological system on the planet that sustains life may exceed its equilibrium limits – the “tipping point”. Plenty of scientists are on the case. Most recently (September 2019) a comprehensive review in Science magazine tells us (with lots of specificity) that a further increase to 2.0 degrees above the historical mean will cause effects that are accelerated, not merely linear. And it appears likely that we are headed that way.

Hopes and Prayers

So what can we do on a local level?  We have two courses of action, not mutually exclusive.

  1. Amelioration. We do what we are able as a single small city not to add to the global CO2 burden. This will not help us locally, but it’s the right thing to do.
  2. Adaptation. We consider what policies can help our community survive and thrive over the decades to come. In other words, we try to be a resilient community.

It is increasingly being recognized that a local response will be necessary for human communities.  The Association for the Advancement of Science (a venerable organization that served mostly for a long time as the publisher of scientific papers in its journal Science) has become increasing active in advocacy and education. This recent article, How We Respond, is an ongoing report of local community response.

We first need to decide what the desired outcomes for our community are. Then we need to evaluate all our policies and consider how they will lead to those outcomes. This thoughtful account of one community’s effort  makes the important point that a city is a complex system. Atlanta has historical problems with equity, economic development and (increasingly) environment. They adopted a multi-sectoral approach (the Just Growth Circle) with extensive collaboration. But as they indicate, often incentives point in opposing directions and building collaborative efforts is not automatic or easy.

Certainly our policies (the City of Ann Arbor) exhibit cognitive dissonance when compared to our stated goals. For most of this century, policy decisions have been firmly pointed toward growth, wealth generation, and especially economic development in the form of attracting more and more high-tech firms. They have also encouraged growth in terms of increasing development of real estate, which generates wealth. Our stated goals are for “sustainability” but growth of the form we are encouraging is not sustainable and leads to more CO2 generation. They are for “equity” but the search for high-value technology firms has brought an influx of highly paid workers, and concurrently real estate development to provide high-yield housing for these workers. This results in increased values for real estate, which has resulted in displacement of current residents and lack of housing for lower-income workers.  How many residents can our land-locked little city really support?

What will be adaptive in consideration of changes to come? Of course, first we need to estimate what those changes will be, and predicting the future is difficult. Our local climate has been relatively forgiving. But global changes will affect us too. We need a more considered, system-wide view that considers what environment those charming children will inherit.

UPDATE: City Council will consider moving toward a carbon neutrality plan. Here is the Council resolution 11.4.19 that describes the problem. Will the solution consider all the inputs, including a limit on growth?