Archive for the ‘politics’ category

From Drama to Melodrama: Washtenaw County and Conan Smith

October 2, 2016

This thread began with the startling announcement on Mary Morgan’s Facebook page about a letter she had written to the Board of Commissioners about (Commissioner) Conan Smith’s application to the open position of County Director of the Office of Community and Economic Development.  In the letter, she pointed to a substantial conflict of interest when a sitting commissioner applies for a county position.  Smith soon resigned his seat, but retained his place on the November ballot.  We discussed those implications at some length.  Now the BOC has moved with some alacrity to resolve part of the tangle, by setting a firm schedule for choosing a County Administrator.

But as we pointed out in our previous post, this leaves a big piece of what one might term the “County leadership puzzle” yet to be resolved:  the OCED post to which Smith applied.  Now we know even more of that picture, especially regarding Conan Smith’s trajectory to this point, thanks to the continuing journalistic inquiries by Dave Askins (late of the Ann Arbor Chronicle).  Dave now publishes via Twitter (do consider following him – the jokes are good too) and posts documents in Dropbox.  Most recently, he obtained a number of key documents by FOIA to Washtenaw County and the City of Southfield.  (Southfield is one of the cities represented on the Board of Metro Matters/Michigan Suburb Alliance.) It is evident from them that this story has gone from high drama to outright melodrama.

Conan Smith in Large Outline

I have been observing Conan Smith (or just “Conan” – as everyone calls him) ever since he ran a primary against me in 2002 for the County Commissioner seat I occupied at the time.  I defeated him handily but chose not to run in 2004.  He won in a three-way primary and has occupied that seat ever since.  Here are the things I know about him.

Official BOC portrait of Conan Smith. Date of picture is not known.

Official BOC portrait of Conan Smith. Date not known.

(1) He is very deeply affected by his family history and frequently cites it as his motivation and also as a reason why he should be supported politically.  His grandfather was Al Wheeler, who is a civil rights icon in Ann Arbor. He was the first and only Black mayor and Wheeler Park near Kerrytown is named in his honor.  Conan’s mother, Alma Wheeler Smith, has served in many elected and appointed offices, and is well known and well respected in Washtenaw County.  His aunt, Nancy Wheeler (known for most years as Nancy Francis) was a much beloved, though sometimes controversial, juvenile court judge.

Conan Smith image used in social media

Conan Smith image used in social media

(2) He is a committed regionalist.  In 2002, he joined the fledgling Michigan Suburbs Alliance  (MSA) as its Executive Director. This was a nonprofit that allied the suburbs surrounding Detroit for mutual benefit.  In 2010, as that history describes, the organization began rethinking its relationship to the City of Detroit (which has, notably, been undergoing a renascence) and has been rebranding to Metro Matters. Conan has employed all of his resources, including his role as a County Commissioner (and Chair of that BOC), connections through the MSA, and his wife (Senator Rebekah Warren), to bring about the Regional Transit Authority.  (Here is a post with some historical information about the genesis of the RTA.)  Originally, the RTA was intended to include only the three metropolitan Detroit counties (Oakland, Wayne, Macomb) and the City of Detroit. With Senator Warren’s assistance, Washtenaw County (where Conan had an important seat) was added.  The Metro Matters website celebrates the RTA as one of its signature accomplishments.  Quite recently, Metromode online magazine (a collaborator) highlighted Conan and his regional vision. In that article, Conan proposes a similar tax-sharing program to one used in the Twin Cities (Minnesota) area, where a new tax base in one municipality generates new taxes for use by other municipalities.  This will be a very tough sell in Michigan, where border controls on tax redistribution are set into our constitution.

Conan Smith at BOC May 7, 2014 (Ann Arbor Chronicle photo)

Conan Smith at BOC May 7, 2014 (Ann Arbor Chronicle photo)

(3) He is confident in his vision and in his judgment.  Sometimes this can lead to impetuous statements. In addition, he often dismisses the need to satisfy other parties or reach a consensus if the raw exercise of power can be used instead. Here is just one example, from 2014, where the BOC was considering whether to place a tax for roads before the public or to use an obscure pre-Headlee law simply to impose a tax on Washtenaw County citizens, including his own constituents. (From the Ann Arbor Chronicle archives.) (In the end, the tax was simply imposed.)
conan-quote-on-road-tax

Another notable example was Conan’s push for Act 88 taxation. As related by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, he was the instigator to have this tax administered by OCED, and he caused the rate to be increased to homeowners.  The tax has funded mostly economic development projects, especially Ann Arbor SPARK. This was another example of a practice by the BOC in recent years to impose taxes without a public vote.  That practice has now been challenged in court (someone did decide to sue).  This week the BOC will likely act to cease collecting the tax.  The memo from the Interim Administrator lays out the circumstances fully.

And Then One Day It All Came Apart

The position with Michigan Suburbs Alliance seemed to be secure.  It was formalized in 2003 as a coalition of Detroit-area suburbs, to solve suburban problems.  But as time passed, it also seemed to be passing MSA by. With the resurgence of the City of Detroit, all the glamour and excitement became invested in the big city.   Conan Smith posted an announcement in February 2015 that the organization would be renamed “Metro Matters”.

msa-to-metro-matters

Portrait on the staff roster for Metro Matters

Portrait on the staff roster for Metro Matters

A major impetus for this was evidently Smith’s hard work putting the RTA together.  “We sat at the table to write the legislation that established the RTA, an historic achievement that brings us closer to bridging the city/suburb divide. ”  His announcement points out the success in getting the M1-rail project (now known as QLine) together. But that is a central Detroit project, sponsored by Detroit business interests. The Board of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance is made up of suburban officers, and the suburbs have been the major source of funds for the organization.

We don’t have the financial records to explain what happened, but Conan gave a decent explanation to his Board in December 2015, via a memo.

…over the past several months in particular, we have failed to generate the financial support necessary to sustain the operations of the organization at the high level we anticipated. As you can see from our most recent financial statements, our overall position is strong but the statement of cash flows shows us spending far more than we are taking in.

A poignant indicator was that the December Christmas party was cancelled within hours of its scheduled time.  (A reminder had gone out that same day.)  This is well explained with the continuation of that Board memo:

What this means directly is the laying off of our staff throughout the month of January and the closure of our physical office. I will continue to work on behalf of the organization to get a stronger funding base underneath us, and Rick Bunch will continue to lead the Energy Office, which has strong prospects coming off a major victory at MPSC. Hayley Roberts and Ellen Vial will be retained on a small contract basis to see through two of our grant-funded projects. The balance of the staff’s positions will likely be eliminated.

By March of this year (2016), it is evident that the Board is not happy.  Steve Duchane, city manager of Eastpointe, was fairly explicit:

The reformation of what was once a collaboration of the inner ring suburbs and then in my opinion worth the time as a municipal official to participate in has been a smoke and mirrors grad project for a long time. When we actually did represent the common shared interests of the metro area suburbs we were a vehicle of advancement and a leader in efficient suburban government, interests and needs that exist today that is not served.

Emails from Conan through March are an attempt to explain matters to his Board.  Evidently they had demanded more direct oversight of the finances of the organization.  There is also one sorrowful email from a vendor who had not been paid.  It is also made clear that by this time Conan and his chief deputy have been serving without paychecks, and she (Hayley Roberts) was evidently leaving to a paying position.

The County Presents an Alternative

In the context of all this, the option presented by the OCED department director position (posted August 1, 2016) must have seemed like a godsend. Conan sent a letter of application  dated August 11, 2016.  He must have talked to someone before sending it, because Mary Morgan sent her indignant letter to the full BOC as of August 15. Conan announced that he was resigning his seat (but not his place on the ballot) on August 16.  Conan communicated with his Board on August 17 that he would be applying and “If I am chosen, I will need to give my notice to Metro Matters.”

Things moved rather precipitously.  Edward Klobucher, City Manager of Hazel Park and the Chair of the Board, scheduled a Board meeting (to which Conan was not invited) for August 26.  “We will discuss the current situation with Metro Matters and hopefully chart a new course for the future.”  Klobucher met with Conan on August 30 to inform him that he was suspended and required to turn over all materials.   The last email available from Dave Askins’ FOIA indicated that the Board’s attorney (Brandon Fournier) had met with Conan’s attorney (David Blanchard) and they were discussing a separation agreement, with no comment for the media.

A Question of Leadership Style

As we reviewed in the previous post, there are two leadership styles that an administrator may adopt.  One is to make the mechanism run smoothly and see that everyone in the organization functions well and happily.  The other is to be the Big Picture, Big Ideas person, who seeks new frontiers and incidentally a certain place in the limelight.  There are, of course, overlaps; Big Picture people may run a perfectly good organization and good managers also have new ideas.  But the style will influence the direction of the organization profoundly.  It is clear, if not already from his history, then from his letter of application, that Conan Smith is the Big Picture – Big Ideas man.  The header of one important paragraph is Strategic Leadership to Achieve Big Goals.  The entire letter (except for the first three paragraphs, which are about his family history) fairly sparkles with his ambition and wish to grasp the department and even the entire County by the shoulders to rush up that mountain.  He also touts his extensive connections within the community.  Clearly he sees himself as a major player in the County and in the region.  It could be a very large presence for a new County Administrator to share space with.  I hope that the Board of Commissioners has the wisdom (and the votes!) to pass the resolution on next week’s agenda that will ask the Interim Administrator to hold off filling the position till a new Administrator can be named.

NOTE:  I did not include a link to the email texts that Dave Askins obtained by FOIA.  These are contained in Dropbox files and are somewhat difficult to read (they are text files, in Notepad).  Because of some comments, it seems that I need to provide substantiation for the statements that are based on these files.  This pdf has hyperlinks to the files, and also a summary of their content.

UPDATE: Mary Morgan will be publishing a follow-up to her previous letter in The Ann.  Presumably this link is to the article in the upcoming print edition.  (I have not received my copy, which is usually distributed in the New York Times, yet.)  She includes more inside information about the Conan Smith machinations and the County OCED position.  She also has some very apposite opinion points to make.

SECOND UPDATE: Today (October 12, 2016) Conan Smith notified officials at Washtenaw County that he was withdrawing his application to the OCED position.  As has been the case throughout this story, the former Chronicle personnel broke the story.
askins-tweet-out

THIRD UPDATE: Now the “official” version (Ann Arbor News, October 13, 2016).  Note that it states that there is only one other person under consideration for the post.

FOURTH UPDATE:  A new article, Ann Arbor News, October 17, 2016, includes an interview with the Chair of the BOC re the tangle surrounding the OCED position.

FIFTH UPDATE: An article by Mary Morgan in the October 2016 issue of The Ann magazine discusses a number of points at length, including more background, the ethics of the situation, and the effect on local civic participation. http://www.theannmag.com/drowning-in-a-shallow-candidate-pool/   It ends with a plea to vote on November 8.

SIXTH UPDATE: Andrea Plevek has been named the new OCED Director; here is the formal announcement from Washtenaw County.

Conan Smith was re-elected to his seat on the Board of Commissioners. He received 17029 votes (90.56%) to the 1776 write-in (Jen Eyer) votes (9.44%).

The County Leadership Quandary

September 30, 2016

Much of the current confusion on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners comes down to this: they are attempting to resolve what the future direction of the County is, and what type of leadership should be on board to take it there. 

As we have remarked, the BOC failed to choose between two top candidates for County Administrator, and terminated the process in April 2016.  The resolution to do this  has a useful description of the quandary the BOC found themselves in. They had a “leadership assessment” done for each of their two top candidates, and then failed to reach a consensus among themselves as to which “style” was right for the County.  There was no indication that both candidates did not have the requisite experience and qualifications.  Rather, it had to do with the character of leadership each would bring to the position.

The resolution also includes a significant bit of history: the BOC first “spent a number of months looking at the various types of County government to insure that an appointed County Administrator was the best type of government for the citizens of Washtenaw County”.  In other words, whether to continue with the current structure in which an Administrator is hired by the BOC and answers to them; or an elected Executive who answers only to the voters county-wide.  (Washtenaw County has several top administrators who are elected county-wide, including the Treasurer, the Sheriff, the Prosecutor, and the Water Resources manager.)  Only a few counties in Michigan have an elected County Executive.  This has most often resulted in a near fiefdom and often the BOC has relatively little influence on policy.  L. Brooks Patterson, the CE of Oakland County, is the most notorious example.  Most other Michigan counties have the same structure as Washtenaw. Evidently the BOC decided to stay with the current structure.

So what would be the factors that might enter into the “leadership” question?  There are two choices:

Should our County government concentrate on fulfilling its obligations (the county has a mandate to provide most state- and Federal- directed and funded programs) and providing services to its residents and taxpayers?, or

Should the direction be to make the County Be Something – a more muscular approach in which the County sets a regional direction, initiates new programs, is the leader among local governments, gets noticed regionally, statewide or even nationally for innovation and economic success?

The leadership style of the executive is crucial to these two very different visions of what the county should be.  Do you want a good administrator who keeps the mechanism running smoothly, or a “big picture” person who is restless if not pursuing new ambitions and garnering new influence, new achievements, new visibility for the county and him/herself? Often the second version opens up opportunities for others and can contribute to growth and economic development.  But such leadership can be ruthless in where priorities are assigned, and it is often not to simple service delivery.

The decision looms

If the BOC is trying to choose between those two styles of leadership, no obvious choice for the aggressive leader jumps out from their four top candidates.  Those are Bob Tetens, the current head of Parks and Recreation; Muddasar Tawakkul, Director of compliance and purchasing for the Detroit­/Wayne County Mental Health Authority; Gregory Dill, the current Interim Administrator; and James Palenick, currently Director of economic & business development for Fayetteville, NC.  All of them have solid administrative credentials.  Tetens has a planning background and was previously the director of WATS (the body that oversees transportation planning for Washtenaw County).  He has been a well-respected top administrator at the County for well over a decade and can be expected to have a breadth of understanding of County government.  Dill has been in a variety of County administrative positions, including with the Sheriff’s department, and at one time was in charge of building programs in the County.  Tawakkul is an attorney and has had a number of high-power assignments; his technical knowledge is evidently impressive.  Palenick has a long varied resume from many locations (he has moved around a lot) but at one time long ago was the Dexter Village manager.  It is difficult to see why any of them should be the “visionary” type of manager, though Palenick hints that he views himself that way; “I sincerely believe that I can bring the kind of innovative and strategic leadership that Washtenaw County needs and demands at this time in its organizational evolution”.

As we have detailed, the process is now on fast track and a decision will be made on October 19.

Another piece of the puzzle

But another factor in County leadership is still pending.  That is the opening for the Director of the Office of Community and Economic Development.  As described in the last two posts, the conclusion of that search is still pending.  The question was partly whether Greg Dill, as the Interim Administrator, would choose to fill it before a final decision on the County Administrator.

The OCED position is one of the most powerful of the appointed department chairs.  It is the result of combining three former departments and administers a great many Federally funded programs.  Its previous director, Mary Jo Callan, exerted a great deal of leadership and caused the County to conduct a major study of inequality (of income, housing, circumstance) in the county which has been used as a basis for new policies.  The director of this department, if appointed prior to the hiring of a permanent administrator, could compete with a new administrator in setting directions.

Conan Smith’s application for this position has brought the decision into high focus, as already described, partly because he was a sitting Commissioner.  Smith has been influential on the BOC in the past; he has been Chair in a couple of terms. Now he has resigned his seat – but may be re-elected come November! and meanwhile, it is evident that he has also lost his long-time (well-paid) position as the executive director of a nonprofit organization (Michigan Suburbs Alliance).   All of this is happening in the mix of decisions to be made about the direction of the County as determined by choice of its chief Administrator.  More detail on this melodrama in the next post.

 

The County Saga Continues: the Search for a County Administrator

September 19, 2016

Washtenaw County’s Board of Commissioners are finding themselves in the public view.  Now they are providing more transparency about the County Administrator search.

In our last post, Breaking News when the News is Brokewe tell how Mary Morgan broke the story of the vacant opening for a high-paying, high-responsibility County staff position (Director, Office of Community and Economic Development, or OCED) and the effort by a sitting commissioner, Conan Smith, to apply for that position while retaining his seat as a commissioner, with her open letter to the BOC, posted on Facebook.  As we commented in a series of three posts about the difficulty in getting local news in Ann Arbor, it has been difficult to learn what is happening at the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, at least through news media.

Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, 2014-2016. Conan Smith at far right with mouth slightly open.

Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, 2014-2016. Conan Smith at far right.

Possibly because of Mary’s coverage (and we helped publicize it), the BOC seems to have wakened up a bit and they are now addressing some pending issues with alacrity. Things happened pretty fast after the potential conflict of a sitting commissioner applying for a staff job was highlighted on social media.  Conan Smith resigned as the Commissioner for District 9. (Coverage by the Ann Arbor News.) The BOC held a very open process for applications to fill the seat.  Jen Eyer was appointed by a unanimous vote.  (See previous post for updates.)  But whoops.  Smith is still on the ballot for November.  As detailed in the followup in the News,  he could still be the District 9 commissioner in January.  The newly appointed commissioner and possibly some others will be on the ballot as write-ins.  Whether Cmr. Eyer can surmount the considerable obstacles to winning as a write-in in a Presidential year (especially since Michigan has a straight-party option for voters) is yet to be seen.

The Search for A County Administrator

The question of Conan Smith’s seat as a County Commissioner has been resolved for the near term. But the matter of timing and overlap into next year still persists with respect to the conflict of interest between his appointment to the OCED position and the appointment by the BOC of a new County Administrator.  As things stand, Acting Administrator Greg Dill could at any time propose to hire Smith into the lucrative staff position.  (We explained the different roles of the BOC and the Administrator in the last post.)  But Mr. Dill is himself subject to review and appointment by the BOC if he is to be hired as the permanent Administrator.  So this presents a couple of scenarios:

I would like to make it clear that I am not alleging in what follows that Greg Dill would behave unethically by making such an appointment solely with regard to his own advantage.  In fact, this situation puts him into a difficult position.

  1. Dill makes a decision about the OCED position before January.  He chooses Smith.  Smith will then resign his seat as a commissioner in January and the BOC will appoint his successor.  Smith himself has no influence on whether Dill is hired before or after January.
  2. Dill makes a decision about the OCED position before January. He chooses another person to fill the position other than Smith. Smith resumes his seat as Commissioner.  He has a role in the decision to hire Dill after January, but not if the Administrator position is filled before then.

Actually, Scenario 1 is not without its dangers for Dill.  The other commissioners will presumably evaluate his handling of this situation as they make a decision about the Administrator position.  (Until recently, it was not known whether Dill was a candidate for the permanent Administrator slot.)

Note: the position description for the OCED position is no longer on the County website, and the other applicants for the job are not publicly known.

Down to Business

Fortunately for all around, the BOC has moved with some alacrity to resolve this situation.  On September 14, they voted in a resolution that will resolve the question of the County Administrator with a definitive choice by October 19, 2016. A position vacancy was opened August 13-September 13.  There were quite a few applicants. Greg Dill is one of them. Application packets and information about the process are posted here. 

The process calls for Corporation Counsel (Curtis Hedger) and Human Resources (presumably Diane Heidt) to do a first-round elimination of some candidates from the list. (Such initial sifting usually is done on the basis of obvious suitability in terms of background and experience for the position.  It is usually quite neutral with regard to personal attributes.)  The survivors will then be scored according to qualities pertaining to six aspects of performance.   The BOC will vote to include 4 finalists on September 21, presumably at their regular business meeting.  (It has not yet made it onto the agenda.)  Meanwhile, there is an effort to obtain public comment.

Interviews with the finalists will be at a special meeting on October 15 (Begins at 8:00 am. The public is invited!)  The commissioners will, wisely, not vote on that day.  The interviews will evidently be taped and made available for viewing.  On October 19 (a regular scheduled meeting), the BOC will “vote” on the four finalists.  The mechanism is very subtle – rather than a show of hands at the meeting, each Commissioner will submit his/her top choice to the Clerk ahead of time.  If no candidate has the majority of the “votes”, the BOC will continue with a straw vote (show of hands) until a majority is reached for a candidate.  They will then vote on the formal resolution to hire a new County Administrator and direct the Corporation Counsel to negotiate an employment contract.   Neat and tidy!

The list of applicants to be considered is long – very long.  There are 31. List here. I’m curious about how the notice was phrased and how it was distributed.  Some of the applicants are startlingly under-qualified.   “Cashier at CVS in Southgate” “Maintenance/grounds employee for University of Liggett School in Grosse Pointe Woods”.  Some candidates evidently have more suitable backgrounds, but perhaps a spotty job history.  “Not currently employed. Former city administrator for several Michigan communities, including Ecorse, Middleville, Homer and Battle Creek.”  But there are a number of suitable candidates, including the former top two finalists (Muddasar Tawakkul and Bob Tetens) and the current Interim Administrator (Greg Dill).  There are also Michael Norman , County administrator for Branch County, Michigan, and Larry Collins, City of Ann Arbor Fire Chief (oh oh).  I’m not listing several others who might pass that first filter; evidently the BOC will have a good list of finalists to choose from.

It will be a relief to see the resolution of this first half of the uncertainty around the situation created by Conan Smith’s move to secure a high-placed County position.  It’s good to see the Commissioners move so resolutely.

UPDATE: An item has been added to the Board of Commissioners agenda for September 21, under Report of the Chair:

D. A resolution to address the hiring process surrounding the Director of Washtenaw County’s Office of Community and Economic Development

NOTE: Apparently this was postponed till October 5, per Mary Morgan’s post from the September 21 meeting.

We’ll stay tuned.

A list of top candidates with scores made by Yousef Rabhi

A list of top candidates with scores made by Yousef Rabhi

SECOND UPDATE: (September 21, 2016)  A conversation on Facebook (where else?) reveals the top 4 candidates for County Administrator.  It includes the former top two contenders along with the current Interim County Administrator.  The image is of the candidates ranked by scores, from the hand of Yousef Rabhi (posted on Mary Morgan’s Facebook post).  They’ll be interviewed on October 15 as described above.

THIRD UPDATE: (September 26, 2016) Those who follow Dave Askins’ Twitter account were treated today with access to images of the letters of application to the OCED position.  Dave had done a FOIA to obtain them and he has now made them available on DropBox.  We will try to provide detail in another post.  NOTE: See From Drama to Melodrama: Washtenaw County and Conan Smith.

POSTSCRIPT: (October 20, 2016) The BOC met as scheduled and selected Greg Dill as the permanent administrator.  Here is the Ann Arbor News report.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breaking News When the News is Broke

September 5, 2016

All about a major political tangle that has scarcely been noted in the news.  But consequences for the future of our local Washtenaw County government could be profound.

As we’ve been saying – we are sadly short of local news coverage now.  In the last post, we suggested that a number of sources can be consulted to learn what is happening locally.  Some may have thought that the suggestion of Facebook was a bit ridiculous.  But in fact, that was the source of breaking news about local politics just recently.   And Twitter followed after.

OK, to some extent this was cheating.  Remember the much lamented Ann Arbor Chronicle?  Apparently, though Mary Morgan and Dave Askins have closed their newspaper, they haven’t quite given up on local news.  Mary has, in fact, founded a new enterprise,  The CivCity Initiative, which aims to engage citizens with their local government.  The methodology is complex but the point is that citizens will be informed and will then involve themselves in issues, and will vote reliably in local elections.  Dave has other pursuits but, based on his tweets, has not lost his curiosity or his reporter’s habit of burrowing down under the surface.  So both of them are remaining connected to the currents running through our local governments.  (That is, the Ann Arbor City Council and the Board of Commissioners [BOC] of Washtenaw County .)

Washtenaw County is a layer of government that was seldom covered by the Ann Arbor News.  It was the “invisible layer” of local government until Mary Morgan offered full reporting on the Chronicle.  Evidently she has not lost an interest in the County, and has retained some of her contacts. Thus, it was on Facebook that Mary first revealed her letter to the BOC about a strange situation. She had learned that Conan Smith, who for some years has been the commissioner representing the west side of Ann Arbor (District 9), was evidently maneuvering to be appointed to an open staff position.  In the letter, she expressed in the strongest terms how unsuitable it is for a sitting commissioner to be applying for a highly-paid staff position while also serving as an elected commissioner. “It is an obvious ethical problem when an official seeks a publicly funded, highly compensated staff job while still in a position of power and authority over the person responsible for hiring that job”.  Within a few days,  Smith announced that he was resigning from his seat. (This one event was reported by the Ann Arbor News, though without the background.)

The position Smith is applying for is as the Executive Director of the Office of Community and Economic Development.  This is one of the most powerful and important offices in the County.  It also carries a salary in the neighborhood of $120,000 per year.  The department was the result of merging three different County departments in the not too distant past.  It dispenses Federal grant dollars to many disparate programs, especially in housing and economic development.

It is necessary to understand the power relationships in order to comprehend all facets of the situation.  The BOC has the power to hire exactly one person at the County: the County Administrator.  All other hires are the responsibility (and under the authority) of the County Administrator.  The County Administrator runs the mechanism of the County.  In theory, he/she can be fired by the BOC if the job is not done well.  (Hardly ever happens; this is the “nuclear option”.)  But this time is different.

The last County Administrator, Verna McDaniel,  retired early last year.  She then spent some months as a consulting replacement, supposedly while the BOC found a replacement.  Indeed, the BOC interviewed candidates and narrowed to two.  (The current acting administrator, Gregory Dill evidently applied but withdrew, probably because he was not encouraged to continue.)  Then, in an outstanding failure of leadership, the BOC failed to choose one of the two candidates.  In a special meeting (translation: one in which the public was not adequately informed), they abandoned the search process and appointed Gregory Dill as interim acting administrator.

So here is the situation: Greg Dill can be terminated at any time by the BOC.  But he is likely the person who would choose the ED for the OCED.  And if he tries in the near future to be hired by the BOC as the permanent County Administrator, one of their number who has been quite influential in the past is the leading candidate.  There is a Chinese finger puzzle element to this.

So why would Conan be so anxious to obtain this position?  One can only speculate that not all is going well in his current job.  He has since 2002 been the ED of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance.  (Recently, the organization has been transmogrifying itself into “Metro Matters”.  Detroit is much sexier now than “the suburbs”. ) His salary there has been in the neighborhood of $120,000 – about the same range as the OCED spot.  I’ve often wondered why the Detroit suburbs were willing to support this organization, which is basically an economic development shop paid for from municipal budgets of several Detroit-area communities.  Possibly it is getting shaky.

All in all, a questionable situation and one that should not be supported by the BOC.  But that body has shown some pronounced tendencies recently toward cronyism and has failed to act in a number of high-responsibility situations (the administrator position being only the most recent).  Mary Morgan, in her letter, said it best:

Over the years I’ve frequently observed the willingness of public officials to look the other way when someone who’s part of their political or social network crosses ethical lines. When this kind of casual corruption takes place at the local level – when there are no repercussions – then such behavior becomes part of the accepted political culture. It spreads to all levels of government, and leads to even greater corruption, which correlates with distrust and disengagement of the electorate. When we see it happening, we must speak out.

The Ballot Issue

So has Conan Smith resolved ethical conflicts by resigning his seat?  Not quite.  Because he announced this after the August primary (in which he was unopposed), his name is still on the ballot for November.  So by doing nothing, he will once again be a County Commissioner in January.  He has risked nothing.  If he gets the OCED job, he can resign in January and the BOC can appoint a replacement.  If he doesn’t get it, he is back in his seat – and in a position to make a decision as to whether Greg Dill can succeed to a permanent position as County Administrator.

Meanwhile, the BOC (as they must) announced that Smith’s seat was open for appointment.  A number of District 9 residents have announced their interest.

Bob King

Michael Miller, Jr.

Charlotte Jameson

Elizabeth V. Janovic

Jen Eyer

Jeremy Peters

Daniel Ezekiel

Mike Henry

According to the initial announcement, this appointment is to be made on September 7.  But a review of the BOC agenda does not indicate that this decision is on the agenda.  There is a rumor that there may indeed be a special session in place of the Working Session (September 8).  Oh, the odor of gunpowder.  Those who are familiar with the Ann Arbor community will recognize several of these names, and there will be organizing on behalf of some of them.  Of course, since the meeting is not being properly noticed, only those who are “in” will know to be there and involved.

But once appointed, what will this newly seated commissioner do about January?  If Conan Smith doesn’t get his desired job, he’ll be the commissioner again.  If he once again resigns, the BOC will have to go through the appointment routine.  Could politics cause a switch-out?

Could a write-in candidate win?

District 9 mapOne option would be for aspiring commissioners (appointed or not) to declare themselves as write-in candidates on the November ballot.  This is not a hopeless situation.  I myself was involved in a race where the write-in won.  But it takes organization.  Campaigning in District 9 would be necessary, and the public would really have to be informed of the situation, as well as about the candidate.  How does one get the word out, in a town with no news coverage?

Put it on Twitter, of course.

LWV District 9UPDATE: In response to the posting of this article on Nextdoor, LWV-AA President Nancy Schewe provided confirmation and scheduling for the forum.

lwv-sched-ndSECOND UPDATE: The BOC has now posted a notice of a special meeting on September 8 at 6:35 p.m.  “The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners will be interviewing applicants for,
then selecting and appointing a sole candidate for District 9 Commissioner.”  There was a Working Session scheduled at 6:30; it is likely they will convene it, then vote to adjourn in favor of the special meeting.

THIRD UPDATE: Dave Askins kindly supplied this link to the application materials from candidates for the District 9 position.

NOTE: The letter written by Mary Morgan to the BOC (August 15) appeared in the September issue of The Ann magazine as a commentary.  Good to see it in a print medium.

FOURTH UPDATE: The Ann Arbor News woke up and covered the BOC meeting where candidates were interviewed and spoke.  They appointed Jen Eyer, a former reporter for the News.  Notably, the News deleted two comments that I made on a previous story to link to this blog post.  Could there be a little sensitivity there?  I have been critical.

FIFTH UPDATE: (September 30, 2016) Dave Askins has published (via Dropbox, on Twitter) a set of excerpts from a FOIA he sent to the City of Southfield.  Southfield has been one of the funders of Conan Smith’s long-time agency, the Michigan Suburbs Alliance.  The FOIA includes a number of emails to and from Conan Smith by the MSA board.  They document thoroughly that his employment with that organization is at an end.  Most of the emails are procedural (the correspondents are mostly bureaucrats).  But some colorful expression breaks through.  From Steve Duchane, City of Eastpointe: “when I examine the record of deliverables over the past three years it is impossible to find one solid accomplishment while records of money spent on pizza are clearly available”.

 

The Placemaking Agenda and Ann Arbor Politics

July 30, 2014

The Placemaking Agenda and its corollary, the New Economy Paradigm, are on the Ann Arbor ballot this August.

For a decade or more, Ann Arbor’s city politics have been driven by two contrasting views of its future. While political contests have sometimes revolved around personalities and personal loyalties, the crucial question underlying almost every race has been that of what kind of community Ann Arbor will be in the future and who (or specifically, what groups) will benefit from that future direction.  At the heart of this divide is the emergence of the Placemaking Agenda.

As has been well discussed here in the past, the traditional party divide (Democratic vs. Republican) is of little value in understanding Ann Arbor politics, since nearly all the action takes place in the Democratic primary.  But there is a real divide, not only in ideology but in the political actors.  This has been thrown into sharp contrast by a recent analysis in the Ann Arbor Chronicle.  What is unusual about this analysis is that, rather than displaying the candidates and those who donated to them, it lists prominent political actors and their donations to individual candidates.   The Chronicle, true to its fastidious ways, avoids attaching labels to the two factions.  But it does note that the candidates of one faction are endorsed by the Michigan Talent Agenda.

Michigan Talent Agenda endorsed candidates:

Christopher Taylor – Mayor

Don Adams – 1st Ward

Kirk Westphal – 2nd Ward

Julie Grand – 3rd Ward

 

The Talent Agenda

Lou Glazer is the founder of Michigan Future, Inc.

Lou Glazer is the founder of Michigan Future, Inc.

This sounds off-hand like something related to the entertainment industry.  But actually it is related to a drive to replace Michigan’s fading manufacturing-based economy with a “knowledge-based”, i.e., information technology-based, digital-age economy. This has been very clearly enunciated by a recent report, The New Path to Prosperity, from Michigan Future, Inc.  What Michigan Future says directly that it wants to achieve is a high personal per capita income, and not a high employment rate. From the report:

Our answer: a high-prosperity Michigan—a place with a per capita personal income consistently above the national average in both national economic expansions and contractions…Places with low unemployment rates, but also lower personal income, aren’t successful to us.

How is this to be achieved?  By bringing in the young “talent” who can participate in the knowledge-based economy, either as entrepreneurs or simply the needed workforce.  The key is to make our area a place where they want to be.  By increasing the attraction of the place, it will be transformed into a New Economy.  That is the kernel of the Placemaking Agenda.

Placemaking

The origins of the placemaking conception are lovable and sweet.  As explained by the Project for Public Spaces, placemaking as a word and concept grew out of the movement to create shared public spaces where a sense of community could be built.  It comes from the environmental movement and emphasizes a connection with nature and other people.  It calls for places where people can move around freely (pedestrian access), with shared activities, often artistic, joyful, and nurturing.  Pictures usually involve lots of young children. It is about places where the human family is at home.  A good Ann Arbor representation of this would be FestiFools, which takes over Main Street for a couple of days each year.

It also connects to the idea of the sense of place.  As we described in our previous post, this is a consciousness of what our community looks and feels like in a whole sense. This comprehensive environment can affect our experience of life.  A recent MIT review has an excellent history of placemaking as part of the evolution of an urban sensibility (see the second chapter).

But the word has been taken over to mean a formula to create an attractive location that has economic benefits. Michigan State University has established an entire department, the Land Policy Institute, around this concept.  As one would expect, it has generated a number of academic studies, workshops, etc. A substantive data-driven study by LPI, Drivers of Economic Performance (BIG file!) lists a number of elements as increasing desirability of a location.  It also unequivocally pairs placemaking with the New Economy (emphasis theirs).  “…the New Economy has created a scenario where people move to places with high endowments of amenities, and jobs follow.”  LPI has now published a study on placemaking that contains this triumph of plannerspeak:

Placemaking can be defined as the development or redevelopment of value-added real estate that integrates essential elements of local and regional allure (e.g., mixed use, walkability, green spaces, energy efficiency) to generate an improved quality of life, a higher economic impact for the community, enhanced property tax revenue and better return to the developer and investors, while minimizing negative environmental and social impacts.

(You’ll notice that we have shifted ground from the soft and fuzzy to the real estate.)

Beginning with Jennifer Granholm’s Cool Cities campaign (2003), the emphasis has been on making cities places that will attract the young, especially young professionals who are members of what Richard Florida called the “creative class”.  The idea was that if you make the city a place these valued workers want to live, they’ll flock in and create a positive economic environment for all.  Here are some of the most commonly cited attributes:

  • Walkability
  • Transportation alternatives (transit, bicycling)
  • Third places (places to hang out; cue the “vibrant downtown”)
  • Green infrastructure (parks, etc.)
  • Active public spaces with things to do
  • Cultural amenities, including public art
  • Attractive built environment (including historic buildings)
  • Environmental sensitivity, such as energy efficiency

Want to hear this beautifully explained by a current candidate?  Here is Christopher Taylor’s statement on behalf of  “the young”.

Glazer and his group have been very influential in setting the state agenda for economic development based on Talent.  Governor Rick Snyder, whose professional career was grounded in the field of information technology (he was the Chairman of Gateway Computers, which he left in 1997), has embraced the objectives and language of this “New Economy” effort.   The core concept is that Michigan must create the types of communities and regions (through Placemaking) that will attract Talent.  As MIPlace.org (supported by a consortium) highlights, Snyder has emphasized “place-based governance”, or more simply, “placemaking” from the beginning.  Here are some excerpts from his address to the Legislature in 2011:

Today, I am announcing our next steps to help communities build the kind of places that will enable them to compete in a global economy.

  • Establish a process for evaluating the performance of economic development and placemaking activities.
  • Encourage new initiatives that support local and regional programs involved in economic development and placemaking.
  • Promote best practices for local and regional economic development and for placemaking activities.

Michigan government has indeed gone through some realignment in these directions.  Here is an interview on Bridge Magazine of Gary Heidel, “Chief Placemaking Officer” of MSHDA.  He explains:

The idea behind placemaking is simple: By improving the quality of life in downtowns and neighborhoods you will create more walkability, which will attract talent, creating jobs and economic development…Quality of life investments from both the public and private sectors focus on housing, mixed use, transportation, public spaces and recreation, entrepreneurialism, historic preservation, arts and culture.

Now MSHDA, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority,  is the state agency that is supposed to “create and preserve safe and decent affordable housing”.  But it is now providing personnel and funds to promote placemaking.  It is, for example, one of the supporters of Concentrate magazine.  We reviewed a speaker event that was sponsored by MSHDA via Concentrate in 2010.  Here is a report from MSHDA that seeks to integrate MSHDA’s traditional responsibilities with placemaking.

Placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. It influences business development and expansion decisions, inspires downtown revitalization and historic preservation, builds community identity and pride of place, promotes diversity and stimulates the growth of creative enterprise. Placemaking has long been a key organizing idea behind MSHDA’s community development projects. Together with our many partners, we invest in Michigan communities to:  Enhance the quality of life of our residents; To attract and retain businesses, entrepreneurs and workers throughout the state. Place-based economic development—creating vibrant, sustainable communities—is a winning economic strategy that will provide the foundation for a new Michigan.

If one skims through the numerous memos available on the MSHDA website, it is evident that this “placemaking” dictum has penetrated even to the most basic of affordable housing funding applications, including the CDBG and LIHTC.  The 2015-2016 Qualified Allocation Plan description lists “A strengthened focus on project location and placemaking concepts” as the first item in priority changes.  To that end, it indicates further in the document that projects will have to submit WalkScores (walkability) and distance from the nearest transit stop.

The MSHDA details are illustrative of how a ruling paradigm can overtake an entire governmental substructure.  There are many more examples and policy issues that could be brought forward.  Quite a few of them can be seen resonating through Council actions of the last decade.  Just one example: Percent for Art was launched with many public statements that Art would make us into a community that would attract the Right People. (As the guy said in the movie, “but that’s another story”.)

The Golden Future – but for whom?

As with any political agenda, there are likely to be winners and losers with this one.  While not voiced fully, those opposing the “talent agenda” candidates have identified some of the issues.  Who will benefit from bringing in this favored demographic via the potential cost in public money and altered community priorities?

Some of the supporters of the “talent agenda ” candidates have derided opponents as being old fuddy-duddys who don’t want anything to change.  Joan Lowenstein, for example, is the gift that keeps giving.  From labeling residents as “sulky”,  and then elderly, she has now moved on to “prissy”.  But doesn’t classic economic theory suppose that people act according to their own best interests?

There are many more reservations about the “talent agenda” than a simple resistance to change or the wish to be able to stay in one’s home in a nice community.  What kinds of people do we want to support in Ann Arbor?  Do we only want to make this an affluent community or do we want to retain our diversity of incomes and occupations?  This is a regional question as well as a city-based one, but one reason I personally moved to the 5th Ward is its yeasty mix of all kinds of people.  I love our little houses (and bigger houses) with people from all walks of life.

Why am I bringing out this populist theme?  Because the New Economy folks are pretty unambiguous that the point is to make wealth, not to make a diverse community.

The report from LPI cited above also has this paragraph:

Increased creative class employment is associated with positive population change and higher per capita income. This is consistent with previous findings (Adelaja et al., 2009). However, creative class employment is associated with a lower resident employment level. This indicates that the greater the percentage of professionals employed in the creative class, the better the community’s potential for future population and income growth, but not resident employment levels.  (see p. 44)

Get that? Current residents will not see a positive increase in employment.  This is consistent with an article by Richard Florida (yes, the Creative Class guru).  What is now being called “talent clustering” is beneficial to the talent class but not to service and blue-collar workers.  Indeed, they suffer because of higher housing and other costs.  Florida concludes,  “It’s not just a vicious cycle but an unsustainable one — economically, politically, and morally.”  And this is the guy who originated the whole Creative Class idea!

If you reread the statement by Glazer and Grimes, you’ll note that  the point is not jobs, not employment, but an opportunity for high levels of personal wealth.  (Note that a high per capita income is an average and can be driven by a small percentage of very high incomes, while a median income figure would better denote the income status of the population as a whole.)  So it appears that the “Talent Agenda” is quite inequitable.

Something to think about before voting in a Democratic primary.

NOTE:  All but one of the “placemaking” candidates won the primary (Don Adams did not succeed in toppling the First Ward incumbent, Sumi Kailasapathy).  Like every political race, reasons for these results are complex and vary with each contest.  For example, Christopher Taylor far outspent any of his rivals, and there was a three-way race in the Third Ward.  We can’t draw any conclusions about the weight of the placemaking agenda in this outcome.

UPDATE: A post by Washtenaw County planner Nathan Voght, writing on Concentrate magazine, makes a forthright argument for placemaking.

Why is creating “places” a key to transformation of the corridor? Millennials and Baby Boomers together make up the largest segment of the population. Attracting and retaining these age groups is critical to building communities now and in the future, as Millennials will make up most of the work force and represent the future of the economy, and Boomers are downsizing, looking for walkable places with amenities, and have disposable cash. These segments are driving a shift in housing and quality of life that “places” provide, where access to transit, downtowns, and walkable communities is the highest priority.

Voght is the manager for Reimagine Washtenaw, which has incorporated plans for transit-oriented development of denser housing alongside the corridor.  However, it seeks to create the walkable community in an area where most people will be living only to travel elsewhere (downtowns and employment centers) to work and shop.

SECOND UPDATE:  A thoughtful article in The Guardian warns against the cool city push (another way to express the placemaking agenda).    It calls this “policy-making by tribalism” and points out that often tangible benefits to people who actually live in a city are ignored.  From the article:

Those benefits are the heart of the matter, though, and city planners should not limit themselves to the things that will attract young, well-educated people. Their central focus should be to make their cities more affordable and diversified than they were before. When the focus of city governance shifts away from winning spots on magazine lists and towards useful service provision for as many constituents as possible – cool people, uncool people and the vast, middlingly cool majority – the US will finally have the urban renaissance it has been promised.

THIRD UPDATE: An article in Bridge online magazine updates some of the demographics (yes, young people are moving out of Michigan).  The reason could be – jobs!  Some interesting comments also point to Michigan politics and lack of civic infrastructure.

 

Moving Us Forward: The Urban Core Expansion Plan

October 26, 2013
Click on the thumbnail to see both sides of flyer. Similar flyers for other wards.

Click on the thumbnail to see both sides of flyer. Similar flyers for other wards.

The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority is moving forward with a new Five-Year Plan for expanded services.  They describe this plan on their recently remodeled website and have been conducting public meetings all over Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. In the meeting I attended, emphasis was given to local (5th ward) routes and enhancements in detail.  The flyer at the right lists many specific route changes.  (There was a surprisingly vigorous discussion, with one current bus user objecting to some of the “enhancements”.)  Clearly, much planning and fine-tuning has gone into the proposal.

The map below shows detail about enhancements in the Ann Arbor area.  (Similar maps are available on the website for the Ypsilanti and Pittsfield areas.)  Here are a few quick points about the changes:

  • New routes are shown in blue, old ones green.  Express Routes purple.
  • Note that most of the new routes are on the west side of Ann Arbor.  (These have letter designations instead of numbers, but this is temporary.)
  • Routes “leak” outside the borders of the City of Ann Arbor, with excursions into Scio and Pittsfield Townships. Scio Township is not participating in the Urban Core plan but a bus would run along Jackson Avenue to Zeeb Road.
  • There is no expanded service into Ann Arbor Township on the northeast side, despite the complex of medical services and offices at Domino’s Farms in that area.
  • There are several Express Routes shown, including the present ones to Chelsea and Canton, and new ones to Belleville and the Walmart/Saline complex on Michigan Avenue.
Proposed enhancements for Ann Arbor area. Click for larger image.

Proposed enhancements for Ann Arbor area. Click for larger image.

In my judgment, there are many reasons to say this is a lovely plan on functional grounds.  For example, the plan allows people from Ann Arbor to seek employment at Meijer and presumably makes all the commercial and nonprofit  (like the family shelter) opportunities accessible.  Some of the commercial spots in Pittsfield, like Costco and Walmart, plus the Pittsfield library branch, are also made accessible.  It is rather concerning, however, that the northeast side of Ann Arbor and the WCC/St. Joe’s area appear to be receiving no enhancements.

So, as is always the question: how will this expanded system be paid for?  As we indicated in our previous post, the City of Ypsilanti has joined the authority and Ypsilanti Township has requested to join.  Pittsfield Township and Superior Township will apparently just maintain their current POSA contracts, while Scio Township and Ann Arbor Township have declined to play.  The City of Saline is also a nonparticipant.

As was explained at the meeting, a major cost of implementing the plan will be buying new buses.  Most of the buses in the existing fleet were purchased with Federal funds, but for a variety of technical reasons those won’t be available to expand service. improve and expandAll this will not happen without a major infusion of cash.  As we reported earlier, there was an informal consensus at the “Urban Core Meetings” that the “Improve & Expand” option was to be selected.  According to the description offered, that option will require an annual additional revenue of $5.4 million by 2019 (the last year of the Five-Year Plan). (Since Pittsfield and Saline are not participating, the actual figure is not clear.)  Much money is needed to start up. The planner, Michael Benham, stated, “We’re using every cent we’ve got right now.”   So where will the cash come from?

It is an open secret that AAATA hopes the answer will be a new authority-wide millage.  (The authority is expected to include Ypsilanti Township, along with Ann Arbor and the City of Ypsilanti, the two current members of AAATA.)  The number mentioned is 0.7 mills, to be approved by voters in May 2014.

So as explained in the public meeting, Year One of the Five-Year Plan will begin in August 2014, assuming that a millage passes through the entire authority in May 2014.  This was not obvious, since the assessment and tax cycle has various milestones.  A November millage vote would not provide revenue until the succeeding year.  However, since taxes are paid every July, the May vote will deliver the needed revenue in the same year as the ballot.

AAATA is currently on a charm offensive, with many meetings with local officials and the public meetings.  Although officials have been careful to say that the AAATA board has not yet authorized a millage vote, it is clear that that is in our future.  But the outcome is not certain.  Will voters endorse the plan with their dollars?

UPDATE: AAATA has now released electronic versions of flyers for all Ann Arbor wards.  Here they are.Ward 1 Ward 2  Ward 3  Ward 4  Ward 5

NOTE: A list of previous posts on this topic can be found on the Transportation Page.

The Tumultuous Politics of Ypsilanti Township

October 12, 2013

Before we add Ypsilanti Township to AAATA, Ann Arbor officials need to understand who they are dealing with.

One quality of local politics in Ann Arbor (and perhaps most places) is that we often live serenely unaware of what is happening in adjacent communities.  This has not won us a lot of love.  Serving on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners for eight years was a tremendous learning experience, and one thing I learned is that Ann Arbor is often resented for its standoffish and better-than-you (as perceived) attitude.

Now our leaders have chosen to push us into a more regional perspective, notably by expanding our city transportation system (AATA, now AAATA) into neighboring communities.  It behooves us to understand them if we are to share services and tax base with them.

Washtenaw communities (census tracts) by median income. Dark green is highest, sand color is lowest.

Washtenaw communities (census tracts) by median income. Dark green is highest, sand color is lowest. (Click for bigger picture.)

Michigan government is structured along extremely local lines, with Michigan townships likely the most potent force.  These (usually) 36-square-mile entities are mostly “general law” townships, and a few are “charter” townships.  They have a somewhat different organization and tax structure.  Charter townships are somewhat more impervious to annexation by cities (though this process is never easy in Michigan) and can impose higher operating millages.  They typically have higher population densities than general law townships.  This is true of Ypsilanti Township, which is the second most populous municipality in Washtenaw County, after Ann Arbor.  It also shares with the City of Ypsilanti and portions of Ann Arbor itself the quality of having the lowest median incomes in the county.

The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority has now expanded to include the City of Ypsilanti and the AAATA Board recently voted to add Ypsilanti Township as well.  Before our City Council votes on this measure, it is important to know a little more of the politics and history of the township.  It is good to understand people you are doing business with.

Brenda Stumbo

Brenda Stumbo

Karen Lovejoy Roe and Brenda Stumbo burst upon the Ypsilanti Township scene in 1996, when as a team they defeated well-respected Wesley Prater (Supervisor) and Ethel Howard (Clerk).  They remained in office (Roe as Supervisor, Stumbo as Clerk) until 2004, when a slate headed by former State Representative Ruth Ann Jamnick unseated them.  Roe then ran against Wes Prater to knock him out of his seat on the Board of Commissioners (Prater was the Chair of the BOC but was defeated by Roe in 2006).   In 2008, the pair ran again, this time with Stumbo taking the office of Supervisor and Roe the Clerk’s position.  (Analysis of the race by Mary Morgan, then on the editorial staff of the Ann Arbor News, is instructive.)  They have remained in those positions ever since, and in their nearly 20 years of leadership have shaped much of the way the township does business.

Karen Lovejoy Roe

Karen Lovejoy Roe

The single largest impact they have had, at least as viewed from the outside, has been the dispute with Washtenaw County in an effort to reduce the cost of contract Sheriff’s deputies.  As for many municipalities, the cost of “public safety”, especially policing, had become the largest fraction of the County budget in the 1990s.  The Sheriff had been providing this service both with “road patrol” (paid for by General Fund monies) and direct contracts with townships.  As the result of a study done in 1999, the County proposed in 2000 to institute a system of charging townships for policing services based on a “PSU” or police services unit, approximately the fully loaded cost of a single deputy.  County grants would pay 34% of the cost.

Proposed charges for deputies in 2000 report

Proposed charges for deputies in 2000 report

But this was very bad news for Ypsilanti Township, with the policing needs of an urbanized area.  While cities and most villages in the County, plus at least two townships (Northfield and Pittsfield) had their own police forces, Ypsilanti Township needed essentially a full police force composed of Sheriff’s deputies.  In 2000, the majority of Sheriff’s deputies were employed in the township, 44 in all compared to 25 for the entire rest of the county.  The bill would be over $3 million annually.  After years of disputes, they filed a lawsuit against the County in 2006 demanding a lower payment schedule.  The lawsuit lingered in court and through various appeals until a settlement was finally reached in 2011. As reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle,

The bulk of the recommended payment – $732,927 – will come from Ypsilanti Township, which had contracted for 44 sheriff deputies in 2006…County representatives previously indicated they were seeking around $2 million. The county is not seeking payment for its legal expenses related to the lawsuit, which are estimated to be just over $1 million.

The township, according to  the Ann Arbor Observer,  had legal fees of $1.1 million.  But the new 4-year contract means that the County is still subsidizing Ypsilanti Townships’ police service by $1 million/year.  Since many of the County’s municipalities – including Ann Arbor – pay for their own police forces and only make incidental use of the Sheriff’s deputies, they are doubly subsidizing Ypsilanti Township, as they are paying for services they don’t use directly.

Were Ypsilanti Township officials justified in spending over $2 million of taxpayers’ money in court trying to get a better deal?  Most likely they still feel that they were, as the township had lost a good deal of taxable value with the closing of auto plants.  The township form of government dictates that officials will try to obtain the best services for their residents with the lowest taxes.  But this means that other municipalities (County, cities, other townships) must be aware that they are dealing with some very value-oriented folks in making arrangements for sharing services and tax base.  And – they are fighters.

The township’s website is ytown.org , where much information may be found.

UPDATE: In response to Larry Krieg’s query (see comment below), I am providing some historical documents.  A memo to the BOC on May 17, 2000 laid out the premise and approach for a new police charges methodology.  (This is the document from which the illustration is drawn.) In a 2006  memo containing details of contract offers, the county explains all the different pricing strategies and references the lawsuit.  As it states, all townships other than the plaintiffs in the lawsuit (Ypsilanti Township, Salem Township, and Augusta Township) signed a four-year contract using the new methodology before the deadline of December 31, 2005.  “Representatives from each of these Townships publicly stated that they would not sign the four-year proposed contract because the specific prices for 2008-2009 would not be approved by the County Board of Commissioners before April, 2006.”  Thus,

the County proposed a four-month “bridge” contract to the Plaintiff Townships to cover January through April, 2006 at a cost of $100 per hour per PSU, which was less than the County’s actual full cost of $111 per hour per PSU to place a PSU on patrol. The purpose of the “bridge” contract was to provide a contractual means to continue police services to the Plaintiff Townships until such time as the Board of Commissioners would approve the price figures for 2008-2009. Once those figures were approved, these Townships would then be able to approve or reject the four-year proposed contract.

As the memo goes on to explain, the BOC approved the bridge contract, but the plaintiffs refused that contract and instead sued.  The complaint named several members of the BOC individually as well as the County itself.  The subsequent history is given in this memo describing settlement of the lawsuit. Courts found for the County at every level, including at the Appeals Court.  The question of the contract has literally been adjudicated in great detail and the County was found to be justified in the contractual approach that they took.

SECOND UPDATE:  Continuing the documentation in answer to Larry Krieg’s query, here are the history and supporting documentation of the County’s jail expansion.   My very first writing assignment for the Ann Arbor Observer was a comprehensive coverage of the issues leading up to a February 2005 ballot issue. Here is a proof copy of The Jail Millage (please note that the images are copyrighted by the photographers). Mary Morgan provides an excellent history and summary of outcomes in her account on the Ann Arbor Chronicle. As she indicates, the ballot issue was defeated by the voters.  That millage proposal was very large and complex with many moving parts.  After its defeat, the County still had a jail overcrowding problem, and the BOC considered the issuance of a $30 Million bond to pay for a new jail. From the Chronicle:

A citizens group objected to the $30 million bond, saying it was too similar to the ballot initiative defeated earlier that year. The group – called the Save Our Sheriff (SOS) Committee – collected more than 17,000 signatures aimed at forcing a countywide referendum on the issue. The protest came in the context of disputes between the county administration and the sheriff at the time, Dan Minzey, over funding for operations as well as the cost of sheriff deputy patrols in the townships. In early 2006, commissioners dropped plans to issue that bond.

Indeed, as seen in the August 2005 bonding resolution, the slightly revised Administrator’s recommendations were to be financed by this bond and there were expectations that the savings from the new police services model would assist in that.

transfer of funds clauseAgain according to the Chronicle account,

But in November 2006, the county board was ready to move ahead again, approving a $21.6 million bond issuance for the expansion. This time, no organized efforts were made against the proposal, and the bonds were sold in early 2007. Just over a year later, in March 2008, the board authorized another $12.6 million bond for the new 14A-1 District Court.

The resolution passed in November 2006 was this time not referencing the Administrator’s Public Safety recommendations, but rather a Space Plan funding resolution that nevertheless also references the General Fund savings from the changes in police contract methodology.

This memo requesting additional construction funding which dates from 2010 details the amount of the bond proceeds and the actual costs of construction.  It requests more funding, which is from a Facilities Operation & Maintenance fund (used for capital projects).  The memo makes it clear that all construction was paid for either with bond proceeds (including interest on bond balances) or the facilities fund.

However, staffing was also needed for the new jail. This  memo requesting more Corrections staff which also dates from 2010 indicates a considerable expansion of the Corrections budget.  There is no reference to including this in the cost of PSUs or contract personnel.  Historically, the Corrections budget has been separate from the police function.  Counties in Michigan are obliged by law to maintain a jail but not to provide policing.  The two should not demonstrate a cross-over in budgetary charges, though they are both under the Sheriff’s budget.

It must be noted that one complication to this story was the role of Sheriff Dan Minzey, who served from 2000 to 2008.  He was often at odds with the BOC and the County Administrator on these issues under his charge.  Note that the anti-bond committee was called Save Our Sheriff.  He doubtless helped to cause a conflation in the public mind between the changes in funding deputies and the cost of the jail.  Minzey came from the ranks of the deputies and was apparently not very interested in the Corrections responsibilities under his aegis.  The present Sheriff, Jerry Clayton, was elected in 2008.  To my estimation, he has had a calming effect and has brought a thoughtful managerial style to the job.  As an example, here is his overview of public safety issues facing Washtenaw County.

The overlap in timing of the two issues (jail and policing), together with the somewhat adversarial posture of the then Sheriff, may have naturally led to some of the confusion.

  • February 2005: Failure of the jail millage
  • August 2005: First bond measure passed, with many references to Administrator’s revision of items discussed in jail millage proposal
  • December 2005: Deadline for signing new police contracts
  • January 2006: Ypsilanti Township and two others file suit against County
  • January 2006: BOC rescinds bond resolution

Nevertheless, in my opinion, the changes in the way the County charged for contract deputies was going to happen regardless of what was happening with the jail.  When it all began in 1999, the aim was to curtail the rapid increase in the Sheriff’s draw on the general fund.  The fact that jail overcrowding created a crisis that also needed funding was coincidental.  When the millage failed, like any governmental body, the County looked to see where funds could be obtained to address the problem.