Editor’s Note: The monthly milestone column, which appears on the second day of each month – the anniversary of The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s launch – is an opportunity for either the publisher or the editor of The Chronicle to touch base with readers on topics related to this publication.
In this month’s milestone message, I’m going to explain what we do here at The Ann Arbor Chronicle. And I’m going to do it in a way that is intended to inspire additional voluntary subscriptions to our publication.
About 47 years ago, in a speech delivered in London to correspondents for Newsweek magazine, Washington Post publisher Philip Graham called journalism the “first rough draft of history.” The contention that journalists are writing history – even just a first rough draft – is pretty high-minded talk. Writing any draft of history certainly sounds sexier than the sheer drudgery of taking notes through a six-hour city council meeting seated on hard pew-like benches and condensing that material into a few thousand words for Ann Arbor Chronicle readers.
That’s an aspect of the job Graham meant in the first, less famous part of the “rough draft” quote [emphasis added]: “So let us today drudge on about our inescapably impossible task of providing every week a first rough draft of history that will never really be completed about a world we can never really understand …”
I think that digital technology allows journalists the possibility of providing a far better first draft of history than was previously possible. It’s better in the sense that it can be more comprehensive, and more detailed than the drafts that were constrained by printed newspaper column inches.
But seriously. Why does Ann Arbor need someone to write down its history? Do we here at The Chronicle really imagine that 100 years from now anyone will care that some new parking meters got installed in front of the Old Town Tavern? Nope. I don’t. Not really. Well, maybe. Okay, no. Not, really.
Sure, in an unguarded moment, I’ll indulge in the reverie that Ann Arbor’s 2110 version of Laura Bien will be mining The Chronicle archives and writing – for some next-century information distribution system – an article called “The Man Who Loved Parking Meters.”
More useful than 100-year-old history, however, is the history of five years ago, a year ago, or even a month ago. Because it’s the things that were said and done one month ago or one year ago that matter for elected officials making policy decisions, and for voters making choices at the polls.
So this month’s milestone provides a couple of examples demonstrating that The Chronicle is a pretty decent source of recent local history – a better source than the recollections and conversations of our local political leaders.
Whereas: History is important
Legislative bodies, like the Ann Arbor city council, have an opportunity to record their own version of history when they write resolutions. Resolutions are divided into two blocks of statements, first the “whereas” clauses followed by the “resolved” clauses. It’s the “whereas” clauses that provide an opportunity for establishing a historical record of events that give background for the action that the body is taking. The action part of a resolution is expressed in the “resolved” clauses.
This ground was actually covered by Chronicle commenters back in March 2010 in a thread about a Chronicle city council meeting report. A question was posed by Rod Johnson [link]:
I’ve never understood the function of “whereas” and “resolved” clauses in resolutions. Do they actually have some specific force, or are they just part of the rhetoric of resolution-talk? Some sort of archaic survival from the 18th century?
And a response to Johnson’s question came from Vivienne Armentrout [link]:
… there is a very specific meaning to whereas and resolved clauses. Basically, the whereas statements are background to establish the thinking behind a legislative motion. They are also used as political puffery. [...]
But the “resolved” is actually the law being made. [...] It’s the resolved clauses that you have to watch.
Just as an aside, that’s a pattern of interaction for comments on this website – question followed by answer – that’s worth highlighting. It’s the sort of commenting that I think adds value to The Chronicle.
Whereas: Implied history is also important
While Armentrout is right that it’s the “resolved” clauses that have a material impact on the world, I think it’s worth watching the “whereas” clauses as well – not just what gets written into them, but what gets redacted from them. Tracking the versions of different “whereas” clauses can reveal that councilmembers care deeply not just about the history that’s explicated in “whereas” clauses, but about history that might be implied by the language of “whereas” clauses.
Consider, for example, a resolution approved at the city council’s most recent meeting on May 17, 2010 concerning the city’s future discussions with the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. Those discussions will address a revision to the contract under which the DDA manages the city’s parking system. It’s a topic The Chronicle has covered in detail starting in January 2009.
Considered by the council on May 17 was a resolution that for the second time created a city council committee to meet with a corresponding committee of DDA board members to negotiate a revision to the parking contract.
Among the “whereas” clauses was this:
Whereas, It is in the public interest that these negotiations are conducted transparently;
As The Chronicle reported out of that meeting, Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) wanted that clause stricken. Why? Is Rapundalo against transparency? No. Rapundalo was working from the premise that the city council’s work is always conducted transparently and that the city council in general values transparency. To include such a “whereas” clause would be redundant. So by including the clause, Rapundalo felt it somehow implied, through redundancy, that to date there had been less-than-transparent behavior.
The fact is, there had been less-than-transparent behavior. This is not something open to dispute or interpretation. Specifically, a working group of city councilmembers and DDA board members had met for the first four months of 2010 out of public view, and outside of the committee structure that the two bodies had established to undertake the work that the working group actually did.
But the “whereas” clause was stricken – with dissent from three other councilmembers, who are apparently better students of recent city council history than Rapundalo. At the council table, he subsequently revealed that he was not in command of some basic facts crucial to his contention that there’d been no less-than-transparent conduct.
Whereas: The Ann Arbor Chronicle writes a historical record
Rapundalo contended that he’d done “due diligence” in reviewing city council minutes and that he’d found no action by the city council since January 2009 on the issue of the DDA parking agreement. He thus questioned whether the council had ever appointed a committee for the purpose of renegotiating the parking contract with the DDA. At the council table Sandi Smith (Ward 1), supported by the city clerk, corrected Rapundalo’s gap in knowledge of recent history.
The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s coverage of the issue has featured prominently the fact that the city council did create and appoint a committee – but only reluctantly, because city councilmembers did not like the composition of the DDA’s committee. On multiple occasions, The Chronicle has published timelines featuring the city council’s creation and appointment of its own committee.
Chronicle coverage confirms what Rapundalo could have confirmed for himself – even if he’s not a Chronicle reader – using the city’s publicly accessible online Legistar system that manages the legislative history of all the city’s public bodies. Legistar turns up the council appointment of its committee on a simple search.
Whereas: Talking about parking in parks is upsetting
The city council meeting that featured Rapundalo’s worries about the implications of including transparency language in a “whereas” clause was the same meeting when the council approved its FY 2011 budget.
In the city administrator’s proposed budget there’d been a very modest amount of revenue factored in for introducing a program to allow parking in two city parks – Allmendinger and Frisinger – only on University of Michigan football Saturdays. The council amended out the parking-in-the-parks proposal.
Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) expressed some irritation that the proposal had even been part of the proposed budget. He wanted to include a “resolved” clause in the city budget amendment that would direct the city administrator to refrain from proposing it in the future. It was the city administrator’s budget to propose, so the direction to the city administrator, Roger Fraser, seems on target.
But where did that idea of Saturday football parking in the parks come from? If you were forming an opinion based only on the conversation at the council table that night and at the council’s previous meeting, you might reasonably assign the “blame” for the idea to the city’s park advisory commission (PAC). Mayor John Hieftje said that PAC had recommended the idea. Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) went on at some length praising PAC for leaving the proposal in their recommendations, saying that PAC had less latitude to look elsewhere to address budget challenges than the city council did.
Not included in the remarks by Hieftje and Taylor was the salient point that PAC did not conceive of the parking-in-the-parks idea. PAC was reacting to a proposed budget from city staff, who ultimately report to the city administrator. So it wasn’t PAC’s idea. Maybe it was Fraser’s.
That’s a convenient historical narrative and one consistent with Hieftje’s comments the night the budget was approved. Hieftje moved the conversation past Kunselman’s suggestion to give the city administrator explicit direction on parking in the parks, by assuring Kunselman that Fraser had “gotten the message.”
But I don’t think it’s just Fraser who needed to hear the message. It was also Kunselman’s fellow councilmembers. For FY 2011, the idea for parking in the parks could reasonably be analyzed as sprouting back in October 2009 – in the form of a resolution placed on the agenda by four councilmembers, but which was then subsequently deleted from the agenda. From The Chronicle’s reporting in October, which we cited as a part of the budget meeting report:
Placed on the agenda on Oct. 2, with sponsorship from Sandi Smith (Ward 1), Sabra Briere (Ward 1), Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5), and Mike Anglin (Ward 5), was a resolution that would have allowed the city to generate revenue from parking cars in Frisinger Park on home football Saturdays. Frisinger Park is just south of East Stadium Boulevard between Woodbury and Iroquois. It was pulled off the agenda on Oct. 5.
Here’s how the resolution read:
Whereas, Frisinger Park is well situated to provide special event parking, in particular for University of Michigan home football games; and
Whereas, The City is providing home football game parking at other City-owned facilities, including its facility on S. Industrial and these parking revenues are a new source of funds for the City which is striving to maintain high quality level of service for its citizens;
Resolved, That the City Administrator establish a parking program for University of Michigan home football days at Frisinger Park, including the option for pre-game/post-game tailgating.
Sure, it’s Fraser’s budget to propose and he need not have included parking in the parks as part of it. But in answering the question of why it was in the budget at all, it’s appropriate to say out loud that six months earlier there was at least some support on the city council for the concept.
Whereas: History is sexier than bridges
The city council got an update at one of its recent meetings on the planned reconstruction of the Stadium bridges over South State Street and the railroad tracks. At one point during the meeting, there was frustration expressed by some councilmembers that the University of Michigan was not shouldering a share of the cost for the project.
Sandi Smith (Ward 1) raised the issue with respect to the bridge reconstruction itself. Margie Teall (Ward 4) raised the issue of UM helping to pay for street reconstruction due to road surface damage that the football stadium reconstruction project had caused in the same corridor.
City administrator Roger Fraser, and city project manager Homayoon Pirooz, were essentially diplomatic in their responses to councilmembers. They both reported that the university had not indicated it would be shouldering costs for either of those two issues.
It would not have been out of place, however, for the pair to have mentioned that the council had three months earlier heard from Fraser, during a council meeting, that the university would be footing the bill for $450,000 worth of street and utilities work that the city itself would ordinarily fund. The work will be done in connection with the transit station on North University Avenue – improvements to the corridor are taking place this summer. The Chronicle included the $450,000 as part of a February city council meeting report.
City councilmembers equipped with The Chronicle’s reports fresh in mind on that occasion might have mentioned the $450,000. That could have led to a conversation framed by the question: What’s the balance of payments like between the city and the university? It’s a conversation that I think would be really useful for the city council to conduct in a comprehensive way, instead of the piecemeal way that the council currently thinks of city-university relations.
That conversation is unlikely to happen, I think, if on obvious occasions no one points out relevant recent history – like the university’s willingness to pay for $450,000 worth of work the city would normally fund. I think city councilmembers and Ann Arbor citizens who have the city’s recent history in mind, as recorded in detail by The Chronicle, are more likely to point out the facts that will start good conversations.
But recent history is in many ways like the Stadium bridges as described to me recently by Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager. We were out on a field trip to the bridge on the occasion of a visit from the U.S. assistant secretary of transportation.
Said Cooper: “It’s a bridge. It’s not sexy.”
History is not all that sexy, either. But with all due respect to the engineers in The Chronicle’s readership, history is sexier than bridges.
Resolved: Readers will subscribe to a valuable historical record
The Chronicle’s business model is based partly on voluntary subscriptions. What voluntary subscribers are helping to buy for themselves and the city is a decent historical record of much of the city’s civic life.
And that’s valuable not just for the 100-year archives, but for the community’s shorter-term collective memory. I think The Chronicle provides what President Obama, in his UM commencement address, suggested was necessary for useful dialogue: “a certain set of facts to debate from.”
And that set of facts is something I think is worth paying journalists to write. Many of you readers have shown you think so, too, by subscribing voluntarily to The Chronicle. And for that, I thank you.
About the writer: Dave Askins is editor and co-founder of The Ann Arbor Chronicle.