The Ann Arbor city council’s post-election meeting agenda for Nov. 7, 2013 would be heavy enough without the addition of an item that will almost certainly serve no purpose except political theater.
The council will be considering a resolution that asks the University of Michigan to decommission the $2.8 million digital marquee recently constructed by the university’s athletic department. I don’t think the university is going to give that any thought.
In this unnecessary drama, Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) appears to be playing the role of Don Quixote, with four councilmembers auditioning for the role of Sancho – Marcia Higgins (Ward 4), Margie Teall (Ward 4), Sally Petersen (Ward 2) and Jane Lumm (Ward 2). Those five are co-sponsoring the resolution. [If the council really wants to tilt at windmills, the city could have a literal one soon enough.]
The council’s Nov. 7 resolution cites the city’s own recently enacted sign ordinance, which constrains the deployment of digital technology for outdoor signs. According to the resolution, the marquee inflicts the same harms on the community that the city’s newly amended ordinance sought to prevent. [Petersen and Higgins, however, voted against that ordinance.] Those harms are described in the resolution as “distract[ing] motorists and substantially degrad[ing] the community viewshed…”
As the text of the council’s Nov. 7 resolution itself concedes, the University of Michigan is “without any obligation to comply with the ordinances of the city of Ann Arbor” – so the fact that the UM’s marquee rather flagrantly flouts the city council’s sign ordinance is of no consequence.
What is semantically bizarre about the text of the resolution is its contention that by turning the marquee off, or by limiting its use, the Ann Arbor community would be delivered a “material benefit.” If the council’s position really is that the marquee is doing harm, then by no rational standard should the mere mitigation of that perceived harm be labeled a “benefit,” much less a material one.
By way of analogy, if a chemical company is dumping toxic sludge onto my property and jeopardizing my health, then it’s not really a “benefit” to me if the company were to stop doing that. But it could be considered a benefit if the company allowed me to take my own personal toxic sludge and add it to the company’s pile, which the company then removed from my property.
If the city councilmembers who crafted the resolution had taken the phrase “material benefit” seriously, it might have given them pause to ask: Hey, could city residents derive some actual benefit from this situation? And that might have led them to reflect on the reason the UM athletic department wanted to construct this marquee. I think it’s an attempt to meet a communications challenge.
And guess what: The city of Ann Arbor has its own communication challenges. Can you see where this is headed? Or are you too distracted by the constantly changing display in the dumb little animated .gif at the top of this column?
Let’s say you’re an Ann Arbor city councilmember, and you’ve identified a piece of University of Michigan communications infrastructure as your focus. That’s an occasion to ask yourself if you’re familiar with the communications infrastructure of the city. What are the basic policies and strategies the city of Ann Arbor uses to communicate with residents?
For example, the questions you might have as a councilmember could include: What’s the communications budget for the city? Is there even such a thing as a “communications budget”? What role, if any, does social media play in the city’s strategy? Why is the Community Television Network facility located way down on South Industrial Highway? How much does the city pay to lease the CTN facility? How long is that lease? Is there any kind of leadership transition going on at CTN that might have an impact on the future of CTN? Would the city of Ann Arbor have the capacity with current staff levels and expertise to participate constructively with UM on any new communications initiatives? If the university were to agree to allow the city of Ann Arbor some small number of giant marquee message slots for public service announcements, would the city be able to provide content in a timely way?
Those are all reasonable questions a naturally curious person might have. But if you serve the community as a councilmember – which is supposed to be a part-time job (paying just under $16,000 a year) – your role is to help formulate and direct policy, not micromanage solutions to problems. In the case of all matters related to the University of Michigan, I think that basic city policy should be something like: Seek areas of common ground on which the city and UM can cooperate to benefit residents and the university’s mission.
So as a city councilmember, if you recognize a giant monster in that marquee, instead of trying to figure out “the solution,” your role is to remind the city administrator of the basic policy directive. And that’s it. I think “cooperation” in this particular instance might conceivably translate in some fashion to an effort on the part of the city administrator – or staff under his direction – to convince UM athletics that a couple of slots for city of Ann Arbor public service announcements on the marquee would be feasible and in everyone’s best interest.
In any case, that approach to this “issue” is one that could be handled with a 30-second remark from a councilmember at a council meeting during communications time: “Mr. Powers, in the context of our routine interactions with the University of Michigan, can you add to your to-do list a way of realizing some benefit to residents from the university’s new marquee?”
And maybe six months later we’d start seeing announcements on the marquee reminding residents that it’s Election Day or that our winter taxes are due, or that trash pickup has shifted one day due to the recent holiday. Or not. If Powers were to report back in six months that the issue had very little traction or, for heavens sake, he just had not made that a top priority and there was nothing to report – well, that wouldn’t be the end of the world, either.
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