Opinion Section

Column: Hank Aaron’s Impressive Run

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

This week marks the 40th anniversary of one of baseball’s signature moments: Hank Aaron hitting his record 715th home run, to surpass Babe Ruth’s 39-year old record. But to appreciate how special that was, you have to understand who Hank Aaron is – and what he faced.

You’ve heard of Babe Ruth, who might be the best-known American athlete of the last century. Ruth loved the fans, and the fans loved him right back.

That’s why, when another New York Yankee, Roger Maris – a nice, humble guy – started closing in on Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a single season in 1961, he became so stressed by Ruth’s fans rooting against him that his hair started falling out.

When Hank Aaron approached Ruth’s career home run record, he had it worse, for two very simple reasons: 714 home runs was the baseball record, a number even casual fans knew. And second, unlike Maris, Aaron is black. Of course, that shouldn’t matter in the least – but it mattered a lot in 1974. [Full Story]

In It For The Money: Presidential Stinkburger

The President of the United States visited Ann Arbor on April 2. If you want to know what he said, you can read a faithful transcript right here, or just watch the unedited remarks.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

But none of that puts you in the room with the PotUS. Hearing the same four presidential soundbites about Zingerman’s and minimum wage played over and over again on the radio certainly gives you the gist of what was said; none of it was earth shattering.

In fact, I’d wager that most Chronicle readers could generate a fairly accurate facsimile of the remarks made by the PotUS working strictly from First Principles. You know what politicians are like: Y’all a good looking crowd! God bless America! Handshake-babykiss-SMILE! You know what excites East Coasters about Ann Arbor: Zingerman’s! Sportsball! Wolverines! And you know how PotUS stands on the minimum wage: Raise it!

None of that puts you in the room.

And you’re likely inclined to say: So what? What’s the use of being in the room? What’s the bother of showing up in a specific time and place to see something that’ll be on YouTube ten minutes after it happens, to be watched at my leisure? Hell, Dave: Why did you bother wasting so many hours to be in that room? Don’t you have better things to do with your time?

And, while I do have better things (or at least better paid things) to do with my time, there’s always value in being in the room. In abstract, there’s value because being in the room is The Job. It’s what I’ve said I will do for you: I will show the hell up, and tell you what the hell I saw. This is the baseline contract any newspaper should have with its readers.

And specifically, on this occasion, there was value in being in the room because some things do not come across in articles and the op-eds and the clips and soundbites – not even in the unedited audio or video. There are intangibles – including all of the things that are outside the frame of the camera, too far away for the mics to pick up, or of little interest to the reporters on hand. [Full Story]

Column: Reforming College Football

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Last week, in a surprising decision, the National Labor Relations Board granted the Northwestern University football players the right to unionize, if they want.

But what does that mean? What doesn’t it mean? And how might this change the future of college football?

The NLRB’s ruling made a big splash, but it’s actually very narrow. The decision applies only to private schools. There are only a handful or two that play big time college football – usually about one per major conference – a short list that includes universities like Duke, Rice, Vanderbilt, Stanford and USC. Further, the Northwestern players still have to vote to unionize – not a given – and no matter how they vote, the university is going to appeal the NLRB’s decision.

But the Wildcat players have been very shrewd, and will be hard to dismiss. That starts with their leader, senior quarterback Kain Colter. I got to know him pretty well while researching my latest book, “Fourth and Long,” and I can tell you he’s one of the more impressive young men to play the game today.

Colter is a pre-med major who often had to miss summer workouts to attend afternoon labs. The group he’s formed – the somewhat redundant College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) – is also wisely not asking for money, but post-graduate health care for injuries suffered while playing. Seems to me it’s pretty hard for any university – created to improve the lives of its students, after all – to argue against that. [Full Story]

In the Archives: When The Press Fed Us

We Ypsilantians are losing our last nominally-local newspaper.

Screenshot of March 26, 2014 note to readers announcing the changes at Heritage. Image links to the article.

Screenshot of March 26, 2014 note to readers from publisher Jim O’Rourke announcing the changes at Heritage. Image links to the article.

As of April 10, the Ypsilanti Courier, which currently maintains its office in Saline, will be amalgamated with the Chelsea Standard, Dexter Leader, Manchester Enterprise, Milan News-Leader, and Saline Reporter to form a media entity called Washtenaw Now. The weekly Ypsilanti Courier usually runs around 24 pages, according to its advertising department. Though it will combine six similar local newspapers, the weekly Washtenaw Now likely won’t contain 144 pages; by comparison, 120 pages made up last Sunday’s New York Times.

Compared to 20th-century Ypsilanti newspapers, our community coverage will inevitably be reduced – to a level that could fairly be regarded as a homeopathic dilution. The University of Michigan used to have a homeopathic college. It closed. Aside from a possible placebo effect, homeopathy doesn’t work.

But in the early 1930s, the full-strength Ypsilanti Daily Press provided a powerful remedy to ailing residents. It galvanized Ypsilantians to join a massive two-pronged community project that united clubwomen, farmers, the destitute, church ladies, storekeepers, city officials, and myriad other community members.

Because of the paper’s intervention and leadership, hungry Ypsilanti children ate nutritious food the following winter. [Full Story]

Column: When Lawyers Fool with FOIA

Two weeks ago, the city of Ann Arbor took a deliberate step to remove a document that had been publicly available on its website for nearly half a decade. Why?

Redacted version of Library Lot RFP No. 743  from Aug. 14, 2009 produced by the city of Ann Arbor in response to a recent FOIA request. The un-redacted document had been disseminated on the a2gov.org website from Aug. 14, 2009 until sometime around March 20, 2014.

Redacted version of Library Lot RFP No. 743  from Aug. 14, 2009 produced by the city of Ann Arbor in response to a recent FOIA request. The un-redacted document had been disseminated on the a2gov.org website from Aug. 14, 2009 until sometime around March 20, 2014.

Allegedly, that document contains information that – if it were disclosed – would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of someone’s privacy. Never mind the fact that the context of the document itself makes clear that the information in question is clearly and deliberately intended to be publicly available.

To erase any possible doubt about that, I resorted to an advanced investigative technique: I asked the guy. And it turns out that current Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board member John Splitt had been content to have jsplitt@comcast.net publicly disclosed as his email contact information in the document – the same as elsewhere on the Internet.

The document in question is RFP No. 743 – issued in 2009 by the city for development of the Library Lot. Why did it even occur to anyone at the city to delete RFP No. 743 from a2gov.org? [Full Story]

In it for the Money: Your Public Library

Editor’s Note: At the Ann Arbor city council’s March 17, 2014 meeting, Ann Arbor District Library Director Josie Parker told councilmembers that heroin sale and use takes place at the downtown location of the AADL. The council was debating a resolution about reserving as a public park an area of the surface of the city-owned parking structure adjacent to the downtown AADL.

In rejecting the idea that the problems are caused by the homeless, Parker also told the council that “some of the most obnoxious behavior exhibited at the public library in Ann Arbor is done by persons who are very well housed, very well fed, and very well educated. It is not about those things. It is just about simply behavior.”

Chronicle columnist David Erik Nelson is a frequent visitor to the public library. He drafted this column before Parker made her comments. And he’s still an enthusiastic library patron. From Parker’s March 17 comments: “We manage it and you don’t know about it … and you’re generally as safe as you can be in the public library, and that makes it successful.”

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

Say a precocious child – like Glenn Beck, for example – asks you how much the library costs. The library is, after all, readily confused with a bookstore (because it is full of books) or NetFlix (because they let you have stuff for a while, but expect it returned in good condition).

What’s your answer?

Probably the first thing that comes out of your mouth is that it’s free – which makes sense to the child (and, evidently, Glenn Beck). After all, the kid never sees you pay anyone there, and (assuming your household finances are like mine) it is also likely often a place you go to have fun and get stuff after you’ve explained that you can’t buy this or pay to visit that on account “We don’t have the money for it.”

But we’re all grow-ups here – even Glenn Beck – and we certainly know that the library costs something [1], we just don’t know how much (or, evidently, who foots the bill). If pressed, we’d wave our hands and say that the library is probably funded (note that passive voice!) by some sub-portion of a portion of our property taxes, plus a little Lotto money and tobacco settlement, multiplied by the inverse of some arcane coefficient known only to God and the taxman, or something – yet another inscrutable exercise in opaque bureaucracy.

But it’s not that way at all.

In contrast to pretty much all other public services – which are funded by an exceedingly hard-to-parse melange of federal, state, local, and “other” revenue streams – more than 90% of the Ann Arbor District Library’s budget comes from local property taxes. The amount you pay for it is written out on your tax bill.

At first glance, it’s probably more than you would have guessed: The average Ann Arborite has a $155 annual library bill. That’s sorta pricey for something that’s “free.”

But upon even brief reflection, it’s pretty clear that the library is much better than free. [Full Story]

Column: City Council as Entertainment

About the author: Dave Askins is editor and co-founder of The Ann Arbor Chronicle. He’s covered  every Ann Arbor city council meeting since September 2008.

asdf

This is a mock-up of how the city of Ann Arbor might provide a text box with councilmember amended text in real time, just underneath the online CTN video stream of council meetings. (Art by The Chronicle.)

If you’ve never watched an Ann Arbor city council meeting in person or on Community Television Network, you really should give it a try sometime. The next chance to watch your local elected officials in action is April 7, 2014 with a scheduled start of 7 p.m.

As an entertainment option, I’d allow that a city council meeting probably falls somewhat short of the Netflix series “House of Cards” or the ABC series “Scandal.” That’s actually OK with me – because journalists in those dramas have been shoved in front of trains and shot dead on the street.

But any long-running TV series is more entertaining to watch if you understand exactly what is going on. If you have elderly eyes, for example, you might not be able to see if that text message Frank Underwood received was from Zoe Barnes or Olivia Pope. It makes an episode hard to follow, if you don’t know who sent Underwood that text message.

One of the hardest parts of a city council meeting to follow – even if you are well-versed in the subject matter – is any deliberation featuring wordsmithing of amendments to text.

So in the interest of making Ann Arbor city council meetings more entertaining, I’d like to propose a simple step toward helping the viewing public understand exactly what’s going on: Let the public see amended text in real time.

How could councilmembers, in real time, make visible to the public proposed amendments to text already under consideration?

An easy technical solution already exists.

It’s free, and it requires no registration or creation of user accounts. And it’s not Google Drive. [Full Story]

Column: Michigan-MSU Rivalry Recharges

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

On Sunday, the Michigan Wolverines faced the Michigan State Spartans in the final of the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament. After a decade of domination by the Spartans, John Beilein’s Wolverines held the upper hand the past four years. After losing two stars to the NBA and one to back surgery, they surprised just about everyone when they won the regular season Big Ten title this year by three games. Now they had the rare chance to beat the Spartans three times in one season.

Well, they say beating your arch-rival three times is almost impossible, and that proved true. There was no debating this one. The Spartans beat the Wolverines by 14 points. Spartans’ head coach Tom Izzo is doing what Tom Izzo does: Getting his team ready at just the right time for a good run in the NCAA tournament.

But Sunday’s game might have given both teams what they needed for the tournament: a spark of confidence for the Spartans, and a wake-up call for the Wolverines. I’ll bet both Izzo and Beilein are smart enough to use the Big Ten final game to motivate their players.

But, whatever happens in the NCAA tournament, both teams have elevated basketball in the state of Michigan – and with it, the rivalry between them. And they’ve done it the right way, too. [Full Story]

Column: Bill Ford Sr.’s Legacy of Loyalty

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Editor’s note: A shorter version of this column was published in the March 12, 2014 edition of the Wall Street Journal.

In the course of his 88 years, William Clay Ford, who died Sunday, captained Yale’s tennis team, earned an engineering degree and chaired Ford Motor Co.’s finance committee, which is enough for any lifetime.

But he will likely be remembered mainly as the owner of the Detroit Lions, during five woefully unsuccessful decades. Since he took over the franchise in 1964, the Lions have won exactly one playoff game, and remain the only NFL team to miss out on all 48 Super Bowls.

Ford’s critics claim he was a snob who didn’t care about the average fan, a fat cat who was more focused on profits than the playoffs.

False, and false. [Full Story]

Column: Beilein’s Latest Surprise

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

On Tuesday night, the Michigan men’s basketball team beat Illinois to earn its first outright Big Ten title in almost three decades. What’s more impressive is how they’ve done it.

Michigan’s famous Fab Five left the stage 20 years ago, and were replaced by Tom Izzo’s Michigan State teams a few years later. For more than a decade, the Spartans dominated the state.

Izzo’s teams have earned 16 straight NCAA invitations – and they’ll get another one next week – seven Big Ten titles, five Final Fours, and one national title, in 2000, and he’s done it the right way. His players graduate at roughly an 80% clip, higher than the student body at large. Along the way, Izzo took 18 of 21 against the Wolverines, who have had four different head coaches during his tenure.

But what a difference a few years make. Michigan basketball coach John Beilein has beaten the Spartans in six of their last eight meetings, and returned the long dormant Michigan program to its previous heights.

And by previous heights, I mean 1986, which is the last time Michigan won the Big Ten title outright. I was a senior that year – about the same age as the parents of Michigan’s current players. [Full Story]

In it for the Money: Crimes and Misdemeanors

I want to talk about Dylan Farrow’s open letter, published on the New York Times blog on February 1. But I don’t particularly want to talk about Woody Allen, or rape, or patriarchy, or the law [1].

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

I want to talk about rhetoric.

I want to talk about rhetoric, and moral decision making, and a funny little blind spot built into our cognitive hardware.

At 942 words, Dylan Farrow’s open letter is one of the most brilliant pieces of persuasive writing I’ve seen in years. It’s strength stands on three legs.

First and foremost, Farrow’s letter opens and closes with a question, which is an established marketing tactic [2]: Humans naturally want to give assistance, and our minds rise unbidden to answer questions. We might be able to tamp down that inclination long enough to keep the answer from flying out our mouths or fingers, but we still rise to the question in our heads, and that’s all Farrow needs here. She needs us to engage her claim, which we might not be inclined to do if it was flatly stated.

Second is the powerful juxtaposition in the first two sentences:

1. “What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?”

2. “Before you answer, you should know: when I was seven years old, Woody Allen took me by the hand and led me into a dim, closet-like attic on the second floor of our house.”

The juxtaposition implies an association, but does so without demanding we parse anything complicated. We are first asked a question – with which we reflexively engage. Then we’re given a very evocative declarative image.

Finally, that associative juxtaposition connects Woody Allen with violation, and activates a deep, pre-rational aversion buried in our hardware of our brains: We do not like to be associated with unclean things. Those two sentences associate Allen with this fundamentally repugnant violation in a way that speaks to our deep brain without engaging the rational surface layer.

If Farrow had flatly stated her claim – something like: “When I was seven years old Woody Allen raped me. You should not enjoy his films.” – our clever, lately evolved, logic-obsessed prefrontal cortices would balk, tossing up all sorts of rational roadblocks (It’s nonsense! The one thing has no bearing on the others! My favorite Woody Allen film was released three years before the events in question! ). The two sentences, as I’ve presented them, are literally non-sequitur; the one does not follow from the other in any obvious logical fashion.

Farrow’s rhetorical touch is brilliant, because she sidesteps our rationalizations, and directly engages our deep-seated imperative to distance ourselves and our loved ones from anything unclean. [3]

As such, Dylan Farrow’s question is much larger than one specific time and place, or one specific artist’s work: In everyday commerce, how do we decide how deeply we want to engage with people who we are fairly confident have done terrible things?

All of this is a bit outside the areas of my expertise [4], so I called Ari Kohen. [Full Story]

In the Archives: Soap a Sign of Spring

In spring the Washtenaw pioneer farm wife prepared for arguably the smelliest, most dangerous, and most tiring chore of the year. Along the way, she could suffer chemical burns, ruin her clothes, or accidentally start a grease fire. The process was hours long, involved seemingly endless stirring, and often failed.

Ypsilanti merchant Charles Stuck solicited newspaper readers for ashes.

Ypsilanti merchant Charles Stuck solicited newspaper readers for ashes.

Her first step was to gather scraps of skin and fat left over from last fall’s butchering and the grease and bones saved from months of cooking. Often rancid and mixed with dirt and animal hair, the fats were combined with water in a big iron kettle outdoors and boiled over a fire. Upon cooling, the congealed floating layer of somewhat cleaner fat was skimmed off and saved.

Along with fats, wood ashes had been conserved for some months. Ashes went into the outdoor wooden ash hopper. The hopper was a large V-shaped trough, a barrel with a hole in the bottom, or even a hollow log set upright. A pad of straw at the bottom of any style of hopper helped retain the ashes. Water poured over the gray powdery mass seeped through to become caustic alkaline lye that trickled out into a collection bucket.

Lye was the wild card in this endeavor; upon its strength depended the success of seat-of-the-skirt pioneer chemistry. Lacking pH test strips or a digital scale, the pioneer woman tested the lye by dropping in an egg or potato – if it floated, the lye was thought to be sufficiently caustic. Another test involved dipping in a feather; if the lye dissolved the feathery bits from the quill, it was dangerous enough to be useful. In an era before rubber gloves or cheap safety goggles, even a small spill or splash could cause severe skin or eye damage, with hospitals, if any, perhaps miles distant.

The fat and lye was put in the kettle and heated and stirred for some hours until the combination thickened into a soft brownish soap, a process called saponification. The process sometimes failed. “Much difficulty is often experienced by those who manufacture their own soap,” noted the November 21, 1835 issue of the Rochester, New York-published Genesee Farmer. “Often when every precaution has been apparently taken, complete failure has been the consequence; and the time is not long past when some have even declared that they believed their soap was bewitched.” [Full Story]

Column: Highs, Lows of Winter Olympics

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Why in the world are the Winter Olympics in Sochi, one of Russia’s warmest places? Chalk it up to corruption – both the Russians’, which we’ve come to expect, and the International Olympic Committee’s, which … we’ve also come to expect. The IOC hasn’t just shown a willingness to be bought, but an insistence. If you don’t pay ‘em, you ain’t getting the Olympics.

That’s how you get a Winter Olympic skating rink built in the shade of palm trees. The warm weather is funny, unless you spent your entire life training for these Olympics, and there’s no snow. Then it’s just heartbreaking.

Sochi will also be remembered for the bronze water you can’t drink, and the ritual police beatings of a punk music group called Pussy Riot – which is the kind of name you come up with when you want to call yourself something shocking, but you don’t know English very well.

But this is important, for two reasons. First, it allows journalists to say Pussy Riot on the air. I don’t think my boss will let me say it next week. And second, it restores our sense of moral superiority. This way, we can still hate the Russians – then beat them in hockey.

And that’s exactly what the Americans did, thanks to a guy named T.J. Oshie. [Full Story]

Column: Good Ideas, Flawed Process at AAPS

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen good news and bad news coming out of the Ann Arbor Public Schools.

Ruth Kraut, Ann Arbor Public Schools, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Ruth Kraut

Good news has come in the form of a new, enthusiastic, positive-energy, forward-looking superintendent in Dr. Jeanice Kerr Swift. Her “Listen and Learn” tour was thorough and well-received by the community, followed by some quickly-implemented changes based on feedback from parents, teachers and staff.

Swift also brought forward some longer-term initiatives that required approval from the AAPS board. Those include plans to address underutilized buildings, a new K-8 STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) program, more language programming, and opening up AAPS to students outside the district through the Schools of Choice program. Those ideas are all positive.

The bad news is process-related, tied to actions by the AAPS board. Mistakes of past years are being made again, as the school board fails to follow its own policies when implementing major changes to the schools. Specifically, the board continues to make important decisions after midnight, with scant information about costs or implementation. Some final votes are rushed through at the same meeting when the items are introduced, not allowing time for sufficient public input.

In this column, I’ll look at both the positive actions by the administration as well as the board’s flawed process. And I’ll ask you to weigh in – letting the board and superintendent know what you think on all of these issues. [Full Story]

Column: Learning Governance from Legistar

Last spring, The Chronicle began systematically publishing detailed previews of Ann Arbor city council meeting agendas. Part of that effort includes pointing readers to the city’s online agenda management system, which is hosted on a software platform called Legistar.

Extracted screen shot of Legistar interface that allows search of Legislative items by category.

Extracted screen shot of Legistar interface that allows search of Legislative items by category.

Legistar is an information-rich archive for upcoming as well as past meetings. I’ll grant you, it is not perfect. Legistar can at times be sluggish to respond or counterintuitive in its user interface. But Legistar will mostly cough up what you’re looking for.

The city of Ann Arbor has been using Legistar as part of its record management for Ann Arbor’s government for six years. By now I’d guess residents have figured out for themselves as much as they need or want to know about Legistar. So my purpose in writing is not to provide a tutorial on its use.

In this column, I’d like to focus on one feature of Legistar: the ability to classify meeting agenda items by category. The city of Ann Arbor’s Legistar system is set up so that an agenda item can be classified as: appointment, introduction, minutes, ordinance, proclamation, public hearing only, report or communication, resolution, resolution/public hearing, work session. Of those categories, I’d like to focus on just one: introduction.

I think that a more robust and meaningful use of “introductions” by the city council could lead to better public notice of upcoming council work, and more efficient use of limited city staff resources.

The change I have in mind wouldn’t be difficult to implement, and wouldn’t require changing the city charter to do it. But I’ll wrap up this column by noting how a change to the council’s approach to “introductions” could help get the ball rolling on a possible effort to review the city charter. [Full Story]

Column: The Aftermath of Brendan Gibbons

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

The University of Michigan named a new president last month, and the football team landed another great class of recruits last week. But there’s another story that keeps eclipsing those two.

I’ve been reluctant to write about Brendan Gibbons, because so little is clear – from the incident that started this saga five years ago, to the various responses since.

A few things are clear, though, starting with this: the athletic department continually fails to follow the advice of legendary athletic director Don Canham, “Never turn a one-day story into a two-day story.”

This story starts back in 2009, when Wolverine kicker Brendan Gibbons had an encounter at a party with a female student. Ultimately, only two people know what happened, but we do know she contacted the Ann Arbor police, then decided not to press charges.

This put the university in a tough spot. In 2009, it was a tenet of university policy that it would not look into such situations unless the alleged victim came forward. But in 2013, the university revised its code, no longer requiring the alleged victim to start an investigation.

That’s why it wasn’t until November 20 of 2013 that the Office of Institutional Equity concluded that Gibbons “engaged in unwanted or unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, committed without valid consent, and that conduct was so severe as to create a hostile, offensive, or abusive environment.”

From everything I’ve seen, the university played it straight, and the athletic department never attempted to interfere with the process. That’s the good news.

The bad news is, having gotten the hard part right, the athletic department seemed determined to get the easy part wrong.  [Full Story]

Column: Let Data Steer Local Transit Policy

Voters in Ann Arbor as well as in Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township will be asked sometime in 2014 to approve a transit millage – to be levied by the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority (AAATA). A vote by the AAATA board to place a question on the ballot is likely to come at its Feb. 20 meeting.

Fixed-route AAATA ridership by year by category: no additional subsidy (blue); go!pass downtown employees (red); University of Michigan affiliates (yellow). (Data from AAATA charted by The Chronicle.)

Fixed-route AAATA ridership by year and by category: no additional subsidy (blue); go!pass downtown employees (red); University of Michigan affiliates (yellow). (Data from AAATA, charted by The Chronicle.)

If it’s approved, the five-year millage will be used to pay for a range of service increases, focused on increased frequency for some existing routes, new routes, longer hours of operation and added hours on weekends.

In that context, I think it’s worthwhile to start getting a firmer grip on current ridership levels and historical trends.

In the last 10 years, AAATA fixed-route ridership – the “regular bus,” as contrasted with paratransit services – has grown from 4.2 million in fiscal year 2004 to 6.4 million rides in 2013. That’s about 50% growth.

And ridership in FY 2013 was consistent with that continued upward trend. But the trend this year was just slightly upward: The 6.4 million fixed-route rides provided in 2013 was barely up from 6.35 million rides in 2012 – about a 0.8% increase.

Two programs that offer financial subsidies to passengers – MRide and go!pass – showed a greater increase in ridership than the most recent overall trend. Rides taken on AAATA buses through the University of Michigan’s MRide program showed an increase of about 5% between 2012 and 2013 – from 2.61 million to 2.74 million rides. And rides taken with the go!pass, funded in largest part by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority – increased about 4% between 2012 and 2013 – from 604,000 to 629,000 rides.

I’m going to use the term “out-of-pocket ridership” for those rides not supported through an additional subsidy from the go!pass or MRide programs. Out-of-pocket ridership actually showed a decrease of about 3% from 2012 to 2013 – from 3.15 million to 3.04 million rides.

A more detailed look at the historical ridership data by category has implications, I think, for reasonable community expectations for future out-of-pocket ridership – if a millage is approved and service improvements are implemented. And that more detailed look also has implications for a reasonable basis for negotiations between AAATA and the University of Michigan on the financial component of the MRide deal.

Here’s a quick summary of my thoughts. I think the success of the five-year improvement plan should be measured in part by increases in out-of-pocket ridership. I think the MRide agreement between UM and the AAATA should include not just a fare component but also a component to cover UM’s “local share.” And I think the go!pass program should be conceived as a tool to help increase general out-of-pocket ridership, not just serve to benefit people who have a formal affiliation with downtown Ann Arbor.

You’ll find a more detailed analysis of these issues below the fold. This column also includes more charts – and even some maps with colored dots. [Full Story]

In the Archives: Dynamite Baseball Catcher

Editor’s note: Laura Bien’s local history column appears in The Ann Arbor Chronicle usually sometime around last Wednesday of the month. This month’s column draws upon the archives of The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s namesake – a 19th century University of Michigan student newspaper called The Chronicle-Argonaut. In its era, The Chronicle-Argonaut maintained a rivalry with the Michigan Daily – in the form of a “base ball” game. So it’s fitting that Bien’s column this month also highlights University of Michigan baseball from that time period.

Moses with his 1882 UM teammates.

Moses Fleetwood Walker with his 1882 UM teammates.

He smashed the color barrier in major league baseball. During his lifetime, Congress passed sweeping civil rights legislation. No modern baseball player can wear his team number on a uniform. And unlike Jackie Robinson, he was a University of Michigan alum.

Moses Fleetwood Walker was born Oct. 7, 1856 in Mount Pleasant, Ohio. His parents may have settled there due to the eastern part of the state’s long association with the Underground Railroad.

Moses, or Fleet as he was later called, was the fifth or sixth of seven children born to physicians Moses and Caroline Walker. The 1860 census lists two three-year-olds, Moses and Lizzie. The little girl, possibly Moses’ twin, does not appear in the 1870 census.

Soon after Moses’ birth, the family moved to nearby Steubenville, 40 miles west of Pittsburgh. Their neighbors there worked as bricklayers, dyers, pattern makers, tinners, and laborers. Moses attended an integrated school and at graduation chose Oberlin College, one of the first colleges in the nation to admit black and female students. When Oberlin formed its first baseball team in 1881, Moses joined as a catcher.

It was a tough position to play in that era. The catcher had no body protection or face mask. He didn’t even have a glove, but caught barehanded. In addition, in 1881 the pitcher’s throwing position was not 60 feet and six inches from home plate as it is today, but only 50 feet (and before that 45 feet). Pitchers for a time were even allowed to take a running start. Common catchers’ injuries included broken ribs and fingers, facial injuries, and concussions. [Full Story]

Column: A Reminder on Open Government

As part of an ongoing study of Ann Arbor’s sanitary sewer system during wet weather, a public meeting will take place next Thursday, Feb. 6, from 6:30-8:30 p.m. in the Slauson Middle School auditorium. At that meeting, an update will be presented on the study. Also to be discussed at the meeting are results of a recent survey of participants in the city’s footing drain disconnection program.

Government should not be like an open sewer, but it should at least be open.

Government should not be like an open sewer, but it should be open.

Fact: In local government, it doesn’t get any sexier than sanitary sewers.

The study’s full name is the sanitary sewer wet weather evaluation (SSWWE). As background reading, in preparation for next Thursday’s meeting, readers might find it useful to immerse themselves in this recent Chronicle report: “Backups: Lawyers, Sewers, Pumps.” That report is centered on a Jan. 9, 2014 meeting of the city’s citizens advisory committee (SSWWE-CAC) associated with the study.

But this column does not dwell on the substance of either the Jan. 9 or the Feb. 6 meetings. Instead, it focuses on the nature of meetings and expectations of Ann Arbor residents for local governmental activity: Government shouldn’t be like an open sewer, but it should be open.

First, meetings that are accessible to the public – like the one earlier this month or the one next Thursday – are a part of the fundamental standard set by Ann Arbor residents for the function of our local government. Ann Arbor residents don’t consider the convening of a publicly accessible meeting, with data and information available beforehand, to be some kind of bonus, value-added feature of our local governance. It’s just axiomatic.

Of course, Ann Arbor residents don’t have a monopoly in Michigan on an expectation of open government. Two state statutes ensconce a statewide commitment to open government – the Open Meetings Act (OMA) and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). From the OMA: “All meetings of a public body shall be open to the public and shall be held in a place available to the general public.”

But a group like the SSWWE-CAC is not, strictly speaking, a “public body” as defined in the statute. So in Ann Arbor, we take the OMA a step further. By longstanding city policy established through a city council resolution passed in 1991, even advisory groups like the SSWWE-CAC are expected (to the best of their abilities) to conduct their meetings in accordance with the OMA.

I’ve written a lot about this topic in the past, and don’t really have much to add now.

What prompted me to write this column, more as a reminder than anything else, was seeing a note sent to SSWWE-CAC members via Basecamp – a piece of project management software that allows group collaboration and communication. The note was sent by one of the city’s outside consultants for the sanitary sewer wet weather evaluation – Charlie Fleetham of Project Innovations.

Fleetham’s note included the following statement about the Basecamp site that’s been set up for the SSWWE-CAC: “… I believe that the CAC is and would be well served by having a site [Basecamp] to discuss this very complex and emotional issue without fear of public scrutiny.”

While I think that Fleetham’s sentiment was likely well-intended, public scrutiny is part of what Ann Arbor residents sign up for when they serve on one of the city’s citizens committees. This kind of service makes a resident a participant in a quintessential governmental function. As such, that service should be and will be subjected to public scrutiny. [Full Story]

In it for the Money: Bed Bugs!

Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” opinion column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month. If you want to get a not-more-than-weekly update on what Nelson is thinking about, sign up for his quasi-automated newsletter.

We met our first bed bug while traveling in the spring of 2011. My wife had plucked the creature from a friend’s bedroom wall.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

As tends to be the case in situations like this, the meeting began with a debate over whether the arthropod in question was in fact a bed bug. Because I’ve had the privilege of being born and gendered male, my initial response was a very confident declaration:

“That’s not a bed bug!” Then we Googled it.

It was totally a bed bug. It was, quite possibly, the exact some bed bug shown in the top result returned for “bed bugs.”

What followed was a complete and hysterical existential freak-out. We helped our friends tear apart their home, searching for signs of bed bugs with all the frantic compulsion of deeply addicted meth heads scouring the rug for that last lost shard.

Our findings were inconclusive – as lots of things look like bed bug carcasses when you are freaking out. So we elected to beat a hasty retreat – fleeing not just the house, but the city and state, and stopping only to spend an hour or two at a highway rest area tearing through our belongings in a disgusted search for bugs, nymphs, carcasses, or droppings.

Meanwhile, our four-year-old played in the grassy border unattended, attempting to coax robins into landing on a stick he held by pretending to be a tree. [Full Story]

Column: A Few Wild Guesses for 2014

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Because my last 700-word commentary completely covered every subject in the sports world that occurred in 2013, my editor thought, “Hey, why not preview the year in sports in January?!”

Why not? Because I have no idea what’s going to happen, that’s why. Nobody does. That’s why we watch sports: We don’t know how it’s going to end. It’s also why we shouldn’t watch pregame shows: everybody is just guessing.

Nonetheless, if The Chronicle wants to pay me to make wild, unsupported guesses – then doggonnit, that’s what I’ll do. Just one of the many duties that come with being a hard-hitting investigative journalist.

Let’s start at the bottom. That means, of course, the Detroit Lions. [Full Story]

Milestone: A Pitcher Worth 1,000 Words

The monthly milestone column here at The Ann Arbor Chronicle provides a regular, systematic way to express our appreciation to readers and advertisers for their financial support. That support was strong enough to sustain the publication through its fifth year in operation. Thank you.

Pitcher passed at the Old Town Tavern on Jan. 1, 2014 for the annual Townes Van Zandt memorial show performed by Chris Buhalis – on the anniversary of Van Zandt s death, now 17 years ago. (Photo by the writer).

Pitcher passed at the Old Town Tavern on Jan. 1, 2014 for the annual Townes Van Zandt memorial show performed by Chris Buhalis – on the anniversary of Van Zandt’s death, now 17 years ago. (Photo by the writer.)

As we flip the calendar to a new year, the regular milestone column is also a chance to remind readers: To sustain itself, the business really does rely in part on “voluntary subscription” dollars.

The Chronicle’s continued ability to document local government and civic affairs depends on you and it depends on you now – not on someone else at some other time. So I’m asking you to think right now about using the online system or the old-fashioned check-in-an-envelope method to make a financial contribution to The Chronicle: Subscribe!

As a reminder, in case we don’t write a column about this in some given month, I’ve added a recurring monthly item to our event listings for the second day of every month: Time to Contribute Financially to The Ann Arbor Chronicle.

It’s worth pointing out that The Chronicle’s event listings are pretty extensive, and currently include somewhere around 15,000 local events. That’s made possible through the work of Jon Udell as part of his Elm City Project. Granted, 15,000 events might sound a bit overwhelming, but we have begun categorizing them into smaller mini-calendars that some readers might find easier to parse.

One of the regular events you’ll find listed in The Chronicle’s event calendar is live music every Sunday night at the Old Town Tavern. Customary at the Old Town, after the band has played its set, is for someone to carry around a pitcher to collect up money for the musicians. It’s somewhat like a secular version of passing the collection plate at a worship service in the Christian tradition.

When someone is holding the pitcher out in front of you, that’s the time you are called upon to act – not later.

So I’d like you to think of this month’s column as the Internet-equivalent of passing the pitcher for The Chronicle. Below the fold, I’m going to beat briefly (I promise) on this same drum. So if you’ve made a recent contribution, you should feel free to imagine that the pitcher has moved on to the next table. [Full Story]

Column: Is Public Education A Charity Case?

If you’re like me, then every January you think to yourself, “This year, I’m going to spread out my charitable giving over the course of twelve months. It would be so much better for my cash flow, and probably it would be better for the nonprofits as well.”

Ruth Kraut, Ann Arbor Public Schools, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Ruth Kraut

And then, come November and December, I realize that once again, I failed to spread out my giving – and I had better pull out my checkbook. Writing the bulk of these checks at the end of the year has a benefit, in that it allows me to look at all of my donations at once. But it also means that I’m in a rush and I don’t always take the time to reflect. So this is my opportunity.

Like many of you, we make donations to local, national, and international groups that focus on a wide range of issues. For us, those organizations do work related to health, the environment, politics, women’s issues, Jewish groups, social action, human services, and more.

Although I do give to some groups that, loosely speaking, fit the category of “education,” those entities do not make up a significant proportion of our donations. I confess to a certain ambivalence to giving to such groups – because, in many ways, I’m already a big contributor to public education. And it’s likely that you are, too. [Full Story]

Column: Christmas Fire

When it is dark, when it is cold, that is the time of year when we spark a fire we hope will burn through the next year, and even though it never does, hope smolders still.

Luminary on Main Street Manchester, Michigan

Manchester Luminaria 2013. (Main Street Manchester, Michigan)

In the history of the human species, I imagine that surely dozens or even hundreds of words have already been written about the special magic of fire. So I will add a few of my own.

I grew up in a small town in southern Indiana a few houses down from a family that went all in for outdoor Christmas light displays – the kind that every year other people drove into our neighborhood to see. Whatever you might think of such displays, it’s uncontroversial that they bear witness to the intervention of a human hand: Some person went to the trouble to string those wires and screw in all those little tiny bulbs.

In Manchester, Michigan – a village in the corner of Washtenaw County, about 25 miles southwest of Ann Arbor – electric Christmas light displays coexist peacefully with candles. This year marks the 34th year of the Manchester Luminaria – a community tradition that involves placing candles inside paper bags weighted with sand, spaced evenly along the street. Residents who participate in the tradition purchase enough bags to line the street frontage of their property. The candles are lit at dusk on Christmas Eve.

I learned about this tradition because last week The Manchester Mirror reported that sales of the sand-filled bags with candles would begin from the vacant building on the northwestern corner of Manchester’s Main Street and M-52.

So how is a paper bag, lit from within by a candle, different from an electric light display? It isn’t the mere imprint of a human hand, because that much they have in common. But a glowing paper bag filled with fire bears witness to a certain immediacy of that human intervention: Some person only very recently set that candle aflame.

And if you let your eye wander down that line of evenly-spaced luminary bags, counting them off as you go, your gaze might land on one where there’s a human figure still crouched over it applying a miniature torch to the candle.  And when you see a series of a dozen unlit luminary bags, a dark segment wedged into the light, you can stand and wait, and know that a person will emerge to light those candles.

In the Manchester Luminaria, you can see the imprint of a human hand in a way that is far more visceral than in an electric light display.

I wish I had a more visceral way to convey traditional seasons greetings to Chronicle readers. But all I have is the electric light display that we call the Internet. In that spirit, I’d like to wish Chronicle readers a merry Christmas, happy holidays and a happy new year.

After the break are some additional photos from a Christmas Eve excursion to Manchester. [Full Story]

Column: Looking Back at 2013

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

The year in sports, 2013, started out with the Detroit Lions missing the playoffs, and hockey fans missing the entire National Hockey League season.

The NHL hadn’t played a game since the Stanley Cup Finals that spring. The lockout started the way these things usually do: The players thought the owners made too much money, and the owners thought the players made too much money. And, of course, both sides were dead right.

On one side, you had NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, widely considered the worst commissioner in sports today – and maybe ever – who gets booed by the fans whenever he shows up. On the players’ side, you had union chief Donald Fehr, who led the baseball players union to cancel the 1994 World Series.

Well, you can guess what happened: a game of chicken between two stubborn leaders bent on self-destruction.

Fortunately, a government mediator – yes, you heard that correctly – saved the day, and hockey resumed. All of it only goes to prove my theory: hockey is the greatest sport, run by the dumbest people.

Things picked up after that. [Full Story]

In It For The Money: Happy Holidays!

Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” opinion column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month. Unlike Xanukah, it did not come early this time around.

Xanukah came early this year, and so did the Holiday headaches.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

For example, due to issues both mathematical and autobiographical [1], I had a hard time getting Xanukah candles. Although I’m generally inclined to attribute these sorts of minor inconveniences to broad anti-Semitic conspiracies [2], I’ll admit that, in all fairness, this particular annoyance was mostly on me.

Owing to a family party, a Jewish Community Center party, a congregation party, a collision with a nominally secular national holiday, and some associated family travel, we got all the way to the eighth night of Xanukah without buying candles. And lo, on the morning of the seventh day [3], there were no Xanukah candles to be found in Ann Arbor.

I started driving up and down Washtenaw Avenue, then calling drug stores and groceries all over town, and it was always the same drill: I’d repeat “Xanukah candles” three or four times, and the clerk or manager or whoever would finally get his or her head around what the hell I was asking, and then very nicely, very apologetically, explain that they’d received a small shipment a day or two before, but sold out almost immediately.

Everyone was very nice and very concerned that I couldn’t acquire my ritual candles, and I didn’t have the heart to tell them that, despite the annual hoopla in the Gentile-controlled media, Xanukah is a really, really minor military holiday, and so it wasn’t a big deal.

But when I went into Hiller’s, I had a funny exchange with the clerk. I asked her if there were Xanukah candles (repeat × 3), and once she figured out what I was saying she said no, and apologized. She noted I wasn’t the first person to come in that morning (it was 9 a.m.), and that “you’d think we’d have them, because we’re a Jewish store, but no, we’re all sold out.” [Full Story]

Column: What Do We Pay Ann Arbor’s Mayor?

Ann Arbor mayor John Hieftje announced on Oct. 11, 2013 that he would not seek re-election to an eighth two-year term. That prompted Ann Arbor residents to begin speculating about who might seek election to that position in 2014. It’s a position that I think might just as well be called “chief pothole filler.” More on that in a bit.

History of Ann Arbor city councilmember and mayor salaries as determined and accepted/rejected by the Ann Arbor city council.

History of Ann Arbor city councilmember and mayor salaries as determined by a process involving the LOCC and the Ann Arbor city council.

One of the questions surely weighed by any potential candidate for Ann Arbor mayor is purely practical: What does the Ann Arbor mayor get paid? The $42,436 mayoral salary would, for some of us, represent a significant increase in annual income. For others, it would reflect a dramatic pay cut. A councilmember’s salary, at $15,913, is considerably less than the mayor’s.

My point in writing today is not to explore the policy question of mayoral or councilmember salaries. That’s a question ultimately determined by a public body called the local officers compensation commission (LOCC). The seven-member LOCC is supposed to meet every odd-numbered year and make a salary determination for the next two years. That determination takes effect unless rejected by the city council. If it’s rejected, then the salaries remain the same as they were.

A check of the calendar shows that this year is odd-numbered. And it turns out that as far as the LOCC is concerned, it is also an odd year. One odd thing is that the LOCC has not yet convened a meeting, with just about two weeks left in 2013. However, a notice came through from the city clerk’s office this week that a meeting of the LOCC is now scheduled for Dec. 16, 2013 at 2:30 p.m. in the third floor conference room of the Ann Arbor city hall – located at 301 E. Huron St. in downtown Ann Arbor.

The other odd thing is that if you attend that meeting, you will not see a seven-member public body convened around a conference room table deliberating toward a salary determination. Instead you’ll likely see just two commissioners – Eunice Burns and Roger Hewitt. The city’s online Legistar system shows them as the only members of the LOCC who have current appointments. Burns is a former city councilmember and a former member of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority (DDA) board. Hewitt currently serves on the DDA board. The DDA connection is coincidental.

So my point in writing is to reflect on this question: Why does anyone think it’s reasonable, let alone legal, that the seven-member body responsible for determining mayor and council salaries could convene a meeting – with only two members who are appointed and serving?  [Full Story]

Column: How Football Helped Build MSU

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Every university has its giants, of course, but those schools born around the Civil War needed bigger men than most to carve these campuses out of forests, then build them to rival the world’s greatest institutions – and to do it all in mere decades.

The list of icons includes the University of Chicago’s President William Rainey Harper and Amos Alonzo Stagg, who put their new school on the map; Michigan’s James B. Angell and Fielding Yost, who made Michigan what it is today; Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne, who made Notre Dame famous, and Father Ted Hesburgh, who made it great.

At Michigan State, that man is John A. Hannah. [Full Story]

Column: Ann Arbor’s Brand of Participation

An Ann Arbor city council budget planning session is scheduled to take place on Monday, Dec. 9, starting sometime around 4 p.m.

CAnn Arbor Brand

Illustration by The Chronicle, based on bar chart in a preliminary draft report of a fall 2013 National Citizens Survey conducted among Ann Arbor residents.

Councilmembers have been asked to prepare for the session by thinking about Ann Arbor’s “brand.” Specifically, they’ve been asked to reflect on what “differentiates Ann Arbor from other communities in Michigan” and what “makes Ann Arbor a truly special community to live, work and play.”

Councilmembers will be asked to spend about five minutes each at the start of the session talking about how they see the Ann Arbor “brand.”

The facilitator for the session is Julia Novak of the Novak Consulting Group. In advance of last year’s session, she asked councilmembers to prepare by formulating thoughts that could be summarized as “What I Believe.

Last year’s homework assignment was, I think, easy compared to this year’s. And I do not envy councilmembers this chore. It sounds hard. I wouldn’t know where to begin. Anytime somebody starts talking about “brands” – especially a brand for a city – my first thought is: “Why, you sound like a charlatan standing there talking to me; why don’t you go off and make something useful, then come back and tell me all about that very useful thing you made instead of blathering on about brands.”

And so, because I am human, and every bit as lazy and ill-tempered as the rest of you, I will not get down to the business of completing the chore … before bitterly lamenting the nature of the chore itself (with all due respect to Julia Novak). I do hereby bitterly lament the branding chore. But I’ll take a shot.

That shot includes quoting a five-year-old interview.

But before delving into the dusty archives, I want to have a look at the preliminary results of a survey that was conducted recently among residents. I think it shows that our self-image as a community valuing public participation is not especially well-founded. So that’s not our brand. Not right now, anyway. [Full Story]