The Ann Arbor Chronicle » Opinion it's like being there Wed, 26 Nov 2014 18:59:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Column: The Chronicle’s Last Chapter Wed, 03 Sep 2014 04:55:20 +0000 Mary Morgan I always start a novel by reading its last chapter – I like to know how things turn out.

A small slice of a large shelf of books about the history of Ann Arbor at the downtown location of the Ann Arbor District Library. The AADL will be archiving the more than 10 million words that were published over the course of six years of The Ann Arbor Chronicle.

A small slice of a large shelf of books about the history of Ann Arbor at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library. The AADL will be archiving the more than 10 million words that were published over the course of six years of The Ann Arbor Chronicle.

For those of you like me, who also flip to the end: This is the final word from The Chronicle.

We launched this publication six years ago with no clear ending in sight. It was a jumping-off-the-cliff moment, with the hope – but certainly no guarantee – that we’d be creating something special, even transformative. There were many times along the way when I doubted our choice to take that leap. Recall that 2008 and 2009 formed the nadir of the economic recession, and in hindsight I marvel that we were able to thrash out a livelihood.

I marvel because at that time, no one was clamoring for in-depth reports on meetings of the library board, the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, the park advisory commission or any of the other public entities we began covering. We wrote detailed 15,000-word articles on city council meetings, in an era when traditional news media considered 500-word stories too long for the attention spans of its target demographic.

Over 10 million words later, I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, and proud too that we’re bringing it to a close on our terms. Dave Askins wrote about that decision in his Aug. 7 column. I’d encourage you to read it, if you haven’t already.

Since that announcement, we’ve received a flow of well wishes, understanding and support – the generosity of spirit that has fueled us these past six years. Many readers also shared personal anecdotes about what The Chronicle has meant to them. That’s been meaningful for us, too, because this publication has been a very personal endeavor since its inception.

My two favorites are these: We learned that The Chronicle’s coverage of the Ann Arbor planning commission was used as flirting material with an urban planning grad student – and that couple is now married with a child. And the family of Peter Pollack – a landscape architect who died in 2010 – is including The Chronicle’s description of his legacy in a collection of materials they’ve gathered for his grandchildren, so that the next generation will learn about this remarkable man when they grow up. (We had tucked an obit for Peter into one of our regular city council reports.)

I cherish these kinds of connections that are now intertwined with The Chronicle’s own legacy. We set out to create an archive of community history, and The Chronicle itself is now a part of that history.

The Chronicle’s mission centered around giving readers the tools they needed for a deeper understanding of our local government, providing context and guidance as they navigated often baffling bureaucracies. Our hope was to make the inner workings of our city and county more accessible. Many people embraced this approach. Maybe they hadn’t been clamoring for The Chronicle’s public meeting coverage, because they hadn’t known what they could be missing.

So one question we’ve heard often since announcing our decision to close is this: What will fill the void?

We don’t know – but we have some ideas.

Although The Chronicle has been a useful resource, it was an attraction primarily for people who already have an interest in local governance. What about all the rest – the more than 80% of voters who didn’t bother to participate in the most recent primary election, for example?

Is it possible to shift our community’s culture? To educate, inform, cajole the majority of residents – of all ages – into caring about what happens at city hall and in the county boardroom? To make Ann Arbor a model of civic awareness and engagement to which other cities across America aspire?

Is it feasible to create a community where of course you would flirt over planning commission reports? Where the passing of a man like Peter Pollack would cause the whole city to pause and give thanks for his life of civic service?

Again, we don’t know. But I’d like to spend some time thinking about ways to catalyze that kind of cultural transformation.

There’s a literary technique called in medias res – starting in the middle. Perhaps The Chronicle was just such a thing, the middle of a community narrative that’s leading to an entirely unexpected conclusion.

So even while The Chronicle’s chapter of the community’s book is coming to a close, we’ll also be thinking about a possible sequel.

I do like to know how things end. But beginnings are even better.

Mary Morgan is publisher of The Ann Arbor Chronicle. She and Chronicle editor Dave Askins co-founded the online publication on Sept. 2, 2008. The Chronicle will not be publishing regular reports after Sept. 2, 2014.

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In It For The Money: Our Schools Mon, 01 Sep 2014 13:01:22 +0000 David Erik Nelson My son starts third grade at Pattengill this week. He spent the first three years of his compulsory education riding the big yellow bus to Bryant Elementary – Pattengill’s K-2 sister school, sorta-kinda over by the municipal airport and town dump.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

Every day, on the way home from the bus stop, I’d ask what he did that day at school. Invariably they’d done nothing. I’d prod, as directed by the school: “Which specials did you have today? Did you go to the library? Did you have gym? What did you get in trouble for? Did anyone fall out of a chair?” and basically get nothing.

He clearly demonstrated that he was learning things somehow – he was reading ever more voraciously, and suddenly knew perfect squares through 10 and what a rhombus was. If the school accomplished that through long days spent sitting motionless and staring into space, far be it from me to disrupt their zen practice. “Nothing” was, after all, getting results.

But as it turns out, my kid is a damned liar. They hardly did any “nothing” at all at that school.

Enter the Loose-Leaf Golem

At the end of the school year my boy brought home a trashmonster, his backpack heavy with pounds upon pounds of classwork, much of it unfinished, or seemingly untouched (kinda confirming his claim that he does nothing at school).

Knock, Knock. Who? Yes!

Knock, Knock. Who? Yes!

Embedded in that mess of nightmare penmanship and abandoned math sheets were bizarre gems, like these little daily writing things. I don’t know what these were supposed to be: They are half-sheet size, stapled into booklets, rarely dated.

Sometimes they are just a sentence or two about his weekend or favorite food, but often they are these weird schematic jokes.

Or little nuggets that read like spitball pitches for indie horror films in an alternate universe where the SAW franchise was conceived and executed as an animated series a la Muppet Babies. My favorite of these reads (with spelling corrected): An unfortunate hamster and a monkey with big ears tied together to a bone.

An unfortunate hamster and a monkey with big ears tied together to a bone.

An unfortunate hamster and a monkey with big ears tied together to a bone.

If any of you aspiring young filmmakers want to option this concept, the boy and his lawyer are taking meetings.

So that’s something they did all year: They scrawled cough-syrup fever-dream koans on little pieces of paper. Also, they published a fiction anthology.

This thing weighs over a pound-and-a-half and is thicker than my thumb. My boy’s contribution is the first chapter (?!) of what seems an awful lot like Snoopy/Pikachu slash fic in which wolves bring the intrepid couple magical weapons and a sonorous bird.

An anthology of stories by the students in Mr. Kinasz's 2nd grade class.

An anthology of stories by the students in Mr. Kinasz’s 2nd grade class.

More chapters of this – occasionally illustrated, invariably scrawled edge-to-edge, front and back, on loose sheets of college-rule paper – were embedded in the classwork trashmonster.

There was also the unpublished first draft of the first book in his series “Presidents in Peril,” in which Lincoln is saved from wolf-assassination by a time-traveling ninja (also an excellent film pitch, in my humble).

I realize that I’m running the risk of being dismissed as flip, so here’s a slightly more somber piece of classwork I extracted from the work-lump my son brought home from school.

Below is a single page from a not-at-all radical second-grade civics curriculum. That final box is a bit squished. It reads: The community may be abandoned.


“The community may be abandoned.”

We’ve lived next to an abandoned house for as long as he can remember (#PureMichigan), and we’re middle-class pink-colored people – which is to say we’re the sort of Americans that, statistically, are doing OK right now. That is what OK looks like in 2014.

In the Belly of the Beast

Oh, and, one more thing: My kid’s second-grade class made a whale last year.

In the belly of a blue whale.

In the belly of a blue whale.

It was a 1:1 scale replica of a blue whale, made from black plastic tarps and inflated with industrial blowers (the kind the custodians use to dry the floor after waxing. Sorry the photo isn’t super-fantastico; there was no practical way to get a pic of the outside of the thing, because it was as big as a blue whale.)

A whale. A whale. They made a whale, and then inflated it, and got inside it as a class, and made measurements so they could tape down 3×5 index cards labeling the locations of all the organs.

They worked on it for months – during which, every day, I asked my kid: “What did you do at school today?” and he answered “Nothing.”

He spent his days toiling in the belly of a whale.

Yet that was “nothing” to him – nothing at all. We live in an age of wonders.

These are our tax dollars at work, Ann Arbor. These are our tax dollars at work, Michigan.

This is what we vote for when we vote for millages. This is what we destroy when we slash budgets and privatize services.

This is what we destroy when we permit ourselves to obsesses about the less-than-meaningless minutia of testing tests – to better test the tests’ capacity to test our kids’ capacity to test well on future tests of their test taking skills.


My son attended Clifford E. Bryant Elementary School for three years. It wasn’t until that final day – the day I saw the whale – that I stopped to actually read the plaque next to the rather dour portrait of Clifford E. Bryant hung in the lobby. It’s hung high above the door my son walked through no less than 1,000 times, in the building bearing the name of the man pictured there. And what does that plaque say?

Clifford E. Bryant came to Ann Arbor after World War II and was hired as a custodian for the Ann Arbor Public Schools on August 16, 1946. He worked in the school system for 25 years. Mr. Bryant was not an ordinary custodian. He had the reputation of being a friend and helper to both students and teachers. He was not a tall or big man in physical size, but he was in every other way. Although tradition dictated that schools be named after deceased persons, Clifford Bryant was honored during his lifetime. He was chosen because of the kind of man he was and what he did for the children, teachers, and parents of Ann Arbor.

I’m including a half-tone photo of Bryant from a 1972 newspaper article instead of a photo of the plaque, because I think it makes a  better portrait of the man.

Clifford Bryant

Clifford Bryant

On the occasion of the school being named for Bryant, AAPS assistant superintendent of operations Emerson Powrie (who had worked with Bryant as a principal) said, “I’m very pleased that the [Ann Arbor Board of Education] has recognized that faction of the school community that is so often overlooked. Cliff was a very dedicated employee and deserves such an honor.”

I want to flag a couple things here.

First and foremost is the primacy of always reading the plaque – and the sooner the better. I wish I’d known this three years ago. I wish that I could have told my son, so that he would have more than 1,000 reminders of the other thing that I want to flag: The little things count.

We didn’t name a school after Clifford Bryant because he fought in a war (although he did), nor because he saved a bunch of kids from a fire (he might have), or because he cured cancer (which doesn’t seem to be the case), or because he walked on the moon (which no records indicate ever happened). He was not rich (according to any reports I’ve seen), he didn’t revolutionize desktop computing (to the best of my knowledge), and he didn’t appear in 47 top-grossing films nor win an Academy Award for his role in Good Will Hunting. As near as I can tell, his death wasn’t even very widely mourned – heck, he passed just six years after the school was named for him, and yet doesn’t seem to have even warranted an obituary in the local paper.

So what did he do to deserve this honor?

He showed up faithfully. He worked kindly. He helped. In short, he bent the arc of the moral universe in exactly the way that we all want our children to aspire to: By being gracious on the daily to those around them.

At a fundamental level Bryant was a custodian: He steadfastly protected and maintained something of value to us all.

And just as I very much like living in a community where we set our children to the task of building and working inside of ersatz, air-filled land-whales, I also very much like living in a community where we will name a school after a person because that person was good and faithful and kind.

Happy Trails

And here we are, Dear Readers, at the end of the road.

I’ll level with you: This has been a ton of work. In the normal course of events these columns consumed hours upon hours of typing, backspacing, typing, revising, cutting, cutting, cutting, and cutting, followed by my endless compulsive nit-picking and fidgeting and altogether trying of Mary Morgan’s good faith and Dave Askins’ monumental patience – and those were the columns that went to print.

Uncounted were the hours spent standing in lines, pestering folks, fruitlessly Googling, working the phones, and otherwise chasing down leads that evaporated to nothingness. If you knew how long these 33 columns took to write and research, then you’d know the awful truth: That I’m not just a self-aggrandizing blowhard, but also a damned fool.

Say what you want, Gentle Readers, but at least I was always a fool for the facts. I reported what I saw as faithfully as possible, and told you the truth to the best of my ability. And over and over and over again I have been surprised, and humbled, and intensely flattered by your honesty and patience and good will in coming along with me on what has been, quit literally, a fool’s errand. That we are here, together, at these words so low on the last page of the final column is a testament to your civic fortitude as much as my obstinacy.

So while it’s a bummer we’ll no longer hang out like this, it’s also a tremendous relief. I’m sure you understand.

That said, I continue to write.

Something like this column – albeit much shorter and more poorly proofread – pops up on my website now and again. If you want to be kept apprised of that, you can sign up for my newsletter (and hear from me not more than weekly) or follow me on Twitter (and see many more pictures of my toddler attempting to feed gin to a stuffed lemur). I also write other stuff. Amazon will happily sell it all to you, and places like Literati can certainly get ahold of the things actually printed on paper.

If any of you happen to know someone looking for a somewhat obtuse columnist interested in a new project, I’m willing to talk. No reasonable offers will be dismissed out of hand.

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Column: On Taking Time to Hear Fri, 22 Aug 2014 16:29:24 +0000 Dave Askins At the Aug. 18 Ann Arbor city council meeting, anti-Israel activists left council chambers mid-session. Their parting shot was to contend that the council cared more about deer than about people. The reference to deer was an allusion to an agenda item that allocated $20,000 for development of a deer management plan. It was approved by the council in a unanimous vote.

But this column is not about deer versus people. It’s about corporations versus people. Also football. Even the U.S. Constitution.

This is the electronic time clock at the public speaking podium in Ann Arbor's city council chambers. The elements in red (except for the American flag in the background) have been digitally added. 

This is the electronic time clock at the public speaking podium in Ann Arbor’s city council chambers. The elements in red (except for the American flag in the background) have been digitally added.

First, here’s some background. On Aug. 18, the anti-Israel activists had not been able to address the council during reserved public comment time at the start of the meeting – because the council rules stipulate that preference is given to speakers who want to address an agenda item. A boycott against Israel was not on the agenda.

So during that comment period, the council heard from five people who spoke in favor of spending the $20,000 on a deer management plan. The other five reserved slots were taken by: Thomas Partridge, who was officially signed up to talk about the planning commission’s work plan (one of the attachments in the clerk’s report); two people who signed up to talk about revisions to the taxicab ordinance; and two people who had signed up to talk about the lease agreement with the University of Michigan for three parking lots at Fuller Park.

That meant that anti-Israel activists were not able to reprise their demonstration at the previous council meeting, on Aug. 7, when eight of their group were signed up to speak. On that occasion, nearly all the commentary was complete. But then chants of “Boycott Israel” led mayor John Hieftje to recess the meeting. And he eventually decided to have Ann Arbor police clear the room of more than 50 activists. In this case, “clearing the room” translated into two officers telling the group’s leaders – Blaine Coleman and Mozghan Savabieasfahani – that they and their group had to leave. And after a few minutes, amid more loud chants and heated statements, the group left council chambers under their own power.

The contrast on obvious display at the Aug. 18 meeting was between two types of meeting attendees: (1) those who wanted to address the city council about an agenda item; and (2) those who wanted to address the council, but not on an agenda item.

That’s not the contrast I want to focus on. I want to focus on the contrast between two speakers who were alternates on the waiting list for reserved speaking time – both of whom wanted to address the council about an agenda item.

The two alternates were: Larry Baird, an Ann Arbor resident who signed up to talk about the Fuller Park lease agreement; and Michael White, a representative of Uber who was attending the meeting to speak against regulation of drivers for hire. Baird was slotted ahead of White on the alternate list.

The Person

Under the council’s rules, alternate speakers are assigned the slots of other speakers on the list if those slots are “vacated.” On Aug. 18, the first speaker on the list was Rita Mitchell, who was signed up to talk about the Fuller Park lease. When mayor John Hieftje started off public commentary, he called Mitchell’s name. A 10-second pause ensued as Mitchell did not approach the podium or say anything. Hieftje scanned the room. Ward 4 councilmember Jack Eaton then pointed her out, in the audience on the north side of the council chambers.

She remained there, telling Hieftje, “I’m electing not to speak.” Under the council’s rules, it would not have been allowed for Mitchell to transfer her speaking time to someone else. But she was within her rights to vacate the slot – which she did, first by not saying anything and then, when Hieftje addressed her, replying, “I’m electing not to speak.” So when the other nine speakers had completed their turns, Larry Baird – as the first alternate – should have been allowed to speak, according to the council’s rules.

Here’s what happened instead. Hieftje ended the public commentary section. Ward 2 councilmember Jane Lumm ventured there was another speaker left. But Hieftje disallowed Baird’s turn as Baird approached the podium, explaining “Ms. Mitchell was here and chose not to speak. It’s not as if she wasn’t here. And so we’re gonna continue with our agenda.”

The incorrect application of the council’s rule by Hieftje meant that Baird’s only guaranteed opportunity to speak during the meeting would come after the council’s action on the Fuller Park lease, at the end of the meeting.

The Corporation

In that regard, Uber – in the form of Michael White – was in the same boat as Baird. But later in the meeting, the council chose to invoke a different rule, which worked to Uber’s benefit.

When the council came to the taxicab ordinance on the agenda, Uber was invited to the podium to speak. Under the council’s rules, any councilmember can invite someone to address them outside of public commentary reserved time, unless three councilmembers object. No one objected when Lumm invited Uber to the podium.

Uber spent about 25 minutes at the podium doing a great job of not actually answering point-blank yes/no questions posed by councilmembers, but hammering all of Uber’s standard marketing points.

Having used Uber a half dozen times, I would note in passing that I think those are easy marketing points to hammer – because Uber provided a great travel alternative when I used it. If concerns about safety and equity can be sorted out, I think rideshare services should have a place in Ann Arbor’s transportation marketplace.

However, based on Uber’s performance at the podium, I’ll probably be giving Lyft a try.

People Versus Corporations

When the council came to the Fuller Park lease item, Baird was still present in council chambers and available to speak. But no councilmember was stirred to invite Baird to the podium to deliver the three-minutes of rightful in-person public commentary he’d been denied. The council voted to postpone the lease item, without hearing from Baird, who was not able to stay until the end of the meeting to address the council at that time.

So the real contrast on display at the Aug. 18 Ann Arbor city council meeting was not deer versus people. It was corporations versus people. What I observed was a council that was – at least on that occasion – more interested in hearing from a corporation than it was from a person who lives here.

Bear in mind that Ann Arbor city councilmembers are the sort of folks who are content to state publicly their personal opposition to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission decision – which determined that corporations are people for the purposes of political campaign contributions. (That statement about the sentiments of councilmembers appears to be true, even if not all of them were willing to vote yes on a resolution in 2012 calling for the U.S. Congress to send a constitutional amendment to the states to overturn the ruling.)

And councilmembers routinely compete with each other in this kind of contest: Who can talk longer about the importance of public input? A few years ago, the council even enacted a public participation ordinance, requiring all developers to meet with residents in the early stages of proposed new developments.

Political Football

But when it comes to the practical implementation of that stated value of public participation, John Hieftje dropped the ball on Aug. 18.

As a quarterback of the council, Hieftje has never been particularly sure-handed, so that fumble wasn’t surprising – and consequently, not all that disappointing. What’s truly disappointing, to me at least, is that no one on Team Council dove into the pile to make the recovery. Jane Lumm might have come closest to that, when she ventured that there was another speaker remaining – after Hieftje announced that public commentary was over.

So Lumm at least yelled “FUM-BLE!” But Hieftje responded by declaring that the alternate speaker wouldn’t be allowed to speak – because Rita Mitchell was present in the audience.

At that point, no one on the council threw a red challenge flag – by asking that the text of the rule be reviewed, to see if and how it applied. At the end of the meeting, during council communications, Sumi Kailasapathy raised the question by citing the relevant council rule, stating that a mistake had been made. She asked if the situation could be rectified in some way. But as Chuck Warpehoski pointed out, following up on Kailasapathy’s sentiment: A point of order needs to be raised at the time the issue arises.

Otherwise put, you can’t ask for a review of the play after the game is over. So in the future, the council has to be ready to throw that challenge flag onto the field before the next play starts.

Knowing the Rule Book

Kailasapathy knew the exact wording of the rule by the end of the meeting, because I showed her the text of the rule during a recess. During that recess, I gave her and Stephen Kunselman (who were standing together) not just the rule but also a piece of my mind – because they’d sat mute at the council table and had not defended Baird’s right to speak under the council’s rule.

Kunselman responded by saying he didn’t have all the council’s rules memorized. Well, I don’t have them memorized, either. But I do know how to look stuff up [emphasis in bold italics]:

Public Commentary – Reserved Time:
A total of 10 speakers shall be allowed to address Council during the time designated as Public Commentary – Reserved Time by signing up with the City Clerk either in person or by telephone. Each person may speak a maximum of 3 minutes. Speaking times are not transferable, and vacated speaking times shall be assigned to the two alternate speakers on the waiting list. Speakers may not use public commentary-reserved time to address Council on an agenda item for which a public hearing is scheduled for the same meeting.

And the only thing any councilmember needed to do was to ask for a pause in the action: “Is that really the rule, Mr. Mayor? Can we take a minute and look that up?” To look up the rule would have taken any councilmember about as long as it took me, even while I was typing out live updates of the meeting – about 10 seconds at their laptop computer.

Granted, the inclination to look something up in the council rules is premised on having some doubt about the presiding officer’s determination. But I think any scenario that involves a citizen poised to speak, like Baird was, followed by a denial of that opportunity to speak, should itself trigger a big floppy red flag of doubt: Are we really justified under our own rules in denying someone the right to address us right now?

That didn’t happen, because the culture of the Ann Arbor city council does not include routine, matter-of-fact consultation of rules and laws – even though they are really easy to look up with modern digital technology.

Knowingly Misapplying the Rule

The day after the council meeting, I sent each councilmember a one-question emailed survey. It asked for their assessment of Hieftje’s application of the rule, which had the effect of prohibiting Baird from taking his rightful turn during reserved public commentary.

Of the eight councilmembers who responded, some hedged a bit, but all indicated at least some inclination toward the idea that the rule had been misapplied and that Baird should have been allowed to speak. Ward 2 councilmember Sally Petersen’s response was interesting, because she speculated about Hieftje’s interpretation of the rule. From Petersen’s email:

I considered this a “vacation” rather than a “transfer” of speaking time. I think Mayor Hieftje considered it otherwise because Rita was there in person. It’s up to interpretation because the rule doesn’t specify the condition when the person is present.

Hieftje himself was quite clear about his own interpretation of the rule. During the council’s recess, when I confronted him about his apparent mistake, I assumed his error stemmed from the fact that he just didn’t know the exact rule. But he insisted he already knew what the rule was, when I recited it to him: “I know what the rule says, Dave.” So I told him that only a perverse interpretation of the rule would allow Mitchell’s words – “I’m electing not to speak” – to be interpreted as an attempt to “transfer” speaking turns, or as an actual speaking turn.

Hieftje’s reply was incredible to me: He stated that it was not his interpretation that Mitchell’s words were an attempt to transfer her speaking turn to someone else; however, “I was concerned that someone else might think that.”

I’ve made an emailed query to Hieftje to invite any elaboration he might like to make on that statement, to which I have not received a reply. But based on the context of the Aug 18 and Aug. 7 meetings, it appears that Hieftje deliberately misapplied the rule due to the presence of anti-Israel activists – because he was afraid they might use that as an opportunity to object to an inappropriate “transfer” of speaking turns and possibly cause a disruption of the meeting.

Hieftje’s response to Kailasapathy at the end of the meeting is consistent with that understanding. Hieftje came close to admitting that he misapplied the rule. He told Kailasapathy that the council’s rules were under very close scrutiny, and pointed to the events of the last few days:

I will take another look at that. I’m happy to do that. The speaker was indeed here … I understand that it states “vacate” and I will agree to take a close look at that. But I also want you to understand that our rules are under a special scrutiny right now given what’s transpired at the last few council meetings, and we are paying very close attention, both at the clerk’s office, and throughout the city, to make sure that people believe that those rules are being administered fairly. At the last meeting we had three or four people who showed up to speak because they’d been told they could speak under public comment and yet they didn’t have a spot on the agenda. So we’re just being especially careful right now. And maybe I was being too careful.

So this unfortunate incident ultimately stemmed from an apparent concern by Hieftje that his own preferred interpretation of the council’s public speaking rule – about vacated speaking turns being assigned to the alternate speakers on the waiting list – might provoke the ire of anti-Israel activists. So he opted to err on the side of denying someone a rightful opportunity to speak.

A slightly different possibility – one raised by Margie Teall in her response to the emailed one-question survey – was that the mayor’s concern related to a possibility that a “loophole” would be created. Teall was absent from the meeting, but clearly got an account of the meeting from other sources. From Teall’s response:

My concern is that this could become a loophole around the sign-up time. Had [Baird] been one of the first 10 to sign up, he would have spoken regardless. What Rita [Mitchell] did gives me pause, and could be used in the future to secure speaking times for others who are unable, for whatever reason, to sign up when others are required to.

It’s worth noting that alternate speakers are required to sign up, just like the other speakers. So it’s not allowed for someone to sign up for a speaking slot, and then take some action to cause the slot to transfer to a person who has not signed up. That’s the “non-transferable” clause of the council rule.

It’s not clear to me what advantage this purported “loophole” described by Teall might afford to anyone who sought to exploit it. Nor is it clear what detriment there might be to anyone, if someone were to choose to exploit this “loophole.”

U.S. Constitution

To sum up, the council used its own internal rules to give greater deference to a corporation’s right to speak at its Aug. 18 meeting than it did to a person’s right to speak under those rules.

But who cares about the Ann Arbor city council’s dumb old rules? They’re just the stupid rules of a local government unit. It’s not like they’re the U.S. Constitution.

But they are like the U.S. Constitution. And here’s why. Take a look at the First Amendment, just look at it – with emphasis added in Hieftje’s preferred email font:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

So the First Amendment is, among other things, about a right to petition the government. This is more fundamental even than a requirement imposed by Michigan’s Open Meetings Act (OMA): A public body must provide an opportunity for the public to address it during its meeting.

So when the city council sets up rules for public commentary, it’s not just establishing the exact manner in which the council will comply with the OMA. Those rules also establish one formal mechanism under which someone can petition the local government – which is a constitutional right. So when the council mucks about with the application of its public speaking rules, it’s mucking about with the right to petition the government.

That’s not to say that it’s necessarily a violation of someone’s constitutional right to petition if their right to speak under the council’s rules is denied. There are plenty of other ways to petition the Ann Arbor city council, including sending them email. Uber knows that well enough. Margie Teall noted in her response to my one-question survey that she’d received over 1,800 emails (!) about the taxicab ordinance via Uber’s online petition.

And Baird told me that he’d sent his planned remarks by email to the council before the meeting. Of course, that doesn’t justify Hieftje’s misapplication of the public speaking rule. Listening to someone read aloud for three minutes is not the same thing as glancing through a few hundred words of text. Written petitions are different in kind from oral petitions.

Conclusion: Simplify Access

Most Ann Arborites won’t care if someone did or didn’t get a chance to speak at a city council meeting. That’s because most Ann Arborites don’t think of their local government as a government of them, by them, or for them – because they’ve got way better things to do with their giant brains than think about anything as trivial as local government. I’d hazard that there are more Ann Arborites with a deeply held opinion about Obamacare than have a strong view on a need for a new, improved local rail station.

So we’ll continue to elect folks to the jobs of city council and mayor who are content to engage in a regular tussle over a relatively small fraction of the total votes that could potentially be cast in a local election. I don’t think there’s any particular incentive for our current local electeds to look for ways to increase participation in those elections, or in the boring, routine work of our collective governance.

That boring work might entail showing up to a city council meeting every once in a while and telling councilmembers what’s on your mind – for a minute or two, or even for the current maximum of three.

If someone does show up and they’ve followed the rules, the least we can do is ensure they’re allowed to speak. Figuring out what the rules are – when you have to sign up, which speakers get preference, and (now apparently) what counts as vacating a speaking turn – is one barrier to participation in Ann Arbor’s local governance. That’s because the Ann Arbor city council has enacted procedures designed to limit and discourage public comment, not to promote and market it.

I think it should be possible in one sentence to explain to any newly-arrived resident in Ann Arbor how to address our local city council: Show up at one of their regular meetings, at 7 p.m. on the first and third Mondays of the month, and sign in. That’s it.

Of course, if everyone who shows up and wants to speak is allowed three minutes, then we could routinely wind up with a citizens filibuster. But suppose we set an upper limit on the total time for public commentary. And suppose everyone who showed up and signed in was allowed 30 minutes divided by the number of people who’d signed up – with the proviso that the minimum time allowed to any speaker was a minute. That type of scheme would be a lawful way to provide for public commentary under Michigan’s Open Meetings Act, according to Attorney General Opinion #5332.

So that’s one small specific concrete suggestion for improving the ease of participation in our local governance. If the new edition of the council to be elected in November has additional or better ideas for including a wider swath of the community in our local governance, I will cheer for all that. But after Sept. 2, of course, my cheers won’t come from the hard benches of city council chambers.

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The 2014 Bezonki Awards: A Celebration Fri, 22 Aug 2014 14:05:26 +0000 Mary Morgan For the past four years, The Chronicle has honored some remarkable people in this community with our annual Bezonki awards.

Bezonki, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Three of the six Bezonki awards, crafted by local artist Alvey Jones and named after his comic strip that’s published monthly in The Chronicle. (Photos by Ben Weatherston.)

This year, we celebrated the 2014 winners with an open house on Aug. 15. The event was admittedly bittersweet, coming a week after our announcement that we plan to close this publication on Sept. 2, 2014.

But the awards are forward-looking, as well as an opportunity to recognize and honor the foundations that are being built to make our community strong. And this year’s winners are exceptional: Ryan Burns, the energy behind Ignite Ann Arbor; Linh and Dug Song, a couple committed to community-building; the Finding Your Political Voice program at Arrowwood Hills Cooperative; Mary Jo Callan, a leader in Washtenaw County government; developer Tom Fitzsimmons; and Jeannine Palms, on behalf of the many groups she’s a part of in the Buhr Park neighborhood.

Like the individuals and organizations that receive these awards, each of the six physical Bezonkis is unique, made in part with bits salvaged from equipment at the former Ann Arbor News – a nod to our profession’s past. They were crafted by local artist Alvey Jones, whose Bezonki cartoons are published monthly in The Chronicle.

The awards are unique in another way. Until this year, each winner of a Bezonki has been a steward of the physical award for a year. Winners in the past year hand it off to the next year’s winners. Our hope has been that the awards create connections year after year between people in the community – people who might not otherwise have crossed paths.

You can learn more about our past winners in The Chronicle’s archives. They’re an amazing group.

But as The Chronicle comes to a close, we have a new charge to this year’s winners. We’ve asked that they take responsibility for passing along their Bezonki to highlight the great work of others, as they encounter it in the coming months or years. We further asked that they convey this same message to the next steward of Bezonki, whoever that might be – so that the awards continue to create positive connections throughout our community. We’ve created an Ann Arbor LocalWiki page to keep track of the lineage.

Or maybe they’ll just stay on the shelves of this year’s winners – that would be fine, too. They deserve it.

2014 Bezonki Awards: Ryan Burns

Among many other things, Ryan Burns is the driving force behind Ignite Ann Arbor, an event that’s been held eight times since 2009. It’s been described as a more democratic, less arrogant form of TED talks – funny, friendly five-minute talks by local residents sharing their expertise and insights. Ryan has created a popular venue for showcasing our community, in all its adorkable charm.

He’s an engineer who’s also on the board of A2Geeks, a nonprofit that promotes the local tech community.

Ryan received the Bezonki from Paul Courant, one of last year’s winners – an economist, former University of Michigan dean of libraries and provost, and a geek in his own right.

Paul Courant, Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns, right, with 2013 Bezonki winner Paul Courant.

To Ryan Burns: In recognition of his efforts to highlight the creative energy of this community, reminding us that almost everyone has something to teach, and something to learn.

Previous stewards of this Bezonki: Trevor Staples (2011), Ann Arbor District Library digital archiving team (2012) and Paul Courant (2013).

2014 Bezonki Awards: Linh & Dug Song

Linh Song and Dug Song have official job titles – Linh is executive director of the Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation and teaches international social work at the University of Michigan School of Social Work. Dug is a tech entrepreneur who among other things is co-founder and CEO of Duo Security. He also created the Tech Brewery, an incubator for technologists, entrepreneurs and start-up technology firms.

But it’s their deep commitment to their community that makes this couple truly remarkable, on top of their professional accomplishments. In addition to raising a family, their volunteer work spans support for the new Ann Arbor skatepark, to helping organize their neighborhood’s Memorial Day parade, to serving on boards for several nonprofits.

It’s their support of the Neutral Zone that connects Linh and Dug to last year’s winner, Lisa Dengiz, whose community work includes co-founding that nonprofit for teens.

Linh Song, Lisa Dengiz, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Linh Song and Lisa Dengiz with Quynh Song.

To Dug and Linh Song: In recognition of their individual and joint efforts that help make our community stronger, smarter and a more creatively playful place to live.

Previous stewards of this Bezonki: Summers-Knoll School (2011), Roger Rayle (2012) and Lisa Dengiz (2013).

2014 Bezonki Awards: Finding Your Political Voice

“Finding Your Political Voice” is a program located at the Arrowwood Hills Cooperative on Pontiac Trail in Ward 1. Its goal is to educate residents about issues and candidates, and to develop informed voters who can participate in their community at the local, state and federal levels. This year, for example, they hosted a forum in June for candidates in the Aug. 5 Democratic primary for city council.

The idea of giving people the tools they need to become engaged citizens is one that The Chronicle embraces. This kind of grassroots education could be a model for other neighborhoods throughout the city.

James Daniel accepted the award on behalf of the program. He received it from Linda Diane Feldt, one of last year’s winners and another terrific community builder.

Arrowwood Hills Cooperative, Finding Your Political Voice, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: James Daniel, Linda Diane Feldt and Patricia Byrd, a former city councilmember.

To Finding Your Political Voice: In recognition of their contributions to create more informed voters and better citizens to improve our community.

Previous stewards of this Bezonki: Paul and Claire Tinkerhess (2011), Jim Toy (2012) and Linda Diane Feldt (2013).

2014 Bezonki Awards: Mary Jo Callan

Whenever someone mentions a cool project that involves Washtenaw County or Ann Arbor city government, Mary Jo Callan is usually involved or leading the effort – affordable housing, funding for nonprofits, fostering the local food sector, creating ways to invest in our local economy, and much more.

As director of Washtenaw County’s office of community & economic development, she is the least bureaucratic bureaucrat we know – someone who works to answer “yes” when asked for help, within the confines of a sometimes maddening labyrinth of federal, state and local regulations.

Mary Jo’s leadership in the county is one way she’s connected to last year’s winner, Derrick Jackson, director of community engagement for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Mary Jo Callan, Derrick Jackson, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Mary Jo Callan and Derrick Jackson.

To Mary Jo Callan: In recognition of your patience, good humor, intellect and mastery of navigating the political terrain to make this community a better place to live and work.

Previous stewards of this Bezonki: Matt Yankee and Jason Brooks (2011), Jeff Micale (2012) and Derrick Jackson (2013).

2014 Bezonki Awards: Tom Fitzsimmons

It’s fair to say that Ann Arbor generally isn’t in love with developers. We’ve sat through countless meetings that draw concerned residents, protesting developments either downtown or in the neighborhoods. Despite that, Tom Fitzsimmons has consistently brought forward projects that not only don’t draw residents’ ire – they’re often praised.

When the planning commission reviewed his latest project, a condominium development on Kingsley Lane, not one person came to speak against it at the public hearing. We can tell you: This is not the norm. Maybe it’s because Tom grew up here that he’s managed to quietly imbue new buildings with the characteristics of existing Ann Arbor that people love. That’s no small feat.

Tom received his Bezonki from the 2013 winner Ann Arbor Active Against ALS, a nonprofit that’s doing significant work to improve our community.

Tom Fitzsimmons, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Tom Fitzsimmons (second from right) with his Bezonki award. He received the award from board members of the nonprofit Ann Arbor Active Against ALS.

To Tom Fitzsimmons: In recognition of his ability and willingness to create new developments that honor the context of the past – and not totally piss off the masses.

Previous stewards of this Bezonki: Yousef Rabhi (2011), Anna Ercoli Schnitzer (2012), Ann Arbor Active Against ALS (2013).

2014 Bezonki Awards: Jeannine Palms

When we told Jeannine that she’d be receiving a Bezonki, she immediately asked whether it instead could be awarded to everyone involved in projects that have strengthened the Buhr Park neighborhood. Here’s what she wrote: “For me, seeing a team or a group, instead of just an individual, working in various capacities to make a difference in their community would allow others to see themselves being involved. They don’t have to take a lead role; they can be part of a team. Also, if those who are already part of the team are recognized, they get a chance to be acknowledged and appreciated in a larger framework. They may be inspired to do more!”

We hope it’s clear from that why we’re honoring Jeannine – as well as all those involved in the Cobblestone Farm Market, the Buhr Park Children’s Wet Meadow Project and its new extension, the Buhr Food Forest.

So on their behalf, Jeannine received the Bezonki that was given last year to Dan Ezekiel, an educator and activist who knows the power of a collective effort. Dan couldn’t attend our open house, so 2011 Bezonki winner Yousef Rabhi – current chair of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners who worked on the Wet Meadow Project when he was a kid – gave Jeannine the award.

Andy Brush, Yousef Rabhi, Jeannine Palms, Mary Morgan, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Bezonki winner Jeannine Palms (second from right) with Andy Brush, Yousef Rabhi and Mary Morgan.

To Jeannine Palms and all the volunteers who’ve contributed countless hours on the Buhr Park Children’s Wet Meadow Project, the Cobblestone Farm Market, and other efforts in the Buhr neighborhood: Thanks for making our community a better place, and for showing us how the power of one is magnified when people join together for a common cause.

Previous stewards of this Bezonki: Vivienne Armentrout (2011), Common Cycle (2012) and Dan Ezekiel (2013).

Scenes from The Chronicle’s 2014 Bezonki Reception

Our Aug. 15 festivities were held at the Zingerman’s Events on Fourth space and included teeter tottering, a song by our friend Chris Buhalis, treats from Hello! Ice Cream, and a masterful interactive experience from Donald Harrison of 7 Cylinders Studio – the Chronicle of Bezonkia, using images from artist Alvey Jones.

Here’s a window into The Chronicle of Bezonkia:


And here’s a sampling of images from the event. Unless otherwise noted, photos of the evening are by Ben Weatherston.

Zingerman's Events on Fourth, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Kara Carter and Aiyana Ward – staff of Zingerman’s Events on Fourth –hang a Chronicle banner before the start of the Aug. 15 open house. (Photo by Mary Morgan.)

Chris Buhalis, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Musician Chris Buhalis sang one of his songs, Kenai Dreams. The lyrics resonated with us: “…my own/ wheels are spinning but it won’t be long/ like a thin white cloud/a wisp and man I’m gone…”

Yousef Rabhi, Donald Harrison, Alvey Jones, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Yousef Rabhi prepares to enter the Chronicle of Bezonkia, an interactive multimedia experience from the creative minds of Donald Harrison and Alvey Jones. (Photo courtesy of Donald Harrison.)

Tom Bray, Donald Harrison, 7 Cylinders Studio, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Tom Bray and Donald Harrison. (Photo courtesy of Donald Harrison.)

Dave Askins, Mary Morgan, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Dave Askins, Chronicle co-founder and editor. To the right is Chronicle publisher and co-founder Mary Morgan.

The Ann Arbor Chronicle, teeter totter

A sticker with The Chronicle’s logo is affixed to a portable wooden teeter totter made by Chronicle co-founder and editor Dave Askins.

Russ Collins, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Russ Collins on the teeter totter with his grandson, Brooks Goodson. In the background is Hello! Ice Cream’s vintage truck, which was on hand to provide treats to The Chronicle’s guests.

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Column: Parking Oversight, Please Tue, 12 Aug 2014 22:19:05 +0000 Dave Askins On-street metered parking in and near downtown Ann Arbor costs $1.50 an hour. Rates have not been increased since September 2012. By the terms of the contract under which the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority (DDA) operates the parking system on behalf of the city, the DDA – not the city council – has the authority to raise rates.

(City of Ann Arbor public parking system data from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, charts by The Chronicle)

Comparing the periods October 2012 through June 2012 to October 2013 through June 2014 – when rates have been constant – revenue has increased 1.20% to $14,647,274, while the number of hourly patrons has decreased by 1.65% to 1,661,256. (City of Ann Arbor public parking system data from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, charts by The Chronicle.)

What if on-street metered rates were raised a dime, and rates across other parts of the parking system were also raised by an equivalent percentage?

Although the DDA operates the parking system, that kind of 6.7% rate increase would directly benefit the city’s general fund. By how much?

First, any increase to the city’s general fund revenue is a function of the contract with the city of Ann Arbor, under which the DDA operates the roughly 8,000-space public parking system. The contract stipulates that the city receives 17% of gross parking system revenues.

Total parking system revenues are budgeted by the DDA for the 2015 fiscal year at about $19.3 million. So in ballpark numbers, the 17% equates to a roughly $3.2 million transfer to the city. Of that $3.2 million, about $2.3 million will go to the general fund, while the remaining amount will go to the fund the city uses to maintain downtown streets. That division of the transfer payment by the city has its historical roots in an arrangement between the city and the DDA that predated the existing contract.

So a 6.7% increase in rates across the parking system – assuming no decrease in the use of the system – works out to something like $150,000 more for the city of Ann Arbor’s general fund.

The city council’s role in setting parking rates is one of oversight, not decision-making. But even that oversight role is structurally somewhat weak – because decisions made by the DDA (to raise parking rates) can make the city council’s annual budget decisions somewhat easier.

The next scheduled opportunity for the Ann Arbor city council to exercise oversight of the DDA will be during a fall joint work session – which is stipulated to occur under terms of the city-DDA parking contract. That session is currently planned for Sept. 8.

The contractually stipulated work session would be a good opportunity for councilmembers to ask for metrics on Ann Arbor’s public parking system. Requested information should include stats that indicate how well Ann Arbor’s public parking system supports three different key user groups: (1) downtown employees; (2) retail/transactional customers and visitors; and (3) downtown residents.

Some data is collected routinely by the DDA from Republic Parking – its contractor for day-to-day operations – and shared publicly. That data is limited to revenue figures and numbers of hourly patrons. The routine data does not include hours parked by different categories of users – monthly permit holders and hourly patrons – which makes it difficult to evaluate the system’s support of different user groups.

Still, it’s possible to discern some patterns and to draw some conclusions about Ann Arbor’s parking system, based on the data the DDA does provide. Charts with commentary are presented below.

Overall Picture

The most recent rate increases in Ann Arbor’s public parking system were implemented in September 2012.

Rates for the roughly 2,000 on-street metered parking spaces are currently $1.50 an hour. Rates at surface lots straddle that $1.50 hourly rate – at $1.40 for the first three hours and $1.60 for the fourth hour and beyond. Hourly parking at parking structures costs $1.20 per hour. Monthly permits – which don’t guarantee a permit holder a specific space, but are tied to a particular structure – cost $145 a month at most structures.

Some, but not nearly all, of the monthly permits sold in the two-year-old underground parking garage at Library Lane were initially sold at a discounted $95 introductory rate, which reflects a $50 savings over most other structures. The discount was offered to employees of “new-to-downtown businesses” and to permit holders in the Maynard or Liberty Square parking structures who were willing to transfer their permit to Library Lane. The pricing is good through August 2014. Assuming all those discounted Library Lane permit holders retain them after August 2014, revenue per space at Library Lane should show a slight increase.

The most recent revenue data from the Ann Arbor DDA on Ann Arbor’s parking system is through June 30, or the end of the fiscal year 2014. The most recent three fiscal quarters provide the most meaningful year-over-year comparison – because of the rate increase that was implemented in September 2012.

The most recent data is consistent with the parking reports over the last several years, when interpreting the data has required accommodation of rate increases: Revenue has increased even while the number of patrons who pay the hourly rate in structures or on surface lots has decreased. Hourly patrons don’t include those who park at on-street meters. Specifically, comparing the last three quarters of the most recent fiscal year to the last three quarters of the previous fiscal year, revenue has increased 1.20% to $14,647,274, while the number of hourly patrons has decreased by 1.65% to 1,661,256.

In Chart 1 and Chart 2 below, the recently concluded fiscal year 2014 is indicated in dark purple.

<strong>Chart 1: Total System Revenue</strong> (City of Ann Arbor public parking system data from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, charts by The Chronicle.)

Chart 1: Total System Revenue. (City of Ann Arbor public parking system data from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, charts by The Chronicle.)

(City of Ann Arbor public parking system data from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, charts by The Chronicle.)

Chart 2: Total Count of Hourly Patrons. (City of Ann Arbor public parking system data from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, charts by The Chronicle.)

Monthly Permits: Are Fewer Hourly Patrons Staying Longer?

The consistent narrative offered by the DDA to account for the increase in revenues – despite a decreased number of hourly patrons – has been told along the following lines: Even though fewer hourly patrons are visiting downtown, they are parking for a longer time.

It’s possible to ask two basic questions about that narrative: (1) Is it meaningful? and (2) Is it accurate?

In order for the narrative to be meaningful, it’s important to understand how hourly patrons are using the parking system. If hourly patrons are exclusively retail shoppers of some stripe, then the fact that retail shoppers are staying in the downtown longer now than they were in the past could be analyzed as good news for downtown retail establishments. On the other hand, if hourly patrons include a significant number of downtown employees – people who would prefer to hold a monthly permit, but who have been languishing on the wait list – then this might indicate that employees are crowding out retail shoppers.

In order test the narrative for accuracy, it’s important to recognize that hourly patrons are not the only source of revenue to the parking system as a whole. For example, on-street metered parking by itself provided about $3 million of revenue in the most recent three fiscal quarters – but that that type of parking does not contribute to the count of hourly patrons. If the revenue from parking meters and bags is subtracted from the total revenue figure, there’s still an increase – in fact, a greater percentage increase than across total revenues. The $11,529,132 collected for the nine months from October 2013 through June 2014 is about 2% more than was collected from October 2012 through June 2013.

Chart 3 below shows clearly that if on-street metered parking is considered as a facility, then it easily generates the highest gross revenue of any facility in the system.

(City of Ann Arbor public parking system data from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, charts by The Chronicle.)

Chart 3: Revenue by Facility. (City of Ann Arbor public parking system data from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, charts by The Chronicle.)

It is not as straightforward to test the DDA narrative for accuracy with respect to facilities that offer monthly permits as well as hourly parking – where those hourly patrons are counted. The revenue division between monthly permits and hourly patrons is not reported and apparently not analyzed by the DDA. So some of the total revenue increase might be attributable to increased optimization of the oversell margin for monthly permits in parking structures. Many structures show more monthly permits sold than they have spaces. The number of monthly permits sold in the entire system, as well as the percentage of the total inventory, shows a slight but clear upward trend over the last three years.

The DDA does not report monthly permit data broken down by permit type – regular, evening/overnight or premium – which might otherwise help to identify how well users of the public parking system are being served.

Monthly permit data is presented in Charts 4, 5 and 6 below.

Chart 4: Permits as Percentage of Inventory by Facility (City of Ann Arbor public parking system data from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, charts by The Chronicle.)

Chart 4: Permits as Percentage of Inventory by Facility. (City of Ann Arbor public parking system data from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, charts by The Chronicle.)

<strong>Chart 5: Total Inventory and Total Permits</strong> (City of Ann Arbor public parking system data from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, charts by The Chronicle.)

Chart 5: Total Inventory and Total Permits. (City of Ann Arbor public parking system data from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, charts by The Chronicle.)

Chart 6: Monthly Permits as Percent of Inventory (City of Ann Arbor public parking system data from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, charts by The Chronicle.)

Chart 6: Monthly Permits as Percent of Inventory. (City of Ann Arbor public parking system data from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, charts by The Chronicle.)

For some facilities – like the surface lots at Huron/Ashley/First (the Brown Block) and at South Ashley (the Kline Lot) – no monthly permits are sold. So it’s possible to calculate average payments per patron at those facilities. And both of those facilities show evidence that a fewer number of patrons are generating more revenue, and that their average stay has become slightly longer.

Average payments per patron for Huron/Ashley/First and the Kline Lot are presented below in Charts 7 and 8.

Chart 7: Huron/Ashley/First Average Payment Per Patron (City of Ann Arbor public parking system data from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, charts by The Chronicle.)

Chart 7: Huron/Ashley/First Average Payment Per Patron. (City of Ann Arbor public parking system data from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, charts by The Chronicle.)

Chart 8: Kline Lot Average Payment Per Patron  (City of Ann Arbor public parking system data from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, charts by The Chronicle.)

Chart 8: Kline Lot Average Payment Per Patron.  (City of Ann Arbor public parking system data from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, charts by The Chronicle.)

Revenue Per Space

The DDA does not calculate revenue-per-space figures. And the DDA has reduced the frequency of its reporting about the number of spaces at a facility – from monthly to quarterly. So the charts below are constructed based on estimates, using previous number spaces. In any case, most facilities have a stable number of spaces and vary at most by a handful, due to special temporary circumstances.

A couple of clear patterns emerge from the plots of revenue-per-space figures. One is that easily the highest revenue per space (though not per acre of land) is generated by the two surface lots on the west edge of downtown – Huron/Ashley/First and the Kline Lot.

Another trend is that the new Library Lane underground parking garage appears to have achieved a kind of equilibrium in its usage. Library Lane has settled in a bit higher than the lowest performing significant facility in the system in terms of the revenue-per-space metric – which is the on-street metered facility. Library Lane achieved what appears to be its current stable level of usage within nine months of opening.

The on-street facility shows a clear bump for April this year. That coincides with the closing of the Fifth and William surface lot, after it was purchased from the city by Dennis Dahlmann. However, it’s not clear what caused the April increase in revenue to the on-street metered system.

(City of Ann Arbor public parking system data from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, charts by The Chronicle.)

Chart 9: Revenue per Space, Focus on Structures. (City of Ann Arbor public parking system data from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, charts by The Chronicle.)

(City of Ann Arbor public parking system data from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, charts by The Chronicle.)

Chart 10: Revenue per Space, Focus on Surface Lots. (City of Ann Arbor public parking system data from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, charts by The Chronicle.)


Given the kind of parking data currently collected, analyzed and reported by the DDA, it’s not possible to get a very clear understanding of how Ann Arbor’s public parking system is currently supporting three different key user groups: (1) downtown employees; (2) retail/transactional customers and visitors; and (3) downtown residents.

The DDA could improve its understanding of the system by collecting, analyzing and reporting data on hours parked by monthly permit holders as compared to hourly patrons. The hours parked by permit holders should be further broken down by permit type. The DDA could also improve its understanding of the on-street metered system by collecting, analyzing and reporting usage by individual meter – a straightforward possibility at least for those meters that are paid for using the relatively new kiosks.

Certainly there are other fiscal policy issues at stake as the DDA evaluates whether parking rates should be increased. For example, are current revenue levels adequate to pay for existing debt on past construction, the go!pass bus pass program, ongoing maintenance and a possibly $5 million renovation to the Fourth and William Structure? In its oversight role, the city council should certainly include consideration of these basic financial issues.

I’m reasonably confident that the council will exercise appropriate oversight with respect to the purely financial question: Will there be enough money and how much does the city get?

But without a clearer understanding of how the parking system supports different user groups, it will not be possible to measure the impact of a price increase on those user groups.

So at the joint city council-DDA work session on Sept. 8, I hope the city council will include in their oversight role a request for data and metrics that will help answer this question: How does Ann Arbor’s parking system actually work?

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Ending It: 6 of 1, Half-Dozen of The Chronicle Fri, 08 Aug 2014 02:37:34 +0000 Dave Askins On Sept. 2, 2014, The Ann Arbor Chronicle will observe the sixth anniversary of its launch.

Chronicle carton.

Chronicle carton.

That’s also the last day on which we’ll publish regular new reports.

The website will remain live, with its archives freely accessible at least until the end of 2014, possibly longer.

There may be a special project or two that we will wrap up and eventually insert into the archives.

The event listings will remain live, and it’s our intent to maintain them into the future.

When a business effectively closes its doors, it’s always fair to ask at least two questions: Why at all? And why now?

The second is easier to answer, so I’ll handle it first.

Sept. 2 is significant because it’s a wedding anniversary date – for me and Chronicle publisher Mary Morgan. For the same sentimental reasons that Sept. 2 served well as a launch date, it will also serve as a splendid time to shut things down. Choosing that same date makes for a neat, tidy six-year archive, ending on the exact day of an Ann Arbor city council meeting. It also makes the math easy: Six years of The Chronicle, as a fraction of 25 years of marriage, translates into exactly 24% of our married life consumed by this publication.

And The Chronicle did consume nearly every waking moment of those six years. That’s a significant factor in our decision to shut things down at all. Could we continue to make the finances work out? Yes, The Chronicle paid its bills with enough left over for us to earn a livelihood. And financially speaking, I think our approach could have been sustained into the indefinite future. That’s because of advertisers – who understood that coverage of local government and civic affairs like The Chronicle’s makes Ann Arbor a better place to do business. And it’s also because of the voluntary and generous financial support of readers – who believed that The Chronicle’s approach to local journalism made Ann Arbor a better place to live.

But even at that level of support, a sustained future would also continue to rely on two people committing not just 40, 60 or 80 hours a week, but virtually every waking moment to the enterprise. We’re hardly unique in that respect. It’s not unusual for a small, independent business owner to rely on an all-consuming personal effort to make the finances work.

In past columns I’ve compared this kind of labor to running a marathon – with one key difference: There is no finish line. You can never really finish. But as a practical matter you will quit running one day. And if you never decide to stop, then when you do stop, it will be because you are dead. So we’re setting an end date as a kind of artificial finish line. We’re not planning to sprint for that line. But for the next month we’ll keep running full stride through the tape.

I’d like to stop before I am dead, because there’s more I’d like to do in life than add to The Chronicle’s archive. As one example, I’d be happy to bore you to death with a few thousand words about a possible design for a pedal-powered rotating steel-bristled brush for sidewalk snow removal. But now is not the occasion for that. It’s summertime, for crying out loud. And anyway, in the shorter term, I need to develop an approach to earning a livelihood that doesn’t depend on a machine that I have not yet built.

So while I am sorely tempted to bore you – and certainly I’ve yielded to that temptation often enough over the last half dozen years – I think it’s more of an occasion to express gratitude. Because of the generous support of advertisers and readers, I’ve had the privilege of writing about a narrow slice of one American city for the last six years. Not many people get a chance to do that.

Thank you.

Note: The annual Bezonki award festivities will still take place – on Friday, Aug. 15  – and you’re invited. The open house will run from 6-8 p.m. at Zingerman’s Events on Fourth in Kerrytown. There will be teeter-tottering and general merriment. Publisher Mary Morgan will follow up with a final word on Sept. 2, after the city council meeting ends. That will be our final report filed from the hard benches of city hall.

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Column: Get Your Sign Outta My Yard Mon, 28 Jul 2014 20:30:07 +0000 Dave Askins Over the weekend, local attorney Laurie Longo brought to my attention a political sign placed on North Main by probate court candidate Julia Owdziej – who’s also the incumbent in that race.

This is the sign that was placed on North Main Street by the Julie Owdziej campaign.

This Photoshopped “art” took as its starting point a sign that was placed on North Main Street by the Julie Owdziej campaign. The alteration of the sign was undertaken so readers could be shown the physical dimension of the sign in context, without providing whatever publicity benefit that comes from having a photo of a candidate’s yard sign replicated on The Chronicle’s website. The bicycle is included for a sense of scale. The tagline is a Southern expression I grew up with that essentially means: Do not ask me what time it is, little one.

The incumbency is the result of a gubernatorial appointment made just two months ago, on June 2, 2014. And that forms a part of Longo’s objection to the sign – because it displays the text “Judge Julia Owdziej” in the context of the campaign tagline “Protecting the County’s Most Vulnerable for Over 20 Years.”

The sign seems to implicate that Owdziej has been serving as judge for two decades, not two months. Certainly if I were editing an endorsement op-ed that included a sentence like, “Judge Julia Owdziej has protected Washtenaw County’s most vulnerable for over 20 years,” I would move to strike the word “judge.”

I imagine some readers might agree with Longo’s conclusion – that because the sign is misleading (and violates Ann Arbor’s political sign ordinance), voters should consider other candidates instead. Other candidates in the race are: Jane Bassett, Tamara Garwood, Constance Jones, and Tracy Van den Bergh.

That conclusion is, I think, somewhat debatable. Some voters will likely consider that message to be, technically speaking, factually accurate – even if misleading – and within the latitude that is typically afforded political candidates who are trying to market themselves to voters.

What does not seem open to debate is Longo’s point that the billboard-sized sign was in obvious violation of the Ann Arbor ordinance on political signs – most clearly the maximum size for such signs, which is 4′ x 3′. [.pdf of Ann Arbor ordinance on political signs]

When I reached Owdziej by phone Sunday night (July 27), she indicated that the city of Ann Arbor had contacted the campaign about the sign and that the trailer to which it was affixed was to be removed on Monday. And on Monday it was removed.

That’s consistent with remarks made by all probate court candidates in response to a question posed about yard signs at a July 19 forum hosted by the Washtenaw County Democratic Party: They’ll remove signs that are in violation, if the violations are pointed out to them.

So in this final week leading up the election, I would first like to encourage all candidates – not just those in judicial races – to make sure they adhere to local laws on political signs. If you don’t know that you’re not supposed to have any signs in the public right-of-way or within 5 feet of a sidewalk (with some exceptions), then please read up on the details.

For readers, there are at least two options for addressing political signs that you think aren’t in conformance with Ann Arbor’s ordinance. Contact the candidate and tell them where the offending sign is, and ask them to remove it – or to explain why they think the sign is actually in compliance. A second option is to contact community standards by phone at 734.794.6942, or by email at ​

Below are the responses that probate court candidates gave on July 19 to the question about campaign yard signs – as well as some thoughts of my own about yard signs, with a look back to a 2006 interview with Washtenaw County clerk Larry Kestenbaum.

Washtenaw Democratic Party Forum: July 19, 2014

Over a week ago, on July 19, the Washtenaw County Democratic Party hosted a forum for a total of eight judicial candidates in two different countywide races – probate and circuit court. Audio from the entire forum is available here: “Washtenaw Dems Host Judicial Forum.” The forum took place at the Pittsfield Township Hall.

The probate court candidates were asked a couple of rapid-fire questions toward the end of the forum. Those included one about campaign yard signs:

Every election cycle candidates seem to ignore local election laws with regard to lawn signs. All of you are running and asking voters to place their trust in you and uphold and interpret the law. Why should we vote for you if we see your yard signs illegally placed?

The question was submitted by an audience member, but posed by moderator David Blanchard, a local attorney. Blanchard took some of the edge out of the interrogatory by rephrasing it as an invitation to take a pledge: “Would each of you pledge to keep your lawn signs in legally appropriate places and work with your supporters to make sure that they do the same?”

Not surprisingly, they all took that pledge.

Blanchard summarized their collective remarks by venturing that candidates don’t always have control over where the signs go in there doing their best police that her own supporters. Here’s the audio from just that segment of the forum: [.mp3 file of Probate Court Candidates on the Topic of Yard Signs].

And here are the candidate’s responses in written and visual form:

Jane Bassett

Jane Bassett: “Yes, I have put it up on my website, I have put it up on my Facebook, I have sent out notices to my supporters to please, you know, the list of rules first of all and second of all if you see one that is illegally placed, please let me know – we will go and retrieve it. So an offer to the public.”

Tamara Garwood.

Tamara Garwood: “Of course I agree. In fact last night I was out near Willow Run and found one of my signs illegally placed, and of course was horrified. I found a safe place to pull over and pulled it. But I have to tell you, there were seven signs there. And mine was one of those. So I pulled my own and I left everyone else’s, because it’s not my position to pull the other signs. But they are everywhere, and just like Jane, I encourage people to only put signs where you are allowed to put signs, where you have permission to put signs, and I hope people follow those rules.”

Julia Owdziej.

Julia Owdziej: “Yes, I know it’s frustrating with every election there… I wish we didn’t have yard signs anywhere – I know they are difficult to look at. We got an email recently to all the candidates saying that somebody had taken a picture and every candidate had a sign somewhere where it didn’t belong. Absolutely, let us know, we’re happy to pull them. I think people get overexcited who are working for you. Whenever we see them, pull them. Let us know if you see one.”

Tracy Van den Bergh

Tracy Van den Bergh: “Yes. And I will tell you it has been very difficult, because my friends see all these illegally placed lawn signs and want to know why mine aren’t there. And I keep saying it’s because I am running for judicial office and they shouldn’t be placed in the right-of-way. So the answer is yes.”

Connie Jones.

Constance Jones: “Yes, I absolutely would pledge that. The other reason why is that I hate litter, and I can’t stand it when somebody throws something out of the car. And so I think it’s really important and I encourage my supporters to always follow the rules.”

The Psychology of Being a Candidate

Campaign yard signs are one outward and visible measure of the strength of support enjoyed by a candidate, even if that measure is imperfect. “Yard signs don’t vote” is a sentiment I’ve heard often over the last five years of election cycles. But for many voters, a certain threshold number of yard signs is essential to convincing them that a candidate is putting a reasonable effort into the campaign – or more importantly, that their efforts are finding some sort of resonance with voters.

At Beakes and Fifth Ave. in downtown Ann Arbor is an 8-foot by 4-foot sign advocating for Tamara Garwood. This photo has been altered for the same reasons the one for Owdziej was altered above.

At Beakes and Fifth Ave. in downtown Ann Arbor is an 8-foot by 4-foot sign advocating for Tamara Garwood. This photo has been altered for the same reasons the one for Owdziej was altered above.

Savvy candidates will knock on doors of houses with a sign for their opponent. Some candidates use the occasion to find out what it is about their opponent that appeals to that voter. More ambitious candidates are looking to flip that voter to their side. Others are simply looking to convince that voter that they are not the devil incarnate, even if there’s no expectation that the person’s vote will be won.

More than one candidate has offered me some odd tale about why an opponent’s sign wound up in someone’s yard – based on a conversation with the homeowner. Here’s an amalgam of different anecdotes I’ve heard: “Oh, we’re voting for you, but [Candidate A] asked my husband if we would put a sign in our yard, when I wasn’t home, and he felt awkward about saying no, on account of we know [Candidate A] from church.”

So intellectually, it’s easy to convince yourself that candidates shouldn’t care that much about yard signs: By candidates’ own accounts, at least some of the yard signs don’t even reflect actual support for a candidate by the property owner. And yard signs don’t vote.

But my own thoughts on the topic are informed by a 2006 interview I conducted with Washtenaw County clerk Larry Kestenbaum.

The psychology of being a candidate is, unfortunately, in the direction of … you know there’s a saying among political people and that is, The candidate has a right to be paranoid. No matter how even-tempered and calm you think you are when you’re a candidate, when it’s your name out there on the ballot, it’s really difficult to maintain your objectivity on the situation. You get to the point where any manifestation of the opponent is a personal attack on you. Your opponent’s sign in someone’s yard, My God! You know, it hurts. So anytime the candidate has a role in running the campaign, it tends to be driven by what the other side does. You know, They’ve got yard sign, we’ve gotta have yard signs!

So all you candidates do get a pass – for being paranoid and irrational about campaign signs. But you don’t get a pass for placing signs illegally.

On Election Day in Ann Arbor, you’re allowed to place your yard signs “in that portion of a public right­ of­ way not meant for pedestrian or vehicular traffic, which is contiguous with and on the same side of the street as the property on which the polling place is located.” But you can’t place them there any sooner than 18 hours before the polls open – at 7 a.m. on Aug. 5. So please don’t start placing your signs until 1 p.m. on Aug. 4.

And remember to remove them no later than 2 p.m. on Aug. 6.

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Column: Dave Brandon’s Fireworks Fri, 25 Jul 2014 12:33:26 +0000 John U. Bacon John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

The University of Michigan’s athletic director sent a proposal to the university’s board of regents, requesting permission to set off fireworks during two football games this fall.

At first blush, the question of post-game fireworks didn’t seem like a very big deal either way. On Michigan fan blogs, reactions were mixed. As for the university’s regents, they have bigger things to worry about than fireworks. Even the athletic department’s budget – which has grown by 50%, currently pushing $150 million – might seem like a lot to us, but that’s a rounding error at the university’s hospital.

So when the regents voted down the proposal for fireworks for two games this season, it got people’s attention.

The regents rarely split their votes, or deny the athletic director’s wishes. But when the regents looked into the fireworks proposal, they were surprised to find the department wanted to set off fireworks not just after both games, but during the second game, after touchdowns – replacing the century-old tradition of celebrating success with the marching band blasting “The Victors.”

Once bloggers saw that, they exploded like – well, fireworks. They didn’t like the idea any more than the regents did.  

More telling were the regents’ remarks. Three-term regent Larry Deitch said, “I have religiously attended [Michigan] football games for 50 years. I have not found that experience wanting for lack of fireworks.”

Regent Mark Bernstein termed the fireworks a “huge symbolic issue.” He explained: “We are not Comerica Park, Disney World, or a circus. I love Michigan football for what it is, and for what it is not. It remains and should be intentionally simple. The fireworks should be on the field, not above it.”

The bloggers voiced full-throated agreement, writing things like “They get it!” “About time!” and “Amen.” They might have set a record for quoting regents.

The day after the vote, incoming president Mark Schlissel told a reporter that, being new, he had no opinion on the matter. He made it a point to tell the faithful he appreciates just how important athletics are to the university culture, but he added: “We’re an academic institution, so I want to work on the appropriate balance between athletics and academics… The athletic director does have delegated responsibilities, but he works for me.”

On Michigan websites, this sparked another chorus of “Hallelujah.”

But what does all this mean? It’s easy to read too much into the comments from the regents and President Schlissel. When you boil their quotes down, they represent not a radical departure from the status quo, but a return to it: the protocols, the customs and the traditions Michigan has relied on to become a leader academically and athletically for over a century.

Taken together, however, their comments do suggest the people who run the university no longer feel compelled to rubber stamp the athletic director’s every request.

The athletic department has bigger things to worry about, too. The department has run ads on its blog, its electronic billboard, on TV and even at a street stand during the Ann Arbor art fair, urging fans to buy football tickets. If those unprecedented efforts didn’t tell us how eager they must be to unload tickets by the thousands, the email this week to its golf club members, announcing free tickets for anyone who asks, removed any doubt. If you went to Michigan, live in Michigan or can find Michigan on a map, don’t be surprised when the athletic department offers you free Michigan football tickets. It’s a boon for those who’ve already dropped their tickets – and a bust for those who have already paid full price for theirs.

If Michigan fails to lure 100,000 fans to the Big House this fall for the first time since 1975, the biggest fireworks might not be in the sky or on the field, but in university offices on State Street.

About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of columnists like John U. Bacon. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!

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Column: DDA Pay Increases, Open Meetings Tue, 22 Jul 2014 17:29:20 +0000 Dave Askins Earlier this month, Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority executive director Susan Pollay received a 5% raise from the DDA board. That brought her annual compensation to $114,570.

Excerpt from performance evaluation for Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority executive director Susan Pollay. The DDA board appears to have decided her salary increases in FY 2013 and FY 2014 in a way that did not conform with the Open Meetings Act.

The free response portion of a performance evaluation for Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority executive director Susan Pollay. The DDA board appears to have decided her salary increases in FY 2013 and FY 2014 in a way that did not conform with the Open Meetings Act.

The procedure used this year by the board to award Pollay a salary increase appears to have conformed completely with the requirements of Michigan’s Open Meetings Act (OMA).

However, that procedure was different from the one used to award raises to Pollay in each of the two previous years.

Those raises worked out to 8% and 6.7%, respectively. In each of the two previous years, the decision to award Pollay those raises appears to have been made in a way that is contrary to the most basic requirement of Michigan’s OMA: “All decisions of a public body shall be made at a meeting open to the public.”

That conclusion is based on records produced by the DDA to The Chronicle in response to requests made under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), as well as records the DDA was not able to produce.

The analysis below begins with an overview.


Responding to a request made by The Chronicle under Michigan’s FOIA, the only documentation the DDA produced for board authorization of the two previous years’ raises was two letters. The letters were sent by former board chair Leah Gunn to the city of Ann Arbor’s human resources staff – dated Oct. 9, 2012 and June 27, 2013.

Those letters don’t appear to describe the salary decisions by the board in ways that meet basic OMA requirements. Specifically, OMA requirements do not appear to have been satisfied for either the board as a whole, or for a subquorum committee of the board – which DDA board members may have assumed was acting lawfully on behalf of the entire board.

By way of contrast, this year the board voted on the question of a salary increase for Pollay at its regular meeting of July 2, 2014. That vote, in open session on a written resolution, came after a roughly 15-minute closed session held by the board on Pollay’s performance review. A personnel matter like a performance review – if the employee requests it – is one of the limited number of reasons under Michigan’s OMA that a public body can bar the public from a meeting. That procedure, including the vote in open session by the board, is familiar from The Chronicle’s coverage of other public bodies. It’s a procedure that conforms with the OMA.

However, for neither of the two previous years did the DDA board discuss at any of its meetings the question of salary increases for its executive director. Nor did the board hold a closed session on a personnel matter during that period. Nor did the board vote on those salary increases at any of its meetings.

Some DDA board members might have assumed the board’s executive committee had authority to act on the board’s behalf in deciding executive director salary questions. But in response to a request made under Michigan’s FOIA, the DDA was not able to produce any records with documentation that the performance review of its executive director and recommendations on salary increases have been specified by the board as duties of the executive committee.

And even if the executive committee had been tasked by the board with those duties, the DDA was unable to produce any records of minutes for its executive committee meetings during the relevant time period. Further, it’s not clear that the executive committee posted adequate public notices of its meetings during this period, or that the typical location of executive committee meetings – the executive director’s personal office – can be considered accessible to the public under the definition of the OMA.

Concerns raised by the material that was provided to The Chronicle under Michigan’s FOIA are not limited to questions about the openness of decision-making procedures – as measured against the requirements of the OMA. The written performance reviews of Pollay are heavily weighted towards general expressions of support and commentary on Pollay’s personality, instead of providing important critical feedback on performance.

Laid out in detail below are the arguments that the decisions to award Pollay a raise in two previous years – for FY 2013 and FY 2014 – were made in a way that violated the OMA. The analysis concludes with a note on the oversight role of the city council with respect to the DDA.

Salary Decisions Made: FY 2013, FY 2014, FY 2015

At its July 2, 2014 meeting, the DDA board voted to award its executive director, Susan Pollay, a 5% pay raise for fiscal year 2015, which started July 1. That brought her annual compensation to $114,570. During board deliberations on the resolution, long-time DDA board member Roger Hewitt mentioned that Pollay had received good raises the two previous years.

Those raises were reflected in the salary history that deputy DDA director Joe Morehouse forwarded to current board chair Sandi Smith in late June of this year. That salary history is as follows:

Fiscal YR       Salary   % Increase
FY 2014    $109,114.40   6.70%
FY 2013    $102,263.20   8.00%
FY 2012     $94,689.40   0.00%
FY 2011     $94,689.40   0.00%
FY 2010     $94,689.40   0.00%
FY 2009     $94,689.40   0.00%
FY 2008     $94,689.40   0.00%
FY 2007     $94,689.40   0.00%
FY 2006     $94,689.40   0.00%


The July 2, 2014 DDA board deliberations framed that salary history as the equivalent of only a 1.9% annual raise since 2006. Board members indicated an interest in raising Pollay’s salary in future years, to bring it into alignment with the mid-point of the salary range for her city of Ann Arbor “Level 2″ position. That midpoint is $126,000 – in a range from $95,340 to $157,312.

City administrator Steve Powers cast the sole vote of dissent on the board’s July 2 action to increase Pollay’s salary by another 5% in FY 2015. He felt that 3% was more appropriate. He also expressed a desire to see a more robust evaluation process in the future.

Expressed as a percentage, the total amount of Pollay’s pay increases over the last three years comes to nearly 21%. How does that compare to other employees at the city? Powers responded to an emailed query from The Chronicle with the following data:

FY 2015   3%
FY 2014   3%
FY 2013   one-time $1,000
FY 2012   0%
FY 2011   0%


Previous Board Action

When Hewitt mentioned at the July 2 DDA board meeting that Pollay had received raises for FY 2013 and FY 2014, that was likely a revelation to anyone outside the DDA board.

The Chronicle’s coverage of the DDA since 2008 – which includes reporting on all DDA resolutions approved by the board – does not reflect any board discussion or votes on pay raises for Pollay during that period. A machine search of the DDA’s board meeting minutes available on the DDA’s website produces a single search result for the phrase “performance evaluation” – from 1997, which is a year after Pollay was hired as DDA executive director.

On July 2, 2014 The Chronicle made a records request under Michigan’s FOIA that included “all records or documentation showing authorization – by the DDA board, a DDA committee, or any member of the DDA board – for adjustments to the Ann Arbor DDA executive director’s salary over the past two years, adjustments referenced by Roger Hewitt at the board’s July 2, 2014 meeting.”

Based on the DDA’s July 10 response to that request, only two records are in the possession of the DDA that document any authorization for Pollay’s salary increases in FY 2013 and FY 2014. The two records are letters sent by the board chair at the time, Leah Gunn, to city of Ann Arbor human resources staff – dated Oct. 9, 2012 and June 27, 2013.

What the DDA did not produce in response to the request made under Michigan’s FOIA were any board resolutions or minutes from board meetings reflecting a decision by the board to increase Pollay’s salary in FY 2013 or FY 2014. The DDA also did not produce any resolutions by a committee with the authority to act on the board’s behalf, or any minutes from such a committee that reflect a committee decision to increase Pollay’s salary in FY 2013 or FY 2014. [.pdf of records from July 2, 2014 FOIA request]

What about Gunn’s letters? They do not indicate in an explicit way when the board as a whole might have made its salary decisions in FY 2013 and FY 2014.

Based on the records that the DDA did not produce, as well as the records that the DDA did produce (Gunn’s two letters), it’s fair to conclude that if the board as a whole did decide to increase Pollay’s salary in the two previous years, then the board made those decisions in a way that did not conform with the most central requirement of Michigan’s Open Meetings Act: “All decisions of a public body shall be made at a meeting open to the public.”

However, the first of Gunn’s letters, written three months after she was elected DDA board chair, refers in a general way to the executive committee of the DDA board, and its role in Pollay’s performance evaluation and salary adjustment. It’s important to consider, for the sake of argument, the possibility that the board’s executive committee might have acted lawfully on behalf of the board, and that the executive committee acted in a manner that was consistent with the OMA.

Previous Executive Committee Action

Some background on the executive committee is presented first, before evaluating possible decisions by the committee – with respect to the OMA and the DDA’s bylaws.

Previous Executive Committee Action: Background

The executive committee of the DDA board is a subquorum subset of its members – the chair of the board, the vice chair, secretary and treasurer. Ex officio non-voting members of the executive committee are the executive director and the immediately preceding board chair.

So during the most recent year in which Leah Gunn chaired the board – from July 2012 through June 2013 – the executive committee consisted of Gunn, Sandi Smith (vice chair), Keith Orr (secretary) and Roger Hewitt (treasurer). The two non-voting members of the executive committee were Pollay and Bob Guenzel.

When a subquorum committee of a public body effectively makes decisions on behalf of the body, then according to a Michigan attorney general opinion from 1998, that committee is itself considered as a public body under Michigan’s Open Meetings Act. [.pdf of AG Opinion #7000]

So to the extent that the executive committee might have made the decisions on salary increases for Pollay in FY 2013 and FY 2014, those decisions were required to have been made in accordance with OMA requirements – including those on noticing meetings to the public and on maintaining minutes for its meetings.

Previous Executive Committee Action: OMA Noticing Requirements

The letter from Gunn about the FY 2014 salary increase does not mention the executive committee, but rather only the board. However, Gunn’s letter about the FY 2013 salary increase for Pollay describes a meeting of the executive committee in a way that at least hypothetically could have been held in conformance with the OMA – a meeting at which the committee might have made a decision to authorize a pay increase for Pollay for FY 2013.

From Gunn’s Oct. 9, 2012 letter:

During the course of this work, I spoke with every member of the board and I brought their feedback to the October meeting of our DDA executive committee where we met with Susan to discuss their comments (which by the way were unanimously excellent). We are in complete agreement about adjusting the salary of our executive director to $102,264 from her current salary.

Although Gunn does not give the exact date of the October executive committee meeting, it is possible to infer that it took place on the same date as the DDA board meeting that month, which fell on Oct. 3, 2012.

That inference is based on the kind of posting that the DDA has used this year for its annual meeting calendar of the full board. In that posting about the full board meeting schedule, the executive committee is mentioned. It’s worth noting that in contrast, other DDA board committees have their own separate postings of meeting schedules, with the name of the committee prominently stated in the headline/title of the page. The DDA’s position is that this type of posting of the executive committee meetings complies with the OMA posting requirements. [.pdf of DDA Feb. 25, 2014 response letter from DDA]

The first occasion on which The Chronicle attended a scheduled meeting of the executive committee was March 5, 2014. The meeting was held in Pollay’s office. There is no signage at the DDA offices that would alert someone to the fact that the executive committee meets there, as opposed to the board’s meeting room. The board’s meeting room is immediately apparent on exit from the elevator that opens onto the third floor of 150 S. Fifth, where the DDA rents office space. The DDA’s management assistant, Jada Hohlbrook – who staffs a reception desk – directed The Chronicle to the specific location of the executive committee meeting, which requires a couple of turns to arrive at Pollay’s office at the back of the DDA suite.

The March 5 meeting was attended by only one voting member of the committee – Keith Orr. The following month, on April 2, 2014, attendance was perfect. A member of the public, Changming Fan, attended the April 2 meeting. When he arrived at the doorway to Pollay’s office, executive committee member Roger Hewitt advised him that he could not stay, as it was a meeting only for the executive committee of the board. If Hewitt thought the public could be excluded from the meeting, it’s not clear why he did not attempt to exclude The Chronicle – already sitting in plain view. In any event, Pollay told Hewitt that executive committee meetings were open to the public. Changming Fan and The Chronicle remained through the end of the meeting.

It’s fair to conclude that the conditions under which the executive committee meets are at least somewhat dubious with respect to satisfaction of OMA requirements.

The next part of this analysis focuses on issues that are clearer cut.

Executive Committee Action: OMA Requirements on Minutes

Not in doubt is the fact that no DDA executive committee minutes were kept for the period from February 2010 through February 2014 – the period during which the executive committee might have made decisions on increasing the executive director’s salary. That conclusion is based on the DDA’s response to a FOIA request made by The Chronicle on March 5, 2014. That request asked the DDA to produce, among other items, the executive committee meeting minutes for January 2008 through March 2014. In its March 11 cover letter responding to the March 5 request, the DDA indicated that only the minutes for “2008 to 2010″ were included. The most recent minutes provided were those from January 2010. [.pdf of DDA response to March 5, 2014 FOIA request]

Starting with the April 2, 2014 board meeting, after a gap of more than four years, the DDA began producing executive committee minutes for approval. That’s an implicit recognition, possibly on prompting from The Chronicle, that the executive committee is actually required under the OMA to keep minutes – if it is acting on behalf of the board as a whole. That requirement applies, even though the executive committee is a subquorum set of board members. [.pdf of AG Opinion #7000].

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the DDA’s position is that the executive committee acted twice on behalf of the full board to increase the executive director’s salary during the period of July 2012 through June 2013. On that assumption, the fact that no minutes have been produced for the meetings during which those decisions were made is an ongoing violation of the OMA. And action could be taken in Washtenaw County’s 22nd circuit court to ask that court to enjoin the DDA against this ongoing OMA violation by ordering the DDA to produce minutes for those meetings.

Possibly a more significant question, however, is whether the executive committee of the DDA board is even empowered to act on behalf of the DDA board with respect to executive director salary issues.

Executive Committee Action: Power to Act?

According to the DDA bylaws, the executive committee could be empowered to make decisions on behalf of the board about the executive director’s salary adjustments – if it were a duty specified by the board. From the bylaws:

The executive committee shall fix the hours and place of meetings, make recommendations to the board, and shall perform such other duties as specified in these by-laws or as may be specified by the board.

The bylaws themselves don’t assign the duty of deciding the executive director’s salary to the executive committee. And in a July 18, 2014 response to a July 13, 2014 request from The Chronicle under Michigan’s FOIA, the DDA indicated that it had no records that documented the board’s specification of executive director performance review or salary recommendation as duties of the executive committee. [.pdf of July 18, 2014 DDA response to FOIA request]

So even if the executive committee made two decisions on the executive director’s salary sometime between July 2012 and June 2013 – undocumented by any meeting minutes – it’s not clear that the committee was even empowered under the DDA’s bylaws to make those decisions.

Executive Director Performance Evaluations

Written performance evaluations of Susan Pollay by board members from 2006 to the present were included in the response to The Chronicle’s July 2, 2014 request under Michigan’s FOIA. [.pdf of records from July 2, 2014 FOIA request]

General highlights include the fact that the evaluation form provides suggestions for phrases to be used in open-ended description – all positive:

    (sample ideas you can use in your comments:)

  • is accountable
  • is able to motivate/lead her staff
  • is willing to try new ideas, methods
  • is an important resource to downtown stakeholders
  • is knowledgeable in his/her field
  • makes decisions on her own
  • completes assignments on time or earlier
  • responds accurately/quickly to information requests
  • remains cool despite challenges
  • maintains appropriate sense of humor
  • gives credit to others when deserved
  • puts in the extra hours and effort to get the job done
  • speaks/communicates well flexibly adapts to changing priorities
  • demonstrates dedication to the DDA mission
  • effectively uses resources/consultants

For the free-response portion of the evaluations, board members in many instances appear to have copy-pasted from that set of suggestions – either wholesale or in part.

With respect to the objective scoring portion of the form, board members have in many cases simply filled in the objective scoring portion of the form with the maximum score for the first few items (15). They have then “auto-filled” the rest of the items – apparently not noticing that the maximum score for items at the end of the list is a different number (10).

It’s also striking that some board members seem to have filled out the forms in an informal manner. One respondent offered “Mary Poppins” as the entire text of the written review; another simply stated “The goddess always does a great job.”

The set of one-page evaluations provided to The Chronicle also includes some that are apparent duplicates with respect to content – even though the sheets of paper that were scanned for The Chronicle are different. An example of that is the “goddess” evaluation. That evaluation appears twice in the set – but only one of the two scanned pages includes the handwritten year “2011″ at the top of the page.

In this context it’s worth noting that city administrator Steve Powers’ July 2, 2014 vote of dissent on Pollay’s salary increase included by way of commentary a hope that in the future the evaluation process could be more robust.

City Council Oversight

Ultimately it is the Ann Arbor city council – as the governing body of the municipality where the DDA is established – that has responsibility for oversight of the Ann Arbor DDA board. It is the city council that confirms the appointment of DDA board members. And it is the city council that can potentially remove members from the board for cause.

How well has the Ann Arbor city council exercised its oversight role over the years? On Aug. 26, 2013 a joint meeting of city council and DDA board members was held. At that meeting, Sally Petersen – a first-term Ward 2 city councilmember, now a mayoral candidate – characterized her understanding of the city council’s historical performance in its oversight role. In the following quote, she was commenting on the city council’s oversight of one specific aspect of the DDA’s function – tax increment finance capture [emphasis added]:

And if we talk about goals, my goal – and I think it’s incumbent upon the city council, I don’t think that the DDA has done anything wrong per se, it’s just that the city council historically has not held the DDA accountable in terms of understanding what that is.

Does the Ann Arbor city council have an oversight role in approving the compensation of a downtown development authority executive director? That role appears to be clearly and specifically stated in the state statute enabling the establishment of the DDA [emphasis added]: “The board may employ and fix the compensation of a director, subject to the approval of the governing body of the municipality.”

However, based on the city of Ann Arbor’s response to a request made under Michigan’s FOIA, Ann Arbor’s city council did not explicitly approve Pollay’s initial hire or her compensation level in 1996. Nor has the council approved the new compensation levels in the last two years.

In more detail, on Oct. 18, 2013, The Chronicle made a request to the city of Ann Arbor under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act for all records documenting Ann Arbor city council approval of the employment of Susan Pollay as director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. On Nov. 7, 2013 the city of Ann Arbor responded with copies of all of the Ann Arbor city council’s annual budget resolutions dating from 1997 to the present, which include the DDA budget (as a component unit of the city), but not in line-item detail.

But no record of a council resolution specifically and explicitly approving Pollay’s hire or compensation was produced by the city of Ann Arbor in response to that request.

By way of contrast, when the Grand Rapids DDA hired a DDA executive director recently, the Grand Rapids city commission (analog to Ann Arbor’s city council) passed the following resolution on June 19, 2012:

*81555 Com. Gutowski, supported by Com. Bliss, moved adoption of the following resolution under the Consent Agenda:
1. As required by the Downtown Development Authority Act, Act 197 of the Public Acts of Michigan of 1975, MCL 125.1561, et seq., and the Rules of Procedure of the City of Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority (the “DDA”), the selection of Kristopher M. Larson as Executive Director of the DDA is hereby approved.

The Ann Arbor city council might be able to render somewhat moot the OMA questions raised in the analysis above, by taking an affirmative action. That action would be to consider and pass a resolution that approves the pay increases given to Pollay in the last two years, as well as this year. An additional action available to the council would be to pass a resolution requesting that the DDA board produce minutes for the meetings during which executive director salary adjustments were made for FY 2013 and FY 2014.

But given the backdrop of a Democratic primary race for mayor that includes four councilmembers, the politics of those actions could be delicate. In addition to Petersen, Sabra Briere (Ward 1), Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) and Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) are also running.

Kunselman has made efforts over the last few years to lead the council to exercise more oversight of the DDA. But those efforts have been fraught with the perception that they are purely political in nature – even when the issues Kunselman has identified have merit independent of their political dimension. DDA board members have on occasion openly criticized Kunselman for his actions, or resorted to anonymous Internet commenting in defense of the DDA’s position.

Sandi Smith, for example, has admitted to The Chronicle that in response to a published Chronicle opinion piece, she left a comment on that op-ed under the screen name “Eco Bruce.” The comment in part attempted to dismiss criticism about the DDA’s apparent failure to adhere to the city’s ordinance on TIF capture – by implicating that this criticism is rooted in “Director K’s [Kunselman's]” desire to be CEO [mayor]. Smith was DDA board vice chair at the time.

With respect to the situation about Pollay’s salary, the politics are especially a challenge – because it would mean approving a nearly 21% increase for Pollay, when computed over the last three years. That’s a period during which other city non-union employees received slightly more than a 6% increase – a $1,000 lump sum in FY 2013, 3% in FY 2014, and 3% for the current fiscal year.

Adding to the political challenge is the fact that it’s Leah Gunn who appears to have led the DDA board effort to increase Pollay’s salary in the two previous years – in a way that escaped public attention. Gunn, a former elected official and long-time Democratic activist, is treasurer for Christopher Taylor’s mayoral campaign.

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Column: Saying Good-Bye to Coach Mac Fri, 11 Jul 2014 12:33:54 +0000 John U. Bacon John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

The summer before Mac McKenzie became our little league baseball coach, I spent the season picking dandelions in right field, and batting last. But just weeks after Coach Mac took over, I rose to starting catcher, lead-off hitter, and team captain. Trust me, I was no bigger, faster or stronger than I was the previous season. But I had one thing I didn’t have the year before: confidence. Instead of playing back on my heels, I was up on my toes, and swinging for the fences.

I’m sure Coach Mac’s influence planted my desire to become a coach myself – and later, a teacher, too.

Last summer, when I wrote about Coach Mac, I admitted I had no idea where he ended up after his family moved to California the next year, or even if he was still alive. Well, a couple days later, I got a thank you letter from Coach Mac himself.

Just getting it thrilled me, but his message was even better. It was direct, honest and funny – just like the man himself. He told me about his family, about moving to Scottsdale, about his two bypass surgeries. In 1990, he received a heart transplant. He said he’d read my books and had every intention of writing years ago, but never followed through. But that day, when his wife found my story on line, this is what he wrote:

“I was blown away to see my name and the wonderful things that you had to say about me and my influence on you. I have had a very good and successful life with a few plaques, awards and complimentary speeches given to me, but none compare to what you said and how you have honored me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

I don’t know if Coach Mac got choked up writing it, but I got choked up reading it. I promised him I’d write him a longer letter soon, and fully intended to. But my fall filled up with travel and speeches, deadlines and classes. I kept waiting to find enough time to write The Perfect Letter – and kept waiting. I wrote down Coach Mac’s name on my to-do list month after month.

Three nights ago, I was teaching my sports writing students at Northwestern University how to write a profile. I told them their subject doesn’t have to be famous. It could even be one of their former coaches. Then I spontaneously launched into my story of Coach Mac, right down to the sweat dripping off the tip of his nose while he smashed grounder after grounder during practice. I couldn’t resist telling my students how great it was to hear from Coach Mac – which provided just another reminder I still needed to write him. I scribbled his name down yet again.

I got my final reminder the very next day, when I received an email from a friend of Coach Mac’s I’d never met before. His message was as simple and direct as Coach Mac himself. “We lost Mac yesterday.”

This hit me harder than I expected. After all, I couldn’t have believed he’d live forever. I felt grateful I’d written the story about him – and even more fortunate that Coach Mac had read it, and responded.

But when I went back to read our correspondence, I was chagrined to realize I had never written him the longer letter I’d promised. I felt worse when I saw he lived in Scottsdale. A couple months after he sent me his first letter, I was invited to give a speech in Scottsdale – and if I had kept in better touch, I would have put it together, and Coach Mac and I would have gone out for a beer I would never have forgotten.

Still, we can’t do everything. I realize that. And I’m lucky. I know that, too.

After I drove back to Ann Arbor that night, about game time, I swung by Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, where Coach Mac smacked all those grounders years ago. I was surprised to find the ball field has been replaced by a garden, with a shed in the middle of it. But when I crouched down into my old position, where home plate used to be, I could see it all – right down to Coach Mac, sweat dripping off his nose, tapping me another bunt to throw to first base.

Thanks, Coach. Sorry it took me so long to write.

About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of columnists like John U. Bacon. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!

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