The Ann Arbor Chronicle » public participation it's like being there Wed, 26 Nov 2014 18:59:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 New Citizen Participation Tools Reviewed Wed, 20 Aug 2014 16:39:26 +0000 Mary Morgan Ann Arbor planning commission working session (Aug. 12, 2014): Planning commissioners gave feedback on new guides that staff have developed for residents and developers, aimed at improving communication about proposed development projects.

Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Excerpt from a draft guide being developed by the city’s planning staff. It was reviewed at the planning commission’s Aug. 12 working session.

The “Citizens’ Guide to Effective Communication” and “Developers’ Guide to Leading Effective Citizen Participation Meetings” were drafted by planning staff, based in part on suggestions from the planning commission’s citizen outreach committee.

Two other outreach documents were reviewed at the Aug. 12 working session – a guide to the city’s site plan review process, and a template for postcard notifications of citizen participation meetings.

In addition to giving feedback on those draft documents and how they might be distributed, commissioners discussed how to improve the effectiveness of mandatory citizen participation meetings and the reports that developers must provide based on those meetings.

The citizen participation meetings are held for all major projects, a requirement that’s been in place since the city council enacted a citizen participation ordinance in 2008. An evaluation of that ordinance was supposed to have been done five years ago. However, there had been a lull in development soon after the ordinance was passed. Planning manager Wendy Rampson told commissioners that now there have been a sufficient number of projects to evaluate, and to possibly make some thoughtful changes to the code.

Citizen Participation

The city’s citizen participation ordinance was approved by the city council on Sept. 8, 2008 and took effect Jan. 1, 2009. [.pdf file of citizen participation ordinance] It was an ordinance that Sabra Briere (Ward 1) advocated for after her election to the city council in 2007. Briere, Joan Lowenstein – who served on the council and planning commission at that time – and planning commissioner Kirk Westphal worked with city staff to develop the ordinance. Briere now serves as the council’s representative on the planning commission.

Among other things, the ordinance requires the owner or developer of a project to hold a citizen participation meeting before a project is formally submitted to the city for approval – specifically, for planned projects, planned unit developments, rezonings, and major site plans. Developers are expected to:

… pursue early and effective citizen participation in conjunction with their proposed developments, giving citizens an early opportunity to learn about, understand and comment upon proposals, and providing an opportunity for citizens to be involved in the development of their neighborhood and community;

The ordinance also requires that written notification of the citizen participation meeting be sent to property owners, residents and registered neighborhood groups within 1,000 feet of the project site. The developer must then submit a report to the city that describes any issues raised by citizens and how the project will address those issues.

No formal evaluation of the ordinance has been completed, though that was initially expected to take place a year after it was enacted. An evaluation is part of the planning commission and staff’s 2014-2015 work plan, with a target completion of January 2015. Planning staff and the commission’s citizen outreach committee will be working on that. Committee assignments for the current fiscal year have not yet been made.

Katy Ryan, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Katy Ryan, an intern with the city’s planning unit. Her last day with the city was Aug. 15. She’s been accepted into the Ph.D. program at Rutgers University to study human geography. She told commissioners that she’s interested in climate change issues in rural neighborhoods, and how public participation can be used to encourage engagement.

The citizen outreach committee met most recently in January 2014, and had made some recommendations for improving engagement. Members of that committee were Sabra Briere, Diane Giannola, Jeremy Peters and Paras Parekh. Parekh recently resigned from the planning commission, as he made a job-related move out of town.

Based on the committee’s direction, staff had drafted some new materials that were brought to commissioners for review at their Aug. 12 working session.

Katy Ryan, an intern with the planning unit, gave a presentation on those materials that she had helped develop: (1) a citizens’ guide to effective communication; (2) a developers’ guide to leading effective citizen participation meetings; (3) a guide to the city’s site plan review process; and (4) a template for postcard notifications of citizen participation meetings.

The one-page citizens’ guide outlines elements of the citizen participation ordinance, describes ways that residents can get involved, and gives tips on how to effectively provide input. [.pdf of citizens' guide]

The developers’ guide, also a one-page document, gives direction about how best to handle the mandatory citizen participation meeting. [.pdf of developers' guide] Also for developers, a guide to the city’s site plan process describes the steps involved in this review, as well as an estimated timeline for each phase. Residents could also use this guide to see what the city requires and when there’s an opportunity for input, Ryan said. [.pdf of site plan guide]

The template for postcard notices is an effort to standardize communication so that the same information is always provided. [.pdf of postcard template]

Ryan also highlighted the new citizen participation site that launched earlier this summer, as part of the city’s overhaul of its entire website. Some outdated items were removed, and new information is intended to help people find what they need, she said. The new guides for citizens and developers are posted there. Google analytics indicate a spike in usage, she reported, and the bounce rate has improved – it’s been lowered by 8%.

Citizen Participation: Commission Discussion – Materials

Jeremy Peters asked how these guides would be distributed, other than the website. Katy Ryan replied that when developers meet with staff, they can be made aware of these guides. The citizens’ guide could be distributed to neighborhood groups, she said.

Jeremy Peters, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Planning commissioner Jeremy Peters, who serves on the citizen outreach committee.

Planning manager Wendy Rampson reported that one of this year’s goals for the planning unit is to reach out to neighborhood associations. Part of that is to update the current information that the planning staff maintains, but another aspect is to create a stronger connection between the planning staff and residents.

Peters suggested including a link to the citizens’ guide, as part of the notification of a project in its early stages.

Rampson indicated that Ryan didn’t have time to revamp the city’s public hearing notices, but that’s next on the list. Those notices have to contain certain types of information, since they are legal notices, “but we could certainly make the wording more friendly” and include short URLs, she said.

Regarding the estimated project timeline that’s outlined in the site plan guide, Ken Clein suggested adding a disclaimer – that there’s no guarantee the timeline will follow those estimates.

Sabra Briere asked if printed handouts would be available for these guides. She noted that some residents would want the information, but they’re not necessarily computer savvy. Rampson replied that the staff have stopped keeping printed handouts in stock, but if someone comes to the front desk at city hall, it could be printed for them. She added that there could be printed handouts available at the planning commission meetings, as an option.

Wendy Woods wondered if the city ever sends out this kind of information with its water bills or other mailings. Rampson said the city mails out the Waste Watcher publication, which primarily includes public services-related information. But the city has also used inserts in its water bills at times, she noted. Those bills go out quarterly. She thought it probably wouldn’t entail additional cost to the planning unit’s budget, but would be handled by the communications staff.

Diane Giannola, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Planning commissioner Diane Giannola.

However, more people are choosing to pay their water bills online, Rampson said, so that kind of mailing wouldn’t reach everyone.

Kirk Westphal liked the bullet point in the citizens guide that emphasized working with neighborhood associations, and he wondered if that could be stressed even more – especially for communications that happen before a developer actually submits a formal proposal.

Diane Giannola expressed caution about that. “The problem with neighborhood associations is that they’re controlled by a certain group of people – and that’s not necessarily the views of the entire neighborhood,” she said. For her own condo association, “the president runs everything.”

Westphal thought that if a neighborhood association meets with a developer over a proposed project, “it’s a great time for that neighborhood to hear from each other – it’s sort of a forced collaboration, in a way.” Peters added that ideally, such a meeting would take place early enough in the process so that the developer could incorporate neighborhood feedback.

Responding to a query from commissioners, Ryan said the design that’s featured in the citizens’ and developers’ guides was made by taking a photo of Ann Arbor’s skyline, tracing it in Photoshop, and filling in the outline with solid green.

Citizen Participation: Commission Discussion – Mandatory Meetings

Commissioners also discussed the format of the mandatory citizen participation meetings. Rampson said that some residents have told planning staff that Brad Moore – a local architect who’s involved with several projects in Ann Arbor – handles those meetings particularly well. So the planning staff plans to interview him for tips he might have that could be passed along to other developers.

Sabra Briere, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

City councilmember and planning commissioner Sabra Briere.

Briere reported that she and Peters had just attended part of a citizen participation meeting, which started a half hour before the working session – Moore had been leading that one, too. [That participation meeting was held from 6:30-8 p.m. on Aug. 12 at the DDA offices, about a block from city hall. It focused on a project proposal to rezone 221 Felch St. and adjacent parcels from M1 (limited industrial district) to R4D (multiple-family dwelling district) to allow for a low-rise residential development over enclosed parking.]

Moore presented solid information, Briere said, and he reiterated that the current step is for rezoning – not for a building design and site plan. He started out with a description of the land, some conceptual ideas, and the rationale for their approach. “He was very good about knowing how people react,” she said.

Peters added that instead of starting with a vision for the building, Moore began by talking about the land’s topography within the Allen Creek watershed, flooding issues, and other challenges of the site. The landscape architect was also on hand to discuss these issues before showing a possible building footprint on the site.

Rampson noted that a good land planner does that kind of site analysis first, and starts putting layers on top of that to develop a project.

Briere pointed out that in contrast to Moore’s approach on the Felch Street project, the Toll Brothers representatives – at their July 10 citizen participation meeting for a 500-unit development at Nixon and Dhu Varren roads – led off by showing a site plan and pictures of the buildings. They didn’t start off by talking about how they’d handle issues that would affect neighbors, like landscape buffers, stormwater and traffic, she noted.

Kirk Westphal, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Planning commissioner Kirk Westphal.

Eleanore Adenekan observed that neighbors go to those meetings to be heard, but they also come with their own pre-conceived notions about a project. Do the meetings include time for questions?

Briere explained that there’s no consistent format for the citizen participation meetings. There’s always an opportunity for Q&A, “whether it’s offered or taken,” she said, but it happens in different ways.

At the Toll Brothers presentation, because they tried to present so much information, they were constantly being interrupted, Briere said. In contrast, Moore and the Beal family – who own the Felch Street property – handled it in a more relaxed manner, so that it was more like a conversation.

Rampson pointed out that there’s a difference in the size of those two projects, which might have also been a factor.

Briere indicated that the responses to neighbor concerns at the Toll Brothers’ presentation were “not uniformly respectful, not understanding the impact on the existing properties.” In contrast, for the Felch Street proposal, Moore had offered to visit the neighbors and talk about their concerns. The difference might be that the Felch Street developer is local, Briere noted, and Toll Brothers isn’t.

“It’s a hard process to go through, engaging the public,” Briere said. “The more comfort you feel with it, the more often you do it, the better you get.”

Ken Clein, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Planning commissioner Ken Clein.

Commissioners also talked about whether planning staff should attend the citizen participation meetings. Some people thought there might be a “chilling effect” if commissioners or staff attended, Westphal said, or if a city councilmember attended. If someone did attend, he didn’t think it was appropriate to speak – unless it was for clarifying a fact.

Briere, who serves on city council, said she attended the Toll Brothers meeting and spoke about “what the ordinance said, what the expectations were, who was responsible, and why there were no staff present.” The project is located in Ward 1, which she represents.

Giannola thought the issue was whether the public would want the planning commissioners to speak during a citizen participation meeting. “That’s their attempt to talk to a developer,” she noted. “We’re going to have our chance later, so we shouldn’t be there giving out opinions.”

Briere agreed that giving an opinion wouldn’t be appropriate, but answering questions was fine. Giannola ventured that sometimes opinions are conveyed when answering questions. “Maybe, maybe not,” Briere replied. “It depends on your self control.”

Some residents who attend these meetings might be concerned that a commissioner or councilmember would be defending or promoting a development, Briere said, but “many of them are simply looking for answers. They want to know what the rules are.”

If there isn’t someone knowledgeable in the room, she added, “it’s possible for the developer to simply be besieged.” At the Toll Brothers meeting, some residents were demanding answers to questions about traffic flow, for example, which Briere said “was completely outside of their capacity to answer.”

Wendy Rampson, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Planning manager Wendy Rampson.

Giannola said that indicated that perhaps a staff member should attend. Briere pointed out that prior to the citizen participation ordinance, staff members used to attend any meeting held by a developer. “More than one member of the public saw the staff in the role of defending and promoting the development, which puts the staff member in a very delicate position,” she said.

That might be because people don’t like the answers that the staff provided, Giannola said. Westphal added: “The staff is defending the master plan and the zoning.”

Briere said she wasn’t advocating for staff not to attend. She herself attends these meetings, and thinks that she should continue do that. It’s important to have someone there who can stand up and say that the answer to a particular question is something that the city, not the developer, should address at a later date, Briere said.

Rampson said that one strategy would be for planning staff to coach a developer’s design team, letting them know it’s OK to defer questions that they can’t answer. The answers could then be included in the citizen participation report, and sent to residents, she said.

Rampson noted that although materials have been developed and the planning unit’s website is redesigned, there are other issues to address – including possible changes to citizen participation meetings. She suggested pulling the outreach committee together to talk about next steps.

Citizen Participation: Commission Discussion – Mandatory Reports

Briere encouraged the planning staff to think about how the citizen participation reports might be given to planning commissioners in a more timely way. Right now, the ordinance doesn’t require that reports come to the planning commission. The reports are included in the commission’s meeting packet when a project is reviewed.

Eleanore Adenekan, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Planning commissioner Eleanore Adenekan.

Rampson clarified that Briere also wanted the reports to follow a template, so that there would be consistency. Right now, Briere said, it’s difficult for planning commissioners to use the report as they evaluate a project.

Wendy Woods noted that some concerns had been raised that the report of a citizen participation meeting is biased, because it’s prepared by the developer – so the developer naturally wants to make it look as good as possible for the project.

Briere pointed out that the ordinance requires a developer to send the citizen participation meeting report to everyone who attends – assuming that they’ve provided contact information. So there’s a way for attendees to give feedback on the report. Rampson said the planning staff hasn’t been following up to make sure that’s happening, but they can start including that check as part of the process.

Giannola noted that one developer had included email exchanges with residents, as part of his citizen participation report. That had been very helpful, she said, because it included questions from neighbors as well as the developer’s responses.

Ken Clein thought developers would actually appreciate having a simple template to follow as they compile their report. “It’s sort of like Citizen Participation for Dummies,” he quipped. Westphal replied: “Let’s not make that the title.”

Westphal suggested that planning staff touch base with other communities that have had a citizen participation ordinance in place longer than Ann Arbor – like Auburn Hills.

Wendy Woods, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Wendy Woods, chair of the planning commission.

Briere noted that for many residents in Ann Arbor, the citizen participation process “is an opportunity to try to discourage development. That isn’t the case in every community.”

Rampson reported that some communities go to great lengths to try to publicize development proposals. One community in Colorado had hired someone to create a website that listed all the projects and provided regular updates. Ann Arbor does that through its eTRAKIT system, she noted, “but you have to dig.”

Briere said she’d never gotten eTRAKIT to work for her. “I’m pretty savvy, and if I can’t get it to work for me, there’s a lot of other people who don’t even try after the first time,” she said.

Ryan gave an example from Philadelphia, which has developed a quick reference guide to zoning. It would take time to develop something similar for Ann Arbor, she said, but it would be a great resource.

Rampson suggested that this is an issue the subcommittee can discuss further, and then bring recommendations to the full commission.

Citizen Participation: Commission Discussion – Ordinance Evaluation

An evaluation of the citizen participation ordinance was supposed to have been done five years ago, Rampson said, “but we’re working on it.” There had been a lull in development soon after the ordinance was passed, but now there have been enough examples to evaluate it and possibly make some thoughtful changes to the code, she noted.

Citizen Participation: Public Commentary

Former planning commissioner Ethel Potts attended the working session and spoke during the final opportunity for public commentary. Potts had served on the planning commission when the citizen participation ordinance was developed and implemented.

Eppie Potts, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Eppie Potts.

She said she used the city’s website primarily to find meeting schedules and agendas, but she’s having difficulty navigating the site after the recent redesign. She also hoped that the site could include all meetings, such as committee meetings. “I struggle to find out when many of these meetings are,” she said, “and I miss some that I really wanted to go to.”

Regarding the city’s list of neighborhood associations, Potts reported that some of the information is outdated. Some of the contact people who are listed have moved out of town, for example, or died.

Regarding citizen participation meetings, Potts said that a good approach is to present very general information at first, then drill down with more details as questions are asked. That way, the information is tailored to the interests of the people who are attending, she said.

Potts said she’s attended some citizen participation meetings that were “dreadful – about as bad as you could get.” The developers either took too much or too little time presenting their proposal, she said, and didn’t know how to deal with the public. In one case, there was a resident who monopolized the whole meeting, she said. “So it can go badly – mostly it doesn’t, but it can.”

Present: Eleanore Adenekan, Sabra Briere, Ken Clein, Diane Giannola, Kirk Westphal, Wendy Woods, Jeremy Peters. Also: City planning manager Wendy Rampson.

Absent: Bonnie Bona.

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Column on Hoops: Basketball, Civics Fri, 11 Mar 2011 19:04:19 +0000 Dave Askins On Tuesday, a capacity crowd packed a local Ann Arbor venue to watch a five-person team do its work. Part of the color commentary included talk of game-changing players, and speculation about who had the best center of all the conferences. Everyone knew that whichever team prevailed on Tuesday would not win the whole tournament – it would just advance to the next round.

Ann Arbor West Park basketball hoop

The basketball hoop on the south end of the court in Ann Arbor's newly renovated West Park. (Photo by the writer.)

Here’s a highlight reel of how events unfolded on Tuesday. Play opened with a disputed call, and one of the fans nearly got tossed out of the venue. There was a guy with a red sweater, reminiscent of those favored by Bob Knight when he coached the Indiana University squad, even though he was not the guy in danger of getting tossed. He was actually prepared to do the tossing.

Early on, the coach told the team about the “four corners” – which some older sports fans might recognize as a stalling style of basketball made popular by legendary University of North Carolina coach Dean Smith. And the team managed to hold the ball for one final shot, which it made. The cheerleaders cheered. The victors were valiant … hail, hail, etcetera.

The venue? It was the fourth floor meeting room of city hall. And the five-person team was the committee charged with evaluating proposals for use of the city-owned Library Lot. That’s the parcel atop the Fifth Avenue parking structure currently under construction.

Who says local civic affairs isn’t at least as interesting as NCAA basketball? Well, actually, most readers would say that, I’m guessing.

But here’s something I think we can all agree on: Fans at basketball games get to cheer or boo as loud as they like … within certain parameters. The parallel principle for public meetings, like the one on Tuesday, is that members of the public should be allowed to address the group during its meeting.

The city of Ann Arbor’s stated written policy on this is actually quite clear: Even entities that are not public bodies under the Open Meetings Act should, to the best of their abilities, conform with the spirit of the OMA – which includes a provision for public participation at meetings.

The Dispute with the Ref

The “fan” who risked getting tossed from the meeting room was local attorney Tom Wieder. [A "telestrator-annotated" version of the opening paragraphs is appended at the conclusion of this column. For regular news coverage of the meeting, see "Work Session Called on Conference Center"] When committee chair Stephen Rapundalo started the meeting on Tuesday, Wieder indicated he wanted to address the committee, saying that the city’s policy allows it.

Rapundalo replied that the RFP review committee was an “advisory committee” and it would not be entertaining public commentary. However, the committee did welcome public input, Rapundalo stressed, and he encouraged people to communicate in writing to the committee, or to city councilmembers, or the city administrator.

Wieder challenged Rapundalo to demonstrate that the committee had actually chosen not to entertain public commentary. When Rapundalo said the committee had been using rules that did not include a provision for public commentary, Wieder wanted to know if there was a written copy of the rules and whether the committee had voted on using those rules. Rapundalo finally said, “Mr. Wieder, I’m trying to run a meeting.” City administrator Roger Fraser admonished Wieder, saying that if he wanted to be disruptive, the committee could ask him to leave.

When Wieder said he was simply asking to be able to address the committee, committee member Margie Teall – who represents Ward 4 on the city council – told Wieder that he was not asking, but rather was insisting. Wieder allowed that, well, okay, he had been insisting. When Fraser pointed out that Rapundalo had made clear that no opportunity for public commentary would be given, Wieder replied: “I did hear what he said,” to which Fraser shot back, “You didn’t act as if you did.”

Wieder could lay claim to the last word in the exchange by replying, “No, I just didn’t accept it.” From that point on, Wieder sat back and listened.

What Play Are We Running?

In one sense, it was fine theater – Wieder appears comfortable in the role of the rabble-rouser. For all we know, he wanted to get tossed out of the meeting – for the same reason a basketball player or coach will sometimes deliberately bait the referee into calling a technical foul. It sometimes serves to fire up your team and to shift the momentum of a game.

But what exactly was Wieder talking about? Does Ann Arbor really have a policy on whether someone can address a meeting like one held by the Library Lot RFP review committee? Yes. The playbook Wieder was working from – as an email he sent to Rapundalo following the meeting makes clear – is a resolution passed by the city council in 1991:

Whereas, The City Council desires that all meetings of City boards, task forces, commissions and committees conform to the spirit of the Open Meetings Act;
RESOLVED, That all City boards, task forces, commissions, committees and their subcommittees hold their meetings open to the public to the best of their abilities in the spirit of Section 3 of the Open Meetings Act; and
RESOLVED, That closed meetings of such bodies be held only under situations where a closed meeting would be authorized in the spirit of the Open Meetings Act.

The idea of the resolution is this: Even entities to which the OMA would not technically apply are still expected to conform to the spirit of Section 3 of the OMA – to the best ability of that entity’s members. Section 3 includes a provision that allows a person to address a meeting of a public body.

It’s a council resolution The Chronicle has written about previously – in connection with the council’s apparent game plan of calling its ad hoc committees “work groups” in order to shield their work from the 1991 resolution. From an April 2010 Chronicle article:

On Friday, April 16, [2010] at 3 p.m. members of the DDA’s committee met with some city councilmembers in Roger Fraser’s office to discuss the deal. In barring The Chronicle from the Friday meeting, which we attempted to attend, Fraser rejected the applicability of the council resolution that requires the meetings of city sub-committees to comply with the Open Meetings Act, contending it was a “working group,” not a sub-committee.

That incident involved a committee charged with negotiating with the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority on a new contract for managing the city’s public parking system. In addition, currently the city council is also picking and rolling with a “work group” that it has put together to study the question of a city income tax – instead of simply referring the matter to its budget committee.

From The Chronicle’s report of a recent budget retreat:

At the Jan. 8, 2011 retreat, there was some back-and-forth about whether the work group looking at the income tax question – as well as the possibility of a Headlee override – should be called a “committee” or a “work group.” Implicit context for the distinction is that council committees are supposed to do their best to conduct their meetings openly in accordance with the Michigan Open Meetings Act – based on a two-decades-old city council resolution. Work groups are not considered to have the same obligation.

View from the Head of Officials

In a dispute over rules, policy and legal matters, the view of the city attorney carries some weight. Does Ann Arbor’s city attorney acknowledge the current applicability of a two-decades-old city council resolution? Yes. Last year, Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) asked city attorney Stephen Postema during a council meeting whether a committee of the council could violate the Open Meetings Act.

In asking the question, Derezinski was in some sense running the alley-oop play – where one player lobs a ball above the basket to a teammate who can throw down an easy dunk. Derezinski served in the state legislature when the Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act were passed, and is a retired attorney specializing in municipal law, so he likely knew the answer to the technical OMA question.

But Postema couldn’t deliver the simple answer that Derezinski seemed to expect, because of the city council’s 1991 resolution. From The Chronicle’s report of that May 17, 2010 meeting:

Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) asked the city’s attorney, Stephen Postema, if a council committee could be subject to the Open Meetings Act (OMA). Postema indicated to Derezinski that it was not the OMA, but rather a council resolution [from 1991] that was the “operative document.” [It requires city committees to adhere to the OMA to the best of their abilities.]

But what about “advisory committees”? In explaining to Wieder why he wouldn’t be allowed to address the meeting, Rapundalo stressed that the RFP review committee was an “advisory committee.” Did Postema say anything about advisory committees last May?

For that, we need to go to the tape. It’s at roughly the 1:51:00 mark where Postema states [emphasis added]: “… if it’s truly an advisory committee … under the attorney general’s opinion and others, an advisory committee would not be covered under the Open Meetings Act, but it would still be covered under the council resolution.”

It’s difficult to see how simply encouraging people to contact the committee, or their councilmembers, or the city administrator outside of the committee meeting could be analyzed as serving the spirit of the Open Meetings Act requirement that a person be allowed to address a meeting.

If civic affairs in this city had a challenge flag that could be thrown, the booth review would have shown that Wieder was right and should have been allowed to address the meeting. Ah, but challenge flags and video review are for football. And this, apparently, is basketball we’re talking about.

Playing Smart

Independent of the fact that the decision to refuse Wieder the opportunity to speak was inconsistent with the city’s policy on committee meetings, it just wasn’t smart.

Regardless of what you might think about the value of public participation in the abstract, there is a real practical benefit to not just allowing, but actually insisting that the public come and address meetings, particularly on controversial issues.

Thinking along purely adversarial lines, for proponents of the conference center proposal, Rapundalo squandered an opportunity to watch the other side scrimmage.

Thinking more cooperatively, refusing someone the opportunity to address a meeting leaves skill and expertise that exists in the community lying on the table. Certainly that skill and expertise – in the form of, say, critiques of the letter of intent – might eventually be brought to bear on the issue. Written communication after the fact could be used to improve whatever letter gets signed – or influence a decision not to sign the letter at all.

But there is, I think, greater value to injecting that skill and expertise in a more timely fashion, by including it in the public meetings that lead up to the “big game.”

Telestrated Version of Opening Paragraphs

Here are the X’s and O’s of this column’s opening paragraphs.

On Tuesday a capacity crowd packed a local Ann Arbor venue to watch a five-person team do its work. [The Library Lot RFP review committee consists of five members: Margie Teall, Stephen Rapundalo, John Splitt, Eric Mahler, and Sam Offen.] Part of the color commentary included talk of game-changing players [the conference center proposed by Valiant has been described as having the potential to be a "game changer"] and speculation about who had the best center of all the conferences [Valiant's proposal is for a conference center]. Everyone knew that whichever team prevailed on Tuesday would not win the whole tournament – it would just advance to the next round. [The recommendation to sign a letter of intent will ultimately require city council action.]

Here’s a highlight reel of how events unfolded on Tuesday. Play opened with a disputed call, and one of the fans nearly got tossed out of the venue. [Tom Wieder repeatedly asked to address the committee and was told by city administrator that he might be asked to leave.] There was a guy with a red sweater, reminiscent of those favored by Bob Knight when he coached the Indiana University squad, even though he was not the guy in danger of getting tossed – he was actually prepared to do the tossing. [Roger Fraser sported a red sweater vest.] Early on, the coach told the team about the “four corners” – which some older sports fans might recognize as a stalling style of basketball made popular by legendary University of North Carolina coach Dean Smith. [David Di Rita of The Roxbury Group called the what, where, when and how of the project the "four corners."] And the team managed to hold the ball for a one final shot, which it made. [The committee voted 5-0 to recommend that the city council approve a letter of intent.] The cheerleaders cheered. [Margie Teall offered that she thought it was a great idea.] The victors were valiant … hail, hail, etcetera. [The name of the development team is Valiant, which is an allusion to the University of Michigan fight song. The song's chorus begins with the line, "Hail to the victors, valiant ..."]

About the writer: Dave Askins is editor and co-founder of The Ann Arbor Chronicle.

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20th Monthly Milestone Mon, 03 May 2010 02:19:58 +0000 Mary Morgan Editor’s Note: The monthly milestone column, which appears on the second day of each month – the anniversary of The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s launch – is an opportunity for either the publisher or the editor of The Chronicle to touch base with readers on topics related to this publication.

Chronicle publisher Mary Morgan

Definition of bedraggled: Ann Arbor Chronicle publisher Mary Morgan, with White House Press Pool credentials, after a long day at Michigan Stadium. (Photo by Julie Weatherbee)

On Saturday, along with more than 90,000 other people, I was in Michigan Stadium amid the spectacle of the University of Michigan commencement, with the heightened drama surrounding the presence of President Barack Obama.

Despite standing in the rain for two hours, I was glad to be part of the orchestrated pageantry – it’s a perk to living in a city that’s got the pull of a major university, while still being small enough to score access to something that draws national attention. As the day wore on, the event also helped further crystallize for me some aspects of The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s journalistic mission. And because this is our publication’s 20th monthly milestone message, it seems a good occasion to reflect on that.

The most obvious point of clarity on Saturday was the difference between what The Chronicle typically does and what other media oranizations do – whether they are traditional or newly-emerging enterprises. The second observation is linked to some advice in Obama’s speech: Pay attention.

The Media Pen

If you’re a regular Chronicle reader, you know that our focus on local government coverage leads us to extended hours sitting in uncomfortable seats, listening to elected officials. In this way, our typical day (or often, evening) is not unlike the eight hours spent in Michigan Stadium on Saturday – uncomfortable seats, elected officials.

Of course, what differed dramatically from our typical work – ok, other than the fact that Barack Obama was 50 yards away – is that more often than not, we’re the only journalists in the room. These are meetings where the public’s business is conducted, but the public isn’t clamoring to attend. There are no murmurs of anticipation beforehand, no eruptions of applause when someone enters the room, no tight security.

It’s not glamorous stuff. It does not enhance social standing to say you just returned from covering a park advisory commission meeting – most people just tend to offer pity-filled stares, or tell you straight out that you’re a wing nut.

So it’s unusual to find us amid the crush of a media throng, as we were on Saturday. There’s an entire culture to it – and to the “handling” of the media that takes place as well. It’s a caste system, in part, made even clearer when the national media comes to town. I remember it clearly from my days working at The Ann Arbor News, but I had forgotten how much I’d disliked that aspect of the circus. [Funniest aside: Overheard complaints by some Washington media who apparently chose Buffalo Wild Wings for dinner on Friday, and who found the wine list there lacking in diversity. Heads up to BWW corporate management: A letter with suggestions about wine could be headed your way.]

That said, I’m glad I had the experience of hearing Obama’s speech in person, and of witnessing the excitement of the day. This will be a touchstone event for many, and I’m glad I was able to share in it.

I’m glad I could spend some time with photographer Myra Klarman and her husband Rich – Myra graciously agreed to shoot photos for The Chronicle, and one of the best things about the day was the chance to get to know her and Rich a little better. I’m even glad I had the experience of standing next to a grizzled photographer – not Myra – who, to my surprise, joined in as the UM graduates sang their alma mater, “The Yellow and Blue.” It wasn’t clear that anyone really knew the lyrics, including him.

But the day also served to remind me that there’s a reason we chose a different path when we launched The Chronicle, and affirmed for me the value in doing so.

Paying Attention

Obama began by describing some cute questions he’d received from a kindergarten class, segued into a discussion of “niceness,” and linked that to the historical context of our nation’s often raucous political discourse. Throughout, Obama threaded the theme of what it means to live in a democracy, and how as citizens, we have a responsibility to participate. He acknowledged that people might be turned off by the name-calling we witness on a regular basis, but cited the danger of turning away [From The Chronicle's annotated version of Obama's speech]:

…when we don’t pay close attention to the decisions made by our leaders; when we fail to educate ourselves about the major issues of the day; when we choose not to make our voices and opinions heard, that’s when democracy breaks down. That’s when power is abused. That’s when the most extreme voices in our society fill the void that we leave.

Obama was speaking to the national arena, but the sentiment is even more applicable, I believe, at the local and state levels. There are exponentially more sources of information and analysis of national issues than you can find about issues and the actions of public bodies in Lansing or locally. And generally, people are likely to know more about how their Congressman voted than who their city councilmember or county commissioner is, or what decisions they’re making.

One reason we founded The Chronicle in September 2008 was because we thought much of our local community wasn’t “paying attention” – and we wanted to do something about it. We believe, despite what many media pundits assert, that readers care about more than the quick-hit, sound-byte story. We trust readers are smart enough and care enough to value our approach, which pretty much lays out the minutiae of what’s happening in local government. Readers who make the modest investment of time to read our reports will have an understanding of how things work. In fact, I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that Chronicle readers may be better informed on our local issues than public officials who don’t invest time to read The Chronicle.

Obama also talked about how participation in public life doesn’t have to mean running for public office. “But it does mean that you should pay attention and contribute in any way that you can,” he said. “Stay informed.”

I admire individuals who do this locally, even if I don’t always agree with their positions. People who are engaged in their communities, who take the time to try to understand how things work, who draw their own conclusions from the information they gather – they’ve taken on a Herculean task. And it’s a task that’s not universally appreciated. It’s easier for people in power to have a disengaged public – it can be messy and time consuming to respond to “the public,” whom some of our local officials mock as “the hive.” I get that. And I get that there are people who twist facts to align with their own worldview. The Chronicle’s  job would be “easier,” too, if no one ever showed up at meetings for public commentary – that’d sure be less for us to have to write up. But our community would be poorer for it.

Absent a robust public engagement, we might as well live in a benevolent monarchy. And the more access we have to information, the more able we are to evaluate it and make our own informed decisions, and to influence others to share our views. That’s why we’re unrelenting advocates for openness in government.

The Confluence of Community

Back to Saturday’s commencement. One of the things I cherish about living here is the fact that it’s a small enough town to find connections – if you pay attention. And because our profession takes us out into the community every single day of the week, we’ve been able to meet a pretty interesting range of people.

A fair number of them were also inside Michigan Stadium on Saturday – and running into them amid the thousands of strangers really grounded the event for me. Some were volunteering – like Kathy Griswold, a “regular” at many public meetings, and Anna Ercoli Schnitzer, a frequent Stopped.Watched. contributor to The Chronicle.

Wendy Woods, a former city councilmember who serves on the planning commission, passed by and said hello while we were waiting in the pre-dawn line outside the stadium. She works at UM with the Michigan Community Scholars Program – I’m pretty sure she knew more graduates on Saturday than we did.

On the field, I spotted Washtenaw County Sheriff’s deputy Blackwell, who was working security – I’d seen him just last week at the new location of Camp Take Notice, talking with that group of residents who are homeless.

In the stands, I chatted with Doug Kelley, probably the most affable, consistently upbeat person I know – we’ve met him in many different venues, including others with an Obama connection – and I was glad to add another one to my mental archive.

Matt Hampel passed by the media risers in his cap and gown – he’s been active in the community for so many years that I’d forgotten that he’s just now graduating. Talk about an engaged citizen – Matt’s a role model for that.

In some ways, all of this is really just a long-winded way of saying that I draw great satisfaction from the fact that we’re able to make a living at what we’re doing here at The Ann Arbor Chronicle. Thank you, subscribers and advertisers!  I’m glad that our work has allowed us to cross paths with so many others who call this community their home. We’re glad they’re paying attention to what we’re doing, and find value in it. We hope you do, too.

About the writer: Mary Morgan is publisher and co-founder of The Ann Arbor Chronicle.

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Obama’s Michigan Commencement Speech Sat, 01 May 2010 23:38:29 +0000 Chronicle Staff President Barack Obama delivered the main address at the University of Michigan’s May 1 spring commencement.

Analysis of Obama commencement address

Word cloud analysis of the Obama UM commencement address. Image links to higher resolution file. Analysis done at

The Chronicle has transcribed the speech as delivered and provided some annotation, in part by providing section and sub-section headings that reflect the organizational structure of the president’s remarks.

The main themes were the role of government in our lives and the keys to preservation of democracy. One of those keys to the preservation of democracy, Obama told the graduates, is to “contribute part of your life to the life of this country.”


[applause ~30 seconds] Thank you very much, thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you very much, thank you. Thank you, everybody, please be seated. I love you back! [responding to "I love you" from audience] It is great to be here in the Big House. [applause ~5 s.] And so may I say, Go Blue! [applause ~10 s.] I thought I would go for the cheap applause line to start things off.

[Note: Based on the text that the White House released of the speech to be delivered, the line was not impromptu, but could have been perceived as an ad lib, riffing on the fact that many of the speakers who preceded Obama at the podium went for the "Go Blue" applause line at the end of their speeches, including Gov. Jennifer Granholm, UM president Mary Sue Coleman, and student speaker Alex Marston.]

Good afternoon, President Coleman, the Board of Trustees, the faculty, parents, family and friends of the class of 2010. [applause] Congratulations on your graduation and thank you for allowing me the honor of being a part of it. [applause] Let me acknowledge your wonderful governor, Jennifer Granholm, your mayor John Hieftje [Obama misses pronunciation with a novel variation to The Chronicle, saying /Heef-jay/] and all the members of Congress who are here today. It is a privilege to be with you on this happy occasion.

America’s Voices


America’s Voices: How Obama Keeps in Touch

And you know, it’s nice to spend a little time outside of Washington. [applause] Now, don’t get me wrong, Washington is a beautiful city. [audience laughter] It’s very nice living above the store – you can’t beat the commute. [audience laughter ~5 s.] It’s just sometimes, all you hear in Washington is the clamor of politics. And all that noise can drown out the voices of the people who sent you there. So when I took office, I decided that each night I would read 10 letters, out of the tens of thousands that are sent to us by ordinary Americans every day. This is my modest effort to remind myself of why I ran in the first place.

America’s Voices: Kindergartners

Some of these letters tell stories of heartache and struggle. Some express gratitude, some express anger. I’d say a good solid third call me an idiot, [audience laughter] which is how I know that I’m getting a good representative sample. [audience laughter, Obama also laughs, generating cheers] Some of the letters make you think, like the one I received last month from a kindergarten class in Virginia. Now, the teacher of this class instructed the students to ask me any question they wanted. So one asked, How do you do your job? [audience laughter] Another asked, Do you work a lot? [audience laughter] Somebody wanted to know if I wear a black jacket or if I have a beard. [audience laughter] So clearly they were getting me mixed up with the other tall guy from Illinois. [audience laughter, followed by collective "aww" in response to a shot of a little kid on the stadium scoreboard screen] And one of my favorites was from a kid who wanted to know if I lived next to a volcano. [audience laughter] I’m still trying to piece the thought process on this. [Obama laughs] I love this letter.

[Note: Obama's reference to "the other tall guy from Illinois" is a reference to Abraham Lincoln.]

America’s Voices: Niceness

But it was the last question from the last student in the letter that gave me pause. The student asked, Are people being nice? Are people being nice? Well, if you turn on the news today, or yesterday, or a week ago, or a month ago, particularly one of the cable channels, [audience laughter] you can see, [audience laughter] you can see why even a kindergartner would ask this question. [audience laughter] We’ve got politicians calling each other all sorts of unflattering names. Pundits and talking heads shout at each other. The media tends to play up every hint of conflict, because it makes for a sexier story, which means anyone interested in getting coverage feels compelled to make their arguments as outrageous and as incendiary as possible.

Contentious Discourse


Contentious Discourse: Origins in Current Crisis

Now, some of this contentiousness can be attributed to the incredibly difficult moment in which we find ourselves as a nation. Fact is, when you leave here today, you will search for work in an economy that is still emerging from the worst crisis since The Great Depression. You live in a century where the speed with which jobs and industries move across the globe is forcing America to compete like never before. You will raise your children at a time when threats like terrorism and climate change aren’t confined within the borders of any one country. As our world grows smaller and more connected, you will live and work with more people who don’t look like you, or think like you, or come from where you do.

Contentious Discourse: Historical Context

I really enjoyed Alex’s remarks, because that’s a lot of change. [The allusion was to the student speaker at the commencement, Alex Marston, whose message focused on change, and the difficulties inherent in accepting change.] And all these changes and all these challenges, inevitably cause tension in the body politic. They make people worry about the future. And sometimes they get people riled up. But I think it’s important that we maintain some historic perspective. Since the days of our founding, American politics has never been a particularly nice business. It’s always been a little less genteel during times of great change. A newspaper of the opposing party once editorialized that if Thomas Jefferson were elected, murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced. [audience laughter] Not subtle. [audience laughter] Opponents of Andrew Jackson often referred to his mother as a common prostitute, which seems a little over the top. [audience laughter, also from Obama] Presidents from Teddy Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson have been accused of promoting socialism or worse. We’ve had arguments between politicians that have been settled with actual duels. There was even a caning once on the floor of the United States Senate, which I’m happy to say didn’t happen while I was there. [audience laughter] It was a few years before. [audience laughter, also from Obama]

[Note: The reference to "actual duels" is to the pistol duel in 1804 between Alexander Hamilton, the former U.S. secretary of the treasury, and Aaron Burr, who was vice president at the time. Hamilton died of the wound he received at the duel. The reference to the Senate caning is to a physical attack by Congressman Preston Brooks on Senator Charles Sumner in 1856, in response to a speech that Sumner had delivered against the Fugitive Slave Act. The speech had insulted one of the authors of the act, Andrew Butler, who was a relative of Brooks.]

Contentious Discourse: The Nature of American Politics

The point is, politics has never been for the thin-skinned or the faint of heart. If you enter the arena you should expect to get roughed up. Moreover, democracy and a nation of more than 300 million people is inherently difficult. It’s always been noisy, and messy, contentious, complicated. We’ve been fighting about the proper size and role of government since the days the framers gathered in Philadelphia. We’ve battled over the meaning of individual freedom and equality since the Bill of Rights was drafted. As our economy has shifted emphasis from agriculture, to industry, to information, to technology, we have argued and struggled at each and every juncture over the best way to ensure that all of our citizens have a shot at opportunity.

So before we get too depressed about the current state of our politics, let’s remember our history. The great debates of the past all stirred great passion. They all made somebody angry. And at least once led to a terrible war. What is amazing is that despite all the conflict, despite all its flaws and its frustrations, our experiment in democracy has worked better than any form of government on earth. [applause ~15 seconds] On the last day of the Constitutional convention, Benjamin Franklin was famously asked: Well, doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy? And Franklin gave an answer that has been quoted for ages. He said: A republic, if you can keep it.

If you can keep it.

How to Preserve Democracy

Well, for more than 200 years we have kept it. Through revolution and civil war, our democracy has survived. Through depression and world war it has prevailed. Through periods of great social and economic unrest, from civil rights to women’s rights. It has allowed us slowly, sometimes painfully, to move towards a more perfect union.

And so now, class of 2010, the question for your generation is this: How will you keep our democracy going? At a moment when our challenges seem so big and our politics seem so small, how will you keep our democracy alive and vibrant? How will you keep it well in this century? I’m not here to offer some grand theory, or detailed policy prescription. But let me offer of few brief reflections, based on my own experiences, and the experiences of our country over the last two centuries.

Preserving Democracy: Adapt Role of Government to Changing World

First of all, American democracy has thrived, because we have recognized the need for a government that while limited, can still help us adapt to a changing world. On the fourth panel of the Jefferson Memorial is a quote I remember reading to my daughters, during our first visit there. It says, “I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.” A democracy designed by Jefferson and the other founders was never intended to solve every problem with a new law or a new program. Having thrown off the tyranny of the British Empire, the first Americans were understandably skeptical of government. Ever since, we have held fast to the belief that government doesn’t have all the answers. We have cherished and fiercely defended our individual freedom. That’s a strand of our nation’s DNA.

But the other strand is the belief that there are some things that we can only do together, as one nation. And that our government must keep pace with the times. When America expanded from a few colonies to an entire continent and we needed a way to reach the Pacific, our government helped build the railroads. When we transitioned from an economy based on farms to one based on factories, and workers needed new skills and training, our nation set up a system of public high schools. When the markets crashed during The Depression, and people lost their life savings, our government put in place a set of rules and safeguards to make sure that such a crisis never happened again, and then put a safety net in place to make sure that our elders would never be as impoverished the way they had been. And because our markets and financial systems have evolved since then, we’re now putting in place new rules to safeguard and protect the American people.

Now this notion [applause ~ 10 s.], this notion, class, hasn’t always been partisan. It was the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, who said the role of government is to do for the people what they cannot do better for themselves. And he would go on to begin that first intercontinental railroad and set up the first land-grant colleges. It was another Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, who said the object of the government is a welfare of the people. And he is remembered for using the power of government to break up monopolies, establish our national park system. [applause ~5 s.] Democrat Lyndon Johnson announced the Great Society during a commencement here at Michigan, but it was the Republican president before him, Dwight Eisenhower, who launched a massive government undertaking known as the interstate highway system.

Of course, there have always been those who oppose such efforts. They argue that government intervention is usually inefficient, it restricts individual freedom and dampens individual initiative. And in certain instances that’s been true. And for many years we had a welfare system that too often discouraged people from taking responsibility for their own upward mobility. At times we’ve neglected the role of parents, rather than government, in cultivating a child’s education. And sometimes regulations fail, sometimes the benefits don’t justify their costs.

But what troubles me is when I hear people saying, all of government is inherently bad. And one of my favorite signs during the health care debate was somebody who said, “Keep your government hands out of my Medicare,” [audience laughter ~5 s.] which is essentially saying “Keep government out of my government-run health care plan.” Now, when our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening, foreign entity, it ignores the fact that in our democracy, government is us. We, the people, hold our [applause ~ 5 s.] we the people hold in our hands the power to choose our leaders, and change our laws, and shape our own destiny.

Government’s the police officers, who are protecting our communities, and the service men and women who are defending us abroad. [applause ~5 s.] Government is the roads you drove in on and the speed limits that kept you safe. Government is what ensures the mines adhere to safety standards, or that oil spills are cleaned up by the companies that caused them. Government is this extraordinary public university, [applause extending through "big and small"] a place that’s doing life-saving research, and catalyzing economic growth, and graduating students who will change the world around them in ways big and small. And the truth is, the debate we’ve had for decades now, between more government and less government, it doesn’t really fit the times in which we live.

[Note: The reference to mine safety alludes to the April 5 explosion that killed 29 people at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., a mine owned by Massey Energy. The U.S. Justice Department is currently investigating that incident. The mention of oil spills refers to the ruptured oil well off the Louisiana coast, creating a massive spill that's projected to be a worse ecological disaster than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. The well is owned by the oil company BP. Obama was expected to visit the region on Sunday.]

We know that too much government can stifle competition and deprive us of choice and burden us with debt. But we’ve also clearly seen the dangers of too little government. Like when a lack of accountability on Wall Street nearly leads to the collapse of our entire economy. [applause ~5 s.] So, class of 2010, what we should be asking is not whether we need a big government or a small government, but how we can create a smarter and better government. Because in an era of iPods and TiVo, where we have more choices than ever before, even though I can’t really work a lot of these things, [audience laughter] but I have 23-year-olds who do it for me, [audience laughter] government shouldn’t try to dictate our lives, but it should give you the tools you need to succeed.

Government shouldn’t try to guarantee results, but it should guarantee a shot, an opportunity for every American who is willing to work hard. [applause ~10 s.] So, yes, we can and should debate the role of government in our lives. But remember, as you are asked to meet the challenges of our time, remember that the ability of us to adapt our government to the needs of the age has helped make our democracy work since its inception.

Preserving Democracy: Maintain Civility

Now the second way to keep our democracy healthy is to maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate. These arguments we’re having, over government and healthcare and war and taxes, these are serious arguments. They should arouse people’s passions. And it’s important for everybody to join in the debate with all the vigor that the maintenance of a free people requires. But we can’t expect to solve our problems, if all we do is tear each other down. [applause smattering extending to "right-wing nut"] You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question somebody’s views and their judgment, without questioning their motives or their patriotism. Throwing around phrases like “socialists,” “Soviet-style takeover” and “fascists,” and “right-wing nut” [audience laughter] – that may grab headlines, but also has the effect of comparing our government, our political opponents, to authoritarian, even murderous regimes. Now, we’ve seen this kind of politics in the past, it’s been practiced by both fringes of the ideological spectrum, by the left and the right, since our nation’s birth. But it’s starting to creep into the center of our discourse.

The problem with it is not the hurt feelings or the bruised egos of the public officials who are criticized. Remember, they’ve signed up for it. Michelle always reminds me of that. [audience laughter] The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation, it prevents learning. Since, after all, why should we listen to a fascist or a socialist or a right-wing nut? [audience laughter smattering] Or a left-wing nut? It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences, to sit down at the same table and hash things out. It robs us of a rational and serious debate, the one we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation. It coarsens our culture. And at its worst, it can send signals to the extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response.

So what can we do? As I found out after a year in the White House, changing this type of politics is not easy. And part of what civility requires is that we recall the simple lesson most of us learned from our parents: Treat others as you would like to be treated. With courtesy and respect. [applause ~10 s.] But stability in this age also requires something more than just asking if we can’t just all get along. Today’s 24/7 echo chamber amplifies the most inflammatory soundbites louder and faster than ever before.

It’s also, however, given us unprecedented choice. Whereas most Americans used to get their news from the same three networks over dinner or a few influential papers on Sunday morning, we now have the option to get our information from any number of blogs or websites or cable news shows. And this can have both a good and bad development for democracy. For if we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own, studies suggest that we become more polarized, more set in our ways. That will only reinforce and deepen the political divides in this country.

But if we choose to actively seek out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs, perhaps we can begin to understand where the people who disagree with us are coming from. Now this requires us to agree on a certain set of facts to debate from. That’s why we need a vibrant and thriving news business that is separate from opinion makers and the talking heads. [applause ~5 s.] That’s why we need an educated citizenry that values hard evidence and not just assertion. [applause ~5 s.] As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts.” [audience laughter]

Still, if you’re somebody who only reads the editorial page of the New York Times, try glancing at the page of the Wall Street Journal, once in a while. If you are a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website. It may make your blood boil, your mind might not be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship. [applause] It is essential for democracy. [applause ~5 s.]

So, too, is the practice of engaging in different experiences with different kinds of people. I look out at this class and I realize for four years at Michigan you have been exposed to diverse thinkers and scholars, professors and students. Don’t narrow that broad intellectual exposure just because you’re leaving here. Instead, seek to expand it.

If you grew up in a big city, spend some time with somebody who grew up in a rural town. If you find yourself only hanging around with people of your own race or ethnicity or religion, include people in your circle who have different backgrounds, life experiences. You’ll learn what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes. And in the process you will help to make this democracy work. [applause ~10 s.]

Preserving Democracy: Participate In It

Which brings me to the last ingredient of a functioning democracy, one that’s perhaps most basic. And it’s already been mentioned, and that is participation. Class of 2010, I understand that one effect of today’s poisonous political climate is to push people away from participation in public life. If all you see when you turn on the TV is name-calling, if all you hear about is how special interests lobbying in partisanship prevented Washington from getting something done, then you might think to yourself, what’s the point of getting involved?

Here’s the point: When we don’t pay close attention to the decisions made by our leaders, when we fail to educate ourselves about the major issues of the day, when we choose not to make our voices and opinions heard, that’s when democracy breaks down. That’s when power is abused. That’s when the most extreme voices in our society fill the void that we leave. That’s what powerful interests and their lobbyists are most able to buy access and influence in the corridors of power, because none of us are there to speak up and stop them. Participation in public life doesn’t mean that you all have to run for public office, though we could certainly use some fresh faces in Washington. [audience laughter] But it does mean that you should pay attention and contribute in any way that you can.

Stay informed. Write letters or make phone calls on behalf of an issue that you care about. If electoral politics isn’t your thing, continue the tradition that so many of you started here at Michigan, and find a way to serve your community and your country, an act that will help you stay connected to your fellow citizens and improve the lives of those around you.

You know, it was 50 years ago that a young candidate for president came here to Michigan and delivered a speech that inspired one of the most successful service projects in American history. And as John F. Kennedy described the ideals behind what would become the Peace Corps, he issued a challenge to the students who had assembled in Ann Arbor on that October night. On your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, he said, will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can, he said.

This democracy we have is a precious thing. For all the arguments and all the doubts and all the cynicism that’s out there today, we should never forget that as Americans, we enjoy more freedoms and opportunities than citizens in any other nation on earth. [applause extending through "down"] We are free to speak our mind and worship as we please, we are free to choose our leaders, and criticize them if they let us down. We have a chance to get an education and work hard and give our children a better life.

None of this came easy. None of this was preordained. The men and women who sat in your chairs 10 years ago, and 50 years ago and 100 years ago, they made America possible through their toil and their endurance, their imagination and their faith. Their success and America’s success was never a given. There is no guarantee that the graduates who will sit in the same seats 10 years from now, or 50 years from now, or 100 years from now, will enjoy the same freedoms and opportunities that you do. You, too, will have to strive. You, too, will have to push the boundaries of what seems possible. For the truth is, our nation’s destiny has never been certain.

What is certain, what has always been certain, is the ability to shape the destiny. That is what makes us different. That is what sets us apart. That is what makes us Americans. Our ability at the end of the day to look past all our differences and all of our disagreements, and still forge a common future.

Conclusion: Calling Graduates to Action

And that task is now in your hands. As is the answer to the question posed at this university a half a century ago, about whether a free society can still compete. If you are willing, as past generations were willing, to contribute part of your life to the life of this country, then I, like President Kennedy, believe we can. Because I believe in you. Congratulations on your graduation 2010. May God bless you. May God bless the United States of America. Thank you.

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