Column: Video Replay Review for City Council

"[T]his requires us to agree on ... facts to debate from."

When the University of Michigan Wolverines play Big Ten opponents in football, the video record of some plays can be reviewed by game officials – under conditions set forth by the conference. One kind of reviewable play is the completion of a forward pass: Did that player actually receive the ball from the quarterback in a way that, under the rules of American football, constitutes a completed pass than can be carried forward on the field of play?

city council audio tape

Audio tape recording of the Feb. 17, 2009 Ann Arbor city council meeting – even though the Community Television Network video has gone missing, it's still possible to review what was said at the meeting. The Ann Arbor city clerk's office makes audio recordings of council meetings to ensure the accuracy of minutes. (Photo illustration by The Chronicle.)

For its proceedings, the Ann Arbor city council does not have a video replay rule.

But if it did, here’s the kind of play that might be reviewable: Did a city council-appointed board receive advice from the city’s financial quarterback in a way that, under ordinary rules of plain American English discourse, constitutes a recommendation that should be carried forward in a future board policy?

At issue is whether two seasons ago, back in February 2009, city of Ann Arbor CFO Tom Crawford recommended to the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority that the DDA have a policy to maintain a minimum fund balance as a reserve, and specifically, whether a minimum reserve amount was specified.

The question was important over the last two years in the course of negotiations between the DDA and the city about the contract under which the DDA manages Ann Arbor’s public parking system.

The remarks made by Crawford – which everyone seems to recall (albeit differently) – took place in plain view on the public field of play, at the Feb. 17, 2009 city council meeting.

What made the public conversation remarkable in the waning stages of contract negotiations, was that it was based on what the different players (including Crawford) recalled Crawford saying. Why not just take an approach familiar to the Big Ten college football conference, and review the tape to find out exactly what Crawford said?

That’s the approach The Chronicle took – even though we’d previously reported Crawford’s remarks from the Feb. 17, 2009 council meeting in paraphrase form, and our paraphrase was consistent with the recollection of DDA board members.

In April 2011, we learned that the video recording of the meeting, which originally aired on Community Television Network (CTN), no longer exists. [For a broader look at CTN, see "CTN: What's Our Vision for Local Television?"]

However, we were able eventually to follow up with a request made to the city under the Freedom of Information Act and obtain an audio recording of the meeting made by the city clerk’s office.

If I were asked as a head official to review the play, then in the parlance of the Big Ten, I think there’s indisputable audio evidence that in his remarks, Crawford passed a recommendation along to the DDA to implement at least a 15% minimum fund balance reserve policy.

I am not, of course, a head official.

Nevertheless, it’s worth laying out exactly what Crawford did say at that 2009 meeting just for the historical record. First, a bit of pre-game coverage in the form of some additional context.

Context for Caring About Fund Balances

The most recent context for the DDA’s concerns over its fund balances involved negotiations with the city of Ann Arbor about the contract under which the DDA manages the city’s public parking system. In May 2011, after two years of negotiating, the city and the DDA struck an 11-year deal, with an 11-year renewal option, under which the city would receive a 17% cut of gross revenues from the public parking system.

The DDA’s position during contract negotiations was essentially this: We would love to accommodate the city’s desire to receive as high a percentage of gross public parking revenue as possible; however, we can’t manage it, because our fund balance would fall too far below the level recommended by the city’s own chief financial officer.

DDA board members were relying on their recollection that CFO Tom Crawford had recommended, in February 2009, that the DDA enact a financial policy under which the DDA would maintain at least 15% of operating expenses (or perhaps more) in its fund balance as a reserve amount. The context of Crawford’s remarks on the evening of Feb. 17, 2009 was a city council decision on the issuance of bonds to build the Fifth Avenue underground parking structure.

The original site plan for the project, which the DDA is managing, included extending the deck under Fifth Avenue down to William Street. The idea was that an underground connection to any future development on the former YMCA lot – at the northwest corner of Fifth and William – would be a benefit. But at their Feb. 17, 2009 meeting, city councilmembers followed Crawford’s advice and voted to eliminate the extension of the garage down to Fifth Avenue.

Just as a side note, it’s possible to imagine that the city council might eventually decide, after construction of the underground garage is complete, that it’s still worth creating an underground connection from the garage to the west side of Fifth Avenue. That decision would not need to be based on speculation about future development on the former Y lot, which is now owned by the city. Rather, such a decision could instead be driven by the fact that the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority is planning to move its Blake Transit Center from the Fourth Avenue side to the Fifth Avenue side of the lot. It could make sense to eventually connect a newly situated BTC to the underground parking structure.

If that happens, I hope councilmember Carsten Hohnke – who currently represents Ward 5, where Jerusalem Garden restaurant owner Ali Ramlawi lives – delivers that news to Ramlawi: The business, located near the corner of Liberty and Fifth, would enjoy several more months of disruption as Fifth Avenue is broken up again.

Verbatim Quotation from Feb. 17, 2009

It would be fitting for Hohnke to deliver that news, because it was Hohnke who provided the prompt for Crawford’s remarks that led to the downsizing of the project.

Carsten Hohnke: … Mr. Crawford to speak to us, in particular I’d like to ask, from your extensive review of the 10-year plan for the DDA, if we look at the site plan as currently proposed, extending down to underneath Fifth Ave. to William Street, what is your assessment of the financial impact on the DDA, together with the other projects that are in its pipeline?

Mayor John Hieftje: Everyone may not be aware that Mr. Crawford is the city’s chief financial officer.

Tom Crawford: Thanks. I spent some time with the DDA and reviewed their financial projections and you know one of the things I noticed was that they don’t have a target or minimum reserve policy.  So, as I looked at it, I use a minimum reserve of 15 to 20 percent, and as I looked at this project and everything else on their plate, I don’t, in my view, the project as proposed is not affordable, with the plans that they have. So I think that there are alternatives that are more affordable, but as proposed, I did not find it to be affordable. [.mp3 file of 90-minute chunk of the Feb. 17, 2009 city council meeting. The audio cassette tape was converted to digital format by Russell Video.]

Was That a Completed Forward Pass?

Based on the exact words uttered by Crawford and the context in which they were uttered, I think it’s both reasonable and correct for the members of the DDA staff and the board to have received Crawford’s comments as (1) a recommendation that they should have a minimum reserve fund balance policy, and that (2) the level of that minimum reserve should be 15-20%.

It’s true that Crawford did not say, “Tonight here before you in front of everyone on live TV, I am hereby recommending that the DDA establish a minimum reserve policy at a level of 15% of operating expenses.”

However, when the city’s chief financial officer highlights the absence of a minimum reserve policy at a public meeting, I think it’s impossible for the DDA not to take that as a recommendation to establish such a policy. Further, when the chief financial officer specifically calls out a 15-20% minimum reserve level as the metric used for concluding that a planned expenditure was “unaffordable,” then it’s also difficult for the DDA to establish some minimum reserve level lower than 15%.

Based on the actual text of Crawford’s remarks, I think it’s clear enough that the DDA’s understanding here was correct. In a mathematics textbook, this is the point where the author would write, “The proof is left to the reader.”

But if this were football, not math, then we would need to add the extra point. So consider a different scenario, which I contend is perfectly analogous: A wide-receiver asks the strength and conditioning coach to evaluate his training plan.

Suppose the coach says: “One of the things I noticed in reviewing your training plan was that you don’t have minimum target heart rates for any of these training activities. To get a target heart rate, I take an athlete’s resting heart rate and add 15-20% to it, and based on your current resting heart rate, I don’t think you have the cardiovascular fitness to complete all these training miles. If you reduced the miles you’re running by eliminating this extra loop down Fifth Avenue, your training plan would be more achievable.”

I think it’s difficult for the football player not to understand those remarks as a recommendation to establish a minimum target heart rate for training exercise – by adding 15-20% to his resting heart rate and monitoring his own performance in that way.

Recollections Versus Replay

What was frustrating to me as I watched the conversation between the city and the DDA unfold earlier this year was not so much the fact of the “completed forward pass,” which I already knew to be true based on The Chronicle’s reporting.

What I found frustrating was the lack of willingness on the part of any public official to insist that the conversation be based on fact, and not on someone’s recollection.

I first noticed this reliance on recollection during a meeting between the city council and the DDA’s mutually beneficial committees, when public services area administrator Sue McCormick reported that Crawford’s recollection of his remarks was different from the DDA’s.

At the council’s April 19 meeting, when pressed by councilmember Sandi Smith (Ward 1), who’s also a DDA board member, Crawford himself stated his recollection was different:

Smith also asked Crawford to reconcile his statements made around the time the city council was authorizing bonds for the DDA to build the South Fifth Avenue underground parking garage (now under construction) – statements to the effect that a fund balance of 12-15% or perhaps 15-18% would be appropriate. She asked him point blank what the difference was between then and now: What has changed?

Crawford began by saying that he didn’t recall giving the DDA a minimum fund balance that they needed to have.

Note that Smith’s recollection here is also not perfect. Mayor John Hieftje contributed to the murkiness of the conversation at a special DDA board meeting held on May 20, 2011, which The Chronicle reported this way: “[Hieftje] contended that Crawford remembered his remarks about fund balances a little differently from what [Sandi] Smith had portrayed.”

Then at the council’s June 20 meeting, Crawford – in an exchange with Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) – said that he did recall a conversation with the DDA in which he suggested that some kind of minimum fund balance policy should be adopted: “Crawford said he did recall suggesting the DDA adopt a fund balance policy around the time when the underground parking garage was being discussed.” In that exchange with Kunselman, Crawford did not address the issue of whether he’d recommended a level to set the minimum fund balance.

It’s fine to have a different or an incomplete recollection. But there’s no need for our elected and appointed leaders to rely on recollection when a replay is available. Certainly the folks who play football in Michigan Stadium understand as much.

In closing, here’s a transcription from a speech given in Michigan Stadium a couple of years ago, not about football [emphasis added]:

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 seconds] That’s why we need an educated citizenry that values hard evidence and not just assertion. [applause ~5 seconds] As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” [audience laughter]

Yes, President Barack Obama got a laugh from the commencement crowd that year. But when we can’t consistently get this right, even on a local level, it’s really not all that funny.

About the writer: Dave Askins is editor and co-founder of The Ann Arbor Chronicle. The Chronicle could not survive without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of local government and civic affairs. 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!

One Comment

  1. August 23, 2011 at 6:33 pm | permalink

    I hate to think that policy decisions are being made on the basis of either casual comments at a meeting or conversations. If the DDA is going to make policy based on a statement by the city’s CFO, they should request a statement in writing, or invite him to speak at a board meeting and then pass a resolution.