Soul-Sucking Micromanagement

Ann Arbor’s City Council is about to have its annual “retreat” where the councilmembers work with a facilitator and determine their priorities for the coming year. This year’s retreat is preceded by some internecine squabbling, mostly between the two Ward 2 councilmembers, over who has the inside scoop from moneyed Republicans about to sell a big hunk of land to the University of Michigan. The offer and selling price have already been widely reported, but it seems that Councilmember Sally Petersen learned some details first from the owners, who go to her church and are neighbors, and Councilmember Jane Lumm thinks it’s not fair (maybe because the owners are also Republicans and as a “former” Republican she should have been first in line for the information).

This leads to the question, “Are we capable of electing the right people to lead the most progressive city in Michigan and, if so, where are they?” What are the criteria for effective public servants? What constitutes leadership? Will we know it when we see it?


The Michigan Municipal League, headquartered right here in Ann Arbor, is an excellent resource for cities and even conducts elected official training courses. But those courses only teach what you should know – not what you should be. The Elected Official Handbook has a lot of information about the Open Meetings Act, Michigan legislation, and ethics rules, all necessary stuff. It doesn’t, however, say much about effective leadership in city government. So, I have come up with a few characteristics that I think exemplify leadership.

A leader must be devoted and dedicated to public service and should be creative about how to achieve objectives. Mayor John Hieftje is a good example. He is a dedicated environmentalist and has run for office on a platform of protecting the environment and making Ann Arbor a more sustainable community. He showed creativity in promoting the Greenbelt, a concept that most people did not know about. Creativity involves taking risks and he has been willing to do that, not only with the Greenbelt, but also in his advocacy for urban density as a factor in sustainability.

It shows absolutely no creativity to simply defer to the “will of the people” as Ward 5 Councilmember Mike Anglin often does. First of all, it is impossible to take accurate surveys concerning every issue that arises. Even with frequent town meetings, which don’t actually occur, a representative could only talk to a few people at a time. Those few are not “the people.”

A leader has to have the intellect to research and understand the issues and the ability to articulate his or her positions based on that research and understanding. On two recent occasions, Ward 3 Councilmenber Steve Kunselman has cautioned the council and his constituents not to “intellectualize” an issue. The first was a question of whether Ypsilanti Township should have a representative on the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority (AAATA) Board.

It was really a simple question, but the convoluted discussion led a frustrated Ward 3 Councilmember Christopher Taylor to decry “soul-sucking micromanagement” (SSM). Ypsi Township is part of the “area” and has been paying for AAATA bus service for decades. Yet the city council initially postponed a decision on the board representation so, as Councilmembers Lumm and Anglin said, they could “hear from” their constituents about the issue. Was constituent input really necessary to make this decision? When the issue came back after the postponement, Councilmember Lumm, who had heard from one or two people who wanted some changes on two bus routes, grilled AAATA’s CEO about those two routes, as if to say, “Give my two constituents what they want or else.” That SSM, which Lumm excels at, also showed a lack of creativity and intellect. And it was completely unrelated to the Ypsi Township representation question.

The next issue was the proposed repeal of Ann Arbor’s progressive crosswalk ordinance. The state law regarding crosswalks, enacted by an automobile-centered legislature, requires a driver to yield (not necessarily stop) to a pedestrian in the driver’s part of the crosswalk. Two years ago, pedestrian advocates and advocates for the disabled were able to demonstrate that at crosswalks without lights or stop signs, a person would have to wait many minutes before a gap in traffic allowed safe crossing. The council amended the city crosswalk law to require a car to stop (not just yield) when a pedestrian was approaching the crosswalk. A year later this was amended again to require stopping when a pedestrian was at the curb, since “approaching” was considered too vague.

Drivers were angry about changing their habits, so some of them went to the two councilmember most likely to over-react to a few constituents:  Petersen and Lumm. They drafted a repeal of the ordinance, going backwards to the “yield to a pedestrian in the crosswalk” language. No consideration was given to a lack of factual evidence or the fact that Councilmembers Briere and Warpehoski had already proposed establishment of a pedestrian safety task force that might develop a factual record.

Kunselman met with representatives from the Washtenaw Biking and Walking Coalition and told them not to “intellectualize” this issue. I think he probably meant “complicate,” since it would be hard for Councilmember Kunselman to over-intellectualize at all, but his language rubbed these advocates the wrong way. Instead of listening to them and the hundreds of other supporters of the existing law, Kunselman decided to propose a “compromise,” which was to repeal the waiting-at-the-curb provision but require drivers to stop rather than to yield to a pedestrian physically in the crosswalk. I think he probably meant “revision” rather than compromise, since Kunselman rarely listens to anyone long enough to change his own point of view.

The approach of the councilmembers who supported the repeal – Kunselman, Kailasapathy, Petersen, Lumm, Eaton, and Anglin – did not show an intellectual or rational understanding of how to determine public policy. Luckily, the mayor decided to exercise his rarely-used veto, and that showed leadership.

There are three councilmembers who exemplify another important attribute – empathy. Councilmembers Briere, Warpehoski, and Teall are very good listeners. They listen to what their constituents are saying and they listen to advice from experts such as city staff members. Listening doesn’t mean pandering. Sometimes public servants have to educate their constituents, which doesn’t mean they ignore their concerns. It means they show leadership. Establishing the pedestrian safety task force is a good example.

When the council sets its priorities this year, look for the representatives who articulate specific objectives that are based on evidence of public need and considered representation of their constituents, show creative solutions to non-trivial problems, and are capable of verifiable results. That’s not too much to ask.