I’m sure you have already acted on your New Year’s resolutions such as drinking more juice, trying not to say “like,” and eating more kale. Here’s one I urge everyone to adopt and that is particularly applicable to Ann Arbor politics: Don’t be such a know-it-all!
For almost any subject that comes up for discussion in Ann Arbor, there are dozens of “experts” who opine in online newspapers, populate public meetings, and sign up to speak at public hearings. They especially like speaking at televised meetings such as City Council or Planning Commission because they love to hear themselves over and over again. Most people in Ann Arbor have several degrees from important academic institutions and at least one of those degrees will be relevant to the topic at hand.
Here are some examples of discussions that have been derailed by these arm-chair experts:
Fire: This is a multi-level know-it-all issue because there is very little trustworthy data or information on which to base political action. Jim Leonard’s excellent article in the January Ann Arbor Observer points out some of the misinformation that has been floating around for years. A featherbedding national organization, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends “standards” for response time and numbers of firefighters needed. Almost no cities meet these standards since they call for (surprise!) huge numbers of firefighters to be sitting around on call.
When I was a city councilmember, during the single digits, we tried to get some data about what kinds of fires were fought in Ann Arbor so that we could intelligently negotiate with the firefighter’s union. There was no systematic way of collecting that data and we had to peruse hundreds of pages of reports about fires in trash cans and frying pans.
The lack of real information and reliable standards feeds the fear-mongers who try to sound like experts. Councilmembers Jane Lumm and Jack Eaton are especially vociferous about saying we should stop spending money on just about everything else and increase spending on “public safety,” meaning police and fire. On the other hand, Councilmember Chuck Warpehoski is relying on what actually happens in this city and is advocating fire prevention such as more education and smoke detectors.
There are real experts out there but we rarely listen to them. For years and years, Ann Arbor’s fire inspectors, the city employees who check out buildings every day, said we should ban the placement of flammable furniture on porches. But know-it-alls frequently came before the city council and whined about the great old college experience of sitting on a couch outside your ramshackle apartment and how couches don’t cause fires. Then a student was killed in a couch-related fire and the law was changed.
Cars and pedestrians: The recent crosswalk extravaganza proved to be a festival of know-it-alls versus experts. Know-it-alls were absolutely certain that forcing drivers to stop for pedestrians was causing more accidents. There was no evidence for this, of course. One critic of almost everything, former school board trustee Kathy Griswold, even claimed that no “professional engineers” or P.E.s had ever been consulted when Ann Arbor enacted its ordinance and placed crosswalks. That is why, at a December City Council meeting, Councilmember Sumi Kailasapathy, a Griswold devotee, asked a dumbfounded Cresson Slotten, P.E., Systems Planning Unit Manager, whether any professional engineers were involved in crosswalk planning. Duh.
Leaves: Leaves are a scourge. But so are people who think they are experts on how to get rid of leaves. Ann Arbor used to have residents sweep the leaves into the street, supposedly at just the right time, and then the city would scrape them up with special equipment affixed to trucks, load them into more trucks, and haul them off to be composted. An evaluation of this process found that it was much better, both environmentally and financially, to have residents either bag the leaves and set them out for the weekly compost pickup, or mulch them into their lawns where they would enrich the grass and not hurt anybody. This bagging and mulching process has been happening for several years now, yet some residents still insist that sweeping leaves into the street is better because old people will either die or go broke if they have to bag their leaves or pay a service to do so. No deaths have yet been attributed to leaf-bagging.
High-rises: Speaking of deaths, during the public hearing for the building at 413 E. Huron, a psychiatrist who treats patients in the building next door stated almost tearfully that people will DIE if the building goes up. I will personally keep track of how many people die as a result of 413 E. Huron and will let you know. Public hearings on new buildings are perhaps the very best place to see know-it-alls in action.
The era of the student high-rise began, again in the single digits, with the Landmark building at Forest and S. University. Residents of Burns Park, who really do have many academic degrees, turned out to protest this disaster-waiting–to-happen. Fourteen floors! At the public hearings for this building plan, “experts” said these things would happen: There would never be sun on S. University again; no students would want to live there because they want to live in old houses; it would create a wind tunnel and elderly people would literally be blown away; the traffic would be so bad on Forest that there would be gridlock all the time. Landmark is now in its second season. It is fully leased, the traffic is no worse than it was before, sunlight still appears on S. University, and no elderly people have been blown down the street (I will keep track of this for you, too).
Am I saying that no one should ever speak at a public hearing? Absolutely not. The crosswalk ordinance public hearing was not only an example of know-it-alls, it was also an example of wonderful people who came out and spoke from the heart. A man in a wheel chair spoke of his experiences. Parents talked about trying to cross streets with their children. Advocates for cyclists and pedestrians came out to advocate, not to show off their fake factoids.
So, put down that kale smoothie and repeat after me: I will not be a know-it-all, I will not be a know-it-all, I will not be a know-it-all.