Analysis: Breaking down the two-faction framing of Ann Arbor’s city council politics

Not many Ann Arbor residents pay attention to the workings of local government. For many of those who do, a kind of popular wisdom frames their thinking: Ann Arbor’s 11-member city council is made up of two opposing factions.

A look at some voting data shows that the popular two-faction framing is too simplistic.


First some light background. For Ann Arbor’s city council to have two factions is a somewhat remarkable circumstance—because the council includes representatives of just one political party. Ten Democrats are joined by one councilmember who was elected in 2011 as an independent, having served on the council in the 1990s as a Republican.

How are factional lines drawn on the Ann Arbor city council? It’s a challenge to identify policy positions that crisply define the two groups. But a reasonable attempt to characterize them could include a different attitude towards the city’s administration.

One group, currently a majority, is more inclined to see its role as providing strong oversight of staff proposals, challenging staff to justify their recommendations—especially those involving any expenditures—not just in terms of best practice, but also public input. The other group is more inclined to rely on the expertise of staff, who have acquired mastery of their subject matter in school, through experience, and with continuing education efforts.

Ann Arbor’s council-manager system of governance means that a longer-term majority on the  council could install an administrator who manages city staff in a way that delivers the kind of proposals the council majority would like to see. (Ann Arbor’s mayor does not manage city operations, but rather could be considered as an at-large city councilmember, elected citywide, with the extra duty of making appointments to city boards and commissions.) But the current council recently gave contract extensions and raises to both its direct hires—the city administrator and the city attorney. That could set up, for the next while anyway, a certain friction between the council and the administration.

It’s hard to come up with useful labels for the two groups. The Ann Arbor Observer’s John Hilton and Jim Leonard tried to coin labels in a column they wrote a few months back by calling them the Back-to-Basics Caucus and the Activist Caucus. In the same column, they described councilmember Kathy Griswold—who’s included in the Back-to-Basics Caucus—as a “Ward Two activist.”

Factional Composition

Who are the members of these claimed factions?

Group One: Christopher Taylor (mayor), Julie Grand, Zachary Ackerman, and Chip Smith.

Group Two: Anne Bannister, Jeff Hayner, Kathy Griswold, Jane Lumm, Jack Eaton, Elizabeth Nelson, and Ali Ramlawi.

Without knowing anything about policy positions or voting patterns, it’s possible to discern many of those group relationships from a single campaign finance record.

Contributions made by Christopher Taylor’s most recent campaign would put the mayor in the same group as councilmember Julie Grand, but in a different group from current councilmembers whose opponents in the 2018 election all received contributions from Taylor. Now sitting on the council are Jeff Hayner (opposed by Ron Ginyard), Kathy Griswold (opposed by Kirk Westphal), Elizabeth Nelson (opposed by Graydon Krapohl) and Ali Ramlawi (opposed by Chuck Warpehoski).

Is there any merit to the idea that this grouping could drive voting patterns? Yes.

The first roll-call vote taken by the current edition of the council, on Nov. 19, 2018, was a perfect 7–4 split along “factional lines.” The vote was on a simple procedural matter: Should an item listed at the end of the agenda (amending the budget for the Office of Sustainability and Innovations) be moved up just before an earlier item (funding a pilot program on net-zero energy). The motion to amend the agenda was made by Julie Grand; and it was defeated 4–7.

That vote could be analyzed as setting a factional tone for the current edition of the council. Many observers now expect 7–4  or 4–7 votes; and they see such a split as a standard “party-line” vote.

The same split delivered failed re-appointments of two planning commissioners at the council’s May 20, 2019 meeting. The vote on reappointments was one in which many Ann Arborites took an interest. So the factional nature of the split will likely persist as a part of the community’s collective memory.

A more recent 4–7 split came at the council’s most recent meeting on June 3. That was the tally in the council’s vote against the Brightdawn Village project.

But the Brightdawn 4–7 split was not a “factional” split. Two councilmembers departed from factional lines: Hayner voted for the project; Ackerman voted against it.  MLive reported the names of the four supporters in its outcome story. But Ackerman did not get a mention in that piece or the preview story.

Ackerman represents the city council on the city planning commission. So he’d seen Brightdawn Village when it came in front of the commission last year. Ackerman cited a conflict of interest (a business relationship with the petitioner) when the planning commission considered Brightdawn in late 2018—and he recused himself. He was absent when earlier this spring the commission voted (0–7) on its recommendation to the council.

In part because MLive omitted Ackerman’s role as a planning commissioner in its coverage of Brightdawn, the non-factional nature of the council’s vote was obscured. The lasting impression for a reader who gave the story a quick scan could easily have been: Yet another 4–7 split—yes, that’s the familiar factional division everyone expects.

MLive didn’t try to tell what could have been an interesting story: Why did Ackerman vote no? (Or: Why did Ackerman vote at all?)

It turns out that votes along strict factional lines are relatively rare, even if they are remembered for good reason.

By the Numbers

For this analysis, tallies of roll call votes were collected from the city’s Legistar system for council meetings from Nov. 19, 2018 through May 20, 2019. (Not included were myriad unanimous voice votes.)

Of the 100 votes analyzed, 14 were along purely factional lines. (Not counted were 7–3 and 3–7 votes, that were consistent with factional lines.)

[Clarification: The 7–3 and 3–7 votes consistent with factional lines were not a part of the 14 in the tally; but all votes were included in the analysis below.]

That seems like a relatively small number; but it could be the most frequent pattern out of all possible combinations that someone might contend should count as a “faction.” (That kind of analysis was not done for this piece.)

One way to get a visual representation of voting records is to use a statistical technique called multi-dimensional scaling.

The idea is first to calculate the “distance” between every pair of councilmembers using their voting vectors—that is, their record of votes on every roll call. For this analysis, a Yea was assigned a “1”; a Nay a “-1” and non-participation a “0”. That produces a list of pairwise “distances” between the 11 councilmembers on 100 votes.

Imagine having a list of distances between every pair of 11 cities. That’s not useful as a navigational tool. What’s needed is a way to convert those pairs of distances into a map—a two-dimensional plot with cities located on it. Multi-dimensional scaling is a way to transform the distance pairs into a map. The plot below uses multi-dimensional scaling to transform distances between pairs of councilmembers into a “map.”

The north, south, east and west on the “map” don’t correspond to any philosophical scale, like liberal or conservative. The one guiding principle to bear in mind for interpreting the plot is this: Two councilmembers who are closer on the map are more alike in their voting records.

Such a plot can be considered a starting point for more analysis.

Ann Arbor Council Votes 2018-2019 edition

Based on the plot, Taylor, Smith, Ackerman and Grand voted in a way that is different from the pattern of the other seven. It’s worth pointing out that the clear separation among the four blue dots means that the four didn’t vote the same way every time.

The clearer separation among the other seven indicates that differences among the seven are greater than the differences among the four. And it’s in those differences among the seven where interesting stories could be lurking.

Based on the separations among the seven, it’s fair to ask why some of them are grouped into the same “faction.” For example, Lumm is plotted farther from Hayner than any of the four in the Taylor-Grand-Smith-Ackerman group. Yet the popular factional analysis puts Hayner and Lumm in the same group.

Based on this multi-dimensional scaling plot, Ann Arbor city council politics is more interesting than the popular two-faction analysis would suggest.