Opinion: Tools you can use when MLive won’t tell you why city councilmembers voted the way they did

In a recent piece, I presented a statistical analysis of some Ann Arbor’s city council voting patterns. It was apparently received by some readers as an unwelcome challenge to what I think is a lazy world view. On that view, the Ann Arbor City Council is composed of two unanalyzable factions.

Maybe the analysis done in that piece is just an artifact of a conspiracy among councilmembers to arrange votes in a way so that the calculations would leave only the impression that elected representatives often vote based on something other than membership in a faction.

Subscribers to this conspiracy theory make it easy to ignore whatever reasons councilmembers give for voting the way they do and just focus on the one thing they know: Those people, those villains, the evildoers in the drama that plays out inside their heads, aren’t on their team.

But effective civic engagement, as contrasted with sportsball fandom, requires more than just figuring out which team you want to root for and then cheering and jeering accordingly in online forums.

As an engaged citizen, unlike a sportsball fan, you have at least a shot at influencing the action on the field of play. And if you want to know how to craft an actual argument, not a tantrum, that might persuade a specific councilmember on an upcoming issue, it’s useful to know and care about the reasons that a particular councilmember gave for voting the way they did in the past.

One way to find out why a councilmember voted in a particular way is to listen to what they say at the meeting. Sometimes councilmembers will say out loud at the council table why they’re voting the way they’re voting. You might not believe them. You might have good reason to doubt they’re telling the truth. Because politicians do lie sometimes. But write down what they say anyway, because that’s what they said.

That way, you can hold them accountable for it later, by using their words, not in a gotcha kind of way, but rather to craft a customized, reasoned argument that might have a chance at persuading that particular councilmember to vote the way you’d like. If nothing else, you’ll earn some credit for having paid attention to what they said in the past.

Writing down the things that councilmembers say at meetings might strike you as not your job. That’s a newspaper reporter’s job. MLive is the closest thing Ann Arbor residents have to regular reporting on city government. But MLive reporters are not always willing to write down the things that councilmembers say at meetings that might explain their votes, and follow up with them to get clarification.

MLive’s reluctance to document votes

The occasional unwillingness of MLive reporters to listen to the words of councilmembers and write them down is clear in a May 7, 2019 piece written by MLive reporter Ryan Stanton, about action taken by Ann Arbor’s city council the previous day. From the text of the resolution, accessible through the online Legistar system, it’s clear that it affected the newly established police oversight commission by swapping one councilmember for another (Ramlawi for Ackerman) as liaison to the commission.

I think Stanton committed a factual error when he wrote: “It passed on a voice vote without debate, but Council Member Jeff Hayner, D-1st Ward, later spoke up to note he was opposed without offering further explanation.”  

The good news is that this error is easy for rank-and-file citizens to document and correct (at least for themselves) using publicly accessible city government tools.

Stanton’s account of Hayner’s non-explanation is contradicted by a review of the CTN on-demand video. (It’s at around the 3:58:00 mark.)

What explained Hayner’s vote against the resolution?

Hayner’s no vote came after the call for a vote by the mayor and the chorus of responses from councilmembers. But it’s a stretch to write that it came “later.” It came as Mayor Christopher Taylor, who chairs the council’s meetings, was introducing the immediately following agenda item. A voice that sounds like Ramlawi’s pipes up on Hayner’s behalf—because Taylor apparently didn’t notice Hayner’s attempt to be recognized to speak on the police oversight commission item.

The audio is a little hard to follow, because councilmembers are talking over each other. A publicly accessible aid to understanding council meeting talk is the rough meeting transcript that can be obtained through a request made under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act. The rough transcript (it’s not perfect) is based on the exported text from the city’s relatively new closed captioning system.

Here’s an excerpt from the May 6, 2019 meeting’s rough transcript, starting at the point when the vote was taken on the police oversight liaison swap:

>> Mayor Taylor: Further discussion?
All in favor?
[ Chorus of ayes ] Opposed?
It’s approved. DC4,
Resolution to Replace
Resolution to Authorize
Settlement of Levenson v. City of Ann Arbor, 22nd Circuit Court, Case No. 15-1284-NO
— I’m sorry, Councilmember Hayner wanted to testify.
>> Councilmember Hayner: I’m sorry, that’s okay.
That’s what I get for being all the way down on the left.
>> Twice.
>> Mayor Taylor: My apologies.
>> Councilmember Hayner: That’s okay.
Thank you.
>> DC
— did you want to go back? Is that what you were thinking?
>> Mayor Taylor: All right.
>> Councilmember Hayner: I didn’t understand the resolution.
I didn’t understand the wording at the end of that.
I’ll do more to gain attention in the future.
>> Mayor Taylor: All right.
My apologies.
>> Councilmember Hayner: Thank you.
DC4 —
>> Councilmember Hayner: I would like to go on the record as not supporting that, if I may, since I didn’t get to speak.
>> Mayor Taylor: Sure, I guess that’s —
>> Councilmember Hayner: I’ll change my vote to no.
>> Mayor Taylor: Let’s pull that back.
If you wish to do that, I think that a request —
>> Councilmember Hayner: You know, I’ll —
>> Mayor Taylor: There’s no harm.
>> We can also correct the minutes.
>> Councilmember Hayner: I’ll ask Jackie to correct the minutes.
>> Mayor Taylor: Fair enough.

Based on the video and the transcript, Hayner said a couple of things during the meeting, at the council table, that can be understood as reasons for wanting to be on the record as voting no: He didn’t understand the wording; and he wasn’t recognized by the mayor to speak. Granted, those reasons could be considered vague, deserving even more explanation.

Still, as a factual matter it is not accurate to write that Hayner didn’t support the resolution “without offering further explanation.”

By reporting (inaccurately) Hayner’s non-explanation, MLive’s reporter Ryan Stanton revealed his judgment that it would have been important for readers to have Hayner’s explanation. That means Stanton had an obligation to his readers to seek clarification from Hayner, given his judgement that it was important. If Stanton did seek clarification from Hayner, but did not get it, he had a duty to report that effort to his readers. No effort to reach Hayner was reported as a part of the story.

Hayner isn’t known for being taciturn. It’s fair to speculate that Hayner would have responded to a reporter, if he’d been asked a question during a break in the meeting, at the end of the meeting, via a phone call or an email.

Followup with Hayner

Hayner responded within about 27 hours to an emailed query I sent him about his vote on Friday morning after the prior week’s Monday meeting:

In short, MLive got it wrong again.  I wanted to go on the record as a No vote, first because I was not recognized to speak, and secondly because I did not support this near-backroom deal.  If someone believes that they are not fit to serve, as I assume CM Ackerman did, the reasons must be shared and discussed by the body. They were not. Also, if someone wants to step down from serving as council liaison, they do not get to pick their successor. That is up to the whole body, again, after a public conversation.

My impression from the far end of the table was that the Mayor wanted to hustle this vote through to avoid having any conversation about CM Ackerman and his reasons for agreeing to step down.

As Ann Arbor city council controversies go, this is surely not the biggest one in recorded history.

In fact, Hayner took some of the edge off when he summed up his emailed remarks by writing, “None of this in any way to suggest that I don’t believe CM Ramlawi should be on those commissions, or that he will not do a fine job representing the people in those roles.”

But a simple emailed query from MLive might have made clear to readers that the vote on the Ramlawi-for-Ackerman swap was more controversial than the way reporter Ryan Stanton chose to portray it. 

Taylor’s role in the vote

On top of misreporting the facts surrounding Hayner’s vote, it was an odd news judgment by Ryan Stanton and his MLive editors to omit Mayor Taylor’s role in the recording of  Hayner’s vote. As the city’s rough transcript makes clear, Taylor apparently didn’t notice Hayner’s effort to be recognized to speak on the question, which Hayner cited during the meeting as a reason he wanted to have his non-support noted for the record.

The episode provided over a minute of awkwardness at the council table. An experienced, skilled meeting chair might have handled the awkwardness by saying, “I’ll entertain a motion to reconsider the question so that councilmember Hayner can speak on the question.” But on the video Taylor appears nonplussed, able only to offer his apologies to Hayner, more than once. 

Yet Taylor escaped mention in the story as a key actor in this painful vignette—because the vignette wasn’t reported.

It’s hard for me to assess how robust Hayner’s effort was to be recognized, because I was not in the room. Did he say anything out loud? Did he raise his hand? Did he flap his arms around? Did he send up a flare? The camera angle did not include Hayner during those moments. Based on a denied request under Michigan’s FOIA, CTN does not save footage from alternate, unbroadcasted/unstreamed camera angles.

According to Hayner’s emailed response, the vote on the police oversight commission wasn’t the only time the mayor overlooked Hayner: “I was not recognized by the mayor to speak on three items that night, including this one.”

Still, the mayor got just a single mention in the story, an empty throwaway quote that a journalist should be embarrassed to include in any story. It should have been deleted by a competent editor, because it served only Taylor and not readers: “Mayor Christopher Taylor said he’s confident the new commission will be successful and do great work.”

A reasonable headline for a different story about the vote could have read: Mayor accused of “hustling through” council’s vote removing Ackerman as police oversight liaison.

The importance of “being there”

It’s worth mentioning that Hayner’s emailed response corrected my own understanding of Hayner’s vote.  I had concluded from watching the meeting video that Hayner’s vote was only symbolic, a protest vote just over the fact that Taylor didn’t recognize him to speak.

I interpreted Hayner’s desire to be on the record not supporting the resolution as an impromptu idea that occurred to him only because Ramlawi had interrupted the mayor, which steered attention to Hayner.  I probably assigned more significance than I should have to Hayner’s statement that he wanted to “change my vote to no.” According to Hayner’s emailed response:

By saying “change my vote to No” what that really meant was while it seemed as though it did pass unanimously on voice vote, I said “no” but my mic was off, and so that’s what I meant, I did not want to be the record as supporting this resolution, and the lack of transparency around the issue.

That highlights the value of being in the room—just showing up. You might hear things that are said off mic. And you might see things out of camera range.

Showing up to a meeting you’re planning to write about is an obvious part of a journalist’s job. But rank-and-file citizens aren’t paid to sit through meetings.

Still, it’s one of the available tools citizens have to get accurate information about what their local government is doing.

Five tools for following Ann Arbor’s local government

Four other tools are mentioned in this piece that make it possible for rank-and-file citizens to follow the actions of Ann Arbor’s local government—without relying on news outlets.

Here’s all five tools in one list.

  1. Show up to the meeting: Look around the room. Listen to what people say. City council chambers are located at 301 E. Huron.
  2. CTN on demand: (Click the CC button at the lower right to turn on closed captions): Here’s a link to CTN on demand.
  3. Rough meeting transcripts: Make a request under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act for the text export from the closed captioning for a specific meeting. Here’s a link to make a FOIA request:  (It would make sense for the city to attach these rough transcripts to meeting minutes as a matter of routine so that it would not even be necessary to make a request under Michigan’s FOIA.)
  4. Legistar: Navigate your way to a specific meeting link with the Calendar. Or use the Legislation tab to search for a specific item. Use this one weird trick to see what’s on a city council agenda about a week before a calendar link is available: Search for the date of the future meeting (MM/DD/YYYY) with “All Types” and all the checkboxes checked. It sometimes takes the better part of a minute, but it will produce results.
  5. Email: If you want to know what your councilmember meant when they said something at a meeting, try emailing them, asking them to explain. Or if there’s a vote coming up on a future meeting agenda, ask a question, instead of just sharing your opinion. (E.g., When you vote on Agenda Item X at the meeting, I hope you will give an answer to this question: What makes this situation so extraordinary, from your point of view, that the council would act against the unanimous recommendation of Advisory Body X?) Here’s a directory of Ann Arbor councilmembers with their email addresses.