Opinion: Why the Ann Arbor city council should override the mayoral veto of a referendum on non-partisan elections

Earlier this month, the Ann Arbor city council achieved the 7-vote majority on the 11-member body that’s required to place a charter question in front of voters: Should the city replace its partisan city elections with a non-partisan system? The council had voted without success on the question four times in the last four years (twice in 2015, skipping 2017).

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Catalog cards from the Ann Arbor Clerk’s office with records of mayoral vetoes (Ann Arbor Chronicle)

Mayor Christopher Taylor—a Democrat who voted against a referendum all four times previously and again this year—exercised his power of veto on the question of a referendum on non-partisan elections. A vote on a possible override (requiring eight votes on the 11-member council) is set for July 15.

The veto is a somewhat unusual power for a mayor in a council-manager system to have. But that’s the way Ann Arbor conducts city business now and will likely do in the future. It’s been that way since 1956 when the city charter was adopted.

Amid the predictably partisan sentiments expressed in Taylor’s veto message, exactly that sense of time can be found: “This is an authority exercised by mayors before me, it will be exercised by mayors after me.”

And of course, unless the city charter is changed, Taylor is right about that.

But Taylor’s appeal to the past should prompt at least some reflection on the way the mayoral power of veto has been wielded historically.

In his 14 years of service as mayor, Democrat John Hieftje used the veto twice. The more recent one came in 2013, to prevent a revision to the city’s crosswalk ordinance.  The other one, in 2001, did not appear to involve a policy difference with other councilmembers so much as a need to rectify a technical legal issue on final average compensation. Immediately after the veto, the council reconsidered, amended, and passed the resolution.

Since his election in 2014, Taylor has now used the power of veto twice. Earlier this year he vetoed a resolution that would have supported the allocation of some additional millage proceeds based on a survey.

I think the idea that Taylor is too eager to exercise his veto power, compared to his predecessor, counts as a poor argument for overriding his veto. First, it’s only two times. Second, Hieftje had little need to use the power of veto, because he rarely found himself on the losing end of a council vote.

Republican mayors who preceded Hieftje found themselves serving on councils that were divided along party lines, in a way that Hieftje’s council was not. (Since November 2005, no councilmember has been elected as a Republican to serve on Ann Arbor’s city council.)

The last two Republican mayors to serve Ann Arbor were Gerald Jernigan (1987–1991) and Ingrid Sheldon (1993–2000). And their comparatively frequent use of the veto reflects the fact that the councils on which they served were divided along partisan lines. The mayor was often in the minority if measured by party affiliation.

Here’s a list of all veto dates since 1987:

  • Veto 1987 August
  • Veto 1987 October
  • Veto 1987 November
  • Veto 1987 November
  • Veto 1988 January (two)
  • Veto 1988 February
  • Veto 1989 September
  • Veto 1990 May
  • Veto 1990 June
  • Veto 1993 July
  • Veto 1994 October
  • Veto 1995 April
  • Veto 1995 September
  • Veto 1996 February
  • Veto 1996 April
  • Veto 1998 March
  • Veto 1998 July
  • Veto 1999 July
  • Veto 2000 February
  • Veto 2001 April
  • Veto 2013 November
  • Veto 2019 April
  • Veto 2019 July

Those dates came from catalog cards in the clerk’s office, which I reviewed back when I served as editor/reporter for The Ann Arbor Chronicle, and a more recent online search.

What I think is more interesting than frequency are the issues on which past mayors exercised their veto. The city’s online Legistar system goes back “only” to 1990.

My Legistar search did not turn up any examples of vetoes that were exercised on resolutions to place a referendum on the ballot. That might be attributed to the fact that such resolutions already require seven votes, which is more than a simple majority of six. Council votes to hold a referendum on a charter question are also not terribly frequent.

Still, a veto like Taylor’s, of a vote to hold a referendum, appears to be unattested since 1990.

The override of a mayoral veto on any topic also appears to be unattested since 1990. In fact, the only vote I was able to find in the Legistar system on a veto override was the unsuccessful one earlier this year.

So the council and the mayor alike seem to be exploring new territory here.

If not votes on holding referendums, what council actions have past mayors vetoed? My search of Legistar revealed some vetoes on issues that now seem inconsequential, even petty, when read in summary form. For example, in April 1995, Sheldon vetoed a dashboard parking permit resolution.

Other topics, however, seem to address core community values.  In February 2000, Sheldon vetoed the living wage ordinance that had been approved by the council. After Sheldon left office, in March 2001, the living wage ordinance was approved.

So Sheldon’s veto did not permanently prevent the city of Ann Arbor from having a law that protects the interests of workers who are employed by city contractors. Clearly the living wage ordinance was an idea that the Ann Arbor community was ready to embrace. And that readiness was reflected in the vote of a majority of its councilmembers to support the living wage.

I think nonpartisan elections are an idea that Ann Arbor residents are ready for.  They’re ready to embrace the considerable benefits that non-partisan local elections would bring. Those benefits don’t need to be enumerated here. I’m sure others will make those arguments.

And I think Ann Arbor will someday adopt non-partisan elections, even if Monday night’s override vote fails.

Whenever the living wage comes up as a topic, those who still remember the history will often cite Sheldon’s veto.  And her role is not favorably remembered by many. Recollections go along the lines of: We had to wait until Ingrid was out of office and couldn’t veto it.

To achieve an override, at least one councilmember who voted against holding a referendum will have to vote to override the mayor’s veto. It would not be logically incoherent for someone to vote that way, because a vote on the substance of the issue is a different vote from the one that would override the veto.

As they contemplate an override, I think the four councilmembers who voted initially against the non-partisan referendum should contemplate the question: How would you like to be remembered?

I hope at least one of them would like to be remembered as casting the key vote that allowed Ann Arbor residents to decide to adopt nonpartisan elections and inject unprecedented participation into the city’s civic life.