Transparency in local government seems to be a recurring theme. What does it mean to you?
It might mean that getting information from the City is difficult. Sometimes, when you ask, you actually have to ask in writing (FOIA). A lot’s been written by other folks about this process. My own view is that the information should be free and freely available, unless it takes an inordinate amount of labor searching archives. Most of us aren’t really interested in information that includes personal data, anyway, and that can be protected if the documents are stored and distributed electronically.
It might mean that access to officials is the issue. Perhaps you are concerned that special interest groups (developers, business leaders, union lobbyists, construction companies) are having secret meetings or secret information exchanges with the folks who make decisions — City Council members and staff.
But I think that, when we talk about transparency, we’re really talking about something else.
I think we’re talking about who makes the decisions, and which members of our community they listen to as they reach their decisions. So, here’s my story.
I spent a certain number of years trying to get the City Council to see things my way. I spoke to Council about local, neighborhood issues; I spoke about larger issues. I often felt the members of Council were not listening to me. I thought their minds were already made up by the time I got to a public hearing. Perhaps you’ve felt the same way.
The raw truth, however, is that I didn’t think I could persuade the Council to vote the way I wanted them to. I worked to get all of those guys elected. I participated in the process, going to all the meetings and making certain I said my piece. It wasn’t that I didn’t have access; it was that I didn’t think I had influence.
Some of that view carried over into my support for folks running for Council. A lot of that affects my actions on Council, now. Defining who has influence and who has access is another way of defining government.
Fiat lux: let there be light
All too often, decision making is shrouded in confusion and misinformation. I’d like to shed some light on the processes.
Who has access to members of City Council? Of course, you do. How much, how often, and what quality — well, that depends on you. Perhaps you routinely see your Council representatives, or write to them, or call them. But some times it can seem as if the only access you have is at election time.
And then there are all those other folks in our community. City staff have access, as do business owners and leaders of civic organizations. Employers and co-workers (of Council members), casual acquaintances, friends and neighbors, family members and religious leaders are all able to sit down and speak with a member of Council. Not all members of Council meet with (or talk with) all of these folks, of course.
The short answer is: everyone can have access, but not everyone does.
Who has influence with City Council? That one is much more difficult to define.
The staff: City staff members are hired and retained because of their expertise. Whether we agree or disagree with their evaluation of an issue and the possible solutions, their advice significantly affects the decisions of Council.
Other members of Council: Some members of Council have more influence than others. Members that can wield influence don’t tend to do so often, at least in my experience. Some members offer viewpoints and evaluations that change the votes of other members of Council. Some influence based on support and loyalties.
The Mayor: Although it’s easy to imagine that the mayor is a leading source of influence, I don’t think this is really true. Over the past twenty years, the role of the mayor has changed from being part-time to being closer to full-time. Our current mayor works with state and national leaders, trying to affect legislation that benefits Ann Arbor. Any mayor would promote his or her view, but not everyone on Council agrees with that vision. The position remains influential, of course, and folks routinely define Council members’ votes on the basis of whether or not those votes fail to support the votes of the mayor.
A circle of advisers: For some members of Council, having a circle of advisers who help evaluate the issues in front of Council is a tremendous asset. This could be a handful of residents who share their opinions on specific issues or folks the member of Council meets with regularly. They aren’t substitutes for the City’s staff, but they often provide a different perspective that affects outcomes. The circle can have a great deal more influence than the staff, members of Council or the Mayor, because the members in that circle are trusted advisers.
Developers, business and property owners, members of boards and commissions: I hate to lump these folks together, but their influence varies and generally supplements other influences. Some people believe that local staff and elected officials are too influenced by developers, business and property owners, and others who have a stake in change. Some feel that members of boards and commissions are too easily influenced by elected officials.
You and your neighbors: Although I didn’t set out to put this list in any hierarchy, it’s clear to me that the folks who have the least influence can easily be you and your neighbors. And one of the problems is that the positions we all take often cancel each other out.
Do you demand a new stop sign? Others in your neighborhood and across town object. Do you want the bus to stop on your street? Others want NO bus, or the bus to travel a different route. Do you want a stronger police presence? Others will point out what that presence costs — not just this year, but for the future. Do you want to stop a development because you fear it will make your property less desirable? Others in your neighborhood and across town strongly support that development. Do you think publicly funded art is just wrong? Others demand an increased emphasis on art to improve our quality of life. Do you rely on research from the Internet to make your point about technology, or the environment, or social order – although you aren’t an expert in this field? Others rely on similar research or their own primary research and come to different conclusions.
What happens is: members of the staff, Council, the Mayor and various business and community leaders can have more influence than you do. That’s because they often talk with each other, meet informally at parties and public events, and agree with each other after they have heard the arguments and looked at the data. These folks become trusted, and trust is everything in government.
Maybe the question really isn’t whether the government is transparent. I think it’s more complex than that. Perhaps the question is whether your influence on Council decisions is sufficient. If you agree that this is the question, let’s talk about answers. How can your influence and your neighbors’ influence be increased?