How could something as dull as commission appointments cause so much anger on City Council?
From the August, 2019 issue
For nearly twenty years, city councils routinely approved mayors' picks for advisory boards and commissions--mostly because the mayors' allies controlled council. But that ended when mayor Christopher Taylor lost his majority in last year's election. In May, the new majority voted down four of Taylor's reappointments: the chair and vice chair of the planning commission and one member each from the transportation and energy commissions.
Since the new majority is critical of development, planning's a natural target. What about the others?
Ward Four rep Jack Eaton, the new majority's senior member, emails that he opposed one and possibly two transportation reappointments because there hasn't been "a significant voice on the Transportation Commission talking about the impact of congestion." But the commission also supported the old majority's campaign to build a new train station--a project the new majority wants no part of.
According to the Ann Arbor News, members of the new majority opposed Wayne Appleyard's reappointment on the grounds that he's not a city resident. But he also supported an unpopular plan to require energy audits when a home is sold (Inside Ann Arbor, May).
Eaton says he tried to avert a public conflict over the reappointments by letting the mayor know which were likely to lack majority support. He believes he warned Taylor that seven would be problematic--including planning's Julie Weatherbee and Scott Trudeau, transportation's Robert Gordon, and "possibly" transportation chair Linda Diane Feldt. Taylor nominated them all anyway, setting up a public showdown which only Feldt survived.
But it was Taylor's unexpected refusal to reappoint Human Rights Commission vice chair Vivian Chang that really brought down the new majority's wrath. "It appears that she is not being reappointed because she was a forceful advocate for the Police Oversight Task Force's recommended ordinance," Eaton emailed before the vote.
Ward Two rep Kathy Griswold was so incensed that she voted against all forty-five of the mayor's reappointments. She says she did it "to make a stand because I thought that
Vivian Chang deserved to be reappointed."
Griswold also blasts both Taylor and city administrator Howard Lazarus for the way they handled the Oversight Task Force's draft ordinance.
Though Chang, an attorney, was not officially a task force member, Griswold says that she spent "all this time working on" the ordinance, and then Lazarus and Taylor "rewrote the whole thing!"
Taylor emails that the task force "exceeded its mandate" by drafting the ordinance--and the law it proposed "was in important part inconsistent with the clear and consistent advice of the City Attorney's office and the advice of City Staff and law enforcement professionals." Staff members were "denied a seat at the table," he writes, and the ordinance as drafted "would have violated the Collective Bargaining Agreement, state law, and City Charter, and crucially, interfered with and tainted ongoing criminal and personnel complaint investigations."
But the mayor insists that wasn't why he didn't reappoint Chang, and points out that he reappointed another commissioner who took similar positions. He wouldn't explain further until others told the Observer off the record that some staff had requested reassignment from the commission because of what they characterized as Chang's hostility.
Eaton and Griswold found that unbelievable. "No one has told me that personally they have had that experience with Vivian," writes Eaton. "I do not believe Vivian Chang is a bully," Griswold says. "She is doing exactly what we need to have done in Ann Arbor."
After that, Taylor explained his reasons in an email. "Several women, staff members and citizen volunteers, have approached me regarding their negative workplace experiences in City Hall with the person in question. In my opinion these interactions are not acceptable. Our staff and volunteers deserve better and I have their back."
"I'm shocked," Chang responded when told about Taylor's explanation. "I would describe my interactions as being very professional. I believe in being really honest with people. What is really confusing and shocking to me is that people have been taking a lot of these interactions as personal attacks when I've been taking these interactions as me doing my job as a Human Rights Commission member and trying to represent what I'm hearing the community wants, represent what I think is best for the community, and push back when I hear bad ideas.
"I think honestly some aspect of it is I'm a young woman of color ... I think that a lot of people are really bad at handling a woman of color saying things and not being as nice as they can about it and that they aren't capable of hearing some things without hearing a lot of personal attack that isn't there."
After hearing Taylor's reasons, Eaton contacted Chang and his former council ally and commission member Sumi Kailasapathy. He emails that "neither could identify any interaction between Ms. Chang and [staff] members that remotely resembles the Mayor's claims."
Eaton writes that he continues to "enthusiastically support" Chang's reappointment, so much so that "even if I were to learn that Ms. Chang had offended staff or volunteers, I believe that she represents an important point of view that should be represented."
"I did not state that she offended people," retorts Taylor. "I would describe it as negative workplace interactions." The mayor adds that Eaton's continued support of Chang "strikes me as shockingly dismissive of our need to create a positive workplace environment."
It's not surprising that commission appointments turned political when control of council changed. But it appears that one reason it got so personal is that both sides see themselves as protecting victims of injustice.
Chang believes she was targeted for "political retaliation" for challenging the AAPD at work sessions assessing the department's performance in 2017. Afterward, she says, "I got a lot of informal feedback after that that my tone was threatening and prosecutorial. Friends have said that I sounded like I was cross-
examining them. But I don't think I did anything in a deliberately antagonistic way," so she saw no need to change her approach.
Taylor rejects the charge of political retaliation. The only issue, he says, is that "city staff should not be obligated to suffer negative workplace interactions in the course of their business. Councilmembers [and] members of boards and commissions should treat staff with dignity."
Though Eaton and Griswold still want her reappointed, Chang recognizes that if Taylor doesn't renominate her, "then that's the end." But the residue of self-righteous anger seems unlikely to fade anytime soon.
[Originally published in August, 2019.]
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