There are candidates on the ballot in Chelsea, Milan, and Saline, and Pittsfield Township is trying again to pass a public safety millage (see Up Front, p. 11). Ann Arbor’s issues are at least as weighty but more complex: Proposal A would let the city give more weight to nonfinancial values in procurement, while Proposal B would overhaul the way the city council and mayor are elected.
A couple of minor housekeeping proposals are also on the ballot. Proposal C would “require City Council to establish, by ordinance, the procedure by which the City Administrator may make emergency purchases.” Councilmember and cosponsor Jen Eyer says “it’s not a change in practice,” it’s just putting that practice into the charter.
Proposal D would raise the threshold for contracts requiring city council approval from $25,000 to $75,000 and index it for inflation. The old limit, Eyer says, “was passed in 1995, and it was not tied to inflation.” Approval would reduce the number of items council votes on by 40 percent, she says, while affecting just 4 percent of the total value of city contracts.
Eyer says Props C and D were added to the ballot at the request of city staff “when I started bringing conversations about [Proposal A] forward … as long as we were doing [charter amendments], it made sense to look at these other two.”
Proposal A is closer to her heart: it would “require the City to award contracts for supplies, materials, or public improvements, to the bidder that is deemed the best value to the City rather than the lowest responsible bidder.
“Nobody just runs out and buys the cheapest car they can find without regard to important factors that determine value like quality and reliability and safety,” says Eyer, a cosponsor. “We should be looking at things like history of quality, safety training of workers and their record of safety on the job, at the skill level of workers, and whether companies invest in building their skills and their training.”
“The previous council, last term, adopted a responsible contractor policy,” says another cosponsor, councilmember Travis Radina. “We have quickly come to realize that that policy can’t be fully implemented because of the current charter language.”
The “binary” choice between responsible and irresponsible, Radina emails, limits the city’s options. For example, he writes, it might want to reject a low bid from a firm because it has “previously had work that needed to be redone, they don’t participate in apprenticeship programs, and they will pay their workers prevailing wage for this contract, but not all the time.” Yet it may not want to declare the company irresponsible, he says, because it might need to accept its bids when no “better value” alternative is available.
Prevailing wages are based on union-negotiated rates, and unions train through apprenticeships. Would Prop A make it easier for the city to choose union over nonunion companies?
“Sure, it may make it easier,” Radina responds—though he notes that council “hasn’t voted on criteria and a scoring rubric yet.”
Mayor Christopher Taylor and nine of the ten Ann Arbor city councilmembers support Prop A, as do the all three of the city’s county commissioners, its entire Lansing delegation, the Washtenaw County Democratic Party, and the Huron Valley Area Labor Federation.
Radina says he has been “very active in promoting Proposal A,” even planning to go door-to-door to build support. “That is how important I think it is for these values to be weighed when we are spending taxpayer dollars.”
Like Prop A, Prop B enjoys widespread support—council voted to put it on the ballot by a vote of 10–1 (as with Prop A, Jeff Hayner was the holdout). But Ward Four rep Lisa Disch, a U-M political science prof, is its most eloquent advocate.
“Our current system, especially in a one-party town like Ann Arbor, doesn’t do a great job of reflecting the ideological diversity of the electorate,” she says. Because Ann Arbor votes solid blue and local elections are partisan, the winner of the Democratic primary always wins in November.
That “means that it’s difficult to have a viable, independent candidacy,” Disch says. Ranked-choice voting “would let multiple candidates run in a primary, and it would let people vote for their true preferences in that primary election.” And because lower-ranked preferences are counted as candidates are eliminated, “you don’t get what’s called plurality victories, [where] the person who wins is not the majority preference.”
New York City introduced ranked-choice voting in its mayoral race this year, and the outcome wasn’t decided until nearly a month after the election. Could that happen here?
Disch thinks not. She blames New York’s snafu on problems with the counting of absentee ballots, something Ann Arbor has handled well in the past.
Lansing may be a bigger question mark: the ballot language reads, “Shall the Charter be amended to provide that the Mayor and City Council members are to be nominated and elected by a Ranked Choice Voting method when it is authorized by State Law?” That’s a big “when.”
“We are still waiting for the state to take action in order for us to actually be able to utilize it here in Ann Arbor,” Radina acknowledges. Does he really think that the conservative Republicans who control the legislature will make those changes?
“I don’t have much faith in this Republican legislation, period,” Radina says. He’s hoping Michigan’s new, nonpartisan redistricting process will change the balance of power in Lansing.
Will the proposals pass? “If people study the issues, all four should pass,” says Disch.
“I certainly hope so,” says Radina. “I am enthusiastically endorsing Prop A and Prop B. I think a ‘yes’ vote on C and D is good.”