The Petty Corruption of a 'Concierge' City Council
NOTE I support Lisa Disch in Ward 1 in the Ann Arbor 2020 City Council Primary. Recently, Ward 1 incumbent Anne Bannister sent a mailer with a quote taken from this post in a way that implied I supported her. The quote is not complimentary in context. I always try to give credit where due and to find common ground, but I've learned my lesson with Anne. Anne using my words to misrepresent my opinion of her work on Council has proven to me she is not interested in working with all residents in good faith and on common ground. This unethical, bad faith act further solidifies my support for her opponent.
"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."—George Orwell, Animal Farm
A friend recently referred to our City Council as a "concierge council." I'd never heard this term, but its a great label for the prevalent idea that City Council Members should act primarily as an interface to the workings of the local government to help constituents get things done. While constituent service is inevitably part of an elected legislator's role, their primary role is a policymaking one. When they're necessary (or worse, insert themselves) to connect residents to basic City functions, this is at best a sign of dysfunction, and at worst an invitation to corruption.
Why is it a bad thing to have elected officials as a go-between between City functions and residents? Here are two stories illustrating what happens when this practice is taken to extremes:
An architect acquaintance was planning an addition to his Chicago house. His plan required a variance from the City. He was advised to contact his alderman (the Chicago equivalent of a City Council representative) before he submitted his request, and did so. At the variance hearing, while waiting his turn, appeal after appeal was denied by the board. When his appeal came up, a representative from the alderman's office spoke briefly in favor of his appeal and it was summmarily approved. This sort of practice, giving elected representatives near veto power over almost anything that happens in their ward, is so baked-in to Chicago's politics it has a name: aldermanic privilege. Forms of this privilege have long been one of the primary tools of corrupt officials in Chicago.
A friend of mine from Detroit had friends who were planning a small redevelopment in the City of Detroit in the early 90s. Their required approvals were stuck in a bureaucratic netherworld for months. Appeals to City staff and elected officials alike received no helpful response. One day, a representative from a re-election campaign came by to discuss their candidate. The developer made a donation to the campaign and the next day their approvals came through.
Ann Arbor does not have Chicago-levels of corruption, and local candidates are not shaking down constituents for campaign cash. However, by placing a positive value on these "concierge" services we leave the door wide open for elected officials play favorites with residents in exchange for political support or social standing. If you require your City Council rep to get the attention of a City department, and your rep doesn't like you for whatever reason, they can ignore you and privilege residents they view as political supporters or friends. This fundamentally undermines the principle of fair an equal application of government rules and services. If you believe you can ask a City Council Member to pressure staff to give a specific case special treatment, this further undermines basic fairness. If we valorize Council Members who specialize in grinding the efforts of the City administration to apply established policy to a halt for vocal minority, rather than working to continually improve fairness & efficacy of City functions, we end up with a less efficient and a less fair City government that rewards favoritism.
This week's City Council meeting had a good example of both a concerning "concierge" response to a single constituent and a small number of vocal supporters; and a positive policymaking response to a specific constituent problem.
The concerning case was an attempt by some on Council to stall forward progress on big piece of a multi-year affordable housing initiative (which I wrote briefly about here). Some Councilmembers wanted to stop the process and circumvent a future open and fair RFP ("request for proposals") process in an attempt to instead offer a sweetheart deal to an adjacent landowner with a plan preferred by a small number of nearby residents. Thanks largely to these comments by the Executive Director of the Housing Commission Jennifer Hall (direct video link, transcribed text), support for a postponement crumbled (Bannister, Griswold, Lumm, Eaton and Nelson continued to supported the delay) with only Council Members Eaton and Hayner ultimately voting against main resolution.
The productive example resolution came from Council Member Bannister (who typically operates with the 'concierge' ideal of representative service) who listened to a constituent facing extraordinary regulatory costs for a modest improvement to an existing building. Rather than try to "fix" (i.e., circumvent) the system for this single constituent, she instead recognized the opportunity to direct Planning to find ways to streamline parts of the approvals process for any constituent in a similar circumstance. I hope we see more of this kind of incremental, uncontroversial, forward-looking policymaking from our newly formed Council next year.
Image from Twin Peaks, via Giphy.