The "Fake News" Defense
Last night's Ann Arbor City Council meeting was a doozy, with multiple Councilmembers (CMs) repeatedly accusing constituents and advocates of "distributing misinformation." At the center of the rancor from the Council table was a late breaking budget guidance resolution co-sponsored by Ward 2 CMs Lumm and Griswold. One "resolved" clause of this resolution proposed to remove earmarks set aside for affordable housing, climate action and pedestrian safety.
RESOLVED, That the proceeds the City receives from the County Mental Health and Public Safety millage are treated like all other unrestricted, general purpose tax revenues with Council determining annually how they are to be utilized as part of the budget process;
Advocates and the people they serve clearly understood how this resolution put funding for these priorities at risk. There is no reason to remove these earmarks for affordable housing, climate action & pedestrian safety unless Council intends to fund these three priorities at significantly lower levels.
The false accusations of misinformation by many CMs was a smear on their constituents and advocates they disagree with; and an attempt to avoid accountability for setting the stage to significantly defund these programs.
What is this millage rebate about? #
Before the County Mental Health and Public Safety millage passed, Council promised to split the unrestricted rebate the City would receive among three historically under-funded areas. They set a minimum level of guaranteed funding using this rebate for affordable housing (40%), climate action & sustainability initiatives (40%) and pedestrian safety (20%); hence “40/40/20.” This is a small fraction of the overall city budget but a reassuring backstop for organizations that rely on these funds.
What Was the Alleged “Misinformation”? #
When asked pointedly to describe the misinformation they received, the accusatory CMs gave no clear example or explanation. My best guess is that this resolution did not directly "defund" or "take away funding" from these areas. This is technically true. The resolution just removes the floor. Instead of maintaining this tiny fraction of the city budget as a minimum commitment to these priorities, it moves that money to the general fund and resets Council's commitment to fund these things to zero.
Organizations like the Community Action Network, Ozone House and the Washtenaw Housing Alliance which rely on these funds (or work adjacent to organizations that do) to provide critical services for vulnerable populations reasonably viewed this resolution as a threat. It is not "misinformed" to characterize removing this minimum funding promise as placing much of their funding at risk; it does!
Some CMs say that we currently spend more on these priorities than what the 40/40/20 funds cover, which is a strange defense. If there is no intent to spend less than the minimums set by these earmarks, then there is no "flexibility" benefit to removing the earmarks. The only reason to remove the earmarks is if Council intends to cut funding below those levels.
Attacking the Messenger #
Rather than reach out to potentially affected community organizations, CM Lumm (ward 2) blamed these organizations, overwhelmed by demands for help, for not consulting her via her preferred method of contact. CM Griswold (ward 2) suggested critics of this language were akin to 1960s rioters, and denied vulnerable people any agency for deciding for themselves how to interpret this language. CM Ramlawi (ward 5) characterized constituents sharing their concerns via email as "making his job hard," using this as a justification to disregard their concerns. CM Nelson (ward 4), Eaton (ward 4), Bannister (ward 1) and Hayner (ward 1) all reinforced this narrative of "misinformation" rather than acknowledging legitimate concerns.
These Councilmembers have continued their track record of attacking advocates, volunteers and constituents with whom they disagree, rather than debating the merits of policy disagreements. They use these vague and unsubstantiated attacks as cover for their regressive attacks on funding for affordable housing, climate action and safer streets for all residents and visitors.
The August primary, which will determine the likely winner of Council seats, is less than three months away. Secretary of State Benson announced today that all Michigan voters will receive absentee ballot applications in the mail both for the August primary and November general elections. You can check that you are registered and up to date on the Secretary of State’s Michigan Voter Information Center website. Vote.