Amid objections from community activists, Ann Arbor City Council moved forward Tuesday with a proposed amendment to allow for a waiver of restrictions on the eligibility of city employees to sit on the police oversight commission. The amendment will be addressed at a second reading during the next council meeting.
The 2014 shooting of Aura Rosser by an Ann Arbor Police officer provoked months of debate and protest, eventually sparking interest in the creation of a police oversight committee. The council unanimously passed a resolution in October to establish an independent police oversight committee.
Councilmember Julie Grand, D-Ward 3, attempted to clarify the intent of the amendment, explaining the amendment would not apply to police officers or current city employees.
“There was a misperception about the ordinance coming forward,” Grand said. “I know with any new process there will be some bumps along the way. This was a bump that we made sure was corrected.”
Grand said the new amendment would allow temporary city employees such as election workers to be able to sit on the commission. She explained the councilmembers edited the amendment to be more specific.
“That was an oversight as we were trying to write an amendment that was slightly broader than election workers, because we recognized there are others in the community,” Grand said. “For example, we might have a youth applicant who is a summer camp worker and we don’t want to preclude that person from serving on the community police oversight commission.”
Councilmembers Jane Lumm, I-Ward 2, and Zachary Ackerman, D-Ward 3, who serve as the Council’s liaisons for the police oversight commission, sponsored the amendment, along with Councilmember Ali Ramlawi, D-Ward 5, and Grand.
Initially, the amendment allowed the council to waive the restriction, which requires former and current city employees to wait a period of five years from the end of their employment until they are eligible to sit on a committee. Councilmembers altered the language to specify the restriction waiver applied to temporary or seasonal city employees who received fewer than seven paychecks from the city in a year.
Councilmember Jack Eaton, D-Ward 4, said he understood residents’ concerns over the initial language of the amendment posted in the agenda, but believes the new amendment addresses that concern.
“I believe that this is more narrowly tailored than the language in the agenda, and it won’t encompass any unintended consequences,” Eaton said.
Grand and Lumm addressed concerns about the nomination process for the police oversight committee but were met with outbursts from the crowd criticizing what they saw as a lack of transparency.
Dwight Wilson, who is a member of the city’s task force for the police oversight committee and the Human Rights Commission but was absent at the council meeting, had a statement read for him during public comment. Wilson urged the council to be as specific as possible in their language.
“Rumor has it that even before the independent police oversight commission is appointed, forces are at work to further weaken it,” Wilson wrote in the statement. “One assault is an amendment that will open the door to city employees, even policemen, sitting on the commission.”
Ramlawi stated he was satisfied with the language of the new amendment, but wished there was more trust from the community. He asked the community for the “space and trust” to do their work.
“There has been obviously a lot of suspicion and we’re at a fragile state of trust right now with this new commission and we should respect that and know that,” Ramlawi said. “I think none of us wish to alter the amendment too great or at all until it is sat and approved.”
At several points while Ramlawi spoke, an audience member interrupted, demanding to know why the council was not being transparent about the criteria for being on the commission. Ramlawi said the qualifications for the commission are outlined in the amendment.
Councilmember Jeff Hayner, D-Ward 1, opposed the new amendment. He shared concerns about any city employee being on an independent oversight committee and expressed worry about the vagueness of the definition of a city employee. According to Hayner, city councilmembers are not considered full-time employees of the city.
“There’s a lot of terms that need to be defined,” Hayner said. “An independent body should not have (employees) from the city sitting on it. I would like to see this body remain independent.”
Hayner and Councilmembers Kathy Griswold, D-Ward 2, and Elizabeth Nelson, D-Ward 4, voted against the amendment, which passed by an 8-3 vote.
Nelson sponsored her own resolution to prohibit “undue influence” from members of City Council who are not liaisons to the police oversight commission or the city’s Human Rights Commission. She said wanted to have an open discussion about the implementation of the ordinance that laid the groundwork for the police oversight commission, noting that even though the conversation was “a little bit awkward,” she felt strongly about having it.
“(The) council was sent a legal memo suggesting that the wording of my resolution is overly restrictive in trying to clarify this point,” Nelson said. “I really struggled in writing this resolution because this seems like common sense to me that we would not use the ordinance in this way or proceed with the ordinance in this way. I appreciate that all members of our community, including city staffers, including us members of council, are free to volunteer an opinion about an applicant and share that opinion with any of the four liaisons.”
She noted the liaisons had a “special role” to play in the process of recommending applicants to sit on the police oversight commission, but said when she complained about who would fill those positions, she was told the goal was to achieve balanced perspectives. Nelson challenged Lumm for the liaison position in December but failed to win the needed majority support from the council to take the spot. She said she had taken that as a cue to stay out of the affairs of the councilmembers who were designated as liaisons.
“My resolution includes the term ‘undue influence’ to describe generally, that at this stage in the process, none of us, except for those four liaisons, should be using our city positions to exercise any more or less influence than a community member could,” Nelson said.
Nelson criticized Mayor Christopher Taylor for attending some of the liaisons’ meetings. Taylor disputed Nelson’s characterization of his involvement, noting the time constraints on the effort and the need to convene a commission so the city could get its advice before hiring a new chief of police.
“It’s been suggested that my participation outside of the process was simply me showing up, that I somehow crashed the meeting,” Taylor said. “That’s not true. Getting a new task force off the ground in a politically charged environment with a great deal of time pressure with our need to hire a new chief, to get the commission’s input, that required deadlines and timeframes and a plan.”
Taylor said he saw his role as mayor as an important consideration to take into account, noting his responsibility to provide guidance.
“Although I’m not one of the four members in the room making the decision how this should play out, how applicants should be evaluated, you know, I am the mayor, and in part my job is to lead and help facilitate things, help other people be successful and move forward, and that’s how I viewed my view in this,” Taylor said.
He went on to add that he found the accusations that he had overstepped his bounds to be insulting.
“I asked the councilmembers whether they wanted my help in getting their process off the ground, and they freely chose to come to this meeting that I requested. With respect to undue influence, that they are subject to threats, misrepresentation, undue flattery, fraud, physical or moral coercion, sufficient to overpower volition, to destroy free agency and impel the person to act against his inclination of free will, the suggestion that they are in a position to be unduly influenced, that I or staff are in a position to unduly influence them — I don’t know who is more insulted by that, whether it’s staff, myself or my colleagues, who, believe me, are not told what to do by anyone.”
Ackerman, one of the liaisons to the police oversight commission, agreed the conversation was awkward and said Nelson’s resolution was unwarranted.
“Ultimately, I don’t think this resolution does anything because I don’t think this resolution restricts us anymore than parameters we’ve put around ourselves,” Ackerman said. “Mayor Taylor attended, I think, an early meeting and maybe five minutes of a second meeting because none of us had ever actually been part of a process of appointing members to a commission — except perhaps Councilmember Grand for the Greenbelt (Advisory) Commission — and we wanted perspective on process, not on anything else. To my knowledge, Mayor Taylor hasn’t seen a single application, and that’s because the four of us have guarded applicants privacy as closely as we’re legally able to.”
Nelson’s resolution was voted down. In an interview with The Daily after the meeting, Hayner said he did not vote in favor of it because he thought it was not needed.
“I couldn’t support it because it just seemed superfluous to me, and I don’t want to dictate council behaviors through resolution when it might not be necessary,” Hayner said. “I’m perfectly willing to do so if it is necessary, but I don’t know. It didn’t pass.”