Approximately 20 students gathered Wednesday night at the Ford School of Public Policy as Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor discussed a wide array of issues relevant to city residents, including how the City Council, under his leadership, has tried to foster stronger ties with University of Michigan.
During the informal conversation, students in the audience asked questions about how the City Council intends to deal with climate change, affordable housing, autonomous vehicles and the risk of school shootings. The event was hosted by the University’s chapter of the Roosevelt Institute, which invites politicians and individuals involved in the policy realm to talk to students.
At the start of the discussion, Taylor emphasized his title as mayor doesn’t entitle him to responsibilities that many voters and students expect. Since he was elected mayor in 2014, he has felt some frustration with some of the limits of his job title.
“Being mayor in Ann Arbor is a part-time job. It’s a weak mayor, strong (city) administrator form of government here. That essentially means that if you think of the city as a corporation, I’m the chair of the board, not the CEO. As chair of the board, I can’t order anyone to do anything,” Taylor said. “If you have a pothole, I can’t fill it for you.”
Despite his current position, Taylor told the primarily Public Policy student audience he never imagined he’d hold a job in politics as a younger man. In fact, he grew up in a family that existed largely on the precipice of political involvement.
“My parents aren’t joiners. They aren’t people who are involved and engaged in that type of way, so I didn’t really grow up with that as a self-conception,” Taylor said. “I always liked policy, but never envisioned myself participating. I had notions of how city government worked, but they were entirely skewed and made up.”
One of the themes of the event — and, an underlying melody of student inquiry — was how local and state policy incubates change on a larger, nationwide scale. Taylor emphasized part of what makes his job so exciting is the ability to see concrete change take place. He views the local and state political levels as the pinnacle of efficiency with regard to enacting policy.
“In terms of having a targeted notion of something that should be done, having it at the local level and having it at the state level is much more approachable. There’s a higher likelihood of policy being effective,” he said.
Affordable housing for adults and students occupied a substantial portion of the discussion with the mayor. Taylor reaffirmed that while the City Council remains committed to providing affordable housing options, there are a multitude of legal barriers that prevent local politicians from exerting significant pressure on prospective private real estate developers.
“The city lacks the legal ability to require property owners to include affordability as a criterion for getting permits. So, that’s something we should work on with the state to get. I’d further say that the city has a commitment to affordable housing, which means that we want to encourage others to (focus on affordable housing) through some kinds of preferential treatment for developers,” he said.
At the end of the conversation, Taylor expressed fear and worry in response to the recent high school shooting in Parkland, Fla. Like other aspects of local politics, the City Council lacks the same level of jurisdiction with regard to gun control. He stressed the city government is doing its best to optimize available resources in order to promote safety in local school settings.
“Sadly, we can’t do very much. The schools here have implemented a policy that says no weapons can be possessed at school because it creates educational disruption,” he said. “When a principal calls and says that they have this situation, we’re there. Beyond that, it’s an issue that’s out of our control.”
Roosevelt Institute member Solomon Medintz, an LSA freshman explained the discussion with Taylor revealed often overlooked aspects of Ann Arbor’s government functions.
“I thought the talk was great. I’m from New York, so I didn’t know that much about Ann Arbor politics beforehand. He seems like he really cares about the city,” Medintz said. “I found the limits of the mayor title interesting.”
Roosevelt Institute Co-President Yosef Gross reiterated Taylor’s words were ideal in motivating student leaders in his organization and on campus.
“It’s nice to see a politician these days who really cares. Our organization is a place where, if your passionate about an idea and you care about it, you can come and promote a policy initiative on it. Basically, you can organize from the ground up,” Gross said. “It seemed like the mayor really lives by that motto.”