Ann Arbor City Council heard conflicting recommendations Thursday night from City Administrator Howard Lazarus and a citizen task force regarding the formation of a police oversight board during a work session at City Hall. The meeting focused on the content of the task force’s proposed ordinance, which calls for the establishment of a citizen-led police review commission.
Members of the task force repeatedly emphasized their desire to lay the groundwork for an “independent” and “impartial” commission, one that would not be too closely tied to either the Ann Arbor Police Department or City Council.
Addressing the City Council, task force member Monica Harrold said she was “literally stunned” when she was informed of Lazarus’s response to the proposed ordinance.
“What I read seemed to cast aside all the work of the task force and creates a commission that is in essence created by the city attorney and the city manager and serves as an arm of the Ann Arbor Police Department,” Harrold said.
Harrold also took issue with suggestions the commission’s findings would be “advisory” as opposed to “binding” and that complaints the commission received would be forwarded to the police department.
While both the task force’s vision and Lazarus’s plan retain similar 11 voting member structures, Lazarus recommended two of the spots be held by a city council member and a member of the Ann Arbor Human Rights Commission. He also called for a staff attorney from the City Attorney’s Office to work with the commission, while the task force emphasized a desire to retain independent counsel.
Task force member Richard Soble said getting legal advice from the City Attorney’s Office would be a conflict of interest.
“The task force said we are not comfortable at all with receiving advice from the city attorney who represents the Ann Arbor Police Department and us if there’s a dispute,” Soble said. “We said if there’s going to be judgment, respected legal judgment that’s respected by the community, we need to have independent legal counsel.”
Lazarus, who said he hoped City Council would have an actionable resolution by the start of October, also noted several instances where proposals for the commission could potentially conflict with state law, the city charter or the Ann Arbor Police Department’s collective bargaining agreement. Possible gray areas include the ordinance’s proposed subpoena powers and confidentiality of information.
The ordinance confers subpoena to the commission, but Lazarus said whether or not the City Council could grant that authority warranted further legal review.
The proposed ordinance also states that when people file complaints, the commission will assume they are doing so anonymously, unless they indicate they do not want to remain anonymous. However, because the commission would be a government agency, it would fall under the purview of the Freedom of Information Act, meaning that members of the public could submit requests to view certain documents.
Lazarus said he hoped to have an actionable resolution to bring before the City Council for a vote by the start of October so that members could be seated on the commission by January 2019 and could play a role in naming a new chief of police.
Councilmember Sumi Kailasapathy, D-Ward 1, cautioned against rushing the creation of the commission.
“I don’t think that should be the goal,” Kailasapathy said. “It it takes a longer time, let it take the time.”
One of the co-chairs of the task force, Richard Friedman, repeatedly discussed the importance of maintaining the independence of the commission.
“It’s meant to provide a perspective on policing that is and is perceived to be by the normal public outside the hierarchy of city administration,” Friedman said.