Ann Arbor City Council discusses constructive conversation strategies at virtual meeting Monday. Courtesy of Justin O’Beirne Buy this photo.

The Ann Arbor City Council met virtually Monday evening to discuss hiring a professional mediator and amend Council rules to promote better behavior among members. 

Councilmembers discussed DC-1-21-0779, a resolution introduced at the April 19 City Council meeting following controversy regarding the “inappropriate use of language” by Jeff Hayner, D-Ward 1, in previous meetings and online. Hayner posted a quote containing a homophobic slur on Facebook in April, eventually apologizing after initially refusing to. 

The resolution entails appointing a mediator who has no current tie or personal interests to the council to assist in the development of a plan to improve how councilmembers interact with one another at meetings. The mediator would also teach councilmembers effective meeting management strategies to make future discourse more constructive. Under the proposed plan, councilmembers would participate in at least 2 months of professional coaching at Council and Administrative Committee meetings.

The resolution required eight votes to pass and would allocate $20,000 of the Fiscal Year 2021 General Fund balance to seeking outside help for the Council so they could learn how to better communicate with one another and more effectively serve the Ann Arbor community.

Councilmembers Kathy Griswold, D-Ward 2, and Ali Ramlawi, D-Ward 5, co-sponsored the resolution. While presenting the resolution to the rest of the council on Monday, Griswold said the council should do a better job of supporting diverse perspectives. Griswold raised concerns about the unproductive manner in which some council members have been acting during recent meetings.

“I question how we can represent a diverse community if we have no diversity of thought on council,” Griswold said. 

Councilmember Lisa Disch, D-Ward 1, said that while she supports the resolution, she is concerned that parts of the resolution do not sufficiently address the root of the council’s issues. In particular, Disch said she felt the resolution itself exhibits some of the problems it tries to fix.

“We also have patterns of communication where we make a lot of snide remarks and jabs, and those are really unfortunate because everyone shuts down in the face of those,” Disch said. “I also think it is possible that these patterns could be improved by the intervention of outside expertise.”

After listening to Disch as well as the recommendations and concerns of various other councilmembers, Ramlawi urged his colleagues to prioritize the immediate issues the resolution would address.

“I joined Council to become a better person, to learn more, to grow, and at times I feel the opposite is occurring and that’s unfortunate,” Ramlawi said. “I again ask my colleagues to strengthen this resolution with their ideas.”

Councilmember Travis Radina, D-Ward 3, voted against the resolution, even though he said he supports its general purpose and goals. Radina said he believes working with a consultant would be more effective once City Council resumes holding in-person meetings. He said he also wants to see the resolution amended to include training related to unconscious biases against certain demographics or communities.

“I would like to see us get into some deeper training as well,” Radina said. “Include things like anti-racism and anti-bias training for councilmembers, and make this an actual process that is inclusive of several things that I think we have identified as needs for this (Council).”

When the discussion was opened up for public comment, Ann Arbor resident Ariah Schugat said she did not think the interpersonal training called for in the proposed resolution would improve council productivity.

“Members of this council have to want to work together before they can be coached on how to more effectively communicate,” Schugat said. “(Some) members have a traceable pattern of unacceptable behavior and little acknowledgement of the harm that was done. Please … consider real policy that helps the city as a whole.”

After the public discussion, the Council voted 11-0 to refer the resolution to the Council Administration Committee, where it could be further reviewed and amended by Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor and two other councilmembers prior to any further council conversations about it.

The council then voted on DC-5-21-0823, a resolution that would add a series of amendments to the Council rules. The amendments lay out behavioral norms pertaining to councilmember conduct at meetings. If the amendments are adopted, councilmembers could be reprimanded for any future behavior deemed unbecoming of their position by their fellow councilmembers.

The resolution’s content and specific language sparked a debate among councilmembers. 

While Ramlawi supported an amendment to have information sent to Councilmembers prior to Council meetings so they could be better informed about the discussion topics, he said some of the amendments were phrased too vaguely for him to be willing to support them. Additionally, Ramlawi suggested that rather than focusing on self-governance, the Council should rely on Ann Arbor voters to provide a referendum of their behavior in office.

“Unfortunately, we’re fixing one mistake with another one,” Ramlawi said. “This catch-all is unnecessary. So, I feel our responsibility lies with the voters. If our actions are so abhorrent and terrible, we should be voted out.”

Councilmember Jen Eyer, D-Ward 4, also voiced her frustrations with the Council’s inability to come to an agreement on the proposed measures, which she said ironically pertain to the Council respectfully coming to agreements.

“I am not sure that there has ever been a better example of the dysfunction on this body than this discussion we are having right now,” Eyer said. “We took it to the admin committee and nobody raised an issue with any of this language, and then we bring it to the council table and suddenly … there are issues.”

Hayner also had doubts as to whether the amendments would actually make a positive impact on how councilmembers interact with one another.

“I find that unbecoming conduct is in the eye of the beholder,” Hayner said. “That’s why I’m not going to support this. I’m not afraid to talk about what happened two weeks ago. There’s nothing that this group can do to embarrass me any further … . And if you’re willing to (regulate behavior) and take that authority, then you know that shows how highly you think of your judgement, but I don’t trust our judgment as a body.”

All four amendments were put to a vote separately and were individually passed by the Council. Amendments to administrative rules 1, 5 and 10, all which deal with how Council meeting agendas are set and the conduct of council members both during and outside of meetings, were passed unanimously. Amendments to administrative rule 12, dealing with council self-governance and ethics, passed with an eight to three vote. Council members additionally added a 13th administrative rule, which encourages council members to treat each other respectfully during meetings, passed with a nine to two vote.  

Daily Staff Reporter Justin O’Beirne can be reached at justinob@umich.edu. Daily Staff Reporter Martina Zacker can be reached at mzacker@umich.edu. Daily Staff Reporter Kate Weiland can be reached at kmwblue@umich.edu