City Council asks Gelman Sciences to acknowledge wrongdoing, debates First Amendment rights at meetings
The Ann Arbor City Council met for the second time in 2021 on Tuesday to discuss resolutions regarding the Gelman plume cleanup project. Councilmembers also talked about a legal memo for public release detailing the legal rules and procedures of public city council meetings, following several meetings with tense interactions between council and public commenters.
The council passed DC-4, a resolution asking Gelman to acknowledge their wrongdoing and violation of the Gelman dioxane plume. The plume originates from the company manufacturing filters using dioxane, a probable carcinogen, decades ago, and the chemical seeping into Ann Arbor’s groundwater. The plume is predominantly located beneath the City’s 5th Ward.
The council also approved a resolution that supports issuing a violation notice to Gelman Sciences Inc. for failing to “halt the infiltration of its 1,4-dioxane into the Allen Creek Drain above permissible levels.”
While the council has discussed how to clean up the dioxane plume for years, an official plan was initially proposed in August 2020. Council rejected the initial settlement in October but later passed a resolution in November to support Environmental Protection Agency involvement in the cleanup and encourage its listing as a Superfund site.
Councilmember Ali Ramwali, D-Ward 5, said the Gelman plume is posing a large threat to his constituents and emphasized the importance of tackling the issue.
“If we listened to the experts and everyone else we wouldn’t be on the track that we’re on currently, (we would be) on the track to have better cleanup and more stringent, hopefully, cleanup,” Ramwali said. “This is something that I think warrants us to take action and not leave any stone unturned and apply as much pressure as we can to get the cleanup done.”
Councilmember Jeff Hayner, D-Ward 1, also spoke about the Gelman plume and the imminent threat it poses to Ann Arbor. He talked about the need for Gelman and other officials to take responsibility and acknowledge the violations they committed in regards to the Gelman plume.
The council also discussed a resolution that would direct the City’s legal team to release a memo to the public explaining “the intersection of First Amendment rights and application of Council Public Meeting Rules as they currently exist and the potential for rules moving forward.”
The resolution, sponsored by councilmembers Elizabeth Nelson, D-Ward 4, Hayner and Kathy Griswold, D-Ward 2, was proposed with the goals of educating the community about the context of specific Constitutional rights within local laws and procedures. It comes after explicit language was used against council members several times, including an incident when Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor was asked to comment “on the use of language as a violation of our council rules.”
During the public comment portion of the hearing, Ann Arbor residents expressed their opposition to this resolution. Several expressed fear that the memo and subsequent investigation into the First Amendment’s role in council public meeting rules would limit their ability to use specific language at meetings.
University of Michigan law professor Beth Wilensky said she objects to the resolution because she believes it would restrict the speech of the public. Wilensky said elected officials should not have the power to deny First Amendment rights, even in the case of unfavorable language.
“Expressing strongly held views requires strong language,” Wilensky said. “There is value in using even a word like ‘f***’ to express the intensity of one’s view. The right to tell our elected officials that we are angry with them is one we ought to cherish.”
Councilmember Jen Eyer, D-Ward 4, said that she too opposed the resolution on grounds that it would deviate from normal procedures, which would entail a review before a decision to release it to the public. Eyer said the Council Administration Committee has already requested a privileged memo for such review, and without this process, Eyer said she is concerned about the “chilling effects” that may appear in future public commenters.
As a former journalist, Eyer said that she has continuously had to stand up for her own freedom of speech and would do the same for the Ann Arbor residents she represents.
“As a journalist I was taught and I taught others that our job was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” Eyer said. “I think we need to be really clear that we at this table are comfortable. It is our job to listen to the afflicted, not to censor them.”
Other councilmembers supporting the resolution asserted it would simply request a memo for public release, requiring the legal department to share advice on council rules and the public’s First Amendment rights with regards to the public meetings.
Hayner has been the frequent target of harsh and sometimes explicit public comment in recent meetings, due to community anger that he allegedly installed an illegal floor to his house. In favor of the resolution, Hayner said he believes it is important to have the legal team inform the community about the council’s abilities and rights.
“In this climate with our Attorney General going on national news and saying that legislators are advised to purchase ballistic vests, I think it’s wholly appropriate that we get a grip on what’s happening here at our meetings,” Hayner said.
In support of the resolution, Councilmember Ali Ramwali, D-Ward 5, added he believed the legal findings from the resolution would set a foundation for conduct during public meetings.
“To be honest, I think this is routine and a fundamental question that’s asked,” Ramwali said. “It’s not an attempt for censorship, it’s just asking our legal department to give us advice we can share with the public.”
A vote on the legal memo resolution has been postponed indefinitely.
Correction: This article has been edited to more accurately capture the views of Councilmember Jen Eyer.
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