Nomination process for police oversight board sparks controversy, concern over ‘undue influence’

Sunday, February 17, 2019 - 3:29pm

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Design by Casey Tin

City Councilmembers and community activists are divided over two agenda items slated to appear before the City Council Tuesday night regarding the formation of an independent police oversight commission. One calls for changes to the guidelines for commission membership while the other seeks to prohibit undue influence over the nomination process.

Councilmember Elizabeth Nelson, D-Ward 5, is sponsoring the resolution to block what she called “inappropriate” involvement on behalf of officials who are not among the four liaisons designed to aid in selecting potential nominees to the commission. In December, Nelson attempted to replace Councilmember Jane Lumm, I-Ward 2, as one of two City Council liaisons to the police oversight commission.

“I feel like I’m sort of in the middle of it because I am bringing this resolution and this resolution is apparently like completely opposite to the direction that everybody else going and I really tried hard to be among those four people and I sort of went down in flames,” Nelson said. “This is an issue that concerns me a lot and residents have told me that it concerns them. I think there's a lot of disappointment among our community about how sort of this process has even happened up to now, so this is upsetting that we're going further in this direction.”

Lumm and the other liaison to the commission, Councilmember Zachary Ackerman, D-Ward 3, along with Councilmembers Julie Grand, D-Ward 3, and Ali Ramlawi, D-Ward 5, who serve as liaisons to the Human Rights Commission, are sponsoring an ordinance that would alter the membership requirements. The change would allow a seven-member majority of City Council to waive the restriction that city employees must wait five years from the end of their employment before they are eligible to sit on the commission in individual cases.

Ramlawi said the amendment was intended to help temporary city employees like election inspectors apply for spots on the commission, adding the goal was “not to stack this new commission with inside city employees.”

“There are temporary city employees yet they trigger that exclusion clause,” Ramlawi said. “We have other people that perhaps are temporary seasonal employees who work for the parks department or some other parts of the city, which technically are city employees, so we felt it was a prudent step to take to allow for these folks who are in these temporary positions to be considered.”

Calls for citizen-led oversight of the AAPD intensified after the 2014 shooting death of Ann Arbor resident Aura Rosser by a police officer. Following months of debate and controversy, City Council passed a resolution in October establishing the commission, which will provide independent review of complaints against the Ann Arbor Police Department.

Over the summer, a citizen-led task force convened by the city’s Human Rights Commission developed recommendations for the creation of a supervisory body and presented its own ordinance to City Council. That draft was voted down in favor of an ordinance proposed by Mayor Christopher Taylor following concerns about legal conflicts with the police department’s collective bargaining agreement and the City Charter.

Dwight Wilson, a member of the task force and the HRC, said the vagueness of the resolution changing the nomination criteria worried him.

“The reason behind it is because they want to have people who worked the polls as temporary workers eligible to serve,” Wilson said. “If that’s the reason, then say so. That’s somebody that’s been working a couple days a year. I don’t have any trouble with that if that’s who you mean, but it has to be specific. Don’t open a door that makes it look like what you’re trying to do is put on people who have a serious conflict of interest.”

The original amendment to the ordinance allowed for both former or current city employees — including police officers — to receive waivers from City Council, but an updated version posted to the city’s website on Friday clarified that the changes did not apply to law enforcement officers.

On Saturday, Grand said the sponsors intended to clear ambiguity in the wording of the ordinance.

“Our attorney has already come down to our meeting yesterday,” Grand said. “We want to keep that five-year window with police. We’re hoping to change that on Tuesday. It was not the intent to get police on the commission, we found out that five applicants had worked as election inspectors, and so it was to clean that up.”

Councilmember Jeff Hayner, D-Ward 1, said he opposed including former or current city staff on the commission beyond election inspectors.

“It’s a terrible idea, an absolute non-starter with me,” Hayner said. “I can’t support that. It’s an independent police oversight commission, that means nobody from city staff, no police officers. There can’t be city employees on there, otherwise it wouldn’t be independent. There was a couple people who were election inspectors, and I had heard that they wanted to waive that requirement for election inspectors, but the way this thing is written, it’s basically like reserving the right to allow basically anybody on there.”

Taylor said he did not see a problem with allowing higher level city staff to serve on the commission.

“Serving as a city employee should not disqualify you from participating in civic life,” Taylor said. “The goal of the commission is to serve as, in part, as a bridge between the community and folks in City Hall. The goal of the commission is to ensure that police in Ann Arbor meet community expectations and aspirations. I can easily imagine a scenario where former city employees have an important role to play in that function.”

Lauren Tatarsky, another member of the citizen task force, said she took issue with the adjustments.

“The word independence means that it’s separate from the institution of government, it’s separate from the institution of policing,” Tatarsky said. “It is a community body driven by community members, so that just automatically negates city administration by definition, so it would be very much going against the entire basis of the concept of the commission … Relative to having police on there, sure it’s better, but it’s still highly concerning.”

Tatarsky said Nelson’s efforts were necessary to ensure the independence of the commission.

“I definitely think that Elizabeth Nelson’s concerns are spot on and we should all be paying attention,” Tatarsky said.

However, councilmembers said they were either wary of Nelson’s resolution or saw it as unwarranted. Ramlawi was critical of the implications of the agenda item.

“I think it’s ironic because this resolution is actually, in a sense, undue influence,” Ramlawi said. “With all due respect to my colleagues, I think we’re quite competent and capable of fulfilling our fiduciary responsibilities without further resolutions instructing us.”

Hayner said he was withholding support for the resolution until he had a more explicit definition of “undue influence.”

“That one was kind of weird,” Hayner said. “It was sort of a reach … but I think she felt compelled to act, to try to preserve the independence of the body, and I support her in that, but the definition of ‘undue influence’ is going to be a little strange because I’ve gotten all kinds of emails from residents saying, ‘Oh, we really like this person, please don’t put this person on and so on’ now that those names have been made public. So what does that mean for me? My supporting or not supporting that is gonna hinge on the definition of ‘undue influence.’ I’m not sure about that one, to be honest. I certainly appreciate the intent of it, but I’m not sure it’s going to end up being necessary.”

Nelson said one of the reasons behind her resolution, which urges council members who are not liaisons to stay away from the nomination process was what she called Taylor’s involvement, saying he had sat in on several meetings with the City Council liaisons. Nelson said the proposed changes to the requirements for commission nominations confirmed her worries.

“It’s very interesting, this agenda on Tuesday,” Nelson said. “I really thought I was proposing a resolution that people were going to tell me, ‘You know, you're being paranoid, like this is silly. Of course the mayor can participate. He's the mayor,’ but with this new amendment on the table I just like I'm astonished.”

Taylor refuted the claim that he had inserted himself into the selection process.

“I have no role in presenting names and nominations to the council,” Taylor said. “That is the decision of the four council members who are assigned. I have no role in presenting the names and nominations. That’s their decision and they will decide who they want to decide whether it’s a decision with which I agree, we’ll find out. I am not participating in their deliberations, in their discussions, in their voting. I’m not in those meetings.”

Taylor said initially he had worked to guarantee the application process was transparent.

“I asked the council members whether they wanted to meet to sketch out their decision making process and timeline, but more accurately, to sketch out their decision making timeline,” Taylor said. “They all chose to come to the meeting and the timeline was created and is in the process of being implemented.”

Ramlawi said Taylor had met with the liaisons for at most several minutes.

“I met today for three hours with my colleagues,” Ramlawi said. “Christopher Taylor was not there. Of the 10 hours that we’ve been meeting, he’s been there a matter of minutes, not there to influence us or put his thumb on the scale. This will be a fully independent process and the mayor is not trying to influence who we pick or who we don't pick.”

Former City Councilmember Sumi Kailasapathy, who was the only member to vote against adopting Taylor’s proposal for the creation of the commission, said she doubted the independence of the body.

“Are we going to flag this as an institution where it’s still controlled by or influenced by the city and the police department?” Kailasapathy said. “Then it’s not going to be useful, it’s not going to be accessible.”

Kailasapathy said it was “upsetting” to see what was going on.

“When the task force wrote the (ordinance), that’s why they made sure that you don’t have city employees or past police officers in there because you want that space,” Kailasapathy said. “You don’t want people not to come to this entity because they feel that it is biased or it is not there to protect them. They need to have that space, that safe space.”

Ann Arbor resident Rebecca Arends said including city employees would undermine the effectiveness of the commission.

“If their consent agenda item passes and a city staffer was placed upon the commission, any recommendation and/or decision passed will never be taken seriously with the public’s perception of the potential for manipulation and internal city pressure, thus rendering it nothing more than a type of kangaroo court,” Arends said.

Community activist Libby Hunter said the personal background of the sponsors of the resolution meant they most likely had not had negative interactions with the police.

“Part of the problem is the difference in social class,” Hunter said. “Yes, the four sponsors are council members, but first and foremost they are middle/upper middle class. It’s unlikely that they have had personal experience with the brutality police can dole out to the poor and people of color. For some, it might take being at the receiving end of the mistreatment to understand the urgent need for truly independent police oversight. I’m afraid Ann Arbor is no different than other municipalities where police are considered outside the need for community oversight.”

Ramlawi defended the city council liaisons, saying he wanted residents to know the end result would be a reliably independent commission.

“I just want them to know that they're fortunate to have this opportunity to have a truly independent oversight commission, coming together with the people and the tools at their disposal,” Ramlawi said. “We have a very supportive council. We have a very supportive legal staff. We have a very supportive community … I think the community would really happy once they see who comes out of this.”

Taylor echoed Ramlawi’s promise.

“The process is being conducted in the manner described on the city website,” Taylor said. “We have a set of outstanding applicants sufficient to feed a commission of double the size. I think people will be proud of the commission that the four council members choose to put forward and I expect it to be ratified on the floor.”