#A2Council Is Now In Session

Twitter has swiftly pulled most of us into the world of bite-sized news updates and direct interaction with reality TV stars, but it also provides a vital forum for some of Ann Arbor's avid city council-watchers. Every two weeks, the #a2council hashtag serves as a rallying point for a group of about ten local Tweeters whose posts range from informational to snarky. Ben Connor Barrie was drawn into the #a2council community when he first started watching council meeting live streams about two years ago. Barrie found himself with a lot of questions about the meetings, and the folks Tweeting for the Ann Arbor Chronicle had answers. 
"It was a good way I could ask questions," Barrie says. "A lot happens at city council meetings that's a little confusing. It can be a little daunting as a newcomer."
Barrie now live-Tweets council meetings regularly as @damnarbor. His council Tweets tend to be gentler, more informational and less snarky than some of his Twitter compatriots. He says he abides by the old saying: "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all."
"Sometimes I think [council members] say pretty funny things, sometimes I think they make pretty spot-on critiques," Barrie says. "But usually I try to keep it to myself. Being Generation Y or millennial, I try to be a little careful with what I say."
Barrie organized two council meeting viewing parties last year at Arbor Brewing Co., and is currently planning a third for April 7. The previous parties attracted several attendees whom Barrie had previously known only through Twitter. He says he thinks of #a2council as a tight-knit community, rather than a historical record.
"I think it has a limited value when it's not in real time," Barrie says. "The real value is the sense that you're not alone watching a city council meeting." 
Julie Weatherbee, who Tweets as @juliewbee, sees it a little differently. While she's attended council viewing parties and values her community of fellow politicos, she says that #a2council provides a useful informational supplement.
"It's helpful to see what's out there," she says. "It's helpful to correct the record. A lot of people like Ed Vielmetti or Peter Honeyman will say, 'Here's the specific document [being discussed at a council meeting],' and a lot of council members don't even know what it is. So it's real-time annotation of the council meetings, and that's really handy."
Weatherbee's contributions to #a2council are often of the snarky variety. She's fairly equal-opportunity in her sarcasm, which has been dished out to most of the current council at one point or another. But she says most of her jabs are well-intentioned.
"I think people who are on city council, they're trying their best," Weatherbee says. "Nobody is trying to make Ann Arbor a worse place."
Weatherbee has been a follower of local politics since her days covering city council for the now-defunct blog Arbor Update, and she knows most council members face-to-face. She says the council members who are on Twitter - including Jack Eaton, Chuck Warpehoski and Sabra Briere - seem to have a good grip on how to engage their constituents through the site.
"I don't agree with Jack Eaton very much at all, but he and I have had very good interactions," she says. "I think he is trying to understand how other people feel. I don't agree with him, but he does reach out to other citizens."
However, Weatherbee says, other council members "fear Twitter more than they probably should." She says Twitter is a very public resource for council members and their constituents, and should be viewed as such.
"You can look up the hashtags," she says. "This is for public consumption and there is nothing hidden about it. I think there is some feeling from people who don't use it that it's some secret, underground way of communicating. But really it's all out there and people can look at it if they want."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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