OpEd: Reflections on 12 years on Ann Arbor's City Council

When I was first elected to the Ann Arbor City Council in November 2002, I was heartened to join a group of council members who were working together to ensure that Ann Arbor would grow out of what could have been a serious downturn. This was long before the great recession hit us hard; before we had any idea that Pfizer would pack up and leave town. There were two Republicans and nine Democrats serving at the time, and all were looking to rein in a budget that was growing out of control under a previous administrator, and to start to address a failing infrastructure that saw no investment over the earlier two or three decades.

I was passionate about helping the neighborhoods of my ward, just as all council members are. My first call came a few weeks after I was sworn in, from a friend who lived in the Dicken School area. A developer was planning to build a series of multifamily buildings on what is now Dicken Woods. Through many meetings we were able to convince the Parks Advisory Commission and City Council to purchase the property from the owners. This was made possible by the active participation and financial contribution from the residents who were brought together and continue to work to make the woods a treasured part of the neighborhood.

I am proud of this park, but learned over the next year that our city is bigger than the group of neighborhoods that voted for me, and that the health of those neighborhoods is dependent on the health of the city and the downtown (and vice versa). I attended several very valuable International Downtown Association meetings and learned what other cities were doing that, frankly, put Ann Arbor to shame in many respects. I listened to everyone I could and this helped me to become more balanced in my approach to issues... and torn on many as well.

An open mind is vital to public service, but it can make decision-making extraordinarily difficult. Balancing the needs of a neighborhood with, say, the needs of the downtown involves distinguishing needs from very strongly felt hopes and desires. Making the right choice can become a no-win situation for council members. Most if not all of these issues require that we rely on advice and recommendations from professionals who are hired to know the ins and outs of their particular areas of expertise: Planning and Zoning, Financial, Streets, Lighting, Water, Sewer, Safety, Parks, Legal, Housing, Human Services, Traffic, the list goes on. I've often said: Ann Arbor has the best staff available to address any and all technical and legal issues pertaining to the city. These issues can be wildly complex.

Taking one "side" or another before understanding how a policy will impact everything else is often a mistake. Yet we see council members who act as if they were elected only to represent the residents to whom they feel an allegiance, who they believe voted them in (based of course on what the candidate was willing to say during a campaign). There are multiple sides to every issue, even among neighboring residents within a ward. Council representatives should work to bring issues and concerns to the attention of those who can address them, and to advocate for a resolution that is good for residents and possible within the city's realistic constraints. The city works very hard to alleviate suffering as much as possible, but it can't fix every problem. There will always be a bigger storm. We can't make storm water pipes bigger and bigger with each decade. And not every street can have speed bumps on it. Candidates that run on promises of fixing everything can end up pitting residents against the city and setting false expectations. This is where the discourse can spiral downward and become destructive rather than constructive.

I have noticed that over the last ten years the gap on city council has especially widened with the advent of online media outlets that pose as legitimate news organizations and the plethora of negative online commenters. This divisiveness and controversy can be very confusing for voters, making it hard to figure out which sources are reliable regarding local issues, commissions and elections. It can also foster fear, anger and misinformation, undermining open discussion and sensible compromise.

One of the biggest challenges (and what I consider to be a victory for the city) was the addition of the Police/Courts building. I sat on each of the committees that looked at how and where to build this facility. The building brought the district court home to the City, a function of the county needing its courtroom space for its own use. It also brought our police headquarters out of the leaking basement of City Hall where juveniles were detained with adult prisoners or chained to the floor of a detention room and where female police officers had no locker room, among other concerns that were long overdue in being addressed.

The building has its critics, as all new architecture does, and was opposed by many who thought it would have been wiser to continue kicking this necessary project down the road, as Council had done with other infrastructure updates. But I applaud the task force of architects, engineers, staff and some of us on Council, which came up with a beautiful and functional building on the Larcom site. It uses many green technology and building techniques, and it stands out from other municipal facilities despite having some great ideas value-engineered out of the final design.

My service to the City of Ann Arbor was an overwhelmingly positive experience for me, due in large part to the dedication and kindness of so many truly wonderful people. I can only hope that the current atmosphere doesn’t restrict the vision of Mayor Taylor and City Council, or discourage the enthusiasm that can bring new leadership on board as the city moves forward. 

Margie Teall served on Ann Arbor’s City Council from 2002-2014, representing the best ward in the City.  She has worked as a social worker, a photographer and a religious educator over her career. Together with, Graham Teall she raised two pretty nice daughters, Clara and Gillian, who dutifully posed in every obligatory family photo for their mom’s campaign brochures.