The Backstory: City Council matters

August 2nd is the primary election in Ann Arbor. Unless something truly unusual happens, this is the election that will decide who serves on our city council. There are contested races in wards 1, 4 and 5, but as one party dominates, the primary tends to decide who will serve on council. The privilege and honor of serving the citizens of Ann Arbor stretches back into the early years of our history.

Originally called Common Council, this governing body has been meeting in Ann Arbor for over 150 years. In 1851, Michigan’s legislature passed an act to incorporate Ann Arbor into a city. This charter also established four wards to be governed by a mayor and common council.

Folks in Ann Arbor celebrated their new status by gathering at the train depot to welcome back George Sedgwick, the man credited as the force behind the passage of this exciting law. The crowd cheered, the band played, and the men elected Sedgwick as mayor. Two days after that election, the first council meeting was held. Meetings of our local elected officials have been taking place ever since.

Today, our council mulls over issues like banning smoking in public parks, and whether we should raise the age at which to buy cigarettes. A century ago, it was likely that many people smoked regardless of age or location. In 1916, the names on Common Council were Fiegel, A. Lutz, Mayer, Flynn, Donnelly, Sherk, Freeman, G. Lutz (president), Wurster, Heusel, Heck, Andres, Manwaring, McGregor, Sink. They were all white men. Many of German descent, reflecting the hardy immigrants who helped settle our town. Today, our council is made up of men and women of a variety of nationalities.

But a look at the minutes of the July 17, 1916 minutes of the Common Council shows that they took up business that is strikingly similar to the issues that we deal with today. Sidewalks, bridges, public safety ordinances—all of those issues still play a part in today’s political scene.
  • The council agreed to instruct the Board of Public Works to advertise for bids for the construction of the Broadway Bridge. Additionally, the council wanted to know the estimated costs to build a bridge over the Huron River, along with specs and diagrams
  • Approved a heating system for the fire station
  • Denied a request for a 10% raise made by police officers
  • Approved a transfer of $500 from the Entertainment fund to the Soldiers’ Relief fund
  • The monthly salaries for the police, fire, and water works departments are listed. The names all appear to be male, except for a “Louise Malloy” who worked for the water works department
  • Other expenses were listed in the minutes, including the costs for several council members to attend a convention
  • Agreed to instruct to city clerk to pay the Good Road Construction Company for extending the walkway on Jefferson and Division streets
  • After a second reading, passed an ordinance that would prohibit persons under the age of 16 from being “in the streets, alleys, or other public places of the City of Ann Arbor after certain hours of the night”
  • Directed the City Engineer to prepare plans and estimate the cost for storm water sewers on Arch Street
  • The Sidewalk Committee made recommendations for the grading and building of sidewalks on Ann Street, East University, Monroe Street, Packard, among several others. They also requested that the Park Board “have trees killed” on Forest Avenue in anticipation of sidewalk installation there.
  • City Attorney Frank DeVine read a lengthy report about a traffic accident that occurred on State Street near Dewey Avenue. One of the drivers, Charles Meyer, claimed damages to his car. A contractor had commenced digging sewers at this location and had issued a “hold harmless” bond to the city; therefore, the attorney asserted that the bonding company should pay the claim.
  • The city attorney later announced that the same sewer contractor had informed the city engineer that he could not complete his sewer contracts and that they city should take up the matter with his bond company.
  • Agreed that pictures of the former mayors should be placed in the council chambers
While there were similar issues back then, one thing was very different—women were not allowed to cast their votes for the men who represented our city. On August 2, 2016, everyone regardless of gender, race, nationality, religion or sexual orientation will be able to go into that booth and mark in a circle with a black marker.

Exercise your right (and responsibility), and vote.

Patti Smith is a freelance writer. Her first book, Images of America: Downtown Ann Arbor, was published by Arcadia Publishers. It is available on her website,, as well as local bookstores.

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