Ann Arbor school board recall language rejected
Danielle Arndt | AnnArbor.com
The Washtenaw County Elections Commission Thursday rejected recall petition language that was filed against six Ann Arbor school board members.
The commission voted 3-0 to reject the language on the petition on the basis of clarity. The commission did not take up the issue of whether the language is factual.
The ruling stymied for now the recall effort of the Ann Arbor Public Schools Parents for Change. The parents, who are frustrated by what they say is general dysfunction on the school board, will have 10 days to appeal the decision in Circuit Court. The group also could submit a new petition with revised language.
Jody Huhn, a Thurston Elementary School parent and member of the group, filed the petition language on July 17 against AAPS trustees Susan Baskett, Simone Lightfoot, Glenn Nelson, Irene Patalan, Christine Stead and Andy Thomas. Petition language could not be filed against President Deb Mexicotte because she is her first year of a new term on the board.
Trustees Baskett, Lightfoot, Stead and Thomas were present at the 1 p.m. clarity/factual hearing Thursday and all except for Lightfoot made arguments before the commission refuting and objecting to the petition language.
Huhn filed the petitions separately for each board member, however, the reasons for recall were the same for all six trustees:
- Failure to demonstrate thoughtful consideration of constituent priorities.
- Failure to demonstrate transparency in decision making.
- Failure to demonstrate cohesive and singular direction as evidenced by consistent split voting.
- Failure to provide sufficient backing and support for district superintendent position as evidenced by high turnover rate averaging 2.25 years per term.
Huhn said the elections commission's ruling that the language was unclear did not disappoint her. She described the hearing as a learning experience.
"I think it was a very simple petition but it got the message across, which is what we wanted," Huhn said following the hearing. "I don't know from here exactly where we are going to go. It can be more detailed. We can take it to the next step and try again. ... I would need to talk to my group."
Huhn said she thought some of the school board members had valid points in their statements, adding she and the other parents will need to regroup and think about how far they would like to take the recall effort.
"Ultimately, it is a group problem the way that we see it," Huhn said of the board. "They are just so dysfunctional as a group. It would be nice if you could recall them all as a group, but I don't think you can."
By law, the allegations of the language must be made pertaining to the trustees' current terms in office and each trustee, as Thomas pointed out in his objections to the language, has been in office for a different period of time.
He said the terms of two trustees began in July 2009; the terms of two others began in January 2011 and the terms of the remaining two, including Thomas, began in January 2012.
Thomas called the recall language "a hot mess."
"The language is vague, not specific. It is subject to multiple interpretations. It does not confine itself to my current term in office, as is required by law. It asserts as truth things which are factually incorrect or which cannot be substantiated in any objective way. It is simply a hot mess."
Thomas argued that the 2.25-year turnover rate "appears to have been pulled out of thin air."
"As my ninth grade algebra teacher used to tell me, 'show your work.' ... The only way one could come even close to this number is to include an interim superintendent as part of the turnover," Thomas said. "An interim superintendent is not a superintendent, but an individual temporarily placed in that position while a permanent superintendent can be hired."
The elections commission, consisting of Judge Donald Shelton, County Clerk Larry Kestenbaum and County Treasurer Catherine McClary, addressed the issue of clarity first. Because the language was rejected on the basis of clarity, the commission did not have to take up the issue of factuality.
Kestenbaum asserted earlier Thursday that the portion of the law requiring recall petitions to be factual is unconstitutional and he said he would refuse to rule on that issue.
This was the first recall hearing the commission has held since a 2012 law included stricter parameters for recalls in Michigan.
Prior to the 2012 law, the elections commission only had to make a determination on the clarity of the petition language.
"They ruled whether it was clear enough to allow the officer in question to rebut the claims," said county Director of Elections Ed Golembiewski.
Now the petitioner also has the burden of factuality, he added.
Sheldon said when he thinks about clarity, he considers whether an ordinary voter who is confronted with the petition on his or her front porch or in the grocery story parking lot would be able to clearly understand the allegations being made against the officer. He described the commission's job as preventing voters from signing or not signing a petition that could mean different things to different people.
He said "thoughtful consideration," as cited in Huhn's first point for recall, is in the eye of the beholder. He didn't understand the claim about trustees not demonstrating transparency in decision making because the board is a public body and must vote in open, public session. Sheldon also took issue with the lack of a definition for what "cohesive direction" is or what constitutes "split voting."
Sheldon said someone heading into the ballot box would not be able to appropriately weigh the accusations without context or clearer descriptions of the claims.
McClary proposed a second motion for the commission to also go on record as saying the petition language is not factual because she did not believe any of the four reasons listed by the petitioner were. However, the motion died due to a lack of support. Sheldon said a factual ruling in this instance would be moot because petition language must be both factual and clear and since the commission had already ruled the language was not clear, such a determination on factuality was not necessary.