OPINION: Ann Arbor City Council and school board both need lessons in open government
Openness and transparency of government information advances democracy and good governance, helps fight corruption and government incompetence and is crucial for the defense of basic human rights. I learned this lesson indelibly in my youth when a corrupt Republican president was thrown out of office.
Federal and state legislatures passed the Freedom of Information Act and other “Sunshine Laws” to ensure that politicians cannot cover up the truth and that those who do are exposed and voted out of office. Unfortunately, some of Ann Arbor’s key civic leaders, both in our city hall and public schools, have forgotten this basic lesson.
With fire trucks only able to reach the third floor or less, the city firefighters and building residents were placed in harm’s way in responding to this fire.
It is important to note that the entire firefighting force on duty that afternoon responded to the fire. Because five fire trucks responded and the fire department has suffered expensive thefts of fire fighting apparatus when their trucks are not guarded, one firefighter from each truck stayed on the ground and five teams of two firefighters each searched the building and extinguished the blaze.
Maynard House has 74 units on 10 floors. If more than only a handful of residents had had to be evacuated by the five teams available (at least one of which would have had to spend their time extinguishing the blazes), there is no way that a timely rescue of the 100+ residents could have been mounted. Imagine if the building that caught fire was one of the many high-rises in the Universrity of Michigan Hospitals complex, or if the 10-story Courthouse Square Senior Apartments downtown had caught fire?
The city administration has opted not to hire the fully budgeted complement of 82 firefighters, and currently employs only 76 firefighters. Despite this, the fire chief informs City Council that he requires 88 firefighters to have any possibility of meeting the national standards for fire response times established by the NFPA. Now, a whistleblower from inside the Fire Department has informed me that the SAFER grant the city was awarded and is counting on to hire the additional six firefighters to get them to 88 may be lost because of an administrative snafu.
A recent poll on AnnArbor.com [www.annarbor.com/news/ann-arbor-officials-taking-step-back-from-closing-two-fire-stations/] asked the question, do you support the plan to close two [of the five] Ann Arbor fire stations? Of the 602 votes cast, 73% said no and only 27% supported the plan. Rather than studying this ill-advised plan further, City Council should direct the city administration to stop studying the plan, hire the firefighters already budgeted, add the $480,000 required to reach the 88 firefighters required, buy a replacement tower fire truck and expedite the repair of or replace the city's ladder truck.
Most importantly, I am aware of the fire response and the possible loss of the SAFER grant money because I received two anonymous communications from city firefighters. Why was this communication anonymous? The fire chief has illegally ordered all firefighters not to talk to members of the press [www.annarbor.com/news/ann-arbor-officials-taking-step-back-from-closing-two-fire-stations/]. The executive director of the ACLU of Michigan assures me that if this illegal policy is not discontinued immediately that a lawsuit may ensue.
It is truly appalling that the city is perpetrating and participating in an illegal coverup of the ongoing mismanagement causing the decline in fire safety in the city. If City Council does nothing about it, they will be complicit in the errors that continue to be made. I outlined these facts in a speech to City Council on May 7, and since then, no steps have been taken to rescind the illegal gag order.
Meanwhile over at Ann Arbor Public Schools, there is a controversy because when a board trustee asked Superintendent Patricia Green “about the process community members should employ to obtain information Green said parents should use the Freedom of Information Act for these requests.” The meeting that this occurred at was part of the discussion process for how to best close a $17.8 million shortfall by possibly eliminating more busing, cutting more staff and closing a building, among other things.
Needless to say feelings are running high about the attitude of the school administration and their attitude toward transparency. While it is critical for the entire community to have a maximum amount of information about the school’s 2013 budget, the members of the community most impacted by the decision cannot readily get access to some of the information they feel they need. In fact, several people have commented that when FOIA requests are made to AAPS, they receive nothing back in violation of either the spirit or the actual text of the Michigan FOIA Law.
Ann Arbor’s city government has also had issues with transparency and FOIA disclosures in the past, most famously the scandalous emails passed among members of City Council during open meetings.
Here's the Michigan Legislature's stated purpose for enactment of the FOIA: "It is the public policy of this state that all persons . . . are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and public employees, consistent with this act. The people shall be informed so that they may fully participate in the democratic process."
It is sad that some of our civic leaders need to relearn this.
Stephen Ranzini is president of Ann Arbor-based University Bank. He is a former community member of the AnnArbor.com editorial board. He may be reached at email@example.com.