Thursday, August 3, 2023

The Path to Progress in Ann Arbor: Prioritization and Accountability

Traffic backup on Washtenaw Ave.
If you lived here, you’d be home by now (photo by author)

Editors note: this is a guest article from former planning commissioner and Ward 2 Councilmember Kirk Westphal.

"Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction." - John F. Kennedy

Ann Arbor city government is in uncharted waters. Voters decisively changed the composition of City Council over the past two elections. All members of the conservative faction that briefly held a majority on Council from 2018-2020 were off Council by 2022. This faction notably fired the City Administrator and made decisions that many characterized as housing-averse, car-centric and anti-pedestrian. Ann Arbor voters delivered a decisive rebuke of these conservative policies.

For the first time in years, Council appears to be in genuine, unanimous agreement on certain basic values beyond providing the typical essential city services. These are the issues that have previously divided Council; for example, quickly adding housing supply to address the affordability crisis, eliminating road violence (aka Vision Zero), expanding non-car options for travel, and making systemic changes for a more equitable and sustainable future. Councilmembers frequently express urgency about these issues, even calling some of them a “crisis.”

Barack Obama said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” Ann Arborites have taken this to heart over the past two elections, and you could argue that there’s never been a more, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” political moment on the local level.

But we’re not seeing the values expressed by Councilmembers and the public translate into action.

This isn’t necessarily a matter of budget priorities. Budgets matter a lot, and councilmembers have been willing to put financial resources behind their values as a sign of their urgency. But the act of allocating money doesn’t move us forward as a community. To make our money work, Council needs to publicly articulate their priorities, create realistic and measurable goals, monitor progress, take economic development seriously, and make sure we can attract and retain the best staff possible.

How should we fix this?

1. Set Council priorities

There already are hundreds of goals contained in the City’s various plans and resolutions. Most are probably worth pursuing, but the vast majority of them simply can’t be. Some are decades old and no longer relevant, others are aspirational or out of scope, and many have no funding source. So, which goals are the most urgent for the well-being of our current and future residents? Are they measurable and equitable? And if the existing goals don’t fully capture our values, what new goals does Council need to set?

And the biggest question: When will they be accomplished?

We are finding out what happens in an environment of too little prioritization and accountability. For example, despite an adopted city goal of zero deaths and serious injuries on city roads by 2025, this year is looking deadlier than ever. [see crash endnote]

We’re also not making promised zoning changes fast enough, which is actively worsening the housing crisis and undercutting the council’s transportation reform and climate agenda. As I write this, new suburban-style buildings—such as 1980s-style drive-thru banks and fast-food chains—are being proposed and built along transit routes, functionally eliminating housing opportunities, endangering road users, polluting the air, and burning transit dollars for decades to come. What’s more, Council is taking an inordinate amount of time to reverse downtown zoning changes that we’ve known for years have completely stopped approvals for new dense housing where it’s needed most. While we wait, rents continue escalating.

Another small but meaningful example: despite years of studies, informed debate, community energy, and a plan for managing the deer population, Council has inexplicably defunded the program. The herd has since exploded and—just like years of failed management of road repairs—will end up costing residents more to undo the damage. (It will take far longer, however, for the native plant species in our natural areas to recover.)

Then again, why should we expect anything different? Council has not indicated which goals they think are the most important, nor signaled to the Administrator that he is accountable for accomplishing them—even goals in recent plans that already have specific timelines on them (e.g., building five miles of “all abilities” bicycle lanes each year, allowing more diverse housing types in neighborhoods, or reducing driving in the city). And we see staff continuing to use the same antiquated methods that created the housing shortage and road violence crises we are seeing here and across the country. [traffic engineering endnote]

City Council should consider the following steps to translate our resources into community progress:
  1. Hold a moderated working session every year to decide what their policy priorities are. This used to be routine, but it’s not done anymore.
  2. In public discussion with staff and commissions (but not driven by staff and commissions), agree on the specific, measurable outcomes of the prioritized policies in the community and direct the City Administrator to meet them by specific dates. [see administrator endnote] These could include items such as road conditions, A2 Fix It report clearance rates, road injuries and deaths, rates of walking and cycling, housing production or vacancy rates, water-quality metrics, complaints against police, etc., all with time-bound goals.
  3. Show the progress that’s being made on high-priority goals on a monthly or quarterly basis. All high-performing organizations—including many cities—do this, and many have a public dashboard to display progress in a user-friendly way. [dashboard endnote]
  4. Evaluate the Administrator publicly on these priorities at a working session once or twice a year and discuss the status with each department manager during the course of the year. Find out what’s going well, what’s not, and why. Correct course and adjust accordingly.
Here are some examples of dashboards from other cities:
A dashboard from Boulder, CO.

A dashboard from Kent Co., MI

A dashboard from Austin, TX. 

Agreeing on policy direction, outcomes, and timelines would also have many other downstream benefits:
  1. Demonstrate to the community that the elected officials they supported are prioritizing the issues important to them
  2. Prevent the common refrain that staff gets “pulled in different directions”
  3. Create continuity and reduce excuses when there’s inevitable turnover in the Administrator or senior management positions
  4. Stop bogging down citizen commissions [see commissions endnote]
  5. Highlight high-performing departments and serve as an early warning system before deadlines are missed

2. Increase city revenues

Ann Arbor has been better than some cities at deciding how to spend money, but we’ve been oddly unstrategic about the revenue side of our balance sheet. Each year, we passively wait and see what the property tax receipts and millages bring in, put some in reserve and other long-term obligations, and if there’s a positive cash flow, the Administrator doles out the rest across departments that have asked for more.

Contrast the lack of the city's economic development efforts with the work of the Downtown Development Authority (which makes important infrastructure investments that help attract private investment) or Ann Arbor SPARK (which helps accelerate certain types of companies and picks up the phone when employers are looking to locate in the area). These groups, however, have limited jurisdiction and budgets; they are not a substitute for a muscular, strategic approach to revenue creation in City Hall.

I recently learned that our City Charter prevents the city from doing what basically everyone else can do (including the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor Public Schools): confidentially buy options on land to be used for government purposes (e.g., new buildings or affordable housing, parks, transportation) or to assemble to facilitate private development. This should be fixed in the City Charter as soon as possible. (As should the unfortunate trick that was played on voters with the “Center of the City” ballot question and ensconced in our charter in 2018. Put it back on the ballot, City Council!)

One thing that has significantly helped shore up city finances is new construction, mostly arising from downtown zoning reforms 15 years ago. [zoning endnote] I think we’re headed in some good directions, zoning-wise—although inexplicably slowly. We will soon embark on a new “comprehensive plan” update. Revising our land use plans is a good and necessary thing, but why should we expect residents to keep participating in these processes? As it is, Council hasn’t implemented the recommendations we already have from 15 years ago, and staff has said that it’s “optimistic” to hope for significant zoning changes (outside downtown and some limited corridor areas) anytime sooner than four or five years from now. Anyone who believes we are in the midst of a housing and climate crisis should find this position to be unacceptable.

Lastly, we could be doing a much better job of leveraging not just our land but our natural features. A small example: We are among very few Midwestern cities that have picturesque, clean, swimmable water within walking distance of downtown. For much of our city’s history (up until about 70 years ago), the river was at the center of warm-weather fun for people of all ages, incomes and backgrounds. It closed due to increasing pollution, but it’s arguably cleaner now than any other time in the modern era.

Children in 1938 loved Argo Beach! Credit: The Ann Arbor News, donation to Ann Arbor Public Library  

The nearby Argo Cascades has been a success, but it’s not as accessible as a beach because you need to be able-bodied and own or rent equipment to fully enjoy the experience. There’s also little economic spillover to the city, because we have refused to allow more residential and commercial activity in this incredible area on public and private land. (Wouldn’t you know it, this was already recommended by two lengthy planning processes dedicated to the river and North Main Street.) Where are our beaches, beer gardens, and riverfront apartments?

3. Standardize Performance Reviews

City Hall is Mission Control for city life. Like in any healthy organization, city employees deserve to get regular feedback to know how they’re doing. Employees who excel should be rewarded or promoted; those who don’t should be offered training or assistance in finding a path that might be a better fit for them.

There are widely-known deficiencies in City Hall—just ask any builder who has done a major project here, or look at the condition of our roads relative to what staff promised, or see reports that have uncovered toxic leadership in different city departments. How many of these problems are ongoing? Are they due to specific individuals or department heads? Council could choose to find out and direct the Administrator to remedy them. To my knowledge, employee feedback is not being provided in many departments—save for the current vague evaluations of the Administrator and City Attorney.

Council should also hire an impartial expert at least once every ten years to gather public input and do a top-to-bottom assessment of the organization. Are we staffing too light or heavy in certain areas relative to our peers, needs, or best practices? How exactly should each department be evaluated for effectiveness? Are we able to attract the best talent? Are we over- or under-using consultants and contractors? Is the chain of command in our departments structured in an efficient manner?

City staffing has increased 20% over the past decade, while our population has stayed relatively stable. Maybe this is appropriate, but how do we know? Who have these positions helped? (Source: City of Ann Arbor)

You could say that answering these questions is the City Administrator’s job, but—to put it mildly—past experience indicates that Administrators have been reluctant to make needed staffing changes.


I remember how overwhelming it was to be elected to council. You’re thrown into public view, obligated to an expanding list of meetings and functions, and firehosed with emails about different priorities and problems. It’s easy to live in “reactive mode” and spend most of your time addressing quotidian concerns [see A2 Fix It endnote] and dealing with issues as they come in from commissions and staff.

But reacting to public comment isn’t the job. The real job is to set a direction for the community and make sure staff gets us there.

During the time I served, there was a closely divided council that spent a lot of energy debating the pros and cons of “change,” mostly about buildings. There’s no such debate now. The community has spoken loudly about the need for progress and is expecting results.

To Council’s (and community activists’) credit, Ann Arbor has been a leader among cities in several respects recently; funding affordable housing, initiating a universal basic income pilot program, passing ranked choice voting, and beginning to aggressively reform zoning and parking regulations are among my favorites. But we are capable of so much more. Cities should be laboratories for excellent government and policies that lead directly to societal progress. The faster City Council can articulate measurable goals, prioritize financial and organizational performance, and become transparent about progress, the faster we can live up to Ann Arbor’s progressive legacy and improve people’s lives.

Kirk Westphal is a former planning commission chair and former representative on the Ann Arbor City Council (D-Ward 2). He is the executive director of Neighborhood Institute, an educational 501(c)(3) nonprofit based in Ann Arbor focused on housing and transportation.



[Crash] One road safety advocate is currently tracking serious injury and fatal crash reports that appear in police records, otherwise the data on these crashes can be delayed by up to two years. I think road violence is both the most serious public safety issue directly in the city’s control and the cheapest to solve.

[Traffic engineering] The US has per capita roadway deaths that are 2-4x the rate of peer countries. Outcomes like crashes are not “accidents,” they are the result of local policies and tools (such as motorist “level of service”) that perpetuate existing dangerous road conditions. The relative lack of public outrage is partially due to “omission bias,” a logical fallacy that tends to exonerate decision makers for errors of omission (e.g., someone dying because a dangerous road hasn’t been fixed) versus errors of commission (e.g., a police officer harming a community member). Harms resulting from city inaction are just as devastating and unacceptable as ones caused by city action, especially problems that cost little or nothing to change.

[Administrator] City Council reps do a lot of things, but their most important job often gets overlooked: evaluating how the City Administrator implements their policies. The Administrator—currently Milton Dohoney—is the singular person responsible for running the city, and he reports directly to Council. (This is similar to how the board of directors of a large corporation or nonprofit tells the CEO to operate the organization according to their collective direction.) Put another way, he translates the goals of the community—as expressed through our elected Council reps—into action by directing the staff under him.

[Dashboards] The good news is that the Environmental Commission passed a resolution last fall requesting that council get a start on exactly this: to direct staff to implement a system of goals and accountability via a public city dashboard with metrics that quantify the progress on our priorities (e.g., “SMART goals”—Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Relevant and Time Bound—or “Key Performance Indicators”). My understanding is that the Energy Commission is discussing it, and is on its way to council. I simply can’t imagine a more important project that the city should undertake as soon as possible.

There have been multiple attempts at accountability and transparency over the years, including environmental variables in the early 2000s (something I worked on as a member of the Environmental Commission) and a limited range of staff-selected activities that has not been maintained since 2019. Former Administrator Howard Lazarus was making headway on metrics for outcomes of several departments, an effort that appears abandoned. An attempt at tracking road repair projects came after a staff admission that road repair promises made several years prior were unachievable. The current dashboard does not track accomplishments and is difficult to use (and more importantly, no effort has been made to publicly grapple with how a deficiency of that magnitude happened in the first place). Also, our police department has recently created their own dashboard, but it is missing critical variables like geography and years prior to 2019. It is useful enough, however, to see that the AAPD has dramatically reduced issuing moving violations to motorists at the same time that pedestrian injuries are skyrocketing. (Do we know or care what they are doing?) As they say, “What gets measured, gets managed.” Bloomberg Philanthropies' “What Works Cities” initiative is devoted to helping cities with their accountability efforts.

[Commissions] I spent 12 years on various commissions and can attest to the incredible generosity and expertise of our citizen volunteers. But the power dynamics within each commission—and their resulting productivity—vary. Part of this comes from a muddied input and accountability structure. Commission work plans (to-do lists) are created internally by each commission in consultation with staff and sometimes public input. The fodder for these to-do lists depend on a small number of individuals’ subjective feelings. I’ve seen management-level staff and the specific City Council liaisons to commissions heavily influence what tasks get prioritized along with their associated timelines—timelines that can be as vague as “sometime during a calendar year” or worse yet, just a list with no deadlines. The full council theoretically reviews these work plans—if and when they’re created—but I’ve rarely heard significant discussion at the council table about them.

The worst manifestation of this dynamic is the creation of new, permanent commissions that either do not have specific associated goals, or they have missions or tasks that could be handled by an existing commission or a time-limited, ad-hoc committee. There are simply too many commissions as it is, operating with overlapping (and occasionally cross) purposes. It is unfair to obligate councilmembers, staff, and the public to devote more time attending marginally productive commissions.

Citizen commissions are extremely valuable for raising issues, helping diversify input, overseeing planning processes, enabling additional opportunities for the public to give feedback, and making recommendations. But City Council shouldn’t passively allow commissions to initiate or schedule policy attempts to address the community’s major priorities.

[Zoning] The increase in density that comes from, say, apartment buildings replacing strip malls equates to vastly more property tax income relative to the vanishingly small additional expense they require for services, which is one reason we hear so much praise for “infill” and “density.” (Increased density also decreases the per-capita carbon footprint of city residents, as it provides opportunities for people to live in smaller dwellings and drive less.) It’s the only significant way to generate new income in a sustainable fashion without state-level changes to tax collection, so it’s the most financially advantageous way for a city to grow (and it’s also the most important way we can offer direct relief to current and future residents: lower rents through increased supply). But where do the spoils of efficiency go? Instead of returning excess revenue to residents through tax relief or housing subsidies, the incentive for politicians and city managers is to spend the new revenue on staff and over-engineered infrastructure projects (a 650-parking-space train station, anyone?). This is part of the reason why dense cities like New York don’t have extremely low property taxes.

[A2 Fix It] The best way to get day-to-day concerns resolved is through an app called A2 Fix It. While this usually works very well, if something remains unresolved, there’s a record of the request and your council representative can then find out more. Incidentally, council used to get updates on how A2 Fix It is performing, which was helpful because it’s the most immediate window into common problems people experience.

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