Drowning in a shallow candidate pool
And other observations by Mary Morgan
There’s a culture of complacency
in Washtenaw County government.
Here’s how we can fix it.
In early September, Washtenaw County commissioners held a special public meeting in their boardroom in downtown Ann Arbor. The purpose? To interview and appoint a new commissioner for District 9.
A new commissioner was needed because Conan Smith resigned from the District 9 seat in August over conflict-of-interest concerns. Smith attended the special meeting, cheerfully shaking hands with people he knew and introducing himself to others. He spoke during public commentary, noting that he knew nearly all the applicants and thought they were “extraordinary.” Among other things, he told commissioners to “pick someone you love.”
Smith had also been on hand the previous night at the board’s regular meeting, and similarly worked the room. That night Alma Wheeler Smith spoke during public commentary in support of a regional transit millage on the Nov. 8 ballot. She serves on the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority board, and thanked “former Commissioner Conan Smith” for his help in negotiating the financial details of that proposal. She didn’t mention that he is her son.
In a letter I sent to commissioners in August, calling for Conan Smith’s resignation, I wrote that Washtenaw County government isn’t a family business and the county board isn’t a social club. Watching those two September meetings, however, that’s sure how it felt.
Of course the intersection of personal and political isn’t news. After all, we’re witnessing a national election when one U.S. presidential candidate is married to a former president.
But when family, social and political networks are so tightly woven, it’s sometimes difficult for individuals in those networks to call out bad behavior.
In that letter I sent to county commissioners and shared on social media, I described what happens when public officials — and the public — look the other way if someone in their network crosses ethical lines. When there are no repercussions for questionable actions, then casual corruption becomes part of the accepted political culture. It spreads to all levels of government and leads to greater corruption, which correlates with distrust and disengagement of the electorate.
Since August, I’ve learned more about the mess that Conan Smith created — a situation that continues to affect the county organization and voters in District 9, covering much of northern and west Ann Arbor.
More importantly, the situation raises a host of issues that our community needs to confront — chronic, systemic problems that prevent us from taking advantage of our county’s relative affluence to solve entrenched social ills.
So this isn’t just about Conan Smith. But let’s start there.
How we got here
Smith turned in his resignation the day after I sent a letter to all commissioners describing conflict-of-interest and ethical concerns over his interest in a high-level — and highly compensated — staff position with the county. (The Ann published a version of that letter, edited for length, in the September issue.)
The job is director of the county’s Office of Community and Economic Development. The OCED oversees a multimillion-dollar budget to fund services for the county’s most vulnerable residents. It hasn’t had a permanent director in more than a year. (When this issue of The Ann went to press, no hire had been made, though a search committee was conducting interviews.)
For months Smith privately had been discussing his possible interest in the job with county staff, the board chair and others. This was inappropriate for an elected official, creating the potential to exert influence over the hiring process in a way that would benefit him directly. This type of power dynamic is the reason why many other communities explicitly prohibit elected officials from seeking employment at the public entity they govern while still in office. Washtenaw County has no such prohibition.
Worse, these machinations occurred during an election cycle. Smith knew he might decide to apply for the OCED job, yet he filed for re-election. By the time his interest in the job was made public, the deadlines had passed for others to file either as a candidate in the Democratic primary or as an independent. This means that Smith’s name will be the only one printed on the Nov. 8 ballot. (It also reflects what happens when a community regularly has unchallenged incumbents on the ballot. More on that later.)
It’s unclear whether Smith would have resigned at all until he knew whether he got the OCED job. I’ve been told that before I made the situation public, some commissioners had urged him to resign. They were right to do that, and they deserve credit for having those difficult conversations. But he resisted, wanting assurances that he’d get the job before he vacated the board seat.
If he had made no announcement until after the Nov. 8 election, it would have been unlikely that he’d have faced even a write-in challenge for the District 9 seat. This prompted an additional ethical question: Was Smith soliciting individuals to be appointed to the District 9 seat after Nov. 8, thereby further circumventing the right of voters to choose their representative? I subsequently learned of at least one person he talked to about their possible interest in the seat. That conversation took place well before he resigned.
I laid out these concerns in my letter, sent to the board of commissioners on Aug. 15. I called for Smith to resign, and he did. At the time, I didn’t think I needed to explain what I meant — that his resignation should be more than a temporary break before returning to the board, if he doesn’t get the OCED job.
I was wrong.
I’d like to examine the implications of Smith’s intent to retake the District 9 seat if he doesn’t get the OCED job. But first, let’s look how he has responded — in a direct email to me and others, in Facebook posts and in interviews with the media — since this situation became public.
An aside on media coverage: It’s a great time to be a local politician. Smith’s spin on this saga was swallowed whole and simply regurgitated by MLive and WEMU.
Much of Smith’s response is cast in very personal terms — of his struggle in making this decision, of his passion to address inequity in the county. This approach resonates with supporters. He’s a compelling speaker and a charming guy, and his degree in creative writing serves him well. He’s on the “correct” side of issues that many people in the community care about.
But his communications have contained misstatements of fact and omissions that provide crucial context for his actions, and that undermine the narrative he’s pitching.
In an email sent to me and the board of commissioners, Smith stated that Brett Lenart — who had been serving as interim OCED director — was offered the job permanently this summer, but declined because of another offer that he received from the city of Ann Arbor.
In fact, Lenart had applied for the permanent position but was never offered it. The initial deadline to apply was extended and Lenart — possibly understanding that this was not a good sign for his chances — looked elsewhere. (He now serves as the city of Ann Arbor’s planning manager.)
More crucially, never in Smith’s public statements does he mention the financial struggles of the nonprofit he leads — the Ferndale-based Metro Matters, formerly known as the Michigan Suburbs Alliance.
Documents obtained from Metro Matters board members through the Freedom of Information Act reveal a nonprofit that was in financial crisis at the end of 2015. In December 2015 communications to the board, Smith proposed closing the nonprofit’s physical office and laying off Metro Matters’ staff or shifting people to contract-based work. (You wouldn’t know this by looking at the online staff directory. As of mid-September, it still lists a full contingent of staffers, including those who haven’t worked there in months, according to their LinkedIn profiles.)
What’s more, Smith proposed reducing his own hours at that time as part of the effort to cut costs. So there appears to be at least some uncertainty about Metro Matters’ future. In communications about the August 2016 FOIA request, one Metro Matters board member wrote: “I can’t blame you for being perturbed. We on the Metro Matters board haven’t had our questions answered in some time either.”
Smith mentions none of this context in his lengthy communications about his decision to pursue the OCED job, and the timing of that interest.
This prompts a fair question: To what extent has Smith’s pursuit of the OCED job been driven by the clear self-interest of his personal employment outlook?
Culture of self-interest
I’m not naive. I realize that self-interest plays a role, to some degree, in what most of us do. And it’s easy to be sympathetic to decisions made from self-interest, especially if that’s how we make our own choices.
But particularly in the public sphere — and in our local government — I’d hope to see actions driven more by public interest than by the what’s-in-it-for-me factor.
This tension is clear locally as we look at the political aspirations of some current elected officials. On the one hand, we need to build a strong bench of leaders for state and national office, and that effort starts close to home. If people cut their political teeth in an environment of true transparency, accountability and public service, they’re more likely to carry those values forward.
But the community suffers if some of our local elected leaders consistently make decisions with an eye toward how it might affect their own political ambitions or personal interests.
We’ve watched that scenario play out in the situation created by Conan Smith.
He first saw no problem in exploring the OCED job while retaining the seat as a commissioner. Other commissioners who knew about it should have demanded — not just encouraged — his immediate resignation or made public Smith’s interest in the position. Yet they did not act swiftly and decisively. In fairness to those commissioners, Smith put them in a no-win situation.
Smith enjoys an extensive network of personal and political connections, which plays a direct role in how people respond to his actions. He’s married to Rebekah Warren, a state senator representing District 18. His mother, Alma Wheeler Smith, is a former county commissioner and former state senator who currently serves on the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority board. His grandfather was Al Wheeler, Ann Arbor’s first and only black mayor.
Smith trots out those connections regularly, and with gusto. He invested the first half-page of his cover letter for the OCED job highlighting his family relationships.
Because of those connections, several community leaders I’ve spoken with are reluctant to speak out publicly. Some fear alienating Smith’s supporters or don’t want to jeopardize the county’s financial support for the nonprofits they lead. Several county staff members have also privately expressed concern, but don’t want to risk retribution if they speak out.
As for Smith, he has effectively minimized his own risk. By not disclosing his interest in the OCED job earlier, he decreased the likelihood that he’d have any challengers in the Democratic primary or general election. So he is unopposed on the Nov. 8 ballot. (Though write-in candidates are now competing for the District 9 seat, this state’s straight-ticket voting makes it extremely difficult to prevail over a political-party candidate whose name is already on the ballot.)
And if he doesn’t get the OCED job, he’ll happily return to the county board. Responding on Facebook to a question posed by Janis Bobrin, a former county elected official and Democratic Party activist, Smith stated: “My desire is to serve and work with the county on these issues (of social inequity) in the best way I’m able, and if it’s not as a staffer, I’ll retake my seat if I win it in November.”
His desire. His seat.
Why we should care
County staff, commissioners and applicants for the vacant District 9 seat have spent countless hours dealing with the aftermath of the situation Smith created. That included time during two public meetings when the board discussed the appointment process for filling the vacancy, interviewed the seven applicants and ultimately appointed Jen Eyer to the position. The appointment runs through the end of 2016.
This time could have been better spent on more pressing issues — like how to fund social services, roads, public safety and a variety of other critical work that’s charged to county government to carry out. A financial crisis in the community mental health system and the county’s unfunded pension liabilities demand attention, too.
This situation also distracts from the long-overdue hiring of a permanent county administrator. That job has been vacant for nearly two years, and the board suspended a previous search process this spring when commissioners were split over the two finalists. (They never actually voted on the finalists, though — because that would have been awkward.) A new search is under way, with tentative plans to make a hiring decision in mid-October.
During the September interview process to fill the District 9 vacancy, all seven applicants cited hiring a county administrator as one of the board’s top priorities. The inability to fill that position contributes significantly to a leadership vacuum in the county.
But I’m especially concerned about another kind of impact. The nonprofit I started — The CivCity Initiative — is focused specifically on trying to build a more civically engaged community. A resident commented in an online forum about the Conan Smith saga, telling me not to wonder why people aren’t more involved: Witnessing the actions of local elected officials manipulate the system to their personal or financial advantage makes people turn away in disgust.
What can we do?
While I’m certainly discouraged, I also believe there are specific actions that can help address the problems I’ve described here.
Develop an ethics ordinance. Many state and local governments have policies or laws that prohibit a sitting elected official from being hired for several months — or more — after they are no longer in an elected position. Macomb County, for example, enacted an ethics ordinance that prevents elected officials from being hired for a year after leaving elected office. Wayne County’s ethics ordinance also prohibits employment of elected officials for a year after leaving office, unless approved by a three-fourths majority of the board.
The city of Ypsilanti has an ethics ordinance. The Ann Arbor City Council recently adopted some ethics rules. Washtenaw County has neither.
More generally, ethical issues are addressed in best-practice recommendations of the Michigan Municipal League’s Ethics Handbook. That document is worth reviewing, particularly for its recommendations regarding conflicts of interest, disclosure, improper use of position and personal interests.
Having a clear, enforceable ethics ordinance would help prevent the kind of situation we’re witnessing now.
Work to build strong local candidate pools. This year, candidates for the three major county districts representing parts of Ann Arbor — Districts 7, 8 and 9 — were unchallenged in the Democratic primary. And because no Republicans are running, those candidates — Andy LaBarre, Jason Morgan (no relation to me) and Conan Smith — will be the only names to appear on the ballot for their respective districts.
It’s also common to see uncontested races in the city of Ann Arbor. This year, there were no Democratic primary challengers for mayor or two of the five City Council races, and no Republicans are running. On Nov. 8, only the Ward 5 city councilmember faces competition on the ballot — from an independent candidate.
It’s not that people are unwilling to serve. For the county’s District 9 appointment, several strong applicants came forward. So why don’t we see similar interest in actually running for office during the regular election cycle?
I posed this question to one of the District 9 applicants. He noted that for this appointment, he only needed to persuade eight voters — the county commissioners — over a very short period. To run for elected office, he felt he’d need to spend a year knocking on doors, raising money and making public appearances in a process that would consume his life. He also expressed reluctance to run against an incumbent from the same political party.
I’ve heard these views before.
But it’s worth noting that in this year’s nonpartisan local races — for the boards of Washtenaw Community College, Ann Arbor Public Schools and the Ann Arbor District Library — there are at least double the number of candidates for the open seats. The election cycle is shorter because there’s no primary. And because it’s a nonpartisan race, candidates don’t feel they’re competing against “one of their own.” They’re competing for a seat.
As long as we continue to hold partisan elections, political parties need to ensure that local races offer voters a choice — in both the primary and general elections. I’d also like to see more independent candidates on the ballot.
The rest of us need to work harder to stay informed, to understand how we might participate in the local political process, and to encourage others we know to take their turn at running for office.
Pay attention. This seems obvious, but it’s perhaps the most difficult change to make. And yes, it’s harder to do given the current state of local media.
But here’s how you can start right now. If you live in District 9, make sure you’re aware of all candidates who are running on Nov. 8. You can find out about all local candidates and ballot proposals at AnnArborVotes.org or Vote411.org. (The deadline to file as a write-in candidate is Oct. 28.)
Even if you don’t live in District 9, let the county board know what you think about this situation. (Contact information for the board is online at ewashtenaw.org/government/boc.)
Do what you can to learn how the system works, who’s making decisions on your behalf and what issues are being discussed.
Vote on Nov. 8 — then pay attention to what your local government is doing every other day of the year.
The author, Mary Morgan, is the former publisher of The Ann Arbor Chronicle. She is founder and executive director of The CivCity Initiative, a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on building a more informed, engaged community. CivCity’s projects include AnnArborVotes.org, a site that provides information on local candidates and ballot proposals.