Op Ed: VOTE YES on City of Ypsi Proposals A & BAmber Fellows
If you’ve reviewed your ballot ahead of voting you may have noticed two charter amendment proposals for the City of Ypsilanti. Currently, the Mayor has the sole power to nominate residents to city boards and commissions. Proposals A and B asks voters if nomination power should be expanded to the Mayor or two Council Members. The first sentence of the ballot question explains the proposed change and the following sentence states what the current rule is. The last sentence words the rule change into a yes-or-no question:
“Amend Article IX, Section 9.01 (c) of the Ypsilanti City Charter to expand nomination powers for the Board of Ethics from the Mayor, to the Mayor or two Council Members.
Article IX, Section 9.01 (c) provides the Mayor with sole authority to make nominations to the Board of Ethics.
Shall Article IX, Section 9.01 (c) of the Ypsilanti City Charter be amended to provide that nomination power to the Board of Ethics be expanded to the Mayor or two Council Members?“
Asks this same question but with regard to all Boards and Commissions.
In this article I lay out what led to the ballot proposals and the reasons to vote ‘Yes’. The short version is that the proposals decrease a power imbalance and respond to racially discriminatory practices and stonewalling of past mayors. Expanding nominating powers to the rest of the council aims to bring more equity across all boards and commissions.
I was the chair of the Ypsilanti Human Relations Commission (HRC) when we began to learn of former mayor Beth Bashert’s pattern of decommissioning BIPOC members and failing to nominate BIPOC applicants. After a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) inquiry provided additional evidence of Bashert’s discriminatory practices, the members of the HRC began to discuss how the unilateral power of nominations results in impactful demographic underrepresentation on boards and commissions.
In 2019, the HRC unanimously forwarded a resolution to City Council recommending an ambitious rule change to our city charter that would expand nomination powers from solely the executive (the Mayor) to all residents of the City of Ypsilanti. Council then discussed the HRC’s proposal and voted to narrow the scope down from all residents in Ypsilanti being able to nominate to just the Mayor or two City Council Members. Meaning that if two councilmembers agree that an applicant should be nominated, they would together have the power to put forth that nomination to be voted on by all of City Council. With this change the Mayor would continue to hold some privilege in their role of nominations. City Council, including then-Mayor Bashert, unanimously passed the new proposal to go onto the ballot for a vote of the people.
Later Council approved ballot language for the November general election that split the question into what we now know as Proposals A and B, which cover both the Board of Ethics and the rest of advisory boards and commissions. The split was necessary because the language for those two powers is located in separate areas of the city charter.
Why support Proposal A and B?
The proposals that are on the ballot aren’t exactly the expansive vision that the Human Relations Commission had originally proposed, but Props A and B are a welcome reform that invites more involvement from councilmembers outside of tacit approval of all mayoral nominations, bringing more deliberation and consideration into the decisions on commission nominations.
It doesn’t really matter who holds the office of mayor—one person deciding all nominations runs counter to achieving better representation on our boards and commissions. At least in the recent past, mayors in Ypsilanti have not had the capacity to attend any commission meetings let alone a broad array—and attending these meetings is necessary to understand a commission’s aims and membership. Simply, mayors have made their nominations based on low information, whereas it is not uncommon for councilmembers to have the capacity to attend commission meetings on occasion. There could always be greater commission participation/attendance from councilmembers, and that should be encouraged, but if you were to quiz a body of seven councilmembers on relevant commission work vs. one mayor, the body of seven will always produce more and better information. Additionally, there is currently no standard of communication between commissions and the mayor with regard to considerations for future appointments and, historically, new members have onboarded with little to no information about a commission’s work outside of a general description.
Stonewalling of commissions has also been an issue in recent times and in the past, as mayors have had the ability to slow and/or obstruct the work of commissions by refusing to nominate members to a commission with vacancies. Membership atrophy can lead to an inability to make quorum and, therefore, function. This is actively exemplified by the Human Relations Commission—a body that has been unable to make quorum for almost a year.
A bulletproof example of why editing the unilateral appointment power is necessary is when considering conflicts of interest. As the Charter currently stands, our Board of Ethics is solely nominated by the Mayor. When an ethics complaint on former Mayor Beth Bashert arrived at the Board of Ethics in October 2019, the complaint was heard by four Bashert appointees of a body of five. A ‘yes’ vote on Proposal A will correct a major oversight and will lay the opportunity to avoid obvious conflicts of interest on the Board of Ethics.
If we believe in including more voices at the table of influence, that many hands make light work, and that the active participation of the people as citizens in political and civic life is important, then we should strive to modify our institutions for increased inclusion and direct-er democracy: The more that non-urgent decisions are outside of one person’s hands, the better. Broadening the power of nomination from the mayor, to the mayor or two councilmembers makes a lot of sense when thinking in small ‘d’ democratic terms, and arguments for the need of more executive power have been unconvincing.
This information is last minute, but..
If nothing else, these ballot proposals and the discussions around them have elevated the importance of what advisory boards and commissions do in our community and their role in the democratic process. Similar to the positive outcome from efforts to address harm when residents came together to demand Mayor Bashert’s resignation, seeing the proposals on the ballot is affirming of efforts to respond to institutional discrimination with tangible democratic solutions.