Back in February last year I tweeted #a2Qouncil, a portmanteau of the #a2council hashtag and QAnon, making fun of a popular conspiracy theory that CM Ramlawi repeated. The theory is that someone someone has been hiring paid agitators to attack the enemies of The Mayor and His Allies. There is no evidence of this; it is pure innuendo and conjecture. Little did I know that was just the tip of the conspiracy iceberg. This post attempts to document and mock a few of the conspiracy theories that have been circulating in Ann Arbor.
Of course, just as with all conspiracies, it’s effectively impossible to prove a negative, and Brandolini’s Law dictates that the amount of effort needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than what is needed to produce it. I will, however, show that the conspiracies lack evidence and are implausible enough to be reasonably disregarded by rational folks. And maybe we’ll have a little fun in the process.
The Mayor And His Allies (aka the Evil Mayor conspiracies)
Many of the local conspiracy theories seem to trace their roots to the concept of an Evil Mayor who is pulling the puppetmaster strings behind the scenes and causing all sorts of nefarious things to happen. It’s particularly silly because, with a weak mayor system, the mayor doesn’t actually have a lot of power. The mayor and council set policy, but the day-to-day is controlled by the City Administrator, who effectively is the CEO of the city. Council and the Mayor can fire the Administrator (as we’ll see later) but the Mayor is roughly analogous to the chair of the board of directors at a company.
This isn’t a conspiracy theory per se, as much as it is the tendency to blame the Mayor personally for anything that happens in the city. Think “Thanks Obama!” but at the local level. As such, I’m not going to try to disprove this one. It’s just important to understand that this forms the base of most of the conspiracy theories I’ve seen.
As an aside, our current Mayor is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, so the thought of him being a secret evil overlord is particularly hilarious to me. I certainly don’t always agree with every vote or policy choice that he’s made, but the thought that he’s a huge toxic influence on local politics is laughable. For example, the man thanks every public commenter, even those that spew incredibly hostile personal attacks at him, where a response of “go fuck yourself” would be eminently reasonable.
Nevertheless, conspiracies persist that the Mayor is attempting to engineer some sort of dystopian future for Ann Arbor, never revealing his true self via any of his outwardly observable actions. My guess is that folks don’t feel like they can disagree on the merits, so this sort of innuendo is the only objection they can raise, since good faith policy arguments won’t work.
The Media is out for Hayner And His Allies
Councilmember Hayner has been mad at the media for coverage of his poor behavior for years. It culminated in a recall campaign after he chose to use a homophobic slur while expressing displeasure at media coverage of the unpermitted addition he’s been putting on his house. Much digital ink has been spilled over Hayner’s issue with bigoted language at this point, which I won’t reproduce here, but CM Hayner in particular has a problem with the media.
this is #a2council cm hayner's latest attack on our free press. this time singling out college students and the @michigandaily.— Violin Monster (@ViolinMonster) July 19, 2021
tell us what you know, jeff. then kindly fuck off and resign. you're a disgrace. pic.twitter.com/ngLEvzIM7I
He’s never presented any evidence of what he means. He has been asked about it on multiple occasions, but he never responds with anything concrete. Big #FakeNews energy.
The #a2Qouncil crew came out in force to defend CM Hayner throughout these incidents. They seem to somehow believe this is an elaborate attempt to seize CM Hayner’s seat on council by… tricking him into saying the n-word a couple times to a reporter? idk.
Anyhow, former CM Bannister (and 2022 Mayoral candidate) called in (at least!) three times to council in order to say that Hayner was being unfairly treated for being criticized using slurs, one time quoting Bob Marley to do so, while claiming that criticizing his use of n-bombs was “white privilege”. What?
But things came fully unglued at the 8/4 special Council session on the Rule 12 ethics complaint:— Daniel Adams (@danielnickadams) May 10, 2022
"I'm calling in to express my disappointment in the council members who voted yes for this shameful, hateful, vindictive, and evil resolution." https://t.co/rbjw4oUXgK
CM Ramlawi went as far as saying that we were treating CM Hayner “worse than the Nazis”. Come on man.
Here’s a tape from the Admin Committee meeting where he complained, several times, that Council was treating his buddy CM Hayner—who council censured for using slurs on social media and in an Mlive interview—worse than the Nazis.— Daniel Adams (@danielnickadams) June 21, 2022
Whatever that means. https://t.co/UttIcN3uyz
The truth is, nobody really likes the media coverage of them all the time. They don’t always get it 100% right, and despite their commitments to unbiased reporting, reporters are humans too. Nobody’s out to get Hayner in particular, he just keeps doing absurd things that get him in the news. It shows a lack of courage and integrity when Hayner’s allies jump to his defense and spin conspiracy theories when he’s quite obviously behaving poorly and has no interest in changing. They could have told their buddy to cut it out, but instead they lashed out against the only people who were willing to hold him accountable.
The City Administrator, Act I: Lazarus
Many of the conspiracy theories over the last few years have been related to the City Administrator position. The previous “bad” council fired Howard Lazarus, then City Administrator, without cause. They also signed a nondisparagement clause, and thus can’t explain their reasons for firing him without getting sued. That didn’t stop (now former CM) Jack Eaton and CM Nelson from alluding to mysterious secret reasons that they fired him with enough frequency that Lazarus sent a cease and desist letter to them.
To be clear: it is absolutely true that council has the power to fire the City Administrator for any reason it wants, suddenly and with no public transparency. Likewise, the voters have the power to fire the councilmembers involved. Thankfully that is what they did.
As a result of the lack of transparency, rumors and speculation continue to this day. This was totally within the previous council’s power to avoid–by not signing an NDA—but they chose to do it this way. When people called them on it, they chose to respond with innuendo that got them a cease and desist. It was horribly irresponsible, lacking in transparency, and they paid the price at the polls. Good riddance.
Since they can’t provide evidence for the true reasons they fired Lazarus, I’m forced to follow Occam’s Razor here: they just didn’t like him and wanted someone they thought they’d be able to influence more. It was undeniably within their power to do. It was just a bad decision. They lost the election. No conspiracies necessary.
The City Administrator, Act II: Crawford
After the previous council fired Lazarus, they had to find a replacement. Former CM (and 2022 Mayoral candidate) Bannister had an idea, which in this case might actually be evidence of a conspiracy:
'Council Member Anne Bannister, D-1st Ward, asked if the city even needed to have a search, or if it could instead “just stick with our existing plan” and stay with Crawford.— Rob Utterback (@robutterback) June 30, 2020
“You reference a plan and I’m not aware of any plan,” Mayor Christopher Taylor responded.'#a2council https://t.co/wPkwxdWmko
Plan or no, council approved a wider-reaching search instead of just promoting Crawford immediately, but in the end they went with Crawford. Trust the plan, I guess.
Unfortunately, according to an independent investigation, Tom Crawford created a hostile work environment for folks at city hall, and this Council (sans several of the members who voted to fire Lazarus and hire Crawford) had no choice but to fire him. (Note: Crawford technically resigned, but I will use “fired” colloquially here.) Glad they stuck with that plan, 💯.
This time, the city released a lot of information about what happened, including a mostly unredacted report and Tom Crawford’s response. However, despite a profoundly increased level of transparency, the conspiracy theories are 📈.
For instance, via Vivienne Armentrout:
Taylor is indeed succeeding with the strategy of “Move fast and break things.” The dismissal of Tom Crawford clears the way for him to solidify his power base and to accomplish the major rearrangement of our community that he has promised. He is now making some moves to eliminate inconvenient Councilmembers. Students of history will recognize all the classical elements of the palace coup. To some extent, the voters of Ann Arbor may yet exert a weak influence, but he very nearly has his power base secure. He should be smiling again before long.
yeah OR Tom Crawford said some insensitive shit while leading a progressive city and did so immediately after a councilmember decided to use homophobic and racial slurs, and Council’s hands are tied here. People were threatening to quit if Crawford wasn’t fired. Nobody has presented actual evidence that people didn’t like Crawford or wanted him gone. He just said some dumb shit and got fired.
More egregiously, CM Nelson also published the following to her blog:
Justification for this week’s decision to terminate (Agenda Response to DC-7) was co-written by a member of City Staff who is likely to apply for the job of City Administrator: the same person currently acting as Interim City Administrator.
CM Nelson is advancing a conspiracy theory that the interim city administrator (John Fournier?) orchestrated the allegations against Tom Crawford to get his job. This is some sick shit. Nelson is not fit to serve on council. #a2council https://t.co/VdjZKzbSlV pic.twitter.com/8jQYywf2oa— KareninAA (@AaKarenin) July 25, 2021
Come on. It is highly irresponsible for a councilmember to suggest, with no evidence, that the interim City Administrator is framing Tom Crawford in some sort of Klingon-style power play. Fournier had to write an email to all the CMs assuring them that he wasn’t up to anything. This isn’t a simple disagreement on policy, it’s a fake narrative to distract from reality.
Let me be crystal clear here: the turmoil that has clouded the City Administrator position in recent years was set into motion by the previous council by firing Howard Lazarus. The current council majority is cleaning it up, and they’re doing the best job that they can under the circumstances, despite the #a2Qouncil folks doing their best to make the job more difficult. If the old council would have been in charge, we would still have an Administrator with serious allegations of impropriety in charge of the city.
The Salvatore Report
The #a2Qouncil caucus really didn’t want to let Crawford go, even though the report was pretty overwhelmingly indicative of a problem. So what did they do? Did they own up to their mistake and accept that there needed to be a change in management at City Hall? Nope! They interfered with an investigation instead!
In those observations, two CMs appear to have both interfered with the investigation and done harm to the complainant in the process, and also potentially disclosed information from a closed session to the complainant. The CMs are Nelson and Ramlawi, by their admission.— brandon 🌻 (@bdimcheff) December 10, 2021
When they got caught, they attacked the well-respected independent investigator, spouting off conspiracy theories such as “the mayor and the investigator graduated law school in the same year”. Cool.
Anyone watching #a2council tonight be prepared for a heavy dose of #a2Qouncil conspiracy theories.— brandon 🌻 (@bdimcheff) December 6, 2021
I'll just say in advance that there's a 0% chance that Jennifer Salvatore is willing to ruin her reputation to stage a conspiracy to remove a couple CMs from a couple committees.
And they just won’t let it die, all the while complaining that people keep being mean to Tom Crawford.
This has gotten bad enough that I doubt that Jennifer Salvatore will ever take a job with the city again. Way to burn a bridge with one of the most qualified investigators around.
In response to this innuendo flying around town, Mayor Taylor published a post on Facebook that started:
No matter what irrational, corrosive Q-A2 nonsense you read or hear, this separation is the exclusive, proper, and unavoidable result of the employee’s inappropriate statements.
Not as catchy as #a2Qouncil imo, but I suppose I’m biased. Regardless of your preferred term, this suggestion has fully enraged the folks who are peddling in the aforementioned conspiracies, as you’d expect. They’ve suggested that those accusing them of peddling misinformation and conspiracies are trying to silence their opponents, but entertaining bad faith arguments based on fabricated narratives isn’t productive. I often think of this tweet in these situations:
🛑 Stop pretending bad faith is good faith for the purposes of “politeness” or “dialogue.”— AnyAndAllThingsHat (@Popehat) October 16, 2020
The “C” in TC-1 Stands for “Corruption”
Attempts to bring transit-oriented development to Ann Arbor have been in progress since at least the last comprehensive planning process a decade ago, where it is mentioned (but not described in detail) as something the city should investigate to help meet its goals. It’s effectively attempting to create satellite downtowns where there’s already a bit of activity, but where we can turn strip malls and parking lots into something more exciting. After some delays created by the last council, council finally approved a TC-1 zoning district last July. During that meeting, CM Griswold effectively accused her council colleagues of accepting bribes, suggesting that they’re trying to increase density along transit corridors for nefarious reasons. Presumably these reasons go back at least a decade, since that’s when planning started for all of this. At this point in the story, we hadn’t even applied the zoning to any properties, it just created the ability to do it later that had already spawned conspiracy theories. Again, when you don’t have a good policy objection to something, your only remaining strategy is to make stuff up.
Fast forward to April and #a2Qouncil goes to 11. Now that we had the TC-1 zoning designation, the city had to actually apply it to some parcels. One obvious choice is to do it by the mall. There’s a lot of uninteresting stuff there now, the infrastructure is developed, busses are frequent, and there’s not a lot of other residential in the area so it seemed to me like there wouldn’t be much objection. Boy was I wrong. It turns out that people think that for a $2000 campaign donation you can get the mayor to spend over a decade working on a zoning district that personally benefits you! He even wrote about it years ago, and told residents he supported such zoning changes far in advance. Such corruption!
One resident of Lower Town went as far as to suggest that funding public transit is an attempt to enrich wealthy landlords. What?
My answer here is of course to apply this zoning to more transit-rich corridors if you’re worried about it being too localized. The city has just recently started on the next corridor, and I look forward to seeing what sort of conspiracy theories crop up from that.
This is what actual public corruption looks like. Making good on campaign promises is not.
In an effort to stop pretending that bad faith is good faith, some of us decided to just parody the unhinged conspiracies. Check out the #a2Qouncil hashtag for more fun, and feel free to join in.
Mayor Taylor removed the weather shields the second we arrived at the pool and now it’s mass chaos of screaming kids and blown-over deck chairs. And the pool can’t open until 2:30 because they saw lightning. 😢 #a2qouncil— Shannon Hughes Hautamaki (@SMHred) August 9, 2021
You’re strolling through Kerrytown to go shop at the inestimable Sparrow’s Market when you see a David Zinn drawing on the ground. You stop to admire it when—blast!—a trap! #MayorTaylorAndHisAllies drop a piano right on your head from the clock tower!— Margot McGowan Staebler Arno (@probably_margot) August 7, 2021
But not everyone was amused:
I hope this little trip down the #a2Qouncil rabbit hole was illuminating.
This is all I really want, though, which I read to council last year:
Hi this is Brandon Dimcheff from the 4th ward.
I just want to say that I think nobody is happy to be in the position that we’re in with respect to the City Administrator right now, and I want to thank council for their work handling this difficult issue when I’m sure everyone would rather be working on policy.
I will also say that I wish we could approach disagreements with facts and sound arguments instead of innuendo and suggestions of conspiracy, and I appreciate those council members who have shared what facts they can without wild speculation and unfounded accusations. I would ask those on and off council who are peddling conspiracy theories for political gain to consider that those theories are harmful to staff and the community at large. We have a lot of work ahead of us, let’s not make it harder.
Thanks, and have a good night.
Since then, Council has hired a great interim City Administrator who has recently accepted a full-time offer here. City Hall is stabilizing, no thanks to the #a2Qouncil caucus, and I am extremely thankful that the rational folks held a majority during this time. I have absolutely no doubt we’re in a much better position than we would have been if the folks who started all this turmoil were still in charge.
As I mentioned before, I strongly believe that these conspiracies arise out of a lack of having real policy positions, so nonsense is the only thing that remains. It’s similar to how things are going nationally—the GOP has nothing but the culture war because they have no solutions to actual problems. Likewise, these folks are just mad about not being able to block good policy that they don’t like, and they lash out by making up conspiracies instead of trying to work towards benefitting the city and its residents. Folks like that should not be allowed to govern.
The primaries are on August 2nd. Please vote to reelect Mayor Taylor, and vote for Cynthia Harrison (Ward 1), Chris Watson (Ward 2, uncontested), Ayesha Ghazi Edwin (Ward 3, uncontested), Dharma Akmon (Ward 4), and Jenn Cornell (Ward 5). I’ve gotten to know all of these candidates, and I’ve been impressed with each of them. I’m confident that they will make excellent councilmembers who will govern with integrity and transparency. We’re so close to having rational adults running the city, let’s finish the job. Absentee ballots are available starting this week.