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Ann Arbor Mayor Pro Tem Says Her Poor Attendance Is A Non-Issue. National Experts Respond: “Bollocks!”

by P.D. Lesko

Ward 4 Council member and Mayor Pro Tem Marcia Higgins has been repeatedly and roundly criticized by (generally) anonymous individuals on AnnArbor.com as being “the invisible woman.” When Higgins let her campaign domain name lapse four years ago, and didn’t renew it when she pulled her nominating petitions to run for office in either 2011 or 2013, it was purchased and an anti-Higgins site was put up: HigginsforCouncil.com. Former AnnArbor.com social media maven Ed Vielmetti broke that scoop in June. The Re-Elect Marcia Higgins? site offers up information about Higgins’s voting record, and uses comments posted to AnnArbor.com about Marcia Higgins that are bluntly critical of her job performance, votes, lack of responsiveness and poor attendance record. It was the latter issue over which Higgins is most recently taking enough heat to, perhaps, make her wish she was in someone else’s kitchen. After months of complaints and barbs aimed at AnnArbor.com’s political reporter Ryan Stanton, the blog finally went through “hundreds’ of pages of material and examined Marcia Higgins’s attendance record back to 2011.

As it turns out, the “cranks” who’d been complaining about Higgins’s not showing up for meetings, showing up late and leaving early were not cranks after all. Records revealed that in a 2-year period Marcia Higgins had missed 30 percent of the meetings she was supposed to attend.

Her response? Basically, she told AnnArbor.com that her meeting attendance record was nobody’s beeswax. As it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth according to experts. In cities large and small across the country politicos have crafted attendance policies that call for censure, formal reprimand and even expulsion of local elected officials with poor attendance records. In Santa Cruz, if appointed officials on city boards or commissions miss too many meetings, the offending individuals are replaced. The Santa Cruz City Clerk is expected to keep track of attendance at all meetings, unlike the Ann Arbor City Clerk. Other cities, it seems, take seriously the elected official’s obligation to be present when the people’s business is conducted, even if Marcia Higgins doesn’t.

AnnArbor.com isn’t by any means the first news outlet to out politicos with poor attendance records. In 2012 Chicago news outlets got all up in their City Council members’ political grills about poor attendance. In an exclusive news investigation titled “Absentee Aldermen—When City Council Members Don’t Show Up for the Job”  Chicago journos outed Alderwoman Sandi Jackson as having the worst attendance record; Jackson missed five meetings. While AnnArbor.com didn’t check Higgins’s attendance records for the committees on which she serves, Chicago journos did just that and discovered Sandi Jackson missing Council meetings was just the tip of the iceberg.

Marcia Higgins daughter died in 2009, Higgins and her supporters turned to this as an explanation for Higgins’s poor attendance record between 2011 and 2013. Sandi Jackson, wife of former Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., told Chicago voters she’d been dealing with her husband’s very public battle with bipolar disease.

A representative of the Better Government Association flatly dismissed both women’s excuses: “Constituents can cut officials like Sandi Jackson some slack if they’d like because she’s undergoing a very serious family crisis, but we all have personal problems and elected officials have a responsibility to represent their constituents. And one of the key ways you do that is by showing up and voting almost all the time. More than 20 percent is excessive absenteeism, and her constituents should be concerned.”

Chicagoans were just as miffed as AnnArbor.com readers who found out Marcia Higgins had missed 30 percent of the meetings she was expected to attend. Windy City residents took Sandi Jackson to task:

“If an alderman misses more then 2 meetings it should mean immediate loss of their job and who ever came in 2nd gets the job. Simple as that. If alderman don’t take the job seriously, then it should be taken away from them. Simple job. Simple system. You lose fat and happy slacker alderman.”

“The alderman’s job is to represent their constituents. Part of that representation is to vote on city council matters, hopefully as their constitnuents would want them to vote. Missing meetings means the aldermen are not representing their constituents, and so, not doing the one thing they are in office to do.”

“Why do they seek office anyway? Perhaps we should pay the aldermen per meeting maybe then they would attend more often and really take their jobs seriously. I don’t get paid if I don’t report for duty.”

Just a few days before AnnArbor.com revealed Marcia Higgins’s poor voting record, in Worcester, Massachusetts, a city with 181,000 residents, the local newspaper published this piece: “Worcester City Councilor Misses 30% of Votes Since January 2012.” While Higgins and her supporters push the notion that poor attendance isn’t an issue, experts interviewed by the Worcester paper disagreed. Dr. David L. Schaefer has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, is an expert in American political process and theory, has published 10 books and dozens of articles in academic and mainstream publications on the subjects. He is a professor of Political Science at Holy Cross. Schaefer told the Worcester paper: “Such absenteeism definitely needs to be publicized, and anyone guilty of it needs to be challenged….Absenteeism among City Councilors is a matter of serious concern. Barring personal emergencies, anyone who agrees to serve on the Council has an obligation to attend every meeting and participate in deliberations on every item – whether or not he or she finds a recusal occasionally necessary.”

In AnnArbor.com Ward 1 Councilmember Sumi Kailasapathy, who has a perfect attendance record thus far, and ever the pragmatist, stated the obvious when asked about Higgins’s attendance record: “I think one-third, that’s a pretty high number. I would step down,” she said. “I would lose my job if I did that at work.”

Higgins, furious, told AnnArbor.com that Kailasapathy’s comment reflected a lack of civility. ”Coming from an ardent supporter of my opponent, I’m not surprised,” said Higgins.

The thing is, non-partisan experts share Kailasapathy’s opinion and even her analogy.

As is common, AnnArbor.com’s reporter neglected to solicit outside and expert sources. The Worcester reporter got in touch with Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for the Cook Political Report in Washington, DC. Duffy said that missed votes were particularly important: ”Voters care much more about missed votes than perfect records,” Duffy said. “Even if a political office doesn’t come with a paycheck, voters expect the people they elected to represent them to show up for work.”

Then Duffy added: “If a voter failed to show up for work or missed lots of meetings, that person would probably get fired.” And voters “can only ‘fire’ someone for absenteeism on Election Day,” she said. “There are more than a few members of Congress who lost re-election for missing votes and committee hearings.”

While The Mayor Pro Tem of the 5th largest city in Michigan rationalizes her poor performance and tells voters that her chronic absenteeism is a non-issue, in other cities elected officials are busy crafting charter amendments that hold themselves accountable in cases of frequent absenteeism, such as Higgins’s. Punishments put to the voters for approval included giving city councils power to censure members who miss too many meetings, or even remove them from office. Other potential punishments put to voters for approval included public reprimands, fines, forfeiture of pay or suspension from committee assignments.

Not only is Marcia Higgins’s chronic absenteeism a serious problem, according to experts, the more serious issue, and why her chronic absenteeism has gone unchecked for years, is that the Ann Arbor City Council has no policy in place to deal with chronic poor attendance on the part of its members. Who’s to blame for this lack of accountability? Marcia Higgins, in no small part. For the past half a dozen years, she has chaired the City Council’s Rules Committee. That is the committee which would set attendance policies and suggest punishments for Council members with poor attendance records. With Higgins’s skipping meetings on a regular basis, it’s no small wonder the Rules Committee which she chairs has focused on rules such as cutting the amount of time for the public to speak and reducing the time for Council member debate, a blatant effort to silence outspoken Council members such as Kailasapathy and Ward 2 Council member Jane Lumm.

This Weekly Whopper goes to Ann Arbor Ward 4 Council member Marcia Higgins for her claim that “Attendance on council, including her own, is not an issue.”

How do you think politicos with chronic and serious attendance problems should be penalized? Vote in the poll below.

 

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Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=15218

9 Comments for “Ann Arbor Mayor Pro Tem Says Her Poor Attendance Is A Non-Issue. National Experts Respond: “Bollocks!””

  1. I have the perfect campaign song for her –
    Meatloaf’s “Two out of three ain’t bad”

    • This is just sickening. Why is she running for office when she can’t be bothered to go to the meetings, get to the meetings on time, or stay for the meetings? When she’s not there, Ward 4 residents lose their vote – or half of their total vote. There needs to be accountability but it doesn’t seem that Marcia Higgins is ready to be accountable to anyone. Thanks for digging up the details from other cities and for letting us see what the experts have to say. While I thought Sumi K’s comment was spot on, it’s nice to hear from Jennifer Duffy and Professor Schaefer. They don’t have any horses in this race and it’s clear that the response AA.com got from Marcia Higgins was outrageous and inappropriate.

    • She just got a campaign website 2 weeks before the election. My guess is that she’ll pick her 2013 campaign song sometime in 2015 by which time someone will have already bought the rights to it. Marcia will then complain to AnnArbor.com that the song was “hers” forever and it was a low blow for someone else to have purchased the rights. If this stuff Higgins is doing was in a novel you wouldn’t believe it.

  2. Imagine that! Experts think attendance matters and Marcia Higgins thinks we should all myob about her skipping meetings, leaving early and coming late. AnnArbor.com has been in business since 20909 and this is the first time anyone there thought to do a piece about Marcia Higgins or Margie Teall and their poor attendance? It’s shameful. Like I said I don’t get the paper and don’t visit the site often to read, but many of the times I did there were people commenting on the fact that Higgins and Teall are slackers.

    • Agreed on AnnArbor.com coming late to the party on this issue. However at least the issue was looked at. What I am really curious about is Marcia and Margie’s attendance at the committee meetings they are supposed to attend. As I understand it, Council committees have FIVE members so they don’t have to take minutes (no quorum). That is just wrong wrong wrong. It’s time to have some accountability for these people. We pay them they need to do their jobs.

      • What? No minutes for council committees??

        A duly organized committee of a public body should adhere to all the requirements of the Open Meetings Act, whether technically required to or not, and whether a quorum of the larger public body is present or not. There should absolutely be public notice and public minutes. If there is a legitimate reason to hold executive session (e.g., labor negotiations, purchase of property, etc.), the statutory procedure should be followed.

        Doing this the wrong way only undermines public confidence and support. So why not just do it right?

        • @Larry, right you are. The public notice of the meetings is posted at City Hall (and sometimes using Legistar). The minutes and attendance are never posted anywhere because they don’t exist. I believe City Council could direct the City Clerk to make sure attendance is recorded for every board and commission meeting, and posted for the public to see, and Council should do this. I also believe Council could require Council committees to keep minutes, as well, and they should.

    • The ignorance of these people is sickening!

  3. Marcia Higgins could easily double her efficacy and efficiency rates by doubling her absence rate.

    Hopefully voters will aid her absence activity even more, say to 100% absent.

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