ANN ARBOR, MI — Should Ann Arbor officials push for a citywide minimum wage of $15 an hour?
The question has come up this election season with the issue raised in a three-way City Council race in Ward 4.
Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, who seeks to unseat incumbent Elizabeth Nelson in the Aug. 2 Democratic primary and also faces fellow challenger Dharma Akmon, has repeatedly pressed the issue, making it a central part of her campaign while arguing city leaders aren’t doing enough about it.
Dr. Mozhgan Savabiesfahani circulated her nominating petitions, collected her signatures and the Ann Arbor City Clerk judged that the candidate had collected at least 100 valid signatures of Ward 4 voters to appear on the August primary ballot. Along with Dr. Savabiesfahani, Ward 4 incumbent Elizabeth Nelson (D) and Dharma Akmon (D) will appear on the August 2 ballot. On June 20, Dr. Savabiesfahani sent an email to The Ann Arbor Independent in which she alleged John Hilton, co-owner and long-time editor of The Ann Arbor Observer, had imposed a media blackout on her candidacy. In an email shared with The A2Indy in response to Savabiesfahani’s question about the blackout, Hilton wrote: “Given the modest response to your previous campaign, we will mention you briefly in the article but will not be using the photo.”
Unlike the other two candidates in the Ward 4 Council race, Savabieasfahani was neither interviewed by the Observer’s freelance writer James Leonard, nor was she photographed for the upcoming article by the Observer’s freelance photographer.
John Hilton is a former auto worker. He purchased the Ann Arbor Observer and his position as its editor in 1986. He has no college degree and no formal training in journalism. Dr. Savabiesfahani is a woman of Persian descent. She is an environmental toxicologist who has authored over 30 scientific journal publications and a book entitled Pollution and Reproductive Damage. Her research at the University of Michigan has been funded by a National Research Award from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. In 2015, Savabiesfahani was awarded the Rachel Carson Prize.
In 2020, Dr. Savabiesfahani ran for Ward 4 City Council and captured a little over 10 percent of the vote.
Hilton’s email to Savabieasfahani in which he asserts his blackout of coverage of her candidacy for City Council in Ward 4 is justified by the “modest response to your previous campaign” is not credible in light of the Observer’s coverage of previous repeat City Council candidates.
Savabieasfahani is not the first local to run more than once for City Council or the first repeat candidate whose campaign elicited a “modest response.”
In 2017, Ward 5 resident David A. Silkworth ran for City Council and lost to Chip Smith. In 2020, Silkworth ran for City Council for a second time and snagged 19 percent of the vote. Both times Silkworth ran, the Observer included him in its political coverage.
In 2010 and 2012, former Ward 4 City Council member Jack Eaton (D) ran to unseat the incumbent, Margie Teall (D), and lost. When Eaton ran in 2013 against incumbent Marcia Higgins (D), Eaton won. All three of Eaton’s runs were included in the political coverage of the Ann Arbor Observer.
On June 18 Dr. Savabiesfahani posted the following to social media:
Today something unprecedented happened to me in Ann Arbor. You tell me what it means.
Ward 4 City Council candidate Elizabeth Nelson saw me today, June 18th, 2022, at the Juneteenth celebration in Ann Arbor.
She told me that she was surprised that I was not at the photo shoot for the Ann Arbor Observer a few days ago.
I asked her whether she (Nelson) told the Observer that I was also running for City Council?
Nelson said no, she didn’t tell them.
I told her “You should have.”
Nelson then said that she regrets having not told them.
Later, I finally reached James Leonard of the Ann Arbor Observer, who does their City Council election feature. I reached him on his cell phone. In fact, two years ago, he had interviewed me for his 2020 election coverage.
So Leonard, today, June 18, 2022, told me that yes, he was aware that I am running for City Council.
I asked Leonard why he didn’t contact me for his election article.
Leonard said that he doesn’t make those decisions, his editor does.
Leonard did not offer the editor’s name.
So I asked him.
Leonard finally told me that John Hilton is his editor at the Ann Arbor Observer.
Never, in the last 20 years, have I ever heard of any major Ann Arbor newspaper excluding a candidate from their interviews and photo shoots.
-Dr. Mozhgan Savabieasfahani
Candidate for Ann Arbor City Council, Ward 4
Council member Elizabeth Nelson (D-Ward 4) confirmed that she did have this conversation with her opponent, Savabieasfahani. Nelson, in a phone call, said that she thinks Hilton’s decision to exclude one of the three candidates running in Ward 4 is wrong. Nelson added that excluding one candidate from news coverage “does a disservice to voters.”
The Ann Arbor Observer’s coverage of local politics has been sharply criticized by local readers. In 2020, The Ann Arbor Independent was given dozens of emails from a three-year period by members of City Council as well as Council candidates who ran for local elected office between 2014 and 2017. With the emails, these individuals alleged that The Ann Arbor Observer’s political coverage was biased and frequently included falsehoods about candidates’ statements, voting records, and campaign finances, etc…. The emails shared with the newspaper were to and from the Observer’s editor and co-owner John Hilton, as well as to and from the Observer’s freelance political writer James Leonard.
“Local. Trusted. Journalism.” These are the first three words of the Ann Arbor Observer’s advertiser media kit. The Observer is locally-owned, but its co-owners’ and editor’s focus on what critics say is one-sided, horse race political coverage. To some, this means the Observer’s local reporting can’t be trusted. To others, the Observer’s political coverage isn’t reporting at all. In an interview with Concentrate Media, David Askins, the co-owner and editor of the now defunct AnnArborChronicle.com, said that the Ann Arbor Observer focuses on narrative journalism (storytelling), leaving“a critical gap in journalism: straight, fact-based reporting.”
“I’ve pretty much given up on any journalistic integrity coming from the Observer. Their bias has been repeatedly demonstrated,” said Ann Arbor resident Deanne Neiburger in a public social media discussion of the Observer’s alleged ongoing problems with editorial accuracy and biases.
“Maybe it’s just that I’m not up on these things, but the Observer strikes me as coverage that has a certain slant,” said Tom Wieder, a local attorney.
Libby Hunter is a retired music teacher who lives on the city’s west side. Her father was a newspaper editor and she grew up in the news business. She said, “Since I follow local government, I summon up the courage to read the Observer most months, if only to see how Jim Leonard has decided to present things. Then I can explain to friends what really happened. Unfortunately, it’s not a publication that seeks to report truth, and usually represents issues from the angle of the reigning majority power players. What’s disturbing at times is Leonard’s gratuitous nastiness, and that John Hilton is fine with it, year after year.”
According to research by the non-profit Pew Reearch Center, “Overall, about eight-in-ten Americans (79%) say news organizations tend to favor one side when presenting the news on political and social issues, according to a survey conducted Feb. 18 to March 2, 2020. Far fewer (20%) say these organizations deal fairly with all sides. The share of Americans who say news organizations tend to favor one side has increased 7 percentage points since early 2019.”
The Pew research revealed that, “The most common reason that Americans see for unfair news coverage is the pushing of a political agenda.”
City records show that over the past several years Taylor has been mayor, the City of Ann Arbor has given the Ann Arbor Observer almost half a million dollars in advertising revenue. It is by and far the most money given by the City of Ann Arbor to any media outlet in the County. [The Ann Arbor Independent doesn’t accept advertising from local governments, public K-12 schools, colleges or universities.]
Dr. Savabieasfahani has been sharply critical of Ann Arbor’s Mayor Taylor, as well as his allies on City Council. She has, for the past several months, published a series of cartoons lampooning Taylor and his Council allies about a variety of issues, including their poor records on creating affordable housing, their refusal to adopt a $15 minimum wage for city workers, and Taylor’s opposition to involving the EPA in a cleanup of the 1,4 dioxane plume creeping toward the City’s drinking water source (Barton Pond). The Ward 4 candidate has accused Taylor openly of self-dealing and corruption. Former City Attorney Bruce Laidlaw agrees. He recently filed a formal grievance against Taylor with the Michigan Bar Association.
In a 2020 piece about the Observer’s political coverage published by The A2Indy, John Hilton replied to accusations of bullying and misrepresenting the views of Council candidates with, “How politicians feel about us is beyond our control. All we can do is encourage them to articulate their positions, then describe those positions accurately to our readers.”
Thanks to Hilton’s decision to exclude Dr. Savabieasfahani, she won’t have the opportunity to articulate her positions to the Observer’s readers.
Imagine what $30 million every year could do for Ann Arbor’s community development, for example Ann Arbor’s Jobs Corp program — run by the Neutral Zone — to get every kid ready for college, get them into college, get their college paid for, and launch them into a good job. Instead of paying $30 million a year to scare the daylights out of Black Ann Arbor with armed police.
Imagine what $100 billion every year could do nationwide if spent the same way.
To be clear, I am for funding our social support needs instead of the police. I am for getting the youth installed in college and then a good job – not into jail.
Again, I am against funding the police. Our current system of policing is deeply racist, violent and militarized. For civilian use, a new system of policing must be created. A system that focuses on protection of the public and de-escalation of crises rather than the orientation of an occupying army. Minneapolis is already in the process of dismantling the police and replacing it with social workers and mental health workers.
The biggest piece of the general fund budget in Ann Arbor is the police department ($30.7 million). Community development has only one sixth of that ($5 million). As a city, we must start taking steps to channel that $30 million towards community development. That means beginning the process of reallocating resources, funding, and responsibility away from police and toward the kind of law and order already enjoyed by the rich: Access to good education, academic mentoring, job placement, day care, after-school programs and classes.
The Cream of Society – and their representatives in Lansing – don’t expect to be policed. They expect communities of color to be starved and “proactively” policed into submission, and limited to a minimum wage of $9.65 an hour.
The Cream of Society already has instant access to tangible power for their kids– that means education at all levels, the lifetime cash contacts that come from four years at U-M or Harvard, jobs, health care, and mental health services that low-income communities are often denied. The Cream of Society have their lives laid out for them. Their work pays them royally. Who do you think is bagging your groceries and catching COVID-19? Not the Cream of Society.
When the Cream of Society plunders (for example, by keeping a generation of Black New Yorkers away from nice apartments), when the nation’s financial and political leaders keep the wealth flowing so much upwards, and so little downward, that sweet setup takes $100 billion a year to maintain — $100 billion a year in policing.
Trump is the poster boy for that. Sued for racially discriminatory housing practices, and defeated and defiant and victorious at the highest levels of business and politics.
He rose to the top of American political power and became a billionaire even after he howled for the blood of the Central Park defendants, even after he rose to fame by casting doubt on whether the first Black President was really born in America or not.
In other words, it is no accident that $100 billion is spent nationally on policing and millions of Black parents have to give their sons “The Talk” to remind them that they are utterly without protection in this society. Utterly and completely naked to being shot by police, even if on their best behavior. Proof: Philando Castile.
The rich don’t need to endure police visits if they have a mental health crisis. Such vital resources that are readily available to the rich should be available to everyone. The police should not be the first responder to a mental health crisis, unless a weapon is involved. They are not equipped to deal with those crises. The only proper first responders, to mental health situations, should be mental health providers and social workers.
The most economically vulnerable residents must rely on Ann Arbor’s Community Development Unit for the delivery of housing, economic development and human services.
So the more we fund Ann Arbor’s Community Development Unit, and the less we fund the police, the better.
Until the police are finally replaced with social workers, the Ann Arbor police oversight commission should be empowered to fire police chiefs, pick a pool of finalists to replace police chiefs, and have equal say on discipline handed down to police officers.
Police interactions with ICE
Immigration infractions should not be treated as crimes. To the maximum extent allowed by law, Ann Arbor shouldn’t help ICE escalate confrontations with undocumented workers. In fact, Ann Arbor should discontinue any intergovernmental agreement with ICE. Ann Arbor should implement incarceration prevention measures for minor offenses like a broken tail light.
I am against having police in schools
School is no place for the police. I advocate for police-free schools. Ann Arbor, and all cities, should follow the example of the superintendent of the Portland, Oregon Public Schools by replacing police – called school resource officers (SRO’s) — with counselors and social workers.
Students feel less safe at schools with visible security measures, adding that students report feeling more fear if they attend schools with SRO’s.
Instead of imitating a jail atmosphere, schools need to offer students the emotional, and mental health supports they need to thrive. Rich kids have that. I say everyone should have that. Providing support to students can help them feel safer, cope more effectively, and ultimately be better able to focus on learning and developing.
There is a constellation of support which a thin layer of privileged kids get, which launches them into U-M and into power positions in society. I aim to get that constellation of support (education, mentoring, full tuition payments, real jobs) funded for every kid who needs it.
What the kids of our community don’t need is more police beating them down to make way for the Cream of Society. Billionaires need cops (100 billion dollars’ worth of cops across the U.S.) to carve them a clear path to the goodies in this pandemic time.
Schools are failing to address students’ mental health needs. It’s wrong to shift resources away from social workers and towards school security guards. These shifts reflect the national habit of policing, as minority students are more likely than white students to attend schools with security guards but no social workers.
I am against ‘proactive’ policing
During his run for Mayor, Jack Eaton (the Ward 4 incumbent) posted this on his campaign website: “I regularly seek to add police officers to allow for proactive policing, including traffic enforcement and downtown beat officers.”
I completely disagree with adding police. I completely disagree with any “proactive policing” too. That generally means displaying a police presence and creating a panic situation.
“Proactive policing” often means the abhorrent practice of stopping and frisking nonwhite urban residents. I’m against that. The Crea of Society doesn’t have to endure that. Neither should the rest of us.
Dr. Mozhgan is an award-winning environmental toxicologist. She has been an Assistant Professor of Environmental Sciences, and the Managing Editor of a global health journal. She has published over thirty environmental toxicology studies in scientific journals and has gained worldwide media attention for her work in that field.
Dr. Mozhgan fights for environmental and human rights. She has long demanded an immediate city cleanup of the toxic Gelman dioxane contamination of our water, declaring that it’s time to “put the shovel to the ground and clean it up now.”