Polygon, the Dancing Bear

Occasional notes on politics, history, technology, architecture,
and the life of a county official

Monday, November 28, 2005, 12:38 pm

From the Clerk-Register. Today's message to my staff.

I hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving.

But this past week has been a bad time for elected officials in Washtenaw County.

Our Probate Judge, John Kirkendall, has announced his resignation. Local media coverage of this event has been unjustly negative toward him, with the clear implication that he was somehow under fire. He has been an outstanding judge during sometimes difficult circumstances, and I keenly regret his decision to leave the bench. We will all miss his wisdom.

Three other officials have been affected by charges of drinking and driving, including U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, whose son Todd was recently arrested in Ypsilanti; Webster Township Supervisor Dean Fisher, who resigned his position after a second drunken driving arrest; and our Drain Commissioner, Janis Bobrin, who was arrested following an automobile accident earlier this month.

The last two were highlighted on the front page of the Ann Arbor News on Thanksgiving Day.

Janis Bobrin, it need hardly be mentioned, is the state's best and most environmentally sensitive drain commissioner, who has put together an outstanding office. I am glad to report that she has confronted this issue directly. In an email sent over the weekend to all county department heads, she invited questions and comments, writing that she didn't want any "elephants sitting in the living room." The reference is to a situation where family members and co-workers dare not bring up a problem that everyone knows about.

My own history led me to be somewhat Puritanical about substance abuse. Growing up in a university town in the 1960s and 1970s, I saw the impact of the rampant use of illegal drugs during that period. I knew people who were damaged or destroyed by drugs or alcohol — some of them brilliant folks who might otherwise have made significant contributions to society. Moreover, my mother, a very heavy smoker, died at age 57 from lung cancer. Appalled by heavy drinking among local politicos in the 1970s, I was part of the informal "Teetotaler's Caucus" of the Democratic Party.

Driving under the influence of alcohol is not only self-destructive, it is community-destructive. I can only add my voice to so many others, to warn against getting into the driver's seat when your faculties are impaired in any way. We in county government should be acutely aware of the consequences: we handle those felony case files and dramshop lawsuits; we see the anguish of the defendants and victims and families in our courtrooms; we file the death certificates for accident casualties.

But I do have compassion for those who struggle with addiction. It must be horribly difficult.

For county employees and family members who have a problem with any sort of substance abuse, there is an Employee Assistance Program which can provide confidential help; you can find contact information in the Employee Zone of the county's web site. Indeed, most larger employers have such a program available. Making that contact can be the first step in taking back control of your own life.

Let us extend our good wishes and prayers to those who are having difficulty in their lives, and let us serve our customers with a renewed sense of purpose.

....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum — Comments

Wednesday, November 23, 2005, 1:18 pm

In his column in Monday's Ann Arbor News, Geoff Larcom urges a change to nonpartisan elections for city council.

Now that all eleven members of the council are Democrats, such calls are only to be expected. And indeed, maybe this is a time to think about how we elect our city officials. But first, we should consider how we got here.

Fifteen years ago, when I moved to Ann Arbor, it was a veritable museum of archaic political structures. It wasn't just the old-style lever-handle mechanical voting machines, fascinating but scarily unreliable. This was just about the only city in the state still holding annual elections on the traditional Monday in early April; most cities had moved to biennial elections in odd-year Novembers. Ann Arbor's ward system, with two members elected per ward and none at large, was typical in the 19th century, but increasingly rare since the 1950s, at least in Michigan. And Ann Arbor was and remains one of the last cities in the state with partisan city elections.

Because the city elections were annual, partisan, always contested, and not held at the same time of year as other elections, both parties had active organizations in the city which were generally regarded as more important than (and totally independent of) the county political parties. In most parts of Michigan, the county party is where the action is, but among Ann Arbor Democrats in 1990, involvement in the Washtenaw County Democratic Party was considered a kind of offbeat interest. The city Democratic Party had a lot more going on. Each ward had an active Democratic Party organization, too, and the ward chairs had positions of considerable influence.

Those internal party dynamics are all changed now, perhaps because the city elections were moved from April to November, and because a number of key local party activists now live outside the city. The Ann Arbor Democratic Party is just a shadow of the organizational powerhouse it used to be; the energy which used to animate it has been transferred to the county level.

Larcom writes:

local moderate Republicans wear the Scarlet "R,'' the perception they subscribe entirely to the state and national GOP view on social issues. That's now a ticket to oblivion in this town.

Changes at the national level have consolidated and sharpened the concept of what it means to be a Democrat, and what it means to be a Republican. Ann Arbor's political establishment was long accustomed to treating state and national parties as irrelevant, but our voters have embraced what might be called The New Partisanship. Which is to say, given the scant appeal of national Republicans in Ann Arbor, they have embraced the Democratic Party.

Larcom asks:

Why not make these local elections non-partisan? What do the basic municipal questions of water rates, leaf pickup, police patrols and tree taxes have to do with being a Republican or Democrat?

The short answer is that all these issues, not to mention questions of development, transportation, law enforcement and city resource allocation, implicate the values of the decisionmakers, and one of the rules of the New Partisanship (on both sides) is that you can't trust the other party's values.

It may not be literally true that a Republican council member would invariably vote to widen major streets, regardless of trees and neighborhoods, whereas a Democrat will invariably vote against, regardless of traffic congestion, but it's not a bad first approximation for the priorities a "typical" Republican or Democrat might bring to the table.

We ask a lot of our voters. For example, my personal vote, in southwest Ann Arbor, helps choose almost a hundred elected officials: five federal (president, vice president, two U.S. Senators, one U.S. Representative), six state (Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General, state senator, state representative), 32 members of state education boards (eight each for U-M, MSU, Wayne State, and the state board of education), 24 judges (seven Supreme Court justices, seven Court of Appeals judges in our district, five circuit judges, two probate judges, three district judges), six county officials (sheriff, prosecuting attorney, clerk-register, treasurer, drain commissioner, and county commissioner in my district), three city officials (mayor and two ward council members), and 21 others (seven school board members, seven community college board members, and seven district library board members). If you're keeping score, that adds up to 97 officials theoretically answerable directly to me as a voter.

When it comes to election time, it's not easy even for an activist to cast an informed vote on every single one of those races. Hence, party labels are a labor saving device for voters. Straight ticket voting is often criticized, but it is very much on the upswing. With the new polarization, growing numbers of Democratic and Republican voters see the other party's values as being fundamentally wrong, so ticket splitting has little appeal.

Larcom points to other nonpartisan boards as an example of what the city council could become:

Reid, who served two terms on council and became the lone remaining Republican, points to local nonprofit organizations and school boards, which draw a broad segment of capable people from the town's university and business communities.

Those people can make decisions without the business or personal risk of tying themselves to one party. Asks Reid: "Are we operating under a system that substantially reduces our available pool of talent when we need it?"

Non-elected boards of directors are not a fair comparison; school boards are very narrowly focused compared to city council, and are elected by a very small constituency of school board voters.

The problem with the talent pool for city council is that few people are really interested in serving. City council, partisan or not, is rightly seen as being Real Life Politics, under the hot lights of media scrutiny and the pressures of interest group lobbying. It is a myth that a change to nonpartisan elections would suddenly unleash a flood of highly qualified candidates. If political parties no longer had the incentive or responsibility to recruit candidates, we might well end up with fewer candidates instead of more.

The funniest part of Larcom's piece is his slam on the ward system and student voters:

A geographic strike against the GOP is Ann Arbor's pie-shaped ward system. Wards emanate from the city's center, so each holds a section of students who vote Democratic and often go straight-ticket.

First of all, the "pie-shaped" wards are mandated by the City Charter, which provides as follows:

SECTION 1.3 (a) (2): The five wards should each have the general character of a pieshaped segment of the City with the point of such segment lying near the center of the city so as to make each ward a very rough cross section of the community population from the center outward.

As far as I know, that language is original to the 1956 city charter. In other words, it was written at a time when Republicans were the majority party, and they chose this arrangement.

Further, until the 1970s redistricting, there was indeed a ward (the old 2nd) which was dominated by student voters. Around 1975, the wards were extensively redrawn, by Republicans over Democratic opposition, to eliminate the student ward and concentrate nonstudent Democratic areas in the 1st Ward. At the time, this was seen as a gerrymander to cement Republican dominance of the city council. And with very slight changes, those are the ward boundaries we still have today.

Perhaps UM students and today's city Republicans could make common cause to amend the charter and create a mostly-student ward in the center of town, removing student areas from the other four wards. But that wouldn't actually elect any Republicans. Student votes are not what made Ann Arbor overwhelmingly Democratic.

It's a surprisingly common misconception. Whenever I mention that Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County have become gradually more and more Democratic over the last thirty years or so, many otherwise intelligent people immediately say, "Oh, you mean because of the student vote."

Um, no. If anything, students as a group are more conservative and Republican today than they were, say, in 1972. And they make up only a small portion of the city's vote, and a tiny portion of the county's vote.

You'd think someone would have learned from Joan Lowenstein's election to the (formerly safe Republican) 2nd Ward city council seat over Jeff Hauptman in 2002. Republican poll watchers were all over the student precincts, obviously fearing that a wave of student voters would overwhelm their candidate. But the Democrat won every precinct, including all the completely nonstudent ones.

All that being said, I do recognize disadvantages to partisan election of the city council. In a one-party town, it means the "real" race happens during the August primary. That's not such a problem in even years, when there are many other partisan primaries going on. But in odd-numbered years, city council primaries are alone on the ballot, and draw few voters. If every ward has a primary, that single purpose election costs some $50,000.

The even-year and odd-year council seats are already somewhat different because of the lower turnout and greater focus on individual candidates in the odd year election. We could accentuate this difference, perhaps giving voice to a wider variety of interests and perspectives, while saving the cost of the August primary, by using nonpartisan "Instant Runoff Voting" (IRV) for the odd-year November seats.

IRV — already enacted in Ferndale and in San Francisco, and used to choose science fiction's Hugo Awards and the president of the American Psychological Association — is the system where voters indicate fallback choices if their first choice candidate is eliminated. If one candidate gets a majority of first choice votes, he or she is elected. However, if no candidate gets a majority among first choices, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and his or her votes are redistributed to the other candidates based on second choice votes. Repeat until one candidate has a majority.

IRV has its critics and drawbacks, as does every possible voting method including the one we commonly use. Many of IRV's backers see it as a way to get rid of the two-party system, which it most certainly is not.

But the most cogent objection is that Ann Arbor's Accuvote ballot tabulators do not have enough memory to accumulate all the possible combinations needed for IRV, or for any other ranked-vote system.

That's why I'm suggesting IRV only for the five city council seats elected in the lower turnout odd-year elections. The electronic tabulators would sum up the first-choice votes, which probably would yield a majority winner in most races. If no candidate had a majority, then the city board of canvassers would supervise a hand count of that ward's ballots to determine the IRV winner. Given typical turnout per ward in an odd year city council race, this would not be a very big job.

By contrast, Condorcet, which is arguably a superior voting method, would always require a hand count to determine the winner. And a hand count for city council among the tens of thousands of ballots cast in an even-year or presidential election would be a nightmare. IRV in odd-year races is very limited and practical by comparison.

Back in the 1970s, Ann Arbor briefly had partisan IRV for mayor only. The goal was to allow voters to support the Human Rights Party candidate without electing the Republican. Ballots were counted by hand; the HRP candidate was eliminated, and almost all of her votes went to the Democrat, who won a majority by a tiny margin. The process was orderly and fair, but the then-city-clerk was strongly opposed, and portrayed it as a mess; soon after, Republicans successfully sponsored a charter amendment to repeal it.

Many things have changed since then. The rationale for using IRV for the odd-year council seats would not be to guarantee any particular result. Rather, the goal is to get rid of the August odd-year primary. That would save money and broaden effective participation in choosing city leaders and policies.

....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum — Comments

Monday, November 14, 2005, 12:29 pm

From the Clerk-Register. Today's letter to my staff:

During the last week of October, I visited Florida for the first time in my life. Yes, we took Sarah (age 7) to Disney World and Epcot Center. We arrived just hours after Hurricane Wilma left the state, but we saw no damage in the Orlando/Daytona area. The weather during our stay was mostly in the 60s Fahrenheit, which is to say, bitterly cold by Florida standards, but comfortable for us Michiganders.

The hallmark of the Disney operation is customer service and attention to detail. I was awed at how well everything was put together, from the transportation to the architecture to the lighting to the landscaping to the crowd handling. In one area normally reserved for "cast members only" (but opened temporarily to accommodate the flow of people bypassing a crowded parade route), I saw a sign which laid out seven customer service standards, each one based humorously on one of the Seven Dwarfs. All were plainly calculated to keep the staff cheerful and help park visitors to have an enjoyable time. Disney calls its personnel "cast members," because each puts on a kind of performance, from the joke-telling tram drivers to the popcorn sellers.

While I was in Florida, I had the opportunity to see early voting taking place for the November 8 election in Volusia County. For the two weeks preceding the election (up to Friday before the election), they had polling places set up in the county library and several other places in various parts of the county. It was set up just like a regular voting precinct, but each one had all 21 ballot styles available for the various municipal elections going on in various parts of the county.

After voting, each voter's ballot was fed through an Accuvote tabulator, which would signal if there were any problems with the ballot such as overvote or undervote, but not count it. The voter would have the opportunity to correct any such problem. Then the completed ballot would be sealed in an envelope; it would end up in the precinct to be processed the same way absentee ballots normally are.

I had heard about food buffets at early voting polling places, but I didn't see any. Of course, the one I visited was in a library where food wouldn't be allowed anyway.

Outside the building, 100 feet from the door, there was the usual cluster of campaign signs, just as we see on Election Day. The difference is that these signs were for candidates running in different cities all over Volusia County. And instead of being up for a day, presumably, these signs lingered for the entire two week voting period.

I also did some historical research for Political Graveyard, and encountered a very odd customer service situation. I was looking for some election returns for early 20th century mayoral elections, and the Volusia County elections office confirmed that they had those records.

Could I come to the office to see them?

She replied very sternly: "Sir, you need an appointment to see those records!"

How could I make such an appointment?

Long pause. "Um — er — we don't know. No one has ever asked to see those records before."

In the end, I gave up on seeing them in the short time I had. But I sure hope nobody has this kind of experience with our office!

On Saturday morning, October 22, the Washtenaw County Election Commission (Judge Kirkendall, County Treasurer McClary, and myself) held a clarity hearing on the text proposed as reasons for recall of three Pittsfield Township officials. We unanimously decided that the reasons proposed did not meet the legal standard for clarity. New language has been submitted, and the Election Commission will meet tomorrow morning, Tuesday, November 15, at 11:00 am in the Board of Commissioners room, 220 N. Main, to consider and rule on it.

This is the time of year for many meetings and conferences, and I have been called upon to attend or speak at several of them over the last few weeks. Often, preparing something to say to a group, to explain aspects of county government or elections or the court system is an opportunity to think about those issues in a new way, to find new insights, and I'll be sharing some of those with you in coming weeks.

I am continuing individual meetings with staff members. If you haven't heard from me yet, you will soon — I'd like to have seen everybody once before the end of the year, so I can start the second round in January. When the workload permits, please arrange a half-hour with your supervisor and my schedule (perhaps via Outlook) for a meeting in my office.

Let.s have a great week!

....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum — Comments

Sunday, October 23, 2005, 1:48 pm

From the Clerk-Register. Two recent letters to my staff:

Tuesday, October 11:

The County spends $30,000/year on a filter to keep unwanted spam out of our email system, but it has slipped up a little. I personally have received several "phishing" scams in the last couple of weeks. Probably you have, too.

For those not familiar with the term, "phishing" refers to emails which pretend to be from your bank or from Ebay or PayPal. The corporate logos are all in place, and the message can look highly authentic.

The approach varies, but one way or another, the email tells you that there has been some kind of problem, and you need to "update" your personal information. Just "click here," it says, on a link which looks totally legitimate — as does the web site it takes you to. But it's a fake site controlled by the crooks! As soon as you enter your social security number, credit card, bank account, whatever, they'll use your identity for nefarious purposes, making purchases, withdrawing money from your bank, applying for loans, and so on.

When you have a phishing message staring you in the face, you know it came from somewhere — so why can't the crooks be caught and punished? The problem is that they are very good at covering their tracks. Very likely the message to you was sent through some innocent person's home or office Windows computer, made vulnerable by a computer virus and taken over remotely by the crooks. (If you're not running adequate security software, and keeping up with all the required security and virus updates, it could be YOUR machine which is silently pumping out thousands of spam/scam messages.)

Alternately, the originating mail server and the fake web site could be somewhere overseas, perhaps in Russia or Malaysia — even if the crooks themselves are Americans.

Another type of fraud email has been around so long, and seen so often, that it has become a bit of a joke: the letters from Nigeria asking for your help to transfer millions of dollars of ill-gotten loot to your bank account. The real goal, of course, is to get you to come up with money for various "expenses" required to get the big money out of Nigeria. Or, failing that, armed with account information you provide, they'll drain your bank account. Sometimes, they lure the victims to Nigeria and hold them for ransom. Sometimes, the writers claim to be from Sierra Leone or South Africa or Russia or Taiwan, but the style is instantly recognizable as the product of a group of Nigerian criminal gangs that have been nicknamed "the Lads from Lagos".

My personal email account has been public for years, and therefore gets lots of spam, including these Nigerian scam letters. Back in 2002, some of my friends had still never seen one, and were curious about them. So, I put up a web page cataloging a bunch of scam letters that I had collected (wallpapered with FRAUD in big green letters). I called it the Nigerian Fraud Email Gallery — and I included informational links as well as a bunch of examples.

After a while, the incoming flood of Nigerian mail became just too overwhelming. I had posted some 500, but had more than 40,000 more examples waiting. I gave up on cataloging them all, and mostly neglected the site, posting only a few more every now and then.

I'm sure the web page helped alert a few people to the fraud (some wrote to thank me). But now, suddenly, it's flooded with visitors.

Last Thursday, October 6, the 15th Annual IgNobel Prize ceremony was held at Harvard University. The IgNobels are a silly parody of the Nobel prizes, but the awards are presented by actual Nobel laureates under the auspices of a major university, and received some national media coverage.

This year's awards included the IgNobel Prize in Literature to:

The Internet entrepreneurs of Nigeria, for creating and then using e-mail to distribute a bold series of short stories, thus introducing millions of readers to a cast of rich characters — General Sani Abacha, Mrs. Mariam Sanni Abacha, Barrister Jon A Mbeki Esq., and others — each of whom requires just a small amount of expense money so as to obtain access to the great wealth to which they are entitled and which they would like to share with the kind person who assists them.

And on the official IgNobel web site, the link is to my low-tech little compilation of Nigerian fraud email.

I think whole world has now been saturated by these fraud letters. A na´ve person might be taken in by the first one he ever got, but how likely is anyone to fall for the fifteenth or the eighty-third? There is one report that the scam is no longer making much money for the perpetrators. Perhaps enough people worldwide have learned to be cautious about the authenticity of stuff that arrives by email. I hope that my fraud gallery site will soon become just a historical curiosity.

As a general rule, if you receive a spam message of any kind at a County email address, forward it to SPAM@MAIL-FILTERS.COM so that our filters can be updated.

Validation of jail bond referendum petition signatures is ongoing, even on Columbus Day. Over 9,000 signatures have been typed in and checked against the Qualified Voter File, and 74% matched. We should be finished before the 35 day deadline we set. Many thanks to everyone who is helping with this important task.

This Thursday is Yom Kippur, and I will be out of the office. For those who asked: Yom Kippur is a solemn day which involves atonement and a 24 hour fast — no food or water. Chief deputies Jim, Derrick, and Karen can handle anything that comes up while I'm out.

Let's have a great week!

Monday, October 17:

Here's a couple of nice recent comments from customers of our Deeds and Vital Records offices:

The following was posted anonymously in the comments section of the local weblog Ann Arbor Is Overrated, in regard to researching the history of houses:

Your best bet is to go to the county deed office on Main and search it all the way back. There are some records available electronically but they go back only a few years. The folks there are freakishly helpful and patient, but they won't do the work for you. You'll need the address and possibly the parcel id (you can get that by doing a Property/Parcel Lookup). From there, you'll have to look through the giant deed books (called "libers") back to when the subject house isn't listed anymore. It's time consuming but kind of cool, in a geeky sort of way.

"Freakishly" helpful and patient — "cool in a geeky sort of way" — who could ask for higher praise? Apparently our office is NOT overrated!

A visitor from Illinois wrote to me as follows:

Dear Mr. Kestenbaum,

Last Thursday, Oct 6th, I ventured into the Vital Records department to gather genealogical information. I had not done such searches before, so I did not know exactly what to do or how to do it.

All of your staff in Vital records were extremely helpful and very happy to assist me. They made my time there not only productive but very enjoyable. Please commend them all for their knowledge and the service they provided.

After almost all day in Vital records, I had about two hours left downstairs searching through old deeds. Again, your staff excelled in their friendliness and service.

Please extend my thanks to each of them.

Kind regards,

Kudos to the staff in both divisions. Keep up the good work!

We now have two Hurricane Katrina evacuees from New Orleans working as temps in our Elections office, validating signatures on the jail bond issue referendum petitions. The work of typing in all the names to compare with the Qualified Voter File is nearly complete.

Next Saturday morning, October 22, at 9:00 am, the county Election Commission (myself, County Treasurer Catherine McClary, and Judge John Kirkendall) will convene a clarity hearing on the proposed language for the recall of three Pittsfield Township officials. We are to decide only whether or not the language is "clear", not whether it is true or false. Though it's unusual to hold a public meeting over the weekend, all three of us wanted to be there in person, and it wasn't possible to schedule it during the week. The meeting will be held in the lower level meeting room at 200 N. Main.

Previously, on August 11, the Election Commission approved (simply as being "clear") recall language against two Augusta Township officials.

Meanwhile, we and the local clerks expect to be ready for the upcoming election on November 8, 2005, which will involve the cities of Ann Arbor, Chelsea, Milan, and Saline, the village of Dexter, the Dexter library district (same territory as the Dexter school district), Northfield Township, and the South Lyon and Northville school districts.

Preparations are also underway for the Clerk-Register's annual holiday breakfast for the entire staff, in mid-December. More details will be announced soon.

Let's have a great week!

....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum — Comments

Thursday, October 6, 2005, 11:53 am

From the Clerk-Register. The latest installment, from Monday, October 3:

Last Monday, as expected, the Elections office received a filing of petition signatures in opposition to the proposed bond issue for jail expansion and court renovation at the Service Center. Under the law, 15,000 valid signatures would force a countywide vote on the bond issue; about 23,000 were filed. Validation of these petitions started immediately and is progressing. Many thanks to those of you who are helping with this task!

If the petitions are validated, the Board of Commissioners can either schedule an election, probably in February, or perhaps cancel the bond issue.

Preparations are also well underway for the November 8th election in the cities of Ann Arbor, Chelsea, Milan, and Saline, the village of Dexter, the Northville and South Lyon school districts, and the Dexter library district (same boundaries as the Dexter school district).

Congratulations again to the Deeds staff for their achievement in reducing the time from filing to recording of a deed from more than 60 days to just 7 days over the past few months. I am very proud of your dedication and teamwork!

Since a long lag time ties up mortgage money and raises costs for lenders and realtors, quick work in our office helps make home loans more available and housing more affordable in Washtenaw County.

Also last week, several of us, including Chief Deputies Karen Edman and Jim Dries, and Jury Clerk Yvonne Boyd, met with Judge Don Shelton, who is our Jury Judge, to finalize new ways of handling the jury list for circuit and district courts in Washtenaw County.

Since the law was changed in the 1980s, jurors are selected from the list of licensed drivers in the county. That creates some problems, because the driver's list is not managed and updated the same way that the voter list is. For example, the state apparently does not consider death a reason to cancel an individual's driver license. Therefore, those names are still included on the jury list they send us. That means we get unhappy calls from widows and widowers, asking why we're sending jury mail to someone who has been dead for years. Using the Social Security Death Index, we have removed more than 600 names of deceased individuals from the list; that will reduce the number of anguished phone calls, and save on postage and mailing costs for jury questionnaires.

Also, the driver's list doesn't include any code for which court district the person lives in, so we have assigned that information based on their address. From now on, we will have four separate jury pools — one for each court — so that mailings of jury questionnaires can be precisely targeted to the territory and juror needs of the particular court. That will also reduce postage and mailing costs. Since everyone on the list will be assigned at random either to the circuit or district pool, there will no longer be any duplicates to purge — saving three weeks of tedious hand work.

Some scheduling notes. This morning, I will be attending the funeral in Chelsea of Herman Koenn — I sent a note about his passing last week. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, starts this evening and continues tomorrow, so I will not be in the office tomorrow.

My individual meetings with staff members will resume starting on Wednesday.

Let's have a great week!

....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum — Comments

Thursday, October 6, 2005, 9:27 am

From the Clerk-Register. A couple of recent messages to my staff.

September 12:

On Saturday, there was startling news about our county in the Japanese media.

A report on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in Japan Today noted the following:

But in a largely-deserted uptown neighborhood in Washtenaw county, where county sheriffs wearing flak jackets and carrying assault rifles were knocking on doors, officials said a forced evacuation was yet to begin.

No, it's not another place with the same name: we live in the only Washtenaw County on earth. Louisiana doesn't even have counties.

What obviously happened is that the Japanese reporter came across our Washtenaw County sheriff deputies, helping to protect New Orleans, and assumed the geography from the badges, equipment, and uniforms.

Despite Gov. Granholm's generous offer, it doesn't look like Michigan will be hosting 10,000 evacuees from the Gulf Coast. I suppose the hurricane survivors from Louisiana and Mississippi really don't need to be put through one of our winters. But it is still a point of pride that some of our people are providing needed help, and working so smoothly and efficiently with the other authorities on the scene that they were mistaken for locals.

Individual meetings with staff members continue. I will send notices to the people who I'd like to meet with this week. When the workload permits, please arrange a half-hour with your supervisor and my schedule (perhaps via Outlook) for a meeting in my office.

Let's have a great week!

September 19:

Twelve years ago, in July 1993, the Mississippi River valley was hit by devastating floods. Levees were overtopped or broken, and even some areas which had never flooded before were hard hit.

Almost three months later, in late September 1993, I flew into St. Louis, Missouri, for a conference, and from the plane, I was stunned to see that some neighborhoods in the St. Louis metro area were still under water. Dewatering and recovery from a flood situation can take a long time.

Just as we hear that some residents are returning to parts of the New Orleans area, Hurricane Katrina evacuees are arriving here in Washtenaw County. Let us be mindful that this crisis is far from over, especially for those who have lost everything in the disaster.

We in the Clerk-Register's office will be providing some tangible help for evacuees who need Louisiana birth certificates. Last Friday, just before 5pm, I received a call from Richard Wheat, manager of Vital Records for the State of Michigan. He asked us to assist Louisiana by accepting applications for birth certificates from evacuees in this area. The applications will be funneled through our state office to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the certificates will be issued and sent to us by the same route.

These applications can only be accepted in person — not by mail. Evacuees who were born in Louisiana can come to our vital records office to apply, or potentially, we could send a staff person to any shelters or gathering places for hurricane survivors in this area.

But the victims of Hurricane Katrina are not the only people who need our help. The United Way fund drive is now underway. It's a broad based community effort to raise funds to sustain a wide range of organizations and services. I realize the form is a bit confusing; if you need help with it (I did), ask Karen Edman or Jim Dries. Even one dollar per paycheck would be a very small sacrifice, and a big help to our community.

This Thursday afternoon, September 22, Chief Deputy Derrick Jackson and I will be "arrested" for the Muscular Dystrophy Association "lock-up". We each need to raise $1,000 for "bail" — all of which goes to support muscular dystrophy research and programs. If you can help with even a small donation, bring a check to the Elections/Admin office by Thursday noon.

And speaking of the Elections office, we are expecting to get the job of validating thousands of petition signatures in coming days: the referendum petitions on the jail and courts bond issue, and the Augusta Township recall. We may need to bring people in from other divisions of the Clerk-Register's office to help with this work.

Let's have a great week!

....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum — Comments

Sunday, September 25, 2005, 1:30 am

Expelled. A friend writes:

Hi Larry,

Do you have time to post something about that forum you just left? It would be nice to have a little spot on your blog for others to mourn the loss of your participation.

Clearly, the gods are fickle over there. I have wanted to phone the powers that be many times over the years, but they live in some sort of impenetrable bubble. If you find a penetration, send it to me--you have my email.

I will miss your wit and wisdom over there. I hope we can still get together for the occasional luncheon -- you make me laugh, and I've seen you laugh at me, too.

Warm Regards,


The reference is to the MLIVE Ann Arbor Town Talk forum (sponsored by the Ann Arbor News), from which I have apparently been expelled.

This is pretty baffling. I don't believe I ever did anything to violate the Forum rules.

Many users of that forum evade explusion by creating another ID and wading back in until being expelled again. I did create a second ID (Ephraim2), but just to let others know what had happened and to say goodbye. I'm not interested in getting zapped again and again.

As I think about this, a perfectly reasonable explanation occurs to me.

Most people outside politics probably don't realize that the Ann Arbor News has a policy against publishing any letters-to-the-editor from elected officials. (Under rare circumstances they will publish an "Other Voices" piece to allow a politician to respond to something negative.)

Perhaps this same policy also restricts the participation of known political figures in the MLIVE forums.

In any case, I have plenty of other places to express myself online, notably Arbor Update, Ann Arbor Is Overrated, and Grex.

Update. The goodbye message I posted on Mlive was deleted, so I reposted it, and it was deleted again; I don't think I'll bother to try any further.

Further Update. I received the following message:

From: Eric Braun
Subject: MLive.com forum

Hello Larry,

I saw the posting on annarborisoverrated.com that you had been booted from our forums. I checked into this for you and it appears there was a system-wide screw-up that booted, many, many people the other day ... as my e-mail can attest to.

Anyway, they have no record of any block or hold on your account so it should be free and clear now.

Our forums are actually moderated out of our New Jersey offices, so I don't deal with them on a day to day basis.

I hope you continue to post on the forum and let me know if anything else like this happens to your account.


Eric Braun

It's odd that the "system-wide screw-up" lasted for days, and didn't affect any of the other regular users of the Ann Arbor forum that I know of. Nor have my deleted postings been restored — not that they need to be at this point.

All snarkiness aside, I did sincerely thank Mr. Braun; and now that my account has been restored, I will return to my semi-occasional participation there.

....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum — Comments

Friday, September 9, 2005, 10:33 pm

Mandatory evacuation — here? Japan Today reports on the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, and makes a startling reference to local geography:

But in a largely-deserted uptown neighborhood in Washtenaw county, where county sheriffs wearing flak jackets and carrying assault rifles were knocking on doors, officials said a forced evacuation was yet to begin.

I wonder what kind of translation error would substitute the name of our Michigan county for some place a thousand miles south of here. Especially given that Louisiana doesn't have counties or "county sheriffs" as such.

Or maybe the Japanese reporter got on the wrong plane and ended up in Ann Arbor instead of New Orleans? (Certainly I could have made the same kind of error trying to find my way in Japan.) No wonder he didn't see forced evacuations!

Update: Undoubtedly the Japanese reporter encountered the ten Washtenaw County sheriff deputies who volunteered for Katrina work, and assumed the geography from the agency name on their uniforms and equipment!

....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum — Comments

Tuesday, September 6, 2005, 11:15 am

From the Clerk-Register. Today's message to my staff.

More hurricane aftermath. Help is starting to arrive in flooded New Orleans, but southern Mississippi, which received the brunt of the hurricane force winds, is still desperate, with houses flattened, roads blocked by debris and fallen trees, emergency vehicles destroyed, food and water running out, gasoline scarce.

A friend of mine in Jackson, Mississippi (she's a retired professor from Mississippi State University in Starkville) was asked whether it was the case that devastated areas in Mississippi are not attracting attention and help. She replied:

IT HAS BEEN VERY MUCH THE CASE. The people in Mississippi don't care about being on tv. The point isn't about the media. Naturally the media would pay more attention to the drama of New Orleans. But what people in Mississippi care about is that indeed it very much has extended to the government. Not only did Pass Christian and Gulfport get slower responses, not to mention the now-almost-non-existent Hancock County, where at least as recently as yesterday somebody who made it there and then back out to report said that the submerged police station at Waveland had no communication equipment at all and was BEGGING for at least one satellite phone, but people in the inland towns in south Mississippi have been TOTALLY IGNORED. You ought to hear some of the things the mayor of Hattiesburg has had to say on the subject. And Hattiesburg now has a FEMA representative available -- after a mere week of hunger and thirst. People in smaller towns are still without ANYTHING. And people in rural areas are, well -- who cares -- there aren't enough of them for it to matter. If any of them are still alive, they won't be much longer, so what's the point in worrying about them.

Here in Michigan, Gov. Jennifer Granholm has offered to accept as many as 10,000 refugees from the South. That sounds like a lot, but it's only 1% of the estimated one million made homeless by Katrina. And I heard this morning that the Ingham County Board of Commissioners is considering a small millage on November's ballot to help pay for support services for the expected influx of refugees.

We will be hearing about this hurricane and its impact for a long time.

Our customers may be under stress as well. Though we haven't seen actual refugees arrive here yet, people at our counters and in our offices and courtrooms may have family or close friends who were directly affected by the hurricane. Moreover, we will always have customers whose lives have just been disrupted by more local, personal catastrophes, such as house fires or automobile accidents. The key is to treat everyone with courtesy and respect, even if (especially if) they seem distracted or irritable.

Individual meetings with staff members continue. I will send notices to the people who I'd like to meet with this week. When the workload permits, please arrange a half-hour with your supervisor and my schedule (perhaps via Outlook) for a meeting in my office.

....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum — Comments

Monday, August 29, 2005, 10:56 am

From the Clerk-Register. Today's message to my staff.

This morning, we are apparently on the verge of the worst natural disaster ever to hit this country: the total destruction of an important city; as many as one million homeless; damage measured in the trillions of dollars.

Sustained winds of over 100 miles per hour can demolish a lot of buildings. Worse yet for New Orleans is the "storm surge" of waters which are likely to overtop levees and flood the low-lying city to depths of 20 feet or more. Still worse are the many poorly secured chemical plants and oil storage tanks there, which will release their contents and foul this water with toxic and flammable substances; anything still above water is likely to burn.

Louisiana is a distinctive place, but unfortunately the very things that make it unique make it harder to prepare for this kind of disaster. The state's tax system and legal system are radically different from any other state. Local and state governments, police forces, schools, all suffer from graft and entrenched corruption. Meanwhile, the state has tremendous social problems: Louisiana has the highest poverty rate of any state, the highest percentage of single parent families, and it has among the highest rates of sexually transmitted disease and homicide.

No doubt the failure of New Orleans and Louisiana to come up with the political will and resources to build higher and stronger protective levees (especially on the Lake Pontchartrain side) will be criticized in the wake of this disaster. But before we look down our noses at Louisiana, consider that we here in Ann Arbor have been equally reluctant to address the likelihood of a catastrophic flood along Allen Creek downtown.

Moreover, we as a nation have also failed to come up with the political will to address global warming, which causes more severe hurricanes and storms.

Closer to home, the big homicide trials are ongoing this week in the Courthouse, and security has been stepped up. Our new juror-pay ATM is working, and has received some friendly press coverage. The Deeds office is on track to reduce the document filing backlog to 14 days by the end of August. Chief Deputy Jim Dries is on vacation this week.

Individual meetings continue: I'm looking to schedule meetings this week or next with [list of names redacted]. When the workload permits, please arrange a half-hour with your supervisor and my schedule (perhaps via Outlook) for a meeting in my office.

Our friends, family, and fellow citizens in New Orleans are in our thoughts and prayers.

....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum — Comments

Friday, August 26, 2005, 3:03 pm

MARD v. MLTA. Since I am Register of Deeds as well as County Clerk, I'm a member of the Michigan Association of Registers of Deeds (MARD).

("County Clerk" and "Register of Deeds" are separate elected positions in 50 Michigan counties; the remaining 33, including Washtenaw County, have combined them as "County Clerk and Register of Deeds".)

Title companies make up most of the business at a Register of Deeds office, and the title companies also have a trade group, the Michigan Land Title Association (MLTA).

In the past few months, the relationship between MLTA and the Registers has become strained. Some of the Registers are baffled by the actions of the MLTA, and wonder whether the members know what their association is doing. Today, the president of MARD sent a remarkable letter to each of the members of MLTA, as follows:

Dear MLTA Member:

You know us, you work with us regularly, and we recommend your services to the people of Michigan. We are the Registers of Deeds in the State of Michigan. Our service is to all of the people of Michigan, and yet for some reason Michigan Land Title Association has decided to single us out and challenge what we do for the people.

In the past year, MLTA has filed a multitude of lawsuits against various county Registers of Deeds. MLTA has attempted to defame our names with our State Legislators by claiming we are monopolizing records and using unfair pricing. MLTA has sent press releases to local newspapers attempting to influence the people of Michigan and inflict Registers in a negative light.

Some of your larger members whose main offices are not even located in the state of Michigan have filed lawsuits against Registers in the United States District Court stating Registers are in violation of federal anti-trust laws, monopolization, due process, and unauthorized establishment and maintenance of abstracts of title. This was decided in favor of the county Registers, and yet your association continues to spend money to appeal the Court's decision.

Title companies have filed suit against some counties who have requested if a customer is purchasing consecutive, contiguous copies of records in a bulk format for a reduced fee, that the customer sign a "no resale" clause. Although this practice has been upheld in the Michigan Court of Appeals, MLTA continues to call this unlawful and is appealing to a higher court.

Some members of MLTA want to purchase the images at a discounted rate and resell them regardless of the cost to the County and smaller MLTA members. Your own members may be driving the smaller MLTA members out of business. They want to purchase the images for next to nothing and resell at a huge profit, at the expense of the local taxpayer, County government, and you.

MLTA has become a very litigious organization. Rather than working in cooperation with Registers, Treasurers and other local officials, your association has decided to challenge all we do. MLTA has demanded FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests from Clerks (five years of logs, records, and reports), Treasurers, and Registers ("received" instrument and "entry book" information). This action ties up our offices with busy work when we should be placing more instruments on public record; we are then chastised if we are behind.

It seems the bottom line is that the larger title companies and batch plants are nervous and vindictive of the Register of Deeds becoming more user-friendly. With county records on the Internet where all have access to the images at the statutory one dollar per page copy fee, they are concerned with their profit margin, regardless of cost to the county or to smaller title operations.

Perhaps you may want to evaluate if this is what you want of your organization. Is this where you want your membership dollars invested — in more lawsuits? A few members are using your association.s good name to their interest, not for the interest of all MLTA members. In the past, the Registers and MLTA members have had an amicable and friendly relationship. That relationship is in crisis. This continued animosity is only harmful to your industry and to the people of Michigan.


Lori A. Wilson, President
Michigan Association of
Register of Deeds

I won't argue with the strategy here, but I should say that I'm accustomed to receiving Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests; making sure they're quickly and appropriately fulfilled is part of my job, not "busy work".

....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum — Comments

Friday, August 26, 2005, 10:32 am

From the Clerk-Register: A few more letters to my staff:

Thursday, July 28:

I returned last night from the 97th annual meeting of the Michigan Association of County Clerks.

At the conference, we discussed many issues affecting county clerks' offices.

In particular, he drive for greater security of identity records is going to affect all of us directly. Quite soon, the state will require people to provide a recently issued birth certificate for renewal of a driver's license. And there will be a process, similar to checking a credit card, for verifying that a driver's license or birth certificate is valid, or at least, corresponds to one on file. Of course, anyone applying for a driver's license renewal (presenting a birth certificate) or a copy of a birth certificate (presenting a driver's license) would be subject to this.

What about people, like my late father, who have lived their lives under a name different from the one on their birth certificate? Glenn Copeland, the state registrar of vital statistics, said that under these new rules, if my father were living today, he would not be allowed to obtain a copy of his own birth certificate!

So, what do we tell someone like that who shows up at our Vital Records counter? "Good question," he said. That was all.

Karen Edman made a brief presentation to the Clerks about our county ATM, soon to be installed in the Courthouse lobby, which will dispense cash payments to jurors, eliminating the need to write thousands of small checks. The cost savings is very significant (not to mention the greater convenience for jurors), and I expect that many other counties and courts will follow our lead on this.

The Deeds world has also been turbulent lately. The president of the Michigan Association of Registers of Deeds has resigned, and there has been a lot of conflict within the organization. At the same time, the Land Title Association has sent Freedom of Information Act requests to every county in Michigan, asking for detailed information on Deeds office finances, cost allocation studies, the technology fund, and the documents which were filed in each office last May 9 and 10. Many Registers expect the information obtained will be used to attack the $1/page image fees charged by Deeds offices.

Here in Washtenaw County, our Deeds office, while adapting to a new computer system and various problems encountered along the way, fell behind on filing deeds, to as much as 35 days. Yesterday, the office met its July goal of reducing that backlog to 21 days. In August, the goal will be 14 days. Congratulations to all the Deeds staff!

Our new 2005-06 county directories are back from the printer, and are available at the Elections office. We're already thinking ahead to the 2007 directory, so your comments or ideas for content or design would be very welcome.

My individual meetings with staff members continue. Currently up: [list of names redacted]. When the workload permits, please arrange a half-hour with your supervisor and my schedule (perhaps via Outlook) for a meeting in my office.

Monday, August 1:

Welcome to the new month!

Tomorrow, Tuesday, is Election Day, for Webster Township and the even numbered wards of the City of Ann Arbor, as well as many jurisdictions in surrounding counties.

On Friday, Deeds Chief Deputy Jim Dries and I met in Detroit with the Registers of Deeds of Wayne and Oakland counties (Carmella Sabaugh of Macomb County would have been there but wasn't feeling well), and their chief deputies, to discuss pending legislation and the recent requests from the Land Title Association.

Today, our Elections office received proposed recall ballot language for two officials in Augusta Township. We have scheduled the Election Commission's clarity hearing for Friday, August 12th at 10:30 am. The three members of the Election Commission are Judge Archie Brown, County Treasurer Catherine McClary, and myself.

I'm hearing many positive comments about the look of the new county directory, as well as suggestions for things we should include next time. Among other things, we should definitely include detailed pages for school districts (including a countywide map showing school district boundaries), and perhaps special units such as downtown development authorities and YCUA. I'd also like to provide some concise but readable tables of population and SEV by jurisdiction. If you have further comments or suggestions, please let me know.

The new county ATM is scheduled to be installed in the Courthouse lobby this week, perhaps on Thursday. This will make it possible to pay our circuit court jurors in cash, rather than writing thousands of paper checks.

My individual meetings with staff members continue. Currently up: [list of names redacted]. When the workload permits, please arrange a half-hour with your supervisor and my schedule (perhaps via Outlook) for a meeting in my office.

Many, many thanks to everyone in the office, for striving to treat every customer with courtesy and respect, even when the weather is unbearably hot.

Let's have a great week!

Monday, August 15:

(1) The ATM is working! I'm very pleased to announce that the demonstration of our new Courthouse ATM for paying jurors went well this morning, and there should be something about it in the Ann Arbor News shortly.

Karen Edman gets full credit for her persistence over more than a year and a half in bringing this effort to fruition.

The big test will be next Monday, when we have a number of jury trials starting. These will be the first jurors to be paid with a plastic card instead of a check. The ATM will dispense the appropriate amount of money to the juror the first time the card is used. Jurors will have cash to pay for lunch or parking, rather than having to wait 4-6 weeks for a paper check in the mail.

Of course, that will also save the county from writing and processing more than 600 juror pay checks per month.

Very likely our new system will get statewide and national attention from other courts interested in more customer-friendly and economical ways of doing business.

You can also use the ATM to get cash from your checking account. The fee per withdrawal is $1.50.

(2) New Work Rules. Following several months of consideration and rewrites, I am also pleased to announce new work rules for the Clerk-Register's office. A copy will be provided in a separate email. The new work rules resemble the old 2003 work rules, but there are some important changes.

First, the new rules state that "Professional development is encouraged." You may attend up to four training classes per year, not including mandatory classes, if it would add to your ability to do any job in county government — it's no longer limited to just your present job.

Second, the dress code of August 12, 2002, which lists dozens of specific clothing items and details as acceptable or unacceptable, is superseded by a simple statement in the new rules:

You should dress every day in a manner that shows your respect for the people we serve. Your choice of clothing should reflect your professional status, and should never distract or distress any visitor. "Blue jeans" may only be worn on Friday, and must never be worn in court.

The interpretation of this standard will differ from setting to setting, where work needs and customer interactions are different. Consult your supervisor if you are in doubt about any clothing item.

Third, we have clarified the gift section with the following:

Seasonal gifts from the people and firms we regularly serve shall be shared by all office staff.

One section of the Work Rules has not changed at all, but bears repeating here.

The Clerk/Register's Office is comprised of various divisions but we are one office. All staff members are expected to work together in a friendly, positive, cooperative and professional manner. We are all part of the Washtenaw County Team and we are here to serve the public in the most prompt, courteous and effective manner possible.

(3) Individual meetings. I'm looking to schedule meetings this week or next with [list of names redacted]. When the workload permits, please arrange a half-hour with your supervisor and my schedule (perhaps via Outlook) for a meeting in my office.

Let's have a great week!

....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum — Comments

Wednesday, July 13, 2005, 11:34 pm

From the Clerk-Register: More letters to my staff, one of which I missed posting in the last batch:

Monday, June 6:

A storm passed through the area last night, leaving many residents without electric power. Our neighborhood, on the west side of Ann Arbor, still has no power. In this heat, the food in our refrigerator is spoiling, and we are not looking forward to the task of throwing it all away. Sarah's elementary school, like many others, is without electricity and closed today; my wife and I have to scramble to find child care.

A power outage is a very selective kind of catastrophe. On our block, there are no lights, no hot water, no television, no fans or air conditioning, no refrigeration. The nearby traffic light is dead, and temporary four-way stop signs have been posted by police. But a few blocks away everything is completely normal.

Just last month, I wrote about how dependent we are on the people who maintain the intricate systems that sustain our daily activities, from the water supply to the telephone network to the Internet. These systems have become so reliable that we take them for granted, and rarely think about the complicated and hard work required to keep them going. That is, until something goes wrong.

Today, the electric utilities in southeast Michigan are faced with the urgent and colossal task of restoring service to more than a hundred thousand households. Under the scrutiny of unhappy customers, impatient reporters, and probably panic-stricken executives, they are calmly and methodically trying to set things back to rights.

It's easy to be angry about the disruption. But we should have some empathy for these hard working folks who maintain our electric system.

Let's have a great week!

Monday, June 27:

Now that election consolidation, the February and May elections, the county directory, and some other urgent issues are over with, and the budget is on hold for the time being, I'd like to get started on something I promised to do when I was a candidate: to sit down and have regular individual meetings with each of the 57 people (besides myself) who work in this office.

I'm looking to hear your honest assessment of how we're doing as an organization, and how you think it could be improved. I'd like to hear about your own job and how we can help you do it better. If there are problems, hazards, or opportunities affecting your workplace, I want to know about them.

I know that many of the staff were very apprehensive about what would happen in January. I hope the chief deputies and I have been able to calm those fears and gain your confidence. My sense is that things are going pretty well right now, but we may have to weather some storms together in the future. It's critical that we establish open communication now.

Additionally, we're putting together a wall display with pictures of everyone in the Clerk-Register's office. When you come in for your meeting, or perhaps another time as arranged, Stephanie from the Deeds office will take a quick photograph.

I'm starting with the nonsupervisory staff. Some time this week, I'd like to meet with [list of names redacted]. Please arrange a half-hour with your supervisor and my schedule (perhaps via Outlook).

A management analyst once wrote that "The hallmark of a great organization is how quickly bad news travels upward." To help make the Clerk-Register's office a great organization, I hope you will be willing to share your complaints and criticisms with me.

Enjoy the hot weather, and have a great week!

Tuesday, July 5:

I hope everyone had a pleasant holiday weekend. I walked in the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti parades yesterday.

Tomorrow, I leave for Kentucky, to attend (and speak at) a memorial service for a friend of mine in Lexington. I will visit some relatives and do some research along the way, and will return on Saturday.

Copies of the new county directory will be available soon, perhaps this week. The cover photograph shows the old Washtenaw County Courthouse, which used to stand on the middle of the block occupied by the current courthouse. In the 1950s, they built the new courthouse around three sides of the old one, and then demolished the old one to make room for a parking lot.

Probably most county seats in America have a courthouse in a courthouse square in the middle of town; the courthouse is typically an older classically styled building with tall columns and a tower. Our old courthouse fit that pattern.

The tradition of a courthouse square is thought to symbolize American democracy, and the aspiration for local self-government. But the concept is not as obvious as it seems at first glance. For example, there is no comparable tradition of a city hall or a township hall being placed on a block by itself, though some city halls are sited that way.

The tradition is thought to have started with Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which was planned in the 1700s with a central square for the courthouse. Even now, a courthouse square is sometimes called a "Lancaster Square".

So how did Lancaster come up with this? Some of the settlers there had come from Ireland, and remembered a similar arrangement. Indeed, many Irish cities and towns have a government building in the middle of the town square. Why? Well, when the English conquered Ireland hundreds of years ago, they needed places to put their military garrisons, and town squares were obvious sites. Those garrisons eventually became government offices.

It's ironic that something built for a military occupation in Europe became a symbol of democracy in America.

Here in Washtenaw County, we don't have the courthouse square any longer, but we still carry on the tradition of service to the people in our county. We maintain the records, we manage the systems, and we strive to treat every customer with courtesy and respect.

Individual meetings with staff members continue. Since I'm going to be away tomorrow through Friday, these are the people I'd like to meet with during the next two weeks: [list of names redacted].

Let's have a great week!

Monday, July 11:

I just received word that Bob Harris died yesterday.

Bob was a law professor and lawyer; he was once one of [County Administrator] Bob Guenzel's law partners. He was best known for being mayor of Ann Arbor in 1969-73, but he didn't like being introduced as a "former mayor". He'd rather describe himself as a guy who made model airplanes.

Bob was originally from Boston. His family was Lithuanian Jewish, but he had the easygoing charm of a Boston Irish politician - a charm that probably served him well in Ann Arbor's contentious politics thirty years ago. When he spoke to you, it was impossible not to like him.

He was articulate and strongly opinionated - you've probably seen some of his many letters to the editor - but he was also a practical fellow who believed in compromise and democracy and getting things done. Even in the heat of argument, he would be gentle and self-deprecating.

I know he was happier in recent years, helping care for his grandchildren and working for Food Gatherers, than he had been at any time in his earlier career. Being happy in retirement came as a surprise to him. He was an inspiration to those who might have seen it as a dismal stage of life.

And he was a great friend and mentor and supporter of mine. When I last spoke with him a few weeks ago, he was eager to hear all about how my now job was going, and solicited my ideas for new projects he could work on.

The funeral will be on Wednesday, July 13, at 4:00 pm at Temple Beth Emeth, 2309 Packard Road, in Ann Arbor.

May his memory be for a blessing.

Back here in the Clerk-Register's office, individual meetings with staff members continue. This week, I'd like to meet with [list of names redacted].

....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum — Comments

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