July 3: UPDATED: James Leonard emailed on July 3, 2017 to say that he does, indeed, intend to comment. His comments will be added when they are received.
July 7: UPDATED: James Leonard’s comment has been added.
by Patricia Lesko
Charles “Chip” Smith (D-Ward 5), a first-term Council member, is running in a contested Aug. 8 Democratic primary election. David Silkworth is challenging Smith. The winner will face Independent Ali Ramlawi in the Nov. 2017 general election. In response to June 2017 interview questions about whether The Ann Arbor Independent’s publication of an article about public records released by the City of Ann Arbor in response to a series of FOIA requests was “fair, balanced, [or] accurate,” Ann Arbor Observer writer James Leonard quotes Smith as saying, “Residents need to know that The Ann Arbor Independent is nothing of the sort; it is Pat Lesko’s blog.” The Ann Arbor Observer’s August 2017 Council candidate profile interview questions posed by James Leonard via email, along with Smith’s responses, were shared with The Ann Arbor Independent.
Council member Smith and Ann Arbor Observer writer James Leonard were asked to comment and both Smith declined.
The Ann Arbor Independent has been nominated for multiple awards for its arts, education, environmental and feature writing and has won multiple awards for both investigative reporting and photography from the Society of Professional Journalists in that organization’s weekly newspaper category. The newspaper has published the reporting and writing of over 150 reporters, essayists and scholars since 2013, and is recognized by the U.S. Library of Congress as a periodical, a process that requires vetting and confirmation of status. Provided with this same information, in writing, on June 22 and June 30, Smith was asked if he stood by his comment/Leonard’s reporting. He declined to answer.
Ann Arbor Observer co-owners John Hilton, Patricia Garcia, Smith and freelancer James Leonard were told via email on June 22 that James Leonard’s assertions about The Ann Arbor Independent were demonstrably false.
Between March and May 2017, a group of FOIA requests led to a series of articles published by The Ann Arbor Independent; these articles looked at public records that shed light on Council member Smith’s legislative and voting records, as well as his use of social media during open meetings, among other issues:
- After the publication on Mar. 8, 2017 of an article that compared Smith’s voting and legislative records to campaign promises made in comments to the media while running for office, Ward 5 Council member Smith emailed to express his displeasure, including a demand that his photo and a public campaign video be removed from the paper’s website.
- An April 14, 2017 article reported that City of Ann Arbor web server records for four Council meetings revealed Council member Smith (among others) was browsing Facebook and Twitter during open meetings, including during public commentary and budget discussions. City web server records revealed Ann Arbor’s two Ward 5 Council members collectively spent more than 14 hours on Facebook and Twitter during the four meetings and sent a combined 800 page requests to Facebook and Twitter.
- The May 3, 2017 article criticized as “biased and inaccurate” by Chip Smith reported on public records that revealed Smith (and two other Council members) had worked with Caleb Poirier (a board member of M.I.S.S.I.O.N.) to script public comment and stage support from homeless individuals for Smith’s April 17, 2017 vote in favor of selling the Fifth Ave. Library Lot to developer Core Spaces for $10 million.
The relationship between politicians and the media is often adversarial. Between March and July 2017, The Ann Arbor Independent filed 17 FOIA requests with the City of Ann Arbor, as well as FOIA appeals. The A2Indy made more public records requests in 2017 than any other local newspaper, radio or digital news outlet did.
“The truth is hard,” says the New York Times’s latest ad campaign. Breitbart.com, President Donald Trump, former Gov. Sarah Palin and others have made attacks on the “lame stream,” “fake news,” and “liberal” media part of their political calculus. On the national level, attacks of the media by politicians unhappy about critical, aggressive reporting have been called “very, very dangerous,” “a gift to tyrants everywhere,” and “a war on journalism.” Politicians’ attacks of media have been condemned by progressive organizations such as Democracy Now!, media experts, scholars, Democrats, Republicans and free speech advocates, among others.
The reporting of AnnArbor.com was routinely attacked, but by its own readers (mostly anonymously) in its own comment sections before it was shut down in Sept. 2013, rolled into and re-morphed as the The Ann Arbor News/MLive.com.
According to the City Clerk’s FOIA log available online, between July 2016 and July 2017, James Leonard filed two FOIA requests. MLive government writer Ryan Stanton filed thirteen FOIAs. The Ann Arbor Observer does not allow readers to comment in response to its articles posted online.
In June 2017, the Observer published a short UpFront piece about local politics written by Leonard and edited by Hilton. The article included three errors in the first three paragraphs, including misidentifying candidates, incorrectly reporting who was running against whom and mixing up the dates of candidate campaigns. Hilton blamed “the dump” in an email to a reader shared with The A2 Indy. In an email comment for a forthcoming piece about how his mistakes had made their way into print, Leonard wrote that he thought John Hilton was going to correct the mistakes, and Hilton thought that the freelance writer was going to edit himself.
The June 2017 UpFront piece launched a public online discussion about the Observer’s alleged sloppy political writing and editorial decline.
In 2014, the Observer published an article written by Leonard and edited by Hilton which purported to identify the top ten donors to local City Council campaigns. Multiple individuals were incorrectly named to the list, which was published in the tabloid and mailed in to 50,000 readers in Ann Arbor. The article was rewritten months later and posted only online—still accompanied by photos of the individuals who’d been incorrectly named to the list.
A Dec. 2013 article published in the Observer and written by Leonard titled “Curbing the DDA” contained multiple errors of fact. Online, at the bottom of that article, are multiple corrections including this: “A correction in our February issue was itself mistaken: we wrote that the DDA’s annual reports were filed with the city and state, but not published in a newspaper of record. In fact, the reports were neither filed or published–just as Steve Kunselman and Sumi Kailasapathy had contended.”
On June 16, 2017 John Hilton, in answer to a question for a forthcoming article about criticisms by Council members, Council candidates and the tabloid’s readers that the Ann Arbor Observer’s political reporting is bullying and unreliable, disputed the allegations. On June 16, James Leonard, in response to similar criticisms of his political reporting, responded that people were entitled to their opinions.
In the May 3, 2017 article—which Leonard quotes Chip Smith as complaining was unfair, unbalanced and inaccurate—The Ann Arbor Independent reported on electronic communications turned over in response to a series of FOIA requests that revealed a trio of Council members had worked prior to an April 2017 Council vote to stage the support of homeless individuals for Council members’ votes to sell the Fifth Ave. Library Lot to Chicago developer Core Spaces for $10 million. The article reported:
The Ann Arbor Independent used FOIA to obtain emails, Tweets and text messages sent over several weeks prior to the April 17 City Council meeting between a trio of Council members and Caleb Poirier, founder of tent community Camp Take Notice and a member of the M.I.S.S.I.O.N. Board of Directors. In those electronic communications, Chuck Warpehoski (D-Ward 5), Chip Smith (D-Ward 5) and Zachary Ackerman (D-Ward 3) strategized with Poirier to bring “hundreds and hundreds” of individuals, including homeless individuals to whom M.I.S.S.I.O.N. provides services, to the Council meeting in a staged and scripted show of support for Council members’ votes in favor of the $10 million sale of the publicly-owned Library Lot to Chicago developer Core Spaces in order for the developer to build a luxury hotel/apartment building.
Public records revealed that Council members Warpehoski (D-Ward 5), Smith (D-Ward 5) and Ackerman (D-Ward 3) had used email, text messages and phone calls to discuss the April 17 meeting and advise Poirier, including scripting public comments by individuals served by M.I.S.S.I.O.N. whom Poirier urged to attend the Council meeting and whom he told Council members he would help sign up for public commentary and whose public comments he asked Council members’ to help craft. Public records requests made by The Ann Arbor Independent in May 2017 revealed that no other Council members traded electronic communications with Poirier during the four-week period for which records were examined.
On May 1, 2017, before the May 3 article was published, The Ann Arbor Independent requested comments from the trio of Council members who had exchanged electronic communications with Poirier, including Chip Smith:
Smith did not respond to the May 1 request for comment. As of July 7, James Leonard had not contacted The Ann Arbor Independent to confirm if Smith had been asked to comment on the information contained in the public records reported on in the May 3 article. When asked if he believed it was his responsibility to fact check the assertions and statements of Council members to make certain local elected officials tell the truth to the public, James Leonard had no comment responded: “I answer for what [I] publish. Your emailed questions and statements have nothing to do with what [I] have published. [I] see no benefit to [my] readers or the community by responding.”
In a June 30, 2017 email seeking a comment for this article, Smith was offered an opportunity to identify errors of fact in the May 3 article which he alleged was inaccurate. He offered no corrections. At no time between May 3 and July 3, 2017 did Council member Smith request a correction in the May 3 article, nor did the Council member offer any comment concerning his communications with Caleb Poirier.
Despite his weeks-long electronic strategizing with Poirier leading up to Council’s April 17 vote, Leonard quotes Chip Smith as saying, “I did trade an email with Caleb Poirier, who asked if having folks show up at the meeting to speak in favor of the proposal would help sway the decision. I answered that he would advance his cause with a good turnout of supporters and advised him that it always helps to have a big turnout.”
No email containing any such exchange was turned over by Smith in response to The Ann Arbor Independent’s April/May 2017 FOIA requests, nor was any such email turned over in response to a subsequent FOIA appeal filed when it was suspected that the trio of Council members may have withheld public records. Withholding public records from a records request may violate the Michigan open records statute. Public officials who are found to have done so for reasons not covered by the Michigan statute run the risk of penalties and fines.
Public records turned over revealed that the Ward 5 Council member and Poirier traded multiple emails as well as text messages and phone calls over a four-week period prior to and after Smith’s April 17 vote to sell the Library Lot to Core Spaces. For example, at 8:57 a.m. April 20, in an email the subject of which is “re:thank you,” Poirier replies to Chip Smith: “Also, I’d like to post a link about how folks can donate to your campaign but I can’t find it. Let me know the details and I will post it promptly in the [MLive] comments section.”
As of June 22, 2017, when Leonard sent an email to David Silkworth asking Smith’s opponent to comment on Smith’s comments as well as the accuracy of the relevant public records published in The A2 Indy’s May 3 article, the city’s FOIA log revealed James Leonard had not submitted a FOIA request to the City of Ann Arbor to obtain copies of Chip Smith’s communications with Caleb Poirier. Instead, on June 22, Leonard sent an email quoting Smith’s unsubstantiated assertions to Silkworth and asks, “does Smith’s reply cause you to change your assertions that ‘he was actively communicating with people about getting support for the proposal?'”
In Leonard’s June 22 email, he quotes Chip Smith explaining what was missing from The Ann Arbor Independent’s May 3 article: “What wasn’t reported is the meeting I had with the tenants of the Denali Building and adjacent property owners (including Ali Ramwali[sic]) five days prior to the vote and the advice I gave them about how they could best influence council’s decision – who to lobby and key points to make.” Leonard quotes Smith as complaining, “it [The A2 Indy article] ignores the email exchanges I had the week prior to the vote with Mary Hathaway, or the meeting I had with Doug Aikenhead and Lynn Borset of the Library Green group. Or the two plus hours I spent with Phyllis Ponvert the week before the vote to talk about the library lot decision.”
If all of Smith’s alleged constituent meetings did, indeed, take place days before the April 17 vote, the Council member’s own emails and texts reveal him to have, perhaps, deceptively dealt with constituents. Indeed, while Smith would have been holding hours of meetings and discussions with various residents, some of whom allege he led them to believe he could be successfully lobbied to vote no, public records showed the Council member was exchanging emails, text messages and phone calls with Caleb Poirier to script public comments and to stage support at the April 17 Council meeting for Smith’s yes vote.
Residents of the Denali building, in speaking about a meeting with Smith prior to his April 17 vote in favor of the sale, angrily denounced their Council member as “a snake” and alleged he’d deceived them, that he’d wasted their time. Ali Ramlawi, a Ward 5 resident and the owner of Jerusalem Garden restaurant, upset by Smith’s vote and public explanation in support of it, decided to run against his council member in the Nov. 2017 general election.
“Using that affordable housing argument to sell us down the river was so disingenuous that it really motivates me to take some action,” Ramlawi was quoted as saying after his announcement that he would run.
Another critic of Chip Smith’s actions surrounding the April 17 Core Spaces vote said this: “This is just so disappointing and upsetting. This council member’s explanation lacks any self-insight and it’s missing the apology he owes to the public and of course to those homeless individuals who were herded like cattle into the council meeting for the personal use of some on council. This is simply monstrous behavior and I don’t understand how he can try to explain it away with such a lack of remorse. The point is not that we believe he wrestled with his vote. The point now is that he deceived the public and took advantage of those who needed his help the most.”
In an April 15, 2017 text message and email sent to Council members Chuck Warpehoski (D-Ward 5) and Chip Smith with the subject line “Monday night preparations in progress,” Caleb Poirier tells them, “Today I put my mom into a nursing home (for the next three days) to free up my time to exclusively focus on turning out hundreds and hundreds supporters for affordable housing and Core Spaces.”
In June 2017, in response to a question from James Leonard about whether Smith had read the Ann Arbor Independent’s coverage, Leonard quotes Smith saying, “I have not.”
Leonard then asks Smith about whether The A2 Indy May 3 article reporting on Smith’s emails and texts to and from Poirier in the weeks prior to the Council member’s April 17 vote struck Smith as “fair, balanced, and accurate.”
Leonard quotes Smith’s reply: “Residents need to know that The Ann Arbor Independent is nothing of the sort….”
Smith attacks the newspaper, criticizing as “biased” and “inaccurate” articles the Ward 5 Council member, only moments earlier, had told the reporter he had never read.
After four years of editorial silence about the launch and existence of The Ann Arbor Independent, Leonard’s leaked interview questions and Council members’ answers to those questions suggest the Ann Arbor Observer (as well as Council candidates supported by Council members whom the Observer refers to as a part of the Mayor’s “activist coalition”) intend to make The A2 Indy’s investigative and political reporting a bone of contention in the Aug. 2017 City Council primary elections. [Note: The A2 Indy plans—among other coverage of local politics—to examine the campaign promises made by all City Council incumbents running for re-election and to compare those promises to the incumbents’ legislative and voting records.]
A former member of City Council who read Leonard’s June 22 email and Smith’s comments said, “For his own personal and political gain and because Chip is arrogant and embarrassed at having his less-than-honest behaviors as a Council person made public, he’s trying to mislead voters. Jim Leonard—as we have seen so many times—is only too happy to help.”
When asked, via email, if he would like to comment on the former Council member’s criticisms, Chip Smith chose not to respond.