Ethics panel nixes anti-Semitism complaints
By Lisa Brody
Birmingham City Commissioner Clinton Baller received some relief from the Birmingham Ethics Board on Tuesday, November 16, after being accused of sending an email newsletter which some critics say included anti-Semitic tropes, along with accusations against supporters of former commission candidates David Bloom and Andrew Haig, prompting the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to weigh in with a letter to the city criticizing the city commissioner.
The three-person ethics panel, asked by city manger Tom Markus to help determine if Baller's correspondence was anti-Semitic, unanimously determined that specific terms called out in the commissioner's pre-election email to his followers were not necessarily anti-Semitic. Further, the ethics panel also determined that their general charge is to review violations of the city ethics ordinance which fails to address issues involved in the Baller controversy, so formal hearing will not be held.
Baller regularly sends out email newsletter communications to residents with his viewpoints and opinions, many of which are viewed as vitriolic, signed by “Clinton Baller, Birmingham City Commissioner,” with the caveat, “In case it's not obvious, reporting and opinions are mine, not 'official.'”
On Tuesday, October 26, Baller sent out one of his missives, prior to the city commission election on November 2. It began, “At last night's city commission meeting, five of seven commissioners spoke out against the insults and lies being spread by David Bloom, Andrew Haig and their supporters. One of those supporters, Brad Host, who founded the political action committee that is directing the campaign of lies, was in the room. He is a sitting commissioner, and he is a willing marionette of his successor trustees of the PAC, Paul Reagan and Jonathon Hofley. This cabal, which holds itself up as a champion of neighborhoods, has done virtually nothing to improve the lot of Birmingham residents.”
Baller noted two couples had donated $8,200 to Bloom and Haig's campaign, an unusually high amount for a local non-partisan election. “(They) aren't betting on a race here. They're buying the ponies.” Both couples are Jewish.
In its letter to now former mayor Pierre Boutros and other city commissioners, ADL Michigan Regional Director Carolyn Normandin wrote, “I am deeply disturbed by an email sent by Birmingham Commissioner Clinton Baller on October 26, 2021, where he used language typically used by people who circulate antisemitic tropes. Using expressions like “willing marionette” and “This cabal,” as well as calling out members of the Jewish community accusing them of using wealth and “buying the ponies,” are common anti-Jewish themes that promote hatred of the Jewish community.
“My office received a number of reports regarding the letter. I must say I find the language used in Mr. Baller’s message troubling, and unbecoming a City Commissioner. In the past five years, antisemitic incidents have increased 240 percent in Michigan, often through divisive and dog-whistle language designed to promulgate hatred. Community leaders must be held to a higher standard. ADL calls for a retraction and public apology by Commissioner Baller and asks the Birmingham Commission to investigate and take appropriate disciplinary action.”
Following receipt of the ADL letter, Markus called upon the city's ethics board to take a look at the allegations.
“It isn't political conflict that they have to address, it is does this rise to a racial or ethnic conflict?” said Markus.
In an email response to his followers on Wednesday, November 10, Baller said his father, his first wife, son and stepson are Jewish.
He stated, “I will not apologize, and I will not retract my statements. My email was not antisemitic. It was political. If the ADL letter proves anything, it's that wealthy donors can influence more than politics. The ADL letter is born out of a politically motivated desire to continue the pre-election deceptions, misinformation and fear-mongering of a political faction clawing for traction and relevance. The ADL has a legitimate role in rooting out antisemitism, but this isn’t that. If an inquiry results, I will welcome careful and contextual analysis of my writing, and transparency as to the genesis of the allegation.” Baller also noted that one outgoing city commissioner, who is Jewish, had called the ADL to inform the group that they were mistaken in their criticism.
In September 2020, Baller came before the city's ethics board when resident Donna Klein filed a complaint alleging he libeled her on the social media site NextDoor, where she was a local lead, and via a newsletter he disseminates through email in which he sends as a city commissioner, and through his public Facebook page. The ethics board, in a 2-1 decision, determined Baller did not defame Klein and was not at fault using social media, although they advised him to clarify in his communications that he was only representing his own opinion's, not the city's nor the commission's.
City manager Markus requested the city's ethics board review the allegations in the ADL's letter and Baller's email and decide whether the complaint justifies a hearing. The board of ethics can then hold hearings and issue an advisory opinion that would then be sent to the city commission. It would be up to the commission to decide whether they would want to take any action.
“The city has consistently condemned any and all forms of discrimination. The board of ethics has been requested to conduct a review of this incident,” said Markus.
Following an hour-long discussion on Tuesday, November 16, the ethics board – James Robb, Sophie Fierro-Share and chairperson John Schrot – ruled that the Baller email did not contain anti-Semitic tropes and no hearing would be held on the issue.
During the hearing, ethics panel chair Schrot noted that the 1992 city policy governing racial and anti-Semitism failed to clearly define the terms of conflict.
Robb further noted that his research into the use of the terms by Baller showed tht historically the terms were used in business and political settings, saying that “based on the record before us, I am not inclined to find Baller used an anti-Semitic trope.”
Schrot at one point in the meeting said the city needed to “take a closer look” at the ethics ordinance and that “it may be time (for the city) to consider a social media policy” as it applies to city officials, noting that “when one becomes a city official, you wear two hats,” an obvious reference to the long-standing issue surrounding Baller's penchant for sending out personal opinions on city issues while a sitting commissioner.
Approximately 20 citizens attended the ethics panel meeting, either in-person or online, with a number of them speaking against the board decision during the public comment period.