Washtenaw County commissioner just says no to email

Ben Freed
Ann Arbor News

Ann Arbor — Ronnie Peterson communicates differently.

The Washtenaw County commissioner from Ypsilanti is known for giving extended speeches at board meetings — and for electronic silence.

“If you look at it historically, I just never really got into email,” he said in an interview. “Anyone will tell you that.”

Peterson has eschewed the ubiquitous form of communication for years for ideological as well as personal reasons. He claims too much board business is handled via email, which he sees as out of the public eye.

“If you get consensus by email then you don’t discuss anything at the meetings in the public eye,” he said. “I’ve always said that. It’s not good for minorities when things happen out of the public eye.”

A Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Ann Arbor News for emails to and from Peterson regarding the controversy surrounding the merging of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti’s convention and visitors bureaus revealed hundreds of emails sent to the commissioner with zero responses.

Peterson said he does respond to all constituents who send him an email and include their phone numbers.

“If you’d like to communicate with me, I’d like you to talk to me,” he said. “It’s too much for me to do email. I’m too busy to be fooling around with it.”

One of the reasons Peterson does not respond to emails is his lack of home computer. To check his email, the commissioner regularly visits the county’s administration building in downtown Ann Arbor.

“I do have a computer,” he said. “But I don’t have a connection, I don’t think. I do have one at home, it’s in the closet on the floor.”

Peterson said he’s sent maybe three or four emails in the past 10 years, and he has no plans to ramp up that pace.

“I think it’s what gets you in trouble,” he said. “Anything I have to say I say in the meetings, in the public eye as part of public discussion. If you’re upset with me, just call me, I’m not going to be emailing.”

Peterson’s colleagues on the board all said they knew of his aversion to email and respect his decision to bring up topics in meetings that most board members may have already believed to be fait accompli.

“That’s how he operates,” Conan Smith, D-Ann Arbor, said. “I think it’s an important voice that needs to be heard.”

The distaste for electronic communication does not end with email, as Peterson does not plan to follow retired U.S. Rep. John Dingell into the realm of social media.

“You will never find me on Twitter,” Peterson said.