August Primary Ward Races

There used to be a cookie commercial on TV where a woman was trying to get her husband to try a new kind of chocolate chip cookie but he kept refusing, saying, “I like the old.” There is a contingent on City Council now that really likes the old, especially the old ideas. In the upcoming primary election on August 5, that contingent could grow, but it also could go back into its cocoon if enough people come out to vote.

First Ward:  (Incumbent) Sumi Kailasapathy vs. Don Adams

Kailasapathy wants to be re-elected to her second term based on what she calls common-sense fiscal decisions. I call them old ideas and this race also gives me the exciting opportunity to use the word “prissy.” Kailasapathy is extremely well-educated and works as a CPA. As I pointed out in my last post concerning Sally Petersen and her business skills, business skills and an understanding of government don’t always go hand-in-hand. If you hire a CPA, you probably want that person to have as a primary goal the objective of saving you money. But it’s a big mistake to think saving money is what governments ought to do. Government is there to spend money – for the public good. Wasting money is bad, and if Kailasapathy used her accounting skills to find areas of wasted funds, that would be helpful. Instead, she gets her prissy CPA on to constantly lecture everyone about spending too much money.

For example, Kailasapathy is absolutely against spending any money on art or economic development. She misleads the public by saying the Percent-for-Art program “diverted” money from sewer funds and her vote to de-fund art will cause more money to be used to prevent sewer overflows.  That is absolutely untrue. The Percent-for-Art program used 1% of money in the reserved portion of a particular public improvement project, so we could have working sewers plus artistic enrichment. Someone who is a CPA should know better. Kailasapathy probably does, but she can’t get beyond her penny-pinching. In a June council meeting where there was a discussion about closing Main Street for football games, she disdainfully stated that neither she nor any of her friends go to football games. Prissy.

Don Adams is a newcomer to city politics. Unlike Kailasapathy, he has a history of real public service and is a leader in the Arrowwood Community and the public schools. He does not have the anti-government outlook that Kailasapathy shows and knows government is more than just police and sewers. While Kailasapathy can be counted on to like the old, Adams is a fresh voice who is likely to be open to change. He is also much less likely to refuse to spend money on anything, even when it’s the federal government’s money. I’m referring to the very necessary new Amtrak station, which Kailasapathy is opposed to. Seems that, in addition to never going to football games, she and her friends never ride trains either, so she would turn down federal money to build a new train station. Adams does not take absolutist, “read-my-lips” views and will be a consensus-builder who is accepting of new ideas.

Inside Scoop on How this Race Intersects with the Mayor’s Race (ISHRIM)

The anti-government, horse-and-buggy types have formed a little coalition that shows up at parades and such to support each other and it’s interesting to see who has turned his or her back on whom. Although Kailasapathy and Sabra Briere both represent the 1st Ward, Kailasapathy is not supporting Briere for Mayor – she’s supporting Steve Kunselman. Jack Eaton and Mike Anglin, who do not have to run this year, are part of the coalition and they also support Kunselman. This group can be counted on to talk about the good old days, advocate referenda on almost every subject, and to bash Mayor John Hieftje, who never lost a single precinct in an election, whenever possible.

Second Ward:  Kirk Westphal vs. Nancy KaplanIMG_20140716_162037874

I am just way too excited because this race gives me another chance to use the word “prissy.” No one could be prissier than Nancy Kaplan. Her emergence into politics started because she was very upset at the thought of anyone interfering with her backyard, which is the Huron Hills Golf Course. Her friend and neighbor, Jane Lumm (who was not a councilmember at the time), started a rumor in the early part of this century that the mean old city council was going to turn the pristine Huron Hills over to some dastardly condo developer. This sounds melodramatic and that is because it was complete fiction. The city council had asked the planning department to come up with dozens of ideas about what the city could do if it was ever strapped for money and development of the rim of the golf course was one idea. No one ever considered it to be realistic and it was like a drawing on a paper napkin but that didn’t stop Lumm, Kaplan, business mogul Ted Annis and others from going ballistic and forming a group to “Save Huron Hills.”

Kaplan now counts as her main accomplishment that she “saved Huron Hills.” Stopping something that was never going to happen is indeed an accomplishment. Adding to her fantasy team of achievements is her leadership with the Allen Creek Greenway. The Greenway is a wonderful idea but may not happen for decades because a) Allen Creek is in an underground pipe and b) the plan is to use the railroad right-of-way, which is currently on tap to be used by a commuter train. To be fair, Kaplan did get elected to the board of the Ann Arbor District Library. It may say a lot about her performance there that none of her fellow board members are supporting her in the City Council race.

Kirk Westphal is a sharp contrast. Westphal lost to Jane Lumm, who was the incumbent, in last year’s election. He chairs the City Planning Commission and has a degree in urban planning. Unlike Kaplan, who is a retired physical therapist, Westphal has the credentials and experience to be valuable public servant. He is a consultant who advises cities on best practices and produces videos about issues such as efficient city management. While Westphal champions transit and insists that both developers and the city itself follow our zoning laws and master planning guidelines, Kaplan opposed the transit millage – because it cost money – and says she would have voted against an apartment building at 413 E. Huron, even though the building fit squarely within the city’s existing zoning. She is against everything, including a proposed development on Nixon Road that actually has less density than the Master Plan recommends. She thinks it is too dense.

There is a clear choice in the 2nd Ward:  Experience and thoughtful consideration versus fake activism and fear-mongering.

ISHRIM:

Kaplan is part of the Lumm-Anglin-Kailasapathy-Eaton, Pander-to-the-People coalition that is supporting Kunselman for Mayor. Similar to what is going on in the 1st Ward, Jane Lumm is not supporting her fellow councilmember Sally Petersen for Mayor. Petersen is not wedded to the old, so Lumm has jumped on the Kunselman bandwagon. Lummites may generally support Kaplan, but Petersen supporters may realize that her vision of the future is more closely matched with Westphal’s.

Third Ward: Julie Grand vs. Sam McMullen vs. Bob Dascola

There is no prissiness in the 3rd Ward, at least not among the candidates. Julie Grand is former chair of the Parks Advisory Commission, teaches at UM-Dearborn and has a PhD in public health. Sam McMullen is a UM undergraduate, and Bob Dascola is a long-time Ann Arbor barber. As I wrote in a previous post, Dascola caused some excitement when the city clerk turned down his petitions to run for office because he did not meet the city’s residency requirements, having registered to vote in the 3rd Ward only this past February. A federal judge found that Ann Arbor’s residency rules had been stricken in the 1970’s, so Dascola is back on the ballot. As fate would have it, the printer that the county uses to print up the ballots left Dascola’s name off of the ones first mailed out to absentee voters. This has been mostly fixed but there may be a dispute about a handful of incorrect ballots that were already sent in.

McMullen is energetic and sincere but needs a little more experience under his belt before he’s ready for public office. He doesn’t really have an understanding of urban government issues such as tax increment financing, used to fund the Downtown Development Authority and advocates multi-use zoning, which we already have but he just doesn’t know it. He wrongly believes we can increase density by building only buildings that are four stories or under. I will give him credit for the best answer in the League of Women Voters CTN TV debates when asked about Republican Governor Rick Snyder’s concept of “customer service.” McMullen disavowed it and Snyder.

As you drive around the 3rd Ward, you will see Dascola yard signs in the oddest of places, namely in the yards of a few North Burns Park Association homes, where one would think that an intellectual like Julie Grand might be more appealing to the faculty and retired faculty homeowners. But the NoBuPa folks have focused on the “No” aspect and have gone off the deep end regarding turning all vacant property in the city into a park. They went postal over the Landmark student high-rise on Forest Avenue and South University, and we all know how that has absolutely destroyed their quality of life, even though it is about half a mile away from them and has resulted in more neighborhood conversions of homes back to single families. They refuse to support Grand, who wisely led the Parks Commission, and instead will vote for anyone who likes the old enough to shut down development completely.

Would that be Dascola? It’s hard to tell. I have known and liked Bob Dascola for a long time and my men-folk are long time customers of Dascola Barbers. He definitely likes the old and will wax nostalgic over most issues that are brought up. The NoBuPa people have a real hatred for the DDA, though, it being devoted to urbanism and all, and Dascola has touted as one of his qualifications that he has attended many International Downtown Association conferences with the DDA members. He is compassionate and likes to listen to people but he has to be careful about filtering what he hears. In an article in the Ann Arbor News about the CTN debates, for instance, Ryan Stanton did some fact-checking and found that what Dascola said he was hearing about police staffing was just not correct.

Police staffing is a big issue with the coalition that is supporting Dascola, Kailasapathy, and Kaplan. They want more police no matter what, even though crime is not a problem in Ann Arbor. Twenty-first century thinkers like Westphal, Adams, and Grand are more likely to side with the excellent 5th Ward representative, Chuck Warpehoski, in wanting to evaluate issues like police staffing according to data and comparisons with state and national practices rather than anecdotes. The folksy approach of Anglin, Eaton, and Dascola makes for good door-to-door jawboning, but we have a city to run.

ISHRIM

Watch the sign war to see what’s happening. Some NoBuPa people are supporting Sabra Briere but many of them have turned on her and it is common to see Dascola and Kunselman signs together. I really don’t know what that is all about except that Briere is not dogmatic and probably has not been willing to promise the all-parks-no-buildings contingent that she would vote down every building over three stories. Christopher Taylor and Julie Grand have similar visions for city government and Taylor has represented the 3rd Ward well, so his signs are prevalent in Ward 3 and it is common to see Taylor and Grand signs side-by-side.

There is no opposition to Graydon Krapohl in the 4th Ward race or Chuck Warpehoski in the 5th Ward, although another candidate in Ward 5 left the race too late for his name to be yanked from the ballot.

Slogging Through the Campaign Rhetoric

I have often lamented the fact that so much in Ann Arbor politics is decided in low-turnout, August primary elections. What that means is that very small but loud interest groups can dominate the conversation and influence politicians who have to pander to them in order to get elected. The upcoming August 5 election may see a higher turnout because there is a competitive race for mayor.City Hall

All of the candidates are either implicitly or explicitly distancing themselves from the current mayor, John Hieftje and that’s not a good thing. John Hieftje was elected because he presented a vision and he won re-election six times because he was consistent in promoting that vision. The criticism of his policies comes from those small interest groups who have been successful in getting their candidates elected to council precisely because of the August primary voter anemia.

It’s time to send those I-hate-everything-new naysayers a message about how backward they really are, but to do so requires slogging through some of the mayoral campaign rhetoric. There have been a number of mayoral forums already and it’s not too hard to distinguish who the candidates are and what they’re all about.

Let me make things easy for you and point out that you can eliminate 3rd Ward Councilmember Steve Kunselman right off the bat.  Kunselman says his main achievement on council has been to restrict the Downtown Development Authority and it’s a good example of his form-over-substance politics. The DDA is a great punching bag for a bully like Kunselman because it can’t fight back. Kunselman can waste countless hours harping on the power of the DDA and it is a very tidy way to divert attention from the fact that as a council representative he has done nothing for his constituents. I am a member of the DDA board, so I have a bias here, but I also have firsthand knowledge of whether Kunselman has actually done anything that matters.

His insistence on pitting the downtown against the “neighborhoods” has resulted in the following changes to the DDA:  The DDA’s total income is now capped – at a figure that it will not reach for many years to come, so it has not put one cent back into the city’s coffers. Moreover, capping the DDA’s money means that eventually money that could be spent in the city of Ann Arbor will go elsewhere. He and his followers on council – Lumm, Eaton, Kaliasapathy, and Anglin – told the DDA to spend more on affordable housing, something the DDA was already doing. They also have now mandated term limits for board members, a change that makes little difference and will have exactly zero impact on anyone who is not using it as a fake campaign claim.

He champions his initiation of the old Y-lot sale, which resulted in a perpetually vacant lot sitting in one of the best locations in the city. He is proud of ending the Percent-for-Art program but what has that done for you? Not one cent of the money that could be spent on artwork that enriches our environment is being spent on anything that will make any difference to the average citizen.

But perhaps his most laughable claim is that he is a champion of the people because of his work on the Taxicab Board. No, that is not an autocorrect error. Lately, the really big problem facing Ann Arbor has been the incursion of non-city-regulated car sharing, with Uber and Lyft. Kunselman  touts his fight against Uber and Lyft as protection of public safety because the other taxi drivers are regulated by the city and therefore certified. As what? Have you ever ridden in an Ann Arbor taxi? The one with the obese, alcoholic, cigar-smoking driver in the car with no seatbelts and torn seats? I think I’ll take my chances with the free market. Again, Kunselman is only talk – form over substance.

That leaves three other candidates for mayor, all of whom are intelligent and capable.

Christopher Taylor is the kind of Renaissance man that many of us like to think is typical of Ann Arbor. He is a lawyer but is also a fine tenor and has several UM degrees. It is a pleasure to hear his articulate answers to questions and occasional literary allusions. He doesn’t beat his chest and repeat meaningless phrases like “public health, safety and welfare.” Instead, he points out that the day-to-day business of the city – fixing roads, removing snow – gets done regardless of who the mayor is. Like Hieftje, Taylor says we need to think about issues that take more planning and thought, such as climate action and transportation.

Taylor talks about his experience and judgment and I think he’s right about how important those are. He is someone who is good at analyzing problems and finding solutions, good at the kind of writing and drafting that makes for sensible legislation, and good at listening to all sides before coming to a conclusion.  Those are the kinds of qualities we want in a leader and in a person who will be the face of the city to many.

Sabra Briere has been involved in Ann Arbor politics for a long time. As the First Ward councilmember, she has built a reputation on championing historic districts and having close constituent relations. She is another person who listens to what people have to say and is not guided by ego but by commitment to public service. She does not shoot from the hip but would rather convene a task force to study a problem before coming to any conclusions. When Ward 2 Councilmembers Lumm and Petersen sought to repeal Ann Arbor’s progressive crosswalk ordinance because their moneyed constituents were miffed at having to slow their SUV’s for pedestrians, Briere was opposed to it and initiated a pedestrian task force that has been meeting and will be very useful. The mayor had to veto the council’s repeal of the crosswalk ordinance, by the way.

Becoming a champion for a particular cause has its drawbacks. Briere is beholden to the often hysterical historic preservation constituency, which has led her to some unfortunate decisions. She was not helpful in the debacle over the potential housing development just south of the Library on Fifth Avenue and that resulted in demolition of the historic homes that were there and some very ugly and mundane buildings instead of an attractive row of apartments. She also voted against the apartment building at 413 E. Huron, a building that fit squarely within the zoning regulations that Briere, along with others, had worked on and approved.

Briere, like others, talks a lot about neighborhoods but I don’t really know what that means. All Ann Arbor politicians have to talk about neighborhoods because people who live here like to pretend it’s a quaint city with lots of little quaint neighborhoods. Maybe that’s true in some places but those neighbors eventually start to fight with each other about dogs or driveways and nobody spends the weekends hoping to pal around with their neighbors anymore. When was the last time you borrowed sugar from a neighbor? I thought so.

The fourth candidate, Sally Petersen, has the least experience, having served almost one term on council. As she will quickly tell you, she has an MBA from Harvard. Her marketing experience means she knows she has to carve out a niche in the campaign and her niche is spearheading economic development. Petersen is definitely smart and capable and her heart is in the right place on this one, but she makes the mistake many business-minded people make when it comes to government. Running a city is not like running a company. All that business experience makes understanding spreadsheets and fancy marketing terms much easier but city government is a different kind of animal.

I haven’t heard any concrete suggestions for how Ann Arbor can encourage economic development. She also talks about better relations with the University of Michigan, which is an easy thing to talk about because it is impossible. Petersen has been cautious as a councilmember, often wanting to consult constituents before making a decision. Sometimes leadership means taking a stand and educating your constituents and she may be working on that with her emphasis on economic development but it’s hard to get a grip on the elements of her plan.

BallotLuckily, there have been numerous opportunities to hear the candidates’ positions. Check out www.annarborchronicle.com for more information than you could possibly digest. Most important, if you think you may be away on August 5, vote absentee. You can either request a ballot or just go over to City Hall and fill out your absentee ballot right now.

Where Has All The Art Gone?

Pete Seeger died last week. Today the Toledo Public Television station was kind enough to air an American Masters program about Seeger from a few years ago. There was an interview with his son, who said his father had never aimed to commercialize folk music – he used it to build community.

Community is still something people seek, even in this age where you can watch movies and meetings and concerts and sports events on your smartphone. In the rapid evolution of new apartment buildings in Ann Arbor, developers have found that the students and others who inhabit these new buildings are more interested in communal spaces than they are in large living spaces. The first “private dorms,” Landmark and Zaragon in the South University area, have mainly 4,5, and 6-bedroom apartments with relatively large central areas within the apartments. The newer buildings, Zaragon West, Varsity, and the non-student Ann Arbor City Apartments all have smaller apartments, mostly one and two-bedrooms, with some studios, but have gone all-out with rooftop party rooms and even a “Zen Garden.”

People want to be with people in an organized way.

It’s a concept many of our public servants fail to understand. What brings people together? Big sporting events, for certain, as we know from the success of the recent Winter Classic. But hordes of people do not necessarily make a community, and sporting events can polarize rather than energize. One message from Pete Seeger is that art and music build community in a sustainable way and a way that fosters common bonds instead of emphasizing differences. That’s why it is such a mistake to forego the opportunity to promote public art.

There is plenty of art around if you are wealthy enough to own paintings and sculpture and if you were raised in a culture that made you appreciate museums and concerts. But public art is a way to bring the arts to everyone and to make everyone feel a part of it. In 1983, the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude came to Miami Beach with what sounded like a bizarre and even goofy idea. The result was “Surrounded Islands”:  tiny islands in the intra-coastal waterway between Miami and Miami Beach surrounded by thousands of yards of pink polyester fabric.Christo

Everyone got involved. Just placing the pink material took hundreds of volunteers. The artists had to work with government and local arts organizations to make everything work (it took a couple of years). My brother was one of the lawyers who helped import the pink polyester. My neighbors on one of the causeways that joins the beach to the mainland used their boat to help. People talked about it for years and I’m sure it was a factor that led to renewed interest in the Art Deco preservation movement on what was then a very dilapidated Miami Beach hotel strip.

As I have written about previously, Ann Arbor had an innovative, progressive Percent for Art program that used 1% of budgeted money from otherwise un-artistic capital projects to fund public artworks. But thanks to some councilmembers who think Ann Arbor should be ordinary rather than innovative, the Percent for Art program is dead. Not content to have killed it, one of those councilmembers, Jane Lumm, has now proposed that money in the public art fund – from those projects that have already been successfully built without that 1% of their budgets set aside for art – be “returned” to sewer, water, and roads funds. That would effectively eviscerate the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission, which is just what Lumm and her cohort want.

These councilmembers would rather see money spent on potholes and police, even though the road millage taxes pay for street improvements and there is so little crime that the police already spend more than 40% of their time on non-crime, “pro-active” activities. Perhaps it would be wise to pipe in a little Pete Seeger music into the Council Chambers in the hope it might instill a sense of community. Nothing else seems to work.

 

New Year’s Resolution

I’m sure you have already acted on your New Year’s resolutions such as drinking more juice, trying not to say “like,” and eating more kale. Here’s one I urge everyone to adopt and that is particularly applicable to Ann Arbor politics:  Don’t be such a know-it-all!kool-kale

For almost any subject that comes up for discussion in Ann Arbor, there are dozens of “experts” who opine in online newspapers, populate public meetings, and sign up to speak at public hearings. They especially like speaking at televised meetings such as City Council or Planning Commission because they love to hear themselves over and over again. Most people in Ann Arbor have several degrees from important academic institutions and at least one of those degrees will be relevant to the topic at hand.

Here are some examples of discussions that have been derailed by these arm-chair experts:

Fire:  This is a multi-level know-it-all issue because there is very little trustworthy data or information on which to base political action. Jim Leonard’s excellent article in the January Ann Arbor Observer points out some of the misinformation that has been floating around for years. A featherbedding national organization, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends “standards” for response time and numbers of firefighters needed. Almost no cities meet these standards since they call for (surprise!) huge numbers of firefighters to be sitting around on call.

When I was a city councilmember, during the single digits, we tried to get some data about what kinds of fires were fought in Ann Arbor so that we could intelligently negotiate with the firefighter’s union. There was no systematic way of collecting that data and we had to peruse hundreds of pages of reports about fires in trash cans and frying pans.

The lack of real information and reliable standards feeds the fear-mongers who try to sound like experts. Councilmembers Jane Lumm and Jack Eaton are especially vociferous about saying we should stop spending money on just about everything else and increase spending on “public safety,” meaning police and fire. On the other hand, Councilmember Chuck Warpehoski is relying on what actually happens in this city and is advocating fire prevention such as more education and smoke detectors.

There are real experts out there but we rarely listen to them. For years and years, Ann Arbor’s fire inspectors, the city employees who check out buildings every day, said we should ban the placement of flammable furniture on porches. But know-it-alls frequently came before the city council and whined about the great old college experience of sitting on a couch outside your ramshackle apartment and how couches don’t cause fires. Then a student was killed in a couch-related fire and the law was changed.

Cars and pedestrians:  The recent crosswalk extravaganza proved to be a festival of know-it-alls versus experts. Know-it-alls were absolutely certain that forcing drivers to stop for pedestrians was causing more accidents. There was no evidence for this, of course. One critic of almost everything, former school board trustee Kathy Griswold, even claimed that no “professional engineers” or P.E.s had ever been consulted when Ann Arbor enacted its ordinance and placed crosswalks. That is why, at a December City Council meeting, Councilmember Sumi Kailasapathy, a Griswold devotee, asked a dumbfounded Cresson Slotten, P.E., Systems Planning Unit Manager, whether any professional engineers were involved in crosswalk planning. Duh.

Leaves:  Leaves are a scourge. But so are people who think they are experts on how to get rid of leaves. Ann Arbor used to have residents sweep the leaves into the street, supposedly at just the right time, and then the city would scrape them up with special equipment affixed to trucks, load them into more trucks, and haul them off to be composted. An evaluation of this process found that it was much better, both environmentally and financially, to have residents either bag the leaves and set them out for the weekly compost pickup, or mulch them into their lawns where they would enrich the grass and not hurt anybody. This bagging and mulching process has been happening for several years now, yet some residents still insist that sweeping leaves into the street is better because old people will either die or go broke if they have to bag their leaves or pay a service to do so. No deaths have yet been attributed to leaf-bagging.

High-rises:  Speaking of deaths, during the public hearing for the building at 413 E. Huron, a psychiatrist who treats patients in the building next door stated almost tearfully that people will DIE if the building goes up. I will personally keep track of how many people die as a result of 413 E. Huron and will let you know. Public hearings on new buildings are perhaps the very best place to see know-it-alls in action.

The era of the student high-rise began, again in the single digits, with the Landmark building at Forest and S. University. Residents of Burns Park, who really do have many academic degrees, turned out to protest this disaster-waiting–to-happen. Fourteen floors! At the public hearings for this building plan, “experts” said these things would happen:  There would never be sun on S. University again; no students would want to live there because they want to live in old houses; it would create a wind tunnel and elderly people would literally be blown away; the traffic would be so bad on Forest that there would be gridlock all the time. Landmark is now in its second season. It is fully leased, the traffic is no worse than it was before, sunlight still appears on S. University, and no elderly people have been blown down the street (I will keep track of this for you, too).

Am I saying that no one should ever speak at a public hearing? Absolutely not. The crosswalk ordinance public hearing was not only an example of know-it-alls, it was also an example of wonderful people who came out and spoke from the heart. A man in a wheel chair spoke of his experiences. Parents talked about trying to cross streets with their children. Advocates for cyclists and pedestrians came out to advocate, not to show off their fake factoids.

So, put down that kale smoothie and repeat after me: I will not be a know-it-all, I will not be a know-it-all, I will not be a know-it-all.

Soul-Sucking Micromanagement

Ann Arbor’s City Council is about to have its annual “retreat” where the councilmembers work with a facilitator and determine their priorities for the coming year. This year’s retreat is preceded by some internecine squabbling, mostly between the two Ward 2 councilmembers, over who has the inside scoop from moneyed Republicans about to sell a big hunk of land to the University of Michigan. The offer and selling price have already been widely reported, but it seems that Councilmember Sally Petersen learned some details first from the owners, who go to her church and are neighbors, and Councilmember Jane Lumm thinks it’s not fair (maybe because the owners are also Republicans and as a “former” Republican she should have been first in line for the information).

This leads to the question, “Are we capable of electing the right people to lead the most progressive city in Michigan and, if so, where are they?” What are the criteria for effective public servants? What constitutes leadership? Will we know it when we see it?

training

The Michigan Municipal League, headquartered right here in Ann Arbor, is an excellent resource for cities and even conducts elected official training courses. But those courses only teach what you should know – not what you should be. The Elected Official Handbook has a lot of information about the Open Meetings Act, Michigan legislation, and ethics rules, all necessary stuff. It doesn’t, however, say much about effective leadership in city government. So, I have come up with a few characteristics that I think exemplify leadership.

A leader must be devoted and dedicated to public service and should be creative about how to achieve objectives. Mayor John Hieftje is a good example. He is a dedicated environmentalist and has run for office on a platform of protecting the environment and making Ann Arbor a more sustainable community. He showed creativity in promoting the Greenbelt, a concept that most people did not know about. Creativity involves taking risks and he has been willing to do that, not only with the Greenbelt, but also in his advocacy for urban density as a factor in sustainability.

It shows absolutely no creativity to simply defer to the “will of the people” as Ward 5 Councilmember Mike Anglin often does. First of all, it is impossible to take accurate surveys concerning every issue that arises. Even with frequent town meetings, which don’t actually occur, a representative could only talk to a few people at a time. Those few are not “the people.”

A leader has to have the intellect to research and understand the issues and the ability to articulate his or her positions based on that research and understanding. On two recent occasions, Ward 3 Councilmenber Steve Kunselman has cautioned the council and his constituents not to “intellectualize” an issue. The first was a question of whether Ypsilanti Township should have a representative on the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority (AAATA) Board.

It was really a simple question, but the convoluted discussion led a frustrated Ward 3 Councilmember Christopher Taylor to decry “soul-sucking micromanagement” (SSM). Ypsi Township is part of the “area” and has been paying for AAATA bus service for decades. Yet the city council initially postponed a decision on the board representation so, as Councilmembers Lumm and Anglin said, they could “hear from” their constituents about the issue. Was constituent input really necessary to make this decision? When the issue came back after the postponement, Councilmember Lumm, who had heard from one or two people who wanted some changes on two bus routes, grilled AAATA’s CEO about those two routes, as if to say, “Give my two constituents what they want or else.” That SSM, which Lumm excels at, also showed a lack of creativity and intellect. And it was completely unrelated to the Ypsi Township representation question.

The next issue was the proposed repeal of Ann Arbor’s progressive crosswalk ordinance. The state law regarding crosswalks, enacted by an automobile-centered legislature, requires a driver to yield (not necessarily stop) to a pedestrian in the driver’s part of the crosswalk. Two years ago, pedestrian advocates and advocates for the disabled were able to demonstrate that at crosswalks without lights or stop signs, a person would have to wait many minutes before a gap in traffic allowed safe crossing. The council amended the city crosswalk law to require a car to stop (not just yield) when a pedestrian was approaching the crosswalk. A year later this was amended again to require stopping when a pedestrian was at the curb, since “approaching” was considered too vague.

Drivers were angry about changing their habits, so some of them went to the two councilmember most likely to over-react to a few constituents:  Petersen and Lumm. They drafted a repeal of the ordinance, going backwards to the “yield to a pedestrian in the crosswalk” language. No consideration was given to a lack of factual evidence or the fact that Councilmembers Briere and Warpehoski had already proposed establishment of a pedestrian safety task force that might develop a factual record.

Kunselman met with representatives from the Washtenaw Biking and Walking Coalition and told them not to “intellectualize” this issue. I think he probably meant “complicate,” since it would be hard for Councilmember Kunselman to over-intellectualize at all, but his language rubbed these advocates the wrong way. Instead of listening to them and the hundreds of other supporters of the existing law, Kunselman decided to propose a “compromise,” which was to repeal the waiting-at-the-curb provision but require drivers to stop rather than to yield to a pedestrian physically in the crosswalk. I think he probably meant “revision” rather than compromise, since Kunselman rarely listens to anyone long enough to change his own point of view.

The approach of the councilmembers who supported the repeal – Kunselman, Kailasapathy, Petersen, Lumm, Eaton, and Anglin – did not show an intellectual or rational understanding of how to determine public policy. Luckily, the mayor decided to exercise his rarely-used veto, and that showed leadership.

There are three councilmembers who exemplify another important attribute – empathy. Councilmembers Briere, Warpehoski, and Teall are very good listeners. They listen to what their constituents are saying and they listen to advice from experts such as city staff members. Listening doesn’t mean pandering. Sometimes public servants have to educate their constituents, which doesn’t mean they ignore their concerns. It means they show leadership. Establishing the pedestrian safety task force is a good example.

When the council sets its priorities this year, look for the representatives who articulate specific objectives that are based on evidence of public need and considered representation of their constituents, show creative solutions to non-trivial problems, and are capable of verifiable results. That’s not too much to ask.

Coming Soon, To a Railroad Station Near You

This has turned out to be a week of trains and transit, so here is a guest column from David R. Busse,  a TV journalist, railroad fan, avid user of public transportation and registered independent voter. Dave is extremely knowledgeable about all things train, and notes another good reason for the Ann Arbor City Council to make sure federal money for a new train station doesn’t slip away because of short-sighted thinking.  — JL 

 

With all the focus in Washington on problems with the rollout of Obamacare, it might be a good time to remind people in the Midwest of an old phrase kicked around in the first term of the Obama administration.

Remember “stimulus money?”

One project that came to fruition with this and other federal funding will be arriving on Ann Arbor’s doorstep next year. It was not exactly “shovel ready” when proposed. Thanks to some unusual and very practical cooperation between transportation planners in California and several Midwestern states, the tired passenger cars on the Chicago-to-Detroit Amtrak corridor will be retired in favor of brand-new cars, designed specifically for “corridors” of passenger train growth in those states. California – a leader in such undertakings, if you can believe it – led the consortium of states in designing and bidding on the cars. This will be the third group Caltrans has procured for three different routes in the Golden State, and they are currently under construction at a railcar plant in Rochelle, Illinois. A big group of those cars will be dedicated to Chicago-Detroit service – the trains that serve Ann Arbor.Railcar

A big design improvement in these cars will be the use of platform-level automatic exit and entry doors. Your current Amtrak service uses cars with narrow entry way and manual doors, allowing passengers to use them only when a crew member is available to open the doors and assist passengers up the steep vestibule stairs. Regular Amtrak passengers know the drill and it can be excruciating on holidays and weekends, especially when snow and ice have clogged the stairs. Train pulls into station, crew member attempts to clear snow and ice from steps, passengers get off, embarking passengers line up next to one of the few open doors and wait…waiting for detraining passengers to get off, then wait for their fellow passengers to climb the narrow vestibule stairs, with luggage, kids, etc., and get on. Handicapped passengers find it even more of a tedious challenge. When the outgoing passengers board and the train starts moving again, the delay causes a late departure. What should have taken three or four minutes sometime takes ten or fifteen…or longer. Go thru that same scenario at six more stations westbound and you have trains arriving in Chicago substantially late, with mostly unhappy passengers.

Despite your state’s enlightened investment in rail infrastructure including state-of-the-art track and signaling systems for higher train speeds and increased track capacity, these long “dwell times” at stations – the time spent loading and unloading passengers enroute – is a huge impediment to faster schedules and consistent timekeeping. The new Amtrak cars you’ll see by this time next year will have wide doors with floors just a few inches higher than platform level. All doors on one side of the train will open for passenger loading and unloading at each stop, and passengers with hand luggage will be able to simultaneously get on or off the train. Handicapped access will be via easy low-tech ramps and their seats will be reserved close to the doorway – no steps to worry about. Station dwell times? Using the California experience as an example, expect average time savings of 70 percent…or more! Think of that if you use Amtrak’s Michigan corridor service over the upcoming holidays, and if you really want to have some fun, put a watch to the “dwell times” on your ride. Then compare after the new cars arrive.

If the California experience on the popular San Diego-Los Angeles-Santa Barbara run is any indication, the presence of these new cars will draw more travelers…especially in college towns, like Fullerton, where the Orange County city’s restored railway station serves Amtrak local and long-distance trains and Metrolink commuter trains as well as serving as the downtown transit hub. Along with the dramatic increase in train service frequency and numbers of passengers, a vibrant downtown of shops and restaurants exists just steps away. Same story in Solano Beach, Old Town San Diego and Oceanside, and a world-class station is under construction in Anaheim. I’ll bet Ann Arbor residents might visit any of these places and say, weather conditions notwithstanding, “we need to have something like this.”

The new cars are supposed to be coming late next year, and like it or not, they will highlight – in dramatic fashion – which cities along the route are ready for the new business.

What will it be like to arrive in Ann Arbor on one of the new trains next year and beyond? Will arriving passengers, getting off their WiFi-equipped trains see a modern facility meshing with other forms of public transport, e-kiosks connecting with hotels, car rental, ride-share, car-share, bike-share and whatever other new transport technology tends to crop up in cutting-edge college towns?

That is why the discussion of transit hubs and Amtrak stations among government leaders and citizens in Ann Arbor is so critical right now. You need a new train station, whether you like it or not, tied in to all forms of local commerce and transport, and unless the ball gets rolling right now, a train passenger’s first view of your vibrant city may be less than stellar. Does your city’s current station project an image that may encourage people to ditch their cars and try the train?

Federal and state taxpayers are providing Michigan with a modern fleet of cars and smoother track. Now the local cities along the Chicago-Detroit corridor need to get rolling on train stations to match.

David Busse
Diamond Bar, Calif.
DRBusse@roadrunner.com

 

Time to Get On Board

We are conditioned to think and obsess about the unemployment rate, but when economists look at revitalizing urban areas, they now talk about prosperity rather than unemployment. Michigan doesn’t do too well in either unemployment or per capita income, but if we start focusing more on smaller, regional improvements, it looks like we have the raw materials to succeed.

In a presentation last week to the Ann Arbor-Ypsi Chamber of Commerce, economist Lou Glazer outlined what it takes to make Ann Arbor a destination for new businesses and, most importantly, young professionals who will run and staff those businesses. The old idea that a high-tech company can “do business anywhere” is no longer true. Knowledge-industry companies – those in high-tech, healthcare, media, entertainment – want to be where the new college graduates are, and that turns out to be in the center of big cities.

Seventy-five percent of recent college graduates choose to live in big cities. The most popular are New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, in that order. Ann Arbor should be in the running, but one problem, according to Glazer, is that the University of Michigan sucks up a lot of the talent pool. Young professionals have to want to stay here, and if they do stay here, the businesses will follow. Chicago has a mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who has promised that Chicago will be the city of choice for Big 10 graduates. Will Ann Arbor’s next mayor throw down the gantlet?

Quality of place matters to these adorable millennials. Music, art, design, cool food and shops are all big draws. But what do they love most? Get ready for it, because it’s a surprise – transit. At the Chamber of Commerce program, a panel of young business owners talked about what attracts them. They want walkable communities. They don’t want to own cars. They want to be able to live in funky Ypsilanti (which Glazer describes as Ann Arbor’s Brooklyn), hop on a train to Ann Arbor, hop back on to go to Depot Town, then take a ride to the DIA.1lrt0625

Brendan Cavendar, a young UM graduate who is one of the brokers working on the sale of the city’s old YMCA lot, says availability of Zipcars, short-term car rentals, and the go!Pass, free bus rides for downtown employees, has been crucial in attracting businesses to downtown.

Several huge transit initiatives are bubbling in Ann Arbor and what happens in the next couple of years could decide whether Rahm Emanuel gets all the college grads or whether Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti get to share some of them. First is the AAATA “Moving You Forward” 5-year transit improvement plan. The AAATA will likely go to the voters for a millage increase to allow better bus service in this region. Hopefully they will not be stymied by the very parochial Ann Arbor City Council. Councilmembers Jane Lumm, Sally Petersen, Sumi Kailasapathy, Steve Kunselman, and Mike Anglin have already needlessly delayed the appointment of Ypsilanti Township representatives to the AAATA board. They are, in a short-sighted way, afraid that Ann Arbor residents will be subsidizing riders from Ypsi and Ypsi Township. But even though township residents don’t currently pay an AAATA millage, the township does buy into bus service, so these residents are paying their way.

Councilmembers perseverating about fixing potholes could also deny us the opportunity for state-of-the-art train service. They finally capitulated and allowed a city match for federal money to study the best place for a new Amtrak train station, but whether they will actually listen to the results of that study remains to be seen.

Finally, The Connector, a collaborative study about high-capacity transit through Ann Arbor, has just finished more public workshops to help determine routes and select the modes of transit that will best suit this population. Again, city councilmembers have been less than enthusiastic and Kunselman even gave as one of his reasons for wanting to cap Downtown Development Authority funding that the DDA might want to spend money on trains. Of course the DDA should cooperate with The Connector. It is a shame, though, that some of the councilmembers value their reputations as obstacles to progress.

Investing in Downtown

American cities like Ann Arbor share similar 20th Century stories:  People came to downtown stores to do their shopping and, in the first half of the century, downtowns were the retail and business centers. The second half of the century saw the decline of downtowns, with suburban sprawl and shopping malls. Southeast Michigan has a unique window on this because Oakland County’s  A. Alfred Taubman is a shopping mall pioneer and started his mall development company in 1950.

Politically, Ann Arbor’s downtown neighborhoods are like any others and do not have separate city council representation or governance. But downtown is different because of its importance to the city’s economy. When downtown started to wane, so did the city as a whole. The first inkling of this was in 1982. Downtown parking garages were crumbling and too expensive to fix with funds from general city taxes alone. Using a fairly new state-sanctioned mechanism, the city established a Downtown Development Authoritly that could concentrate taxes in the downtown. The city then turned the parking system over to the DDA so that parking garages could be maintained and parking could become more efficient.DDA Photos 016

As it became more and more evident that downtown is now the engine that drives the city’s economy, the DDA has shifted some of its focus from parking to infrastructure development that can encourage commercial and residential growth downtown. Parking is still an important tool for economic development because, for most businesses seeking to relocate downtown, the first question is about parking for employees or customers. The DDA has been able to use parking to encourage new business, run the system without losing money, and return $3.5 million per year to the city for its general fund.

Another source of funding for the DDA is Tax Increment Financing, or TIF. For a very detailed and accurate description of how TIF works, a good source is the Middle of the Left blog. Basically, I see TIF as a kind of titration. A very small percentage of tax monies – the increment or “delta” from increases to tax values from new buildings or renovations – are calculated by the city’s assessor and transferred to the DDA to be spent in the downtown, which also includes South University and a small dog leg down South Main Street. These taxes are titrated from the taxing authorities: Washtenaw County, the city of Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor District Library, and Washtenaw Community College. Ann Arbor’s DDA does not use any public school taxes.

TIF money is an investment in downtown, the core of the city. Were it not for TIF, improvements to the downtown would be on a list with all other city projects. And, these downtown projects would have no political advocate because no ward encompasses all of the downtown. Sometimes progress can’t afford to be last on a list. One example is Zingerman’s Deli. Zingerman’s is arguably one of Ann Arbor’s most recognizable landmarks and brings thousands of shoppers to the Kerrytown commercial area.

Zingerman’s wanted to expand right around its Kerrytown footprint because it believes in character and believes in downtown Ann Arbor. Even so, the company got little help from the city or the city council, especially when the Historic District Commission got in the way with “protection” for a burnt-out but “historic” house on the property. Zingerman’s needed some matching funds in order to leverage state brownfield money that can be used to remedy not only environmental problems but also urban blight problems. The DDA stepped in and provided sidewalk improvements (you’ll see them if you go to the deli this week) as the needed local contribution to the state funding. Zingerman’s can stay in Kerrytown and thousands more customers can contribute to the local economy. It has been a worthwhile investment for the DDA and for the city.

One would think that investing in downtown would be a goal city leaders could embrace. Indeed, the council at its January 2013 retreat identified economic development as a priority. It did not, however, allocate any money to implementation of that priority. Shortly afterwards, some of the councilmembers sought to actually stop investing in downtown by capping the amount of TIF the DDA can capture. A resolution on the November 7 council agenda would do exactly that.

Councilmembers Kunselman and Kaliasapathy are leading the charge on this, but can’t explain how investing less money in the downtown can help the city. Councilmembers Lumm, Petersen and Anglin are similarly inclined to spend less money on the city’s main economic engine. They have somehow failed to pay attention to the wayfinding signs and are headed in the wrong direction.

 

How Good Planning Can Turn Bad

You may wonder why I illustrate this post with a scene from Act III of “La Boheme,” showing the starving Bohemians at the gates of Paris. In the 19th century, when Puccini wrote the opera, Paris had toll gates, meant to raise money and keep out scaliwags.

labohemeSome people today would have Ann Arbor follow the same concept. Ann Arbor does have determined boundaries and cannot, for the most part, expand in territory beyond the circle of the highways.

Yet, many people want to live within that boundary. In the not-so-distant past, Ann Arbor’s city council recognized that the city needs to increase residential development within the core – the downtown and near-downtown – because there is simply no place else to go. The message of the Greenbelt millage, where money is spent to purchase farmland or development rights to that land, is that it’s bad for everyone if we encourage developers to build sprawling subdivisions with cul-de-sacs on farmed or forested land.

The problem is, there simply isn’t very much empty space in Ann Arbor’s core. When the old Eaton factory on the edge of downtown was turned into Liberty Lofts, those condos sold out immediately. Grand Rapids is using old factory buildings to create a new market and foodie destination. But here, we just don’t have enough blight!

Most of the empty land in the downtown is owned by the city and used primarily for surface parking. In 2012, the Downtown Development Authority undertook a planning process, with the aid of a professional planning consultant,  to determine how best to move forward in developing those parking lots. One of them, the Library Lane lot, lies atop a brand new underground parking garage with spaces for more than 700 cars. Millions of dollars were spent to shore up most of that lot so that a large building could be built on top. That lot and the others (a large lot on Ashley Street, a small one next to the Palio restaurant, and the former site of the YMCA across from the library) are extremely valuable. The DDA’s planning process was called Connecting William Street and one would think that the city, just coming out of the recession, would be anxious to immediately start working to develop these valuable properties.

Now for Act III – the Gatekeepers! There has always been a small group of well-connected citizens in Ann Arbor that is opposed to change in any form. Some have no affiliation with and are resentful of the University of Michigan and are opposed to any buildings that might house students. Some are frightened by seeing what they thought was a small town become an urban city. Some have a financial interest in near-downtown real estate and don’t want any competition.  This small group was able to put enough pressure on city councilmembers so that the Connecting William Street study was not formally adopted by the council but was instead adopted by the City Planning Commission, whose commissioners do not run for election.

Instead of directing the city’s planning department, with its professional planners, and the DDA to work on developing the valuable city properties, the city council decided to fly one of the lots up the flagpole and hired an established but not very creative real estate broker to find a developer. Luckily, this process is mainly being run by the city administrator, Steve Powers, who will vet the proposals and make a recommendation to the council. But the council still has to choose one of the proposals.

Four out of the five proposals the administrator received for the former YMCA lot are within the guidelines of the Connecting William Street plan. They include ground-floor retail space, residential apartments, and hotel and conference space. One of them contains nothing but a dollar amount. That “proposal” is from Dennis Dahlmann, the owner of the only two downtown hotels, the Campus Inn and the Bell Tower. Dahlmann has, in the past, proposed to build a park on top of the valuable Library Lane lot, so as to make sure no one can build a competing hotel there. He has also purchased the small parking lot across from the Google offices, a location where another hotel was once proposed but quashed by the city council. It remains a parking lot.

How likely is it that Dahlmann’s no-proposal will find favor with the Gatekeepers on the city council? His campaign contributions might be illustrative. In the current or last election cycle, they have been as follows:  Sabra Briere, $500 and $250 from Dahlmann’s attorney; Sumi Kailasapathy, $500; Jane Lumm, $500; Sally Petersen, $500; Stephen Kunselman, $500; Mike Anglin, $500; Candidate Jack Eaton, $500; and Mayor John Hieftje, $1000. Campaign contributors have to disclose their occupations and Dahlmann has described himself sometimes as a real estate developer, sometimes as a hotelier, and sometimes as a businessman. Councilmembers Petersen and Kunselman have talked about drafting an ethics policy for the council, so it will be interesting to see where this fits in. It is inevitable that developers will contribute to council campaigns. It is unusual, though, for the council to have a choice to sell property to either a developer or a speculator.

The old YMCA lot is an ideal spot for a modern hotel and conference center. The new Blake Transit Center is going up just adjacent to it. Visitors to Ann Arbor could take the AirRide shuttle from the airport and have access to the whole city without needing a car. That is, unless they can’t get past the gates.