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?

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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.

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.