Political Update

I promised more political posts, but lost enthusiasm for that task.

Here is a current post on my issues blog about the November 2013 election: Partisan Labels and Ann Arbor Politics.

As I note in one of the updates, it is clear that the newly adult generation (often called the Millennials) is beginning to flex their muscles.  They want to be in on the action.  I predict that this is going to cause some waves in Ann Arbor politics in the next few years.


It’s All About Politics

As anyone who reads online comments knows, I don’t seem to be able to stay out of politics and I have lots of opinions.  I also have an issues blog, http://localannarbor.wordpress.com/ on which I discuss local issues – but I find I am increasingly reluctant to use this to wade in on local political fights.  I’d like to keep Local in Ann Arbor as a thoughtful discussion of issues at the policy and data levels.

On the other hand, there are some current issues that merit discussion on the sheerly political level, or which will pass quickly (a current Council vote, for example) and don’t belong in a blog that looks at the longer-term policy questions.

It came into focus for me when I had to decide whether to renew the domain name for this blog.  (Do you really want anyone else to own MYNAME.com?)  As the title I gave this blog when I ran for Council last year says, “Ann Arbor – It’s Where We Live.”  That’s really what this is going to be about.  It’ll be where I get to vent about the politics of the moment.

Please note – this is NOT an announcement that I’m getting back into electoral politics (for myself).  I’m leaving the old election material up for the time being as an archive.  No donations, please.

Watch this space.


That’s All She Wrote

Well, the election is over and I lost.  See the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s summary here.

There are always a lot of opportunities for second-guessing after a campaign, and I’ll admit that I hoped it would at least be a little closer (I had 1320 votes out of 3029, or 43.5%).  There are a few obvious answers.

1. My opponent, Chuck Warpehoski, was simply a very credible candidate, well-spoken with a previous public presence, and an attractive young family.

2. He garnered not only many political endorsements but those of many respected citizens.

3. He is exactly half my age (34 to my 68), which is a great advantage in door-to-door as well as presence.

4. In what is now known to be the hottest July on record, he and his surrogates managed an effective door-to-door campaign.  I attempted to visit doors but was undone by temperatures in the 90s, which I don’t tolerate well

5. There was also a last-minute “bomb” of postcards and doorhangers from his campaign, professionally produced.   They featured, largely, his endorsement list.

 
I think beyond all those, it was simply that his message was better received.  Though he kept it very vague and often seemed to mirror many of the themes I began the campaign with, he clearly is of the vision of Ann Arbor as a center for economic development in a regional economy.  I stressed the local community and its needs. I suspect that many young professionals found that his message, which promises more opportunity, resonated with their own hopes for the future.

I didn’t expect to run for office again but this effort had certain rewards.  One is that I became much more familiar with a wide range of current issues affecting the city.  I’ll have to take these into account as I return to being simply a blogger.  Another is that I got to work with a wonderful group of supporters who gave of themselves in astounding proportions.  It made me remember again why I love Ann Arbor.  It’s the people.


Top-down Government: A Source of Dissatisfaction

In yesterday’s post I promised some specifics of likely outcomes, depending on how tomorrow’s election goes.  Actually, it is impossible to predict how individual issues are likely to be resolved in a new Council, even supposing that all four “challengers” (including me) win.  (The alternative is that the Mayor’s supporters, including my opponent CW, win).  That is because, as I also promised, we are unlikely to vote as a bloc.  If you examine the voting records of the existing “dissenters”, you will see that they have often split their votes on specific issues.  This is likely to continue as a pattern in a council that no longer has a commanding majority for the Mayor.  And that’s a good thing.

A truly vigorous discussion on the merits of specific issues is likely to be the occasion of shifting allegiances on a particular measure.  One effect is that the top-down government often exhibited by what a friend of mine has called “the Hegemony” will be replaced by a good old democratic, argumentative, messy negotiation with each other and the public.  No, I’m not talking about gridlock (we don’t have the system that makes Congress tie itself into knots), but about an end to efficient passage of measures that have not been tested adequately.  This efficiency is a result of  “top-down” decision-making.

The reason for so much of the unhappiness that has been expressed by citizens in recent years has been a sense of not being consulted on priorities or major decisions.  That is why we must drive by an ugly and overpriced city hall, a remarkably small, not very functional, sculpture in front of it, a decreasing police and fire presence, and threats to our park system.  Someone else has been setting the priorities and making the decisions.  A governing coalition who feels that they know the best course for the city nearly built a conference center and hotel on the Library Lot after putting the city in debt to install an underground parking structure that has been structurally reinforced to support a very heavy building.  And no one asked us.

Top-down government, in which the governing body makes decisions, then tells the rest of us what the deal is, is very efficient.  Here is how it works:

  1. A leader or group of elected or appointed individuals has a good idea, perhaps copied from another community, or learned in a workshop.  Or perhaps they are simply approached by an interested party with a proposal.
  2. The group has a number of internal discussions about how this can be accomplished (perhaps over coffee or breakfast, in small groups).  Interested parties are consulted.
  3. Staff support is secured and details of implementation are laid out.
  4. A background memo, budget, source of funding and timeline are prepared.
  5. Staff makes a presentation at a working session showing how the idea fits all the goals previously adopted by the body, and is a natural progression of the order of things.
  6. The item appears on an agenda for action by the body (Council, for example).
  7. The item is passed, perhaps without fanfare.
  8. The public reads about it after the fact.

This is a rather extreme scenario, of course.  Most items coming before Council have at least a little bit of prior notice or discussion in a committee.  But the example of Fuller Road Station fits it well.  (See the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s excellent timeline.)  After Leigh Greden (one of the Mayor’s major supporters and advisers) was defeated in a Democratic primary, the Council was asked to approve a relatively trifling amount ($213,984) for an environmental assessment and study (August 17, 2009).  As I recall, the item was added late in the afternoon on the day Council met. On the last day of Greden’s term (November 5, 2009), the Council approved a Memorandum of Understanding with the UM for a joint project with the UM for a combined parking structure and multimodal transit station.  It took quite a while for the public to integrate the fact that what had sounded like a rather visionary concept was actually the equivalent of a contract with the UM to pay 22% of the cost of a multimillion dollar parking structure for the UM, on city parkland.

Top-down governing is efficient.  It gets things done, saves time.  But it can leave the public feel as though they have been blindsided.  Citizens can be forgiven for not scanning the Council agenda twice monthly to see if anything significant is coming along.  Yet once a new policy has been formed, a long process of public protest and contention can be frustrating to all concerned.

I’ve studied this question (how to involve the public meaningfully) for years.  Citizens should not have to assume the responsibility of making all decisions, yet they feel the need to be consulted on things that will affect them.  Elected and appointed officials and staff are there to do the heavy lifting.  They are literally paid (whether in position or monetary compensation) to do that work.  There are major questions of where to find the funding, what the law allows or demands, what is technically possible, what hired staff are able to accomplish.

I’ve read some authoritative essays on the subject and agree with this conclusion: the answer is to involve the public in early stages of setting policy, then taking their viewpoints into serious consideration.  (A public hearing on the night that Council votes does not achieve this objective.)

The Jackson Road issue is a good example, and one that I will pursue if elected.  Council rather suddenly voted to ask MDOT to prepare a plan for conversion of the 4-lane road to 3 lanes with bike lanes.  Similar “road diets” have been implemented elsewhere successfully in Ann Arbor, and it fits Council’s adopted Complete Streets policy.  It also fits with a longstanding grievance of the residents along this busy street that is trying to be a highway.  But this has caused an outcry.  Strong feelings are rising both in support and in vigorous opposition to the idea.  The good news is that the actual reconstruction of the road, which will precede painting the stripes, does not take place until 2014.  Meanwhile, MDOT continues to collect traffic data and to evaluate the situation.  Meanwhile, even as a candidate, I’ve heard from a number of thoughtful citizens on various sides of the issue.

If elected, I’ll proactively reach out to the affected neighborhoods.  All of us want traffic to move smoothly and uneventfully, so that interest will be represented as well.  I believe that Ann Arbor residents have the intelligence and interest to help work out solutions that eventually will at least be able to win consensus.  We have some excellent staff at the city, and MDOT is very motivated to resolve the problem to the satisfaction of everyone.  I’ve already heard from several citizens with some very solid thoughts and questions.  We’ll put our heads together.  Then it will be up to the skilled professionals and the elected officials to make a decision.  But I expect it will be one that we can all understand.

The model I am proposing takes a lot of extra work on the part of citizens.  But at least they can own the result.  It is opposed by the ruling coalition, who apparently see it as a form of mob rule.  Joan Lowenstein has explained this view point quite eloquently, including in a recent comment on the Ann Arbor Chronicle, where she complained that we would “advocate frequent referenda that weaken the representative system” (her concept there is we get to do what we think right, vote us out if you don’t like it).  Perhaps you agree.  Top-down, efficient government gets things done without a lot of interference by citizens.  Or perhaps you simply like the direction the Mayor has been taking the city altogether.  In that case, you should certainly vote for my opponent, whom he has endorsed.

Probably 95% of what Council does is housekeeping that doesn’t require a lot of community consensus.  But it can require decisions that affect the lives of Ann Arbor residents and local businesses.  For those actions, you need people working for you who have your interests in mind.  That is why I have stated my priorities up front: to serve the interests of Ann Arbor residents and local businesses.  And I know how to do this.


What is at Stake for Ann Arbor in the Primary Election of August 7, 2012?

I’ve made an effort ever since filing for Ann Arbor City Council, 5th Ward, City Council to make the campaign be about the issues and my qualifications to serve.  I’ve always found “oppositional” campaigning to be repugnant and I’ve been fortunate in an opponent who was willing to campaign in a gentlemanly manner as well.  He is Chuck Warpehoski,  a decent, sincere guy with an appealing family.  (I’ll just refer to him as CW from here on out, with respect.)

But it has become increasingly apparent that 5th ward voters are not receiving the information they need to make this choice, and this election, like so many others, does have consequences.  In our literature, we often seem to be saying the same thing (apart from my references to experience); indeed, CW’s latest mailing, with its emphasis on neighborhoods, local architecture and business, and community engagement, could almost have been lifted from my early literature.

But we do in fact have very different styles and policy stances, and which one is elected makes a difference to the City of Ann Arbor as a whole.

One inescapable thing about this election is that it is to some extent a referendum on the direction Ann Arbor has been going for the last 10 years (and more) under the leadership of John Hieftje as Mayor.  It is also inescapable that there are four candidates (of whom I am one) who are in opposition to many of the policy directions of recent years.

The news media have picked this up.  Perhaps you saw the article in the August Ann Arbor Observer titled “End of the Party” (a sly reference to the term I created for the Mayor’s majority bloc, the “Council Party”) Reporter Jim Leonard frames the entire election for Council as a contest between the Mayor’s allies and his potential opponents.  As Leonard says, “At stake in the August 7 Democratic primary election is the council majority of Mayor John Hieftje – and with it, the future direction of Ann Arbor.”

The article by Ryan Stanton on AnnArbor.com reaches similar conclusions.  As he says, “Mayor John Hieftje and his political allies hold a 7-4 majority right now on the Ann Arbor City Council, but the ruling coalition’s ability to pursue its agenda is in jeopardy with four hotly contested council races on the Aug. 7 primary ballot.”  (In addition to the 5th Ward race, Jack Eaton and Sally Hart Petersen are opposing incumbents Margie Teall and Tony Derezinski, and Sumi Kailasapathy is opposed by Eric Sturgis, who enjoys many Council Party endorsements.)

Is it fair to lump CW in with the others of the Mayor’s allies?  Seems so, since he has been endorsed not only by the Mayor and by the retiring Council Party incumbent Carsten Hohnke (who reputedly recruited CW as his successor), but by many other members of the Ann Arbor political establishment, from Congressman John Dingell to kingmaker County Commissioner Leah Gunn (Gunn has endorsed and often been on the  campaign committee for virtually every one of the Council Party’s members, and the Mayor himself).  All these politicians must know what side he is on.

So what about the contenders on the other side?  We don’t have a cute name, at least none invented by me.  And actually, we are all individuals.  There is no common agenda or “slate”.  We have had only incidental conversations and have not coordinated our positions at all, though many elements turn out to be similar.  Probably one of the outstanding characteristics is that we are all rather independent and not likely to surrender to pressure to vote en bloc.  Not even our bloc.

I have few endorsements, but they are good ones. Mike knows that I can be counted on for a vigorous defense of my views, as well as an obsessive attention to detail.

Jane gets this too. Note the “independence” theme. I expect that if I am elected, I’ll be having good heated discussions with Mike and Jane. We won’t vote in lockstep. We’ll improve each other’s understanding. We’ll still be colleagues and fellow advocates for the citizens of Ann Arbor after each meeting.

Don’t think of this as a choice between partisan factions.  Think of it as liberating the Council for serious consideration and debate on important issues. (Most housekeeping issues are passed through by Council without dissent and I expect that to be unchanged.)

I’ve said repeatedly in debates and interviews that what I want to see is a “deliberative” council.  Sad to say, even when Council has had endless meetings into the small hours of the morning, it has often been about vanishingly small details of language and to some extent about posturing for the camera.

I hope and believe that the next Council will be one where issues are thrashed out at their core, beginning with early notice to both the Council and the public of major initiatives, and a good public debate about their value.

Let’s decide the future of Ann Arbor on the merits, after full disclosure of details, consequences, and the views of our citizen/voters.

Tomorrow: what are some specifics of likely outcomes, either way?


About That Conference Center on the Library Lot

“Imagine a Park” party, July 14, 2012

One of the issues that is before us in this current campaign is the fate of the Top of the Parking, or the Library Lot.  This is one of the properties being discussed in the course of the DDA’s Connecting William Street project.  My position on this is that a public open space, that would be home to active uses like performances and events, as well as for passive use to sit quietly and read a book, is a good use for the space.  I have been very sympathetic to the efforts of a citizen group,  Library Green.  They recently put on a “block party” atop the new parking structure, called “Imagine a Park”.  They have also been presenting a slide show to the DDA and in other forums to make the case for a park.  Here is a very large pdf of their slide show.  (It contains examples from other cities of similar ventures.)

My involvement with this space goes back to 2009, when I began publishing articles on my blog, Local in Ann Arbor, about straws in the wind that seemed to be leading to plans for a conference center.  The articles are in chronological order on the Library Lot Conference Center page.  That summer, I was able to obtain and publish a proposal that had been circulated secretly in city hall.  Indeed, through a fortuitous gift of FOIAs relating to the construction of the underground garage, I was able to determine that a small group of people had been working with DDA staff in 2008 to put together this proposal.  Partly, I believe, because of my continual publicizing of the issue, the city council passed a resolution putting out a Request for Proposals for the top of the parking at the Library Lot, and later it appointed an RFP advisory committee to review proposals.  Information about the RFP process and the proposals under review can be found on the city RFP website.

With the initiation of the RFP process, there was an appearance of open process.  The committee’s meetings were open to the public (though sometimes it took rather determined research to find out when) and they even held an event at the Ann Arbor District Library where the public was invited to hear presentations by the proposers.   But in fact, the public had no say at all.  No public comment was allowed at the advisory committee meetings, and though the public was invited to send comments, there was no indication that they were read.  The discussions at the meetings were blatantly biased and the committee did not even follow the limited process set up in the RFP.  One of the first actions was to summarily dismiss the two open space proposals without any attempt of evaluation.  (Description and media links here.)  It became increasingly apparent that one proposal, the one brought forward by the Valiant Partners, was “hard-wired”.  Not coincidentally, they were the proposers of the original “Secret Plan”.  The plan was to build a hotel and conference center on the Library Lot.  The hotel was to be privately operated and the conference center made the property (and the liability) of the city.  A Letter of Intent (LOI) was prepared and was scheduled to be considered, and presumably adopted, on April 19, 2011.   But a coalition of citizens rose up in opposition.  As I described at the time,

Campaign button for the community fight against the conference center, 2011

 The inexorable progress of this really appalling proposal inspired a grassroots effort that has resulted in (only two weeks after the working session) a website, a Facebook page, over 700 yard signs, and a growing list of supporters (see the home page of the website), many of whom have been working hard to lobby councilmembers, place yard signs, comment in the media, make campaign buttons, and plan for the public hearing that was to precede the council’s vote.

On April 4, 2011, the Ann Arbor City Council acted to shut down the RFP process and to dismiss the Valiant proposal.  It was over, for the time being.  I can take credit for this, because I was one of the leaders, in addition to have provided months of research and reporting.  But I wasn’t at all alone, and that was the wonderful thing about it.  There was a group of 15-50 people (some came and went at different times) who volunteered to take on many responsibilities and contributed insight, skills, and efforts. (Many of us had been meeting for a year as a group called Public Land – Public Process.)  It was truly a community outpouring, and I am grateful to have participated in it.

The effort to impose this plan on the citizens of Ann Arbor led to a remarkable uprising of civic fervor.  Its defeat felt like a victory.  But of course that wasn’t the end of the story.  The forces that were behind the idea of a hotel and conference center are still with us.  Now it appears that the concept is about to be brought forward again.

On the same night that Council laid the Valiant proposal to rest, it also passed a resolution directing the Downtown Development Authority to take charge of planning for the disposition of city-owned lots downtown.  This has been resolved into a DDA-led process, Connecting William Street.  That is too complicated to review here.  But as one step in the process, they hired a consultant to analyze the downtown for opportunities.  As stated in the report produced for the DDA,

The study objective is to identify current and future market opportunities and challenges associated with the redevelopment of multiple City-owned sites currently managed as parking lots on or near William Street, in downtown Ann Arbor.

The overall conclusion of the report was that office space was the best use for the city-owned parcels.  But wait! There was in addition a little extra report: “Lodging Analysis”.  The conclusion of this report?

Independent interviews conducted by 4ward Planning in 2012 and The Roxbury Group, in 2010, identified prospective pent-up demand for lodging and conference center space in downtown Ann Arbor – in particular, this demand is for lodging and conference space capable of handling numerous events of 500 or more persons throughout the year. Interviewees included heads of large corporations, educational and health care institutions.

The Roxbury Group’s report (also commissioned by the DDA) used interviews of a number of  “stakeholders”,  which I earlier dismissed as “boosterish”.  They were, however, detailed within the report.  This report merely says that such interviews were conducted, without specifying the participants or the questions asked.  It could be described as “I talked to a bunch of people and they all thought it was a good idea”.

So it appears that the idea of a hotel and conference center, whether on the Library Lot or not, is once again being proffered by the DDA’s committee for Connecting William Street.  It doesn’t take much imagination to suppose that a proposal will once again surface for serious consideration.


My Environmental Record

The Sierra Club endorses Vivienne Armentrout in the race for 5th Ward Council

Yes, I’m proud of that endorsement.  It is the result of a long deliberative process.  I was required to fill out a rather fearsome questionnaire.  This then went to a local committee, and as I understand it, a series of committees all the way up to the state level.  I did experience some anxiety about the result.

According to one interim message I got (sent to all candidates), the committees reviewed not only the candidates’ responses, but their records.  This got me thinking about my record as an environmentalist.

I have been an environmentalist for so long that it is part of my core identity.  I’ve always loved the natural world (don’t forget that I am a biologist).  My husband Charlie and I have always tried to live with a small footprint, with reusable goods, high-mileage cars and a low consumption habit as much as possible.  We used unleaded gas before it was required, went to a lot of trouble to recycle before it was convenient, and went to hearings on the original Clean Air Act.  My Sierra Club membership card notes “member since 1973″.

But really, aren’t we all environmentalists these days?  Everyone tries to be “green”.  Still, this has limitations. Thomas Princen made some pithy points about this in his book, “Treading Softly”.  “An economical economy, therefore, does not arise when its consumption patterns simply become greener and more environmentally friendly.”  There is much, much more, but his point is that we can’t be truly concerned about the environment and the future of the planet merely by buying “green” products. I might add, merely by espousing “green” viewpoints. So what have I done other than have friendly feelings toward the environment?

As a plant pathology professional, I ventured into controversy even as a graduate student by opposing the excessive use of pesticides.  Pesticide use is the easy way to control pest problems, but these are often very toxic chemicals.  As a professor, I taught the use of cultural and biological approaches rather than pesticide use against plant disease.  When I arrived in Ann Arbor, I volunteered with the Ecology Center (this was at a time when they actually worked closely with community volunteers in Ann Arbor rather than statewide issues with paid staff).  I was the chair of the Pesticide Task Force and gave lectures on lawn care and integrated, low-toxic pest management of pest problems.  We got the city to adopt some policies that reduced pesticide spraying and incorporated notification to individuals of pesticide treatments.

Then I was appointed to the Solid Waste Commission and quickly became its chair.  During the time I was on the SWC, we supported Recycle Ann Arbor as the city recycling provider and saw the initiation of the compost program.  We started initial exploration of commercial waste recycling.  After I was elected to the Board of Commissioners, I continued this interest and helped to keep the county’s funding for the Drop-off Center.

I discovered two new environmental passions early in my career on the Board of Commissioners.  The concept of  “sustainability” had just gained some currency and I put considerable personal effort into making this one of the BOC priorities.  I was also appointed to the Agricultural Lands and Open Space Task Force, where, after spending an intensive year studying land use patterns in Washtenaw County, we placed an item on the ballot (1998)  to support Purchase of Development Rights and other land use-related issues.  This failed after determined opposition from the development community.  But it was the precursor to the later county millage to protect natural areas (now expanded to some protection of farmland) and then the city Greenbelt program.

Meanwhile, I determined that we needed a better planning matrix to support good land use practices.  The last year I was on the BOC, I was the chair of the Planning Advisory Board as we put together the Washtenaw County Comprehensive Plan.  (You will find my name on it as the editor.)

An environmental problem that was considerably less satisfying than talking about land use came up early in my tenure as a commissioner.   It was the 1,4-dioxane contamination from the former Gelman plant in Scio Township.  I was heavily involved in this, causing a staff member to be hired who brought professional expertise to bear, resurrecting an intergovernmental partnership to address it, and obtaining funds a number of times through BOC resolution to make appeals at the state level for regulatory assistance.  (This was during the Engler administration, which was not environmentally friendly.)  Despite all our best efforts, the situation has deteriorated.  The current county website has updates.

Lately, I have been involved in efforts to protect Ann Arbor parkland from the threat of being disbursed into other uses.  (Specifically, I have opposed the use of Fuller Park for a new train station.)  Our parkland is a valuable environmental resource.  Aside from its active recreational component, it is an important source of passive recreation (simple enjoyment of natural areas).  It serves as permeable surface, air and water quality improvement, and maintenance of many plant and animal communities.  The viewscapes it provides are an important asset to the perceived quality of life in Ann Arbor.  Ann Arbor residents have frequently expressed their support of the park system by voting taxes on themselves and also raising and donating money to support individual parks.  Yet, in spite of all this, some in our government have noted the untapped wealth in our park system and sought to exploit it.  As this excellent summary by the Ann Arbor Chronicle notes, there is currently an effort to amend the Charter to prohibit leasing of parkland, a neglected area of protection.  I support this effort.


Transparency Begins With the City Council

I began in my last post to discuss open government and how it can be achieved.

One aspect of open government is what is often called “transparency”.  This means simply that governmental operations and actions are open to scrutiny.  (The opposite is “secrecy”.)

Of course, an important beginning is to have all relevant documents accessible to public view.  This has improved in Ann Arbor in recent years, but is by no means perfect yet.  Ed Vielmetti has long had a (fortunately not lonely) crusade to obtain much government information by FOIA (Freedom of Information Act).  See, for example, his weblog on the subject.

But more about that later.  The first, most important step for city government transparency is to make City Council deliberations clear and open.

How can citizens engage their government?  First, their council members are their direct line to government.  Because citizens choose them by election, Council is accountable to citizens.  But this only works if citizens have adequate knowledge and understanding of actions Council is preparing to take, and can follow deliberations on each item.

That word deliberations is significant.  According to the Michigan Open Meetings Act (this useful link also describes the Freedom of Information Act), public bodies are not supposed to “deliberate”, i.e. discuss and decide, matters before them except in public session.  There are exceptions for certain confidential legal proceedings.  In practice, many discussions occur as a matter of practicality over a cup of coffee, in subcommittee meetings, in an administrator’s office, etc.  But actual deliberation of how a vote is to proceed is not to occur in private.  The gauge usually applied is whether a quorum (usually half the number of members plus one) is present.  So in our case, councilmembers should not be meeting in groups of 6 or more without making it a “public meeting”.  The OMA then imposes specific conditions.

But let’s take it further.  How can deliberations be transparent if the council members themselves are not informed?  I have noticed a number of deficiencies in the way individual council members are informed and brought into the discussion.  As noted in AnnArbor.com’s interview with Jane Lumm, information is sometimes provided late in the day, and substantial items can sometimes appear on the Council agenda at the last minute.  For example, the meeting of November 7, 2009 (the last meeting for CM Leigh Greden, who was defeated in a primary that August), had an agenda item added at the very last minute that approved the Memorandum of Understanding with the University of Michigan to initiate the Fuller Road Station project.  By adding such a substantial item late in the day, citizens are not able to comment or contact their councilmembers and even the members of council themselves who are not within the tight inner circle where decisions are being made can’t possibly have time to make a rational decision about the issue.  Of course, citizens interested in an issue should not be required to check the agenda repeatedly the day of the council meeting, as is now sometimes the case.

I come from a different tradition, the Board of Commissioners.  There items were placed on the agenda about a week before a meeting, and the agenda was made fully public, with all relevant documents available online, days before the meeting.  If elected, I will be watching carefully to see how information on important items is transmitted to members of council and the public.

 


Open Government – What Is It, and How Do We Get It?

One of the most confusing things for voters is to decipher what politicians mean with our sound-bite positions and slogans.  What do they mean in terms of how the officeholder will actually behave in office?  A case in point is the idea of  “open government” and its corollary, “transparency”.

My opponent and I both support this idea in our campaign literature.  Though his early literature spoke of  “transparency, inclusion and openness”,  his current palm card references only “citizen engagement”.  In my palm card, I promise to “Conduct government ‘in the open’ with full public participation”.

But what does this actually mean in terms of the way City Council represents the will of the people? There is broad agreement that we want decisions made “democratically” but broad disagreement about what that means.  In a recent comment thread where the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s readers took off on this subject, long-time county commissioner and local kingmaker Leah Gunn stated one extreme of the concept neatly:

Under the United States Constitution, we live in a representative democracy. Political leaders are elected, or appointed by those who have been elected. If you want to become a “political leader”, you ought to run for office. I don’t believe that I would have been re-elected seven times, nor would Mayor Hieftje have been re-elected six times (and an upcoming seventh as he has no opposition as yet) if we did not somehow understand and represent the concerns of our constituents, as well as the city and county as a whole. You, as a member of the public, are always free to say what you please, but there is no guarantee that I, as an elected representative, have to agree with your point of view. That is called democracy.

The other extreme of the concept might be a citizen referendum on every decision.  This has a number of drawbacks, including the danger of  “majoritarianism” (also called the “tyranny of the majority”) and the fact that government probably would come to a grinding halt if an election were required for every decision.

I reject the notion (as expressed by Cmr. Gunn) that the only citizen decision is at election time.  I believe in continuous citizen interaction with government and that an openness to this is the basis of good government.   Here is what I said in a recent letter to absentee voters:

But more than that, we want our leaders to look to us in setting a future direction for the city, not a council that presents us with decisions already made. “Open government” should not be limited to a public hearing just before Council votes.

I’ve been thinking about this issue a really long time, dating back to my own tenure (1997-2004) as a county commissioner.  There are a number of mechanisms (public hearings for ordinances, for example), meant to solicit public input.  But those are often rather late in the day.  How do we ensure true citizen involvement in decisions while preserving the ability of elected officials to lead and take action?

Here are a couple of my posts on the subject:

Process, Procedure and Governance in Ann Arbor  (February 9, 2010) (Good comments from my opponent on this post which however seem to question the value of long public comment sessions.)

Public Process and Governance in Ann Arbor (July 23, 2011) (This post discussed the dispute between those who would allow elected bodies to proceed without much interference from the public and those who would engage the public; it clearly failed to anticipate Jane Lumm’s meteoric rise and election.)

What, Exactly, is a Robust Public Process?  (July 14, 2011) It really just asks the question.

I’ll detail my thoughts on how we should achieve these goals  over a series of posts.


Budgets, Taxes, and Other Fun Topics

Anyone who knows me, knows I have a lot of opinions.  I’ve established this as a matter of record, by public commentary at meetings, comments on online publications, and most of all, by publishing a blog since 2009 with observations and opinions about Ann Arbor’s civic life.

A wise political adviser would probably not have recommended this behavior as a basis for running a political campaign.  In fact, one person advised me to lock the whole thing (the blog) under a password.  But since I’m on record with Local in Ann Arbor on a number of subjects, here is where I step up and take responsibility on some difficult subjects that I’ve written on in the past.  I’ll also set out my positions on those subjects.

Budgets

Budgets are boring.  Budgets are essential. The budget process that every elected body undergoes each year is often frustrating, usually incomprehensible to almost everyone but those obligated to dive into it, and is the major job of government.  The budget is the actual embodiment of the policies that will direct what our government does for us.  In the budget, important programs come to birth, live, and die.  As a veteran of many budget cycles (as a county commissioner), I’ve gotten to have an understanding of a few of the “tricks” and a philosophy of how it should be done.

Note: This year’s City of Ann Arbor budget deliberations fit the description.  Congratulations to the Ann Arbor Chronicle for doing a heroic job of summarizing the discussion.  (I’ll read it in detail later, honest.)

Here are the essentials of my budget philosophy:

  • Take care of business first:  make sure that there is enough money to conduct the ordinary and expected business of government.  This includes services and functions mandated by law and also “basic” services, which in a city include road maintenance, trash removal, fire and police protection, and water utilities. This is my first priority.
  • Keep the cost of government itself within bounds: administrative and technical departments should have adequate funding to operate properly, but watch the natural tendency to spread out, buy the latest equipment, hire consultants or more staff than necessary.  The amount spent on these departments should not be disproportionate to the rest of the city’s operations.  Council should not waste money on its own activities, either.
  • Keep promises made to voters:  Dedicated millages and fees should be used in a responsible way to fulfill the purposes for which this money was collected, not carved out to support different programs.
  • Don’t spend money based on the most optimistic future scenario: I wrote about this concern in a blog post in which I related some of my frustrations with  financial decisions made by Washtenaw County (which did, ultimately, turn out badly).  Here is part of what I said:

Second, decisions have been made that seem to depend on wishful, or worse, magical thinking.  This is what I also refer to as linear or “what could go wrong?” thinking.  For example, during the housing boom, the county budget director repeatedly and yearly came out with budget forecasts prefaced with the statement (in writing!) that “the best predictor of the future is the past”.

On the one hand, we must not be paralyzed with fear and must plan for the future.  But those plans should evaluate risk and should not depend on assumptions that, for example, Federal funding will be obtained to pay for most of the cost, or that the economy will expand in a continuous upward trend.

Figure from Local in Ann Arbor, published 2010, showing city bond indebtedness

  • Avoid creating a “debt mountain”:  Many communities around the country (and a couple in our own county) have found themselves in dire trouble through incurring debt for what seemed a good idea at the time.  May I just mention the City of Ypsilanti?  And Sylvan Township is another example of disastrous misadventure (a story I hope to tell one of these days).  Ann Arbor has so far avoided outright disaster, but the trend is bad.  The figure to the right was prepared in 2010 and needs to be updated.  (The curve did not continue upward after that year.)  I consider taking on debt for large projects to be one approached with a good dose of caution, and only through necessity. I’ll be very skeptical of any scheme which requires bonding for large capital projects, of public-private partnerships that commit the city to expenditures, and of spending general fund money for studies leading to such projects.  I’m looking at you, Fuller Road Station.
  • Money is fungible:  We hear a lot about “buckets”.  But except for restricted funds that are dedicated, for example, to a ballot measure-approved activity, or are grant funds awarded for a particular purpose, money can be moved around from fund to fund, and should, when the circumstances require it.  It all depends on the priorities you have set. I’ll be open to re-examining the current organizational structure, including some enterprise funds, for budgetary purposes, especially when that structure does not serve our priorities.

Taxes

Last year, upon hearing of some draconian cuts proposed by the former (and unlamented) city administrator, Roger Fraser, I wrote three posts proposing that Ann Arbor should adopt a city income tax. (Post I   Post II  Post III)  These are still worth reading if you would like to dig really deep into taxation as a subject, and I stand behind my statement.  But if you’ve read Local in Ann Arbor regularly, you’d have noticed that I went silent on this subject.  That is because I no longer support a city income tax at this time.

One reason is, simply, that the city’s finances appear to have improved slightly.  The dire consequences being proposed have mostly not come to pass (except for severe cuts in police and fire protection).

Other reasons for my change of heart are the changes in Michigan tax law.

  • The credit for income taxes paid to cities has been removed.
  • Most retirement income is now taxable by the state.

Both of those changes mean that a city income tax would have a much broader impact on our citizens.  Previously, any taxpayer could recoup part of the city tax through the state tax return, and persons living primarily on retirement income would actually see a lower tax bill (because property taxes would be lower).  If we were to entertain the idea of an income tax now, there would need to be a new study that measured impacts on different classes of taxpayers.

But finally, my revised position is partly guided by concerns about the judgment of the current city council majority. To be fair, several of those who pushed a new expensive (and ugly) city hall addition onto the city are no longer on council.   But I’m uneasy about some future possibilities.

  • They seem to be leaning toward supporting a project to build a new train station on Fuller Park.
  • They appear to support the proposed transit plan that includes a highly capital-intensive connector system.
  • They stubbornly continue to insist on the Percent for Art program.
  • There are other straws in the wind, too poorly defined to go into right now.

In other words,  I’m not sure that the current council should be given a new pot of money to spend.

UPDATE: An issue looming ahead is the possible repeal of the personal property tax by the state legislature.  This is a significant point of policy as Ann Arbor attempts to attract new business and high-tech industry.  The PPT is a major source of income from those new businesses.  (It is a tax on equipment used by businesses; the name of the tax is misleading.)  We should evaluate actual revenue balances when issuing tax incentives to attract them, for example.

Percent for Art

In 2011, I wrote a three-part series on the Percent for Art program.  (Part I Part II Part III)

As I stated at (great) length in those and earlier posts, I believe that this is a bad program on almost every level.  Although the City Attorney has reportedly assured the council that it is legal, I am not convinced of this.  It is certainly improper. (See the first post linked above for an extensive discussion of legality.) It takes money that was levied (either by fees or taxes) specifically for basic utility or infrastructure programs.

The Percent for Art program has so many flaws that it would be comic, if public money were not involved.  For an excellent update on the current status of the program, see this article by the Ann Arbor Chronicle.  AAPAC commissioners are now complaining about the work load and suggesting that a full-time staff be assigned – at a time when our public safety staffing is at historical lows.   And this fund takes money (illegally, in my opinion) from the water utilities funds, which are paid for by user fees, at a time when those fees are being raised (see discussion by the Chronicle).

One of the disturbing aspects is that much of the product of this program seems pointless.  Though it is always risky to make aesthetic evaluations of art objects, some of their notable achievements have been a much-derided sculpture with a water feature that doesn’t appear to work, metal trees in a park where natural features are more welcome (and where the stormwater installation that helped to pay for the art didn’t work), a decision to put a chandelier where the public is restricted in access, and now they are discussing an artwork in a roadway roundabout, where surely driver distraction is not a good thing.

If elected, I will work to return those monies to the programs from which they were diverted.  I’ll also happily vote for a ballot measure whereby Ann Arbor voters can choose to support the arts through a millage.  Perhaps that could be written so as to support programs like FestiFools and even small festivals like Water Hill MusicFest.  Those are true expressions of a community artistic spirit. I’m happy to support public art, and even public funding of art, but the current program is just wrong.


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