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Ann Arbor mayor John Hieftje at City Hall, 2012

End of the Party?

High stakes in the Aug. 7 primary

by James Leonard

posted 8/6/2012

At stake in the August 7 Democratic primary is the council majority of mayor John Hieftje--and with it, the future direction of Ann Arbor.

A canny politician with a keen sense of the electorate, the six-term mayor has no challengers this year. But Hieftje's success depends in large part on working with a supportive majority on City Council. And with contests in four of the five wards this summer, it's quite possible that what Fifth Ward candidate Vivienne Armentrout dubbed "the council party" could lose control of the city's agenda going forward.

The retirement of Hieftje allies Sandi Smith and Carsten Hohnke means at least two new council members next year--and, depending on the mood of the electorate, as many as four. The people who fill those seats may not be so ready to back the mayor on issues like the proposed new train station-transit center.

Ward 1: Kailasapathy vs. Sturgis

An accountant, Sumi Kailasapathy says she's the most qualified candidate, because the most important issue facing council is "prioritizing the budget. We have financial issues with revenue certainly, but we can still prioritize." She thinks the highest priority ought to be safety services: "We have to have adequate levels of police and fire protection."

Kailasapathy believes Hieftje erred in shrinking the police force from 200 officers in 2000 to 118 today (the U-M adds another fifty-five). Based on an FBI website, she calculates that the city could use 273 officers--but says that "for now," she'd go with recently retired chief Barnett Jones' "magic number" of 150.

Kailasapathy says she set the target based on "values" rather than "number crunching," but suggests the city could pay for the staffing increase by negotiating with its unions to "get reasonable contracts by getting concessions on pensions and benefits." That won't be easy: in more than a decade of cost-cutting, the unions have shown little willingness to trade benefits for cops.

Tennis instructor Eric Sturgis says he likes the current city budget because "we had

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a surplus and used it to hire a police officer." And though he readily acknowledges "crime is down 70 percent in the last twenty-five years," Sturgis like Kailasapathy says the city needs more cops--200 is his optimal number.

Sturgis says Hieftje has "obviously been doing a very good job," because "he's reduced government [employment] 30 percent and kept up services. We came out of the Great Recession with a surplus!"

Sturgis also supports the mayor's current favorite initiatives: "We should want a [train] transit station and the four-way transportation agreement [for a countywide transit system], and cutting the DDA [Downtown Development Authority] is wrong."

Hieftje hasn't endorsed Sturgis, but incumbent Sandi Smith and three other previous Ward 1 council members have. Kailasapathy is backed by Second Ward council member Jane Lumm, as well as former Fifth Ward candidate Lou Glorie and current Fourth Ward candidate Jack Eaton--all council party critics.

Ward 2: Derezinski vs. Petersen

Two-term Ward 2 incumbent Tony Derezinski calls the current budget "a good compromise among competing interests. We were able to come to consensus though there was pressure on every dollar in the $80 million general fund budget." Consensus but not unanimity: Mike Anglin and Jane Lumm voted against the budget, Lumm after council defeated her amendment to add ten more cops.

Derezinski also likes the mayor. "Look at how Ann Arbor has done in the last ten years," says the former state senator. "We're one of the best places to retire in the nation, with one of the best downtowns. This does not happen by accident, and John Hieftje bears some of the responsibility and praise for that."

Like Kailasapathy and Sturgis, Derezinski would like to add more cops: "We can always use more police." But he also says he'd just as soon "put people in planning and building. They were cut before safety services, and now there's a strong need for them with all the new development coming down."

And Derezinski is a big supporter of a new transit center: "The statistics show that train ridership to Ann Arbor is going to double in the next twenty years, and we need to be ready for that."

What challenger Sally Hart Petersen likes most about the current budget is that it didn't "eliminate those nine police officers" proposed in the initial draft, and that "more than 50 percent [of the general fund] is still dedicated to safety services." Still, Petersen would "hire more police officers." She'd find the money by having the police and other city employees "move from defined benefits to defined contribution [retirement] plans."

Petersen says the biggest issue facing council is "balancing the budget without sacrificing what makes us a cool city. I'm worried about the Huron Hills Golf Course." Like Lumm, Petersen is an outspoken advocate of the city-supported golf course. Though her home, like Lumm's, backs onto the golf course, she says it's more than a neighborhood issue. "I go door to door, and people are concerned about Huron Hills all over the whole Second Ward, even north of the river."

If elected, the challenger says she'll be available "24/7. I see this as my full-time job. At $24,000 a year, it's not about the money!" That's good: council members are paid just $16,000 annually.

Ward 4: Eaton vs. Teall

John "Jack" Eaton, a labor lawyer, says he likes that the current budget "takes care of basic services." But he'd add more safety services if he could.

"I compare it to insurance," he says. "You have to have the protection you need. You can't predict how much crime you'll have, so you have to have sufficient forces to deal with it."

To pay for more safety services, Eaton would scour the budget, and he already sees one possibility. "We've had precious little development lately, and yet we've had a well-staffed planning department. Conversely, the building department has been cutting back on building inspectors." Eaton is misinformed: between 2000 and 2012, budget cuts cost the planning department thirteen FTEs, or 37 percent of its staff; in addition, it now handles many tasks formerly done by the building department.

Like Kailasapathy, Eaton believes the city was "late coming to the subject" of reducing employee benefit and pension costs, though unlike her, he acknowledges the city has gotten "significant concessions" from the unions. And like Kailasapathy, he's endorsed by Jane Lumm. "She shares my priorities," Eaton explains.

A council member since 2002, a staunch Hieftje ally, and a full-time customer service manager for a resume writing service, Margie Teall likes that the current budget "allows us to keep our firefighters and start adding police officers." She dislikes that there isn't "more funding for human services, though we're probably the only city in Michigan that still funds human services at all."

Like the other candidates, Teall would like to have more police officers. When asked why, in light of the huge decline in crime, she alone acknowledges that "the numbers would suggest we don't" need to expand the force. But, she adds, "the issue really isn't about the numbers. It's about the perception. Across the country, people think there's more crime, even though crime is down across the country."

Like Derezinski and Hieftje, Teall supports a new transit center. "It won't necessarily be on Fuller Road" she says of the controversial original site, on parkland currently leased to the U-M as a parking lot. "The Federal Railroad Association will tell us where to put it. The important thing is that we have a chance to have a world-class transit center where the city puts in a fraction of the cost: $2.5 million of a $30 million cost."

Ward 5: Armentrout vs. Warpehoski

With Carsten Hohnke's retirement after two terms on council, his seat in Ward 5 has attracted two contenders. Both are intellectuals and progressives, but only one is endorsed by the mayor.

It's not Vivienne Armentrout. She opposed the council party's decisions to build the new Justice Center and the Library Lane parking structure, campaigned vigorously against proposals to top the structure with a conference center, and is dead set against a new transit center.

A former county commissioner, Armentrout is endorsed by Mike Anglin and Jane Lumm. She won't say what she likes or dislikes about the current budget: "Your question supposes a certain kind of familiarity with issues which I don't have," she says. "I look more at processes and trends." But like every other candidate, Armentrout believes we need more police, citing Jones' "magic number" of 150 as optimal, despite the huge decline in crime.

"Hearing that the crime rate's gone down doesn't reveal the whole picture," she says. "It doesn't tell you how many times citizens need help and don't get it. If you call and say, 'Someone's lurking,' you get, 'I'm sorry, we don't send people because you're worried.'"

Mostly, Armentrout is "very concerned about building a new [train] station in Fuller Park. [Hieftje's] fixation is beyond reason, and the potential for a financial fiasco is enormous."

Chuck Warpehoski, director of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, likes that the current budget is "starting to improve safety services, starting to improve maintenance to the parks, that we're starting to climb out of the hole." He doesn't like that "we're not there yet." But echoing Derezinski, Warpehoski says overall "the budget is a good compromise between competing demands."

Like every other candidate, Warpehoski wants more cops, though like Sturgis, he readily acknowledges that "the crime rate is at a historic low." He'd find the money to pay for them from "new ongoing revenue streams like [property taxes from redeveloping] the Georgetown Kroger site, and Lower Town, and the site on Washtenaw across from Whole Foods."

Warpehoski is endorsed by the both Hohnke and Mayor Hieftje. But he's hardly the Hieftje fan Sturgis is. "He's kept core services going during a recession and the city is safe, so I'd give him a 'B,'" Warpehoski says. "But in terms of open process and community engagement, I'd score him a lot lower, particularly on the new transit center."

If elected, Warpehoski says he won't necessarily vote either for or against the council majority. "The person I admire most on council is Sabra Briere. She's truly an independent voice and that's what I'd strive to be."

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This article has been edited since it appeared in the August 2012 Ann Arbor Observer. Sumi Kailasapathy's target for expanding the police force, and her plan to pay for it, have been clarified.    (end of article)

[Originally published in August, 2012.]

 

 
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