Bergman and Gunn step down
by James Leonard
From the December, 2011 issue
Partly because redistricting is about to reduce the number of Ann Arbor commissioners from four to three, and partly because they're in their seventies, Barbara Bergman and Leah Gunn are retiring at the end of 2012 after a combined thirty-six years on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners.
"Losing Barbara and Leah is like a one-two punch," says board chair Conan Smith. "We'll be losing all that expertise and experience when the need is so great."
Bergman and Gunn have had a huge impact on the county's human services programs. "The things they've fought for will be in the character of the county for generations," Smith says. "The Delonis Center [homeless shelter] and the juvenile detention center alone changed things in an almost permanent way."
The two veteran commissioners came to the county board from very different backgrounds, Bergman from the criminal justice system and Gunn from ward politics. But they shared a positive vision of government and what it can do for citizens.
"In the '70s, I worked in runaway services in Wayne County and in children's juvenile justice as an advocate," remembers Bergman. She also earned an MSW from the U-M and spent three years as a probation officer for the county's 14-A district court. "That's always been my focus: kids in jail.
"I first ran in '92 after the census and a new Ann Arbor [commission] district was created," she continues. "The county was already championing human services. I wanted to continue to do good work."
Bob Guenzel, county administrator from 1994 through 2010, says Bergman's support for human services was "unwaverable. Barbara's strong points are her intelligence, passion, and commitment to the county. She says some things that sometimes take people aback, but she listens to strong arguments."
Current administrator Verna McDaniel goes further. "Barbara is a wild woman. She says what's on her mind. She's real upfront and does not hide her feelings. She's relentless. She'll stay on you, and if she is, oh my God, watch out!"
Gunn started as a librarian at the U-M graduate and law libraries, but her avocation led to her true career. "When I moved to West Stadium in '69, the block captain was going to have a baby, and she asked me to take over her job. This was back in the days of index cards in a shoebox. I worked in the organization and managed campaigns and got to know all the Democrats so when [commissioner] Meri Lou Murray retired in '96, I was the logical one. And I had no opposition."
Gunn describes herself as "a bleeding-heart liberal, always have been, always will be. I learned it from JFK. I believe we have a moral imperative to care for the more vulnerable in our community."
Bob Guenzel doesn't disagree with Gunn's self-estimation but adds that she's "very politically astute. She understands the trade-offs you have to make. She's very smart, very strong-willed, and she tells it as it is. It adds to her credibility. Sometimes she comes on too strong, but it's usually for a good cause."
Gunn is a strategist and a deal maker, and she wants to take the peaceful route, says McDaniel. "But you better come prepared to change her mind with empirical data. Don't come in limping with anecdotal information. She needs facts and figures."
Comparing Bergman and Gunn, McDaniel says, "they're both fighters, but Leah's going to come into the ring and figure out your moves while Barbara's just going to come in and hit you between the eyes!"
The two most tangible monuments to Bergman and Gunn are the Delonis Center on Huron and the Washtenaw County Youth Center on Washtenaw, both opened in 2003.
"Leah was an ardent leader in the development of Delonis Center," says board chairman Smith, "and for her efforts, she was rewarded with a recall campaign!"
Though few issues split the board along party lines, this one did. But the canny Gunn knew how to work it. "The Delonis shelter divided us Democrat versus Republican," she recalls, "but we had support from Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township, and Superior Township, and we had the majority of Democrats."
It was nearly the same for Bergman over the juvenile detention center, though without the recall campaign. "I fought hard for the center--and that was a close fight," she remembers. "Some of the Republican and the out-county commissioners fought it tooth and nail. But we won because we got six votes.
"I was for the jail expansion too, and people gave me heat over it. Look, I don't want to put more people in jail, but when we do put people in jail, they're in our keeping, and we have a responsibility to them."
In recent years, Bergman and Gunn haven't been trying to expand human services--they've had all they can do to maintain the ones already offered. The two-year budget adopted in November cuts funding to outside groups, including the Humane Society of Huron Valley, in half (see Inside Ann Arbor, p. 11). Funds for human service groups like the United Way were cut by one-third, from $1.46 to $1.03 million.
"It's worse now--much, much worse," says Bergman. "People want to do good work, but we're out of bucks. We were a world-leading county in human services, and now the vulnerable are going to be hurt."
Gunn isn't giving up. "We want to restore them [the proposed cuts]. We're going to find it somewhere and give it back."
Bergman sees a way out. "I would personally support a human services millage, and I think this is going to happen, whether or not I'm on the board."
It could happen soon. "This board wants to do it," says Smith, "and I expect we'll have to have that conversation soon if we want it on [the ballot] in 2012. We'll try for next May."
If that happens, promoting the millage could be Bergman and Gunn's last project on the board. But after they retire, Bergman predicts that other commissioners will step up. "I can rest easy with [Ann Arbor Democrat] Yousef Rabhi and [Chelsea Republican] Rob Turner, and Conan really cares. Plus [former John Dingell staffer] Andy LaBarre has just declared he's running [for my seat], and he shares my passion for human services."
"I don't think the overall support will change much," Gunn agrees. "Yousef Rabhi and Rob Turner are both committed to human services. And if Conan doesn't support human services, I'll take a baseball bat to his house at night!"
[Originally published in December, 2011.]