Ten Candidates, One Contest
But on it hangs the city's future
Even in an election year with no national or state offices at stake, ten candidates are competing November 5 for five seats on city council. It's the most heavily contested council race in the last ten years.
Because only a third of Ann Arbor voters choose Republican candidates even in presidential elections--and because Tea Party Republicans aren't trying their luck again after three ran and lost in 2011--no Republicans are bothering to run, though Ward Two's independent incumbent Jane Lumm spent three terms on council as a Republican in the nineties and ran for mayor as a Republican in 2004.
That leaves Democrats running in all five wards. Only Ward Four's Jack Eaton--who defeated incumbent Marcia Higgins in the August primary--is unopposed.
In Ward Two, Lumm is being challenged by a Hieftje supporter, planning commission chair Kirk Westphal. Ward One's Sabra Briere faces Jeff Hayner, a Democrat campaigning as an independent. In Ward Five, frequent council critic Tom Patridge has registered a write-in campaign against Mike Anglin.
In the year's most interesting twist, the newly formed Mixed Use Party is backing a pair of independent candidates: Conrad Brown is making it a three-way race in Ward Two, while Sam DeVarti is taking on Steve Kunselman in Ward Three.
Though Brown is a libertarian and DeVarti a self-described bleeding-heart liberal, both want to replace the city's current zoning laws with a much less restrictive system devised by party chair Will Leaf. Neiher is likely to win--Lumm's the only non-Democrat elected to council in a decade--but the party's focus on zoning is timely after council's controversial vote last spring to approve a fourteen-story apartment building at 413 E. Huron.
Given the usual fate of non-Democrats, Hayner and Partridge are likewise long shots. But in Ward Two, Lumm vs. Westphal looks like a real race. Westphal has a robust critique of Lumm's time on council, but Lumm defends herself strongly, and her coalition of disaffected Democrats and die-hard Republicans makes her a formidable
incumbent. So the big questions are: how many votes will Brown draw in Ward Two, and from whom?
The city's political direction hinges on the outcome. If Westphal wins, the balance of power on the eleven-member council will still favor the programs and initiatives of mayor John Hieftje--at least until Hieftje steps down next year. If Lumm wins, the balance will shift to those who call themselves independent voices--Anglin, Kunselman, and Eaton, plus Sumi Kailasapathy and Sally Petersen (who are not up for reelection this year)--and they'll finally have the power to pursue the goals they've so far only talked about: hiring more police officers and firefighters, restricting development, and limiting the Downtown Development Authority.
The differences in Ward Two are stark.
Jane Lumm voted against 413 E. Huron and wants to hire more police officers and firefighters. She also counts among her achievements opposing the mayor's transportation initiatives and saving Huron Hills golf course from partial privatization. Kirk Westphal calls Lumm's votes "irresponsible" and argues her "continued service on council is exposing us to financial calamity. Council came within one vote of a multimillion-dollar loss on 413 E. Huron."
Though Lumm still identifies as Republican, the sixty-year-old community volunteer says she runs as an independent because "I didn't leave the party. The party left me." She got just 31 percent in her 2004 mayoral run, but as an independent beat Hieftje ally Stephen Rapundalo with 60 percent of the vote in 2011.
"What motivated me to run two years ago is what motivates me now: a sense that city government has lost touch with the community," says Lumm. "I've felt that frustration across party lines. That's why I have the support of independents, Republicans, Democrats, and libertarians."
Asked what she's accomplished on council, Lumm replies frankly. "I tried a lot of things and got dinged on a lot of things. For two years I tried to add staffing to the police force, and that wasn't supported. I recommended the DDA add three beat cops downtown, and that got tabled until after the election."
She stoutly defends her vote against 413 E. Huron, a high-rise student apartment that will tower over nearby homes. "There were valid legal reasons to vote against it: it didn't meet the intent of the city's development ordinances. I recognize the legal risks, but that assumed they'd sue us and win, and I don't think they would."
"That project complied with current zoning," Westphal retorts. "The developer would have sued, and we would have lost, and people would have had a [council] recall effort going by this time."
The forty-three-year-old urban planner "took the mayor's [U-M] class in public policy as part of my master's. At the end I told [Hieftje] I wanted to volunteer for the city. Soon after that, there was an opening on the planning commission. I started in 2006."
Westphal also blasts Lumm for "voting twice against [accepting] federal funds for the new train station. There seems to be some political benefit to fueling people's discontent but not in a way that helps us move forward."
"Preventing it from going forward was a victory," says Lumm of the train station. "I've not seen a case made for it, and I don't want it, particularly at the [proposed] Fuller Road site."
If she's reelected, Lumm says, "priorities like public safety will become real priorities. And there probably won't be a train station, not at Fuller Road anyway. Transportation will not be a priority. Basic services will be."
Westphal agrees power would shift--but thinks the change would be for the worse. "Because there is no crisis at the moment, many people haven't been motivated to find out what's happening. But I don't think we should wait for a crisis to do something."
The other candidate in Ward Two is Conrad Brown. Like Sam DeVarti in Ward Three, Brown was handpicked by Mixed Use Party chair Will Leaf. (The party originally had three candidates, but Jaclyn Vresics dropped her Ward Five bid in late August, though her name remains on the ballot.)
"I've known Sam for many years," says the twenty-three-year-old Leaf, son of former Greenhills principal Gil Leaf. "We went to Pioneer together. I know Conrad through the College Libertarians."
"I was the president of the Young Americans for Liberty," says the twenty-two-year-old Brown, "and Will got me interested in zoning."
"Zoning controls everything," says Leaf, a recent U-M grad who now owns his own business making chemical-free sunscreen. "I took classes on urban planning and read many books on zoning and studied Ann Arbor's zoning code. It's fascinating."
"What we propose are real reforms," says Brown, a biopsychology major at the U-M with plans to go to medical school. "If the Mixed Use Party's plan had been in place, 413 East Huron wouldn't have happened."
"The current policies are doomed to failure," adds Leaf. "Our solution is straightforward and easy to understand. It regulates what can be set in each of five zones, with height limited by the properties near it, and it allows owners to decide use, so [for example] more neighborhood convenience stores are possible in mixed-use buildings. The residents are protected [from commercial intrusions] by already existing noise and air pollution ordinances."
Leaf's plan would lift lot size limits, make it easy to change land use, and allow more unrelated people to share a dwelling. If it's adopted, Brown predicts, "rents would go down, and the number of people living downtown would go up."
Brown says he would also "dissolve the Downtown Development Authority. It's an unaccountable board, and public money shouldn't be used to subsidize private development. Private ownership is better for parking structures--and for golf courses. The city-owned golf course is great, but it's not a vital service."
"We should privatize the parking structures," agrees Sam DeVarti, "and we could use the money to repair roads."
"I really like Steve [Kunselman]," says the twenty-three-year-old EMU math major. But "when Will showed me his plan, I said 'I'm all in.'
"Because I'm a member of the Mixed Use Party, people assume I'm a libertarian," DeVarti adds. "But I'm for gun control and more human services. And I think we're already spending enough on police and need to spend more on public housing."
Kunselman is used to having challengers: the U-M energy management liaison has faced eight in seven years, more than any other councilmember. And he bluntly dismisses the Mixed Use Party's platform as "misguided. I have a master's in urban planning, and I can tell you their plan doesn't meet all the criteria for what they want to accomplish: more student housing and loud parties. It's going backwards in history to regulate by simplifying, and it would have serious negative consequences because people would take advantage."
The fifty-year-old has kinder words for his young opponent. "I know Sam, and I'm great friends with him and his family. I appreciate Sam running, and I hope after this he will run again as a Democrat."
DeVarti could get that opportunity: Kunselman says he plans to run for mayor next year--and if he wins, his council seat will come open again.
The first time Sabra Briere ran for council in 2007, the Ward One incumbent recalls, she had two opponents but "no agenda. And I don't have an agenda now. I'm simply working to be the kind of representative I want: I listen to all sides and make up my own mind."
Jeff Hayner is unconvinced. Echoing themes sounded by the mayor's opponents, he says he's running against Briere because "we need a more independent voice on council.
"I'd vote to return city budget to core services," adds the forty-nine-year-old contractor. "If it's necessary to increase police and fire, I'd vote to increase. Basically, I'm for sensible budget priorities." If that sounds like Lumm and Eaton, it's no surprise: Hayner spoke at Lumm's campaign kickoff and campaigned with Eaton during his primary race.
Briere says the biggest issue facing the city is "lack of trust in the government. The question is: is government working for you? And a significant section of the city feels it isn't working for them. If we had a daily newspaper, it would make a huge difference. We'd have shared facts and not shared assertions that pass for truth, like the suggestion for a PILOT [payment in lieu of taxes] program with the university. It's not possible."
Hayner says the city's biggest issues are "neglected roads and infrastructure and the reduction in core services like police and fire. Taxes stay the same, but services have been reduced. There's no Christmas tree pickup and no leaf pickup--or anyway not the way it used to be." To pay for restoring services, Hayner would "reach out to the university. A PILOT program has worked in other cities, and it wouldn't hurt to ask here."
It might not hurt to ask, but it's not likely to do much good, either. In a lengthy email, U-M spokesperson Jim Kosteva details the university's positive economic impact on the city and region, which, he argues, far outweighs the loss of direct tax revenues. He concludes: "I do not believe that any type of PILOT program is warranted."
Mayor Hieftje's announcement that he won't seek reelection in 2014 has reshuffled the political cards. Hieftje chose to reveal his plans now, he emails, "to give whoever is thinking about running plenty of time to ponder it."
There's plenty to ponder. As a lame duck, Hieftje may be less able to push initiatives like the new train station and regional mass transit. And the power vacuum could give the "independent voices" room to advance their own agenda.
While they'll have room to work on development and the DDA, increasing public safety staff will be tougher. Police officers and firefighters are expensive, and unless they're willing to raise taxes--something Hieftje assiduously avoided--the only ways to find the money is to cut other general fund services. That certainly is possible--but after fourteen years of penny-pinching under Hieftje, it will not be easy.
The mayor himself has no apparent regrets: "I'm already feeling a lot lighter," he emails.
[Originally published in November, 2013.]