The Hieftje Decades
The mayor sees even tougher times ahead
From the May, 2011 issue
"People tell me I couldn't have picked a worse decade to be mayor," says John Hieftje with a rueful smile. Since he was first elected in 2000, state aid has slowed to a trickle, real estate values have nosedived, and unemployment in the county has nearly tripled. During his first ten years as mayor, the city cut its staff by more than 25 percent, including seventeen department heads, thirty-three firefighters, and more than ninety police officers.
John Hieftje is no Scott Walker--he says he's a strong supporter of union rights--but last year, both the police officers' and the firefighters' unions endorsed his opponent in the Democratic primary, blogger Pat Lesko. So did the local Sierra Club--even though Hieftje has been a member since 1984.
The mayor is soft-spoken and unassuming, but in his quiet way, he's also very competitive. The gangly onetime Realtor blasted past Lesko with an eye-popping 83 percent of the vote. As he did in his first race ten years earlier, he carried every precinct in the city. Many believe the job is his for as long as he wants it.
"The opposition's central argument was the sky is falling; the city is in bad shape and grossly mismanaged if not corrupt," Hieftje told the Observer afterward. "But the sky is not falling, nor is city government mismanaged or corrupt--and voters understood this."
As he ceaselessly reminds anyone who will listen, Ann Arbor may be doing better than any other city in Michigan. Lansing, he points out, is facing a "$21 or $22 million [budget] hole--ten times the size of ours," and is looking at cutting seventy-nine police officers and seventy-one fire fighters. "Jackson closed two out of its three fire stations."
By comparison, Tree Town's economies look modest: closing one fire station (and, lately, another on a rotating basis); less tending of the city's parks; no more Christmas tree pickup. "All things considered," the mayor says, "I'm pretty happy with the way the city has held
But Hieftje has now picked an even worse decade to be mayor: this one. Ann Arbor's projected $2.4 million deficit may be a shadow of Lansing's, but that doesn't mean it will be easy to close. Because Ann Arbor started cutting staff sooner than other cities did, "the easy stuff was done 2001-2006," says council member Carsten Hohnke.
City council must now grapple with choices no one wants: across-the-board service cuts, less money for human services programs, a possible city income tax. The city's hardest years, Hohnke predicts, are "in front of us."
"Michigan cities are on a train," Hieftje agrees, "and the train is heading off the end of the tracks. And you're going to see some more of them start to go off.
"If things turn around in the next four or five years, then all the cities won't go over the edge. But you're really going to see the quality of lives in our cities impacted."
This term, Hieftje will tie Republican Bill Brown (1945-1957) as Ann Arbor's longest-serving mayor. His own explanation for his political durability is simple: "I'm an environmentalist and a fiscal conservative," he says--both qualities Ann Arbor voters value. He traces his frugality to his blue-collar background and his cultural heritage: his hard-to-pronounce last name (HEEF-tya) is Frisian, a Dutch ethnic group. "All the Frisians are pretty close," he says.
Born in Battle Creek, he grew up on the Old West Side; his father ran a small heating and cooling business before finishing his career in the city building department. The family had a long history in the military, and his older brother was drafted in 1965. But hanging around the U-M campus, and talking to his brother's friends who served in Vietnam, Hieftje became "an anti-war activist from the time I was sixteen or seventeen."
That didn't sit well with his father, who had served in the army air forces in WWII. Hieftje moved out of his parents' house at eighteen. "There was about an eight-year period when we were pretty much estranged," he says. "I think we came back together over fishing. It's pretty hard to sit in a boat together for four hours and not talk!" (His parents died last year.)
Hieftje attended Eastern, dropped out (he finally completed his bachelor's in 1997), and for a period surveyed for the U.S. Forest Service in northern Michigan. Married and divorced young, he did "a lot of different things," from framing houses to driving a truck, before settling into a career selling houses for the Reinhart Company. "Customers liked him and had great loyalty to him," recalls his former boss, Dave Lutton. "He wasn't a superstar by any means, but he was a solid agent."
Hieftje says he made "considerably" more as a Realtor than he does as mayor (he earned $42,000 last year, plus another $16,000 for teaching a class at the U-M's Ford School of Public Policy). But what he liked most about the job was the freedom. If he needed more money, he worked more. If he wanted time off, he took it--to go camping in Canada for weeks at a time, or to visit his future wife, pianist Kathryn Goodson, during her doctoral studies in Karlsruhe, Germany.
Hieftje, sixty, is trim, his high forehead melting into baldness, and he usually dresses business casual. "He works to appear colorless," says a longtime acquaintance. Goodson, forty-eight, cuts a far more striking figure. But "opposites attract," says Goodson. "We learn a lot from each other. Before he met me, he had never been to Europe, or a big city." Hieftje shared with her his love of the outdoors--before she met him, Goodson recalls, "I had never been to the wilderness."
Like a lot of people, Hieftje was drawn into politics by a neighborhood issue. He was living on Traver Road across from Leslie Park in 1998 when city council put a bond proposal on the ballot to build a 12,000-square-foot science education center in the park--much too large a building, neighbors felt, for a nature area. Hieftje and others campaigned vigorously against the proposal, and it was defeated.
"We did a tremendous amount of work in three weeks," recalls his then-neighbor Tim Colenback, a U-M social work professor. That got them thinking, "Maybe we can do something on a council level." A year later, in 1999, Colenback managed Hieftje's campaign in the Democratic primary for the First Ward city council seat. "We did things in a different way, a bigger campaign than people had seen before," Colenback recalls. "I think we got twenty-five thousand glossy fliers."
When Hieftje trounced the party- endorsed candidate, Simone Lightfoot (now on the school board), an exuberant Colenback exclaimed, "You can run for mayor next year!" Soon afterward, longtime Republican mayor Ingrid Sheldon announced her retirement, and in 2000, Hieftje easily beat Republican Stephen Rapundalo.
Not long afterward, he and Colenback parted ways. A First Ward council seat came open, and Colenback wanted the appointment. Instead, the mayor chose an African American banker, John Roberts--under pressure, Colenback believes, from other Democrats who saw it as a "black seat."
"I was very upset," recalls Colenback. He'd also hoped that Hieftje would govern as a "progressive," by which he meant a mayor who encouraged neighborhood participation and pushed affordable housing--not downtown development. Instead, the mayor emerged as a pragmatic middle-of-the-roader (the road, of course, veering more to the left in Ann Arbor than it does elsewhere). The two stopped speaking, and Colenback became active in "Progressives of Washtenaw" (POW), a group that for several years supported candidates critical of Hieftje.
But POW is now concentrating on state races, and Colenback says he and the mayor are back on good terms. "I was not reading the electorate properly," Colenback reflects, looking back on their disagreements. "John was much more in tune with where people really are, and he has to be. He is the mayor."
Hiefjte identifies his two biggest achievements as the successful campaign for the Greenbelt and the city hall reorganization. The Greenbelt millage vote in 2003 was perhaps the single most critical step in Washtenaw County's successful land preservation movement (see "Back to the Land"). But when the economy crashed, it was the reorganization that saved Ann Arbor.
When Hieftje took office, the city had more than 1,000 employees. Unusually for a Democrat at the time, he had campaigned on the need to improve efficiency, and he spent a lot of his first weeks in office going from department to department to see whether the city could make do with fewer people.
The first staff reductions came through an early retirement program orchestrated by then-city administrator Neil Berlin. But the drive really gathered speed when Berlin himself took early retirement and council hired Roger Fraser to replace him. Smart and extremely efficient, he's completely reorganized City Hall.
Ann Arbor's is a "weak mayor" government, with day-to-day authority held by the city administrator. But Hieftje quit real estate long ago and regularly works forty and more hours a week on city business. That could be a formula for conflict, but in practice, the two men have worked together very smoothly. Fraser says he considers their differences a plus--"I learned a long time ago you don't want people around you who just emulate who you are"--and that he and Hieftje respect each other's roles. "As a mayor, I think he has a strong image," says Fraser. "He's the chairman of the board. But he's not the CEO. His is the outdoor side--he is the people contact."
When the city started to cut staff, no one had any idea of how far Michigan would fall. But today, the decision looks prescient. "We started a whole lot earlier than most anybody else in the state in trying to reduce our size of government," says Fraser. "By the time this economic crisis had really peaked, we had already cut our staff by 25 percent." Without the cuts, Fraser estimates, the city's annual budget would be at least $10 million higher.
Some suggest that it is Fraser, not Hieftje, who deserves the real credit for the reorganization. "We have a city administrator-driven city," says Stephen Rapundalo, who now represents the Second Ward as a Democrat. (Originally elected as Republicans, Rapundalo and fellow Second Ward rep Marcia Higgins switched parties in the mid-2000s.) "Even when I came on board," he says, "it was a dysfunctional city--there was difficulty getting information, the right hand not knowing what the left was doing, inability to communicate with the public. There were gross inefficiencies in the business units. I shudder to think where we would be without [Fraser]."
The savings from the staff reductions allowed the city to replace two grungy maintenance garages with the Wheeler Center at Ellsworth and Stone School roads, and also helped pay for the new "Justice Center" addition to City Hall--a more controversial project. Some irate citizens, mocking Roger Fraser's support for it, call it the "Raj Mahal."
With its shiny metal siding, the new building is impossible to miss. Yet Hieftje believes that until recently, many Ann Arborites hadn't even noticed the staff downsizing that made it possible. "The increase in efficiency has been incredible," he says. The ultimate accolade for Fraser's work recently came from Republican governor Rick Snyder: Fraser retired from the city at the end of April to take a job in Lansing. Starting this month, he'll be the assistant state treasurer for municipal finance, where his responsibilities will include overseeing the governor's controversial emergency financial manager program.
Many believe it will be difficult for the city to find so savvy a replacement. Hieftje, though, is characteristically unruffled. "The city has a much better reputation among city administrators than it used to," he says. And thanks to the reorganization, he adds, it's much less top-heavy: "It's a lot easier to get five [department heads] in a room than twenty-two." Chief financial officer Tom Crawford will be interim administrator during the search, which Hieftje hopes to wrap up by August 1.
Hieftje lost another important partner in the 2009 Democratic primary, when Steve Kunselman beat Third Ward council member Leigh Greden. Hieftje had called Greden the hardest-working member of council; other council members called him the "go-fer" for his back-and-forth work with the council and mayor, especially on the budget.
"Leigh's extremely talented, and he continues to have conversations with a lot of us, including the mayor," says First Ward rep Sandi Smith. "People still kind of use him as a sounding board. He's the one you go to for the facts and figures."
Hieftje says he doesn't talk often with Greden, and Greden, now EMU's director of government relations, disputes the perception that he's still a player behind the scenes. "Every once in a while, people may ask me for input or advice or even institutional memory," he says. Hieftje says other council members remain heavily involved in the budget, including Higgins, Rapundalo, Sabra Briere, and Chris Taylor.
The most frequent criticism of Hieftje is that he's sometimes changed his positions, in Rapundalo's words, "because it's politically expedient." A more positive spin--also in Rapundalo's words--is that he's "very much in tune with the pulse of the residents here in town," and revises his views based on their input.
Still, in his early years in office, it appeared to some onlookers, including council members, that Hieftje avoided casting unpopular votes. At the time, protocol dictated that the mayor voted last, which allowed him to see the outcome before committing himself. "So we changed the rules," says former council member Joan Lowenstein, and now council votes in a rotating sequence.
Some cite the Justice Center as a prime example of Hieftje's caution. The need for new space for the police department and city courts has been discussed for decades, and Roger Fraser and Leigh Greden were strong supporters of the project. But when the proposal finally came to city council, Hiefjte not only opposed it, he threatened to use his mayoral veto for the first time if it went ahead.
"It was a total shock," Greden recalls. Ultimately, Hieftje altered his position--but only after spending a year checking out existing buildings in hopes one would be cheaper than new construction. Even after satisfying himself that the Justice Center was the best option, he says, he waited until he was satisfied that paying for it wouldn't bleed the general fund. (He has yet to use his veto.)
The other common criticism is that Hieftje cares most about the budget and the environment, and doesn't provide leadership on other issues. "I think what you're hearing is people who wanted me to be a leader on their issue," he responds. "I can't be a leader on every issue, but I try to do all the ones that I believe are really important to the citizens of Ann Arbor." After the Greenbelt, his most conspicuous role has been to promote the "A2D2" rezoning that simplifies the approval process for downtown buildings.
He's the first to admit, though, that the issues that excite him most are energy and mass transit. He created the Mayor's Green Fair (on June 10 this year) to showcase alternative energy, and established the Mayor's Green Energy Challenge to reduce the city's use of fossil fuel. In hindsight, he says, the goal of getting 30 percent of the city's energy from renewable sources by this year was too optimistic--it was based on plans for major wind farms in Michigan's Thumb that haven't materialized--but he says he's pleased to have come within a hair of hitting an earlier goal of 20 percent.
His other great enthusiasm is rail travel. He points out that ridership on Amtrak's Michigan routes is rising, presumably because of higher gas prices, and he believes that's just the beginning. Between the Middle East turmoil and growing car sales in China, he predicts, "You're going to have five- and six- dollar gasoline in the snap of an eyelash."
A few years back, Hieftje was optimistic about a north-south commuter line on the old Ann Arbor Railroad. He now concedes that its prospects aren't good, in part because the track's divided ownership would prevent commuters from riding all the way downtown. But he remains enthusiastic about faster intercity service--"Imagine a three-hour trip to Chicago!"--and a commuter line linking Ann Arbor to Metro Airport and Detroit. "People don't understand, maybe, how far along the two projects are," he says. "The federal government has already allocated the funding for track improvements in northern Indiana and coming up into Illinois," clearing a bottleneck that often delays Amtrak's current Chicago service. The state has also bought and upgraded part of the track in Michigan, and the federal government has allocated $160 million to buy the rest. Now Hieftje is lobbying the state to come up with $40 million in matching funds.
Considering the scale of the mayor's railroad dreams, few fault him for the fact that, so far, they remain unfulfilled. "John may not have accomplished as much as he wanted when it comes to alternative transportation," Briere observes, "but he did more [to make it happen] than anyone else."
Hieftje's first decade in office was as difficult personally as it was professionally. In 2003, Goodson gave birth prematurely to a baby girl, Helena, in a Chicago hospital. While their daughter struggled for life in an incubator, Goodson lived for months in a Chicago apartment, with Hieftje joining her whenever he could. They shared Helena's struggles and ultimate death through emails to friends in Ann Arbor. Afterward, says a friend, "They did an amazing job of remembering her and still moving forward."
More recently, and more happily, the couple moved to a new home. "We loved it where we were living, mainly because of the very big nature areas across the street, but we never had a really good room for [Goodson's] piano," says Hieftje. "We were able to get a very good deal on a house that needed a lot of work." He's done a lot of that work himself--and Goodson now holds small concerts in their home on Baldwin several times a year.
Even a good deal in north Burns Park is expensive for a politician and a musician. Fortunately, "we were able to draw on family resources," Hieftje says. Goodson's farther, Gene, is an adjunct professor at the U-M business school--but he previously was CEO of Oshkosh Truck Corporation and headed a major division for auto parts maker Johnson Controls. Hieftje's son by his first marriage, Josh, who works at Zingerman's Roadhouse, is now buying their old house on Traver.
Hieftje calls next year's projected $2.4 million budget deficit " minuscule" compared to Lansing's shortfall. But with payroll now accounting for 80 percent of the general fund, more staff cuts are inevitable: Roger Fraser's final budget calls for eliminating thirty positions, including six police officers and seven firefighters. If all are implemented, the city's staff will fall below 700 FTEs--30 percent fewer than when Hieftje took office.
"It's hard to be a city in Michigan," says Hieftje. The Headlee Amendment limits property tax increases to the rate of inflation, yet benefit costs, especially for health care, have grown much faster. The state also limits cities' ability to impose local sales or income taxes. At first, Lansing sweetened those constraints by sharing its own income and sales tax revenue. But as detailed in the article "Semi-Shared Suffering,", state revenue sharing now is being drastically curtailed--yet the limits on local taxing authority remain.
While stressing that he's not necessarily in favor of new taxes, Hieftje says that cities need more control over their destinies. "If the state is going to take [away] revenue sharing," he argues, "then the only right thing to do is give back the ability to local communities to decide" about taxes.
That brings him back to his metaphor for Michigan cities--the train that's heading off the end of the tracks. "And you're going to see some more of them start to go off.
"If it makes us feel better, Ann Arbor is in the caboose," he says. "But something has to turn around in Michigan--and hopefully the folks in Lansing are understanding that."
[Originally published in May, 2011.]