The Hieftje Era
Ann Arbor's longest-serving mayor leaves a changed city.
From the March, 2014 issue
"I did everything I set out to do," says mayor John Hieftje of his seven terms in office.
Sitting in city hall's south-facing first-floor conference room the day after the winter's heaviest snowfall, Ann Arbor's longest-serving mayor counts his accomplishments.
"Number one is the efficiency drive," he begins. "We went from 1,004 employees when I took office to 680 now. There was too much hiring in the nineties, and I told council at the first retreat after I became mayor that we have to shrink the workforce. I originally envisioned a 15 to 20 percent cut, though it turned out to be 30 percent, the last 10 percent because of the Great Recession.
"Everything that happened was colored by the recession. But even before that, the state cut revenue sharing, and money from outside dried up--then Pfizer left, and we lost 4.8 percent of our property tax revenue when the university bought the property. Every single year but last year we had to cut the budget while at the same time becoming more efficient. And we still do all the things we used to do, except we pick up leaves differently.
"One thing you have to realize: people at the city work really hard. Two people are doing the job that three used to do. It's what got us through the recession without a tax increase, when property tax revenues actually went down for the first time since the Great Depression.
"Number two is the environment," Hieftje continues. "Now we have the greenbelt, over 4,000 acres of land preserved from development around the city. We're also one of the most energy-efficient cities in the nation with LED streetlights, solar panels on buildings, and single-stream recycling.
"Number three is infrastructure. We had a police station and two maintenance garages in really bad condition, and the county wanted their courts building back. Now we have the new Justice Center and the new Wheeler Center. We did the Broadway and the Stadium bridges, and we're
currently doing the biggest project in the history of the city: replacing the West Plant at the wastewater treatment plant. And we built the underground [Library Lane] parking structure. We would never have Google and Barracuda and the other high-tech companies downtown without it.
"Number four is human services. Ann Arbor is one of only two cities in the state that still fund human services from the general fund. We maintained it throughout the recession, and now we're increasing it."
That's not the end of the mayor's list. "Look at safety services. Crime is down over the last ten years. Breaking-and-entering is at an all-time low. Look at downtown. When Borders left, it was doom and gloom, but now downtown is more vibrant than it has ever been, with more people living downtown than ever before."
To see how Hieftje's recounting of his accomplishments matched others' opinions of his tenure, we asked the four councilmembers who've announced they'd like his job: Steve Kunselman, Christopher Taylor, Sabra Briere, and Sally Hart Petersen. Kunselman, a tough Hieftje critic, declined to be interviewed.
For context we also asked a couple of former mayors: Lou Belcher and Ingrid Sheldon. Unlike the current mayor and the four declared candidates, who are all Democrats, Belcher and Sheldon are Republicans. Between them, the former mayors and the would-be mayors describe a range of views on what the city's become during Hieftje's almost fourteen years in office--and a preview what it may be like under his successor.
The three interviewed candidates mostly agree with Hieftje's estimation of his performance. "The mayor led Ann Arbor through the Great Recession and the collapse of its biggest local industry," says Christopher Taylor, a three-term Hieftje ally. "If he had not led the reorganization of city government, we would have had a catastrophic service failure. Now the city is a leader in high-quality, efficient government service."
"John led the effort to cut fat and reduce costs, and he did it before the recession," says Sally Petersen, who in her first term has emerged as a swing vote between pro- and anti-Hieftje factions. "His leadership style helped a lot. He leads with quiet confidence and never gets riled or panicky--a good style for tough times."
"He's the person who singlehandedly spearheaded the greenbelt initiative," says Sabra Briere, the three-term councilmember with the most independent voting record. "In 2003 there was a lot of destruction of farmland and a lot of concern about urban sprawl. The greenbelt dealt with that, and it captured people's imagination."
It even captured the imagination of Lou Belcher. "I'm somewhat enamored of the Greenbelt," says Belcher, an activist Republican who served from 1978 through 1985. Belcher adds that Hieftje leaves the city "basically in good financial condition."
That's about all he'll grant the current mayor. "Basic city services have been cut back too much. And in fire and police services, the cuts are way too deep. We should have foot patrols downtown like we did in my day. And back then we worked hard to meet fire standards, but now we've lost track of national standards. We've really put our priorities in the wrong place."
Hieftje agrees that "we need a few more police downtown to address nuisance crimes" but says that the city has "enough firefighters." It's true, though, that Belcher would snort at some of his successor's priorities: in Hieftje's self-assessment, his biggest failure is the city's public art program. Council voted in 2007 to devote 1 percent of the cost of construction projects to public art but suspended the program last year and recently voted to return the remaining money to its original funds.
"It's my fault," Hieftje says. "We established an innovative way to fund art but didn't properly staff it and didn't set up the proper protocols. I looked away and left the art commission hanging out there by themselves."
But the vote to defund public art wasn't just a referendum on the program's management: it's also a sign of a split in city council. Like December's decision to cap funding for the Downtown Development Authority, it reflects the rise to power of a group of councilmembers whose attitudes toward Hieftje's brand of activist governance range from skeptical to downright hostile. Some blame the mayor for that, and say that he hasn't done enough to bring along a new generation of leaders.
The mayor himself downplays the division. "I've always said council divides according to issue. We were lucky council was so together through the Great Recession. Council has changed now, but we still have really good people to carry on good government."
"When I came on council there was a strong effort made to educate me on how government works," Taylor says. If some members continue to see themselves as outsiders, he suggests, the choice is theirs rather than the mayor's: "There is an element on council that takes positions based on emotions rather than analysis. They have all the facts and the professional advice, but they don't 'get' it."
"It was relatively easy for John," says Briere. "When I joined council, the strong voices were Chris Easthope, Marcia Higgins, Leigh Greden, and then Joan Lowenstein and Steve Rapundalo--all of whom were on the mayor's 'side,' so John could take on other projects. But John has done a lot to bring in new city councilmembers. Most recently he brought Sally Petersen in and Chuck Warpehoski, both first-term members."
Petersen agrees that Hieftje has reached out. Though she defeated one of his closest allies, Tony Derezinski, "the day after I won the primary, the mayor called me up, congratulated me, and invited me to lunch. And he kept it up: we meet about every six weeks to discuss council business."
"No new leaders on council? Look at how many of them want to be mayor," quips Ingrid Sheldon. "And council has always been divided. My last months as mayor were hell because council was so partisan."
"We're always going to have a divided council," Lou Belcher agrees. "Or, anyway, we should. We were ripe for a machine when we went to a one-party system. Council moved elections to November to insure only Democrats would win because of the liberal student vote. Now there is a machine: the appointment of like-thinking people to boards and committees--old cronies who've been in politics for thirty, forty years. [Former county commissioner and DDA board member] Leah Gunn fits the bill, but there are more."
Asked if he created a political machine, Hieftje replies, "I've never met over 75 percent of the people on the boards and commissions until they submit their applications." And though Gunn was his campaign treasurer, he notes that she was originally appointed to the DDA board by Sheldon. "She stayed on because she was the institutional memory, and she did a wonderful job."
Belcher says that under Hieftje, the mayor's job has changed because John has said "'it's my full-time job.'" During his tenure, council more than doubled the mayor's salary; it currently pays $42,436 a year.
"He very deliberately changed the job," Sheldon concurs. "I would not describe myself as a ceremonial mayor, but I did have another job, and I expected the city administrator to be the spokesperson for the city. But Roger Fraser [city administrator from 2002 to 2011] was not the voice of the government. John Hieftje was."
Taylor defends Hieftje. "There is not and never has been a machine since I've been on council. The mayor articulates a positive and progressive vision and an overwhelming majority of people agree with him. That's not a machine; it's a democracy."
So does Petersen: "He was a strong leader with a clear vision, and he put people in place to realize his vision. That's what politics is all about."
Hieftje agrees the job of mayor has changed but argues that "the change started before me. Jerry Jernigan [1987-1991] was the last mayor with a full-time job. Liz Brater [1991-1993] didn't have an outside job. But what really changed was electronic mail. The volume of mail has really gone up, and I try to respond to everybody that writes. And people don't contact the city administrator. They contact the mayor."
Officially, Ann Arbor has what's been described as a "weak mayor-strong city administrator" system of government. But Hieftje, who teaches a course on municipal government at the U-M, says "our system has become a hybrid. The mayor takes the lead on more things--like I work with city staff on environmental and transit issues. If things needed to happen, I lobbied for them."
"John's legacy may be that many people can't think of the mayor without thinking of John in a negative or a positive way," says Briere. "The mayor's role is far more integrated into the city."
Hieftje believes his legacy is "efficient government--and I hope council maintains the same level of efficiency. What worries me is if revenues go up, there's a temptation to hire more people. I can see the city needs twenty or thirty more people over the next two or three years--a few more police, but what we really need are more people in project management and customer service."
Though he says he's not going to endorse a successor, Hieftje clearly favors two candidates. "Sabra Briere and Christopher Taylor would both make excellent mayors. They'd have different focuses, but they'd each do a fine job. I've always gotten along with Steve Kunselman, but he's never worked well with people who disagreed with him, which I think is essential in a mayor." He hedges on Petersen. "In comparison with the others, she has the least amount of experience--but I was elected after only one year on council."
Both Taylor and Petersen see the same difference between themselves and Kunselman. "Steve and I have different approaches to leadership," says Taylor. "I'm collaborative and listen. Steve's approach is more confrontational."
"Steve and I vote similarly, but our approach to governance is very different," Petersen says. "He's more combative. I'm more collaborative. We need someone more diplomatic as mayor."
As Briere sees the mayoral race, "Steve's campaign is very much against John, while Christopher is running to continue John's legacy. But they're both running because of John.
"I'm not running because of John. I don't have a desire to continue his legacy. I'm running because Ann Arbor deserves a mayor who is pragmatic and works for the citizens, wherever they live."
"Sabra and Chris are the status quo candidates," says Petersen. "Kunselman is for the status quo of an earlier era. I'm not for the status quo. The city needs to grow its private sector, not only downtown but also in the business corridors. I have a vision of ambitious growth through reasonable development."
The one gaping hole in Hieftje's list of accomplishments is a new train station. It's a gap he figures will be filled after he leaves office.
"Everybody [on council] voted to keep the train station [study] going," he notes.
But it's by no means certain that his successor will be as devoted to rail travel as Hieftje is. Of the four declared mayoral candidates, only Christopher Taylor and Sally Petersen unequivocally favor a new station. Steve Kunselman has said he sees no urgent need to replace the existing one, and Sabra Briere is withholding judgment--"I can wait," she says.
"There won't be a new train station without public support through a public vote," Briere adds. "So, after the environmental survey and vote of the public, we will know whether a new train station will be built."
Though Hieftje won't have his full-time mayor job after November, he's keeping his part-time gig at the university. "I like teaching, but I may also do something with the environment. I'm not retiring. I'm going to be sixty-three [this year], and I wanted to start something new before I turned sixty-five."
The weekend after we spoke, the mayor was heading to his cabin on Lake Superior. In the next few years, he emails, "I hope to spend 6-8 weeks hiking and living deep in the mountains of the Western U.S. or Canada, somewhere with wolves and grizzley bears."
"I'm never happier than when I'm in the middle of nowhere," he says with a smile. "Where I'm going this weekend isn't that far, though I'll have to snowshoe in a quarter mile.
"I've got a bit of a split personality. I feel more alive in the wilderness than anywhere--but I really enjoy being mayor."
[Originally published in March, 2014.]