“We’re at a crossroads of politics in Ann Arbor,” says Steve Kunselman, an incumbent city councilmember from the Third Ward on the southeast side seeking a fourth term.
“We are at a turning point,” agrees Jack Eaton, a challenger in the Fourth Ward on the city’s southwest side. “For many years, a large majority on council had unchallenged control over the budget and the council agenda. Over time, new voices have been added. It began with Mike Anglin, Steve Kunselman, and Jane Lumm. The 2012 election added Sumi Kailasapathy and Sally Petersen.”
Kunselman frames the August 6 vote as a choice as “between politicos that want to hold onto power and those of us who want good government.” But his real complaint is not about how local government does its work–it’s about what it’s trying to do. “The leadership of the city,” he charges, “is trying to turn us into a metropolis.”
Eaton agrees, asserting that mayor John Hieftje has “shifted the emphasis away from good public service to changing the nature of our city.” Eaton opposed building the new Justice Center, would have delayed the Library Lane parking structure, and says that on council, he’d favor “eliminating all spending on regional projects that are not funded by all communities in the region, such as commuter rail.” That’s a direct jab at Mayor Hieftje, an enthusiastic advocate of commuter trains–and of a new station to serve them.
The mayor defends both his past record and his vision of the future. “I’d say I’m the good government mayor,” he responds. “The city is incredibly efficient now with a third less staff [than when he was elected mayor in 2000]. We went through the recession, and we didn’t raise the millage while a lot of cities around Michigan did, including Grand Rapids, Lansing, and Sterling Heights. The people of this city owe a debt of gratitude to the [employees] who worked here during the recession … Except that we collect the leaves a different way, we have the same level of service now as we had ten years ago.
“I don’t see Ann Arbor ever becoming a metropolis,” Hieftje adds. “We’re never going to have more than 140,000 people. But we have to recognize that with Michigan’s system of taxation, if we don’t have growth, cities can never keep up with the costs of doing business.”
What Eaton calls changing the nature of Ann Arbor, Hieftje calls “preparing the city for the future. I’m always looking twenty, thirty years out. Times change, and we’re in a new age with a new generation coming to work here and live here, and they look at the city and at life in a different way … They want to live close and not commute–and if they do commute, they want to do it by train.”
Kunselman, a fifty-year-old U-M energy management liaison, and Eaton, a sixty-year-old labor lawyer, aren’t running against the mayor in the August 6 Democratic Party primary (though Kunselman says he will next year if Hieftje tries for an unprecedented eighth term). They’re running against those they see as his proxies: Kunselman against Parks Advisory Commission chair Julie Grand, a thirty-eight-year-old health policy studies lecturer at the U-M Dearborn, and Eaton against Marcia Higgins, sixty, who’s served on council since 1999.
Higgins supported the Justice Center and the Library Lane projects, and last fall voted to fund a study for a new train station. Eaton says that the city should have rented space instead of building the Justice Center; that Library Lane “should not have been built until the plans for what goes on top were concluded,” and he says he’ll oppose using general fund money to build a train station “while we have understaffed police and fire departments and unresolved infrastructure problems.”
The Justice Center and Library Lane are the past, and the train station–if it’s ever built–is in the future. For the moment, the hottest issue is private development–specifically, the giant 413 E. Huron high-rise.
Kunselman voted against the project, and Eaton says he’d have done likewise. Higgins voted to approve it, agreeing with Hieftje that the city had no legal option, but says that shows zoning ordinances need re-examination. Grand, who is running for council for the first time, says she’d have voted for it, too, but acknowledges that when she’s out knocking on doors, she’s hearing “a lot of dissatisfaction with development. It’s the dramatic change of the last two years that bothers people.”
Looking ahead, both Kunselman and Eaton say they’ll work to curtail the city’s Downtown Development Authority while expanding the police and fire departments. And it wouldn’t be Ann Arbor if council candidates weren’t debating the state of the city’s streets.
A consistent critic of the mayor since returning to council in 2009, Kunselman set his sights on the city’s Downtown Development Authority this term. Eaton, making his third run for council, has now joined him–though each has a different criticism of the authority.
Eaton’s questions are basic: “What is the DDA doing with the money they get from the parking system?” he asks. “Do they need $15 million per year to fix the sidewalks?”
Kunselman thinks he knows the answer: “All the DDA’s money is going into the parking structures,” he charges, “not infrastructure and downtown development.” And, he says, “the DDA is not accountable to council as a whole. Before this year, the minority members of council [who opposed the mayor] were not on the committees that dealt with the DDA. Look at last year’s parking agreement: it wasn’t given a full vetting by council.”
“Every project we’ve done has been approved by [the entire] council, including the parking agreement,” counters Leah Gunn, who retired from the DDA board in July. “Seventeen percent of the gross revenues from the parking system go directly to the city. On top of that, we’re paying half a million dollars per year for the new Justice Center and over $600,000 per year on street repairs and streetscapes. And we don’t own a thing. Every single parking structure belongs to the city, and all the things we do downtown are done to city-owned infrastructure.”
Told that Kunselman claims “the parking system is not sustaining itself,” Gunn snorts. “Of course we are! When we took over parking in ’92, it was losing $250,000 per year, and the structures were all falling down. Now we’re grossing about $18 million per year, and part of that money is used for debt service and for a very robust maintenance program so they won’t fall into disrepair again. The DDA came to the rescue and saved the city’s parking system.”
Higgins agrees that the parking system has flourished under the DDA’s management. “It’s been like night and day since they took over. In general, the DDA has done a good job and been a good partner for the city.”
Commercial real estate agent Jim Chaconas, who brokers more downtown real estate deals than anyone, goes further. “Thank God for the DDA,” he says. “And thank God the DDA built more parking. We wouldn’t have all these new tenants without them. [Downtown is] still where everyone wants to be, especially IT.”
Julie Grand couldn’t agree more. “One of the reasons to live here is the vibrant downtown. The DDA is doing a good job, and it’s not right to vilify them because they’re good at their mission.”
Council plans to discuss the DDA in September, when Kunselman and Higgins will both still be members regardless of the outcome of the primary election, and the balance of power still favors the pro-DDA forces. But if Eaton and Kunselman win this month and the decision gets pushed back past the November general election, the DDA can likely look forward to less money and more scrutiny.
Just as 413 East Huron threatens to loom over the historic homes nearby, the planned student high-rise casts a shadow over the August vote. Though many residents and councilmembers argued it was too big for the neighborhood, council ultimately approved the project by a vote of six to five, with the mayor casting the deciding vote.
Hieftje says he voted for the project because “our attorneys advised it and we talked to an outside expert, attorney Carol Rosati [co-author of Michigan Zoning, Planning and Land Use, a standard text on the subject], and she concurred. Our prospects were low we’d prevail and high we’d lose–and a loss can run into the tens of millions of dollars. Did we want to have to sell West Park if we lost?”
Kunselman, though, believes that “if the developer had sued, we would have won at county circuit court.” Eaton would’ve taken his chances, too: “As an attorney, I can tell you that clients regularly disregard their attorney’s advice.”
Chaconas thinks council made the right decision. If city officials turn down a project that meets zoning requirements, he says, “they’ll get sued by the developer–and the developer will win. Novi tried to stop development that met zoning, and it cost the city [a judgment for] $72 million.”
Higgins defends her vote, but not the project itself: “The zoning code is forty years old,” she says, “and we need to resolve its contradictions.”
As far as crime goes, the trend is clear. From 2002 to 2011 the number of crimes reported to the AAPD fell from 9,755 to 6,299, an amazing 35 percent drop. The number rose to 6,876 last year, but, based on the first six months, 2013 is likely to match 2011’s record low.
The trend in law enforcement is equally clear. Including U-M public safety officers, the number of cops in town dropped 32 percent, from 254 in 2000 to 173 now, including 119 AAPD officers.
Despite the parallel declines, Kunselman and Eaton both want to expand the AAPD. “We all know Ann Arbor is a safe town,” acknowledges Kunselman, “but police presence sustains public safety.”
“Our current police chief says we don’t do proactive policing, we do reactive policing,” says Eaton. “Proactive is having cops downtown, and their presence makes people feel more secure.”
Asked if we need more cops, Grand replies, “I don’t know. Some people say we need more. Some people say they don’t want to spend any more on police.” But, she adds, whatever the merits of expanding the force, her opponent is on the wrong track about how to do it.
“Steve is aligned with a certain team [on council], and his decisions are motivated by the team, and not by the whole community,” Grand charges. “He voted on the last budget to add three police officers, and he was willing to cut probation officers from six to three to do it.”
Kunselman says halving the number of probation officers “might not have been the result” of the proposal to cut the Fifteenth District Court’s budget. But court administrator Keith Zeisloft disagrees: “A $270,000 reduction would’ve resulted in the loss of three full-time probation officer positions,” he emails.
Higgins agrees with Eaton that “feeling safe is a perception, [and] with downtown beat cops people feel safer.” But, like Grand, she equivocates on the need for more cops. “I’d like to give Chief Seto time to tell us if he needs more officers and/or additional support for the department and in what capacity.”
AAPD chief John Seto writes in an email that the “AAPD does a great job in ‘reactive’ policing, and my focus has been to implement more proactive policing,” including deploying more beat cops downtown. While admitting he has “no way of knowing” if that will reduce crime, Seto says “increased police presence in any part of town will have positive impacts.”
No doubt. Even with crime at an all-time low, some folks feel safer with more cops–just like some politicians feel safer telling voters more cops mean more safety.
Not the mayor. Asked if the city needs more police officers, Hieftje replies, “It’s hard to say we do, judging by crime numbers. We’re in the top 12 percent for cities of our size for lowest crime in the country–and we’re a college town.”
And don’t forget the potholes. “The most common complaint I get is the city is not spending enough on road repair,” says Eaton. “We collect a special millage for road maintenance. I know we were saving money in case we had to do the Stadium bridge repairs, but why do the city leaders still have money amassed?”
Higgins agrees that the city cut back on routine repairs when it looked like it might have to pay the entire $23 million cost of the Stadium bridges near the Big House: “We banked the money because we were afraid it was the only way we could get the money. The feds and the state were not funding that type project back then.”
But, she adds, Eaton is mistaken in thinking the city is still holding onto it: “When we knew we’d get federal and state money, we took the money we’d saved and started repairing streets.” The road millage fund balance peaked at $20 million in 2012–but the city doubled its road spending that year, to $18 million. With another $19 million worth of work underway this year, and still more scheduled for 2014, the balance is on track to drop back to its normal level of $9 million.
Eaton also questions how the city paid for its share of the Stadium bridges. He contends the current city leadership shifts funds willy-nilly from one project to another and cites “as an example [that] they used sewer money to finance bridge work.”
That’s partly true, says Mike Nearing, project manager for the Stadium bridges–but the money was spent openly and legitimately. “Ann Arbor’s $7 million for the bridge came from various city funds. Most came from the street millage, but storm sewer money was used to pay for the needed storm water improvements.”
The contenders are all Democrats. (Higgins, the last Republican to have served on council, switched parties in 2005.) But that doesn’t mean the races aren’t hotly contested.
Steve Kunselman joined council in 2006, winning a three-way primary by just twenty votes, only to be decisively beaten by Christopher Taylor when he ran for re-election. The next year Kunselman beat incumbent Leigh Greden by just four votes in another three-way race. But in 2011 he comfortably outpolled both his challengers combined to keep his seat, and at this point is the presumptive favorite for reelection.
Marcia Higgins was first elected as a Republican in 1999, then won a Democratic primary after switching parties. She ran unopposed in the next three primaries and beat Republican challengers in the 2009 and 2011 general elections with an average 60 percent of the votes–decisive, but less than most Democrats get in city general elections.
Jack Eaton, who got involved in local politics through the Friends of Dicken Woods neighborhood group, has run for council twice before, both times against Margie Teall. Teamed with fact-challenged mayoral candidate Pat Lesko, he lost more than two-to-one in 2010 but came within eighteen votes of beating Teall in 2012. He can carry that momentum into his race against Higgins.
Whatever the outcome, Kunselman and Eaton are right that the city is at a political crossroads. If Higgins and Grand win, it could rejuvenate Hieftje’s vision of more mass transit and a new train station. If Kunselman and Eaton win, the DDA will come under increasing pressure, mass transit will be viewed more warily, and the train station may be dead even before the present study is completed.
The only thing that’s certain is that the decision will be made by very few people. In Kunselman’s, Higgins’, and Eaton’s seven primary races since 2005, the highest voter turnout was 2,192. When the Third and Fourth Ward voters decide the city’s political direction on August 6, every vote will count.
This article has been edited since it appeared in the August 2013 Ann Arbor Observer. The spelling of Leigh Greden’s name has been corrected.