Exit John Hieftje. Enter Christopher Taylor.
Ann Arbor's longest-serving mayor looks back--and its newest mayor looks forward.
From the December, 2014 issue
"I was very open in 2012 about why I ran for another term," says John Hieftje the day after the November election confirmed Christopher Taylor will succeed him as mayor. "I wanted to make sure the city got through the recession and [city administrator] Steve Powers got a good base to build on for success here."
Two days away from leaving office after fourteen years, the outgoing mayor is equally open about why he decided not to run again. "I was out on a wilderness trip in 2013, and I said I want to do more of this and less of that--and I also began to lose patience, not with the public but some councilmembers.
"There was a lot of BS at the table, and I got really tired of that," Hieftje continues, his eyes flashing. "It wasn't fair to the people for me to continue in the job when I wasn't going to put up with that anymore. And you have to put up with it. You don't have a choice. I was pretty darned patient, but at the end I was reluctant to take it. I wanted to say, 'Come on! Get real!'"
Interviewed in a city hall conference room, Hieftje looks very relaxed but wholly engaged. He acknowledges that the local Republican Party's demise and a council of united Democrats helped him accomplish his goals for much of his administration.
He also admits that unity didn't last. "There are different factions. Council generally divides on the issues. For example, there's a clear division on development, for example over [the high-rise going up at] 413 East Huron."
Hieftje says this split reflects citizens' attitudes--to a degree. "About thirty percent of the people don't want anything to change--just leave it the same, and don't mess with it! And a solid half of [that group] want to go back to the seventies. I was born here, and I was here in 1970. I don't know that I want to go back,
when so many things are better now."
The outgoing mayor believes the split could heal under the new mayor. "Bringing council together will be easier now because I became a target for a couple of councilmembers who need somebody to rail against. Not that it bothered me, but it was a distraction for the other councilmembers. Hopefully that's over with, and [Taylor] doesn't become a target."
In a downtown cafe early the next morning, looking very alert and equally engaged, Christopher Taylor says he doesn't entirely hold with the idea of council factionalism. "There are people who tend to agree with each other more than with other people, but is there an organization? There's no vote selling and no vote trading, and those are hallmarks of faction."
With everyone on council either a Democrat or an independent, "we don't have public institutional reasons to fight," continues the incoming mayor. "I may disagree with a particular member about issues, but that doesn't prevent me from working with that member on other issues. For example, people who tend to be on different sides can come together on traffic calming or urban forest management."
That said, Taylor agrees Hieftje became a target--like Hieftje, he won't name names--but he absolves the outgoing mayor of responsibility. "I've been [on council] since 2008, and throughout the entirety of that time he treated people with dignity, respect, and patience. When somebody who treats people with dignity, respect, and patience becomes the target for nasty personal attacks, I don't blame the recipient."
The new mayor believes he has "the temperament, experience, and judgment necessary for the job. A leader's temperament is deeply important to how they get things done and how they work with people they agree with and don't agree with."
That's true, but, even after exhibiting pervasive cool for six years on council, how Taylor handles the heat of leadership remains to be seen--especially if he too becomes a target.
Council unity for much of his administration surely helped Hieftje accomplish what he considers his most significant legacy: shrinking city government from more than a thousand employees to fewer than 700.
"The bureaucracy was out of control in the eighties and nineties," Hieftje says. "They just kept hiring people. I said at a December 2000 budget meeting, before I was even mayor, that we've got to start to whittle this down. The four Republicans on council were all for it, though I don't think they wanted to cut as much as we did.
"In the old days, Democrats would stand up for the fire department, and Republicans would stand up for the police department, so it was impossible to make cuts," he recalls. "Council had to come together to get it done. Maybe it's true that you needed a Democratic mayor to do it, but I credit city council and [former administrator] Roger Fraser, who carried it out."
Hieftje strongly defends the reduction against those who say it went too far. "The only thing we don't do the same way is pick up leaves--and there was an amazing amount of rancor over that. But almost all cities have abandoned the old method now. It was hard on the streets, the equipment, and the people."
He admits leaf pickup wasn't the only source of complaints. "One thing that raised people's ire was we changed the mowing schedule in the parks [from every seventeen days] to twenty-four days [during the recession], and the grass would get really long. But that was reversible, and we haven't heard a complaint about the grass in the parks for two years."
What about snow removal? "The city's never been good at that," the Ann Arbor native acknowledges. "But last winter it was really good, even though it was a bad winter." He credits the administrator--"Powers came to Ann Arbor after fifteen years running Marquette County, so he knows about snow removal."
Hieftje also rejects charges that the fire department shrank too much. "That's a hard argument to make. We now have a system where fire departments from all around are coming to help, and we're going to help them. And we have far, far fewer fires--60 or 70 percent less than the seventies. The [Ann Arbor] department hooks up to a hydrant about twelve times a year."
After dropping more than 300 employees, the outgoing mayor now believes "the city needs about twelve more employees. The city put three beat cops downtown last year, and they could use three more to help with nuisance issues.
"It's aggressive panhandling, not crime," Hieftje hastens to add. "We're probably going to end the year with the lowest crime rates that anyone here has ever seen. Part One crimes [homicide, rape, assault, robbery] are down about 14 percent from last year, and last year was the second lowest year for crime ever."
Now that property values and tax revenues are rebounding, Hieftje believes the city could use more than cops. "We need some project managers. The North Main Task Force completely occupied all our project ability. We can't look at three different projects at the same time now. And planning could use one too. So maybe it's only six" more employees.
"I could see the case for more police officers," says incoming mayor Taylor. "I haven't seen a case made for growth in the fire department." With the city looking for a new fire chief, the message is clear: applicants will need to work with what they have.
Despite his argument for very limited staff growth, Hieftje doesn't regret shrinking city government. "If we hadn't done it then, we would have had to do it all on the fly [during the recession]. Then we'd have been cutting with a cleaver rather than a paring knife, and it would have been pretty ugly."
Taylor uses a different word. "If it hadn't happened long in advance of the recession, there would have been catastrophic service problems."
Cities that didn't shrink their bureaucracies before 2008 either cut services or raised taxes after the recession hit, and many had to do both, while Ann Arbor, as Hieftje likes to boast, raised taxes only once the whole time he was in office--when the city took over responsibility for sidewalk maintenance in 2012.
While the number of city employees shrank, the number of citizen emails increased gigantically. Hieftje calls that the biggest change in the mayor's job during his tenure.
"When I got on council [in 1999], email was minor," Hieftje says. "But that really changed. A person is much more likely in a wired town like Ann Arbor to dash off an email than write a letter, so you have a whole lot more communication with residents on a whole host of issues.
"It can be episodic," he explains. "Some days, I'll get two or three. Some days, if there is an issue that's burning, I might get forty or fifty. It can bog you down. I try to answer all of them, but I probably miss 10 to 15 percent."
Hieftje is the first mayor to draw a full-time salary--but he says he's not the first to put in a lot of hours. "If you look back, Mayor [Ingrid] Sheldon was the bookkeeper for the [Huron Valley Tennis] Club and spent maybe a couple hours a week on that, and Mayor [Liz] Brater was here every day. The pay went up from $17,000 to $43,000 annually, but it was more of a recognition that this [job] was eating up your time.
"But the mayor doesn't need to put in forty hours every week," the outgoing mayor adds. "In August, nobody comes to see you, the phone doesn't ring, and you don't get emails. But in the times that there is a big issue, or you're getting ready for the budget, the mayor needs to be available and ready to go. I found out very, very quickly I couldn't do my old job [selling real estate]."
Taylor argues the mayor's job "is not a full-time job if you mean eight hours a day, five days a week. Look at the [city] charter: it's a weak mayor/strong administrator model. The mayor has a certain number of formal duties, but the rest is soft power: meeting with people and building coalitions.
"Plus, I'm fortunate enough to have a job that is very flexible," he continues. "I'm a lawyer who works on Main St., which is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from city hall. I don't go to court, and my schedule is in many respects my own."
With the decline of the two-party system, the ward political organizations that once connected residents to city hall also declined or disappeared altogether. Though email compensates, Hieftje believes talking "to a lot of people" is more important. "That's what I do. I have a lot of lunches, and I talk on the phone with a lot of people. I'll ask them about an issue, and half of the time they don't even know what it is!
"That tells you something," the outgoing mayor explains. "If it's not a big deal, do you really need to do something, or is it politically driven? That goes on all the time, and some of [the citizens who contact the mayor] have allies on council, so you have to be able to decipher that as well. You have to be able to figure out what is an agenda being driven by a small group. Neighborhood groups are not as powerful an influence as people think."
The outgoing and incoming mayors agree on what is a big deal: the dreadful shape of the roads.
"That's the biggest problem, and it's not just Ann Arbor's problem," says Hieftje. "That's what most people are focused on. We've been doing a lot of work lately, the maximum amount possible the last few years, and we're coming back. But if we're going to sustain that, the state needs to step up to the plate."
"Our biggest challenge is always balancing resources with needs," says Taylor, "and our resources are always going to be insufficient to match our needs. Our roads are as they are [because of] insufficient aid from the state and federal government." The roads' condition is so desperate that in September, council asked the county to impose a one-time tax to make up some of the deficit; it will appear on this month's property tax bills (see Inside Ann Arbor, p. 13).
Taylor sees roads as part of "a pervasive problem: transportation. That's where people's quality of life gets most impacted by what we do and how we do it."
"Future planning will revolve around transportation," Hieftje predicts. "The city is growing jobs. We've seen traffic go way, way up, but we haven't gained the population. We had 100,000 people in 1970, and we're at about 117,000 now. The traffic is all because of jobs.
"We don't have room for more cars," he continues. "We're ten years away from gridlock in a lot of places. We need to keep working on expansion of transit. I believe we need commuter trains."
Hieftje says he's not alone in this belief. "The Regional Transit Authority [of Southeast Michigan] hired [former �AAATA director] Michael Ford to run it, and they are probably going to go out for funding in 2016. If that is successful, their plan is to extend transit all through the four counties: Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw.
"MDOT believes in it to the point where they bought a train that's all paid for by Amtrak money--$400 million dollars' worth of all new stuff, running on all new tracks past all new gate crossings. We're already the busiest train stop in the state."
Count Taylor as a believer. "We have transportation projects that we can work towards, and there's money and political will to work with others."
Those others will likely put in most of the money. For example, the incoming mayor says the proposed new train station that's currently being studied "will be paid for largely with federal dollars. The figures from earlier on in the process thumbnailed the station at $50 million. That means a $10 million match. I would expect MDOT would play a role, that the AAATA, if it's a multimodal station, will play a role, that if the station were a demonstrable benefit to the university, the university would play a role. I expect, too, the city would play a role."
Beyond cost, location's been a sticking point for the new station. Some push for the city parkland now used as a university parking lot on Fuller Rd. near the U-M Hospital, while others argue for staying at the current spot on Depot St.--and DTE's recent statement that it might allow use of a part of its property across the tracks from the current station could make that spot more attractive.
Taylor won't pick a favorite yet. "For me [location] is a question of practicality. Engineers understand how people come in and out of stations, what bus access is necessary, what pedestrian access is necessary. When we have designs for the two competing sites and the technical analysis on which one will work best and which one will provide the best ancillary development opportunities, [I'll say which] I'd prefer."
Will this happen in his first term? "I hope so," replies the incoming mayor. To make it happen, Taylor says, he'll "continue to advocate for it and stress its importance for the city's long-term future"--in other words, he'll use the mayor's "soft power."
The similarities between the outgoing and the incoming mayor are striking. Both are long and lean, though Taylor is longer, and both smile often and easily, though Hieftje seems much more relaxed. Hieftje was born here, while Taylor moved here for school, but Taylor married into a native family and works for an established Ann Arbor law firm, and his professed love for his adopted town seems as genuine as Hieftje's.
Their differences are equally striking. A very successful politician who knows municipal government so well he teaches it at the U-M, Hieftje is at heart a salesman who truly loves his product. Taylor is at heart an attorney who persuades through reasoned discussion.
Hieftje's passionate advocacy helped him accomplish his goals--which in addition to the staff cuts included the Greenbelt and downtown rezoning. But it also alienated some folks along the way, and helped make him a target.
Taylor's cooler approach could accomplish as much while alienating fewer people, but much depends on who's on council and active in the community. Because, as Taylor notes, just treating people with dignity, respect, and patience is no guarantee that disagreements won't become personal.
The outgoing mayor has simple advice for the incoming mayor: "Keep being Christopher Taylor. He's got a really good handle on everything, and I love his attitude. He's so open, so willing to discuss anything with anybody. He's a good man for the job."
As for Hieftje, "I'm going to keep my gig at the U, but I'm looking for a job. I'd like something in energy, environment, maybe something in human services. I want to stay in town, and I want to take my time and not take the job unless it's something I believe in."
The outgoing mayor served an unprecedented seven terms. How many for the incoming mayor? "I'll be taking it one term at a time," says Taylor.
[Originally published in December, 2014.]
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