Summer of Discontent
The August 7 primary will decide the fate of Mayor Taylor and his council majority.
From the August, 2018 issue
Correction: a photo caption in the print edition misidentified the Ward 4 incumbent as Kirk Westphal. The Ward 4 incumbent - here shown at center right with challenger Elizabeth Nelson - is Graydon Krapohl.
"It's been a wild summer," says Julie Grand. "There's a lot of anger." While knocking on doors for her reelection campaign, the Third Ward councilmember says, "I've had people scream at me!"
Second Ward challenger Kathy Griswold reports almost the same experience. "When I've told people I'm running for council," she says, "they literally start screaming at me about the roads."
Griswold, a former school board member and longtime political activist, has been angry herself in the past. But "I'm tired of being angry," she says. "I'm running for council to be part of the solution."
Her solution starts with taking on incumbent Kirk Westphal, a member of what the Observer calls council's "Activist Coalition." And she's supporting a longtime ally, Fourth Ward councilmember Jack Eaton, in his challenge to mayor Christopher Taylor.
Eaton is the de facto leader of what we call the Back to Basics Caucus. They're generally skeptical about development and the Activists' less tangible initiatives, like public art. He describes Ann Arborites as "frustrated and a little fed up."
First-time Third Ward challenger Alice Liberson says she's not angry, just "disappointed" in the city's leadership. Fifth Ward challenger Ali Ramlawi describes himself as "passionate" about correcting what he sees as the city's mistakes--speaking so passionately that after he leaves the interview, two folks nearby comment on how angry he appears to be.
Eaton has endorsed Griswold and Ramlawi and says he's leaning toward supporting Jeff Hayner, who's running for an open council seat in the First Ward. Liberson and the Fourth Ward challenger Elizabeth Nelson are officially unaligned, but both criticize council's current direction.
The Activist Coalition now comprises Mayor Taylor and six of ten councilmembers. They lost one seat last year, and four members are up for reelection this year. Ann Arbor
is a deep-blue town, and its move to even-year elections, which takes effect this year, effectively dooms any Republican or independent brave enough to run in November. That means the vote that really matters is the August 7 Democratic primary.
Taylor supports the four incumbents plus newcomer Ron Ginyard in the First Ward. He and the other Activists say the city's already on track to improve its roads and that their initiatives are improving its quality of life. They also stand by their vote to sell the air rights over the Library Lot parking structure to a developer who wants to build a seventeen-story high rise there--a project that's being challenged in a November referendum and a lawsuit (see below).
If all five of the Activist candidates win, they'll reclaim the eight-to-three supermajority that approved the Library Lot deal (the mayor votes in council decisions, along with each ward's two councilmembers). But if challengers carry three wards--or if they win two of them and Eaton beats Taylor--control of council will flip.
Even that result won't greatly accelerate road repairs in the short term. Doing so would require huge infusions of money, and council has already tapped all obvious sources of tax revenue and its fund reserves. But a Basics majority could try to block the Library Lot project by rejecting its site plan--though if they do, Taylor predicts, the developer will sue.
Under Taylor and his predecessor, John Hieftje, the town's added dozens of major buildings, thousands of residents, and tens of thousands of commuters. No council can stop that growth from continuing in the future--the tech firms and U-M guarantee that--but a different council could slow it down.
Griswold has worked on so many campaigns that she once joked that she can order yard signs in her sleep. Hayner and Ramlawi both ran once before as independents, while Liberson and Nelson are campaigning for the first time.
Ramlawi, forty-three, ran last year to oppose the sale of the Library Lot. He owns the Jerusalem Garden restaurant, directly north of the lot, and says he's running again because "the issues still exist."
Hayner, fifty-three, is self-employed, doing custom carpentry and metal and finishing work. "I'm always talking at city council, planning commission, [and the] public art commission," he says. This year, he decided to trade critiquing for campaigning. "Hopefully I come off as much less angry," he says.
Both Liberson and Nelson were stirred into action by what they see as an unresponsive city government. "I really hadn't paid attention to local politics," says Liberson, sixty-five, a retired veterinarian who owned the now-closed pet supply store Dogma Catmantoo. "Once I started paying attention, some things started to not make sense to me. I felt like my voice was not being heard."
That's Nelson's take, too. "The mistakes being made are not so much about people distributing information that's necessarily factually wrong or incorrect or wrongheaded," says the forty-four-year-old substitute teacher. "We're not discussing [issues] from all perspectives."
Ginyard, sixty-two, is also new to politics--but he's generally satisfied with the city's direction. The four incumbents similarly say that Ann Arbor is generally good and getting better--but the city needs continued guidance, and they want to provide it.
"Our overall fiscal strength is improving," says Second Ward rep Westphal, forty-eight, an urban planner. "We have to pay extra attention to how we manage the evolution that Ann Arbor is going through."
"We've coalesced around some pretty important priorities," says Grand, forty-four, a lecturer at the U-M School of Public Health. "You can't see the impacts of our roads program yet, but it will be visible to folks in a few years."
Fourth Ward incumbent Graydon Krapohl also defends the Activists' leadership. But the retired Marine Corps officer, fifty-eight, says they need to get better at explaining themselves. The fundamental problem, he says, is "how to improve communication between the city and the residents, how to get accurate, factual information out so people know what's going on."
"There is still more work to do," summarizes Fifth Ward incumbent Chuck Warpehoski, fifty, "especially on affordable housing"--a particular concern of his as the director of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice.
The biggest differences between the council incumbents and challengers are the same as between the mayoral candidates: how they see the city now and where they see it in the future.
Mayor Taylor, fifty-one, believes "the quality of life is better" than in the past. A lawyer with Hooper Hathaway, he calls himself "an optimistic person" and says he "tries to meet people's aspirations rather than augment their fears. Ann Arbor's future is not served by it being an angry place."
"We're changing," agrees challenger Jack Eaton, sixty-six. But the retired labor lawyer argues the city's mayor "should have a strong affirmative vision of what you want the town to be like in ten years. I don't see any strong leadership out of [Taylor]. To the extent we have a direction, it's not necessarily the direction that serves most of our population. I would be much more responsive to citizens."
Taylor responds by emailing a paragraph-long description of the positive changes he envisions in the next decade, including more people living and working in town, recognition as an "Age Friendly Community," 1,000 new units of affordable housing, a new water treatment plant, and "vastly better" roads.
But he's running on the roads of 2018, not 2028. "We've neglected the roads, and the plan to repair and replace the roads needs to be accelerated," Griswold says.
Other challengers agree about the roads' condition--and who's to blame for it. "Clearly, infrastructure has been ignored [by] the current administration," Liberson says.
Asked what grade he'd give the city's roads, Ramlawi replies "Failure! This is unacceptable for a city as affluent as we are. You're always going to hear from incumbents 'it's the state's fault.' Sure!"
The incumbents agree the roads are poor, but as Krapohl points out, correctly, "most of the [road maintenance] funding comes from the state. It comes out of your gasoline taxes and users fees." (See Inside Ann Arbor.)
"Despite what people think," Krapohl adds, the roads have not been ignored. But fixing them "takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money, and there're only so many contractors available."
Council has set a goal of getting 80 percent of the city's roads in shape by 2025. "Is 2025 soon enough given what people want?" asks Grand. "No. Is it realistic given our resources? Yes."
Eaton says the city missed a chance to increase those resources. The city got $14 million from the federal government to replace the bridge that carries E. Stadium over State St., but he says it could have been $22 million if the city had had a plan ready when the Obama stimulus was approved in 2009.
Taylor says Eaton would have missed the $14 million, too. "When Councilmember Eaton levied his first Stadium Bridge critique back in 2010, he proposed that we go into debt to fix the bridge," he emails. "Instead we applied for and won federal grants, saving Ann Arbor $14M+ that we've used over the past 8 years to fix roads all over town."
"That's what I offered at that time," responds Eaton. "If we'd simply been ready, we could have gotten the entire project funded."
"That's profoundly speculative," retorts Taylor. "He suggested borrowing $14 million to fix the bridges, and if we'd done that we'd still be paying that off, and our roads would be in far, far worse shape."
Going forward, Eaton says he'd fix the roads faster by spending down the fund balance, minimizing improvements like roundabouts, and eliminating spending on art projects like the installations on the Stadium Bridge and a new retaining wall nearby.
Nelson agrees. "The art on Stadium: that was a big kerfuffle. If we had more meaningful conversations about the cluster of all these little things, maybe we will have more money to put towards roads."
"That's not a practical solution," says Taylor. "Putting fifty thousand here, a hundred thousand there is not going to solve the problem. This is a long-term problem with a long-term solution."
The other burning issue is the Library Lot. After the Activists voted to sell the development rights to Chicago-based Core Spaces, a citizens' group that favors turning the space into a park successfully petitioned to put it to a public vote. And two councilmembers have filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the sale (see box, opposite page).
Eaton opposed the sale at the time and still does. He says the city doesn't need another tall building, but it does need "a town square. If you look at our long history of dissent and civil disobedience and political activism, the idea that we have no town square to gather in to protest is offensive." (Taylor argues that the U-M Diag, locus of civil rights and Vietnam War protests and decades of Hash Bashes, meets that need.)
Ramlawi opposed building the underground parking structure--in an interview last year, he called it "a complete waste"--and also the planned high-rise on top. Instead, he suggests that "we do a land swap and build a new library there. Then you tear down the existing [library] and maybe you can sell it to a developer or maybe make it a park."
"The best way to get a park there is to sell the lot and have the developer pay for the park," responds his opponent, Warpehoski. "I support selling the development rights to help fund affordable housing"--half of the $10 million sale price would go toward that.
Krapohl notes that council voted to set aside 12,000 square feet of the site as public space. "With the Core Spaces agreement, it will be maintained by Core Spaces but follow the rules of the parks department ... In the thousand doors I've knocked so far I haven't heard anybody who wants the whole site used as a park," he says. "People understand that building a park there costs a lot of money."
Second Ward incumbent Westphal says the Library Lot "could be one of the worst spots in town to put a park. It would take all the worst qualities of Liberty Plaza ... and put it in a place where there's even less pedestrian traffic."
Taylor says the site's development is a done deal. "A contract has been signed that has received the approval of the city attorney's office. If presented with a by-right development in accord with the contract it would be a future council's obligation to approve the plan. Refusal to approve a by-right site plan [that complies with the site's zoning] exposes the city to a losing lawsuit."
The four incumbents say they hope to raise between $10,000 and $15,000 apiece and knock on 3,000 to 5,000 doors. Their challengers quote figures of $5,000-$10,000, and 2,000-5,000 doors.
Running for mayor, Eaton says, "you have to scale up everything. The first time I won a council race I spent $14-$15,000. In a ward race it costs $3,000 to do a mailing. Citywide it will cost five times that."
He's aiming to raise between $50,000 and $70,000 and says he'll beat Taylor "the old-fashioned way: walk doors, ask voters what they care about, respond to their concerns, and try to show them that you're going to be more responsive to their concerns than your opponent." He figures to hit "as many doors as I can," using a Democratic party database that identifies likely votes.
Taylor says he expects to raise about $50,000, and personally knock on five thousand doors. He says he's relying "on the fact that people recognize that we've been doing what we promised. We've been working to improve basic services and enhance quality of life. People see that and respond positively.
"I'm so excited about our future," he concludes. "Ann Arbor in ten years is going to be better than Ann Arbor today. There are politicians in Ann Arbor who feed off the anger of people. I feed off of people's optimism. Nothing was ever accomplished through negativity. Positive change only happens when people are working together in good faith."
That's a cheerful message. But in this summer of discontent, will it be a winning message?
The Library Lot Lawsuit
City council's 2017 decision to sell the air rights over the Library Lot was the hottest issue in last year's elections. It's still burning.
If candidates opposing the sale win a majority in the August 7 Democratic primary, they could try to block Core Spaces' seventeen- story building when it comes to council for planning approval (see main story). And the Library Green Conservancy, which wants to see a park there, has put a charter amendment on the November ballot.
Mayor Taylor says they're too late, because the site has been sold. If its plan is denied, he says, Core Spaces could sue the city and win.
But what if it hasn't actually been sold? Council approved the sale in April 2017, when Taylor's forces held an eight-vote supermajority. But negotiating the details took more than a year, and the contract wasn't signed until this May. By then, the supermajority was gone-Anne Bannister ousted an Activist incumbent in last year's First Ward primary. In June, Bannister and retiring First Ward colleague Sumi Kailasapathy sued, contending that Taylor and city clerk Jackie Beaudry signed the contract in violation of the city charter.
Eric Lipson, their lawyer and current treasurer of the Library Green Conservancy, explains their reasoning in an email.
"We believe that the Mayor and his allies on city council exceeded their authority under the City Charter," he writes. "Council alone has the final 'authority to approve' all contracts over $25,000.
"The plain language of the charter also requires that city council approve all contracts to sell, lease or encumber city property with an 8 vote super-majority. We believe that the Core Spaces contract proposed by staff must come back to council for a vote, and needs eight votes of council to pass."
"No," replies Taylor in an email. "The city and its council, mayor, and clerk acted in [a] manner consistent with usual city practices, the Charter, and all applicable law … Council authorized the making of, and approved, the contract at issue in this lawsuit, and approved the sale it contemplates by an 8-3 supermajority."
"I don't know if prior councils have violated the charter in this respect," replies Lipson in another email. "But it is irrelevant to our case. If a prior council has violated the law it is no defense, this time, that they did it before."
"They're just trying to slow us down," says Third Ward councilmember Julie Grand. "I'm confident in our position as a city."
So is Taylor. "Every single contract that comes to my desk has been approved in form and substance by the city attorney's office," he says in an interview. City attorney Stephen Postema won't comment on the suit, but emails that "The Council has often authorized and approved a variety of contracts by Resolution without then voting again on the final written document of the contract … The Council is well aware of this practice and always has been aware of this practice."
Bannister and Kailasapathy are asking the court to bar the deed transfer until their case is heard. Judge David Swartz has scheduled a hearing for August 15.
[Originally published in August, 2018.]
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