In dark blue Ann Arbor, the August Democratic party primary is the local vote that matters. No Republican has won a seat on city council since 2003.

But the end of partisanship hasn’t meant the end of politics. There’s an undercurrent of opposition to the current Democratic majority, and it surfaces in party primaries. In the Third Ward, outsiders LuAnne Bullington and Steve Kunselman are challenging one of council’s ultimate insiders, three-term incumbent Leigh Greden, in the August 4 Democratic primary. In the west-side Fifth Ward, dissident councilman Mike Anglin faces newcomer Scott Rosencrans, who’s much more closely aligned with the majority. The powerful local chapter of the Sierra Club, which clashed with the majority over parks funding, is backing Bullington and Anglin.

Anglin and other critics argue that the city has unwisely borrowed money to fund grandiose building projects (expanding City Hall, building an underground parking structure) while neglecting quality-of-life issues like funding senior services. Greden and other insiders, led by mayor John Hieftje, retort that the investments are prudent and the city needs to keep up its infrastructure even during terrible economic times.

Though no one expects the outcome on August 4 to change the city’s direction, the campaigns offer a snapshot of the issues facing Ann Arbor voters. Besides buildings, candidates are dealing with questions about some council members’ snarky emails and intense lobbying over whether to remove Argo Dam.

Note: In Michigan, any registered voter can cast a ballot in a party’s primary.

Ward 3: Greden vs. Bullington vs. Kunselman

After Mayor Hieftje, Greden, thirty-five, is council’s best-known and most influential member. He should slide easily into a fourth term–especially since his two opponents, Bullington and Kunselman, will split the antiestablishment vote. But Greden, who clearly relishes his power, has made enemies who would love to take him down. And he has taken a public relations beating since Freedom of Information Act requests revealed his long history of backstage email discussions with other council members during meetings.

At least five other council members took part in the email exchanges, but Greden is the only one running in the primary. His opponents pounced–particularly Kunselman, who represented the Third Ward before losing last year’s primary to insider Chris Taylor. Kunselman showed an Observer reporter an email exchange between Greden and then council member (now judge) Chris Easthope in which both mocked Kunselman, then their colleague on council. He calls it an example of his opponent’s “disingenuous behavior.”

“I apologized publicly,” Greden responds. “Those emails constitute a tiny portion of our activity, but it’s wrong nonetheless.”

A part-time lawyer raised in Ann Arbor, Greden was council’s point person in the effort to obtain federal stimulus money (the city got nearly $7 million). He points out that he’s sponsored or cosponsored laws to limit the height of new buildings downtown and to create a city-county partnership to reduce foreclosures. He’s also supported the cost-cutting drive that reduced the number of employees in City Hall by 20 percent.

“In a challenging economic climate” Ann Arbor “is far better off” than other cities in the state, Greden says. He recently floated the idea of a city income tax, which he says would “shift the tax burden away from property owners onto the 60,000 people who commute here.” Greden says he is undecided on the fate of Argo Dam.

Hieftje has endorsed Greden, calling him “one of the hardest-working council members,” and “very good on the budget.” It has long been rumored that Greden would run for the mayor’s seat if Hiefje steps down. Hieftje declines to speculate about his future, and Greden insists he’s “happy serving the Third Ward and focused on this election.”

This is the second time LuAnne Bulington, sixty-two, has challenged Greden. Two years ago, he won 62 percent of the vote to her 36 percent. A retired teacher and U-M web team leader, Bullington has volunteered for the Center for Independent Living, Project Grow, and other nonprofits and serves on an AATA advisory committee.

Bullington’s website is highly critical of Greden, accusing him, among other things, of “six years of big spending.” She doesn’t say what she would have done differently, but in her previous campaign, she spoke out against the City Hall addition.

Bullington is incensed that the city has a hefty surplus in its road fund. She points out that a construction trade group rated Ann Arbor’s roads the second-worst in the state in 2007 and says the surplus should be used to rebuild the partially closed East Stadium bridges. (Hieftje responds that the city improved dramatically in the trade group’s 2008 ranking, while Greden says the city hopes to use state and federal money to fix the bridges.)

Bullington strongly opposes cutting funding for the Ann Arbor Senior Center and strongly supports saving Argo Dam.

Steve Kunselman says he respects Greden’s “ability to be a very effective public servant. I disrespect and abhor the methods he uses–violating the spirit of the open meetings act” by exchanging email with other council members during meetings.

Kunselman, forty-six, is a lifelong Ann Arborite and a U-M energy management liaison. He attracted the most attention during his term on council for his successful sponsorship of the “chicken ordinance,” which allows residents to keep hens.

He points out that he sometimes voted with the council majority, even on the explosive issue of expanding City Hall. Still, he refers to them as a “conservative cabal.” He complains the roads have been neglected, recalling that, when he was a teen, they were in such good condition that he could skateboard through the city. He’s critical of the staff cuts in the parks and the police department, opposes an income tax, and wants to keep Argo Dam.

Kunselman believes that Chris Taylor won last year largely because he spent $13,000 to his own $3,000. But Kunselman plans to spend no more this year, saying that as a “citizen politician” he finds big-budget campaigns distasteful.

Ward 5: Anglin vs. Rosencrans

Two years ago, Mike Anglin surprised everyone by defeating Wendy Woods, a three-term incumbent. A bed-and-breakfast owner and former special ed teacher, he’s been, in his own words, a “minority voice” on council, dissenting on major decisions like the City Hall addition and the underground parking structure that council voted to build next to the downtown library. He’s also called for more “community input,” saying, for example, that there was “hardly any” public involvement in planning the parking structure. (Hieftje points out that both the planning commission and city council held public hearings on it.)

Anglin questions the need for more parking downtown, believes that shrinking the city workforce has resulted in poorer street maintenance, and says that if the city is going to force citizens to pay for sidewalk replacement, it should at least coordinate a program to make the process more efficient. A strong advocate for neighborhoods, he’s proposed a moratorium on development in “R4C” areas near downtown while the city reviews that zoning category. He opposes removing Argo Dam.

Scott Rosencrans rejects speculation that he was recruited by the insiders to challenge Anglin–“I’m nobody’s rubber stamp,” he says. He became interested in running for council, he says, after working on city committees. Currently on the parks advisory commission, he has also worked on recycling issues and served on the task force to plan the future of the city parcel at 415 W. Washington.

Rosencrans, forty-seven, came to Ann Arbor twelve years ago to open a Greenpeace office–only to be quickly laid off when the international environmental organization ran out of money. He works as a carpenter and is earning a degree in public administration at Eastern Michigan.

He criticizes what he says is the city’s laxity in arranging construction inspections and its growing reliance on an automated phone system. “When people walk in, they want to see a face,” he says. He also would like to see Ann Arbor work more closely with other communities to save money on purchases of everything from vehicles to computer software. He favors removing Argo Dam but only if “we can relocate the rowing community,” probably to Geddes Pond.