No one’s running against mayor John Hieftje this year—but plenty of candidates are running against his policies.
Two years ago, the mayor demolished blogger and City Hall critic Pat Lesko by a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding 84–16 percent margin. That may explain why he’s unopposed in the August 7 Democratic primary, but it’s hardly immunized him from criticism.
In June, First Ward candidate Sumi Kailasapathy and Fourth Ward candidate Jack Eaton spoke at city council to oppose a pet cause of the mayor’s—relocating the Amtrak station. In the Second Ward, where supporters of Huron Hills Golf Course helped defeat Hieftje ally Stephen Rapundalo last fall, course neighbor Sally Hart Petersen is challenging another Hieftje loyalist, Tony Derezinski. And in the Fifth Ward, Vivienne Armentrout—the former county commissioner who coined the term “council party” to describe the mayor and his allies—is opposing pro-Hieftje peace activist Chuck Warpehoski for the seat being vacated by Carsten Hohnke.
Eaton and Kailasapathy ran for the same seats two years ago. He lost to incumbent Margie Teall by a 31–69 percent margin, she to incumbent Sandi Smith by a much closer 45–55 percent. Without Lesko to drag them down, Eaton should mount a stronger challenge to Teall this time, and Kailasapathy is the arguable favorite over newcomer Eric Sturgis.
The two say the issues they raised then are still problems now: too few police officers and firefighters and too little care of the city’s infrastructure. Petersen says that in addition to preserving the golf course, she would like to see the budget balanced “without sacrificing what makes us a cool city.” And self-described “policy wonk” Armentrout hopes to see the city become “more self-reliant and resilient” by accumulating less debt.
Sturgis, a tennis teacher, believes the city needs more safety services, “but not at the expense of human services or public services or the courts.” Derezinski, a former state senator, says the city could use more police and firefighters, “but the question is: what can we afford? I’d love to hire more people in the planning department.” Teall agrees with the need for more safety services but adds that, fiscally, “we’re in the best shape since I’ve been on council.” Warpehoski, executive director of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, says that while crime is down overall, “downtown business leaders are concerned.”
Crime is indeed down—70 percent over the last twenty-five years, though with a spike in burglaries this winter. But the police and fire departments have lost almost a third of their staffs in the last decade, and some departments—planning, parks and recreation, and wastewater treatment—have lost more than that.
Driving the staff reductions were falling property tax revenues and state revenue sharing, plus rising costs for pensions and benefits. And then the great recession made things worse. Despite this, Ann Arbor has balanced its budget and maintained services, while many Michigan cities, including neighboring Ypsilanti, have cut services and are still approaching insolvency.
With the economy recovering and property tax revenues rising, the latest city budget increases staff in safety services, though not in other city departments. Whether this is enough to help the mayor and his allies retain control of council, or whether the decade of cuts and wrangling about the budget will be enough to wrest it away, will be known only after the election. But lines have been drawn, and July will see the battle joined.
Independent Jane Lumm’s victory over Stephen Rapundalo last fall trimmed the council party’s majority to seven votes. Though all the challengers are running as Democrats, they’re a very different flavor from Hieftje and his allies—and just two more victories in August’s primary would be enough to shift the balance of power away from the mayor.
This article has been edited since it appeared in the July 2012 Ann Arbor Observer. The wards contested by Eaton-Teall and Armentrout-Warpehoski have been corrected.