Editor’s note: Four members of the Ann Arbor city council – Chris Easthope, Stephen Kunselman, Joan Lowenstein and Ron Suarez – are leaving office. Their final meeting was Nov. 6.
We asked each of them to share their thoughts about their time on council. These are the observations of Joan Lowenstein, a Democrat who represented Ward 2. She is a local attorney who also serves on the Downtown Development Authority board.
1. What was the best advice you received (or the worst) before starting service on council? What advice do you have for incoming councilmembers?
Probably the best advice I received was from former 2nd Ward Councilmember Joe Upton. He told me to remember that politics is not personal. It’s sometimes very hard to heed that advice but it definitely helps when issues get heated. I would give that same advice to the new councilmembers, telling them to always maintain the civility that citizens expect of their elected officials. We are elected to solve problems, not to enflame them. I would also advise them to be good listeners. That sounds simplistic, but it’s way too easy to simply make up your mind and refuse to change. Often, two or more heads are better than one and there’s always something new to learn.
2. What are you most proud of accomplishing during your council tenure?
I responded to some citizen requests with successful legislation. The first was when downtown business people approached me with the problem of aggressive panhandling. We convened a task force to look at the issue and we discussed all the attendant issues, such as homelessness and lack of coordination of services for the homeless and the mentally ill. I drafted some revisions to our existing ordinances, with the help of the existing police chief, Dan Oates, assistant city attorney Kristen Larcom, and the task force members. We ended up with a new ordinance that was easier to enforce, satisfied the business owners, and protected civil rights.
I also responded when the YMCA wrongly prevented a woman from breastfeeding her child at the YMCA pool. After doing a lot of research into ordinances in other communities, including Canada, I drafted an ordinance that protected women’s rights in accordance with our existing human rights ordinances. It’s not something that affected everyone in town, but those it did affect were very grateful.
Most people don’t know that councilmembers do a lot behind the scenes in various committees. I have sat on the Insurance Board, which sounds kind of boring. It’s the board that reviews claims against the city, from garbage trucks knocking over $60 mailboxes to multimillion-dollar lawsuits. I helped increase the accountability of various departments of the city so that claims are not simply charged to the risk fund (we’re self-insured up to $500,000) but are charged against the department that caused the claim.
3. What was your most/least favorite aspect of serving on council?
It is never fun to have to listen to people who don’t understand civility or how the political system works. Our public commentary portion of council meetings gives everyone a chance to speak and some abuse that opportunity by coming to hear themselves rant. I am a person who likes to make the best use of time, so I’m not very tolerant when people waste my time. That’s the least favorite part.
My favorite aspect of serving on council is to be able to influence policy and not just be on the sidelines. I started out my career as a reporter and enjoyed that very much, but I was also frustrated at not being able to take a stand. I still enjoy the part of reporting that taught me how to gather as much information as possible and condense it into an understandable summary, but I have appreciated being able to take the next step and use that information to achieve common goals.
4. What do you think might surprise people about the job of a city councilmember?
People might be suprised by how much time we spend on the job and how little we are compensated. I am out almost every night and often on the weekends. I have many committee meetings during the day and also have to be available to meet with city staff when there are emergencies or when issues come up that need my attention. We get emails constantly and people also call my work and home numbers (rightfully – I give those out so they can reach me). I have done this voluntarily, so it’s not a complaint, just a matter of information. Most of us have other jobs, so we have to squeeze all this in. What usually suffers is our family life, and I know my husband is looking forward to being married to a private citizen again.
5. Where will we see you next – do you anticipate being involved in other public forums/community activities?
I will still be on the DDA as a downtown worker (my office is on Main Street), so I expect to devote a lot of time to that. I care just as much about Ann Arbor as I always have and will continue to do things to promote investment in the city. I hope to be able use my knowledge and experience to encourage businesses to think of Ann Arbor as a prime location and to assist them in figuring out how to do business here.
I also am looking forward to finishing up my knitting projects and starting new ones, as well as doing more of the cooking and baking that I like to do.
6. Any other thoughts or wisdom you’d like to share?
I hope citizens will appreciate how lucky they are to have an educated city council that reflects the intelligence and dedication of the community. We have a very diverse community. Unfortunately, the city council does not reflect that diversity, so the councilmembers have a heavy burden in watching out for those they represent but whose experiences they may not share. It would be nice to see more citizens form groups to promote ideas rather than to oppose them. The “Think Local First” group is an excellent example of citizens who want to promote the good things about our city instead of just sitting back and waiting to say “no.”
I have made some very good friendships with my fellow councilmembers and I intend to keep those up. Hopefully, I’ll still have a little bit of influence.