On Saturday, July 11, the Ann Arbor Democratic Party hosted a forum for candidates in contested primary races for Ann Arbor City Council in Wards 3 and 5.
Responses from Ward 5 candidates audience questions are in a separate article.
The format consisted of questioners chosen in random order, who had 30 seconds each to ask a question. Each candidate then had one minute to respond. At the start and the end of the forum, each candidate had three minutes for a statement. At the end there was a chance for a three-minute closing statement.
Time was kept by Jennie Needleman, who chairs Ward 5 for the Ann Arbor Democratic Party. Responses are presented here in the order they were given at the forum, which rotated among candidates who attended. Jeff Irwin, a Washtenaw County commissioner, moderated the event.
For Ward 3, it was Stephen Kunselman and LuAnne Bullington who answered questions, which were posed by audience members.
The third candidate in the Ward 3 race, incumbent Leigh Greden, did not attend.
Stephen Kunselman: Thank you very much, everyone, I’m Steve Kunselman. Some of you may know me from my tenure on city council from 2006 to 2008. I’m back because I believe very strongly and passionately about my community and the direction that it has been going the last couple of years. Just to be very forthright, I sat next to Leigh Greden for two years on city council – so much of what we are hearing about today, I knew long ago. I’m going to read from my lit piece, because I think it says very succinctly where I stand.
The residents of Ward 3 deserve a councilmember who is honest, genuine, and honors the position of Ann Arbor city council. Clearly we have not had that representation, as reported by the Ann Arbor News, and by the other e-mails that we have seen coming out that have not been reported by the Ann Arbor News but have somewhat been reported by The Ann Arbor Chronicle.
Some councilmembers have used e-mails during city council meetings to ridicule and insult residents and colleagues, script votes to parlay political favors, and otherwise exhibit unethical behavior that violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the state law governing public meetings – the Open Meetings Act. As a former councilmember, my reputation and integrity are the highest standard when it comes to honoring the public trust. Please vote Kunselman for council.
As a councilmember I will support the following:
Adoption of a council code of ethics – council must adopt a code of ethics that sets high standards of integrity and honor to the position of councilmember.
South University rezoning – “South U equals D2″ is my motto. When the city council voted to change the zoning at the southeast corner of South U. & South Forest in 2005, they impressed upon the public that 8-story buildings would be the norm. I believe in truth in advertising and as such support South U. as D2 per A2D2. And let’s be very clear: I was involved in this process for a number of years as a planning commissioner and as a councilmember. I did vote against height limits in the D1. And I did vote for height limits in the D2, because I do agree with the community that we need to have a transition zone next to our downtown neighborhoods.
Argo Dam – Dam in. I support maintaining Argo Dam until it has reached its useful life. If Joe O’Neal, the contractor who constructed Argo Dam in the early 1970s, says it’s still in good shape, then I believe him, and you should too.
So again, my tagline is: A strong voice, a bold vision, an honest ethic, and a new direction.
LuAnne Bullington: I’m running for the city council seat in the Third Ward. I am running for the seat presently occupied at the moment by Leigh Greden. I moved back to Ann Arbor in 1992 and settled in the Third Ward in the Pattengill neighborhood.
I love my neighborhood – we have a wonderful neighborhood. We have block parties, we have a local organic food co-op that supports our local growers, and we help each other out. We help each other shovel snow in the winter time, take care of each other’s kids, because that’s what the people of the Third Ward do. We look out for each other.
I’m now retired as a computer information department manager. Before that I was a lead programmer and head project manager for a software company. And I have also been a web team leader for the University of Michigan business school. I have taught community classes and I’ve taught in the public schools.
What have I been doing since I’ve been retired is I work with dozens of organizations. This gets me out into the community to find out what’s going on. I’m a member of the Ann Arbor Dems executive committee, I am the the vice-chair of organization, I’m on the committee for the Susan Greenberg scholarship committee. I’m the past vice-chair of communications for the Ann Arbor Dems and I still help them with that process. I sat on the Ann Arbor Dems nominating committee.
I belong to dozens of organizations – anywhere from the Center for Independent Living, to Project Grow, to the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority’s local advisory committee, Senior Advocates of Washtenaw, the Lions Club – of which I am the director. I have received an honor from the Washtenaw Youth Mentoring Coalition. I also belong to the Bicycling and Walking Coalition that was just recently formed. These organizations help me find out what’s going on, and what is needed. And I can work on promoting the things that Ann Arbor needs.
These groups I work with help me promote environmentalism for the city, mass transit and alternative transportation along with helping social service issues. These are all positive things that help make Ann Arbor a better place. And like President Obama, I firmly believe in the power of community involvement and service where one person can and will make a difference. And that’s why I’m running for city council.
Density and Development
Question: The philosophy of greater density has resulted in a number of city council decisions and zoning changes. What are your views on this?
LuAnne Bullington: I taught school for a lot of years and every time a new bandwagon came along, our school district got on it and it didn’t do us any good. The city is on this high density bandwagon. It didn’t work for Bay City, it didn’t work for Cleveland, and it’s not working for us. After six years of working on high density, the population of Ann Arbor has not gone up, and property values have gone down. Nobody has bothered to define how dense this density thing is. Nobody’s looked into it, nobody has done any studies on it.
When do we know how dense the city of Ann Arbor is? When are we going to stop – when the developers run out of money? I have real issues with this density issue. Six years ago when we got on this bandwagon, we should have sat down and defined where we are going with this, what are our priorities and what direction are we going in.
Stephen Kunselman: I was on the planning commission for two years and also on city council. Much of the new development we have underway or actually finished at this point – three main residential buildings downtown – I was involved in. Those are projects that I feel proud of, because they did involve community discussion at some point.
The big thing for me about density of our community is that our downtown can obtain some greater density, but our neighborhoods need to be protected. And I think my record is pretty clear on that. I have fought hard for the changes to prevent backyard development – or make it much more difficult, I should say – to do backyard development in our neighborhoods. Particularly, in the neighborhood where I grew up, where we had three-quarter acre lots and developers could then come in and buy it and start building houses behind houses. Those are subdivisions, those areas need to be protected, and I understand the great concern that neighborhoods have, especially in our urban ring, are feeling about this idea of what density means.
Our existing ordinances are working, right? We have a development that has occurred downtown, and I think we are comfortable with the buildings that have been constructed. I am very concerned about the changes in A2D2, because I believe it will become a giveaway to developers by providing greater rights to them.
Collaboration with County Government
Question: What are your ideas for collaboration with the county in order to reduce costs? What are your ideas for taking existing ideas further?
LuAnne Bullington: This also goes back to our brand-new police/courts complex that is being built. The Chamber of Commerce urged back before this plan was approved that the courts stay together. We separated them out. I would never have approved of that. We have a new sheriff in the county, who is working with our police chief. I think that’s great.
We don’t own a hook and ladder truck. We are building all this density downtown, we’re putting in all these tall buildings, we don’t have a hook and ladder truck. We have to work with the county in order to protect the people who are in those tall buildings. I think working with the county is important because we don’t have the resources anymore – we need to share.
One of the problems that we have, and the county also has, is roads. Last year, on June 30, 2008 we had $22.7 million in our road repair fund and in September of 2008, that fall, we were listed as the city in Michigan with the second worst roads behind Detroit.
Stephen Kunselman: I think that collaboration with the county, in fact with any public entity – including the schools, the DDA, the library in particular with the underground parking structure – it’s all very important to collaborate and put our tax dollars together in one pile.
I’m always in favor of public-public partnerships and we need to go in a new direction away from these private-public partnerships that the city council has been pursuing for the last few years – which we have no results, nothing tangible to say that we have constructed from that.
We do have some successes. Our IT department is together, community development is together with the county. I think where we can bring together agencies that can work together, maybe even our building department, infrastructure services – it would all be great if we could bring those things together. Certainly we are defined in our roles and our missions by state law, so it would be difficult to do other things. But space-sharing is very, very important, we cannot have separate facilities when we need to collaborate. In particular, I think our maintenance facility is an indication of where we might be able to share some space.
Public Process in Site Development: City-Owned Parcels
Question: Considering the possible future development of the property at 415 W. Washington, and the library lot, do you think the public should be consulted at the start of the process?
Stephen Kunselman: Yes! And I’ll be very clear – the old YMCA site should be sold today. We’re losing money on it. It’s a poor investment. We paid $3.5 million dollars for it back in the peak of the real estate bubble. We spent another $1 million paying the rent of the occupants, we spent another $.5 million+ tearing it down. And in addition to that, we are paying interest-only payments on the mortgage on that property to the tune of over $130,000 a year since 2003, which adds another half million dollars to the cost – we’re at $5.5 million. If you look at the comparable property for sale downtown – the Ann Arbor News site which was just listed for slightly less than $11 million, with a 100,000 square-foot building on that property, about the size of the police-courts building that is currently under construction – you can see the vast differences in where we are. We should cut our losses.
The Ann Arbor News reported that I was interested in selling 415 W. Washington – no, I’m not. We own that property free and clear, we don’t need to worry about it.
LuAnne Bullington: Of course there should be public input. This is our money, this is our town, for heaven’s sake. Right now we have meetings behind closed doors, they are dividing up into groups so that they don’t have a quorum, they are keeping this information from us. We need to get this information, we pay for this stuff. This is our community.
If I were on city council, I would love to see a resolution passed saying that all of the meetings are open to the public, you know about them ahead of time, minutes are kept. We need to follow the Open Meeting Act, not just to the letter of the law but to the spirit of the law. This helps us figure out what’s going on. We’ve got a city council right now who’s decided they are the deciders. We go to city council, we go to these meetings, we talk to them, they know how we feel. We are giving them great ideas. The [old] YMCA site was supposed to be low-income housing. In 2003 it was supposed to be low-income housing. What happened to low-income housing? That property was taken away from AATA, because city council and the mayor said they were going to put in low-income housing.
Question: Are you in support of a watershed study for the Allen Creek like the other watersheds in the city have had already?
LuAnne Bullington: In 2006 George Bush signed an executive order gutting what protections we had for our floodway and our floodplains. And as residents of the city of Ann Arbor, we need to move on city council to protect those three sites, especially. The mayor held a focus group on what should be done with those, and nothing has happened since then.
It’s time that city council move to pass resolutions to pass ordinances to protect them. We are talking about density downtown – how are we going to get people downtown if we don’t have a park for them to walk their dog, or take their children? They are not going to go downtown – they’re going to go out to Saline and Chelsea. We are not going to be able to see this wonderful vision of density if we don’t put a park in there.
And the greenway, the floodplain, that whole area there should be a park going from William right on over to the river – that will help the flooding issue. Council needs to move on that and they should have done it years ago.
Stephen Kunselman: Yes, we need to take it more seriously. I think it’s clear we’ve been studying the floodways of Allen Creek for some time and we don’t seem to really be getting anywhere on that. Why is that? Well, we keep cutting staff. If we don’t have enough staff to get the job done, they can’t get work done on it. As a former staff person working in local government, I know well about the implications of flooding in floodways and the laws governing them – whether it’s the federal, state or local.
I don’t think the city of Ann Arbor has taken that seriously – I don’t think we have a very viable floodplain development ordinance. We need to make that a priority. But again, without the staff – right now we’ve got Jerry Hancock, who is the main staff person, I believe. How are we going to get these things accomplished if we keep cutting staff and then telling them to do other things? We haven’t done enough, and we need to do more.
Follow-up question: A watershed study would show that a greenway in the downtown would be a tremendous benefit for the Old West Side, reducing the flood hazard. Are you in support of a full greenway in the Allen Creek watershed?
LuAnne Bullington: I have been to AATA board meetings and committee meetings, and in the last year the AATA has been in negotiations and talking about purchasing First & William to move a transit station there. The mayor, I understand, has received $.25 million to uncap First & William and turn it into a park.
But the AATA has received $50,000 to put a train station platform there, too. I think that the AATA is moving Blake [Transit Center] there because of the WALLY. I told them that the hill there is not going to work for seniors and people pushing strollers and if they want to do something with it they should they should put a ski lift on there. They [the city] also tried to sell them Washington, but the AATA was smart enough to realize you can’t send that many buses into Washington, and so that deal fell through. Now they’re talking about moving Blake out of downtown and putting it out on Fuller Road. We need to keep the greenway green.
Stephen Kunselman: I struggle with this one because it could certainly sound like good politics to say, “I support the greenway in its entirety along the Allen Creek right-of-way.” But we’ve got to remember that most of this property is owned by the private sector. It is not practical for the city to come in and think that it’s going to buy these pieces of property in order to create a greenway.
But for the properties that we do own – the three parcels – yes, we need to incorporate those into a greenway of some force, in some manner. Those properties need to have multiple purposes, whether it is for flood storage, whether it is for recreation, whether it is for civic activities. We own them outright, so I don’t have any problem with working with the community to ensure that they provide service to the neighborhoods, particularly that are adjacent to them.
But to say that we are going to protect the community from flooding by buying all the properties down along the right-of-way – especially if you look at the railroad, they have yet to come to the table and even give us the time of day to talk to them about using the railroad right-of-way for a greenway. Until they do, there is no point in trying to pursue it.
Committee Assignments: Budget and Labor
Question: What is the Budget Committee? What is its membership? How is it selected? Is there a representative from each ward? If not, why not?
LuAnne Bullington: E-mails were FOIA-ed, and in the stack of e-mails that came out, Karen Sidney saw an item about budget spreadsheets. And she FOIA-ed them, and I was able to see a copy of them. There are only a few people who sit on the committee, and I don’t know how they are decided.
But when that budget went to the book [distributed as a binder to councilmembers], there are two people who had input on that committee – Marcia Higgins out of [Ward] 4 and Leigh Greden out of [Ward] 3, and the decisions were made by those two people. The social service programs that were cut, those were spearheaded by Leigh Greden.
You want to eliminate the Burns Park Senior Citizens Center? These are people who work for us for years, this is a wonderful place for them to go. When you get older your friends and family start dying off so you need the community support that the community center provides. We should open the budget up, everybody sitting at the city council should have had input to that budget. It should been open, it should have been televised. And the city administrators also should have been in on that.
Stephen Kunselman: I have serious issues with the Budget and Labor Committee. It’s a committee that has no bylaws, no city clerk record of its creation – it’s not in the city charter. It does not report out to other councilmembers, unless it’s done by e-mail on occasion. When was it created?
Look how it works: It is nothing more than a strategy session for the cabal. They send things out and then take credit for defeating those things that the public doesn’t like. For example, in the FY 2007 budget, a number of amendments were out there to demote officers in the police department. That could have been defeated in the budget committee. A lot of these things they sent out could have been defeated in the committee: No, Mr. Fraser, we don’t need this stuff to go out and cause turmoil in the community. But they then take credit for defeating them with their scripted amendments at the council table.
Administrative Renewal of Site Plans
Question: In the Kerrytown area, Kingsley Lane and The Gallery were passed as projects a while ago, and there was a lot of controversy about them. They have not yet been built. Is it appropriate to extend those PUDs administratively?
LuAnne Bullington: Have you seen the new administrative fees that the city council has passed? They are trying to pass these fees to cover the cost of the city doing anything. I thought that’s what we paid the employees for. This is backdoor taxing. If they came in with the old fee schedule, I would love to see them stay on it and not go to the higher fee schedule.
Stephen Kunselman: I’m familiar with what those issues are, and yes, that concerns me as well. Our ordinance allows for the administrative renewal of these lapsed site plans. I do believe that needs to be changed. I think the council needs to have some oversight.
Some of these site plans were contentious in their day when they were approved at some point. Especially site plans that might have some sort of connection to a tax credit or some other proposal that connects them to something other than just a site plan, that needs to come back in front of city council. Particularly 601 [S. Forest ] is not going to be built in the next couple of years over there on South Forest – it has brownfield tax credits associated with it that will probably expire. So it should come back to council.
The Gallery, yes, it should come back before city council. All of the site plans need to have some kind of review and direction to the administration to approve them. Having staff renew things without having city council oversight is a bad direction for our community.
Question: I didn’t hear a direct answer. Is it okay to administratively approve renewal of site plans that might violate the newly proposed D2 standards?
LuAnne Bullington: No. And the city council has a history of violating their promises. Look at the parks. They promised back when the city passed the millage, the promise to the citizens was to take care of the parks. They went back on that shortly thereafter. It was dishonorable. Going back to what Steve brought up on these site plans, the city has approved dozens of them and a lot of them aren’t going up because the economy is so bad.
Look at Georgetown, look at Lowertown. Georgetown used to be a thriving neighborhood strip mall, a community meeting place, and it is now pretty much abandoned and owes the city $500,000 worth of back taxes. These plans come up for review every three years, the city automatically approves them or move them along for another five. We need to take a look at them – if they owe back taxes, if they owe us fees, they should go to the city administrator and say, Hey, get caught up with this, or you’re going to have to reapply.
Stephen Kunselman: I thought I gave you a direct answer: I said no, the city council should have oversight over administrative renewal of site plan renewals. I think that is very clear. I think that what will happen if that’s the case, is that it will prevent “fishing” by developers who don’t have finances to actually construct.
We know that the development review process is actually fairly cheap – it’s just paper and talk. So yes, we need to change the ordinance to allow for council oversight for administrative approvals by our staff. That will prevent some of this “fishing” that has been taking place. If they don’t have money up front to start constructing something within three years, then why are they up in front of city council or the planning commission at this point?
Question: You are each in a campaign. How much will you be spending on your campaign? Please give a dollar amount. You must know roughly how much you’re going to spend. Please share that figure with us. Just the figure.
Stephen Kunselman: Okay, I will tell you what I’ve got to date: I have $820 in my campaign account. How much am I going to spend? In the last two campaigns I spent pretty much between $2,500 and $3,000. I work with that amount, because actually that’s what Jean Carlberg mentored me on – that’s how much it took to run a campaign for Ward 3. And I’m sticking by that, because I think that’s a reasonable amount.
I pursue money and campaign funds from Ward 3 residents and the residents of Ann Arbor. I do not pursue campaign financing from city unions, from my employer, or from outside the city by any great means. And I think is important that our campaign financing for city council races be relegated basically to our community, not outside influences like developers and law firms that have deep pockets.
LuAnne Bullington: Like Steve, I’m trying to keep my costs low and use a lot of volunteers. We have printing costs, we have sign costs, but we shop around and we make sure we get a good price. Most of the work is done with volunteers. And we’ll keep working with volunteers. We don’t have to go out and pay people to do our work for us.
Question: How much, LuAnne?
LuAnne Bullington: Probably between $2,000 and $2,400.
Near North PUD
Question: Council is considering a proposal to demolish eight houses across the street from here [Near North project on N. Main Street] and replace them with a five-story apartment building. What is your position on the Near North site plan?
LuAnne Bullington: I don’t really consider that project across the street low-income housing. There are only 14 units that are truly going to be truly low-income housing. We bought the [old] YMCA lot for low-income housing and that was back in 2003. Why don’t we put something there? That was originally bought and designed for low-income housing for people who work downtown. We do need supportive living and that’s what those 14 units are for.
But I’m concerned about how that whole project was designed and set up. We get a study that comes out and says North Main Street is the perfect place to build. And now we are using low-income housing as an excuse to put up an oversized one and too big a structure for this area. And we also find out right on the heels of that that Argo Dam has got problems and we need to take out Argo Dam. Are they going to use that project across the street has a “foot in the door” to build tall buildings in Argo Park?
Stephen Kunselman: No, the project across the street, the PUD, is too big. It’s against the historic policies of this community on affordable housing – which is to have it throughout the community, not large, dense affordable housing units in one place. It tends to create problems – I believe we’re all aware of things like Miller Manor where people are really having problems with too much density of low-income and affordable housing.
I really do appreciate the work of Avalon Housing. Mr. Appel’s daughter and my daughter are best friends [Michael Appel is executive director of Avalon]. And I really understand. But I don’t think that their model of their work is comparable to this. I think that they are a little bit out of their forte. We know that they did Carrot Way Housing in terms of high-density, low-income housing, so to speak. But it’s way up on the edge of town, it’s not downtown. And I think that’s not something that I can agree with – their effort to join in on this project. I think it was added to “sweeten the pie” so to speak. Let’s remember, a PUD is discretionary and they can be voted down by council outright.
[In the ensuing follow-up questioning, some of the exchanges amounted to short clarificational exchanges between the questioner and individual candidates, without all candidates responding. Jeff Irwin, who was moderating, checked to see if candidates who had not spoken wanted an opportunity to say something.]
Follow-up question: One of the reasons why there is some support for this project is that three of the houses that will be torn down are in the floodway, and there is also discussion by these developers and others that to make it a part of the greenway, we should take out all of the housing on Summit, Depot, and so forth. Is that something that you support – that we take out a whole block of housing for the greenway?
Follow-up question: The question is, they are low-income housing right now, so should they be removed for the greater good of creating the greenway?
LuAnne Bullington: My understanding is that I think there are three houses that have been damaged by the flood and they want to take out three houses that have not been damaged by the flood. I don’t think we should be taking out houses that are in good shape.
Like Mike [Anglin] and Steve said, we need affordable housing, there is nothing the matter with these. We don’t want to do the greenway overnight. When property comes up, and the city has the money, we can use money from the greenbelt. In fact, the city just bought easements north of town to help build the greenbelt. We can work on the greenway in the same way. We do need low-income, affordable housing. A lot of our workers are moving out of the city, and they have to use mass transportation to get back here.
And a couple of members on city council are now talking about a city income tax. You add that to the prices we have, we will lose a lot of our low-income workers. We need more affordable housing here in Ann Arbor for them.
Stephen Kunselman: It’s kind of a loaded question, because those are private properties and I don’t think the city is in any position to buy them to establish a greenway. I don’t think that’s going to happen.
You’ve also characterized them as “low-income housing.” Well, I don’t know that for a fact, either. The landlord makes a choice about how affordable they are going to rent those units out as. That’s not something that the city is involved in. If the landlord chooses to give them to the public to establish a greenway, that would be great. If the landlord chooses to tear down the houses, then they are going to have serious restrictions in terms of rebuilding there. And that’s why our ordinances and our floodplain requirements need to be updated to be sure that that’s the case.
The landlord or the property owner makes those decisions, not the public entity. I’m pretty clear on what our private property rights are, versus what our public obligations are. So again, I don’t think it’s a fair question: Should the public purchase those houses?
Question: In establishing the public benefit for the PUD agreement for Near North, a public benefit is considered to be removing three houses. Do you agree that’s a public benefit?
Stephen Kunselman: That is a choice for the Ann Arbor city council to make.
Question: And what would your choice be?
Stephen Kunselman: No.
Question: Should the city buy it?
LuAnne Bullington: I don’t believe that the city should take over anybody’s private property. Only if the owners of that property want to sell it to the city and they negotiated a price. Should we buy it? If we’re buying greenbelt property, why can’t we buy greenway property?
Historic Preservation: City Place
Question: Is there any way we can get the city to take action on preserving housing like those that are proposed for demolition in connection with City Place on South Fifth Avenue?
LuAnne Bullington: I love those old houses and I’m sorry that it hasn’t been designated as a historic district already. I consider these to be jewels in the crown of Ann Arbor along with our parks. We have these wonderful old homes. We have them in Germantown, we have a handful on the west side, we have some on the east side – this is our history. We need to protect them.
To let a homeowner come in and buy those houses up and then let them deteriorate so that they can use it as an excuse to build another building – that really bothers me. We have city inspectors who could go in and say, Keep your property up! My sister owns a bunch of apartment buildings and she has inspectors on her all the time to make sure that those apartment buildings are fine.
But some city inspectors in the city let certain things slide. Like that apartment building that’s over on East University across from the School of Education, they didn’t have a furnace and they had all kinds of problems, that thing slid, and then they wanted to sell it and put in new construction. I warn that that’s going to happen in our old neighborhoods.
Stephen Kunselman: LuAnne makes a very good point – if you don’t have inspections to keep up rental property and you do find that they become blighted, then you find that there’s another reason to tear it down. We don’t have good inspections because they don’t have the staff. The staff has been cut, because our budget has been cut – everything is tied together.
And these things take time, it’s not going to be immediate, these things happen over the course of a number of years. We are still feeling the effects of the Engler administration in Michigan. In terms of that particular area, my stance has always been that there is a great responsibility between the private and the public.
We do not have the authority to go and tell a private property owner what they can do. We can regulate what they can do, and then they can do those things within the law. If the law says if they can do certain things, we have to respect that. If they go beyond that and want to do a PUD, then we have discretion. As it comes to a historic district or the creation of a historic district, I’ve been pretty clear on that: The majority of the property owners have to agree.
Question: I would like to see the city of Ann Arbor and city council not only be more transparent but have certain rules and regulations, things where they have to give out any information as to what their involvement is. How can we make the city council at least honest?
LuAnne Bullington: Last March I wrote a letter to the editor complaining about the email issue. In other cities, councilmembers aren’t allowed to open their laptops at all until after public comment time. And then they are only allowed to email back to the clerk.
So what I think we should take a look at, is restricting people on city council from using Blackberries, or their computers, or the city computers – that the only correspondence they should be able to do is back and forth to the clerk, when they have to do amendments to a resolution. It’s unfortunate that this has come up and it’s unfortunate that it has been abused. One person has also recommended that they put a big screen up and then all email messages would be put on the screen.
Stephen Kunselman: That’s why I said we need to adopt a council code of ethics. That code of ethics could be very encompassing and address many of the issues that I think that we’re now understanding as they come to light. Whether it’s emails, whether it is passing notes, it’s all kinds of things – but I do believe that there needs to be a higher standard for our elected officials at city council.
We know that the county board of commissioners, I believe, doesn’t use laptops, they get monitors. So they are not e-mailing each other. We know that the Ann Arbor school board does not use laptops, they actually just sit there and pay attention. It’s important that we adopt a council code of ethics that sets a high standard and goes beyond just what we do at the table, but also deals with issues of who you are working for, if you have received their campaign contribution.
And that needs to come to light much earlier in the process instead of just recusing yourself on this vote – because that person may have had much more influence other than just not voting.
Question: What you think is your biggest priority over the next two and half years on city council?
Stephen Kunselman: Next year’s budget is going to be one of the most serious budgets that the city council has had to grapple with. A lot of people have asked me: Why would you want to be a part of that? Because obviously it’s going to be more cuts, things are going to be very uncomfortable for city politicians and for our public, if things don’t turn around. But that will take cooperation among everyone.
And it has to be open so that we understand where these things are coming from. And that is my biggest priority and that has always been my priority – to make sure that the conversation happens at the table. I campaigned on that in 2006, and I campaign on that again today. There is no reason that these events need to be scripted, and there is no reason that we can’t have the public involved in the community discussion. I’m sure that we all accept the fact that cuts have to be made and that we will have some serious issues to deal with. But as long as people know that we are having them in the open, then they will have more confidence and trust in our government.
LuAnne Bullington: Well, I could go on for hours on this one. Priorities – fiscal responsibility. You know, cut this, cut that, cut the other thing. Less than a year ago, we heard that we had cut the city budget and staff to the bone and that now we were in great shape, so we could build this police-court complex.
We went to these hearings where the deciders decided not to listen, and decided to go ahead and do this, and the citizens said, If you do this, we’re going to have to cut the police. [Former chief of police] Chief Oates said for a city the size of Ann Arbor, we need 200 police officers. They just cut us down to 125. If you’re on any of these list-serves, you can hear what is happening to the citizens of our city.
Another side effect of that is that we are doing early buyouts to allow these police officers who are going to start collecting that retirement immediately. We are having to pay for that, and we are having to pay for new police officers. We’ve got trouble at the fire department, our roads are to deteriorating, and our bridges are falling down.
LuAnne Bullington: I want to thank the Ann Arbor City Dems for hosting the forum and I really want to thank you all for coming out for this. I believe that getting this information out is extremely important.
I want to go back to fiscal responsibility – everybody says, “Cut the budget, cut the budget.” We’ve got one of the largest average income taxes of anybody in the state. We have a ton of money. What we don’t have is the right priorities. As I said earlier, in June of 2008 we had $22.7 million in our road fund. $22.7 million! And a couple of months later we wind up on the list as the second worst city in our state for bad roads. We are second behind Detroit, for heaven sakes. With all the money we’ve got!
We’re spending too much money on the wrong things. We went out and purchased large-screen plasma TVs – it was over $7,000 for those plasma TVs. That was enough money to save Project Grow. So we’ve got plenty of money – what we don’t have is the right priorities. We need somebody on city council who’s going to be looking out for you. Who’s going to be looking out for your neighbors not for the developers? We give a huge amount of property tax money, brownfield money, to developers. What did you get?
We came across an incident where a piece of property was bought here in the city for a little over $5 million and then it was reevaluated for under $300,000. Has anybody reevaluated your home and dropped your taxes by that much? We have too much development going on and nobody is paying attention to what’s happening with that development. We talked about this earlier. When people buy this property, a lot of what’s going on is pure speculation – the city council needs to take a look at that, and if they haven’t done anything in three years except maybe move a bulldozer around, that needs to come back and that needs to be evaluated.
We also need to take a look at their finances. Again this has been mentioned. We are now being backdoor taxed. We have had our own water rates increased three times over the last three years. Where is that money going? Have you seen any sewer projects going? We had people in Wards 1, 2 and 5 have their neighbors’ sewage back up in their houses, and what have they done? They put in some pumps to keep your sewage in and your neighbor’s sewage out. We need a process to look at our infrastructure. We need to take care of our sewers. We need to spend that money – why is the city sitting on that kind of money? That was over a year ago.
Our roads have deteriorated even more since then. The governor put the Stadium bridge on the “replace the bridge” list in 2005. The only thing that we’ve ever seen on that bridge is another $20 million. We need a conversation with the people in the city to keep us safe. We’ve got problems with the fire department – we have cut it too much. We’ve got problems with police, we’ve cut it too much. We’re not taking care of our roads. The priorities are off.
Stephen Kunselman: I’m Steve Kunselman, I really appreciate everyone coming out to this as well. I feel like I’m at a support group! I fought the cabal, and the cabal won!
Let’s talk about the other side working with us who have diversity of opinion and who have different ideas, rather than trying to exclude us. There is a common term used by some councilmembers in terms of trying to isolate other councilmembers from being participants in the process. It’s called “Groomed” as in “They were ‘Groomed.’” Or, “You better watch out, or you’ll be ‘Groomed.’” [The reference here is to Kim Groome, who served on the city council from 2002-2005.]
I was told that and I fought it. I fought it wholeheartedly because it is a matter of ethical standard of how we operate our local government. I fought it because I believe in a higher ethical standard. I was naive when I first came on city council, because I was idealistic. I had worked in local government and I had worked with local politicians – I work with Ypsi Township politicians for a short period of time. I understand very well what it means to start cheating the public trust and what it means to your reputation and your integrity – what it means to have your skin crawl when you’re on the edge of doing something illegal.
That, to me, is what is important about running for Ann Arbor city council and taking on those who will cheat the public trust. We have to remember that what is unethical is not always illegal. You have to ask yourself: What is the ethical standard that you hold for the councilmembers that you are supporting?
As others told you a little bit about themselves at the beginning, I’m going to tell you a little bit about myself now. I’m a lifelong Ann Arborite. My grandparents are founding members of the St. Francis Catholic Church over there in Ward 3. My mother was a strong activist in the Ann Arbor fight against the Vietnam War – among other things, while raising me from 1969-72 while she was in college. She taught me great ethical standards.
I’m going read to you an insult from one councilmember to another that was done during a council meeting while I sat next to that person. From the other councilmember: “I know what I’m doing, my momma didn’t raise no fool.” The incumbent, next to me: “SK’s mama did. He’s killing us with this stuff.”
Here’s a person who insulted my mother’s honor and integrity sitting next to me at a city council meeting, and then working against me behind my back. That, to me, is unethical and shows clearly who it is that we are dealing with on Ann Arbor city council.
I don’t work that way. My mother didn’t teach me to work that way. And I’ve yet to receive an apology for that insult.