For one hour on Friday evening at Dicken Elementary School, candidates for the Ward 4 city council seat – Marcia Higgins and Hatim Elhady – answered questions read aloud by Ann Arbor resident Jack Eaton. Higgins is seeking re-election on Nov. 3 as the Democratic nominee, while Elhady is challenging her, and is unaffiliated with any party.
The Chronicle arrived just after the ground rules were explained – questions read by Eaton were submitted to him by attendees of the event. There would be opening statements from each candidate, announced Eaton. At that, Higgins suggested that they dispense with the opening statements and dive right into the questions – the event was about letting Ward 4 residents get their questions asked and answered, she said. Elhady quipped that he’d had his “heart set on an opening statement,” but agreed to Higgins’ suggestion.
The event was organized by Elhady’s campaign. Eaton, who is pictured on Elhady’s campaign website and has contributed to the Elhady campaign, administered the questions and kept time in a way that could fairly be characterized as impartial. When Elhady concluded one of his responses, Eaton self-reported that he had not timed Elhady and would thus not time Higgins, either. In general, adherence to the two-minute time limit was not a problem for the candidates, good pace was maintained between questions, and they covered a lot of ground in the hour.
Below we give the questions and answers in summary form – no attempt has been made to render a verbatim account. Higgins and Elhady took turns taking first crack at the questions. So in every case, the candidates’ responses are summarized in the order they were given. The order of the questions is also presented in the order they were asked.
Question: If elected, what are your top three priorities in the coming year?
Higgins: She said that the budget was absolutely one of her top priorities. She said that the cuts in state revenue sharing meant that there would be choices to make. Vital city services needed to be maintained – police, fire, garbage. But she cautioned that there would need to be a community discussion about what things needed to be let go for right now and deferred, perhaps to some later time.
The second major priority she named was zoning, saying that it was a huge issue. She pointed out that she had sponsored the resolution that would overhaul all of the city’s zoning code and consolidate all of its master plans. Currently, she said, there were places in the city code where in one section the directives completely contradicted those in another section. Previous efforts, she said, had been piecemeal, but this one was meant to be completely comprehensive.
Elhady: He named fiscal responsibility as his top priority, saying that it was important to distinguish between luxuries and necessities. As examples of necessities he gave: infrastructure, road repair, street lights, emergency services. Luxuries are those things that we would like to have when we have a lot of money. Right now, however, we don’t have a lot of money, he cautioned, so we need to be more careful. The police-courts building [known also as the municipal center], he characterized as a luxury. We could use that money, he contended, to fund road repair. He referenced a study that put Ann Arbor roads as second-worst in the state and noted that the Stadium bridges were on the verge of collapse. He referenced a resolution passed in 2004 on the Stadium bridges, saying that this showed that it was not an unknown problem.
He contrasted Higgins’ choice of zoning as her second priority with his own priority of public inclusion. He allowed that zoning was a big issue, but sketched out how public inclusion cut across a wider range of issues, including zoning and Argo Dam. He described how his planned weekly office hours and a monthly newsletter would facilitate public inclusion.
Elhady gave a third priority: Finding a commonality between homeowners and students, comparing it to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. [This is a standard puzzle in economics, in the specific field of game theory.] The point of Elhady’s comparison to the academic puzzle was to emphasize that homeowners and students could accomplish more by cooperating than by opposing each other. That kind of cooperation was a goal he’d set for himself and he was willing to work hard in service of that goal, he said.
Question: Where will the money come from to improve the roads and bridges?
Elhady: He characterized as the first option that council has thought of to address the funding issue – to raise taxes – as “milking” constituents by proposing a city income tax. He said that the answer was not in raising revenue, but rather in efficiently allocating the dollars we do have. He said we could get “more bang for the buck.”
He said that instead of taking general obligation bonds to build unnecessary buildings [e.g., the police-courts building] the money could be used for roads. He pointed out that the city had lost the opportunity to obtain federal stimulus funds to repair the bridge. He alluded to a memo from [city engineer and project manager] Michael Nearing, in which Nearing cited the failure of Ward 4 city council representatives Higgins and Teall to appoint a citizen advisory committee as the reason a shovel-ready bridge design was not ready when federal stimulus money became available. We lost “free money,” Elhady said. He assured the audience that they could rely on him in the future to obtain such grants when they became available. The current city council, on the other hand, had proven they could not get such grants, he concluded.
Higgins: She began by saying that every few years, the citizens of Ann Arbor had approved a street millage and that’s where the money to repair local road infrastructure came from. She also pointed out that this millage money was used to “leverage” state and federal grant support to get the best use out of our local dollars. In the last 10 years, she pointed out, the city had replace two bridges that had been falling down: (i) the Broadway bridges, which was a project brought in on time and on budget, and (ii) the Huron Parkway bridges.
The problem was not, Higgins contended, that city hadn’t been actively looking at these infrastructure issues. With the extreme winter weather we’d experienced in the last few years, Ann Arbor had had more local roads needing repaving than they’d had money for.
She said she’d been following the Stadium bridges for several years. When the bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, Higgins said she emailed Sue McCormick [director of public services for the city of Ann Arbor] the same day and had learned that the rating of the Stadium bridges was the same rating of the Minneapolis bridge. She rejected the contention that it was this council that had held up the repair of the Stadium bridges. She traced the work by council on the issue back to 2005-06, when a public process was begun on the question of upgrading Stadium Boulevard from the M-14 interchange down to South Industrial.
At the same time, they had focused on the area between Main Street and South Industrial and were looking to integrate the area into the city’s non-motorized transportation plan. In the midst of that planning, she said, the University of Michigan announced that they were preparing renovations to the football stadium. It became clear that shutting down South Main to South Industrial would not be feasible.
Addressing the specific memo from Nearing, Higgins contended that at a meeting held at a higher level than Nearing, she and Teall had decided not to appoint the citizen advisory committee when it became apparent that the work could not be completed on the originally planned schedule. She pointed out that if there’s a public process and then four years elapse before implementation of the results of that process, then the reaction would be, “When did that happen??” Public process needed to happen closer to the time frame when the actual work would be done, she explained. To say that the council had not done anything was not accurate, she concluded. She pointed out that when Obama announced the stimulus package, no one knew he was planning to do that.
In January 2009, the city had made a conscious decision to separate out the bridge from the broader range of construction, because they knew they needed to focus on the bridge. The decision was also driven by the lack of enthusiasm for pursuing an eminent domain action with the Ann Arbor Golf and Outing Club, which would have been necessary for some of proposed non-motorized amenities.
At the same time that the city looked at spending $500,000 to repair the south side of the bridge, they learned that the weight of the equipment that would effect that repair posed the risk of causing the bridge to collapse, and that plan could not be implemented. So the city opted to just get the bridge designed and go after funding. Discussions on the budget and labor committee and the bridge committee, she said, had considered the possibility that no funding could be obtained from external sources [such as the state local bridge fund, earmarked federal transportation bill, and a TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant].
In that event, she said, there was the possibility of leveraging street millage money for the next five to six years and fund the bridge ourselves. The consequence of that strategy, she cautioned, was that we could not use that money to repair local roads. “Are we willing to forgo local street repair in order to build the bridge?” she asked. That was why the city was identifying “pots of money” that could be targeted. She mentioned a meeting in Lansing [Nov. 5] of the state’s local bridge fund authority, where the city will be making a presentation, asking for funding.
Question: State your position on the Argo Dam/Pond question and state why you hold that position.
Higgins: She said she supported leaving the dam in. All of the information on the [concrete and steel] dam itself pointed to the conclusion that it was structurally sound. The issue was with the toe drains in the earthen embankment, she said. The piezometers that had been installed were trying to help answer the question of whether the toe drains were functioning properly, she explained. She summarized part of the dispute between the city and the MDEQ as this question of whether the toe drains were working. Into the mix, she said, had come the identification of an endangered species of plant life [the purple turtlehead] on the embankment. The city found itself pitted between two government agencies [Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Natural Resources] with respect to the toe drains in the earthen embankment and the preservation of the wildlife.
Any alternate designs for reconstruction of the embankment [to eliminate the need for a canoe portage, for example] should first go to the city’s park advisory commission, because that was in their domain as recreation. She was definitely in favor of keeping the dam, she concluded.
Elhady: He said he was a big supporter of Argo Dam. He’s dam-in. He said that while going door-to-door in Ward 4, he’d met people on both sides of the issue, and what he’d tried to stress was that whether or not they were in agreement with him on an issue or not, he would listen to them, because he believed in public inclusion. He contended that Higgins had not practiced public inclusion, giving as an example the resolution that was recently brought to the council to keep the dam, but was tabled, partly because there had been no formal public hearing.
Question: Do you support or oppose extending the airport runway?
Elhady: He said he was opposed to extending the runway, that he’d opposed it from the beginning, and that his mind would not change unless he saw real evidence of a safety issue. Also, he said that he needed clear evidence from the Michigan Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration that there would be an economic benefit from the runway extension. Elhady warned that if there were an extension of the runway, it would bring more and heavier aircraft in. That would increase the noise level, he explained. Further, it would expand the time of the increased noise levels because there would be a need to extend the hours of operation to accommodate the greater number of aircraft.
He contended that Higgins’ current opposition to extending the runway stood in contradiction to the Jan. 22, 2007 resolution she had sponsored approving the new layout plan.
Higgins: She noted that the new plan to which Elhady referred had been approved and accepted by the city council on the recommendation of the airport advisory board, and reflected a required update in the plan. No action on changing the layout had been taken, she stressed. Among the items where action had been taken were the updating of new hangers to replace rusted-out structures, and the construction of a new storage shed for snow removal equipment. As far as a specific proposal to extend the runway, she did not see any movement to bring forward such a proposal and said she would oppose it if it were to be brought forward. She mentioned that the other action that had been taken was an environmental assessment for the property – there are wells that sit on the airport property that feed into the water supply and are used heavily in the wintertime.
What do you think about the Library Lot project and the Blake Transit Center?
Higgins: She began by saying that she wished the city could have included the Blake Transit Center when they had looked at redeveloping the old YMCA site. She then asked for clarification on whether the “Library Lot project” meant the underground parking deck or the project to be built on top. As the question itself did not provide guidance, she said she was happy to see parking go underground, and then devoted most of her answer to the question of what goes on top. She said that the motivation for the resolution she’d brought to issue a request for proposals (RFP) that was not specific was to expand the range of possibilities. What could go there could range from a park to a building, she said.
Elhady: He characterized the concept of an RFP as “wonderful” because it provided a chance for the public to choose from the ideas that were submitted. But that was not, he warned, what actually had happened. He contended that there were clauses in the resolution that required the project that went on top to bring in more revenue. That, he said, automatically negated the idea of a public park. He contended that there were no public parks anywhere within the Downtown Development Authority area, and that this could be the first. So there were restrictions in the resolution on what the public could choose – the choices had been narrowed down for the public in advance, he said.
Elhady came back to the issue of the cost of construction for the underground parking structure and suggested the money might be better spent on road repair.
Question: I live near Hill Street, which was the detour for the double-tandem trucks for the football stadium construction. There are now 200 potholes in a two-block area. Can we get help?
Elhady: He began by declaring: “Whoever you are, I really do want to help you. Period.” He said he would have the city cover the potholes, but they needed to find the money. That was a question he said was best asked of Higgins, the incumbent. “That’s her responsibility,” he said. If we choose to repair the Stadium bridges with the street millage money, then there would not be money to fix potholes. “It was not my mistake,” he continued, to build the police-courts building, construct the underground parking structure, or forgo stimulus money – “That was not my fault.” He stressed that if he were elected to the council, it would not be an issue – if he had been on council, he contended, the Stadium bridges would not be an issue, and the city would not have to be looking for a grant to magically appear.
Elhady reported that he went past Hill Street all the time and that he had to buy new struts for his car as a result.
Higgins: She began by saying simply, “Yes, you can.” She described how a common process, which was used all the time, was to receive an email from people which would then be forwarded to city staff. Each year, she said, 26-27 miles of roads were repaved and that was done on a priority based on road ratings. The 26-27 miles of the worst roads were targeted for repair. Complaints from residents were directed to staff – it was as simple as that, she said.
She stressed that using the street millage to repair the Stadium bridges was a “worst case scenario” and that to implement that solution would still require dialogue with the community about whether that was really the route they wanted to pursue.
Question: What is your plan for the recently-closed Georgetown mall? What happened to Kroger? What do you plan to do to re-vitalize that area?
Higgins: She reported that she and her Ward 4 council colleague, Margie Teall, had just introduced a resolution to appoint a committee to look at the Georgetown area. She noted that the neighborhood had a very engaged group of people, who would like to work with a developer. A real concern, she said, was that the area would be fenced off in a way that would make it look like it was abandoned. The committee was going to look at foreclosure, and work with the nuisance committee. What they could focus on during the immediate future was how the property would look. As far as revitalization was concerned, Higgins contended, it was an issue across the state, and that as an individual councilmember there’s not a lot anyone could do.
Elhady: He reported that he’d received a lot of emails about the Georgetown area. He said he’d met with Larry and Jeanne Horvath – you don’t have to be a neighborhood association to get attention, he said. He said that residents seemed fine with the way the mall used to be – they wanted stores there, they wanted Kroger back. The main issue was the maintenance of the landscaping on the lot. He reported that he’d spoken with the treasurer’s offices at the county and the city and that if the city did the landscaping work that needed to be done (pulling weeds), the tab could be given to the county.
Elhady said he was glad to have the endorsement of Larry Horvath.
Question: Do you believe that all of the past city council emails should be publicly released, as suggested by Mike Anglin?
Elhady: He began by saying, “Yes.” He mentioned that there is a photo in The Ann Arbor Chronicle where he is holding a yellow sign in support of the email resolution. He allowed that as he was going door-to-door he was confronted by some people who saw a contradiction between his stress on fiscal responsibility and spending thousands of dollars to make past emails public. Email communication between councilmembers, he said, was the foundation of our understanding of how they interact on issues. On that basis, he said, it was possible – if necessary – to weed out councilmembers at the next election. It should be a fiscal priority, he said, to see who is governing our city. He characterized it as an umbrella issue.
Higgins: She indicated that she did not support Anglin’s email resolution. She did, however, support the amendments. She noted that as far as the emails in question, they were currently being requested by citizens under the Freedom of Information Act. As chair of the council rules committee, she said, they’d changed the rules to not allow emails during council meetings except for those to staff or to other councilmembers that related to resolution or amendment language, which would then be read aloud. The procedure by which emails sent during meetings would be captured and appended to the council minutes had been already implemented, she explained. She said that most of the feedback she’d heard was that lessons had been learned and that it was time to move forward based on the changes in process that had been put in place.
Question: The current council has approved two different six-bedrooms-in-one-apartment type projects in our neighborhood. Both are about half-empty. Both were “by right” developments. The council has members who are not willing to litigate the public health, safety and welfare issue. What will your position on council be with technical and non-technical compliance?
Higgins: She began by saying that she recognized the projects as being in the South Main area: 828 Greene and the other on Hill Street. Both had been approved in the last couple of years, she said. She contrasted the situation with a planned unit development (PUD) and a “by right” proposal. With a PUD, she said, there was much more leeway to take into account neighborhood consideration. On the other hand, if a project met the requirements of the law, she had taken an oath to uphold the law. She did not have the latitude to deprive someone of their rights under the law.
Elhady: He said he’d like to highlight two words: “public welfare.” He said that it was not a matter of breaking the law – it was a matter of defining the law. We needed to define what “public welfare” actually is, he explained. Recalling the controversial 42 North development, he said that the Friends of Dicken Woods had pointed out that in other states, the developer had pursued similar projects that had increased crime and shown how it would increase storm water management problems.
Higgins: Eaton accommodated Higgins’ request that she be allowed to clarify for the audience that it had not actually been the Friends of Dicken Woods [Eaton is president of that group] that had advocated against 42 North, but rather the South Maple neighborhood group. She pointed out that the Friends’ nonprofit status prevented it from taking political stances.
Question: Are you really unaware that we had a very lengthy pro-and-con hearing on Argo Dam? [The question was written to be addressed to Elhady, but both candidates responded.]
Elhady: Elhady stressed that a public hearing should be adequately publicized. “If I am unaware, how many others are unaware?” he asked. Going door-to-door, he said he’d found that a lot of residents had not known about the public hearing. He suggested that part of the publicity challenge could be met by weekly office hours and a monthly newsletter.
Higgins: She said that, yes, she’d been aware of the event, she was there, but characterized it as a “town hall meeting,” and on that occasion they’d received the report from the Huron River and Impoundment Management Plan (HRIMP) committee. There’d been 200 people in the audience, she reported. Several organizations had received notices, people had received emails, they’d come to the meeting and they’d spoken. She characterized it as one of the longest town hall meetings they’d had in a long time. Two months later, the staff had presented their report and heard it presented at a work session, which had also been well-attended. So to say that it was an issue that the community was unaware of wasn’t accurate, she said. People were aware and were in attendance making themselves hear, she concluded.
Question: The Veterans Administration hospital is currently studying hydroelectric power at Argo and Geddes dams. Would you support this on our dams?
Higgins: She noted that Argo Dam previously had electric power-generating capacity. She said that she did not have enough information, to have a view on restoring that capability, because the VA feasibility study was not complete. However, she did say that hydroelectric power was something they should be looking at, because the city should be looking at all alternative forms of energy.
Elhady: He said that he’d made it clear on his website that one of the reasons he had a dam-in position was because of the potential for hydroelectric power. He said that he supported the VA feasibility study and said that if the recommendation was for adding hydroelectric capability, then he’d definitely support that. He said that he saw the revenue from hydroelectric as potentially offsetting the maintenance costs of the dam. Putting hydroelectric power in at Argo Dam was also environmentally friendly, he said, and he was pro-environment.
Question: We have a “street-breaking ordinance.” You’re required to (a) have a permit, (b) mark your work, and (c) repair the street to city standards. If a private contractor doesn’t do (a), (b) and (c), why should the street millage pay to clean up their mess? Hill Street is an enforcement issue, not a millage issue.
Elhady: He said he supported everyone cleaning up their mess and following the ordinance. He allowed that he did not have 100% knowledge of the issue with the street breaking ordinance, but gave his assurance that if someone had failed to complete steps (a), (b), and (c), then they should take responsibility for it. He said that should not be taken from the streets millage but rather from the contractor’s profit.
He challenged Higgins, as the incumbent, to explain what this enforcement issue had arisen. He called for accountability by those who were breaking the street.
Higgins: Higgins said that she was not sure that Hill Street was the example that the question was targeting. The ordinance, she said, involved people who cut into the street to take care of water lines, sewer lines and such. They’re responsible, she said, for repairing the street back to the grade it was originally. She noted that often in late fall and early spring, those repairs start to sag. She said the city knows who pulled the permits, so it’s something that the contractor has to come back and address. If it’s not taken care of within a certain amount of time, and the city has to repair, the contractor is sent a bill and they’re not allowed to pull another permit.
She said that she thought the Hill Street issue was a function of the amount of traffic, which was a road millage issue.
With that, Higgins noted the time was 7:30 p.m. – and excused herself, explaining that for those who did not know, her daughter was gravely ill, and that she was happy to come out and talk that night. She thanked those who came and those who organized the event.
In closing, Elhady also thanked everyone all around, singling out his brother. He also said that he had nothing but respect for Higgin’s 10 years of experience on the city council. But the election on Nov. 3 is for students, homeowners, renters, and families to make a choice. He ticked through his experience with the U.S. consulate in Germany and as a volunteer at the VA medical center. He stressed his readiness to listen and expressed what a pleasure it would be to serve as the ward’s councilmember. Ward 4 deserved to be represented by a councilmember who listens, responds, and is accessible. “I am that candidate, and I’m asking for your vote on Nov. 3,” he concluded.