On Tuesday evening, the Ward 4 Democratic Party hosted a forum at Dicken Elementary School so that residents could pose questions to primary candidates for one of the ward’s two city council seats. Margie Teall, the incumbent who has held the seat since 2002, and Jack Eaton, who has been active in politics on the neighborhood level, answered questions for a bit more than an hour.
City council representatives are elected for two-year terms and each of the city’s five wards has two seats on the council, one of which is elected each year. Also in attendance at Tuesday’s forum was Marcia Higgins, the Ward 4 council representative who won re-election in November 2009, defeating independent challenger Hatim Elhady.
Besides Higgins, other elected officials and candidates for office who were introduced at the forum included: LuAnne Bullington (candidate for the 11th District county board of commissioners seat), Ned Staebler (candidate for the 53rd District state Representative seat), Leah Gunn (county commissioner representing the 9th District of the county and seeking re-election), Patricia Lesko (candidate for Ann Arbor mayor). All the candidates are Democrats.
Eaton’s main theme was a need to focus more on infrastructure – those things we need, not the things that might be nice to have. Eaton was keen to establish that his candidacy was not meant as a personal attack on Teall, saying that he expected his supporters to focus on the issues and to conduct themselves in a civil way. His opening remarks were heavy on thanks and appreciation for Teall’s long service on council, particularly with regard to the creation of Dicken Woods, which is now a city-owned nature area.
In the course of the forum, a pointed question to Teall on her biggest regret while serving on the council elicited an acknowledgment from her that she regretted her contribution to the problem last year with city councilmembers emailing each other during council meetings. Eaton was quick to give Teall credit for publicly apologizing in a timely way for her role in the scandal.
For her part, Teall focused on setting forth accomplishments while serving on the council. Those ranged from the longer-term budgeting strategies that she said had helped ensure that Ann Arbor was weathering the economic crisis better than other Michigan cities, to the budget amendment she introduced and the council passed in May, which proposed using $2 million from the Downtown Development Authority, plus more optimistic estimates for state revenue sharing, to eliminate the need to lay off some police and firefighters.
The candidates exchanged different views on basic infrastructure issues like the Stadium Boulevard bridges and stormwater management, to single-stream recycling and leaf collection, to Georgetown Mall, and the transparency of government.
The candidate responses are ordered largely in the order in which they were made. But in some cases, questions of similar theme are grouped in a way not consistent with their chronological order.
Each candidate gave an opening statement.
Eaton’s Opening Statement
Eaton began by thanking everyone for taking time out of their busy lives to come listen to the candidates and to “ponder the future of our city.” He specifically thanked Tom Johnson and Greg Hebert, co-chairs of the Ward 4 Democratic Party, for organizing the forum. He also thanked Teall for her many years of service on the city council – he thought many people did not understand how much time and effort serving on the city council actually takes.
He also said that he wanted to thank Teall on behalf of his neighborhood for helping to protect Dicken Woods – they’d stopped a developer and managed to turn it into a park. He said he wanted to make clear that he was not running against Teall for any personal reasons – he does not dislike her, he said, and he would “not say mean things about her.” He and Teall “simply disagree about some issues.”
Addressing his supporters, he asked them to conduct themselves in a civil way – that they discuss the issues and not the people, that they make it a campaign they could be proud of organizing together.
“I am running for city council because I disagree with the current council’s vision for our city.” He went on to say that he disagreed with the current city council’s budget priorities.
Ann Arbor is a great town, he said, that is unique and special – we have fabulously talented people, and live with Midwestern values. Michigan, he said, is facing difficult economic times, as is Ann Arbor, but not to the extent that Detroit, or Flint, or Battle Creek are facing them. Nonetheless, he said, we will have a difficult budget to manage in the near future. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), he said, had estimated that 69% of Ann Arbor residents over the age of 25 have at least a bachelor’s degree. So Ann Arbor has a highly educated workforce that is prepared for the modern economy, he said. As result, Ann Arbor has a lower unemployment rate than other areas in Michigan, and our property values have declined less than other areas of the state. Nevertheless, he cautioned, we will see a decline in property tax revenues, as well as a decrease in state revenue sharing.
During the next two years, he said, we need to focus on our core public services – public safety, roads, bridges and infrastructure, and maintenance of our parks and recreation program. We especially need to pay attention to human services, he said, and to help those who are least able to help themselves.
During these difficult economic times, he said, the city needs to withdraw from real estate speculation and projects that are not necessary but merely desirable. If we take care of core services, he suggested, the highly educated population would draw employers, the economy will stabilize, property tax revenues will stabilize, and we can move on to pursue a different vision. In the short term, however, we have to focus on those things that are absolutely necessary, and put aside the things that are merely desirable.
Eaton promised that as a city councilmember, he would support citizens’ needs and desires for fundamental services.
Teall’s Opening Statement
Teall also began by thanking everyone, including the organizers of the forum, Tom Johnson and Greg Hebert, the co-chairs of the Ward 4 Democratic Party. She also thanked Eaton for his kind comments – she confirmed that it is a lot of hard work serving on the city council.
Since 2002, she said, the council had been able to accomplish some “pretty amazing things.” What makes that significant, she said, was that the challenges have and continue to be significant. We currently face the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression, she said, and sources of state and federal funds that cities have counted on for decades have been drying up. Funding that was previously available in the ’80s and ’90s and also in the early part of the current decade was no longer available, she said. Across the state, she said, cities are seeing their budgets stretched past the limits.
Some other cities were letting their fund reserve balances get dangerously low and have put their bond ratings at risk. Ann Arbor, however, has been very careful to protect its bond rating, said Teall. Royal Oak, she reported, was looking at 43 layoffs in July – including 14 firefighter positions and 16 police officers. Grand Rapids is asking voters to increase their income tax rate and they are looking at 14 more layoffs on top of the 125 positions that were eliminated this past cycle.
Teall stated that Ann Arbor was fortunate to have a mayor and city council who had the foresight to make necessary structural budget changes early on. When she was first elected in 2002, she said, the council had prioritized the budget at its first goal-setting session. They had focused on the basics of city government and operation. As a result, she said, Ann Arbor was weathering the economic storm as well or better than any other city in the state. Despite the fact that Ann Arbor had lost up to 5% of its property tax revenues due to the sale of the Pfizer property to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor was still answering the demands that decades of neglect of roads, water treatment, and sewer infrastructure had left them, she said.
Ann Arbor is still not raising taxes and the fund reserve balance is healthy enough to maintain a very high bond rating, Teall said. That had been the result of very careful planning and decision-making, she said. She herself had accomplished a great deal for Ward 4 residents, she said, as well as for the city as a whole. The very first neighborhood meeting she attended in November of 2002, she said, was in the same room as the forum that evening – and the topic of the meeting had been the threat to the area that is now Dicken Woods.
Teall worked with many of the residents to stop the sale of the land to the developer and to work out a plan to arrange for the city itself to purchase the land, she said. She gave credit to the neighborhood for making the area what it is today, saying that they had taken a “diamond in the rough and polished it.” She thanked the neighbors for “taking the ball and running really hard with it.” She reported that last week the city council had voted to make Dicken Woods officially city of Ann Arbor parkland.
Two years ago, she said, she had worked with her colleague from Ward 4, Marcia Higgins, to rezone part of Lower Burns Park to prevent more single-family residences from being broken up into multiple rental units. More recently, she said she had written and co-sponsored a resolution to create a neighborhood task force to work with the city attorneys and planning staff to provide oversight and input into the redevelopment of the vacant Georgetown Mall and to address concerns about its current security.
Last month, she said, she had sponsored a budget amendment to prevent football-Saturday parking in Allmendinger and Frisinger parks. A year ago, she continued, the Ann Arbor Senior Center had been slated to close two days after the candidate forum was being held – July 1, 2010. She said she had taken the lead during last year’s budget process to reverse that decision – she wrote the resolution creating the senior center task force and had chaired that task force over the last year. The task force had made dozens of recommendations and the city staff had subsequently implemented them to make the senior center sustainable in the future, she said.
On the city’s environmental commission, she said, she had worked on the ordinance that restricts the use of phosphorus in lawn fertilizer. She also cited her role in helping to convert Ann Arbor’s recycling system from a dual-stream to a single-stream system – that would help to establish Ann Arbor as the leader that it previously was in the field of recycling, she said, stating that it would save the city about $650,000 a year in labor and tipping fees.
She concluded her list of accomplishments by saying that she had taken the lead on an amendment to the budget this last spring that prevented the layoff of police officers and had kept all of the fire stations opened. The fire chief had assured the council that response times and staffing levels would not be adversely impacted, and neither would residents’ insurance rates. She said she looked forward to serving the city for another two years – the turbulent economic times required the kind of continuity that only the current leadership could offer, she concluded.
Question: Please comment on the future of the Georgetown Mall. [The property, now a vacant strip mall, is located on Packard Road, between Pine Valley and King George boulevards.]
Teall on Georgetown Mall
Teall indicated that she had been working with a citizens group to follow closely what the current owner is doing – they had taken a tour of the property last month and they have another meeting on July 15. The city attorney and city planning staff are working with the group. They are optimistic that the owner will take the group’s suggestions and input, Teall reported.
Eaton on Georgetown Mall
Eaton said that Georgetown Mall represents an unfortunate failure of the city council to act, based on its first lesson on urban blight. Out on Jackson Road, he said, the old Michigan Inn was allowed to “waste away for years” without any response in the form of legislation that addresses urban blight. The same thing appears to be happening with Georgetown Mall, he cautioned.
There are no ordinances, he contended, that address responsibilities of landowners with regard to abandoned property – the site is a magnet for vagrants and crime. The issue needs to be addressed on a broader level than just the one site, he contended. That’s because apparently the city will face more of this kind of thing, he said. There is an abandoned site at the bottom of Broadway Hill that used to be a neighborhood shopping center – Kroger – that is now just a field of weeds, and there’s an abandoned site at Washtenaw and Platt across the street from the Whole Foods store with a few abandoned buildings – it’s also filled with weeds, he said.
In a best case scenario, Eaton said, Georgetown Mall would be demolished and become a field of weeds. It is important, he said, to assign responsibility to landowners with respect to abandoned property so that properties don’t just “fester” in the neighborhoods as urban blight.
State of the City
Question: How is the city better than it was 10 years ago?
Teall on State of the City
Teall said that the most basic way she felt the city was better is the fact that the budget is much more solid than it was previously. The city is addressing infrastructure needs that had been neglected 10 years ago, she said. When the city was flush and the city had the money to do a lot of things, the city didn’t do them. As examples of projects the city is now undertaking, she pointed to the storm water project at Pioneer High School and the renovations to the water treatment plant. In addition, the greenbelt, she said, was enhancing the quality of life in the whole city.
Eaton on State of the City
Eaton said he’s running for city council because he thinks that in some ways the city is not better than it was 10 years ago. But he said that he did believe there were wonderful things that have happened in the last 10 years. As examples, he said the city has added to its park system, Adopt-a-Park has been implemented, neighborhoods have been activated to become more involved in politics – there are a lot of exciting things happening in town. What’s better now, he said, is that the town has a robust sense of community and continues to improve it.
The Democratic Party
One question was directed only to Eaton.
Question: Can you tell us what you have done for the Ann Arbor Democratic Party in the last few years?
Eaton on Democratic Party
Eaton began by saying that he voted regularly. He also contributed to Democratic candidates, he said. He also said he had helped organize neighborhood organizations in town that focus around Democratic-based issues.
Malletts Creek and Drainage Issues
Question: As a long-time resident of Lansdowne I have witnessed the deterioration of Malletts Creek as an asset of Ward 4. Unfortunately, stormwater and silt from the new developments west of Ward 4 and from within Ward 4 have been directed into the creek. When is the city council going to review the work of the drain commissioner?
Eaton on Drainage Issues
Eaton began by saying he did not think it was the work of the city council to direct the county drain commissioner [now called the water resources commissioner]. But he noted that the city has flooding problems in a variety of areas – not just Malletts Creek. A couple of years ago, the city council had commissioned and paid for a study on flooding, but had refused the results, he contended. It’s becoming a more and more important issue, he said.
Eaton said he was not living in Ann Arbor in 1968 when the city had experienced a huge flood, but he noted that there was an increasing frequency of floods. He said he had visited Lansdowne to look at the problem that they are having with Malletts Creek. It would require a joint effort on the part of the neighborhood, which owns some of the infrastructure, and the city, which owns the bridge. But the flooding problem needs a city response, he said. We can’t allow development to proceed, he said, without gauging impact on drainage and surface water.
Referring to a heavy-rain-related incident that was reported to the city council at a recent meeting, Eaton said that no one should wake up and find 70,000 gallons of water in their basement. It’s not an individual’s problem that happens, he said, but rather a failure of the city to address its fundamental stormwater problems and to address them in a broad-based manner.
Teall on Drainage Issues
Teall said the flood map that she thought Eaton had referred to was expected to be ready in the fall. She said that she and the other Ward 4 representative, Marcia Higgins, had visited the location where a resident had had their basement flooded with 70,000 gallons of water, and toured the entire area with city staff – Cresson Slotten, a senior project manager, and Craig Hupy, who is head of systems planning. She characterized the failure as a failure of the system that had been installed – it had been designed to take the stormwater and treat it in a certain way and the system had failed for that specific heavy rain event.
Teall indicated that the neighborhood association has ownership of some of the infrastructure for a bridge between two ponds.
Malletts Creek Bridge
Question: What about the bridge that goes across Malletts Creek between Morehead and Delaware? It’s been out of service for two years and is getting to be a nuisance.
Teall on Malletts Creek Bridge
Teall indicated it was the same bridge that she was talking about before – it’s a pedestrian bridge. The footings on the bridge are not in good shape, she said, so the city could not simply go in and replace the bridge above the footings. With respect to the ownership of the bridge, Teall was uncertain which parts were privately owned and which parts were owned by the city.
Eaton on Malletts Creek Bridge
Eaton chimed in to say that the structures under the bridge were owned by the neighborhood association, but the bridge itself is a park bridge, built and owned by the city. The neighborhood, Eaton said, was complaining because they’d been trying to work with the city to find a resolution to the problem that has persisted for a couple of years and they have become frustrated.
Eaton indicated that he was uncertain what the city had done or not done, but that he understood that there could be frustration when a process took a couple of years. Given the recent flooding issues during a major rainstorm, he said, now was perhaps the time to take responsibility for Malletts Creek and the bridge.
Question: What could you do to prevent the Stadium bridges fiasco?
[For background on the Stadium bridges, including a timeline of events related to the bridges see Chronicle coverage: "Budget Round 6: Bridges, Safety Services" ]
Teall on Stadium Bridges
Teall began by reviewing some of the history of the issue. The railroad bridge had been at 61.5 out of 100 on the Federal Sufficiency Rating (FSR) scale and the State Street bridge had been at 21.2. She said that they’d begun meeting with the public back in 2007 – there’d been a plan developed by city engineers and staff which had included various efficiencies that come from combining multiple projects.
The project at that point included lowering State Street to allow for trucks to go under the bridge, and was to include construction of non-motorized amenities on Main Street and on Stadium Boulevard. Opposite Pioneer High School, on the east side of Main, she said, sidewalks and bike lanes were to be installed, as well as from White Street to Main Street along the south side of Stadium Boulevard. The proposal would have required land from the Ann Arbor Golf and Outing Club, she said, and residents were incensed. She said she’d received numerous handwritten letters from people upset about it.
At that point, she said, the city had decided to take a step back to reduce the scale of the project. In 2009, she said, there were two additional public meetings asking for input on the design. Within that timeframe, the rating on the State Street bridge had fallen to 2 out of 100. Beams were removed from the south side of the bridge.
The current rating, she said, was 23.5. She indicated that she did not consider it to be a “fiasco” but rather a “long process” which she looked forward to seeing completed. She characterized as “foolish” the idea of going ahead with reconstruction of the bridges this fall – that is, using the road millage dollars for the next few years. The city’s strategy was to see if they could get funding from the federal government and the state government. She said she felt the city had a good chance of getting that funding – it’s what other cities do as a funding strategy.
Eaton on Stadium Bridges
Eaton said that in 2007 the spans were already rated at 21-22 out of 100 – where a score of 50 or less out of 100 means that you need to consider repairing or replacing the bridge. As currently proposed, the project does not include the intersection of Main and Stadium – a plan that does not include the controversial aspects involving the sidewalks that required land from the Ann Arbor Golf and Outing Club. But when the Obama administration offered stimulus money for this very kind of project, Eaton said, the city did not have a “shovel-ready” plan – the city had lost out on the chance at that point in time.
Now, he continued, the city was counting on much smaller sums of money that are distributed much more widely. The city had not received TIGER I money [the federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant] and would likely not receive TIGER II money either, Eaton said. Given that a score of 50 out of 100 meant that the bridge should be considered for repair or replacement, Eaton said, the bridge, with its history of FSR scores under that number, meant that the problem had been ignored for too long.
He suggested that bonds should be floated if necessary to reconstruct the bridge and that road millage dollars be used to retire those bonds over time. We need to take care of the problem and not just let it linger, he said, hoping that “free money” would come to town. It’s ridiculous to continue to put it off, he concluded.
Question: Are you for or against the airport runway extension project?
[For background on a possible airport runway extension see Chronicle coverage: "Ann Arbor Airport Study Gets Public Hearing"]
Eaton on the Airport Runway
Eaton said that he was against the extension, citing a variety of other airports in the area that can handle larger aircraft. It’s important to maintain the municipal airport for enthusiasts who fly, but there are other facilities available for heavier aircraft carrying heavier loads. He understood, he said, that pilots always prefer a longer runway, but the concerns of the surrounding neighborhood need to be respected.
Teall on the Airport Runway
Teall indicated she did not have much to add – she is not in favor of a runway extension. She’d been in favor of the environmental assessment [conducted in connection with a possible extension project] because of the drinking water wells that are located on the airport property – the wells were important to protect, she said.
Question: What is your position on single-stream recycling?
[For an opinion piece covering much of the background material on single-stream recycling, see: "Column: Recycling Virtues and MORE"]
Teall on Single-Stream Recycling
Teall began by describing the process as one that we’d all be getting more familiar with starting next week, when we begin putting all recycling materials in one cart [instead of the two different totes that the city now uses]. Chicago, as well as many other cities, are now using that approach, she said. She described it as a money-saver for the city as well as an opportunity to increase the city’s recycling performance.
Teall described the participation rate in recycling as high, but said that as a city, not as much material was being recovered as the city could achieve. She cited a view that had been expressed by Dan Ezekiel [who serves on the city's greenbelt advisory commission (GAC)], who has said that recycling won’t be really successful until it’s as easy to recycle as it is to throw something away.
She said she looked forward to being issued her new cart and being able to throw everything – paper, plastic, and the rest – into the same cart. It also would keep the streets cleaner, she said.
Eaton on Single-Stream Recycling
Eaton began by contrasting dual-stream with the single-stream system. Under the current dual-stream system, he began, you put your paper in one bin and the bottles and cans in another bin. Under the new system, he continued, we’ll be issued “another one of those carts that we all love so much.” [The reference there is to the wheeled carts that the city has issued for trash collection (blue) and compost/leaf collection (brown).]
The purpose of recycling is not to see how much you can get people to put in the bin, he said, but rather to see how much of the material can be put into recycled products. The problem with single-stream recycling, he cautioned, is that it all goes in together – it would be cross-contaminated. There would be broken glass and tomato sauce amongst the paper – it would be a mess, he warned, and would result in less material available to go into products made from recycled material.
The solid waste millage, he said, had accumulated a $6 million surplus, which the city was now going to use to convert to a single-stream recycling process. He said he would have preferred to reduce taxes instead of creating a new system. The new system would provide a new cart, he said, which could be used to recycle margarine and yogurt cups, but it would no longer be possible to put motor oil out for curbside pickup. And when people go to the drop-off center, they’ll have to pay a new $3 entry fee to drop off items they used to put out at the curb.
The $6 million surplus was being spent on the new single-stream recycling system, he said, but the city was discontinuing the loose leaf collection program where residents could sweep their leaves into the street. They’d have to be put into a compost cart, he said. You could put your cart out once a week through the fall, and after that, if you had more leaves, you’d be stuck. In addition, he said, we’d be employing low-wage workers to separate the materials – people we don’t currently have to employ because residents separate the materials when they fill their bins.
There was a specific question on leaf collection, tacked on to a question about the “bucket system” of budgeting, which is presented here separately.
Question: “… without cutting popular services like leaf collection?”
Eaton on Leaf Collection
On leaf collection, Eaton said he was going to miss the leaf collection. “I have lot of leaves!” he said. The idea of dragging his compost cart repeatedly through the fall out to the curb, instead of having two mass leaf collections, does not appeal to him.
Teall on Leaf Collection
Teall said that the leaf collection issue had been looked at for a long time – Ann Arbor is the only city of similar size that still collects leaves by having people sweep them into the street and then using bulldozers and dump trucks to haul them away. The new approach would keep the streets and the stormwater system cleaner and she’d been encouraging the change to happen for some time.
Teall pointed out that paper bags could be used in addition to the compost carts. She also pointed out that bicyclists would be a lot happier [to not have leaves dumped where they ride in the street], especially in the colder months after the snow falls and the leaves freeze.
Bucket System of Accounting
Question: How do you feel about the current “bucket system” of budgeting? Shouldn’t a program with a surplus be allowed to help fund programs with a shortfall …?
Eaton on Bucket Accounting
Eaton addressed the issue of the “bucket method” by saying that it was simply fund allocation budgeting – there are certain funds that have limited uses. So, for example, when we tax ourselves with a solid waste millage, we can only use that money to address solid waste issues. Monies collected for the water system can only be used for the water system.
But the city takes this one step further, Eaton explained. Within the general fund, the city allocates to specific funds – like the attorney’s office, or the IT department or the mayor’s office – and they refer to those funds as “buckets” as well. The implication, he said, is that it’s not possible to take money out of the legal department and use it to pay for police or to take money out of the IT department and use it to pay for firefighters. And that, he said, is not true.
To the extent that the term “bucket” is misleading, he said, he is against that. But fund allocation of budgeting is an accepted method of budgeting, he pointed out. It is important to understand which funds have actual restrictions on them and which ones are fungible. You can choose to shift money among funds that don’t have legal restrictions on them, he said.
He pointed out that the federal government does not accept the fund allocation method of budgeting for their annual reporting. The city needs to produce a separate Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, which is filed with the IRS, and which he characterized as a more reliable way of looking at how the city uses its money.
To the extent that it’s just an analogy, he said, he had no objection to the “bucket” method.
Teall on Bucket Accounting
With respect to fund allocations, Teall said that Eaton was correct about the fact that there are certain millages that by state law cannot be moved into other funds. When voters tax themselves for a service, you can’t just move it to a different fund for another kind of operation.
In terms of fund allocations within the city, she pointed out that for the legal and IT funds, those departments support other operations. The legal and IT departments do not just work for themselves independently, she said – they support other departments, like safety services. She summarized by saying that “We can’t starve one area in order to feed another area.”
Questions: Are you in favor of special assessment districts [to fund street lights]? How do you feel about the city turning off street lights in certain areas?
[Special assessment districts and other options for reducing city expenses for streetlights were discussed at a spring budget meeting: "Budget Round 4: Lights, Streets, Grass"]
Teall on Street Lighting
Teall said that special assessment districts for lighting are something that should be considered. The street lights that are being turned off, she said, would save money by reducing lighting in areas that are “overlit,” according to federal and state standards. The initiative to turn off street lights, she said, was something that had been passed as part of the budget in May. She stressed that the light posts are not being removed. The city would evaluate the results of the program, she said, as it was implemented. [The city describes the current program as a "pilot."]
Eaton on Street Lighting
Eaton stated that he was against special assessment districts for street lighting – he could not imagine taxing people on the basis of how many street lights are in their neighborhood. He is also opposed to turning off street lights.
He noted that the police force had been reduced significantly over the course of the last six to eight years, and said that the state is releasing criminals they can no longer afford to imprison. “And now we are going to darken our streets?” he asked. We pay a lot of taxes, he said. If we don’t build underground parking lots, if we don’t spend $0.5 million planning “a train station that may or may not be necessary,” if we don’t do the things that we just want to do, then we would not have to turn off street lights, he concluded. [Eaton's reference to a "train station" is to Fuller Road Station. Most recent Chronicle coverage: "PAC Softens Stance on Fuller Road Station" ]
City Worker Pay and Benefits
Question: How do pay and benefits for the private sector compare to city workers?
Eaton on City Worker Pay and Benefits
Eaton began by saying that as Michigan’s economy has declined, it’s become more obvious that public employees are relatively highly paid and may have higher benefits than a lot of people in the private sector.
A few years ago, the mayor commissioned a blue-ribbon panel, he said, to study city benefits and retirement policy, but had acted on none of the findings of that committee. We need to work with city unions, to address the problem, Eaton suggested.
He reported that he’d received the endorsement of the firefighters union and the way he’d done that was to restore trust and honesty at the bargaining table. He’d told them that the city needed to cut employee costs, but he also told them that he wanted the bargaining to be honest and trustworthy.
They’re willing to work with the city, he reported, but they believe that they’re being lied to. In Ann Arbor, Eaton said, there are a large number of public sector employees that can be used as comparatives – there are a large number of such employees at the University of Michigan, he said. So it’s not just a private-public comparison, he noted. It was important to find a way to work with employees, he concluded.
Teall on City Worker Pay and Benefits
Teall said that the city’s employees are “decently compensated” but said it was not her place as a councilmember to bargain with unions. That’s something that the city administrator and the labor attorneys did, and it was their job to do. If she were to step into that, it would make impossible the job the city administrator had been hired to do. The city’s bargaining side comes back and checks with the council to see if it’s okay to move forward and that’s a councilmember’s role. On the whole, she said, the city was encouraging its employees to take on a lot more in terms of paying for health care and benefits.
One question was addressed specifically to Teall.
Question: What has been your greatest regret serving on council?
Teall on Regret
Teall said that her greatest regret was contributing to the problem that the council had last year when councilmembers were sending emails back and forth to each other during city council meetings.
She said the result was that the council had quickly changed the council rules so that emails between councilmembers during meetings are restricted. She said it was a mistake for councilmembers to have done that and that she had said so last year.
Eaton weighed in by saying that he felt Teall deserved credit for promptly making a public apology over the “email brouhaha.”
Question: What will be your policy/practice regarding constituent emails – will you respond to them?
Eaton on Email Policy
Eaton said that, yes, he would respond to emails. He said it would be his intention to respond promptly. He also said he would favor adopting a council rule that all council business with their constituents be conducted through a councilmember’s official government email address, so that requests under the Freedom of Information Act can be easily met by the city. He said he would not conduct city business through his private email account – he believes in transparency and responsiveness. He said he believed that the council needed rules to govern this.
Teall on Email Policy
Teall indicated that she did try to respond to emails from constituents – she allowed that she did not always do so quickly. She said if she went out of town she might not necessarily take her computer with her. But she said that it was certainly her intent to respond to emails in some fashion.
With respect to transparency, she said she agreed with Eaton. In her experience, she said, constituents emailed her on her government account and receiving emails on a private account had not been an issue.
Transparency in Government
Question: If elected or re-elected, what would you do to create transparency in government?
Teall on Transparency
Teall began by saying that she didn’t think there was a more transparent municipal government in the state than Ann Arbor’s. She pointed to the numerous boards and commissions that the city had, which had meetings that were posted and open to anybody to attend. The city had high ratings – the top 10% – for the transparency of its budget. In her estimation, Teall said, they did everything they could to communicate openly. She told the audience that she knew they had come to a lot of those meetings and they were welcome to come to a lot more.
Eaton on Transparency
[Eaton discusses various aspects of the city charter, which are laid out in some detail in this opinion piece: "Getting Smarter About the City Charter"]
Eaton began by reacting to Teall’s contention that Ann Arbor’s government was transparent by saying cheerily, “I disagree!” He noted that the city charter mandates that city documents are to be available to the public – we have a right to see what goes on. Specifically, he said, when the city attorney renders an opinion, those documents are to be made public so that we can see what the legal advice is on which the council is acting.
On an ongoing basis, Eaton said, you have to file a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to find out why a police officer is patrolling your neighborhood with unusual frequency. You have to file a FOIA request to obtain documents that should be readily available.
Even filing a FOIA request will not cause the city to produce any opinion that the city attorney has rendered, Eaton said. Instead, the city attorney has taken the position that his opinions are attorney-client privileged information between him and the council. Eaton said he would, therefore, propose a resolution that would waive attorney-client privilege for opinions of the city attorney that do not relate to ongoing litigation. We have a right to know what advice council is being given and how they are acting on that advice, Eaton said.
As someone who attends many council meetings, Eaton said that many times councilmembers will indicate that an issue is going to be decided in a particular way – before the public hearing and the vote. The decision has already been made, he said, and they know how the vote is going to go, before members of the public take the podium and tell councilmembers what they want them to do. That’s not transparent government, but rather “pro forma” government – they go through the motions of committee meetings and public hearings and responding to FOIA requests, but decisions are made before that input.
As an example of the kind of change he would seek, Easton suggested that a council “committee of the whole” would meet during the off weeks between regular meetings, so that they would have open discussions in front of the public about what they were thinking.
Both candidates gave closing statements.
Eaton Sums Up
Eaton began by saying that Ann Arbor does not need dramatic change – we don’t need to demolish sections of neighborhoods in order to make “shiny new towers,” he said. What we need to do is maintain what we have. Ann Arbor has the third-worst roads in the state of Michigan, he said, but we have several million dollars in the road repair budget – it may go to the bridge or some other project. In any event, he said, the city has not been spending enough money in the last few years on road repair, and it showed.
The Allen’s Creek Watershed Group had reported that the water system was at near capacity, Eaton said– so if we continue to encourage more development, we will extend past the city’s ability to provide water and wastewater services. Instead of going on a “building binge” that would add to the already-high vacancy rate that the city has in rental and residential properties, we need to take care of our streets and bridges, our water system – the infrastructure that we can’t see. When the economy turns around, he suggested, we will then have the capacity to handle the new building that will take place.
We can’t build all of these projects and take care of our infrastructure – the state of the city now demonstrates, he said, that we can’t do both. He promised that he would focus on essential services during tight budget times, so that Ann Arbor would be in a position to grow when the time is right.
He concluded by asking audience members for their vote.
Teall Sums Up
Teall used her summary time to address some of the statements that Eaton had made through the forum.
First, she stressed that when a development goes into downtown Ann Arbor, the developer pays for any necessary capacity increases in the water and sewer systems that result.
On the subject of single-stream recycling and possible cross-contamination of material, she allowed that 10 years ago, when it was first introduced, the contamination issue was valid. Now, however, in the last few years, with improved technology, it was not. Environmental groups in the city supported the switch, she said.
As far as comparing Georgetown Mall to Michigan Inn, she said, Michigan Inn had been a huge problem for the city and for the city’s attorney, because the owner had not been at all cooperative. She said she was confident that the owner of Georgetown Mall would be cooperative.
On street lights, there would be no streets darkened as a result of the “downlighting” and noted that crime rates were down quite a bit in the last decade.
She thanked everyone for attending and thanked those who had supported her in elections and during her time in office. She said she’d worked hard with her Ward 4 colleague Marcia Higgins and with mayor John Hieftje “to create a solid foundation for the city – economically, socially, and environmentally.” It was essential, she said, to keep the leadership that would keep the city on course. She said that she hoped voters would “hire” her for two more years to keep the city’s ship sailing steady and strong as the flagship of the state of Michigan. We need the continuity that only the current leadership could provide, Teall said, and she asked the audience for their vote on Aug. 3.
Editor’s note: Tuesday, July 6 is the last day for residents to register to vote in the Aug. 3 primary. For information about your registration status or how to register, contact the city clerk at 734-794-6140 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to the city clerk’s election website.