Washtenaw Democrats: Districts 10, 11

Competition in two Ann Arbor districts for Dems on Aug. 3

On the evening of July 13, the four Democratic candidates for the District 11 seat on the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, as well as one candidate for District 10, gathered at the studios of Community Television Network for a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area.

Washtenaw County commissioner candidates for Districts 10 & 11

Washtenaw County commissioner candidates for Districts 10 & 11, from left: Conan Smith, LuAnne Bullington, Mike Fried, Yousef Rabhi, Alice Ralph. Smith is the incumbent for District 10. His challenger, Danielle Mack, did not attend. The other candidates are vying for the District 11 seat held by Jeff Irwin, who is running for state representative. (Photos by the writer.)

There are 11 seats on the county board, divided by geographic region – including four districts representing Ann Arbor. Commissioners are elected to two-year terms. This year, Democratic incumbents in two of Ann Arbor’s districts – Leah Gunn of District 9 and Barbara Bergman of District 8 – are unopposed in the primary, though they will face Republican challengers in November.

Incumbent Conan Smith of District 10, which covers the west and northwest portions of Ann Arbor, faces Danielle Mack in the Democratic primary. She did not attend the forum, citing a scheduling conflict. The winner of that primary will be unopposed in November.

In District 11, incumbent Jeff Irwin – who’s been on the board for a decade – isn’t seeking re-election, but is instead running for state representative in District 53. [See Chronicle coverage: "Michigan Dems Primary: House 53rd District"] Four Democrats are competing in the primary to replace Irwin: LuAnne Bullington, Mike Fried, Yousef Rabhi and Alice Ralph. The winner of the Aug. 3 primary will face Republican Joe Baublis in November. District 11 covers parts of central and eastern Ann Arbor. [See the Washtenaw County election website for a complete list of county commissioner candidates.]

Questions posed by the moderator, Nancy Schewe, had been formulated by a LWV-AAA committee, with input solicited from the community. They covered a range of topics, from funding for the county jail and police services contracts to expansion of the road commission and the candidates’ views on mass transit. Candidates were each given one minute to respond. This summary of candidate responses is presented in the order in which they spoke at the hour-long forum.

Opening Statements

Candidates were given one minute each to make some introductory remarks. They drew numbers from a hat to determine the speaking order.

Conan Smith

Conan Smith, incumbent candidate for District 10 Washtenaw County board of commissioners.

Conan Smith’s Opening Statement

Smith began by noting that he currently serves on the board, representing west and north Ann Arbor, and has been a commissioner since 2004. He comes out of a tradition of public service in his family, he said. Smith cited his work experience, as executive director for the nonprofit Michigan Suburbs Alliance and before that with the Michigan Environmental Council, which he described as an umbrella group for the state’s environmental organizations.

Smith said his family has been active in public service since he was very young and he always has enjoyed helping people in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County. He spent the past year working on the county’s budget, he said, stabilizing the community and public services. He concluded by saying he hopes to have people’s vote.

LuAnne Bullington’s Opening Statement

Bullington thanked the league for hosting the forum, saying it was a very important community service.

LuAnne Bullington

LuAnne Bullington, candidate for District 11 Washtenaw County board of commissioners.

She said she moved to Ann Arbor in 1993 and moved to her current home in the city’s Ward 3 in 1993.

She has two grown children and is retired from a career in computer information services. She said her work has included jobs as a computer information services manager, a senior programmer, a senior project manager, and a web team leader for the University of Michigan’s computer information services department. Before that, Bullington said she taught for eight years in public schools. She holds a bachelor’s degree in education and in special education from Eastern Michigan University, and a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

Yousef Rabhi’s Opening Statement

Rabhi thanked the league and said he’d been watching these debates since he was a voter – it’s a great service to the community.

Yousef Rahbi

Yousef Rabhi, candidate for District 11 Washtenaw County board of commissioners.

“I’m running because I believe in us,” Rabhi said. He believes in the community and in its ability to overcome this tough economic period. Even with a budget that’s declining for the first time in 50 years, the county can still maintain an excellent level of human services, he said, services that the community depends on and cares about, like maintaining parks, health care, and mental health care.

We can accomplish these goals by reining in the government, he said. We need to create an efficient government that works for the people and provides the human services that everyone needs.

It’s important to work across all levels of government – cities, villages, townships, and the county – to reduce the duplication of services, Rabhi said. There needs to be more efficiency in reducing electrical use, water use and fuel use in the county’s buildings and fleet.

Mike Fried’s Opening Statement

We all know times are tough and money’s tight, Fried began. Even so, he said, the county can balance its budget while maintaining essential services, helping those in need, improving collaboration and planning for the future.

Mike Fried

Mike Fried, candidate for District 11 Washtenaw County board of commissioners.

It’s not an easy job, Fried added, but he said he has the experience and skills to achieve these objectives. He served 26 years as chief of administration at the Wayne County prosecutor’s office. While there, he said he maintained quality services while controlling spending. This is also a priority for Washtenaw County, he said.

Since retiring, Fried said he has continued this commitment to community service. He’s a trained mediator and facilitator, and serves on the board of the Dispute Resolution Center. He’s also on the board and serves as treasurer of Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County, and he’s a member of the county’s Criminal Justice Collaborative Council.

Fried said he cares about the county where he’s lived for 50 years, and knows that he can and should help by being a county commissioner.

Alice Ralph’s Opening Statement

This year, we celebrate 90 years of women’s constitutional right to vote, Ralph said.

Alice Ralph

Alice Ralph, candidate for District 11 Washtenaw County board of commissioners.

Celebrating the same anniversary, the League of Women Voters continues to encourage informed and active citizen participation in government, she noted. A leading suffragist and co-founding national treasurer of the league, Katharine Dexter McCormick, was born in Washtenaw County at Dexter’s Gordon Hall, she said.

This fact is personal inspiration, Ralph said, as she asks voters to mark their ballots for her. She said that during this forum, she expected to discuss urgent issues facing the county and city of Ann Arbor. As commissioner, she promised to confront scarcity and work toward an abundant future. She asked voters to visit her website to learn more about why they should vote for her.

Land Bank

Question: County commissioners recently voted to re-establish a county land bank authority, which could buy foreclosed properties to ward off blight and stabilize property values. Do you think this is a good idea? If so, how should it be funded? If not, what are your reasons for not supporting it?

Background: At their July 7, 2010 meeting, the Washtenaw County board of commissioners took a step toward re-establishing a county land bank that they had approved last year, but then dissolved in March of 2010. A land bank allows the government – through a separate land bank authority – to take temporary ownership of tax- or mortgage-foreclosed land while the county works to put it back into productive use. Though several commissioners expressed concerns over funding, at its Ways & Means Committee meeting on July 7, the board voted to approve a revised intergovernmental agreement that would govern the land bank authority, with dissent from commissioners Barbara Bergman and Leah Gunn. The expectation is that commissioners will take a final vote on both that agreement and a resolution to rescind its dissolution of the land bank at an upcoming board meeting, possibly on Aug. 4.

Conan Smith on the Land Bank

Smith said he’d been a long-term supporter of the land bank concept. When he worked at the Michigan Environmental Council in Lansing, he worked on land bank legislation with the man who helped author the legislation, Dan Kildee, who at the time was treasurer of Genesee County. A land bank can help in a variety of ways, Smith said – by keeping people in their homes who are on the verge of losing them, or to deal with blighted properties.

Funding doesn’t have to be a component of it, he said. There are lots of tools that the county can use through a land bank – such as holding title on property – that don’t require any dollars whatsoever, he said. If they do have to spend money to acquire or maintain properties or to provide certain kinds of service, one proposal Smith said he’s in favor of is to use a foreclosure interest capture, which could bring hundreds of thousands of dollars to bear on the problem.

LuAnne Bullington on the Land Bank

Bullington said she is also in favor of a land bank. At the last board of commissioners meeting, she noted, there had been an in-depth discussion of the land bank issue – she urged people to watch the meeting.

There’s a crisis in the county with tax and mortgage foreclosures, Bullington said. Normally, the county sees 11 tax foreclosures each year, she said, but two years ago, there were 102 foreclosures, with 45 going to auction. Last year, more than 103,000 properties were reported for forfeiture because of tax delinquencies – 16,607 of those faced foreclosure, and 555 will go to auction. “We need the land bank to deal with this,” she concluded.

Mike Fried on the Land Bank

Fried also strongly supports a land bank. He said there are over 2,100 properties in some state of foreclosure, according to RealtyTrac. He held up a publication that publishes legal notices, and said that one need only look at those pages to see how many foreclosures there are. The land bank is a way of helping preserve properties, and of helping avoid blight. It’s an important service.

There are several ways to provide funding, he said, one of which the treasurer has suggested. Once the authority is established, the board of commissioners can identify the best ways to fund it, he said.

Yousef Rabhi on the Land Bank

Rabhi echoed his opening statement, saying he believes in this community, having grown up here, and he believes in its strength. He is strongly in favor of a land bank. He said he attended the last board of commissioners meeting and was very happy to see the land bank pass. This is a matter of the community coming together to face off the foreclosure and economic struggle, he said, “and we can do it. And we can do it through a land bank.”

Rabhi noted that he works with the University of Michigan’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum. They’re working in a partnership with the Greening of Detroit project to renovate vacant lots for natural area habitat and water retention, among other things. In Washtenaw County, they can bring the community together through partnerships like this, he said. They can fund the land bank through partnerships and work to raise the economic value of our neighborhoods, to stave off more foreclosures from happening.

Alice Ralph on the Land Bank

Like the other candidates, Ralph characterized the land bank as a good idea. She noted that it had been dissolved by the commissioners, and said it’s a good thing that it’s being reestablished. A land bank is one of the tools to add to the county treasurer’s programs in foreclosure prevention, she said.

It’s also a tool to prepare the county for when it eventually surpasses these economic challenges, she said – adding that she has confidence that we’ll overcome them. And what the county ends up with after the economic pressures are resolved is something they can be proud of, she said. This is one tool they can use to transform the tragedy into something more optimistic.

Expanding the Road Commission

Are you in favor of increasing the Washtenaw County Road Commission from three to five commissioners? If so, why? How would you pay for the increased costs?

Background: Some commissioners have been advocating to increase the number of road commissioners, who are appointed by the county board of commissioners. There are currently three road commissioners: Doug Fuller, David Rutledge and Fred Veigel. At their July 7 meeting, the board held a public hearing on the issue, then ultimately passed a resolution to end the process of expansion, with commissioners Conan Smith and Jeff Irwin voting against it. Irwin said he’ll propose a resolution to expand the commission at the Aug. 4 meeting.

Mike Fried on Expanding the Road Commission

Fried said that so far, he’s heard no compelling argument to make the change. This discussion came up at the last board of commissioners meeting, he said, and speakers during public hearing at the meeting indicated they were satisfied with the road commission.

Several county commissioners also indicated that, especially recently, they have had very good service from the road commission, Fried said. So barring new information, he said, it’s one of those situations that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Yousef Rabhi on Expanding the Road Commission

Rabhi said he believes in democracy and that more members on the road commission would be a better service to the county. But given the current economy, he said, this isn’t the right time to make that switch. Perhaps in the future it could happen, when the economy improves.

A compelling argument for expansion is that it would provide greater democracy and representation from more areas of the county, Rabhi said, and that’s something he’s in favor of. But now, it’s not the right time.

Alice Ralph on Expanding the Road Commission

It’s true, Ralph said, that boards and commissions are one way the county can have active participation by citizens. The road commission, appointed by the county board of commissioners, is one of very few that pays a salary, she pointed out. That cost has prevented a full discussion of the issue about how to provide a really good and improved county road system, Ralph said.

She noted that at the recent board meeting, there were only three speakers that addressed the topic of the road commission during the public hearing. She said she doesn’t think that’s a fulsome discussion for citizens to judge whether expansion is a good idea or not. The cost would be rather small in the scope of the budget, she said, but she added that she understood the county doesn’t want to add costs. Ralph said she thinks there are other ways to improve the county road system.

LuAnne Bullington on Expanding the Road Commission

Asking whether to expand from three to five commissioners is the wrong question, Bullington said. And the board of commissioners has already voted to keep the number at three. She said that if the county had received the money that had been turned down by the Republican-controlled state senate – who refused to pay the 20% that the federal government required to get money for repairing bridges or roads – we wouldn’t be talking about the number of road commissioners, she said. [For road projects, the federal government pays for 80% and requires states to come up with the remaining 20% in matching funds. Michigan has been unable to come up with those matching dollars, which some legislators want to raise by increasing the gas tax.]

Bridges are closed and the county has turned 100 miles of local roads to gravel, Bullington said, because of a lack of funding to pave them. Increasing the number of road commissioners isn’t going to make that much of a difference. We need a way to look at funding to repair the county’s roads and bridges, she said.

Conan Smith on Expanding the Road Commission

Washtenaw County has always prided itself on the diversity of its transportation network, Smith said, whether that’s commuting to work by bike or walking, taking public transit, or driving in cars. The transportation network is naturally complex, he said and it requires diversity that can address multiple needs. The road commission is the primary funding entity for transportation in the county, with a budget of $40 million per year. The cost of expanding the number of commissioners could be as little as $21,000 – road commissioners earn $11,000 each – or even zero, if they captured that increase in members from the current salary structure, he said. [One proposal would be to take the existing total compensation for three members, and divide it among five.]

He said that more important to him is that the county diversify the representation on the road commission. There should be voices for land use and transit participating in the decision-making about the development of the county’s transportation network, he said. If Ann Arbor is going to survive as an urban community, it needs to stop “sprawling out into the hinterlands,” Smith said, and make sure that development happens in the city. “Transportation is a critical component to that issue,” he concluded.

Police Services

The county sheriff’s department provides police services to the townships, through deputy road patrols. How should this cost be shared between the county and the townships?

Background: The county provides police services to local municipalities that contract with the sheriff’s department for deputy patrols. The cost of those patrols has been a matter of dispute for several years, with county officials arguing that the amount charged doesn’t cover the true cost of that service, and some township officials saying that the cost is too high. Three townships – Augusta, Salem and Ypsilanti – sued the county over the issue in 2006. [Most recent Chronicle coverage: "County Settles Lawsuit with Salem Township"]

Conan Smith on Police Services

Smith said that protecting people is the foremost responsibility of the county – they have an obligation to ensure that everyone lives in a safe and stable neighborhood. Unfortunately, the cost for providing that service is ever increasing, he said, due to wages, the growing population in the townships, and inflation of health care costs. If we want to equitably distribute those costs, we need to think about communities “that are biting twice at the apple.” Ann Arbor is already supporting public safety in the city – should they also be supporting public safety throughout the county? It’s a balance, he said. If they lose safety in the townships, then it’s likely they’ll lose some quality of life in Ann Arbor too.

Striking a balance is tough, Smith said. What needs to sit at the forefront of their minds is that every resident, urban or rural, deserves a safe environment.

Yousef Rabhi on Police Services

At the end of the day, Rabhi said, safety is the biggest issue. They need to make sure that everyone has the police services they need. The issue is whether taxpayers in cities like Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti should be paying for their police department as well as the sheriff’s department, and whether the townships should be bearing some of the burden of that.

Ann Arbor taxpayers should only have to pay for the services they get, Rabhi said, adding that he still needed to do more research on the topic. He’s met with commissioners who represent Ann Arbor, as well as the sheriff, and he sees both sides of the issue. The sheriff has outlined very strongly that Ann Arbor taxpayers are still getting their money’s worth through the county jail, Rabhi said, since the county provides jail services to Ann Arbor police at no charge. However, if Ann Arbor taxpayers are paying double, he added, then that encourages suburbanization and it devalues the urban core.

Alice Ralph on Police Services

The sheriff’s department has been transforming itself since Jerry Clayton was elected, Ralph said. She’s very impressed with the way he approaches his responsibilities for keeping the county safe. He looks at the complexity of issues, and many of his efforts are coordinating with human service programs such as mental health and drug diversion programs.

That’s not to say that it doesn’t cost money, Ralph added. It’s similar to the state – Michigan’s prison system is the biggest expenditure in the state budget, she noted. The county also has a large expenditure for personnel in the sheriff’s department. Sheriff Clayton is addressing the idea of inequities, she said, and he’s coming up with a way of calculating the cost of police services to make it just.

LuAnne Bullington on Police Services

Bullington said she’s been following Jerry Clayton’s career and has tremendous respect for him. He’s taken a very contentious issue and “calmed it way down.” One problem they’ve had – and it’s not just in Ann Arbor – is that some communities are paying more for police services, and some are paying less, she said. Before Clayton took over the department, the last she’d heard was that some communities were paying 50% less than they should, while some were paying 50% more. Clayton has brought it into a better balance, she said.

Bullington said she’d like to see the sheriff keep working with municipalities on this issue. Maybe with this next contract [for police services with the townships], he can keep making changes until each jurisdiction is paying their own fair share.

Mike Fried on Police Services

Fried said he believes that the townships have an obligation to pay a reasonable cost for police services provided by the county. But what happens in the townships affects the cities, and vice versa, he said. It’s unfortunate that before Clayton took over, hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent in legal fees to try to argue this issue over cost. It’s unfortunate that this couldn’t be mediated. Fried said he thinks the sheriff’s approach has calmed down the situation and that the county and the townships can reach a reasonable, agreed-upon payment for these services.

County Jail Costs

Question: Now that the addition on the county jail is complete, how should its operation be funded for the long term?

Background: The county has built a 112-bed expansion to the jail, located off of Hogback Road near the intersection with Washtenaw. At a March 18, 2010 working session of the board, sheriff Jerry Clayton gave a detailed report on the expansion. Bob Guenzel, the county administrator at the time, told the board that the additional staff needed to operate the jail would increase the corrections budget by $1.478 million this year and $3.248 million in 2011. He told commissioners that there were sufficient funds to cover those costs, but that in 2012 and 2013, the administration was projecting a two-year shortfall for the corrections division of nearly $2 million.

Alice Ralph on County Jail Costs

Ralph pointed out that the county doesn’t have many choices for mandated services. They do have to find the funds to operate the jail. It’s a wonderful jail that will require some extra personnel, especially given the approach that the sheriff is taking, with integrated services for prevention and rehabilitation, and the goal of reducing the recidivism rate.

Ralph said she’s not going to second guess the current board of commissioners. They’ll have to find the funds within the budget they’ve approved, she said, because most of those jail employees will be hired before the end of this budget year.

LuAnne Bullington on County Jail Costs

Bullington said she’s had concerns with the jail and funding for it for quite some time. Her understanding is that the cost of staffing isn’t yet in the budget. The county administrator has said that this year’s budget is fine, Bullington said, but next year they’ll face a deficit, not including the jail costs.

Her issue is who are they putting in the jail – is it mainly housing homeless people? Bullington reported that Jeff Irwin has said publicly that when he toured the jail, he felt that 90% of the people shouldn’t have been there – they should have been in other programs. The county has the Delonis shelter, she said, which had 50 beds until that number was doubled to 100. There are 1,500 people in the city of Ann Arbor who are homeless, and 3,500 countywide, she said. Maybe they’re using the jail as an alternative to the shelter, she said, and there might be cheaper ways of housing the homeless, rather than putting them in jail.

Mike Fried on County Jail Costs

The jail is a county requirement, Fried said, and is primarily funded through the general fund. However, the sheriff has been active in seeking external funding through federal grants and other avenues, which may alleviate some of those issues, he said.

The sheriff has a vision for the county and for that [criminal justice] campus – the goal, of course, is that they don’t need so much jail space, Fried added – but now they need to fund it adequately. The worst thing would be to not properly staff it, since that would result in overtime or lawsuits, he said, and would be extremely costly to the county.

Yousef Rabhi on County Jail Costs

Rabhi said this is a very important issue for him. He said that as he’d stated in his opening remarks, he’s running because he thinks the money is there for the government to run. When it comes to the jail, the sheriff has been very proactive in promoting alternative programming, like the community work program. As an employee at the University of Michigan, Rabhi said, he’s had experience with people in the community work program coming to help them. These are non-violent offenders, he noted – people who might be in jail because of drug possession charges or drunk driving charges, and who don’t really belong behind bars. They do community service and add value to the community’s assets, he said. And they don’t cost the taxpayers as much as when they’re sitting in a jail cell.

The county can promote programs like this, Rabhi said. This is where they’re going to find funding to move the county into a sustainable and progressive future.

Conan Smith on County Jail Costs

The other candidates at the forum have said what will need to happen, Smith noted – it’s a mandated service, and it must be in the budget. The board and sheriff are focused on those alternative funding sources, he said, particularly grants and service dollars. They’re also looking very keenly at operations across the sheriff’s department, to see where there can be savings – in areas like reduced contracts, cross training, and perhaps the deputy road patrols.

They’ll find a way to fund the operation, Smith said. But more importantly, they need to be tuned in to how big the jail needs to be, in term of its operation. They’ve built the full infrastructure, but they don’t necessarily need to staff it at its full capacity, if that’s not necessary. So some of the solution is in cost containment, he said, while some is in alternative revenues. But at the end of the day, he said, it’s a mandate.

Meeting Basic Human Needs

Question: The continuing recession is hard on everyone, especially the unemployed and underemployed. Do you think the county is doing an adequate job of meeting the basic human needs of its citizens, in the areas of housing, health (mental and physical), food service and transportation? If not, what more should be done?

Background: The county provides funds to a range of human services programs and nonprofits, but last year the board decreased that funding as part of its overall efforts to address a projected $30 million, two-year budget deficit in 2010 and 2011. Several elected county officials have backed the idea of a millage dedicated to funding human services, but the board to date hasn’t acted on that proposal. [Chronicle coverage: "County Millage for Human Services?"]

Conan Smith on Meeting Basic Human Needs

No, Smith said. The bottom line is the county is not doing an adequate job, he said, because the economy has transformed in such a short time. Alongside that, there’s a structural revenue problem, due to the way the state finances local governments. The county doesn’t have the resources to address these complex problems, which are so painful to see on a day-to-day basis, he said.

The board needs to look carefully at how they prioritize funding in the next budget cycle, Smith said. He is proud that this year the board adopted a mission for the budget that he proposed, which put the stabilization of neighborhoods and families first and foremost. The second component of that budget was to make sure they looked at long-term prosperity, so that they’ll have funds coming in from those stable neighborhoods to continue to provide services. This is an ongoing problem, he concluded, and they haven’t met the needs of it yet.

LuAnne Bullington on Meeting Basic Human Needs

The state has cut back on funding for a lot of these services, Bullington said, and the need is great. In previous years, the county has seen foreclosures due to predatory loans and redlining. Now, people are losing their home because they’ve lost their jobs, she said – there’s an influx of middle class people needing the county’s help. But there isn’t the money or the will, it seems, to look at this issue and help, she said.

Bullington said this area offers three types of housing: Ozone House, which she said provides transitional housing [for youth]; SOS Community Services, which provides crisis housing, and the Delonis Center, which is a shelter. Delonis is taking care of single adults at night only for three months, she said, adding that then they can’t go back for a year. “This is a crisis and we need to think outside the box to solve it.”

Mike Fried on Meeting Basic Human Needs

Fried said the need is very great in all these areas. The county should take the lead in working with the nonprofit community to obtain additional resources, and to improve efficiency and collaboration among the nonprofits, to start meeting these needs.

Citizens of this county should feel an obligation to assist others, he said. Businesses, nonprofits, and the county board should rally the people of this county to see that these needs are met, he said, because they’re tremendously great.

Yousef Rabhi on Meeting Basic Human Needs

Rabhi said the county is not doing enough – there’s always more that could be done. Government is the place where people come together, he said, where we realize that our futures are common. As a commissioner, Rabhi said he would engage the citizens of this community in tackling this task to improve the economy, address homelessness and create jobs. It’s something that everyone can work on together.

Regional transportation is essential to address these issues, Rabhi said. The county health plan is another essential service. There’s a diversity of knowledge and backgrounds in this community that can be tapped for this effort. “The citizens are the greatest consultants that the government could ever hire,” he said. “The county needs to engage that.”

Alice Ralph on Meeting Basic Human Needs

“The question is almost as broad as saying, ‘Can we afford to govern?’” Ralph said. There are some things that the private sector is really good at, she said, and as a government, the county needs to make sure to provide the civic infrastructure that supports interaction between the public and private sectors.

One way to refocus is to reset priorities, Ralph said. The board of commissioners has seven priorities, which Ralph described as rather broad. They need to focus those priorities. They need to ask not just how much money to spend, but how effective those programs are and how much progress they’ll make toward solving problems that the government can take care of.

Commuter Rail

Question: What’s the status of plans for commuter rail to the north and east of Ann Arbor, and are you supportive of these plans?

Background: There are two major efforts to bring commuter rail through Ann Arbor: 1) an east/west line between Ann Arbor and Detroit, which is being coordinated by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG); and 2) the north/south Washtenaw and Livingston Line, known as WALLY. Neither effort has secured sufficient funding to ensure that the projects will move forward.

The east/west line would be served by the Fuller Road Station, a joint city of Ann Arbor/University of Michigan effort that’s initially designed as a parking structure and bus depot, with the hope by city officials that a train station is eventually built there as well. The project has been controversial because it’s proposed to be built on land that’s designated as parkland. [Chronicle coverage: "PAC Softens Stance on Fuller Road Station" and "Park Commission Asks for Transparency"]

Mike Fried on Commuter Rail

Fried said the community is not quite sure of the status. The east/west rail to Detroit is up in the air, pending federal funding. WALLY [the north/south rail between Ann Arbor and Howell] is a little more set, he said, but clearly, substantial funding is needed.

He’s strongly supportive of regional transportation and said that tremendous strides can be made, especially going east to the airport and the Detroit Region Aerotropolis by Willow Run Airport. The other area that’s important is transportation within the county, he said, which allows people of all means to get to work, shopping and recreation.

Yousef Rabhi on Commuter Rail

The status of the east/west rail is up in air, Yousef said, blocked at the federal level. They need to work with SEMCOG – the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments – to get funding for these regional mass transit programs, he said. Regional mass transit is an essential feature of this community’s future, and we need to be investing in the sustainability and the social equity of the county and the region, he said.

Noting that he has a background in urban and regional planning, Rabhi said that mass transit can’t just happen in Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti. It needs to happen on a regional level. There needs to be someone on the county board who’s dedicated to regional mass transit, he said. “I am definitely dedicated to regional mass transit.” There are big shoes to fill, he added, saying that Jeff Irwin is stepping down and Irwin was a champion for that. The county needs someone who works every day on this issue, he said, and who asks: “What can we do to improve the transportation corridors throughout our county and throughout our region?”

Alice Ralph on Commuter Rail

Ralph said she thinks Jeff Irwin is trying to step up as opposed to step down, but she agreed that he has been a staunch advocate for transit. She noted that Fried had mentioned the aerotropolis project, which she described as a larger version of what’s happening in Ann Arbor. This is mostly a city issue, she said – the county hasn’t been directly involved, as far as she knows.

One of the issues now is the Fuller Road Station, which Ralph described as “currently a garage planned to be built on city parkland.” It reminds her of the aerotropolis project – on the aerotropolis website, she said, they show pictures of farmland being converted to something else [commercial and industrial uses]. It’s almost a new version of sprawl, Ralph said. She thinks the community should look at this as a balanced transportation system, so that they don’t just use one approach to solve every problem.

LuAnne Bullington on Commuter Rail

Bullington said she’s been involved with transportation issues for decades. She’s served on the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority’s Local Advisory Council as both an executive member and a general member. She attends AATA meetings, and goes to Lansing to advocate for transportation. But there isn’t money to fund the trains, she said, and it breaks her heart. She doesn’t drive and said she’d use the trains, but there’s no dedicated funding for it.

The east/west train from Detroit to Chicago will be getting some funding for an express train. But for commuter rail, there isn’t any money for it – it needs $35 million a year just to operate, she said. Bullington said she attended a public meeting when a SEMCOG official came to Ann Arbor and asked the AATA if they had $35 million to pay for commuter rail. The north/south WALLY project is tied up because there are three towns where there need to be stations, she said, and the towns have repeatedly said they won’t fund the stations. In 2006, SEMCOG said there wasn’t enough ridership to support it, she noted, and since then, the region has lost population and revenues. She again stated that it breaks her heart, but there’s no funding for commuter rail.

Conan Smith on Commuter Rail

Smith said he looks at metropolitan Detroit as the future of not just Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, but for Michigan as a whole. Nothing is more essential to long-term prosperity in this regard than ensuring that there’s a comprehensive mass transportation system that stretches from the core city of Detroit to the best university town in the nation.

If this region is going to grow economically, they need to connect the excellent jobs here to the excellent workers in metro Detroit, Smith said. If they’re going to protect the environment and water resources, they’ve got to get some cars off the road – and that means mass transit. And if they want to enhance social equity in the community, he said, they need to make sure that people have more dollars in their pockets to provide a better quality of life. We waste so much money putting dollars into our cars, he said. It’s crucial to figure out how to get these transit systems going, he added, especially along the east/west corridor. As far as he’s concerned, there’s no higher priority.

Protecting Water Resources

Question: Michigan’s Great Lakes, small lakes, rivers and wetlands are among our most treasured and envied assets. Do you foresee any problems in our water resources in Washtenaw County? If so, what should be done?

Conan Smith on Protecting Water Resources

Smith said the greatest threat to the environment is the transportation system. Without a doubt, the number of cars that are being put on the road, the way the transportation system drives sprawl out from the cities into natural areas and rural areas – those are tremendous threats to the region’s wetlands, rivers, and great natural features that protect the aquifers, he said. If these areas are developed, the region’s water quality will drop precipitously, he said. So they absolutely have to put a high priority on addressing the transportation network, to ensure that it’s taking care of the environment as well.

Smith said that the county has one of the best natural areas preservation programs in the nation. Last year it won a NACO (National Association of Counties) award for being the most innovative program, he said. The millage that funds the program is up for renewal, after 10 years, he noted – it’s expected to go before voters on the November ballot. He said he hopes everyone will put their dollars toward it, because it’s doing an outstanding job of protecting the county’s water resources.

Yousef Rabhi on Protecting Water Resources

Rabhi said that this is something that affects the community’s quality of life, its environment, and its sustainability. We need to be improving water quality in all their waterways, he said. We need to look at ways to reduce runoff in urban areas, because runoff carries a heavy load of water and heavy loads of toxins, which are very detrimental to waterways and the creatures who live there.

Again noting his background in urban and regional planning, Rabhi said that watershed issues are regional issues. We need to look at it on a countywide and regional basis. He said he also has four years of experience in natural areas restoration. He knows the on-the-ground details of natural areas management, water management and water retention. He also cited 13 years of working with the Burr Park Wet Meadow Project, which he said is devoted to making sure urban runoff is no longer an issue for the Mallets Creek watershed. Rabhi concluded by saying he has the experience to get the job done and to look to the future.

Alice Ralph on Protecting Water Resources

“Water and trouble know no boundaries,” Ralph said, “and I hope that solutions don’t either.” Transportation and energy use can have heavy impacts on our water systems. She said she’s been working for several years on a greenway in Ann Arbor, and they’ve had very little government support. She’s noticed that the county has several programs that help establish open space, greenways, and natural areas. It make a lot of sense to have a systematic approach to keeping our water clean and available, she said.

Water will probably be more important in the long run than oil, Ralph said. We can see the tough time we’re having eliminating oil dependency, she noted – we can’t do that with water, because we need it to live. We’ll have a better environment to live in if we address these water issues.

LuAnne Bullington on Protecting Water Resources

One of the roles of the county government is to oversee inspectors, Bullington said. The county sends inspectors to restaurants to make sure they’re safe. The county also inspects lakes and wells, she said. They’ve had an issue with the Pall plume, and she’d like to see more work done with that. People’s wells have been contaminated, she said – it’s an important issue. [Bullington was referring to an underground plume of dioxane generated from Pall Corp. manufacturing facilities in Scio Township. For more information, see the county's Coalition for Action on Remediation of Dioxane website.]

Bullington then looped back to the topic of transportation. Mass transportation is important, she said, but it has to be paid for. One possibility is to put a regional transportation millage on the ballot, but that means they’d be paying to bring people from Detroit to Ann Arbor, she said. Before we do that, we need to take care of mass transit in Ann Arbor, then expand to the county before talking about very expensive trains, which she said she loves.

Mike Fried on Protecting Water Resources

Fried said the tragedy of the BP well in the Gulf has brought attention to the importance of water and how critical the whole Great Lakes area is – it’s the largest area of fresh water in the world. The county needs to protect its waterways, he said, and we’re fortunate that both the county parks department and the water resources commissioner are doing outstanding jobs and are aware of these issues.

He said he agreed with everything that other candidates have said about the importance of eliminating runoff, and conserving and maintaining water resources.

Closing Statements

Each candidate had two minutes to make some closing remarks.

Alice Ralph’s Closing Statement

Ralph thanked the audience for listening and said she wanted to return to Katharine Dexter McCormick and her most remarkable achievement, which was included in Fred Kaplan’s book, “1959: The Year that Everything Changed.” After women got the right to vote, McCormick devoted herself to developing the birth control pill, which is 50 years old this year, Ralph noted. McCormick started with the belief that the vote was not enough. Her commitment yielded an otherwise undreamed-of self determination for women and families around the world, Ralph said. Who could top that these days?

Ralph said she doesn’t expect to change everything, but she has been working with other citizens to change a few things. In 2006, she ran for city council in a closely contested primary. [That was a Ward 3 contest featuring Jeff Meyers and  Stephen Kunselman in addition to Ralph, which was won by Kunselman.] Now, she said, District 11 voters have the chance to get the kind of imaginative and mature leadership that her earlier supporters said they saw in her. New territory is ahead. We are pressed to change ourselves and government in preparation for an abundant future like none foretold, Ralph said.

We don’t have the advantage of vast fortunes, like Mrs. McCormick had – so beyond raw efficiency, we need to focus on the most effective use of funds and other resources, Ralph said. Just voting is not enough – informed citizen participation will make all the difference. With resilient policy and attention to core responsibilities, Ralph said, we can work together for local change that is true to shared priorities. As a county commissioner, Ralph said she will confront scarcity and work toward an abundant future on the other side of crisis. She urged voters to visit her website and learn more about why they should vote for her.

Mike Fried’s Closing Statement

Fried began by thanking the League of Women Voters. He said he wants to be a county commissioner because he cares about residents and cares about the county. His goal is to make the county an even better place to live in. He said he has the skills and experience to help solve problems that the county is facing. He noted that he’s the only candidate who has real world experience working for a county.

Fried managed finance and budgets, personnel, workflow, computer systems, was a liaison to a county board, and has experience serving on a number of state councils and organizations. He said he was instrumental in bringing about initiatives and victim assistance in criminal justice computer systems and in mental health diversion. He now serves on a number of nonprofit boards for agencies that directly help citizens in the county.

Fried said he’s proudest of the times when he’s brought together different groups to work together for a common goal, and that he’ll do the same as county commissioner. He’ll work to bring stakeholders together to maintain quality, to keep the county fiscally sound, to help those in need and to plan for the future. But he said he needs voters’ support on Aug. 3 to make it happen. Together, he said, we can build a future of balanced budgets, good jobs, accessible parks, safe streets, efficient transportation and quality services. He asked voters to visit his website or just Google his name.

Yousef Rabhi’s Closing Statement

Rabhi also thanked viewers for listening, and thanked the league. He said he was born in Ypsilanti and grew up in Ann Arbor. He knows what it’s like to live in this community, to see the strength of the people and community bonds. He said he knows we can lift ourselves past this economic time, and knows they can balance the budget. Governmental efficiency is the way to go, he said. We can work across all levels of government, and can build partnerships. We can work for energy efficiency and water conservation and alternative programming for the jail to save money.

But beyond the current budget situation, we need to look to the future, he said. We need to look to a sustainable county. That doesn’t just mean environmental health. It means social equity and economic resilience. It means a county that invests in local businesses and values human rights. A county that takes environmental issues seriously and invests in renewable energy and runoff prevention. Rabhi urged viewers to vote for him on election day, because together, he said, we can make a difference in our county.

LuAnne Bullington’s Closing Statement

Bullington said she was asking for voters’ support because she believes in a deep commitment and service to Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County. As a prosperous community, she said, we have the strength and the responsibility to show empathy and compassion to at-risk populations and to people who are adversely affected by this economic crisis. She said she demonstrates this service by donating her time, efforts and skills to a wide range of groups that implement solutions to these problems. Churches can’t do it, and nonprofits can’t do it – government needs to step up and help too, she said. A lot of churches and nonprofits are overburdened trying to take on these things, she said.

Bullington said she was recognized by the Washtenaw Youth Mentoring Coalition as a 2009 Washtenaw “super mentor.” She has served or volunteered with dozens of different groups involving transportation, housing, and the environment. She has held several leadership roles with the Ann Arbor City Democrats, is a member of the Ann Arbor NAACP, and a volunteer with the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living. She was elected the Ward 3 precinct delegate. She was a former executive member of the AATA’s Local Advisory Council and attends their meetings. She’s a committee member for the Religious Coalition for the Homeless, and an advocate for Camp Take Notice and other homeless populations. She said the community doesn’t have enough housing and needs to think outside the box. She concluded by thanking the audience and the league.

Conan Smith’s Closing Statement

Smith said he was grateful to have had the opportunity to serve on the county board for the past six years and he hopes he’s earned support for continued service. He said he’s always put equity and social justice at the forefront. Washtenaw County deserves to have communities where you don’t have to be rich to enjoy clean air or clean water, he said, and where you won’t have to be overburdened by the cost of housing or transportation. Where you don’t have to feel that you or your family are at risk every time a child gets a cold or an adult senior faces a need for medication.

In Washtenaw, he said, they’ve always taken those priorities very seriously and tried to design a government that reflects those values and prioritizes them through the budget process. On his first term on the board, he said he learned a lot. His second term, he had a single stellar accomplishment: Preventing discrimination of Muslims at county pools. This past term, he led the budget process and through that, they were able to design a system that allowed the county to present an equitable front for all citizens, Smith said.

The community has some very serious challenges ahead, Smith said. Transportation has been the most frustrating issue for him – he said he tried collaboration through the planning advisory board, and tried to expand the road commission, but it’s still a struggle. The county also needs a metropolitan police force to address the sheriff’s road patrol issue, Smith said. And they desperately need a human services millage to address those issues as well, he said. As he moves into the next term, Smith said he hopes he has voters’ support, adding that he’ll be driving forward on these issues.


  1. July 21, 2010 at 7:42 am | permalink

    Thanks Mary. This better than being there in person!

  2. By Rod Johnson
    July 21, 2010 at 12:00 pm | permalink

    The thing that struck me–and there’s a lot to take in, so no doubt I missed some nuances–is how there’s almost no policy disagreement on any of these issues among the candidates, except for someone occasionally saying “it’s a difficult issue.” Its hard to know how to choose based on the positions reported here.