Ann Arbor Forums: The More, The Mayor-ier

Lesko, Hieftje lay out views at two mayoral candidate forums

On Saturday, July 10, the Ann Arbor Democratic Party hosted a forum for mayoral candidates in the Democratic primary election, which will be held Aug. 3. The following Monday, the League of Women Voters hosted its own mayoral forum. This report combines coverage of those events. Online video of the LWV mayoral forum is available through Community Television Network’s video-on-demand service.


Patricia Lesko and John Hieftje at the League of Women Voters forum filmed at CTN studios on July 12. (Photos by the writer.)

This year Democratic voters will select between challenger Patricia Lesko and incumbent John Hieftje, who was first elected as mayor in 2000. In the November general election, the winner of the Democratic primary will face independent Steve Bean.

Based on campaign finance statements filed Friday, July 23, Lesko has so far collected 49 donations totaling $3,968  – not including a personal loan to her campaign of $1,525. Hieftje has collected 140 donations totaling $16,276. The mean donation to Lesko is $81, compared to Hieftje’s $116. A greater difference is revealed by the median donation: $50 for Lesko  and $100 for Hieftje. Complete financial statements for Lesko and Hieftje are available on the county clerk’s section of Comparing those statements demonstrates it’s possible for one person to donate to both candidates.

Previous Chronicle coverage of the mayoral race includes: “Ann Arbor Dems Primary: Mayoral Race.”

The city Dems forum was moderated by Jim Leonard, who wrote the piece “Satan For Mayor?!” published in the July edition of the Ann Arbor Observer.

The body of this report consists of a summary of questions asked and candidates’ responses. The forum at which the question was asked is indicated with AAD (Ann Arbor Dems) or LWV (League of Women Voters).

Just before the closing statements, we’ve presented separately some material in which the candidates departed from the topic at hand, to circle back to earlier issues.

Opening Statements

Each candidate gave an opening statement.

AAD: Hieftje’s Opening Statement

At Barack Obama’s commencement speech at Michigan Stadium, the president called the current economic climate the worst recession since the Great Depression, Hieftje said. Michigan’s been hit harder than other states. Many cities have been forced to cut staff, close facilities and lay off their staff, he said. Three cities he cited specifically were Royal Oak, Grand Rapids and Troy.

All cities face cuts in state revenue sharing, lower property tax revenues, lower investment income and rising health care costs. Grand Rapids had to lay off 140 people, he said, but was able hire back some of them when they passed a tax increase in May. Grand Rapids had only been able to open two of their six pools this season, with a third opened due to contributions from a philanthropist. Grand Rapids’ reserve fund was down to 4%, Heiftje said, when the target is 8-12%.

In Ann Arbor, Hieftje continued, 40% of real estate is not on the tax rolls. Only 28% of property taxes go to the city government, Hieftje said, with the rest going to the county, education, the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, and other taxing authorities. The millage charged today is actually lower than in 2000, Hieftje said. “Why aren’t we reeling?” he asked rhetorically. Hieftje’s answer is that the city had started addressing budget issues early. As a result, the city had opened all of its facilities this season. The general fund reserve is around 10% and the city hasn’t cut human services funding.

Hieftje characterized Ann Arbor’s financial condition as the best of any city in the state. He said he wouldn’t trade places with any other mayor in the state.

AAD: Lesko’s Opening Statement

Alluding to the forum for the state Senate race, held just prior to the mayoral forum, Lesko said it was tough to follow Rebekah Warren and Pam Byrnes. She thanked the city of Ann Arbor Democratic Party as well as the audience. As the next mayor, she said, she will refocus on the basics: services and infrastructure. As CEO of a national higher educational publishing group in Ann Arbor, she said, even during the recession they had expanded into the Canadian marketplace, and they have brought their business to local companies. The city had gone over budget on construction costs, on wayfinding signs, on the underground parking garage, “luxury office” space [an allusion to the new police-courts facility], and non-essential spending on information technology, fleet, and solid waste services.

As the next mayor, she said, she would make sure services take center stage. She called for moving the city to zero-based budgeting, funding the basics, and saying no to staff requests for non-essential spending.

She noted that at a previous candidate forum, Hieftje said it would be “foolish” to start the repair of the Stadium bridges this fall. Lesko then pointed out the Hieftje had said the bridge’s safety rating had improved, when the beams were removed.

While the bridge’s rating had improved from 21 to 23.5, out of 100, she noted, a rating under 50 on the 100-point FSR [Federal Sufficiency Rating] scale means that the bridge should be considered for repair or replacement. Lesko also noted that the federal and state money the city hoped to be awarded was not guaranteed. She called for using the local road and street-repair millage to fund an immediate start of the bridge reconstruction.

Lesko said she wanted to refocus on the basics: responsible spending, services, infrastructure and neighborhoods. She characterized council efforts like banning mercury thermometers, banning bikes from sidewalks, banning toy guns, or banning plastic bags as a waste of time.

LWV: Patricia Lesko’s Opening Statement

Lesko began by noting that she is a member of the League of Women Voters and thanked the local chapter for hosting the debate. She has lived in Ann Arbor for 26 years and earned both her undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Michigan. She said that she would refocus the city government on the basics, using her real world experience in management and finance.

Her key focus would be responsible spending, infrastructure, and neighborhoods, she said. Lesko contended that we do not have a revenue problem in the city of Ann Arbor but rather a city government that has been allowed to overspend and to run up debt for years. Taxpayers are being asked to pay more, she said, and are getting nickeled-and-dimed to death with fee increases. She stated that she has the political will to say no to non-essential spending. She assured voters that she would find creative and sensible solutions to the challenges that face the city. She concluded by saying that she was asking for people’s vote on Aug. 3.

LWV: John Hieftje’s Opening Statement

The mayor began by describing how cities in Michigan are suffering from falling property tax revenues and deep cuts in state funding. He pointed to other cities like Grand Rapids, Troy, and Royal Oak, which have been forced to close facilities, raise taxes or make deep cuts in staffing.

In Grand Rapids, for example, they were only able to open three of their six swimming pools this year. In Ann Arbor, he said, the millage is lower now than it was 10 years ago, but the senior center and Mack pool remain open. He pointed out that Ann Arbor had lost almost 5% of its property tax revenues due to the sale of the Pfizer property to the University of Michigan. But Ann Arbor is still moving forward, he said. And that is possible, he contended, because the city government is continuing on a road to greater efficiency, which it started 10 years ago. He said that he was determined to stay on a path towards greater efficiency so that Ann Arbor can continue to be one of the leading cities anywhere.

Stadium Bridges

AAD Question: What is your plan to fix the Stadium bridges? How much will it cost? Whose cooperation will the city need? How will you get that cooperation? Be as detailed as you can.

By way of background, the millage for street reconstruction and repair is 2 mills, yielding roughly $9 million per year in revenues. It was last renewed in 2006 through 2011.

Charter: SECTION 8.20. In addition to any other amount which the City is authorized to raise by general tax upon the real and personal property by this Charter or any other provision of law, the City shall, in 2007 through 2011, annually levy a tax of up to 2 mills on all taxable real and personal property situated within the City for the purpose of providing funds for the reconstruction or resurfacing of streets. (Section 8.20 added by election of April 2, 1984; amended by elections of April 4, 1988, April 1, 1991, November 5, 1996, November 6, 2001 and November 7, 2006.)

For background on the Stadium bridges, including a timeline of events related to the bridges, see Chronicle coverage: “Budget Round 6: Bridges, Safety Services.

The southern two lanes on the bridge were removed in the fall of 2009 on the advice of the city’s bridge engineering consultant, pending the planned reconstruction of the bridge.

AAD: Lesko on the Stadium Bridges

Lesko congratulated herself for having just answered the question in her opening remarks. She noted that the city had a local millage for road and street repair. She allowed that the city might be “loathe to use that” because that money is also needed to repair roads throughout Ann Arbor. She suggested that the danger of spending road repair millage money on the bridge could be mitigated if voters renew the road millage.

If residents of Ann Arbor see their road millage money being used to repair roads, she said she didn’t not think there would be a problem getting the millage renewed.

She called for the participation of the University of Michigan on the project, but noted that it would be a challenge, because the university “jealously guards” its own revenue – as she said any organization should. Lesko pointed to the city’s website as containing information on the cost for repairing the bridges.

AAD: Hieftje on the Stadium Bridges

Hieftje began by stating that the city was certainly going to go ahead and fix the Stadium bridges next spring, whether federal funding is forthcoming or not. There was some money to fix the bridges already coming in “in little dribbles,” he said, and he allowed that the city did have a street repair millage that would help the city repair roads in the future.

He then switched to a statewide perspective, pointing out that there are 50 bridges in Michigan that are being considered for closing. Three of them, he said, are in Washtenaw County. It wasn’t long ago, he said, back when the Broadway bridges were being replaced, when such projects were funded mostly through state and federal funds, but that has changed. He said that when he mentioned to other mayors in the state that Ann Arbor is planning to replace the Stadium bridges on its own, they were surprised that any city would have enough money to do that.

He reiterated his contention that it would have been foolish to go ahead and repair the bridges this fall, when there was still the opportunity to win federal money. The condition of the bridge, he noted, had deteriorated very quickly and people were caught a little by surprise, but the city’s engineers were “right on it” and kept a very close watch on the bridge. And he pointed out that it was, in fact, true that the safety rating of the bridge improved when the beams were removed on the southern lanes. He said the city planned to replace the bridge in the spring.

The situation with respect to road repair funding was bad enough across the state, Hieftje said, that some counties were taking paved roads and turning them back into gravel roads. [This is true in Washtenaw County as well.] The cost of the project, he said, is just under $23 million. It’s a project that needs to be done, and should have gotten done by this point, he allowed. He concluded that it was critical to try to get the federal money so that the city could spend local money on local roads. He concluded by saying that the project would be started in the spring.

LWV Question: In these tight budget times, funding for infrastructure is becoming problematic. The Stadium bridge is a good example. Is the city going to be able to find funds to fix it, and what solutions would you propose to meet the infrastructure needs of the community?

LWV: Hieftje on Bridges and Infrastructure

The mayor said that when he came into office, the city was quite a bit behind in addressing its infrastructure needs. The city had been neglecting its water and sewer system for many years before that, he said. The city was still replacing 75-year-old water mains, he said, but he felt that the city had basically caught up with that. Other improvements the city had made, he said, included the new Wheeler Maintenance Center, which replaced the “crumbling facilities” at 415 W. Washington and at 721 N. Main.

The city is building a much-needed police-courts building, he said, noting that the city had to move out of the space that it had been leasing from the county, because the county has other plans for the space. Hieftje said the police had needed a new headquarters for over 40 years. The city will fix the Stadium bridges in the coming year, he stated. He allowed that they probably could have started that project this fall, but went on to say that he thought it would have been foolish to go ahead with it when there is still an opportunity for the city to get federal money instead of spending just local money.

He said he hoped the funding strategy would turn out to be very similar to the one that had been used with the Broadway bridges. Most of the funding have come from outside the city for that project, and the city had provided matching funds – around 20%.

LWV: Lesko on Bridges and Infrastructure

Lesko said she heard from a resident that if the Stadium bridge looks like that, they wondered what condition the unseen infrastructure was in. The city is replacing water mains as they break, she contended, without replacing any great number of them proactively. She characterized the city government’s approach as reactive.

She noted that the mayor has stated three times – in the course of various forums – that it would be foolish to replace the Stadium bridge immediately. She asked if it was foolish to fix a bridge that the city’s fire trucks can’t go over, but rather must go around in order to protect homes and families. It’s easier to talk about Royal Oak, Troy, and Grand Rapids, she said, than to explain to voters why a bridge that carries 20,000 vehicles daily wasn’t fixed in 2005. She described the city’s record on infrastructure as “abysmal.” She described Ann Arbor roads as the third worst in Michigan. We need to reopen the city’s capital improvement plan (CIP), she said, and dedicate funding to fix the worst roads, because the longer we wait, the more time it will take.

Mayoral Challenges

LWV Question: What questions do you see facing the mayor in the next two years?

LWV: John Hieftje on Mayoral Challenges in Next Two Years

Hieftje identified the overriding challenge facing any mayor as being the state budget. He noted that the city now receives about $4 million less in state revenue-sharing than it did back in 2002-03. A “host of other funding” that used to come from the state has also disappeared, he said. He reiterated a frequent theme in his campaign, which is that Ann Arbor is doing better than other cities in Michigan – our millage is still lower than it was 10 years ago. That would continue to be the focus, he said.

The other thing that he said he’d continued to try to work on is improving the quality of life in Ann Arbor. He referred to the quality of life in Ann Arbor as Ann Arbor’s “economic calling card.” The more the city thrives, he said, the more people want to be here, and when talented people want to be here, it makes it easier to attract companies that want to employ talented people. The people who want to work for these companies want to make their lives here, they want to have their families go to our schools, and want to enjoy our festivals, and be happy in our neighborhoods, he concluded.

LWV: Lesko on Mayoral Challenges in Next Two Years

Lesko said she and the mayor agreed on a lot – there are fiscal challenges with respect to service provision. An issue facing the mayor in particular, she said, is economic development. If we want people to move to Ann Arbor, she said, we have to provide them with superior services and excellent infrastructure, and superior schools. Those are some challenges that face us as a community, she said.

Lesko talked about the mayor’s reference to lost revenue – 5% of property taxes. She noted that this meant there was still 95% left. She contended that the city therefore is not facing any great revenue shortage. With respect to state revenue-sharing, she noted that the loss had been about a half million dollars a year since 2006. Revenue is not the problem in Ann Arbor, she said, it is fiscal management. Prudent management is the No. 1 challenge. She said that as mayor, she would have the political will to manage prudently.


LWV Question: Looking at the city budget, what further cuts, if any, should be made, and should the city look for additional sources of revenue? If so, what might they be?

Coverage of the meeting at which the city council adopted its FY 2011 budget: “City’s Budget Takes Backseat to DDA Issues.

LWV: Hieftje on the Budget

Hieftje said that the city has made it this far without an increase in the millage, but it would be tough over the next few years. The best thing we can do, he said, it is to continue to try to be efficient in every phase of the city’s operation. The reorganization of the city, he said, is saving over $15 million a year so far.

LWV: Lesko on the Budget

Responding to the question about whether more cuts needed to be made, Lesko answered in the affirmative: There’s a lot of cutting left to do in the budget, she said. There is a lot of non-essential spending, she contended. She described the new underground parking garage at the city-owned Library Lot as one example of non-essential spending. She identified allocations to the fleet, solid waste, and IT departments as other examples of non-essential spending. We need to go through the budget, she said, with a “fine-toothed comb.”

She described keeping the current millage rate the same as a “red herring,” because the city has raised water, sewage, and solid waste fees.

It’s not accurate, she said, to say that the city has not raised the millage without also saying that we have raised fees. Overspending in city government, she said, has been supported through raising fees. One way to increase revenues, she said, is to increase the tax base through economic development. This would make Ann Arbor a magnet for small and medium-sized businesses that already exist.

Economic Development

Introduction to background on the city’s economic development approach: “Budget Round 5: Economic Development.”

LWV Question: How would you rate the business climate in Ann Arbor? Is there something the city can do to make it better, and if so, what?

LWV: Hieftje on the Business Climate

Hieftje said there is a lot to do to make it better. One of the things that he has been doing, he said, is to improve the quality of life in the city. The other thing the city has done, he said, is to work with partners like the county and the University of Michigan, to start SPARK, the region’s economic development agency. He reported that when he is in Lansing and he is talking to other mayors, one of the things that he hears is that they wish they also had a SPARK. He described SPARK as bringing in new business to the city and bringing thousands of jobs to Ann Arbor.

SPARK is an organization that reaches out across the country, he said – SPARK is doing some work out in Palo Alto this month. He said he had heard from his brother-in-law that SPARK is quite impressive when they go out to California and try to lure people back to Ann Arbor. We need to make it easier to do business here in Ann Arbor, he said. And one of the important things that the city has done is not raise the millage – he felt that this is a central factor in helping to bring more business to the city.

LWV: Lesko on the Business Climate

Lesko reported that she’d spent a lot of time talking to individual business owners up and down Main Street and throughout Ann Arbor. The word on the street, she said, is that the city government is unhelpful if not downright arrogant, cumbersome to deal with, and non-responsive. The city government, she reported, makes it difficult to do business, and Ann Arbor cannot afford to have that kind of a reputation, she said. The city has experienced a net loss in jobs, she said. She referenced a Detroit Free Press “exposé” on SPARK and contended that in the entire state of Michigan only about 900 real jobs have been created.

We need to look at other types of economic development engines, she said, bifurcating that process. SPARK focuses on start-up companies, but Lesko said that the city needs to also support existing small and medium-sized businesses that we already have. The city hasn’t raised the millage, she allowed, adding that the mayor says this all the time – and he’s right. Instead of raising the millage, she continued, we have raised fees.

LWV Question: Have tax abatements played a positive role in the past and should they be continued?

LWV: Lesko on Tax Abatements

Lesko described tax abatements as junk food. The city gave Google some tax incentives, she said, when they said they would create 1,000 jobs – those incentives had come in the form of parking spaces. That money came from the city’s general fund, she said, to create the economic development fund. But Google did not create 1,000 jobs, she said, or anywhere near that, but the city gave them their parking spaces.

On tax abatements, Lesko said she agreed with Alma Wheeler Smith [who was briefly in the running for the Democratic nomination for the Michigan governor's race]. Smith is not in favor of tax abatements for the simple reason that it’s better to have a sound infrastructure, provide excellent services, and attract businesses organically than “give away the cow and the milk” and end up with a lot less than you expected, Lesko said.

LWV: Hieftje on Tax Abatements

Hieftje indicated that Ann Arbor had been very judicious and “stingy” about awarding tax abatements. But he said that sometimes an incentive is necessary. He allowed that Google had not grown to create 1,000 jobs, but not very many companies have been growing jobs in this economy. He contended that the presence of Google in Ann Arbor has made a big difference and allowed the city to attract some other small start-up companies, which are growing.

As a specific example, he cited Barracuda Networks, which is hiring a person every week right now. There are companies that want to be in Ann Arbor because of the quality of life offered in the city. The city itself is an attractant to companies that will bring jobs, he said, adding that he felt SPARK had done a fine job in creating thousands of jobs. He concluded by saying that Ann Arbor continues to have the lowest unemployment rate of any city in Michigan.

City Income Tax

AAD Question: City income tax: yes, no, maybe, why?

By way of background, on Aug. 13, 2009, the city council held a work session on a city income tax. Chronicle coverage of that session: “City Income Tax: Maybe Later.”  See also “Another Old Income Tax Study.

AAD: Hieftje on City Income Tax

Hieftje began his comments on the topic by saying he’d never been a fan of a city income tax. One reason, he said, was that it didn’t distribute the burden fairly. It also meant a shift of taxes from the business community to individuals. Per the city charter, implementation of a city income tax would mean a 6 mill reduction in taxes when the general operating millage was eliminated.

Renters – about half the population of Ann Arbor, he said – would probably not see any benefit passed along from landlords in the form of a rent reduction. A city income tax would also create another problem, Hieftje said, because property tax revenue is relatively stable when compared to income tax revenue. Grand Rapids had seen a 14% decline in its city income tax revenues, Hieftje reported. He allowed that many city residents and some members of the city council had suggested that a city income tax might be something to put on the ballot. If the voters decided that they wanted to try an income tax, that might be something he’d consider putting on the ballot, but right now, he indicated that he didn’t think it was the right time to do that.

AAD: Lesko on City Income Tax

Lesko began by saying, “What he said!” She continued, saying that their positions on the city income tax were virtually identical, with one exception. In knocking on 3,000 doors, she’d heard from maybe two people who are in favor of a city income tax, so she was not certain who Hieftje had been talking to, who were in favor of it. She repeated an anecdote from a previous forum about a woman whose door Lesko knocked on. The woman had quickly scanned Lesko’s campaign literature and was relieved that Lesko was not in favor of a city income tax.

Lesko stressed that she was always in favor of giving Ann Arbor voters the opportunity to vote on such issues. She said she supported residents’ right to vote on a city income tax, as well as on general obligation bonds.

However, she stated that she didn’t think that Ann Arbor needed more revenue. Responding to Hieftje’s cited statistic of losing 4.86% of property tax revenue due to the sale of Pfizer property to the University of Michigan, she concluded that this left the city with 95% of its revenue. She allowed that state revenue-sharing had fallen by about $0.5 million per year since 2006. But she did not think that those losses were sufficient to account for putting the city’s general fund and the rest of the budget into “a tailspin.” Overspending and imprudent management had done that, she said.

Development and Overbuilding

AAD Question: Ann Arbor is being overbuilt. What do you propose to stop this trend? Or, Ann Arbor is not being overbuilt. What do you propose to do to continue this trend?

AAD: Hieftje on Development

Hieftje began by alluding to a list that Ward 5 councilmember Carsten Hohnke had begun reciting at various public meetings, of approved development projects in the downtown area. Hieftje then reviewed some of the recent planning activity for the downtown. The city has recently completed a rezoning of downtown, which for the first time includes a height limit for downtown, he said. He noted that the city was seeing projects proposed, even in the middle of a recession, pointing specifically to Zaragon Place 2 [a residential and retail building being constructed at the corner of Thompson and William]. The area around Zaragon Place 2 would be rejuvenated, he said, and would put a lot of people to work. The construction work being done around town is putting people to work, he said.

He then alluded to a recent column by Lou Glazer of Michigan Future Inc., who contended that Ann Arbor is not leading the way, because Ann Arbor is not friendly to developers, and because Ann Arbor continues to turn down new housing developments for young professionals. Hieftje contended that developments that are oversized and that don’t fit well with the neighborhood have been turned down.

On the one hand, he said, it seemed like there was a building boom going on – University of Michigan’s North Quad, the city’s police-courts building, the DDA’s new underground parking structure. On the other hand, the city would not let people build just any new housing they wanted. He said he expected the downtown to see increased development, but told the audience they should keep in mind that much of the downtown consists of historic districts. Between the land owned by the university and the historic districts, he estimated than 50% of the real estate is left for development.

AAD: Lesko on Development

Lesko said the phrasing of the question suggested it’s a black-and-white issue, which it is not. Entities that don’t change will die, she cautioned. The city needs development. While Hieftje talked about jobs that construction projects brought, she said, they were not jobs for people who live in our city. She also challenged Hieftje’s contention that the construction of the police-courts facility was not having a large impact on the general fund budget. The debt service for those bonds does have an impact, she said.

Lesko noted that Hieftje had focused on the downtown, but she was also concerned about the rest of the city. She said that the south side of the city “languishes.” She talked about the “blight” of Lowertown and Georgetown Mall. The downtown is only part of the issue, she said. The downtown is the heart of the city, she allowed, but if the heart still beats and our brain fails, we die.

We need development, she said, but we only needed PUD-type development [planned unit developments, requiring rezoning] only if zoning was changed so that the city stops aggravating both developers and neighborhoods. Lesko noted that many of the projects that had been approved had not actually been built. We have to bring together neighbors and developers and form a consensus, she suggested.

Library Lot

AAD Question: What should go on top of the underground parking garage at the Library Lot?

AAD: Hieftje on the Library Lot

Hieftje said he felt there would be a fulsome discussion about what should go on top as they moved forward. He noted that there were some folks who’d like to see it as a grand central park. Ann Arbor already has over 2,000 acres of parks, he said. He said he was working very hard to create an art center and greenway at the old 415 W. Washington property and a lot of progress has been made – they’ve received the first grant, he said.

There are also folks who do not want to see a park over the entire area of the Library Lot, he said. He’d heard that sentiment at the downtown marketing task force, and leaders of the Ann Arbor District Library had also made their position clear that they did not want to see that kind of scenario unfold.

He said there were conspiracy theories about a convention center to be built on the space. There were proposals that included a convention center, he said, but also included a mix of residential and retail. It’s possible that the community would decide that the entire parcel should be a park and he is open to that discussion, he said.

He said he also valued the input of the neighborhood, saying that the downtown itself is also a neighborhood.

Hieftje also stated that it was important to look at the revenue question, and how a public park would be policed. There would be plenty of time for that conversation, he said.

AAD: Lesko on the Library Lot

As to the question of what should be built on the parcel, she said, there needed to be an open and honest RFP (request for proposals) process. There needs to be an open and transparent discussion, and that had not yet happened, she said.

Historic Districts

LWV Question: Development is always a hot topic in this community. Recently, people have been concerned about the Heritage Row project and the possibility of creating a historic district in what is sometimes called the Germantown area of town. What is your view on historic districts? Do we need any more of them – why or why not?

Background on the issue:

S. Fifth Avenue: Historic District, Development

Heritage Row Rejected; Historic District Decision Looms

Unscripted: Historic District; Immigration

LWV: Lesko on Historic Districts

Lesko said she couldn’t answer the question of whether we need any more historic districts, because we base the establishment of a district on specific criteria analyzed by committees that are appointed to study the question. It would be premature to say we never need another historic district. The city needs to decide on a case-by-case basis, she said. And we need to do it methodically, and we need to do it in a way so that it includes the people in the neighborhoods. She then said that a city that doesn’t grow will atrophy. Ann Arbor experienced a net loss of jobs, according to CNN, which had recently given Ann Arbor an award – she then congratulated the city staff for that. Development is inevitable, she said. We need it because we need the investment. It’s how we go about it that’s important – the city needs to have more transparency, with open and honest discussions, she concluded.

LWV: Hieftje on Historic Districts

Hieftje described historic districts as wonderful for Ann Arbor and noted that the city has many of them. He noted that Main Street is in a historic district and there are 14 districts total – quite a bit of the downtown is made up of historic districts. However, he said that we need to take a close look. He noted that the historic district that was recently before the city council was defeated, but he had voted for it. He thought it was appropriate to preserve the houses in that area. But he noted that he also voted for the Heritage Row PUD. He described Heritage Row as a much better idea than going forward with the matter-of-right City Place project, which was proposed by the same developer and is already approved at that site.

Human Services

AAD Question: Do you plan to expand, contract, or maintain as-is our services for the homeless?

By way of background, human services funding was slated to be cut by $260,000 in the city administrator’s proposed budget, presented in April 2010. It was restored by the city council in May when the council amended and adopted the budget. Chronicle coverage: “City’s Budget Takes Backseat to DDA Issues.” Allocations of the more than $1 million budgeted for human services was approved at the city council’s July 19, 2010 meeting.

AAD: Lesko on Human Services

Lesko acknowledged that while the need for human services had increased exponentially, the funding had not kept pace. She stressed that the homeless are not only alcohol- and drug-addicted people. The city needs to continue to coordinate its efforts with the county. She noted that Pam Byrnes and Rebekah Warren had been very clear that the state would not be able to help out.

Lesko suggested that a good start would be to stop removing human services funding then restoring it in a grandstanding fashion.

Human services are not optional, she said. Homelessness has to be looked at head on. And that has to start with prioritizing in the budget, she said. We need the commitment and the will to deal with homelessness, she said.

AAD: Hieftje on Human Services

Hieftje contended that human services funding had increased in the city of Ann Arbor since 2000. He pointed to the emergency allocation of funds that had been made this past winter that had allowed the Washtenaw Shelter Association to double the number of spots in warming centers and to provide vouchers for families to obtain permanent housing. [Chronicle coverage: "Council OKs Recycling, Transit, Shelter"]

He pointed out there are only two cities left in the state that still provide human services funding and Ann Arbor is one of them. He challenged anyone to find a city that helps those in need more than Ann Arbor.

Police-Courts Building

AAD Question: The police-courts building. Good idea? Bad idea? Why?

Background on the police-courts building, including a historical account of Hieftje’s threatened veto, is included in The Chronicle’s April 19, 2010 city council meeting report.

By way of additional background, an ultimately unsuccessful petition drive was mounted, which would have required a referendum on the bond issuance for the building. From a May 28, 2008 Ann Arbor News article by Judy McGovern:

A petition drive aimed at forcing a citywide vote on the financing for a new Ann Arbor police-court building ended Tuesday, about 3,800 signatures short of the number needed put the issue on the ballot.

The failure of the “Ask Voters First” campaign means city officials can proceed with plans to issue a bond for as much as $31 million toward the estimated $47 million project.

Though disappointed, Ask Voters First spokesman Ed Amonsen said he wasn’t surprised.

“We needed a lot of signatures and didn’t have much time,” said Amonsen, who organized the campaign with City Council Member Mike Anglin and activists including Karen Sidney and Glenn Thompson.

For Chronicle coverage of Lesko’s unsuccessful attempt to put a charter amendment on the ballot that would require voter referenda on all general obligation bonds, see: “Bid Launched to Amend City Charter.”

AAD: Hieftje on Police-Courts Building

Hieftje said he’d agonized over the building for a long time. When he’d first arrived on city council in 1999, there were drawings for a whole new city hall – it would have replaced the one they had with a new building. The major impetus for that, he said, was the need to find a place for the police department and the 15th District Court. Things had come to a head when the city had received a letter from the county administrator [Bob Guenzel], Hieftje continued, saying that the lease the city had with the county for the 15th District Court would not be renewed. The county had given the city plenty of time, Hieftje said, to plan to move out of the county’s building.

A task force had looked at 10 other buildings, Hieftje said, to see if they could be remodeled to accommodate a court facility, but that had not been possible. Back when the current city hall was built, the intention was originally for the police to move out into their own headquarters, but that facility had never been built, he said. It made a great deal of sense to combine the police and courts facility, Hieftje said, if it could be done with a minimal impact on the city’s general fund budget.

Hieftje said he’d taken extra time to ensure that the city could come in under budget or within the budget, still in time to vacate the county courthouse. He said he’d taken extra time to decide that it was “absolutely the only and best course that we could take.” He’d decided it was, and pointed out that the final vote to sell the bonds to go forward with the project was 9-2. That was a consensus among elective representatives to move forward with the project, Hieftje said.

AAD: Lesko on Police-Courts Building

On the subject of the police-courts facility, Lesko said that 6,000 voices had come to the city council and asked for a vote on whether to issue the bonds. She acknowledged that the building was under construction and would be built. She contended, however, that it was over budget. She stated that the building needed to be value-engineered to reduce costs. She pointed to the sale of city land at First and Washington at a price of $3 million that was included in the financing plan for the police-courts facility. That land has not yet sold, she noted. [Chronicle coverage of the short-term extension to Village Green on its option-to-purchase agreement: "Development Deja Vu Dominates Council"]

She allowed that the mayor and council had voted to build the facility with more than a super-majority, but noted that there’d been 6,000 voices who had wanted a vote. That might have yielded a different outcome, she said.

Lesko returned to a point brought out at a previous forum about the underground parking garage, which Hieftje has said is being paid for with parking revenues. In fact, Lesko contended, that was misleading, because the project was being funded by bonds. [Note: As The Chronicle has previously observed in reporting on this issue, the project is funded by bonds, and parking revenues will be tapped to make the bond payments.]

Returning to the police-courts facility, she said it would go forward. She contended that Hieftje had voted for a budget that appropriated more money for the police-courts facility instead of requiring the city administrator to bring the project in on budget.

Transparency in Government

AAD Question: City government – is it transparent? If not, why not, and what would you do differently?

AAD: Lesko on Transparency

Lesko that the fact that the two candidates were sitting there talking was transparent. The city’s website, she said, was good but could be better. She said she found it difficult to navigate, even though it has won awards.

She said the emails that had been produced last year in response to Freedom of Information Act requests made clear that the city’s elected officials were conducting private conversations during a public meeting. The future use of the top of the Library Lot parcel had also showed that meetings were going on behind the scenes between elected officials and representatives of companies who wanted to build something on the parcel. That could not be described as transparent, she said.

Lesko said it was possible to have transparency. She noted that some DDA officials had a problem with the DDA conducting closed meetings. Public meetings should be public, she stated. The council had altered it rules so that councilmembers are no longer supposed to email each other except under specific circumstances, which was good, she said. Backroom dealing, she said, was not transparent and that was also not leadership. Leaders make sure that the folks they work with are doing what’s right and doing what’s in the best interest of taxpayers. There’s too much at stake for any lack of transparency, she said.

AAD: Hieftje on Transparency

Hieftje began by criticizing Lesko for her use of various pseudonyms and her blog, which she initially wrote anonymously. “It’s very interesting to hear someone who started a blog by advertising it on WEMU radio, who went under the name Sam Rosenthal for six months and then to rip everyone on city council [...] to talk about transparency.” [Editor's note: It was an "open secret" from the time it first launched that Lesko was the author of]

Hieftje then contended that when Lesko’s identity as Sam Rosenthal was found out, she then announced she was running for mayor. Hieftje stated that he believed Ann Arbor’s city government is the most transparent that people can find anywhere. He emphasized that he himself had not sent emails to councilmembers during council meetings, though some councilmembers had. He called his response to that “very appropriate” and said that the press had reported his comments.

“Conspiracy and lack of transparency charges coming from Sam Rosenthal are one thing. Coming from someone who’s running for mayor, that’s another,” Hieftje concluded.

Mayoral Responsibilities

AAD Question: Given that the city of Ann Arbor has a city administrator form of government, what are the three most important responsibilities of the mayor and how would you rate the current mayor’s performance?

AAD: Lesko on Mayoral Responsibilities

Amid a bit of laughter from the audience, Lesko began by considering out loud the prospect of rating Hieftje’s performance. When moderator Jim Leonard, a writer with The Ann Arbor Observer, told her she might simply start with the three most important responsibilities, Lesko cheerily shot back, “I’ll answer the question how I like!” which prompted more laughs from the audience. She said that rating Hieftje’s performance would be up to voters on Aug. 3. She had no intention of rating his performance, she said.

She allowed that the city had a city administrator, but that the charter gave the council one important mandate, which was to hold the city administrator accountable. She said while it might be fun to see city staff members hauled up to the podium and “grilled” like “fish on the barbecue” by city councilmembers, those staff members are actually accountable to the city administrator, and it’s the administrator’s responsibility to grill his own staff.

Another very important job of the mayor is to lead the community, she said. It’s also important for the mayor to take responsibility, not just credit, for everything. Alluding to the piece that Leonard had written for The Observer on the mayoral race, she said she’d told him she is willing to take credit for nothing, but to take responsibility for everything. The reason for that, she said, is that she would not be seeking re-election – she has a job already, she said. She’d need to take a leave of absence from that job to serve as mayor, she said.

AAD: Hieftje on Mayoral Responsibilities

Hietfje began by acknowledging that Ann Arbor has a city administrator form of government. He said that technology like electronic mail has increased the role of the city council and mayor as a liaison between residents and the city government. The visibility of the mayor and the city council, he said, has increased over time. The mayor, he continued, is also the head of emergency management for the city.

The mayor is the leader of the city council, Hieftje said, and that body is responsible for the hiring and firing of two key positions: the city administrator and the city attorney. He stated that he and the city council did hold the administrator accountable on whether his goals were achieved. He gave credit to the city administrator’s performance for Ann Arbor’s continued leadership of the state, both financially and in terms of quality of life. In terms of performance, he said, he would put Ann Arbor up against any city in Michigan.

Hieftje then ticked through a number of awards that the city has won. He continued to lead the council, he said, in making sure that the budget was balanced and that the city had adequate reserve funds, and making sure that the city’s infrastructure was in good shape. The forum was held at the Ann Arbor Community Center on North Main, and Hieftje pointed to the crumbling city maintenance facilities behind the center. The city had moved out of that facility and it could eventually become a greenway park, he said, as could the city facility at 415 W. Washington. Those two facilities had been replaced by a the new Wheeler Center maintenance facility, he noted. He also pointed to the new police-courts facility that the city was building as a result of the need to move the courts out of space it currently leases from the county. The police have needed a space outside of the city hall for several years, he said. The impact to the city’s general fund from those projects had been minimal, he said.

LWV Question: What role does a mayor play in a city manager type of government such as we have in Ann Arbor and what strengths would you bring to that role?

LWV: Lesko on the Strengths She Would Bring to Mayoral Role

Lesko said that the mayor plays a primary role as the leader of the city council. The mayor is also in charge of emergency management, she pointed out. And the mayor and the city council are responsible, as stipulated in the city charter, to hold the city administrator accountable. The city administrator is hired with six votes on the council, she said, and fired with six votes. The responsibilities of the mayor, she said, are laid out very clearly in the city charter.

Speaking to the specific strengths that she would bring to the position, Lesko said she could “not be bought, co-opted, or bullied.” That’s important, she said, when you have a strong and capable city administrator, which is the kind of city government that Ann Arbor has: a strong administrator but a weak mayor. She said it was very important that her skills of management and finance be brought to bear on the job as mayor.

LWV: John Hieftje on the Strengths He Would Bring to Mayoral Role

Hieftje pointed to leadership of the council and to performing as the ceremonial head of the city as two roles. Elaborating on being the ceremonial head of the city, he spoke about meeting with people who come in from out of town, as well as business leaders – and there’s a role to play in Lansing as well, he said. He characterized the hiring of the city administrator and the city attorney as “important duties.” He described the current city administrator, Roger Fraser, as one who has followed through on the directives of the city council.

He also said that Fraser had hired some very competent people to serve the city, like Sue McCormick – people who lead the city on a day-to-day basis. There was a time, he said, when there were up to 20 different department heads in the city government – that’s been cut down to five areas, he said, the so-called “bubble heads.” Those kinds of changes have streamlined city government, he said.

Why You and Not Him/Her?

AAD Question: Why you and not the other candidate?

AAD: Lesko on Herself

Lesko said she wanted to reiterate what she’d said at the last debate, that she did not want to make the race personal. She said she did not dislike Hieftje. The campaign is about policy and programs and about issues, she contended. She and Hieftje simply disagree on the issues, she said. She said she wanted to see Ann Arbor go a different direction policy-wise. If Ann Arborites feel they are getting the best value for their tax dollars, then they should vote for Hieftje. If they did not, however, then what they were saying to themselves was that it’s time for a change. It is time for a change, she declared.

She said she wanted to thank Hieftje for the job he’d done, as everyone should – it’s a hard job, she stressed. Why me and not him? That’s not the “cogent question,” she said. The real question is: “Are you ready for a change?”

She said she’d heard people say, “He’s a great guy, but I just can’t vote for him any more.” She said she’d voted for him three times, but it’s time for a change. Not voting for someone doesn’t mean you don’t like them personally, she said. Running against someone doesn’t mean you don’t like them personally, it means you’re ready for a change and for new ideas.

She pointed people to her blog, where she’s outlined those ideas in detail, a blog she contended had “thousands and thousands and thousands” of readers. She said she’d laid out her plan, whereas Hieftje has not. Hieftje has no blog, she observed – just a Facebook page that isn’t updated very often. If you want to talk to Hieftje, she said, you have to make an appointment, or go to his office hours. If people want to talk to her, she said, she had three email addresses, two phone numbers, a blog, a Twitter account, a Facebook page, and a web site. She stated she was open to voters. “Are you getting the best value for your tax dollars right now?” she asked. If not, people should vote for change, she said.

AAD: Hieftje on Himself

Hieftje said he was happy to run on his record and on the condition Ann Arbor was in financially. He called it the best-situated city financially of any city in the state. Ann Arbor is in relatively good shape, despite the fact that it had lost its largest employer [Pfizer] and lost 4.86% of property tax revenue, he said, and despite the fact that the city’s annual allocation for state revenue-sharing is now $4 million less than it was back in 2002.

He said he is happy to stand on his record leading a city that has received numerous national awards. He said that the city had expanded its bike lanes by 600% in five years and is working to become one of the best places to walk in the nation.

Despite the downturn in the economy, Hieftje said, Ann Arbor remains a leader on many fronts. The 2005 census update showed that Ann Arbor was one of the top cities for the number of people who bike or walk to their destinations. He said he’d been working on bringing rail transportation to the city of Ann Arbor.

He repeated that he was happy to stand on his record.

Topical Departures

As the introduction to this report indicates, we’ve extracted a certain amount of material from the summaries of candidate responses for presentation in this, a separate section.

By way of background, a common format for candidate forums held in Ann Arbor is for questions to be administered by a moderator, with each candidate allowed a set amount of time to respond. When it’s a pair of candidates, they simply take turns answering the question first.

A candidate who answers first has an advantage, because they have a better opportunity to demonstrate their factual command of the issue. But an advantage to answering second is that a candidate has the opportunity to rebut assertions of the candidate who answered first. No opportunity is typically built into the format to allow rebuttal by a candidate who wants to respond to assertions made by the candidate fielding a question last.

By way of contrast, a recent Ward 5 forum for city council candidates Lou Glorie and Carsten Hohnke departed from that custom. It included an optional opportunity for both candidates to follow up. So in the Ward 5 forum, each question had potentially four total responses: Candidate 1; Candidate 2; Candidate 1 again; Candidate 2 again.

And at the Ward 5 event, both Glorie and Hohnke availed themselves of the opportunity to speak twice to the same question on multiple occasions. But their responses seemed to fall more into the category of elaborating and clarifying as opposed to rebutting – the setting itself, in a resident’s home, encouraged a certain casualness.

In the mayoral forums, however, there was no built-in mechanism for rebuttal. Consequently, when Hieftje or Lesko disagreed with aspects of each other’s responses to questions, they had a choice: Let it pass unchallenged, or else use time from a subsequent question to circle back to the earlier issue.

Departure from the topic at hand to circle back to an earlier topic is a fairly substantial barrier to rebuttal. So when a candidate chooses to clear that barrier, it may reasonably be interpreted as indicating strong candidate investment in a specific voter perception about a particular issue.

That’s one reason we’ve presented the topical departures in this, a separate section. Another reason is readability – we’ve extracted these responses from answers to the original, unrelated questions.

Topical Departure: From Historic Districts to Fees

At the LWV event, the question at hand was about historic districts, but Hieftje went back to a previous Lesko response to a question on the budget. She’d said that while the basic millage had not increased, fees for water and sewer had increased.

Hieftje said he wanted to “drop back for a second” and talk about water and sewer rates going up. He allowed that they had gone up, but that they had gone up less than in surrounding cities and other peer cities. And he noted that the city is building a huge new replacement of the sewage treatment plant – which is well over $100 million. Yet the city’s rates have been going up only around 4%, he said. Peer communities are going up sometimes in double digits.

Topical Departure: From Closing Statement to Bridges

At the LWV event, Hieftje began his closing statement by saying that he again wanted to “drop back just a little bit.” He then addressed the topic of the Stadium bridge again.

The Stadium bridge is a good topic, he said. There are three bridges in Washington County under discussion for closing. There are probably about 50 in the state of Michigan. The city will fix the Stadium bridge, he stated. He said that he would say again that he thought it would be a very bad idea to spend just local money on the project when the opportunity remains for the city to bring in federal money. With respect to the underground parking structure, he said, it’s not paid for with property tax dollars – the bond for that would be paid for with parking revenues, the same way parking structures had always been paid for by the Downtown Development Authority.

Topical Departure: From Closing Statement to Bridges

Lesko began her own closing statement by responding to remarks that Hieftje had made about the Stadium bridges during the time for his own closing statement.

Lesko began by saying she’d like to “fall back for just a minute” – she said she thought that Hieftje had perhaps missed the remarks of Pam Byrnes and Rebekah Warren at the city Democratic Party’s candidate forum for state senate District 18, held earlier that morning just prior to the mayoral forum. In response to a question about whether the state had money available for the Stadium bridge, Lesko reported that both candidates had said no. As much as we would like to believe that the money is just round the corner, she cautioned, Pam and Rebekah were very clear that it was not.

Topical Departure: From Human Services to Police-Courts and The Slate

At the city Dems forum, the question put to the candidates was about human services funding. But Hieftje used part of his time to respond to earlier remarks from Lesko about the police-courts facility, and to make a general criticism about the factual accuracy of her campaign.

He returned to the previous question by saying, “Let me drop back, though, to a question ago …” He took up Lesko’s contention that debt service for the police-courts facility bond had an impact on the general fund budget. He rejected that contention, because $700,000 would be saved, which is currently paid in rent. He also pointed to funds that the Downtown Development Authority had provided to help build the police-courts facility. He said it was a part of the DDA’s mandate to help keep municipal buildings in the downtown and that the DDA had been “perfectly willing to step up and fund that.”

He then went on to criticize not just Lesko, but the group of candidates who are challenging incumbents on the council. “There are so many subtle myths that are propagated in all of the literature and statements that we hear from the other slate in this campaign [...] They continue to play games with the truth. I think that’s been clear in the press coverage, and I think that will turn out to be clear today …”

Topical Departure: From Transparency to Police-Courts

At the city Dems forum, during a response to a question about transparency in government, Hieftje circled back to Lesko’s contention that the police-court facility was not within its budget: “Let’s go back a minute, though …” He characterized the issue as security equipment that was never a part of the project budget.

He also addressed the issue of the underground parking garage and its funding. The debt for that is held by the city, he allowed, but he noted that the DDA is making the bond payments. And throughout the history of the DDA, he continued, the revenue from the parking system had paid for the bonds for parking structures. He then emphasized the need for building the new underground structure, citing the loss of 170 street spaces over the last few years, plus the potential loss of the Brown lot [now a surface parking lot south of Huron and north of Washington, between Ashley and First], if it were ever to be developed by First Martin Corp.

Topical Departure: From Library Lot to Anonymous Blogging

At the city Dems forum, before Lesko fielded a question about the city-owned Library Lot, she picked up on Hieftje’s remarks about her anonymously written blog, stating sardonically, “Don’t write a blog! Don’t do it anonymously! Don’t disagree!” It’s easier “to hammer someone personally,” she said, than to talk about the issues. It’s easier to talk about what somebody wrote on a private blog, she said, than to talk about the fact that Hieftje had approved a budget that included overspending on the police-courts facility. “That was your plan?? To overspend??” That is not a plan, she said, that is a knee-jerk reaction.

Lesko noted that back in 2008, Stew Nelson had been convinced that decision-making on city council had not been transparent, and that position had been validated in June 2009 when emails exchanged during city council meetings were made public. Councilmembers had called each other names and handed out “Golden Vomit” awards. It’s easier to hammer those candidates personally who run on the issues, she said.

Topical Departure: From Budget to State Shared Revenues

At the LWV forum, Hieftje answered a question about the city’s budget, then said he wanted to “go back and visit a number that had previously been stated.” He circled back to Lesko’s characterization of state shared revenues – she said the loss had been about a half million dollars a year since 2006. Hieftje said that if you take a look at total state shared revenues back in 2002 and 2003, during the peak, then the city does receive about $4 million less per year than it used to receive. [Based on the one-page summary from the city's FY 2011 budget book on state shared revenues, the city received a total of $12,436,105 in state shared revenue in FY 2003, $11,127,489 in FY 2006 and was estimated to receive $9,149,332 in FY 2010.]

Wrapping Up

Candidates made closing statements. At the city Dems forum, Jim Leonard, who was moderating the affair, invited Lesko to begin. However, Lesko indicated it was her understanding that since Hieftje had gone first with the opening statement, he would also go first with the closing statement.

When told that the coin toss had been for the “bookend,” Lesko indicated that she’d understood the arrangement differently, and thus would prefer to have the final speaking slot. From the side of the room, the chair of the Ann Arbor City Democratic Party, Conan Smith, told Lesko that the arrangement for the “bookend” position – first with the opening statement and last with the closing statement – had been what they’d discussed “since forever.” With that, Lesko began her closing statement.

AAD: Lesko’s Closing Statement

Lesko began her closing statement by citing an endorsement by the Michigan Sierra Club and the Huron Valley Chapter of the Sierra Club.

She also thanked Hieftje again for his 10 years of service. She finished up by quoting from several of her supporters, including Matthew Schroeder, who’s president of the Fire Fighters IAFF Local 693, which has endorsed Lesko, and from Peter Nicolas, who served on the city council in the mid-1990s.

She said she was not yet asking for their votes, but rather to listen as more candidate forums were held. She thanked everyone for coming.

AAD: Hieftje’s Closing Statement

Hieftje also thanked everyone for coming and for taking part in the process. He reiterated that he was happy to run on his record. He said that he had received endorsements, too – among them from the UAW [United Auto Workers] union and the LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender] Democratic Caucus.

He stated he’d won several awards for environmental leadership, most recently in 2008 from the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. He was named the winner of the award for environmental leadership for the whole state in 2008, he said.

Hieftje said that the slate of candidates that are running together to challenge incumbents were saying, “There’s something wrong! We must do something about this.” The other side was saying that they are continuing to work hard and seriously in a hard-hit state.

On Aug. 3, he said, he hoped everyone would vote, as there are many important races. He said he appreciated the support of many of the people in the room. He said he would ask for their vote.

It’s the hard work of the residents that make Ann Arbor a place that we all want to live, Hieftje said. He felt that the city has a solid city council and he encouraged people to vote for those city councilmembers who are running for re-election.

LWV: Hieftje’s Closing Statement

Despite everything that’s happened with the downturn in the economy, despite the loss of the Pfizer property tax revenues, Hieftje contended that Ann Arbor remains a leader on many fronts and continues to move forward.

He described the brightness of Ann Arbor as “undimmed” during the long economic recession. It’s one of the leading cities in the country with respect to energy conservation, he said. It’s a city that wins awards for being one of the best places to live, walk, or ride a bike. It’s a healthy city that values art and its diversity, he said. Unlike the state or the county or countless other cities, he said, throughout the long recession Ann Arbor has not cut human services for those who need it the most. In the future, he cautioned that the city would have to make budget adjustments, but must stay on the path to ever-greater efficiency, and the foundation for that has been laid, he said. He contended that the quality of life in the city continues to go up – citing the recent conclusion of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival and commencement of the art fairs. He concluded by saying he would not trade places with the mayor of any other city.

LWV: Lesko’s Closing Statement

Alluding to the undimmed brightness of Ann Arbor described by Hieftje, Lesko warned that it is being dimmed – literally, by a program to save money by de-energizing streetlights in specific areas.

She thanked several people: the city staff for their hard work; Michigan’s 21st Century Job Fund for pumping $120 million into Ann Arbor’s economy; and Ann Arbor’s largest employer, the University Michigan. Ann Arbor has sufficient revenue, she said. The mayor’s race is a referendum on the direction of public policy and city management, she suggested. It’s time to stop talking about Troy and Grand Rapids, she said, while Ann Arbor’s roads and Stadium bridges are about to crumble.

She asked: How do we keep the same thing from happening in the future? Do we save a buck by slashing public safety? Do we want reactive or proactive government? The cost to city government has risen substantially, she said, as has the spending on non-essential items. She said that Hieftje is proposing that taxpayers bail out the city with service cuts and increases in fees – for parking, water, sewer and solid waste. In contrast, she said, she proposed that the city cut overspending. She said we needed to ask why the city charges itself $4,000 per acre per year to mow grass in the public parks. Why does the city award no-bid contracts, and approve leases and consultants, and award union contracts that are clearly not in the best interest of the taxpayers?

She noted that she has the support of the Michigan Sierra Club as well as both the police and firefighter unions, because they know that as the next mayor, she would refocus the government on the basics. She proposed that the city of Ann Arbor should be managed with sensible, progressive values and Midwestern common sense. As the next mayor of Ann Arbor, she said, she would have a city government where city services take center stage and the government lives within the generous means that taxpayers have always provided.


  1. By David
    July 23, 2010 at 11:40 pm | permalink

    Dave, you had done your usual great job in capturing the results of this forum discussion with our two mayoral candidates. It has helped me better understand where they stand on key issues as well as how they approach problems.

    I am not done critically examining their statements and logic. However, at this point, I find the stadium bridge discussion to be enlightining.

    Our current mayor is hoping for the state and federal governments to provide the bulk of the funding for this project. He does not have a back-up plan. Based on his past performance and revenue positions on other topics, I would expect him to support some combination of new bond issues and tax increases.

    On the other hand, his challenger suggests “that the danger of spending road repair millage money on the bridge could be mitigated if voters renew the road millage”. If I am reading the report correctly, the dollars don’t add up: the amount of money brought in each year by the 2 mil road tax levy doesn’t come close to covering the cost of the new bridge. She seems prone to making similar statements that sound good but are not sound. For example, “She described Ann Arbor roads as the third worst in Michigan”: Is there data to back up this statement? She is also quoted as having said “…she heard from a resident that if the Stadium bridge looks like that, they wondered what condition the unseen infrastructure was in.” This is a nice sound bite that can promote a fear-type response, but what kind of data or concrete evidence does she have to back up this statement? As a scientist, statements like this are a hypothesis that lead one to start an investigation. The hypothesis is not accepted until supporting facts have been documented. If supporting facts can not be documented, the hypothesis is reworked or dropped.

  2. By Dave Askins
    July 24, 2010 at 12:24 am | permalink

    Re: [1] “For example, ‘She described Ann Arbor roads as the third worst in Michigan’: Is there data to back up this statement?”

    David, I think the basis of Lesko’s claim is this November 2009 press release from the Michigan Road Builder’s Association: [link]. It’s a ranking based on total number of miles of roads in poor condition.

    Municipalities with the most miles of roads rated in poor condition:
    1. Detroit, 586 miles
    2. Grand Rapids, 200 miles
    3. Ann Arbor, 189 miles
    4. Flint, 165 miles
    5. Livonia, 143 miles
    6. Southfield, 142 miles
    7. Lansing, 136 miles
    8. Sterling Heights, 119 miles
    9. Saginaw, 114 miles
    10. Mt. Morris Township, 114 miles

    Also, here’s a snippet from a September 2009 city council report — at that time the same kind of data ranked Ann Arbor with the second-worst roads:

    In his communications from council, mayor John Hieftje sought to put into context Hunter’s contention that Ann Arbor had the second-worst roads in the state, saying that it had been a 2007 survey done by the Michigan Road Builders Association. [The Michigan Road Builders Association merged with the Associated Underground Contractors in 2005 to become the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association. MITA issued a press release in October 2008 about their conclusions based on data from the 2007 Michigan Asset Management Council report.] Hieftje said that a 2008 version of the same survey showed that Ann Arbor actually had some of the better roads in the state. The data in question can be found on the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study (WATS) website. [The 2008 data seem to be problematic in an order-of-magnitude kind of way, compared to previous years.]

  3. By Alan Goldsmith
    July 24, 2010 at 7:05 am | permalink

    “The mayor said that when he came into office, the city was quite a bit behind in addressing its infrastructure needs. The city had been neglecting its water and sewer system for many years before that, he said.”

    Again, not his fault but, who was in control of City Council then who dropped the ball? I forget…maybe he could name names of individuals in his party who failed to lead? Not his fault of course.

  4. By Alan Goldsmith
    July 24, 2010 at 7:13 am | permalink

    It would be SO refreshing if the Mayor just took the responsibility for ONCE with his statements. You know, YES I’ve been Mayor for a decade, we have some problems (cue patriotic marching music) but if you reelect me, I’m not going to blame anyone else, I’m going to work hard, make a bullet point check list of everything that has been a failure and needs to be corrected and get the job done. The problem is, he doesn’t admit that. Giant near-million-dollar artwork, roads falling apart, little or no cooperation with the U of M other than giving away parkland for the parking structure, a run away slavery to his no bid buddies in the arts and green world. I could have accepted his past failures–I’ve voted for him every previous time he’s run for Mayor. But this whining about ‘oh we are so better off–not my fault’ is not the mark of a leader. The true sign of a leader is how their lead in crisis times, not when there is smooth sailing. And Mr.Hieftje, at crisis leadership, is a failure.

  5. By Sabra Briere
    July 24, 2010 at 7:24 am | permalink

    Before John Hieftje became Mayor, Ingrid Sheldon was Mayor. She was a Republican. She was Mayor for 7 years — during which time the elections were moved from April to November. This change in election date increased the number of people voting for Democrats in each election.
    By 2000, the majority party in Ann Arbor had switched from Republican to Democrat — but that switch took place between 1993, when Mayor Sheldon was elected, and 2000, when Mayor Hieftje was.

    Long memories recall that the infrastructure – streets, sewers, even parking structures — were in terrible shape in the 80s and 90s. Elections were run (and won) on pot holes. I personally filled pot holes with cold patch during an election in the Fourth Ward — when Council was dominated by Republicans.

    I make no excuses for today — just offer a little historical perspective.

  6. By David
    July 24, 2010 at 10:11 am | permalink

    Dave, thanks for the information. It would be nice if the candidate would have cited this data.

    “Re: [1] “For example, ‘She described Ann Arbor roads as the third worst in Michigan’: Is there data to back up this statement?”

    David, I think the basis of Lesko’s claim is this November 2009 press release from the Michigan Road Builder’s Association: [link]. It’s a ranking based on total number of miles of roads in poor condition.”

  7. By John Dory
    July 24, 2010 at 2:53 pm | permalink

    The Mayor deserves blame on the sad state of our infrastructure and roads, including the Stadium Bridge embarrassment.

    This is why I support Lesko for a change in the way our city is run.

  8. By Rod Johnson
    July 24, 2010 at 6:38 pm | permalink

    Following the trail of that MITA press release eventually leads to the Michigan Asset Management Council Michigan’s Roads & Bridges 2009 Annual Report, which shows not only miles but percentages. It makes things look quite a bit worse. It looks at “Overall Federal Aid Miles” and “Federal Aid ‘Poor” Miles,” and percentagewise things look like this:

    Detroit: 20%
    Grand Rapids: 33%
    Ann Arbor: 55%
    Flint: 27%
    Livonia: 30%
    Southfield: 34%
    Lansing: 28%
    Sterling Heights: 31%
    Saginaw: 39%
    Mt Morris Twp: 55%

    Source here: [link]

    I’m not sure what to make of this data except to note that the county seems to play a role. For instance, Calhoun County municipalities do very poorly, with percentages ranging from the 60 to 98% poor. Washtenaw is all over the place, ranging from 24% to 75%. But Chelsea is at 48%, Dexter is at 63% and Saline is at 42%, which suggests that Ann Arbor isn’t especially an outlier in the county. I’m not sure how to apportion responsibility between the city and the county (and the state and the feds), but it seems unfair to blame Hieftje for the *whole* mess.

  9. By Patricia Lesko
    July 24, 2010 at 7:21 pm | permalink

    @ David, MITA is the source for the roads rating matrix, as Dave Askins pointed out. As for the Street Repair millage, it raises $8-$10 million per year, but is due to expire. There is a $19 million dollar balance in the fund at the moment, a portion of which, obviously in committed to some of the projects outlined in the most recent Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). However, there is sufficient money in that fund to repair the bridge immediately, in conjunction with the small amounts brought in thus far. It needs to be repaired immediately. It should have been repaired in 2005.

    @ John, I appreciate your support. At this point blame isn’t productive. First, repairing the roads and bridges must be a priority, then as I mentioned in my debate, we have GOT to identify precisely what policies, people, CIP workflow issues resulted in the long-term neglect of our roads and the Stadium Bridge. In other words, at this point the management issue is to make sure our roads and bridges are never allowed to deteriorate to this sorry state again, and that when we shape our CIP it is with this goal in mind.

    I’m looking to bring proactive management to a government that has engaged in reactive, knee-jerk governance for a decade.

  10. By Alan Goldsmith
    July 26, 2010 at 10:38 am | permalink

    “I make no excuses for today — just offer a little historical perspective.”

    Sabra, appreciate your reply but at what point does a Mayor or a leader stop blaming current failures on actions from the past? Ten years? Twenty? I would think at ten years, it’s time to stop blaming the last Mayor or City Council twenty years ago for failure plan for infrastructure issues circa 2010. People are tired of the blame game or statements that we are SO much better off than Royal Oak or Troy.

  11. July 26, 2010 at 11:17 am | permalink

    To respond to the comments by John @6, Pat @9, Alan @10: for me, at least, the Stadium bridge is the single, burning, huge red flag that tells me we need a new administration. It is an embarrassment and a danger. I hope that every elected official in Ann Arbor learns from this election that local voters cannot and will not tolerate willful neglect of infrastructure, no matter how well it is “spun.”

  12. July 26, 2010 at 11:47 am | permalink

    Re #11: I think more serious consideration should be given to the advice offered by the Newshawks. For those who haven’t seen that one, it involved duct tape.

    In all seriousness, today I made one of my usual circuitous trips to the east side, avoiding the bridge. I’ve been doing this for over a year. (Hint: Packard is helpful.) It cost me time, miles, and gas, but it would be embarrassing to have the bridge collapse just as I drove over it this one time.
    The air of befuddlement expressed by TPTB about this situation is sad, funny, but ultimately infuriating. I wish an investigative reporter could find out what really happened to delay any action for the very long time that the city has known of the problem.

  13. By Mary Morgan
    July 26, 2010 at 12:32 pm | permalink

    Reports Newshawk Jacques Labatt: “MDOT assures us this is the highest quality duct tape available.” [link] The Stadium bridges segment starts at the 2:40 minute mark.

  14. By Alan Goldsmith
    July 26, 2010 at 1:25 pm | permalink

    Of course there would have to be a task force on what type of duct tape, width, thickness, color, etc. formed immediately from the Mayor’s usual pool of supects.

  15. July 27, 2010 at 7:26 am | permalink

    As a Dexter resident, I have no dog in this fight, but I’ll predict that in the end Hieftje wins in a landslide. He may not be be perfect, but he comes off as very competent and not the least bit scary. That’ll be enough in this case, because Lesko comes off as a bit unhinged to average folks like me.

  16. By Jack F.
    July 27, 2010 at 8:56 am | permalink


    Hope you are enjoying all the green space we A2 taxpayers are paying for out in your direction. You’re welcome!

  17. July 27, 2010 at 11:03 am | permalink

    @15 Jim — I think that is the most likely outcome too. For me, the ideal outcome would be a one-vote victory for Hieftje, that will put the fear of God in him while avoiding the obvious risks of a Lesko mayoralty. I would be perfectly happy with Hieftje and most of the current incumbents if they would only get the message to stop thinking of themselves as visionaries and start thinking of themselves as maintenance men.