Editor’s note: A quote from Leigh Greden in the July 2010 edition of The Ann Arbor Observer about the police-courts building struck The Chronicle as interesting enough to ask Jim Leonard, who wrote The Observer piece, to follow up. At issue is whether mayor John Hieftje was intimidated into not using his mayoral veto to block the police-courts project back in 2007.
Though the new $47 million police-courts building is on schedule to be completed in December, it’s still a major issue in Ann Arbor’s current mayoral campaign.
Challenger Patricia Lesko asserts the project is not just a waste of money; she claims the decision to build it is a prime example of what’s wrong with the current mayor and city council.
“Emails [between council members] came out that show [mayor John Hieftje] was possibly intimidated into withholding his veto by the majority on city council who composed an email saying if you veto this, we will make it so that you can’t get anything passed,” Lesko told The Ann Arbor Observer in a June interview. “It’s like blackmail, right? Extortion? Which is the word we’re using nowadays?”
Hieftje rejected the challenger’s accusation in an Ann Arbor Observer interview shortly afterward. “If you look at the email, you’ll see that it was never sent – at least not to me.”
Leigh Greden, the former councilmember who wrote the 2007 email in question, likewise denied Lesko’s charge that he blackmailed the mayor. “Absolutely not,” Greden wrote in an email to The Observer. “I drafted that email, but the email was never sent to the mayor. The mayor didn’t even know the email existed – and tellingly, it took about a year before the mayor decided to support the project.”
However, a look at the actual email makes it clear that the draft cited by Greden in his recent interview was not of text to be sent by email to the mayor. Instead, it was a draft of talking points for a meeting that Greden wrote should take place between councilmembers and the mayor: “Here’s what I propose. We schedule a mtng with him this week. We say the following: …”
The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s city council meeting report from April 19, 2010 lays out some historical details behind the 2007 Greden email to provide context for some of Hieftje’s remarks made at the April council meeting.
Greden’s initial draft of the talking points included the following message to Hieftje:
If you follow through with your veto, we are prepared, as a group, to vote against all committee appointments, Agenda items, resolutions, budget amendments and other projects you bring to the City Council for the foreseeable future. We constitute a working majority of City Council. We will not announce this to the public in order to give you the chance to do the right thing w/o our position being made public. The choice is yours.
The talking points suggested by Greden could have been conveyed easily in private meetings between the mayor and the council members who supported the police-courts building.
It’s certain that the meetings happened. “Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje has backed away from his promised veto,” the Ann Arbor News wrote in March 2007. “Hieftje said Monday that after meeting privately with various council members that he expects the council will reconsider the vote and bring it back up at next week’s meeting.”
The actual vote to be reconsidered, and which Hieftje had threatened publicly to veto, had been for the professional services contract with the architect. As predicted by Hieftje in The News article, the vote was in fact brought back for reconsideration by councilmembers Marcia Higgins, Margie Teall and Wendy Woods, who had voted for it on the prevailing side.
The reconsideration of the vote resulted in an amendment to the resolution that split approval of the architect’s fees, postponing approval of the bulk of the amount for two months until the council’s second meeting in May. The professional services contract was then approved by the council in May, but with Hieftje and three others still voting against it.
If Greden and the “working majority” communicated the drafted sentiments to the mayor by email or in person, it could certainly be analyzed as Hieftje getting strong-armed by the council majority not to use his veto. But Greden, now executive director of governmental and community relations at Eastern Michigan University, denied anything like that happened.
“I never threatened the Mayor about the police/courts project or anything else,” he wrote in a July 2010 email. “The Mayor and anybody paying attention was well aware that I supported the project because it was a wise investment and we’d exhausted all other ideas. I repeatedly encouraged John to support the project and worked closely with him to make sure the finances were viable.”
Though Joan Lowenstein, then city councilmember, acknowledged meetings took place between the mayor and the council’s “working majority,” the Downtown Development Authority’s recently elected chairperson likewise denied anything nefarious occurred. “I don’t remember anyone ever threatening,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “I certainly did not. As with most issues, a lot of us talked to him privately, and I did speak to him privately about it.”
Hieftje himself did not deny he met privately with councilmembers to discuss the police-courts building. But he categorically denied anyone blackmailed him.
“I meet with Council Members all the time and did so throughout that year,” the mayor wrote in a July 2010 email. “There was the usual back and forth on issues with some council members expressing their support for the building over and over but no threats to block anything I wanted. The whole premise is ridiculous.
“What was it I wanted?” Hieftje asked rhetorically. “Can you imagine members of council blocking proposals to make the city more energy efficient because they wanted to build a new Police/Courts building? Would they try to block proposals to make the city more accommodating for pedestrians and cyclists? I want the city to constantly strive for greater efficiency in all its operations. Would they block that?”
In a comment he left on the now defunct website ArborUpdate in March 2008, Hieftje seems to suggest that back then, his answer to the rhetorical question might have been yes:
Council veterans supported me in devoting more funding and staff support to non-motorized transit. They supported the Greenbelt Campaign and the Clean Communities Program. They supported the Mayor’s Green Energy Challenge and the commuter rail proposal and One Percent for Art. Disagreeing with a majority of council members whom I respect is one thing, a veto is yet another. A veto would make it harder for me to work with the majority of council members on other issues. Frustration over this issue could spill over into other council business even more than it already has.
But Hieftje’s current summary on whether a threat caused him to re-think his veto concludes with a threat of his own: “I have had the good fortune to work with council members who would never threaten me with anything,” the mayor wrote. “If someone ever does they will discover that the outcome will not be to their liking.”
About the author: Jim Leonard’s byline appears regularly for The Ann Arbor Observer.