On the last Monday in September, the League of Women Voters hosted a forum of candidates for Ann Arbor city council at Community Television Network studios. Ward 2 and Ward 5 are the only two wards where more than one candidate is on offer to voters on Nov. 2. The respective incumbents in Wards 1, 3 and 4 – Sandi Smith, Christopher Taylor, Margie Teall, who are all Democrats – are unopposed. The Ward 2 and Ward 5 forum was recorded and is available online through CTN’s video-on-demand service.
While the five candidates for the two wards participated in the same 45-minute forum, this report covers only responses to questions from Ward 2 candidates – incumbent Tony Derezinski, who is the Democratic Party nominee, and Emily Salvette, the nominee of the Libertarian Party. Responses from Ward 5 candidates Carsten Hohnke, John Floyd and Newcombe Clark are reported in a separate account.
As stipulated in the city charter, Ann Arbor wards divide the city into roughly pie-shaped wedges. Ward 2 is a wedge covering roughly the area between the 1 o’clock and 4 o’clock positions on the “city pie.” Each ward is represented on the city council in two council seats, one of which is up for election each year for a two-year term. Stephen Rapundalo serves in the Ward 2 seat that’s not up for election this year.
The four questions posed by the League were confined essentially to two topics: the budget and parks. Candidates uniformly identified the most important challenge facing the city as the budget, and that fit thematically with a specific question about the budget. The remaining two questions focused on specific parks: Huron Hills golf course, which is currently the subject of a request for proposals for private management; and Fuller Park, part of which is a proposed location for a new parking deck to be built primarily for the University of Michigan, and which has a possible future as a train station.
Both Derezinski and Salvette acknowledged the difficulty of the financial situation faced by the city. Salvette focused on her basic philosophy of limited government, stating that she was not in favor of new taxes. Salvette cautioned against an approach of “tinkering around the edges,” instead calling for reducing employee costs. Derezinski noted that the number of employees has been reduced considerably in the last decade through attrition and early retirements. He warned that if additional cuts could not be made, it might be necessary to think about changing the tax structure. He did not explicitly call for the citizen vote that would be required to levy a city income tax.
With respect to the city parks, Salvette stressed the importance of putting the future use of Fuller Park to a vote – she isn’t opposed to the university purchasing the land for use as a parking deck, but expressed skepticism about the viability of a transit station use. She felt that Huron Hills should be left the way it is. Derezinski expressed his support for the plan for Fuller Road Station, and stressed that Huron Hills would continue to be used for golf, whatever the outcome of the current request for proposals is for the privatization of operations there.
Each candidate began with a 1-minute opening statement.
Tony Derezinski led off his remarks by saying that his first two years of service on the city council representing Ward 2 had been an interesting time. He ticked off his council committee assignments: city planning commission; labor and council administration committee; board of insurance administration; WATS alternate; Washtenaw corridor study technical committee; Ann Arbor housing commission; SEMCOG delegate. He then cited the Arbor Hospice Foundation board and membership in Rotary Club as other civic involvement. He cited a credential of a master’s degree in urban legal studies from Harvard University’s law school and 25 years of private practice in the area of municipal law.
Emily Salvette thanked the League of Women Voters for the opportunity to address voters and for the work the league does in the community. She stated that she thinks it’s bad that we have only one political party running the city – all 11 members of the city council are Democrats, she said, and that’s how it’s been for a while. That’s not good for democracy, she said – we need some honest debate at council meetings.
Salvette said she believes in limited government, focusing on the basics: protecting people from violent crime and providing basic infrastructure like roads and water. Then government should step back and let people go about their business, she said. She also said that she thinks government should be fair, open and honest. The government, she said, should follow its own rules. She invited people to find out more by visiting her website: emily4a2.org
Challenges for Next Two Years
Question: What are the primary challenges facing the city council in the next two years and what strengths would you bring to that role?
Derezinski on Challenges: Services in a tough economy
Tony Derezinski identified the first challenge as continuing to provide quality municipal services – that’s a challenge, he said, because of the economic times. The city has had to make painful cuts. The second challenge he identified is planning for the future. Ann Arbor is in a position to keep and improve on its remarkable culture, he said. The question is how to do that during tough times and in collaboration with surrounding communities. He talked about the need to meet challenges in the context of the entire state and cited his experience in the state Senate.
Salvette on Challenges: Debt, employee costs
Emily Salvette stated that the city’s debt is obviously the biggest challenge – the city is spending too much money. She said that city costs need to be brought under control, and the biggest area where more control is needed is in employee costs. She said we need to “look hard” at union contracts, hiring and firing decisions, and make sure we’re running a sustainable operation. This is not the time for new taxes, she said. Spending needs to be brought under control. Her focus on limited government, she said, would help, because she does not always want to use government to solve every problem – it won’t grow under her watch, she concluded.
Question: Are Ann Arbor’s city parks under threat? For example, what should be the future use of the Huron Hills golf course?
Salvette on Huron Hills: Leave it publicly operated, the way it is
Emily Salvette said she didn’t necessarily think that the city’s parks are under attack. However, she said a couple of things bother her about the plans for the development of the Fuller Road transit station. If we have a rule that park land can’t be sold without a vote of the people and we enter into a long-term lease – that is for all intents and purposes, for those here today, a sale – then that’s not playing by the rules, she said. Government should be held accountable and be honest about what it’s trying to do, and should live by its own rules. With respect to Huron Hills, she said, as a Libertarian, she supported privatization as much as the next person, but she’s listened to what neighbors of the course have had to say. She does not think that contracting out in this situation is warranted. Huron Hills should be left the way it is right now.
Derezinski on Huron Hills: Consider privatization to make it break even
Tony Derezinski began by calling the city parks one of the “great strengths” of Ann Arbor. The parks are beautiful. He said he lives near Huron Hills golf course and plays it 4-5 times a year – not well, but he tries, he quipped. What the city has done so far, he said, is simply to issue a request for proposals (RFP) to see how Huron Hills could be managed better. The RFP is very specific, he said, that the land would be managed as a golf facility. It’s important to make that inquiry in tough times, he said, to see if there’s a way to do it better. It’s a great facility, but it could be better, and the city needs to make it at least break even, he said. The parks are safe, he said, and they’ll continue to be one of the great strengths of the city.
Parks: Fuller Road Station
Question: Is a transit station and parking structure an appropriate use of Fuller Park?
Derezinski on FRS: Full support
Tony Derezinki began by reacting to the description of the land as a “park” by saying, “I think you mean a ‘parking lot,’ which is what it is right now.” He went on to say that it’s been a parking lot for quite some time. He stated that he felt that a transit station and parking structure was an appropriate use of the land. The Fuller Road Station would be a lot more than just a parking structure – it would become an intermodal transportation hub where many different types of transportation come together.
There are around 30,000 people who come into the city every day – most of them to the university hospital system, Derezinski said. The University of Michigan had planned to build a couple of decks near Broadway and Wall Street, but gave up that plan when the opportunity came to build on Fuller Road. The plans, he said, call for a bridge that goes from the parking structure straight to the medical center, and would eventually include a train station. The current Amtrak station is inadequate, he said, and if high speed rail comes to Ann Arbor, the structure at Fuller Road will be the station for it. It will be a lot more than just a parking structure, he concluded.
Salvette on FRS: Open to purchase by UM, but need a citizen vote
Emily Salvette said that the city has to be open and honest about what should happen with that land – it should go to a vote. She does not think it’s necessarily a bad thing to have a parking lot for the University of Michigan – if they need it, they should buy it. She said she had strong concerns about planning for “transit schemes” that she thinks are unsustainable and impractical and will cost a lot of money. Rail as a transportation option is currently not viable, she said. To build a “dream transit station” in order to get ready for that happening, she said, is “folly.”
Question: Balancing the budget is a continuing challenge. Do more cuts need to be made – if so, what? Are there additional sources of revenue, and if so, what?
Salvette on Budget: Employee costs are most crucial
Emily Salvette said that it would not be helpful to tinker around the edges with small cuts here and there, especially with popular programs and services. What we should really tackle, she said, are things like employee costs – pension, and health care contributions. We need to get these employee costs under control, she said. There are fewer employees today than there were four years ago, yet the city’s costs are 25% higher, she said. It’s important to get employee costs in line with the private sector, she said – there are taxpayers who are suffering, while city employees have very generous benefit packages.
Derezinski on Budget: Alternative to more cuts is to change tax structure
Tony Derezinski characterized the budget cuts as among the most difficult decisions he’s had to make in his first term and he hears about them – things like leaf collection and paving of roads. Those are essential services, he said, that he as a representative of Ward 2 is concerned about. In the last 10 years, the number of city employees has decreased by 25%. Those are difficult cuts, he said, but they’ve been achieved through attrition and early retirements. At the same time the city has kept up its AA+ bond rating. In the future, he cautioned, the alternative is to cut more or to look for additional funds. That would mean some tough choices or else a change in the structure of the tax system.
Each candidate gave a 2-minute closing statement.
Emily Salvette began by thanking the League of Woman Voters for the opportunity to be there. It’s been five years, she said, since there were two names on the ballot in a Ward 2 city council race. It’s been five years since a party other than the Democrat Party was on council. Yet she knows there are different points of view on issues in Ward 2, because she talks politics with her friends and neighbors all the time. Many of them feel that city government is too big, and is pursuing ill-advised projects. She asked her friends and neighbors to seize the opportunity to make a difference in Ann Arbor – put some diversity into the debate on the city council. She suggested that voters could find out more about the Libertarian Party by visiting lp.org
She allowed that voters might not agree with her on every issue, but guaranteed that she would be an independent voice. She would listen, ask questions, and demand answers from city officials. She’d base her decisions on what she heard from voters, what she believes is right and what promotes fair, open and honest government in Ann Arbor. Her decisions would not be based on what she’s been told to do at a party caucus, she said. It’s time for an independent voice in Ann Arbor government, she said, and that’s why she’s running.
Tony Derezinski quipped that it’s great to be the last person speaking and said it’s been a pleasure to represent Ward 2 over the last two years. Two years ago, when he ran, his campaign theme had been: “Let’s make this great community even better.” He said he still has faith we can do that, though he allowed it’d been a “tough slide” for the last couple of years due to the financial situation. He assured people that we would get over that crisis. Times are going to be better and we have to plan for them, but right now there are tough decisions we have to make. We have to continue to provide services, he said.
He pointed to the work the planning commission has been doing to rezone parts of the community, because the zoning laws are outdated. He also pointed to the Washtenaw Avenue corridor study technical committee he’s on as a collaboration of four communities: Ann Arbor, Pittsfield Township, Ypsilanti Township, and Ypsilanti. That’s the kind of thing we need to do more of, he said. We need to look to the future, he said, and declared that he is optimistic. He said he refused to attack city government and that we can make it better by good planning, by thinking about our goals for 25 years from now and working towards those goals. He concluded by thanking the League of Women Voters.