On Saturday morning, June 11, the Ann Arbor Democratic Party hosted a forum for Ann Arbor city council candidates in contested wards for the Aug. 2 primary election. The forum was held in the context of the Democratic Party’s regular monthly meeting at its usual location in the Ann Arbor Community Center on North Main Street.
Candidates for Ward 3 could not exactly square off – there are three of them. Plus, the linear seating configuration (determined by drawing playing cards) separated Ward 3 incumbent Stephen Kunselman from challengers Ingrid Ault and Marwan Issa with a buffer zone consisting of the two Ward 5 candidates.
The winner of the Ward 3 primary will face Republican David Parker on Nov. 8 in the general election. Currently, only Democrats serve on Ann Arbor’s city council. Republicans have also filed in Ward 4 (Eric Scheie) and Ward 5 (Stuart Berry). But in Ward 2, the lack of a Republican challenger means that spot is almost sure to be decided in the Aug. 2 Democratic primary. For the open Ward 1 seat, currently held by Sabra Briere, no partisan challenger filed. Independent candidates have until Aug. 15, 2011 at 5 p.m. to file petitions to run in November. The last day to register to vote for the Aug. 2, 2011 primary is July 5, 2011.
Other Attendees, Logistics
Before diving into candidate responses, we’ll sketch a partial picture of what the June 11 gathering was like. By way of brief background, the Ann Arbor city council consists of the mayor plus two representatives from each of five wards, who serve for two years each. That means each year, one of the two representative seats for each ward is up for election.
Saturday’s Democratic Party forum was attended by five out of 11 current councilmembers: Mike Anglin (Ward 5), Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) and Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) all participated in the candidate forum. Sabra Briere (Ward 1), whose Democratic primary race this year is uncontested, was invited to make remarks at the end of the forum, which she did. Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) – who is running unopposed in the Democratic primary, but who faces a Republican challenge in the fall – was extended the same invitation as Briere, but could not attend due to a family commitment.
Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5), who was first elected in November 2008, was re-elected last year. His seat is not up for election again until 2012, but he attended the forum.
Party co-chair Anne Bannister called attendees’ attention to other elected officials in the audience as well. They included county commissioner Yousef Rabhi and state representative for District 53 Jeff Irwin – both Irwin and Rabhi are Ann Arbor residents. As the room was surveyed for other elected officials, attendees got a reminder that the boards of the Ann Arbor District Library and Ann Arbor Public Schools are also elected positions. So Nancy Kaplan (AADL board) and Susan Baskett (AAPS board) were also recognized.
Baskett was recruited to keep time – it was rarely an issue for candidates. Party co-chair Mike Henry moderated.
The Chronicle counted around 50 people in the audience.
Candidates were given two minutes to make an opening statement. We present candidate responses in the order they were given. First chance to respond rotated down the table of the seven participants in the forum.
Opening Statement: Stephen Kunselman
Kunselman began by saying that he was serving the second of two terms to which he’d been elected, with a year off between terms.
[When he was first elected to the council in 2006, Kunselman won a three-way Democratic primary among Jeff Meyers, Alice Ralph and himself – the seat had been empty due to Jean Carlberg's retirement from the council. In his reelection bid in 2008, he was defeated by Christopher Taylor in the Democratic primary. Then in 2009, Kunselman returned to defeat incumbent Leigh Greden and LuAnne Bullington in the Democratic primary. The general election was uncontested in Ward 3 for all those years.]
Kunselman said he was looking for a third term to represent Ward 3, because there’s a lot of work still to be done. He thanked his challengers for making it a race. There’s a lot for residents of Ann Arbor to be concerned about, he said. He’d recently been focused on the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority and its finances, he said. Why is there so much debt associated with the DDA? This is debt that the city owns, he said. The annual report of the DDA – which he said the city council had yet to receive from the DDA, despite its publication in the newspaper in March – shows $140 million worth of debt (when principle and interest is added together).
Kunselman said he wanted to focus on general governmental accountability: Why is the city staff not preparing reports with good information that would allow the council to make good decisions? With respect to the planned Fuller Road Station, he said, the council has been told that the city will be contributing $10 million to the project. And the council has been assured it would not come from the city’s general fund, but no other fund had been identified. If it’s not the general fund, that left only one other avenue, Kunselman said – utilities. He stated that he did not think that the city should be paying for Fuller Road Station out of utility funds.
Kunselman said he’d campaigned last time on the idea of representing a strong voice, a bold vision, an honest ethic and a new direction, and said he felt that he’d lived up to that. He would continue to hold to that.
Opening Statement: Ingrid Ault
Ault introduced herself as a lifelong resident of Ann Arbor – she’s lived in Ward 3 for about 30 years. She grew up in this community – almost all of it in Ward 3 – and she knows it well, she said. She has a long record of civic activity, she said. The reason she decided to take on this challenge, is that there are some areas where the community is not as well represented as it should be.
Ault is the executive director of Think Local First, a nonprofit that supports locally-owned independent businesses. One thing she does every day, she said, is talk to people. She hears their stories and hears what’s working and what’s not working so well. She catalogs that and looks at ways to build partnerships with small businesses. Communication is key. She said that if you talk to members of Think Local First, they will say she’s reactive and proactive. It’s important to support small businesses, she said – it’s one way we can raise revenue in the community. It’s important that we don’t continue to see the erosion of our city services and in particular our safety services.
She said she also brings experience in government, though she’s never run for office. She did work for the Ypsilanti Downtown Development Authority and said she took on some major projects during the time she served as the DDA’s executive director.
Opening Statement: Marwan Issa
Issa said he’d lived in Ann Arbor all his life. He attended the University of Michigan, and just finished his PhD at Eastern Michigan University. He said he’s not planning to go anywhere else – he’s planning to stay and work in Ann Arbor. His grandfather came to the U.S. in 1970, Issa said, so he’s the first generation in this country.
Issa would like to see a fresh perspective on the city council, a way to look at things from a different view. Those views come partly from his work experience, he said. He’s worked in an educational startup, so he understands how important education and economic development are to the city.
Question: Budget – Public Art
The state and the city face budget challenges and constraints. Many governments are going through a cost-cutting process. How would you prioritize cutting items from the budget? Please speak specifically to the question of whether public art in buildings should be prioritized at times when we are cutting police and firefighters.
Stephen Kunselman: Budget – Public Art
Kunselman said fiscal challenges can’t be handled very well in sound bites. But he felt that the public art program is taking too much money from utility funds, when the city’s infrastructure needs are great. There was an attempt at the council’s budget meeting [on May 31, 2011] to decrease the amount of public art and put that money back into the funds they were taken from. [Kunselman had supported that resolution, but it failed.]
Taking care of infrastructure is a budget priority, Kunselman said. There have been four water main breaks on his street in the last year, he said. One of the repaired mains has broken again – that makes five. But he concluded that the budget process is a cooperative effort among all councilmembers, so no one councilmember would be able to say what’s going to happen.
Ingrid Ault: Budget – Public Art
With respect to budget cuts, Ault said, everything needs to be on the table. Nothing is exempt. Everybody needs to give and take. If it’s not a community effort, it’s not going to work. We need to talk to the unions about making concessions on health care, she said. Ault added that she’s not anti-union, but everybody needs to participate in the process.
Ault said she’s a proponent of public art. There are 3,000 people in Washtenaw County that define themselves as working artists, she said. It’s unfortunate that the first project to be funded through the public art program was not a local artist, she said. [Herbert Dreiseitl, a German artist, was commissioned to design a fountain for the city's new municipal center.] She said that one of the points she talks about all the time is the importance of spending money in the community – it can “reverberate” in the community as much as seven times over. She added that there are 168 parks in the community and we need to continue to support them.
Marwan Issa: Budget – Public Art
Issa said the city needs to be fiscally responsible. When you look at the police and fire departments, he said, it’s hard to cut them. People move to Ann Arbor because of its safety and security. After the cuts, he said, Ann Arbor will have only 0.72 firefighters per 1,000 residents. That’s well under the national average, he said, and that’s not fair to the citizens. Police and fire should be the last things to go. He said he appreciates parks and recreation, but would prefer to save a police officer or a firefighter job.
Question: Budget – Areas to Cut
In his response to the first question about the budget, Mike Anglin (Ward 5) identified “administration” as an area that he thought could be reduced. Moderator Mike Henry followed up by asking candidates to name one or two areas that they think are prime for cutting.
Ingrid Ault: Budget – Areas to Cut
Ault said that rather than talk about cutting jobs, what we need to look at is where duplicate work is being done. Washtenaw County is already doing this, she said, by consolidating the office of community development with the office of economic development. [The proposed consolidation also includes the employment training and community services (ETCS) department.] Thinking about how to be more efficient through collaboration is a better solution than thinking about who we are going to cut, she said.
Marwan Issa: Budget – Areas to Cut
Issa said that before cutting, we need to make sure the city is efficient and effective. Once we’ve done that, then we can look at what to cut. As an example, he gave people with desk jobs who get a gas mileage reimbursement.
Stephen Kunselman: Budget – Areas to Cut
Alluding to Ault’s call for eliminating duplicate work, Kunselman said there’s a lot of duplication at the DDA. The DDA has an attorney; the city has an attorney. The DDA has an accountant; the city has an accountant. The DDA has a planner; the city has a whole planning department. The DDA pays $50,000 for luxury office suites, Kunselman said; the mayor had asked the DDA to move to city hall, but they’d refused. That’s a lot of money that could be saved. Half of the $750,000 bureaucracy at the DDA is paid for by general fund parking revenues, Kunselman said, and it’s time to bring that money home.
Question: Campaign Support, Candidate Comparison
Who is supporting you and why do they have confidence in you? Why do you think you’re a better than those running against you?
Ingrid Ault: Campaign Support, Candidate Comparison
Ault named former city councilmember and current planning commissioner Jean Carlberg as an early supporter. She said she walks her dogs past Carlberg’s house, and would chat with her about things. Carlberg is one of the reasons that she decided to run. She also named Leah Gunn and Barbara Levin Bergman as supporters – both Gunn and Bergman serve on the Washtenaw County board of commissioners.
Ault said she’d also found that people whose doors she knocked on were very interested in what she had to say, and she was interested in what they had to say. She said she was excited to meet those she hasn’t met yet.
Marwan Issa: Campaign Support, Candidate Comparison
Issa said he was new to the process. In talking to people in the ward, he said that many people had encouraged him to run for office. A lot of the support would come as time goes by, he said.
Stephen Kunselman: Campaign Support, Candidate Comparison
Kunselman said he’d not done endorsements in previous campaigns, but would drop a couple of names that day. One was county commissioner Yousef Rabhi – he’d know Rabhi since he was a little kid. And state representative Jeff Irwin was also supporting him, Kunselman said. He also counted Gwen Nysteun, who serves on the city’s park advisory commission, as a supporter.
Kunselman said he had a good strong constituency that represents all the Ward 3 neighborhoods: North Burns Park, Burns Park, Pittsfield Village, Forestbrooke, Turnberry, and even his own neighborhood. [Kunselman lives on Butternut Street, near Packard and Platt.] He noted that he’d served on the planning commission with Jean Carlberg and had run years ago with her tacit support. He said he was looking forward to getting out and talking to people about city services.
Who would you say you disagree with most often on the city council – please be specific. How would you work to bring yourselves to agreement?
Ingrid Ault: Disagreement
Ault said she didn’t really pay attention to how she’s different from others. Rather, she looks for people who can be an ally for certain projects. She said that she and Kunselman had very different ideas about DDAs. Having worked on a DDA [in Ypsilanti] at a time when there was discussion about merging finances with the city, she said she’d done extensive research about what that would really mean. And what that would mean, she said, is you’d get fewer services.
The Ann Arbor DDA had four staff who did a great job managing the parking system, Ault said. We should rely on the DDA to make decisions about the parking system, she said, and the council should not make specific individual decisions about something that’s a user-based fee program.
Marwan Issa: Disagreement
Issa said he would not name specific names. He said he disagreed with the idea of reducing firefighters and police officers. With respect to the DDA, he suggested that the DDA board become an elected body. The DDA was becoming an entity that could do whatever it wanted, he said – it would be nice to reign it in, to make sure the DDA stays on focus.
Stephen Kunselman: Disagreement
Kunselman said he was not in a position to pick on other councilmembers, because they have to work together. But he joked that he would pick on Stephen Rapundalo a little bit, noting that he and Rapundalo were often on different sides. [Rapundalo was seated immediately to Kunselman's right at the candidate forum.]
On basic philosophy, Kunselman said, he had a different view of economic development. He did not think the city council’s focus should be on how to raise revenue through economic development. Instead, he said, the council’s priorities should be on health, safety and welfare. The city cannot do it all, he said. The DDA is set up to promote economic development and that’s what they should do. The DDA has a $3.5 million TIF (tax increment finance) fund they should be spending on economic development efforts. But taking $16 million in parking revenue and performing the same functions as the city, that’s an issue we need to discuss, he said. So he had a difference of opinion with some other councilmembers about the role of the DDA, Kunselman said.
Question: Library Lot
What would you like to see on the Library Lot? [The Ann Arbor DDA is moving forward with a process that would essentially restart a look at alternate uses of several downtown city-owned lots, including the Library Lot on South Fifth Avenue, where a 640-space underground parking structure is being built. See Chronicle coverage: "Ann Arbor DDA Continues Planning Prep." An RFP process for development atop the Library Lot site was terminated this spring, after a conference center/hotel project was initially identified as the preferred alternative among the six proposals submitted.]
Ingrid Ault: Library Lot
Ault said it’s an interesting piece of land, arguably the most valuable piece of land in Washtenaw County. Developing it in the best possible way makes sense. The ground floor should be mixed use, but she did not care what goes above it. You need to put greenspace in there, she added, but it doesn’t need to be a park. If we want a park, then we could simply reinvest in Liberty Plaza, she said. [Liberty Plaza is an urban park at the southwest corner of Liberty and Division.]
Now that the design review board has been established, Ault said, if we put together a good RFP, and are clear about our wants and needs, the city could receive responses to that RFP that include some great projects.
Marwan Issa: Library Lot
Issa said it would be good for a start-up hub. It could be used as office space for start-up companies – if the city provides a new start-up company with a facility to use, we will have more companies come to Ann Arbor and increase the economic development of the city.
Stephen Kunselman: Library Lot
Kunselman stressed that anything that’s developed on the lot should not have a public subsidy – that’s why he was against the hotel/conference center proposal that had made it to the end of the RFP process. His vision of that block is based on the idea that there is too much public land in the area. He would like to see the Ann Arbor District Library sell its land to a private party, and then build a new library building on top of the underground parking structure on the Library Lot. [The AADL's downtown building is at the northeast corner of Fifth and William, immediately south of the city-owned Library Lot.]
The city should sell the old Y Lot – that needs to get onto the tax rolls, Kunselman said. [The site is a surface parking lot, on the north side of William between Fifth and Fourth.] The idea of mixed-use retail in the middle of the block at the Library Lot he described as a “pipe dream.” The city council should not try to pick winners and losers in the private sector, he said. The community should help design it. Then the city should translate that design into deed restrictions, and sell the land with those restrictions in place, he said.
Question: Conference Center
Do you think Ann Arbor needs a conference center anywhere? If so, should public dollars be used to support it?
Stephen Kunselman: Conference Center
On the subject of public subsidies, Kunselman said that’s simple: No! The city should not be involved in public subsidies for private development. The city has not been successful to date on those efforts. That’s why when he campaigned two years ago, it was based on a new direction. There’s ways of accomplishing things besides going out and fishing with an RFP, he concluded.
He said he’s not qualified to determine the need for a conference center. The private sector can handle that, if there is a need.
Ingrid Ault: Conference Center
Ault said she thought the conference center was an interesting topic from the standpoint that there’s a need for conference space in the downtown – people don’t want to go out to Weber’s Inn. But she rejected the idea of funding it with city dollars. If a project is not viable on its own, then it shouldn’t go forward.
Marwan Issa: Conference Center
Issa said he thought that a conference center is a horrible plan. The University Michigan has a lot of places where people can hold conferences. As far as public funding goes, he said if there were a start-up company and it was a company that’s going to stay here, that’s where public funding could be useful.
Question: University of Michigan, Washtenaw County
How would you characterize the relationship between the city and the University of Michigan? How would you characterize the relationship between the city and Washtenaw County?
Ingrid Ault: University of Michigan, Washtenaw County
Ault said one of the things she does as executive director of Think Local First is look for partnerships. There’s a study that indicates if you shifted 10% of your budget to local businesses, it would create 1,600 jobs and $53 million in wages. She said she’s been talking to city and county officials about supporting local businesses.
Ault said she could give many examples where the city is making short-sighted decisions and hundreds of thousands of dollars have left the community, because of maybe a $300 difference in a bid. The county is a good example of collaboration – it’s built partnerships with other entities, figuring out how to do more with less. We have a long way to go with the university, she added.
Marwan Issa: University of Michigan, Washtenaw County
Issa said that when you look at the relationships between the University of Michigan and the city of Ann Arbor, “it’s not there,” and needs to get better. It seems like it’s an us-versus-them attitude with the university. When we look at firefighters, the university owns a lot of land, he said, so why can’t we get them to help support the fire department, by funding some of the firefighters?
[Issa's point about university land is related to the fact that UM facilities built on university land receive fire protection from the city. The state of Michigan has deemed that it's not a university responsibility and has used a strategy for funding the university's fire protection through a state grant. But the city of Ann Arbor has long contended that the level of that grant funding is not adequate to cover the cost of the additional protection. UM contributes to the city's fire protection through the location of fire station Number 5 on university property.]
There are a lot of redundant jobs in the city and the county where there could be cost savings, Issa said, but the relationships aren’t there.
Stephen Kunselman: University of Michigan, Washtenaw County
Kunselman said it’s a tough issue, but he felt that the partnerships between the city and the university, and between the city and the county, are going as well as they can go, given the governmental autonomy that each entity has.
We can talk about cooperation and collaboration until we’re blue in the face, he said, but the fact is that UM is not going to contribute to the city’s basic services. The university works under the constraints of the state constitution and the state legislature, he said, and the moment the university starts doling money out to the city for whatever reason – for signals and signs for football games, for which the university has been billed but has not paid – the state legislature will send them a clear message. That message is that the university’s funding would be dialed back. So the university has a hammer over its head. We can’t just sit here and envision a great and wonderful cooperation with the university, he said. [Kunselman is a UM employee, working as an energy conservation liaison. Other councilmembers affiliated with UM include Marcia Higgins (Ward 4), who works as an administrative assistant, and mayor John Hieftje and councilmember Tony Derezinski (Ward 2), who both have served as lecturers.]
The situation with the county is different, he said. There are representatives to the county board of commissioners who live in the city. But for the townships there’s an inequality with respect to the tax base between the city and the townships. When we talk about mutual aid, he said, we look at who has more money in the game – typically it’s the city. So not all partnerships would be in the city’s best interest. It all sounds good, Kunselman concluded, but at the end of the day, we’re beholden to voters who expect us to watch their tax dollars.
Question: Economic Development
Describe the Ann Arbor that you would help to create if you’re elected. What are your priorities for economic development?
Marwan Isssa: Economic Development
Issa said the Ann Arbor he envisions is one where we don’t have to constantly discuss how we’re going to pay for services and what we are going to cut. He said he and his family had been in Ann Arbor for over 30 years and had started local businesses. They understood how that works and how economic development is important to the city. Another component is the University of Michigan, he said, which spends spending billions of dollars on scientific research. The city needs to work with the university, not in terms of asking the university to give the city money, but in terms of how to be a partner. He suggested an ambassador or a liaison to show companies what Ann Arbor has to offer.
Stephen Kunselman: Economic Development
Kunselman said the Ann Arbor he hopes to achieve is the one he grew up in – where everyone is treated equally, we have good roads, clean water, safe neighborhoods, maintained parks. If you have all that, then you get economic development, he said, because you get businesses that are interested in moving to your community. Those are businesses that want to invest because they can see where their money is going. They see the money going into roads to be fixed, they see water mains being repaired, they see police and firefighters present, then they feel like they’re getting a good return on their invested dollar.
Kunselman said he didn’t understand why anybody would want to relocate to Ann Arbor if they drive Packard, Jackson, Dexter, or Miller and have to handle those roads. He said he couldn’t understand – if we put all our money downtown instead of in neighborhoods – why employees would want to live here, where water mains are breaking and street trees aren’t being cared for. Public safety, health and welfare breeds economic development, he concluded.
Ingrid Ault: Economic Development
Ault said we need to remember that Ann Arbor is a living organism and we all need to work together. She said that what she does every day is economic development – she looks for ways to support businesses and to create new businesses. She supports nonprofits, she said, because they’re important to the fabric of the community.
Each candidate was given two minutes for a closing statement.
Stephen Kunselman: Closing Statement
Kunselman thanked the hosts, the audience and the other candidates. He said he looked for their support on Aug. 2.
He’s a lifelong Ann Arborite. He pointed out that he and Ault had both graduated from Pioneer High School in 1981. His grandparents were founding members of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church on Stadium Boulevard. His grandmother was a police dispatcher in the late 1950s for the East Ann Arbor police department. He lives near Packard and Platt, the “heart of Ward 3.”
Kunselman noted that he served as a planning commissioner from 2004-06 and served as a city councilmember from 2006-08 – he wanted to serve another term, from 2011-13. He ventured that perhaps people had read about him in the news, and he allowed that he did have a strong voice. He has a strong passion for his beliefs about what Ann Arbor is and what it should be, he said.
Kunselman didn’t want to say that his voice is the best, but he does think he’s made a difference. He said he helped defeat the conference center. He said he’d shown how the DDA had failed to be open and transparent with their budget. He’s been there for the city’s police and firefighters since day one and did not feel comfortable laying them off, even while the city allocates funds to public art and the Fuller Road parking structure. All of those things boil down to needing some independence on the city council, he said, which is what he offers.
Ingrid Ault: Closing Statement
Ault said she appreciated the opportunity to be heard – that’s all she wanted. She wanted the process to be clear and open to see where they are the same and different.
Ault wanted to emphasize that she is a very strong voice for this community – she’s immersed in every facet of it. She knows what is going on in the downtown, because she’s worked the majority of her life in the downtown and understands what challenges small business are facing. Her service record for nonprofits ranges from Meals on Wheels, to the Humane Society and 826 Michigan – she’s been there and done it, she said. She’s curious, she said, and she wants to know why people support who they support. A lot of time the people who have the biggest pocketbooks or the most time on their hands have more of an impact on the community, she cautioned. She wants to make sure that everyone has a voice.
Marwan Issa: Closing Statement
Issa thanked the hosts of the debate – it was his first debate, and the first time running for an elected position.
Ann Arbor is a gem, he said. We’re lucky and fortunate. In Ann Arbor, you can come as you are and you will be accepted. Electing him will help the community out, he said.
He’s from the area. He had a father who helped him go through with his education. With the opportunities he had, now he wants to be able to give back to the community. His optimism and experience will give him the ability to take on the many challenges the city has.
The city’s main important voice is that of the residents, Issa said. If they start to feel the city council is inadequate, or is not doing right by the people, we need to make sure people are happy with what’s going on with the city council. He said he’d been researching the city council, and they work hard. But the council’s hands are tied. There’s a reason why we can’t take public art money and pay for cops, he concluded.
The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of public entities like the Ann Arbor city council. If you’re already supporting The Chronicle, please encourage your friends, neighbors and coworkers to do the same. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle.