Two special education teachers originally from Brooklyn, New York, participated in a forum for Ann Arbor city council Democratic primary candidates held on Saturday, June 11. The New Yorkers – incumbent Mike Anglin and Neal Elyakin – are both candidates for the Ward 5 city council seat.
The forum was hosted by the Ann Arbor Democratic Party for all city council candidates in contested wards for the Aug. 2 primary election. The event 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.
The winner of the Ward 5 primary will face Republican Stuart Berry in the general election on Nov. 8. Currently, only Democrats serve on Ann Arbor’s city council.
Republicans have also filed in Ward 4 (Eric Scheie) and Ward 3 (David Parker). 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 getting into the candidate responses, we’ll briefly describe the June 11 gathering. By way of 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: Mike Anglin
Anglin thanked those who organized the forum, and as well as those who are supporting the candidates. Grass roots is fundamental to good government, he said. There are so many people in the room, he said, that it’s indicative of the Democratic umbrella. We’re all here with different ideas, where we discuss things, and the more of that we have, the better off we are as a community, he said. We need this discourse.
He said he would speak to just a single aspect of being an elected official due to the time constraints: Why did he enter politics?
He said he had a masters degree in American history and a masters degree in special education. He’d always had a service component to his life, he said. During college he worked in the D.C. public schools teaching kids to read as a volunteer. Later he worked at Boys’ Village in Cheltenham, Maryland. He began teaching in New York at junior high schools. He finished his career in Montgomery County in a special school for handicapped, emotionally disturbed children.
When Anglin came to Ann Arbor, he got involved in politics because he realized there were issues he wanted to be involved with, like the environment. So he’d started working with the Allen Creek greenway. He’d joined the Kiwanis Club – he schedules Route #9 for Meals on Wheels for that organization. He said he is very heavily involved in the community, and he likes to listen to people, because the first job of government is to provide services to the community.
Opening Statement: Neal Elyakin
Elyakin thanked the Democratic Party for bringing everyone together. These kinds of forums are very important, he said, for the democratic process. Why am I here? he asked rhetorically. First, because of civic responsibility, and also because of the expertise he can bring to the city council.
He noted that he and Anglin had a lot in common. They’re both New Yorkers, both from Brooklyn. He’d grown up there riding the trains and the subway. He said he’d become a special education teacher and had been in teaching administration for many years.
His expertise, he said, is in visioning and futuring and looking at process – making sure we’re looking in the same direction and staying in that direction once a decision has been made. He’s experienced in nonprofits and civic organizations, locally, statewide and nationally, which will help him bring people together who are diverse, to build consensus.
He’s served on Ann Arbor’s human rights commission, and with that work has learned about city government and the importance of building consensus, so that you can make a decision, debate the issues, and move things forward. “I am here to help government, I am here to help you be a part of the government.”
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.
Mike Anglin: Budget – Public Art
Mike Anglin said if you look at growth areas of the city budget, in just the general fund, which pays for public safety, it’s based on property taxes. There’s a continual drain on that fund, he said. We need to find a way to push more money in that direction. One area he’d identified that needs to be decreased is the amount of “administration” in the city. Administration seems to be growing, he said, but delivery of services is not. We’re getting a higher, broader, and deeper administration, but fewer services coming into the community, he said. So we see police layoffs, when we should instead look at other staff besides safety services, who should be reduced.
Neal Elyakin: Budget – Public Art
Neal Elyakin said the issue concerns decision-making, and he does have experience looking at the macro issues and looking at the process by which we make decisions. Decisions need to be made based on a “futures orientation” – based on what we want our city to be and to look like for all of its citizens 10-20-30 years from now. We need to “stay on those decisions.”
Whether to make decisions based on art or parks should be built into that vision you have of the city, Elyakin said, and how you’re going to get there. We need to list the priorities clearly and stay on message, and on target. That’s part of the process. “How are we going to fix it right now, this second? I don’t know.” But he said he did know that moving forward, the process by which we make decisions will affect the future of the city.
Question: Budget – Areas to Cut
In his response to the first question about the budget, Anglin 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.
Mike Anglin: Budget – Areas to Cut
Anglin said we need to watch the IT (information technology) fund. Though it’s important to have an IT department, as it gets larger, it’s important to keep an eye on it. The other area Anglin would look at would be the city attorney’s office. There are 10 attorneys on staff and he felt that we could take a look at that to see if they are all necessary. [The city attorney's office employs eight attorneys, an office manager and four legal assistants.]
Neal Elyakin: Budget – Areas to Cut
Elyakin came back to the idea of process: The city needs a process to figure out where and what they should look at with respect to city services. Where are the extra people? He said he did not believe that there were that many “extra” people at the city. He said city employees do a fabulous job to help make the city the best it can be. But there needs to be a regular process, he said, that is followed by the city and by the citizens to help develop those priorities.
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?
Mike Anglin: Campaign Support, Candidate Comparison
Anglin said since he’s been on the city council, he’s tried to listen attentively to the public. They are the ones who are paying the bills and who want to make this town their home. So they are the ones who’ll give direction to the government, he said.
Ward 5 is diverse – there are a lot of different income levels. The people who support him are those he responds to “at the lower level of things” – people who are on a fixed income, people who cannot continue to live in the city if we add more and more burdens to them. The city sometimes pushes things that look small to us but are large to the people they affect, he said – for example, the $45/month garbage cart collection that was added to the set of fees approved by the council this year. All these little expenses add up, he said. As for the people who are supporting him, they’re listed on his website – some are county representatives and people he supported in their elections. He said his support was citywide.
Neal Elyakin: Campaign Support, Candidate Comparison
Elyakin said he is new to the process of running for office. There are a number of people listed on his website as supporting him. He said he’s been knocking on doors of his neighbors and others who live in Ward 5, he’d eventually get to all of the doors in Ward 5.
He said he has friends in the city who’ve told him they believe in him and his ideas and priorities. He’s having conversations with residents of Ward 5, regional leaders, councilmembers, state representatives, county commissioners and others who have leadership roles in the community. He invited people to look at his website and learn who’s supporting him as well as his priorities for the city.
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?
Neal Elyakin: Disagreement
Elyakin said that this may depend on the particular issue. He said he could not be specific about who he might disagree with. As you look at the process of decision-making, you may disagree on a piece of legislation, but on another piece of legislation you might be right on board with that person. The beauty of the process is working together to one end, he said.
Consensus is a way to say, once all the information is gathered, and all the input has been collected, that you make a decision, stick with that decision and live with that decision, Elyakin said. Building a consensus in a political environment is just as important as in the private world, he said.
Pressed by the moderator to talk more about disagreement, Elyakin said he would bring up the Library Lot as an issue. [The city issued an RFP (request for proposals) for development atop the city-owned Library Lot, where an underground parking structure is being built. A conference center/hotel project was initially identified as the preferred proposal, but city council called off the process this spring.] It was a process disagreement, he said, as opposed to a disagreement with a person or a group of people. He said he disagreed that the process followed was an effective process. Moving forward, when making decisions like that, we have to make them more intentionally, with a clearer view of what the future will be, he said.
Mike Anglin: Disagreement
Anglin said the city council agrees on 99% of everything it votes on. Where they disagree are projects that start and still have a life after two or three years. If the city has a good IT department, he said, the city could move towards transparency by posting drafts of documents. If a committee is working on something, the committee should post a draft. It would not be the final resolution, and we wouldn’t hold people’s feet to that draft in February if by October the committee has changed its mind, he said.
An intelligent man changes his mind, but a fool does not, Anglin said. He thanked Stephen Rapundalo – a Ward 2 councilmember – for his cooperation on the budget votes. He noted that he and Rapundalo agreed on many things – they worked together on the liquor license review committee. On the budget this year, there was a $90,000 amendment in support of the parks budget. The amendment needed Rapundalo’s vote and he gave it, so he was very appreciative of that, Anglin concluded.
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.]
Mike Anglin: Library Lot
Anglin said he would like to see the number of stakeholders increase and wanted to see that the public occupied at least “40% of the voting seats.” A community commons and the library could exist together, he said. People volunteer in massive numbers in the community, he said, giving the Water Hill Music Fest as an example.
Any time there’s an event, people will be drawn to it and that will develop economic strength, Anglin said. They’ll love the downtown and want to come downtown. Don’t put up a big building that will isolate people, he cautioned. We need to get the library to buy in – they’re part of the public. [The Ann Arbor District Library's downtown building is located adjacent to the city-owned Library Lot, immediately south of that South Fifth Avenue site.] The library board needs to weigh in. Individuals from the library have spoken, but the board has not, he contended. It’s important to understand who is speaking for whom. The University of Michigan has no interest in a hotel or conference center on the Library Lot, Anglin said.
Neal Elyakin: Library Lot
Elyakin said it goes back to a process issue. When you think about the process by which we got to where we are today, it was a flawed process, he said. His reading of this over a period of time in the media was that it was a flawed process. We didn’t take into account all the necessary stakeholders in thinking about how we could use that property and the property around it. Entering in partnerships to create an event around what is now a “big hole” – that’s the beauty and power of visioning. You come up with something that the entire community can get behind.
Question: Conference Center
Do you think Ann Arbor needs a conference center anywhere? If so, should public dollars be used to support it?
Mike Anglin: Conference Center
Anglin said he didn’t see the need for a conference center. While the community discussion about the Library Lot was going on, he said, he’d met with the owners of some of the local hotels. Weber’s Inn and the Four Points Sheraton are both offering conference facilities, he said. Between them they had $13 million invested, so the city needed to be very careful in how it invested public money.
For the project at the First and Washington site, he said, the city had started in 2005 working to get the site developed, but if you go by the site, it’s still just a place to park a car. There would be a huge discussion on that site as well, he said, because it’s an environmental issue. [The planned development by Village Green on that city-owned site has already received approval by city council. Called City Apartments, the project is a 156-unit residential planned unit development with a 244-space parking deck as the first two stories of a 9-story, 99-foot-tall building. At its most recent meeting, on June 6, the city council unanimously approved a reduction in the purchase price from $3.3 million to $3.2 million, for the deal that is supposed to finally go through sometime in August.]
Neal Elyakin: Conference Center
Elyakin said whether public money gets used is a decision that comes out of the process of determining what our vision is for what we want our community to look like. Looking at partnerships and how we develop partnerships, there could be validity in coming up with a public-private partnership, but it needs to be wrapped around a vision and the potential for revenue back to the city.
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?
Mike Anglin: University of Michigan, Washtenaw County
Anglin led off his response with an apparent allusion to the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority’s current effort to expand its transit service countywide. He said as services are needed by surrounding municipalities, and as gasoline is getting more expensive, the AATA is expanding into the county because people in the rest of the county also want the AATA’s services. Cooperation is also happening in Ypsilanti with Ann Arbor SPARK, he said, referring to the area’s economic development agency.
All this would ultimately lead to an income tax, Anglin contended, which he would not support, because it would not help the community. But what the county could do is pass a millage on their residents and then they would have that money to pay for services that originate in Ann Arbor. Anglin criticized the fact that water rates charged by the city of Ann Arbor for some of the townships is only 3% more than the cost charged within the city of Ann Arbor.
We need more cooperation, but we’ll get it only if people see a need for it, he said. For the university, he said, a PILOT [payment in lieu of taxes] program should be in place. He felt that the city would probably finally get to that point. He said he was disappointed that the university didn’t help with the East Stadium bridges replacement. It really helps the university to have that bridge there in the middle of the campus, he said. The university should have simply stepped forward, but the city didn’t push very much, he concluded.
Neal Elyakin: University of Michigan, Washtenaw County
Relationship building is a skill he could bring to the city council, Elyakin said. His conversations with city leaders and state-level leaders showed him that building bridges between entities on the city level and the state level and the regional level will help our city revenue streams. It will help eliminate redundancies, and these things are all mutually beneficial. Part of regional leadership is that this city can become a regional leader in working collaboratively with communities around us, he said.
Question: Economic Development
Describe the Ann Arbor that you would help to create if you’re elected. What are your priorities for economic development?
Mike Anglin: Economic Development
Anglin asked how Ann Arbor is different from other towns – other towns also have small shops and coffee shops, too. What we have that makes us different, he said, is the values of the community that are expressed in the priorities that we’re willing to spend money on. To date, we’ve done a good job, but we’re starting to lose some traction on that. We can bring it back, he said. We have a can-do attitude about this, he said.
Anglin said he agreed that service delivery is very important. You like to live in a town because you like the way you were treated the one time you called city hall. When you call city hall and all you get is transfered around, people hear about that – one bad thing goes around 100 times. When that happens, you have a festering and a discontent in the town. He said he felt like we’re now on a better track.
Neal Elyakin: Economic Development
Elyakin said he felt like he probably sounded like a broken record, but visioning for the city is very important. A multi-year budget process is something we could engage in with citizens in a real sense. We could get more direct input from citizens not just to the city council, he said, but to other city leaders. He’d like to see more permanent solutions – dumping loose asphalt into a hole doesn’t necessarily create a permanent solution, he said. He said he loved the idea of more green development and converting city buildings to be more green. He wanted more accountability in our governance as well.
Each candidate was given two minutes for a closing statement.
Mike Anglin: Closing Statement
Anglin said he didn’t think the council went for consensus. That a misconception, he said. A consensus is one opinion. And one opinion wouldn’t go very far. We all have something to bring to democracy and the more voices we have, the better the solution will be. He’s a hard worker, he said, and tries to build relationships.
Over the course of four years of service he’s established valuable relationships, Anglin said. Some of those are not in his own ward but apply to the whole city. Working to save Huron Hills golf course, he said one of the most important things that was said was by a little man who never even played golf, but who said that one of the most tranquil times of the day is driving past the course in the morning and at night. We all get something different from this town, Anglin continued. Have your voice heard, because that’s what it’s all about. An example of that was preserving Argo Dam for the rowers. He said he’s always on board to vote for infrastructure.
He likes the idea of a community commons [on the Library Lot site] because it will promote democracy. If you see someone sitting there you could go up and talk to them and find out that they have very different views. That avoids a situation where the same discourse goes around and around like a washing machine. We don’t have a community commons that is the center of the city. With three minutes during public commentary at the city council, you don’t feel you’ve been heard, Anglin said.
Neal Elyakin: Closing Statement
Elyakin said he grew up in New York in a big family and learned early the importance of democratic values living with his relatives. He understood the value of how a city can take care of its less able folks. His family was not wealthy by any means, he said, and they relied on public assistance to make ends meet. So he understood clearly the democracy of the country we live in. It’s there to help all the citizens, no matter what they are or who they are or how they behave or what their needs are.
That came with him to Ann Arbor, he said, after living overseas and learning that some democracies are different from U.S. democracy. He learned the importance of listening to everyone and to what people say. He does believe that consensus can work, because it’s a way of building relationships with people so that we can all move forward in a comfortable way. He’s learned that through his work with nonprofits, through his work as an administrator with the Washtenaw intermediate school district (WISD), with civic organizations in the city, at the state and with international nonprofits.
In his job, he works enormously hard building consensus with families and school districts, employers and neighborhoods, Elyakin said, to move forward with a vision for a particular young man or woman with a developmental disability so that they can be all they can be in their community. He feels he can bring that skill to city council that is good for all the citizens.
Elyakin concluded by thanking the audience for their time and the Ann Arbor Democratic Party for creating the forum. He invited the audience to learn more about all of the candidates before making a decision on Aug. 2.
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