Earlier this month, the local League of Women Voters hosted forums for candidates from each ward with a contested Democratic primary election for Ann Arbor city council. That included Ward 2, where incumbent Stephen Rapundalo and challenger Tim Hull are both seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination. The primary elections this year fall on Tuesday, Aug. 2.
Because no Republican challenger filed by the May deadline, the winner of the Ward 2 Democratic primary will likely be the Ward 2 representative to the city council. Some uncertainty surrounds that conclusion, however, because the filing deadline for non-partisan, independent candidates is not until Aug. 15. And Ward 2 has a recent election history that includes write-in candidate Ed Amonsen’s effort in the 2007 general election, which nearly won him a seat on the council. Amonsen’s write-in campaign earned him 790 votes (48.4%) to Rapundalo’s 843.
In their opening and closing statements, the candidates reprised the themes they’d introduced at a previous forum hosted by the Ann Arbor Democratic Party in June. Rapundalo stressed his experience and leadership as essential in trying economic times to find solutions in the area of cost containment and “revenue restructuring.” Rapundalo is president and CEO of MichBio, a biosciences industry trade association. First elected in 2005, Rapundalo is seeking a fourth two-year term on the city council.
For his part, Hull focused on budgeting that is based on community needs, not politics, and stressed that he would protect those things that make Ann Arbor unique. Hull is a programmer at the University of Michigan’s Center for Computational Medicine and Bioinformatics. He serves as a member of the city’s taxicab board.
The two candidates dealt with the full range of topics covered by LWV questions – from public safety cuts to their thoughts on the hiring of the new city administrator.
The LWV forum was filmed at the Community Television Network studios on South Industrial Highway. After the break, The Chronicle presents paraphrases of questions posed to the candidates and their responses to them, as well as some highlights from the candidates’ remarks broken down in a bit more detail.
Do You Golf?
As put forward by the LWV moderator, the topic of the city’s parks included a specific question: Are city parks to be parks in perpetuity, or are they available for sale and lease?
Stephen Rapundalo was first to field that topic, and did so with a laugh: “That’s a loaded question!” Given the history of Ward 2 politics, Rapundalo’s assessment of the question was understandable.
That Ward 2 history also accounts for the explicit and implicit emphasis in Tim Hull’s responses on the preservation of Huron Hills as a golf course. Hull’s general campaign talk (at the LWV event, as well as at a previous Ann Arbor Democratic Party event in June) includes his commitment to that which gives Ann Arbor it’s unique character – its neighborhoods, its parks and its natural beauty. That can be understood as an implicit version of the explicit statement he also makes as part of his campaign: He’s committed to preserving Huron Hills as a golf course.
In 2007, the perception among some Ward 2 residents that Rapundalo and other members of the council might be willing to sell either Huron Hills or the Leslie Park golf course nearly led to a loss by Rapundalo in the general election – against a write-in candidate. Ed Amonsen received 48% of votes, with Rapundalo avoiding defeat only through a decisive majority in his own neighborhood. That year, Amonsen’s nearly-successful write-in campaign was based in part on the fact that the city had hired a consultant to evaluate the city’s two golf courses, and one of the possibilities floated by the consultant was to sell one or both of the courses.
[The context of that year's Ward 2 election results is included in a recent Chronicle article, "Ann Arbor Elections Past: Voting Patterns." An understanding of the geography of the ward and the golf courses as well as the result of the Rapundalo-Amonsen election can be gained from a Google Map of those election results.]
In an attempt to counter the perception that the sale of the courses was a realistic possibility, just before the election in late October of 2007 the city council passed a resolution asserting that “all the properties commonly known as the Leslie Park and/or Huron Hills Golf Courses will not be sold either in whole or in part for private development …” The resolution approved by the council that year also included in a “whereas” clause the assertion that [emphasis added], “Some residents continue to misrepresent the facts and insist that a sale of golf course properties is imminent …” [.pdf of October 2007 city council resolution]
Accusations that people were misrepresenting facts on that issue continued the next year as part of the 2008 Democratic primary between Stew Nelson and Tony Derezinski. They were contesting the Ward 2 seat left open by Joan Lowenstein, who chose not to see re-election on the council. In an interview a few weeks after the August 2008 primary, which Derezinski won, Nelson described an off-camera Ward 2 candidate forum where mayor John Hieftje (not a Ward 2 resident) stood up and leveled an accusation at Nelson that Nelson had been misrepresenting facts:
… and somebody asked me a question – they asked me about the problem when the City was trying to sell part of Huron Hills Golf Course. And I gave them an answer, and I said, Yeah, I was very active in that. I said, I used to ride my horse over there on that property. …
I gave my explanation, and the mayor stood up and here’s what he said. And I’m going to quote the mayor. We thought he was going to ask a question. Folks, he said, I have been listening to this and I just have to say that what I have heard, the only word that I can use to describe it is, it’s a crock. And I thought, Well, okay. And he looked at me, and he said, Stew, you’re a smart guy, why do you continue to spread falsehoods? Well, there’s 40 people there in the room, and I used my best airline pilot cool, pretended like I had an engine failure …
… So I used my airline pilot cool and I just sort of sat there and smiled and listened. And once the mayor stopped beating up on me, then Derezinski got a little nasty, and then the moderator said, I thought he was asking a question, I probably should’ve slammed the gavel down on him. But he didn’t. Then they said maybe we better give Stew a chance to respond. …
And so I said, Mayor, we are going to disagree on this, but I have an aerial photograph that shows parcels of Huron Hills for sale, that we got from the City. I said, I have a copy of the appraisal that you had for the land appraised back there for sale. I have e-mails from Matt Warba, who is the head of golf courses, to Karla Henderson, who is second in command of Public Services, talking about the appraisal, and the sale of parts of land back there. And then when the golf course consultant was studying uses of that land there, we asked that they take off for consideration the sale of any land. And you and Councilmember Rapundalo adamantly refused to take it off.
And I said, What am I to assume? And I walked out the door.
In late 2010, the city ended an RFP process that had asked outside entities to handle golf operations at Huron Hills, ultimately deciding that the proposal selected as a finalist, from Miles of Golf, not be pursued further. In broad strokes, the city’s two golf courses have been performing somewhat better than projected over the last couple of years, based on implementation of a range of recommendations made by the golf consultant dating back to 2007. According to the city, the courses are not self-sustaining at this point.
Letters of support for Hull in this campaign imply that Rapundalo continues to be perceived by some residents as not committed strongly enough to the future of Huron Hills and Leslie Park as golf courses, despite serving on the committee that rejected the Miles of Golf proposal for further consideration.
What Is Your Experience?
Rapundalo has made his experience and his record of service a theme of his campaign. He can count his current service on council committees like the liquor license review committee, the budget committee, and the labor committee as examples, as well as past service as chair of the city’s park advisory commission before he was elected to the city council.
For his part, Hull is relatively new to public service, but does have the start of a record. His mayoral nomination to the city’s taxicab board came at the Oct. 4, 2010 city council meeting. Before that he had addressed the council and the board of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority during public commentary time on a range of topics, including the need to hold the AATA more accountable. Hull cites his taxicab board experience on his campaign website, but didn’t make it a point of emphasis at the Ann Arbor Democratic Party candidate forum or at the LWV event.
Each candidate was given a chance to make an opening statement.
Rapundalo thanked the league for the opportunity to speak. In making the case for himself, he stated: “Experience matters, as does leadership.” He argued that in the face of challenging economic times those are two key attributes. He said he’d been forging solutions to real problems for the last five years, and that he’d been doing so in a reasonable and disciplined manner. The key issues that he wants to continue to focus on relate to fiscal responsibility – cost containment and revenue restructuring.
[By "revenue restructuring," Rapundalo was referring implicitly to a city income tax. That's an idea that has surfaced from time to time, as recently as the city council's budget retreats in late 2010 and early 2011. See Chronicle coverage: "Engaging the FY 2012 Budget"]
He cited the importance of gaining concessions from labor unions on health care and retirement benefits for cost containment. He also said he wanted to work on delivery of better services. He concluded by saying he wanted to focus on economic development and smart growth.
Hull began by saying that Ann Arbor is a great place to live. He said he wants to continue to improve the level of services and to focus on the things that matter most – public safety is not something to be sacrificed, he said. Budget priorities should be based on community needs, not politics. The possibility of short-term economic growth shouldn’t cause us to sacrifice Ann Arbor’s unique character, he said, and that can be seen in Ann Arbor’s neighborhoods, parks and natural beauty. Hull said he would fight to preserve what makes Ann Arbor unique. He said that at times the council is too caught up in politics to respond to the needs of the community, but that doesn’t have to be the case. He promised to be responsive to residents’ concerns.
How would you improve communication?
Question: [The LWV moderator referred to an article reporting that most Ann Arborites are still not following a new city ordinance that mandates stopping at crosswalks when pedestrians are present.] Taking this only as an example, would you please explain how the population is to know what laws have been passed or changed or what decisions have been made, without communication from the city to its citizens? What will you, as a member of the Ann Arbor city council, do to improve this?
By way of additional background, the pedestrian ordinance in question was given final approval at the council’s July 19, 2010 meeting. A further revision to the new ordinance was prompted on that evening of deliberations by a suggestion from Marcia Higgins (Ward 4). She suggested replacing somewhat vague language (“yield the right-of-way, slowing down or stopping if need be to so yield,”) with the clearer directive to motorists to “stop and yield.”
Pedestrian safety traffic controls have been an ongoing issue at one intersection located in Ward 5, at Seventh and Washington streets. Upon installation of a traffic island and sign, motorists initially tended to drive right over the island and the sign. In recent months, reports of the sign’s recurring demise have ceased.
In Ward 2, a crosswalk issue was raised by resident Kathy Griswold over the period of a year starting in the fall of 2009 – she unsuccessfully lobbied the council and Rapundalo as Ward 2 representative to move the mid-block crosswalk in front of King Elementary School to the end of the block, where cars must already stop for the 4-way stop intersection.
Hull on Communication
Hull said engaging constituents regularly is important – through newsletters, public forums with councilmembers, advertising campaigns. The city should make use of the Internet, and perhaps revamp the city’s website. Community engagement is key, he said, and the connection between councilmembers and constituents is important.
Rapundalo on Communication
Rapundalo said the crosswalk ordinance is an interesting example, because he was driving the previous day down Plymouth Road, and noticed that some of the new crosswalks don’t have signage that says, “Stop for Pedestrians.” So the first step, he said, is to make sure that all the crosswalks have appropriate signage making it clear to drivers that they’re supposed to stop at those crosswalks for pedestrians.
He said that as Hull had pointed out, the city needs to engage the public better. The city’s already award-winning website could be improved. Engaging residents at the neighborhood level at association meetings is important, he said. Finding a means to get the information out through social media and other technology-based approaches is important, too, but it starts with the physical signage, he concluded.
Question: As a member of the Ann Arbor city council, how would you view and manage parkland? Are parks available for lease or sale as needed? Also, what are your thoughts on the quality of park safety and maintenance? How important is that, and whose responsibility is it?
Rapundalo on Parks
Rapundalo responded to the question with a laugh, saying, “Well, that’s a loaded question!” He stated that the fact of the matter is that the state statute and city ordinance are clear: parkland can’t be sold without putting it to a vote of the electorate. He said he didn’t think any current or future councilmember would contemplate doing that, especially for any of the city’s major parks. Parks are there for many generations to come. The issue of park maintenance is complex, he said, and that’s rooted deeply in the budget. But it starts with priorities – the council, the staff and the public need to decide what are the most important aspects of the park system to maintain.
Hull on Parks
Hull said he thinks parkland is public land that belongs to the public. It should not be sold or leased long-term without the consent of the voters. It’s definitely important to see what voters want from parks and to look at budget priorities. He called for taking a holistic approach and seeing where the parks fit into that. [The reference to long-term leases is likely an allusion to the proposed Fuller Road Station – the topic of the next question.]
Fuller Road Station
Question: Some very well-situated Ann Arbor parkland is being considered for the Fuller Road Station, which right now looks to be a very large parking structure on Fuller Road. The primary occupier of the proposed space is the University of Michigan. Please explain the current status of the Fuller Road Station project to our viewers and your arguments for or against its continued development.
By way of additional background, the introduction of the Fuller Road Station concept to the public can be traced at least as far back as January 2009, when the city’s transportation program manager, Eli Cooper, presented a concept drawing at a meeting of neighbors at Northside Grill. At the time, the city was trying to encourage the University of Michigan to reconsider its plans to build parking structures on Wall Street.
The city’s strategy was to get the university to consider building its planned parking structures on the city-owned parking lot, just south of Fuller Road, near the intersection with East Medical Center Drive. It would allow the university to participate in the city’s hoped-for transit station at that location. The university has leased that parking lot from the city since 1993.
The transit station is envisioned as directly serving east-west commuter rail passengers. A day-trip demonstration service that was to launch in October 2010 never materialized. But a recent announcement earlier this year, that some federal support for high-speed rail track improvements would be forthcoming, has shored up hopes by many people in the community that the east-west rail connection could become a reality.
The council has already approved some expenditures directly related to the project. It voted unanimously on Aug. 17, 2009 to approve $213,984 of city funds for an environmental study and site assessment. Of that amount, $104,742 was appropriated from the economic development fund.
On Nov. 5, 2009, on separate votes, the council approved additional money for the environmental study and site assessment and to authorize a memorandum of understanding with the University of Michigan.
The controversy on the project involves the status of the land where the proposed Fuller Road Station would be located. It’s designated as parkland, but formally zoned as public land (PL). In the summer of 2010, the possible uses for land zoned as PL were altered by the council, on recommendation from the city planning commission, explicitly to include transportation facilities. Any long-term use agreement with the university is seen by many as tantamount to a sale of parkland. A sale should, per the city charter, be put to a vote of the people.
The city’s park advisory commission has expressed some objections to the project, and has asked that the advisory body be kept informed as the project moves along.
Hull on Fuller Road Station
Hull described the project as a kind of a partnership between Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan – the city is paying 22% and UM is paying 78%, based on the split of the parking spaces to which each entity will have access. Phase 2 is supposed to be a transit hub with trains. But it is parkland, even though it’s been a parking lot for a while. The parking lot arrangement was intended to be temporary.
Hull said he thinks it needs a public vote. Also from a cost-benefit analysis, what benefit does Ann Arbor get from it? He also wondered about the likelihood of the trains starting expanded service using the station. He described himself as somewhat skeptical – he didn’t want to rush into it, without doing due diligence and getting public feedback.
Rapundalo on Fuller Road Station
Rapundalo noted, as Hull had pointed out, the land has been used as a parking lot and involved a land swap with the University of Michigan “way back when.” The whole discussion about a transit hub has been ongoing, he said, for a couple of years, and has not emerged just in recent months. There’s quite a bit of discussion that’s gone into it, he said.
A multimodal transportation hub is important for Ann Arbor’s future, Rapundalo said. That coincides with an image of Ann Arbor as a progressive city. We need to be able to move people around, particularly in proximity to the largest employer that the city has, he said, referring to the university and its large medical complex near Fuller Road. There’s already funding in place at the federal level, he contended, for many stages of the project and it “should be a go.”
Question: Budget cuts have also led to cuts in public safety – police and firefighters. How is tolerable risk determined? How can voters feel confident that their taxes are taking care of them, their children and their property?
Rapundalo on Public Safety
Rapundalo said that every member of council puts public safety as a highest priority. The question is how the city should deliver public safety services – do they have to continue with past service models or can they do it with other creative ways, where the same level of service can be provided more efficiently with less personnel?
Rapundalo said that despite budget cuts, the number of street cops has been maintained, so people should feel secure that the city is doing everything it can to ensure that they are safe. However, he said that costs have to be cut in all departments and not just in non-public safety departments. There is no more fat to cut, and public safety is 51% of the budget – and most of that 51% is personnel, he said.
Hull on Public Safety
Hull said the city needs to have a discussion about staffing levels. The police chief and the fire chief need to be active in that discussion. He said we can look at it in a better way. We need to take a broader view. There are so-called buckets, he said, and we need to look at which buckets can be changed in order to free up funds. We need to look at creative solutions working with the unions to reduce costs, he said.
Question: What qualities and accomplishments make you the better councilmember for Ward 2? You’re running against an incumbent (or as an incumbent). Why have you chosen to do that? What advantages would you bring?
Hull on why he’s running
Hull said obviously there’s an incumbent. Even though people might be from same party, they might have a different perspective, or have different views. He’s running because he feels like he offers a different, fresh perspective for voters. He wants to be more active in seeking community input and looking to what the community wants. He said he would think outside box, and not get stuck in the council’s current way of thinking.
Rapundalo on why he’s running
Rapundalo came back to his remarks made in his opening statement – it comes down to experience and leadership. He described the breadth of his professional career and the kind of managerial skills he could bring and the kind of knowledge he’s accumulated over the years. He pointed to his service as past president of a neighborhood association, past chair of the of city’s park advisory commission, current chair of the city council’s labor committee. He concluded that the breadth and depth of his background is superior to Hull’s and is best suited to bring his skills to bear on the challenges that continue to face the city.
New City Administrator
Question: The city is hiring a new city administrator. The two finalists are two non-local candidates. Have you met them? Do you have a favorite? What difficulties will they face?
By way of additional background, the city council voted at its July 18, 2011 meeting to offer the position to Steve Powers, currently county administrator for Marquette County, Michigan.
Rapundalo on the New City Administrator
Rapundalo said he’d met both candidates – he participated in both sets of interviews that had concluded earlier that day. He described them both as competent and said they could both fulfill the role. At the work session following the interviews, he said, the councilmembers had highlighted strengths for both candidates – it’s a question of fit with the city’s sense of values, he said. There’s a frontrunner in his mind, but he would continue to ponder the choice.
Rapundalo on the New City Administrator
Hull said it’s definitely an important thing to think about – the city has to replace the outgoing city administrator. He had some concerns about the process, he said. The city brought in an outside search firm. People have cited issues with that search firm’s previous experience. He felt that maybe we should think about how that process was selected. We need to consider the candidates who are the finalists, but Hull wondered if the search firm could have produced a better candidate? The city has have gone through searches before and abandoned them when they don’t like the candidates.
What are the strengths and challenges of Ward 2?
Question: What challenges do you see as unique to the Second Ward? How do you propose to address them in the primary and general election campaigns, and then later as a member of the city council?
Hull on Ward 2 Specifics
Hull said there are a lot of issues. Some are shared across the city – like public safety. Others are more pertinent to Ward 2. Fuller Road Station may not be fully in Ward 2 – it’s right on the edge of Wards 1 and 2. Huron Hills golf course is right in the heart of Ward 2, he said, and that golf course is important to many people. He said he wanted to make sure it stays a golf course for public use. Ward 2 is quite diverse, with residents ranging from students to retirees. There’s dense housing and less-dense housing. He said he’d been talking to lots of people and getting different perspectives.
Rapundalo on Ward 2 Specifics
Rapundalo said that going back to when he was president of the Orchard Hills/Maplewood Homeowners Association for 10 years, in some respects not much has changed. [Rapundalo's immediate neighborhood has been crucial to his success in past elections.] Some issues will always be there. As Hull pointed out, Rapundalo said, the ward has some unique assets.
Rapundalo said he was in favor of preserving Huron Hills as a golf course, but no matter what, it will always be open space. The ward’s other big asset is the former Pfizer site – that’s two million square feet of real estate, which the university bought and is starting to re-populate. There’s opportunity for economic growth there, he said, particularly with the inclusion of private companies in an entrepreneurial environment. As that happens, he said, the traditional issues of traffic flow and neighborhood stability will arise.
Each candidate was given the opportunity to make a closing statement.
Hull told the audience he hoped the forum had given them a chance to get to know him better. Even though the economic times may be tough, we can weather the storm together, he said. Difficult budget decisions will be less painful, if we adequately prioritize what’s most important for the community.
As a councilmember, Hull said he’d work diligently to make sure that residents’ interests are represented in city decision-making. He said he’d work to protect Ann Arbor’s unique character – neighborhoods, parks and a sense of community. He allowed that he might be young, but contended that he has the resolve and dedication to work on the issues that matter to voters, so that Ann Arbor continues to be a great place to live.
Rapundalo returned to his earlier points on experience and leadership. He said his five years on the city council and his professional career have allowed him to bring a breadth and depth of skill sets that are needed at the council table. He said he’d assumed leadership roles on a number of issues and he would continue to do that. Given the number of issues facing the city, this is not the time to be facing a steep learning curve, Rapundalo said. He added that he’s a good listener and seeks input from all stakeholders.
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