For 90 minutes on Monday evening, two candidates for the District 7 seat on the Washtenaw County board of commissioners – Democrats Felicia Brabec and Christopher Nielsen – answered questions from current commissioners about their interests and how they would approach the job.
The board will vote to appoint one of the candidates at its Oct. 19 meeting, filling the position vacated after Kristin Judge resigned earlier this month.
Monday’s interviews were held at the Pittsfield Township hall – the district covers the township, and both candidates live there. It was fairly informal, with questions about why they want the job, what their passions and priorities are, and how they’d work to build trust and relationships with their constituents, county staff and other commissioners. At the end of the meeting, several commissioners praised both candidates, saying either one would serve District 7 well.
The meeting was sparsely attended. The audience included Pittsfield Township supervisor Mandy Grewal and Barb Fuller, deputy supervisor. Former township treasurer Christina Lirones also attended, and posed a question during public commentary to elicit the relationships between the candidates and Judge. Lirones noted that Judge had run on the same slate as current township elected officials, and Lirones wanted representation on the county board by someone who isn’t lockstep with the current township leadership.
Brabec responded that Judge had encouraged her to consider applying, and that their husbands work together. Several commissioners said that Judge had set up meetings with them and Brabec, but they felt that Brabec was an independent thinker and said that Judge hadn’t pushed inappropriately for Brabec’s appointment.
Nielsen is a friend of former county commissioner Jeff Irwin, and worked on Irwin’s 2010 campaign for state representative. Board chair Conan Smith said having someone who’s done the job who can vouch for the candidates is important, and he noted that’s the case with both candidates.
The appointee will serve until special elections in early 2012 – a primary on Feb. 28, and a special election in May. The date for the May election will be set by the board at Wednesday’s meeting. The winner of that election will serve the remainder of the term, through 2012.
One person – Republican Richard Conn – has already filed for the 2012 special election in District 7. However, according to deputy county clerk Matt Yankee, since the election hasn’t been officially set by the county board, Conn might have to refile if the election dates are different from those he’s indicated in his filing affidavit – Feb. 28 and May 8.
District 7 Candidate Interviews
In their applications, the two candidates had provided their resumé and an essay responding to the board’s Strategic Priorities and Budget Principles. Felicia Brabec has a doctorate in social work and a private practice. Christopher Nielsen has a law degree, was an assistant town manager in Orange, Virginia, and is a housing development officer with the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA). For additional background, see Chronicle coverage: “Two Candidates Apply for County Board Seat.”
All commissioners except Leah Gunn attended Monday’s meeting, and asked questions of the candidates. For this report, the questions posed to candidates from each commissioner are paraphrased. Candidate responses are reported in the order in which they answered.
Candidate Interviews: Response to Board’s Priorities & Principles
Conan Smith (D-District 10): In applying for this position, you were asked to write an essay responding to the board’s Strategic Priorities and Budget Principles. Please elaborate on those thoughts.
Brabec: After thanking the board for allowing her to speak with them, Brabec said the board’s five guidances – focusing on public safety, basic needs, increased economic opportunity, integration of efforts, and long-term stability – address the county’s sustainability and most pressing needs. Those needs would be unaddressed if the county didn’t provide services, she said – the safety net is important. The guidances really resonated with her, Brabec said. It reminded her of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: If the basic needs at the bottom of the hierarchy aren’t fulfilled, you can’t reach the higher needs, like self-actualization. Entities working together can provide needed services to residents, Brabec said, and she hoped to be part of a board that would work toward that goal. [.pdf of Brabec's essay]
Nielsen: The board had done a good job under difficult circumstances, Nielsen said. In looking at the strategic priorities and budget principles, one of his concerns is that while core services are a top priority, the county continues to fund other services that are important but that have costs associated with them. He noted that he had attended the Oct. 13 board working session and heard citizens speak against proposed funding cuts. It was eye-opening to hear how difficult the decisions will be. He recognized that each of the commissioners showed empathy. But some of the direction given in their strategic priorities document is confusing, he said. Perhaps that was intentional, he added, in that it gives the county administrator flexibility. [.pdf of Nielsen's essay]
Candidate Interviews: Establishing Trust
Barbara Bergman (D-District 8): How would you work to establish trust with the county’s department heads?
Nielsen: Having been a department head, Nielsen said it’s important to be a good communicator. He’d take an active role in meeting with people. It’s important to be very fair and honest – if you’re willing to do that, you can build trust. Your actions will demonstrate to the staff your ability to be trustworthy and honest.
Brabec: Trust is a foundation needed to get good work done, Brabec said. Her job would be to sit with all the department heads and learn as much as she could by asking questions and soaking up information. That approach facilitates an open relationship to help tackle problems.
Candidate Interviews: Why Do You Want the Job?
Wes Prater (D-District 4): What motivates each of you to become a commissioner, especially in this difficult time of budget challenges?
Brabec: Service is one of her core values, Brabec said, and is integral to who she is and to her family. For the past several years, she’s focused on individual service, on the micro level. Now that her children are a bit older, she has more time to dedicate to serving others. This position seems like it would be service at the macro level, she said. Being able to collaborate is key, she said – it’s fundamental to social work, and would be important as a commissioner too.
Nielsen: He’s always gravitated toward public service, and he enjoys government work. He’s been a Pittsfield Township resident about five years, and loves the community. This feels like the best opportunity to get involved, despite walking into a challenging situation. When he served as assistant town manager, Nielsen said, difficult budget decisions had to be made. That experience relates to this job, he said. Whatever the board decides will have a lasting impact on residents, staff and outside organizations. Nielsen said he would bring people together, and listen to all sides before making a decision. He hoped to have an opportunity to represent the community.
Candidate Interviews: Handling a Diverse District
Alicia Ping (R-District 3): Pittsfield Township is a very diverse township from east to west, with cultural and socio-economic differences, different school districts, and a more rural community toward the west. Even the traffic is different on each side. How would you work with the township government, and balance that with the needs of the county as a whole?
Nielsen: He sees himself as a facilitator, and would communicate openly with the township, respond promptly to citizen concerns and questions, and try to understand all the issues that come up. He said he’d try to help residents and businesses by pointing them in the right direction for resources, if they have questions or problems.
Brabec: To learn more about the different needs of residents, Brabec said she’d talk to township officials, citing supervisor Mandy Grewal and treasurer Patricia Scribner. She’d have a steep learning curve, she said, and would rely on them and others. The county has diverse needs too, Brabec noted, so she’d talk with each commissioner to find out how they make decisions and balance the needs of the entire county with their district. She’d try to find a fair way to balance the needs of Pittsfield Township with the needs of the county.
Candidate Interviews: What’s Your Pitch?
Yousef Rabhi (D-District 11): Pretend I’m a citizen and you’ve just knocked on my door. You’re running for office. What would your pitch be?
Brabec: She’d want to listen to what residents have to say – what are their concerns, what do they think the county or township is doing well? She’d bring back that information to the board. She’d also tell people that human services and public safety are important to her.
Nielsen: Nielsen said he’d begin by introducing himself, and asking them what he could do to help them gain access to county services. What issues do they think are important? How can he serve them? Because ultimately, he’s there for customer service.
Candidate Interviews: Constituent Outreach
Yousef Rabhi (D-District 11): How would you make yourself available to constituents? Kristin Judge put a high priority on that – sending out regular newsletters, for example. What do you plan on doing?
Nielsen: There are certain limitations because of his job, Nielsen said, but he’d be available on evenings and weekends. He’d look to make himself accessible through different avenues, like email or newsletters, if that works best for people.
Brabec: As a resident, Brabec said she likes to receive newsletters, so she’d probably continue that. She also likes the idea of regular times to be available to constituents, like lunches or teas. When Pittsfield Township was putting together its master plan, there were forums for public input – that’s another good idea, she said. She’d also make her phone number and email address available, and would attend as many public events as possible, like a recent open house she’d attended at the Pittsfield fire station. Being visible and approachable is important, she said.
Candidate Interviews: Passions
Rob Turner (R-District 1): As a commissioner, there are a lot of areas that you’ll have to deal with, like finance, human services and public safety. What areas are you passionate about? Also, are you interested in running for public office beyond the county board, such as the state legislature?
Brabec: Given her background, she has a natural inclination toward human services, Brabec said. She’s also interested in the criminal justice system. She had originally considered pursuing a joint degree in social work and law. She did an internship with a juvenile court system and loved working with kids and their families outside of court. She’s passionate about working with kids and families, and that’s what she does in her private practice. Regarding Turner’s second question, until a few weeks ago she hadn’t planned to seek this office, she noted, so she has no notion of doing anything beyond that at this point.
Nielsen: Noting that the county had more than 40 committees and commissions, Nielsen said he wanted to study those more to know what they covered. His own interests are diverse – he enjoys finance and economic development, parks and recreation, and public safety. He’s willing to consider anything. When Turner again asked what his passion is, Nielsen said he has a passion for art – does the county have an art committee? he quipped. With his legal background, he’d probably be more interested in public safety, Nielsen said. As for other public office, Nielsen said he has no interest in running for state office. When pressed by Turner, he said he wasn’t interested in judgeships or Congress, either. “This is a good starting place,” he said.
Candidate Interviews: Expertise
Barbara Bergman (D-District 8): I’m a social worker and have expertise in issues like mental health and substance abuse. There’ve been some major transitions at the county in these areas, and in some cases I’ve asked commissioners to trust me about the direction that’s being taken. Other commissioners have different areas of expertise. How would you respond to that?
Nielsen: When Nielsen asked for clarification, Conan Smith replied that on large boards, there’s often a division of labor – some people develop expertise, and ask others to trust them and follow their lead on certain issues. You can’t know everything, Smith said, yet you have the responsibility to your constituents. How do you balance that? Nielsen said that even if someone was an expert, he’d need at least a good explanation of the issue. Is it reasonable enough for him to understand, with the information that’s available? It’s difficult to say whether he would just take something at face value – it depends on the issue. If it involved finances or a significant policy decision, then there’d need to be more discussion, he said.
Brabec: It’s the same approach that she’d take in establishing trust with department heads, Brabec said – she’d spent time with each commissioner to get to know them, and to establish trust. At the same time, she’d read as much as she could, to learn as much as she could. So it would be a hybrid approach, she said. On some things, she’d want to ask questions. But commissioners have to deal with such a broad range of issues that it’s impossible for everyone to be an expert, she said.
Candidate Interviews: District Territory
Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5): Starting with the next term, the board will decrease from 11 districts to 9 districts. How do you think that will affect the county? Also, each district is unique. I don’t like it when other commissioners come into my district unless I know they’re there. How do you think you’ll get along with that?
Brabec: She said she hadn’t really followed the reasoning behind the change in district size, but noted that it will certainly be different. In terms of working with Sizemore, Brabec said she’d hope to build a working relationship with him, and learn about his district. To her, that’s where it starts.
Nielsen: Like Brabec, Nielsen said he’s not really sure how decreasing the number of commissioners will impact residents. It depends on whether the changes will impact customer service, and they won’t know that until it happens, he said. After clarifying what Sizemore meant by the second part of his question, Nielsen said he’d learn about Sizemore’s district by talking to Sizemore. “Good answer,” Sizemore said.
For background on the county redistricting, see Chronicle coverage: “County Board Loses Two Seats in Redistricting.”
Candidate Interviews: Top Priority
Dan Smith (R-District 2): What do you think is the No. 1 job of a county commissioner?
Nielsen: Representing your district is the No. 1 job – you’re providing customer service, in a sense, he said. That perspective is reflected in the policy and budget decisions you make, regarding services to residents. Nielsen said he’d also serve as a representative and advocate for different organizations and interests.
Brabec: A commissioner’s No. 1 job is to balance the county’s budget, she said, and to take into account all the things that are necessary to create a balanced budget.
Candidate Interviews: Responding to Advocates
Rob Turner (R-District 1): As we make budget decisions, we receive emails and calls from people who are advocating for their organization, such as the humane society or human services agencies. They don’t want the county to cut funding for their groups. How would you respond to these constituents?
Brabec: She’d first want to listen to what the constituent was saying, and she’d be open to understanding the organization’s impact. She said she’d temper that view with the knowledge that a lot has to be done with less. She’d let the person know that she understands the cuts affect real people or animals, but at the same time, she’d make clear that the board must make tough decisions, and budget cuts have to come from somewhere.
Nielsen: Responding to a community advocate would involve listening, Nielsen said, but he’s also want to do research on what the organization brings to the county. The board has a document outlining its strategic priorities and budget principles, he noted – that’s a guide. He’d work with the organization to see if it fit into the county’s strategic framework. If it did, and if there’s a persuasive argument to be made that its services have a measurable impact, then it’s worth reconsidering. Maybe some funding should be returned to the organization. Of course, he said, that would then require another difficult decision – if you give more money to one organization, you have to cut elsewhere. There’s a limited amount of public dollars. But he’d be willing to reconsider allocations, if a case can be made for it.
Candidate Interviews: Long-Term Involvement
Yousef Rabhi (D-District 11): Beyond this appointment, what’s your long-term plan for being involved with the county?
Nielsen: If he isn’t appointed, Nielsen said he might apply for a volunteer position on one of the county’s advisory committees or commissions, to try to get a better understanding of how the county operates. He hopes he can use his background and interests to benefit the county.
Brabec: The previous evening, Brabec said, she’d been reflecting on the presentation that Mary Jo Callan had made at the Oct. 13 board working session, which Brabec attended. [Callan gave an update on basic needs for low-income county residents – including the increased need for housing and food assistance.] Hearing the numbers really stuck with her, Brabec said, so she emailed Callan and asked how she could help. She’d like to help either way – if she’s appointed, or just as a resident. That’s how she’d start getting involved.
Candidate Interviews: Conflict of Interest
Barbara Bergman (D-District 8): I won’t sit on any board that might come to the county asking for money. What’s your position on that?
Brabec: People in her profession deal with ethical conflicts of interest, Brabec said. She would try to minimize those as a commissioner.
Nielsen: He said he wouldn’t choose to create a situation that would cause a conflict of interest. He wouldn’t take a position on the board of any organization that would have a direct conflict with the county.
Candidate Interviews: Public Commentary
Two people spoke during public commentary.
At the start of the meeting, Steven Stone introduced himself as a neighbor of Felicia Brabec, saying he was a good friend of her and her husband. He was there to give her moral support and to urge commissioners to consider her for the job. He’s known the family for six years, and they’ve been active in the community. He’s watched their family grow – they now have two young children – and she’s the type of person you’d want on the board, Stone said. She’s very humble, he said, adding that it was years before he learned that she held a doctorate degree. He concluded by noting that he didn’t know all of the factors that the board was considering, but “as a person, you can’t do better” than Brabec.
Later in the meeting, Christina Lirones asked a question of the candidates and the board. She said there’s a homogenous group now representing Pittsfield Township, and that former commissioner Kristin Judge had run on that same slate. They had replaced Lirones’ group in the township, she said – Lirones is a former township treasurer and clerk who lost her seat to the current elected officials. Judge had tried to recall her when she was still in office, Lirones noted.
Lirones is looking for representation on the county board by someone who isn’t lockstep with the current township leadership. She asked if either of the candidates had been selected or promoted by Judge, and if so, how had Judge solicited support for that candidate? Lirones said she was glad that both candidates are Democrats, but she was curious about their affiliations.
Candidate Interviews: Public Commentary – Candidate Response
Nielsen said he hadn’t received any direct support, but he’d received encouragement to apply. [He didn't specify who had provided that encouragement. In his application, he stated that he had worked in the 2010 campaign for Jeff Irwin, a Democrat and former county commissioner who was elected in November 2010 as state representative for District 53, representing Ann Arbor.]
Nielsen said it was his decision to apply because of his desire to provide public services. His role on the board might help bring to light some of the issues that Lirones mentioned, he said, so that they could be discussed. But it seemed that the issues were at the township level, he added, and he would be limited to his work at the county level.
Brabec said that Judge did ask her to consider serving. She talked it over with several people, including her husband, and decided that it was something she wanted to do. In the role of commissioner, it would be her job to listen to a variety of concerns or accomplishments, she said. She would take that very seriously. Brabec added that until Judge approached her about this opening, they had never really talked politics. They knew each other through their husbands, who work together, she said.
Candidate Interviews: Public Commentary – Commissioner Response
Editor’s note: Rob Turner and Rolland Sizemore Jr. had left the meeting before Lirones asked her question. Wes Prater didn’t respond to the question. Leah Gunn was absent.
Conan Smith said Judge had contacted him to tell him she planned to resign. That was all they initially talked about, he said – what it would mean to the board, and what a loss it would be. A couple of days later she called again and asked him if he would meet with her and Brabec. He agreed, and had lunch with them and some other commissioners. It was not a public meeting and at that time the board wasn’t yet accepting applications, he said. Judge had said she wasn’t pushing a particular candidate, but she wanted to make sure there wasn’t a gap in representation, Smith said. Judge hadn’t been forceful at all, he added, and she had handled the situation delicately.
Barbara Bergman also said Judge had called and asked Bergman to meet with her and Brabec. “I declined,” Bergman said, but later reached out to Brabec so that the two of them could meet without Judge. Bergman noted that she did not have a positive relationship with Judge, but Bergman had hoped Brabec might like her anyway. Bergman said she asked Brabec questions that convinced her that Brabec is “quite independent.” Bergman added, “I don’t think she is owned by anybody.” Bergman also had reached out to Nielsen, but they had not met face-to-face before that day’s interview.
Alicia Ping said she hadn’t received a call from anyone, and she was glad she hadn’t. This was the first time she’d met either candidate. Both candidates are extremely qualified and Pittsfield Township will be lucky to have either one, she said. She thanked them for coming, and noted that the job of county commissioner can often be thankless.
Saying that Lirones had asked a fair question, Ronnie Peterson said he’d had three phone conversations with Judge about Brabec. He’d been invited to a party but didn’t attend – he said he had viewed it more as a farewell party than an introduction for Brabec. He had met Brabec previously, but this was the first time he’d met Nielsen. [Brabec has attended several regular board meetings, and Nielsen attended a working session.]
Both of their qualifications are outstanding, Peterson said, and Pittsfield Township would benefit from either of them. He could tell that public opinion was as important to them as it is to him, and he hoped they’d remain independent if they became commissioners, and be non-biased advocates for residents of their district and the county. He said that he and Judge had gotten along extremely well – they didn’t always agree, but they had mutual respect.
Yousef Rabhi said Judge had reached out to him about Brabec, too. In his conversations with Brabec, he’d wanted to ensure that she was independent-minded and that she wasn’t Judge’s candidate. He said he’s confident that she’s independent and would follow her heart. Rabhi said he’s talked with Nielsen by phone and that Nielsen seems like a fine person too. Judge hadn’t contacted Rabhi about Nielsen nor asked him to support Nielsen.
Dan Smith said he didn’t really know either candidate. He’d met Nielsen at the board’s Oct. 13 working session, and had met Brabec at a party a couple of weeks ago that Judge had arranged. A couple of other commissioners were there too, along with county staff, he said.
Conan Smith noted that being a county commissioner is a complex job, though it might not seem to be. Having someone who’s done the job who can vouch for the candidates is important, he said. In both candidates’ cases, a former commissioner had done that, he said. Smith said he could tell that neither of them would take the job lightly, and that they both seemed to have a high enough tolerance to hang out with the commissioners.
Conan Smith said the item to appoint a District 7 commissioner would be at the top of the board’s agenda for their Oct. 19 meeting. After the vote, the candidate who’s selected will join the other commissioners at the board table, so Smith suggested that the candidates get up to speed by reading the agenda materials, which are available to the public on the county’s website.
The appointee will serve in that seat until special elections are held next year. A primary on Feb. 28 will be followed by a special general election in May – the board will officially set the dates for those elections at their Oct. 19 meeting.
The winner of the May special election would serve a truncated term for the current District 7, through 2012. Redistricting of the county board, which takes effect in 2013, will reduce the number of districts in the county from 11 to 9. Candidates for the new districts will compete in an Aug. 7 primary and November general election.
The Chronicle could not survive without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of public bodies like the Washtenaw County board of commissioners. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!