Two Democrats – Andy LaBarre and Christina Montague – are running for a seat on the Washtenaw County board of commissioners to represent the new District 7, covering eastern Ann Arbor. They answered questions at a July 9 candidate forum, reflecting similar views on regional transportation, support for Detroit and the Detroit Institute of Arts, opposition to fracking, and concern for the county’s social safety net.
County commissioners are elected to two-year terms. District 7 will be one of nine districts as of 2013 – the first year for new districts formed during the 2011 redistricting process. Three of those districts – 7, 8 and 9 – cover Ann Arbor. [Currently there are 11 districts, including four representing Ann Arbor. (.jpg map of new county board districts)] The new District 7 includes an area that’s now represented by Democrat Barbara Bergman, who is not seeking re-election.
Montague is a former Washtenaw County commissioner, who was chair of the board for a portion of her 12-year tenure. She lost the seat when she was defeated by Bergman in a 2002 Democratic primary for a new district created after the previous redistricting process. Montague most recently ran against Bergman in the 2006 primary race that included Audrey Jackson, but was again defeated by Bergman.
LaBarre is vice president of government relations and administration at the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Regional Chamber of Commerce, a position he’s held since April 2011. Before that he served for six years on the staff of Congressman John Dingell.
The winner of the District 7 Democratic primary on Aug. 7 will face Republican David Parker in November. Parker is unopposed in the primary.
Moderated by the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area, the 30-minute July 9 candidate forum was held at the studios of Community Television Network, and is available online via CTN’s video-on-demand service. Candidates gave opening and closing statements, and answered seven questions. The format was not designed for interaction between candidates, but each candidate was given an optional one-minute rebuttal to use once during the forum.
The deadline to register to vote in the Aug. 7 primary has passed. Oct. 9 is the last day to register to vote for the Tuesday, Nov. 6 general election. Information on voter registration can be found on the Washtenaw County clerk’s elections division website. To see a sample ballot for your precinct, visit the Secretary of State’s website. The League of Women Voters also has an online voter information site – Vote411.org – which includes biographical information on candidates, stances on issues, and a “build my ballot” feature.
Each candidate was given one minute for an opening statement.
LaBarre: He described himself as an Ann Arbor native and product of the Ann Arbor school system, with a master’s degree from Eastern Michigan University. Professionally, he works as vice president for the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Regional Chamber of Commerce. Prior to that, he worked for six years with Congressman John Dingell, most recently as a district administrator in Dingell’s Michigan offices. LaBarre said he’s running because it’s important to do everything he can to protect human services, and to preserve and protect parkland and green spaces. He has a unique blend of experience and enthusiasm to bring to the county board, he said. He’d serve with accessibility, hard work, and a sense of knowledge and purpose.
Montague: She said she’s a forward-looking person with a wealth of experience. She previously served as chair of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, and said “you don’t get to be chair unless you can work on both sides of the table.” She said she was able to do that very effectively. It’s important to realize that the votes you make today on the county board have a strong impact on the future of the county, she said, so you have to be careful on how you vote.
Purpose and Qualifications
Why have you chosen to run for the county board of commissioners, and what makes you the better qualified candidate?
LaBarre: He said his master’s degree in public administration gives him the technical knowledge of processes that will happen at the county level. Six years working for Congressman John Dingell gave him a chance to learn both from Dingell and from people in the community, he said. It’s given him an opportunity to understand what goes on here, and how to make the most positive change he can. He cited his service of the Ann Arbor housing commission and the board of SOS Community Services. That’s given him a keen understanding of some of the issues that local nonprofits and governmental units face. And working at the chamber of commerce has given him a good understanding of the issues that businesses face. Finally, his service as a member of the 15th Congressional District Democratic Organization and Washtenaw County Democratic Party have given him a good political understanding, he said.
Montague: She began by saying she’s had a lot of different experiences. She has a master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan, and has been working in the Ann Arbor schools as a social worker all across the district. She said she knows what this community needs, and is familiar with the issues that are having a negative impact on the community. She cited her service on the Democratic National Committee, and said the DNC chose her to go to Taiwan to learn about relations between Taiwan and China. So, not only does she have local, state, national and international experience, she said, she also brings connections to this district. She’s been here for over 30 years and knows what things the people in this community feel are important.
To what extent does Ann Arbor participate in regional transportation, both within and beyond Washtenaw County? Is it currently successful – financially and environmentally? Do you favor expansion? Relative to transportation, how does the county relate to Ann Arbor and to the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority?
Background: The AATA has been working to develop a countywide transit system for about two years. In the most recent action related to that, at its July 11 meeting the Washtenaw County board of commissioners debated its role in the proposed authority and ultimately voted 7-4 to give initial approval to a four-party agreement and articles of incorporation. Those documents lay the foundation for what’s tentatively called the Washtenaw Ride Transportation Authority. The county board also set an Aug. 1 public hearing to gather feedback on the agreement. A final vote is expected to take place at that Aug. 1 meeting.
The other parties in the agreement are the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, which both would contribute existing millages to the new authority, and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, which is spearheading this effort and would shift its assets to the new entity. The governing bodies of those three parties have already approved the transit documents.
Montague: The transportation system that Ann Arbor developed in the 1970s includes a tax that voters authorized as part of the city charter, she said. It’s not a tax that comes up every year for approval, so it’s been very successful, she said. Now there are a lot of discussions going on about regional transit, between the county, the city and different townships, she said. It seems like they’re moving forward toward regional transportation. But some townships, she said – like Northfield Township and Ypsilanti Township – have some questions. County commissioners seem to be doing an admirable job of bringing up these concerns, she added, “and hopefully they’ll get them settled before they vote.”
LaBarre: Ann Arbor is a leader in terms of transit in Washtenaw County, he said, and it does an admirable job through the AATA in terms of providing service for the city and other municipalities that enter into cooperative service agreements with it. The challenge will be expansion, which he said he favors countywide. As we move into the 21st century, he said, we need more options for folks to get to work, to go about their lives. Young people want transit options as part of their lifestyle. Regionally, more needs to be done, he said. Carbon-dioxide emissions are a real challenge, and it’s not just an issue of reducing those emissions. It’s an issue of reducing them to the point where some of the damage done can be rolled back. As the countywide transit plan moves forward, LaBarre said he’ll be a strong advocate for it, going out and making the case to people about how it will benefit them. Ultimately, residents will vote on whether to fund it, “and we’ll go from there.”
No county is an island. Borders are open, but great disparities exist between Wayne and Washtenaw counties, and the cities of Ann Arbor and Detroit. What efforts at regionalism are being made on the county board? What can and should be done to support Detroit?
LaBarre: A somewhat topical issue has been Washtenaw County’s involvement with the “Big Four” up in Mackinac, he said. [The annual Mackinac Policy Conference, organized by the Detroit Regional Chamber, has traditionally included a session with leaders from Detroit, Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, but for the past two years has included Washtenaw County as well, represented by county board chair Conan Smith.] But more to the point, LaBarre said, the county needs to work on the Detroit Aerotropolis between Wayne and Washtenaw. We need to understand that the communities are connected by I-94, by rail, and by both counties having wonderful public institutions for education, he said. “We need to foster those connections,” he added, and make sure there’s always a back-and-forth between Washtenaw in the west and Wayne in the east – including people, ideas, concepts, and business. “Our success will be Wayne County’s success and vice versa,” he said. Also, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that even within Washtenaw County, there are great disparities between the city, the east side, and the rural west. “We have a lot of work to do.”
Montague: One thing she said she looks forward to is mass transit, which will move people more quickly and efficiently between Detroit, Lansing and Chicago. Also, sometimes jobs can’t be filled in Washtenaw County because there aren’t people available to fill them, she said. Helping people get back and forth between Detroit and Washtenaw County is a plus, she said. That will create a lot of different opportunities.
Social Safety Net
Many previous programs that provided a social safety net for the county have been taken on by nonprofits. Has there been any effort to coordinate this proliferation of programs to avoid waste, duplication or fraud? Can or should the county do this, or should another nonprofit take on that role?
Montague: The county has done a good job to make sure that the nonprofits are working together, serving collaboratively. She said she attended one of the county board meetings when there was the possibility that the county would cut funding for nonprofits. Everyone came together to help work on that, she said. There is some duplication of services, but in some areas there’s a really pressing need for human services. She cited infant mortality as an example – some areas locally have among the highest percentage of infant mortality in the state or nation, she said. “We’re better than that in Washtenaw County. We can save more babies’ lives.”
LaBarre: Several years ago, a collaborative was formed between United Way, the city of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, the Urban County, and the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, he said. The collaborative was intended to use specific commonly-accepted metrics and identify which nonprofits were doing the best job, which ones were suited to do specific jobs, and which ones would probably have to shift to something else. That’s a wise method, he said, and should be continued. There are a lot of really good nonprofits that do dynamite work because they specialize in one specific thing. So he thinks the county should work with those nonprofits. LaBarre said he wanted to echo what Montague had mentioned – there’s a safety net and structure to the county and society as a whole that’s been torn away in recent years. “It’s up to us to rebuild it, to protect it and to strengthen it, because if we don’t, we will all suffer.”
Fracking has come to Washtenaw County. What function should the county board serve to provide information, regulations, and protection for the current citizens and those living here in the future?
Background: Earlier this year the county board addressed the issue of fracking – a term used to describe the drilling technique of hydraulic fracturing, used to extract gas and oil. See Chronicle coverage: “County Board Tackles ‘Fracking’ Concerns.” A board working session in April 2012 focused on the topic, but the county does not have jurisdiction to regulate the practice.
LaBarre: The board should make this a huge issue in terms of public education. He said he opposes fracking. He doesn’t believe it’s safe or needed – in the 21st century, we shouldn’t pump crud through our earth and use the results of that process as a fuel. It’s incumbent on the county board to notify people about where fracking is happening, how it’s happening and who’s doing it. The market can put pressure on fracking not to exist, and to encourage companies that do fracking to mitigate or eliminate it. “I oppose fracking and I’ll do what I can to make sure that it does not continue here in Washtenaw County.” Fracking is a public safety hazard, he added, and it’s not a method that should be used. There’s a reason why we have renewable energies, he said, and we need to start using them.
Montague: There are too many unknowns, and Montague said she doesn’t see the benefit of fracking. It could result in polluting water, lakes, and farmland. She said she talked to some current county commissioners, who told her there’s a hold on fracking in Washtenaw County. She said she thinks that’s a good idea. We have to be vigilant, she added. Some communities, especially in northern Michigan, are totally polluted from fracking that occurred there. Fracking is legal, she noted, but it doesn’t have a lot of benefits.
Detroit Institute of Arts
As a county commissioner, would you introduce or support establishing an arts council, which could put a millage for the Detroit Institute of Arts on the ballot? Explain the value of art to county residents, and Washtenaw County’s relationship to the DIA.
Background: A 10-year 0.2-mill tax to support the Detroit-based DIA, a nonprofit organization, will be on the Aug. 7 ballot in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties. Washtenaw County is not involved in that effort. In Ann Arbor, a Percent for Art program sets aside 1% of all city government capital improvement projects to fund public art. The program is overseen by the Ann Arbor public art commission. Separately, the Ann Arbor-based Arts Alliance works to promote the arts community countywide.
Montague: The Detroit Institute of Arts is one of the gems of this state, she said, and many counties will have a millage on the ballot to support the DIA. She said she definitely would support such a millage. School children from all over this region and state benefit from a world-class art institution in Detroit, so you want to protect it for everyone to enjoy for years to come.
LaBarre: We’re all connected, he said, and he would support at least establishing a council to put forward a millage proposal. There are a few other pressing needs, he said, especially human service needs, that might need to be dealt with through a millage or some other measure. But art is one of those things that make our county and culture what it is, he said. It should be celebrated. He said his wife is a high school special education teacher. Her students benefit from art, he said – all children benefit. The more we can do to maximize their exposure to art, the better off we’ll all be. He said he’d be a strong supporter of the arts, but wants to make sure that human services are taken care of first.
What steps and methods are being undertaken by the county to respond to climate change – for example, in vehicles and buildings? Can more be done?
LaBarre: The county’s vehicles are more fuel efficient, he said, and their buildings are becoming more energy efficient. There’s a small measure of alternative energy being used to power county facilities. That needs to be maximized at every turn, he said. It’s not just an environmental issue, he said. It’s a cost savings issue. If the county can structurally put in place things that save $5,000 or $10,000 or $20,000 each year, it will save money over the long term. The county can use some of that savings to reinvest in new energy sources here in Washtenaw County, he said – like solar and wind energy, to the extent that it’s available. All of this needs to be maximized, “and we need to do it, frankly, yesterday.” There’s a lot of work to be done, and LaBarre said he’s love to put his shoulder to it and get to work.
Montague: The county has an environmental plan, Montague said, which includes things like fuel-efficient cars and keeping thermostats in buildings at a certain level. It benefits the county because these measures attract people to the area, she said. People like to know that there is an environmental focus in this county. It helps to attract environmentally sound businesses who have that as part of their agenda, she said. There isn’t an unending resource of fuels, electricity or water, she said, so the county needs to have a good plan and follow that plan, and make sure the community knows about the plan.
LaBarre (using his one-time, one-minute rebuttal): He agreed with Montague, but added that it’s easy to talk about these things in an air-conditioned room on an 80-degree day rather than a 95-degree day. Everyone needs to be more energy efficient and environmentally aware, he said, and that won’t be easy. As seen from the recent high temperatures and lack of rain, there are real costs and outcomes from climate change. So the earlier, the quicker and the harder we tackle this issue, he said, “the more pain we can save upfront.” It needs to happen from the perspective of the environment and cost-savings, he added, but also from a moral perspective regarding what kind of place we want to leave our kids.
Montague (using her one-time, one-minute rebuttal): She said she didn’t have a rebuttal, but she had something else to say. As she’s been traveling the district, there’s an area in the 48108 zip code that’s densely populated, with even more new development proposed. On these recent hot days, people were telling her that they didn’t have power. There was a beautiful baseball diamond nearby, a beautiful park – but no swimming pool. It’s in a lower- and moderate-income area, she said. They don’t have a lot of resources. Montague said she’d partner with the city to see what could be done for this area, which she said is at risk when temperatures are high.
[Following the forum, Montague clarified for The Chronicle that she was talking about the area near Platt and Ellsworth, on Ann Arbor's southeast side. The Summit Townhomes project has been proposed for that area, on 2.95-acre site at 2081 E. Ellsworth Road, east of Stone School Road, that's currently located in Pittsfield Township and might be annexed into the city. At a June 19, 2012 Ann Arbor planning commission meeting, several residents spoke against the project, citing the same concerns that Montague raised.]
Each candidate had two minutes for a closing statement.
Montague: She said she was grateful for the opportunity to let voters meet the candidates up close. She’s a forward-looking person, making decisions that impact people today but that are smart and will also be good for the future. She wants to use her experience as a community person, someone who’s been working here for years and who cares. She wants to do a good job and represent the people that sometimes don’t have a voice at the table, who sometimes get left behind. There are a lot of good things in District 7, she concluded, but there are also some very high needs.
LaBarre: He also thanked the league as well as Montague “and every candidate who’s willing to put themselves out there and run for office.” It’s healthy for democracy, he said. He’s excited about the chance to possibly serve the constituents of District 7. He said he’s willing and able to work hard. Folks need a commissioner who is responsive and accessible, who’s willing to work behind the scenes and out of the spotlight, doing the hard and necessary work to ensure that residents are well-served. He said he’s had this experience. If you talk to people in this community who know him, he said they’ll tell you that above all, he’s a hard worker, who sticks to his word and does what he says. He looks forward to the end of the campaign and possibly the chance to bring his hard work to the people of District 7.
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