The Ann Arbor Democratic Party hosted a forum on July 14, 2012 for candidates in four city council Democratic primary races. This article summarizes the responses from Ward 1 candidates Sumi Kailasapathy and Eric Sturgis. [For additional, previous coverage of the Ward 1 race, see "Ward 1 City Council Race: Filling Sandi's Seat"] Other races are covered in separate Chronicle articles.
This is the second time that Kailasapathy has run for city council. In 2010 she challenged incumbent Sandi Smith, and received 45% of the vote – the best showing of any challenger to an incumbent that year. This year, Smith chose not to seek a third two-year term on the 11-member council – which includes the mayor and two representatives from each of the city’s five wards. Democratic primaries are contested this year in just four of the five wards, as Christopher Taylor is unchallenged in Ward 3.
The winner of the Democratic primary in Ward 1 will likely not face an on-the-ballot opponent in November. No Republican is running, and the deadline for independent candidates to file is July 19.
In remarks about himself, Sturgis stressed his continued connection to the Ann Arbor public school system, having grown up in Ann Arbor attending public schools. He emphasized that he has a positive attitude about Ann Arbor, which is appropriate, he says, because Ann Arbor has been rated as one of the best places to live in the country. He stressed the importance of having a positive vision.
Sturgis also highlighted his endorsements, which include three former Ward 1 councilmembers, as well as outgoing Ward 1 councilmember Sandi Smith. But he highlighted the fact that mayor John Hieftje has not endorsed him, analyzing that as a positive – because that means he wouldn’t be indebted to Hieftje. Sturgis is relatively sanguine about the condition of the city’s budget – to the point that he dismissed Kailasapathy’s concerns about debt and unfunded liabilities by pointing to the slight surplus the city enjoyed in the most recent fiscal year.
Kailasapathy took Sturgis’ remark on debt as an opportunity to draw on her professional experience – as a college educator – to give a short lesson on the difference between income/revenue statements (which Sturgis was talking about) and balance sheets (which show the city’s debt). In her opening remarks, she also stressed her education and her professional training as a certified public account.
Kailasapathy told the audience that she wants to focus on core services and the preservation of neighborhoods and parks. She allowed that she brings a skepticism to government and she would be asking lots of questions.
Candidates were asked to comment on one main policy issue – the idea of a new rail station possibly to be constructed at a site on Fuller Road. Sturgis held in abeyance his view about the proper location of a new rail station, pending the outcome of a site alternatives analysis that is currently being conducted. Kailasapathy’s view, expressed at an earlier forum, is that a voter referendum should be held if the Fuller Road site is used for a train station – because the site is designated as city parkland.
Aside from opening and closing statements, not a lot of specific local policy ground was covered by questions put to the candidates – due in part to a time constraint of about an hour for all eight candidates. But the candidates did talk a great deal about issues of transparency and group dynamics on the city council, in response to the leadoff question from forum moderator Mike Henry, co-chair (with Anne Bannister) of the Ann Arbor Democratic Party.
Broadcast live earlier in the week on the Community Television Network was a local League of Women Voters candidate forum that included Kailasapathy and Sturgis, which is available online.
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 some candidates, stances on issues, and a “build my ballot” feature.
Kailasapathy: She introduced herself as a CPA who works downtown. She taught at Eastern Michigan University before embarking on her current career, she said. Her main priority is to focus on core services – to ensure that they are funded. She also stressed the preservation of neighborhoods and parks. That is a recurrent theme that she hears as she goes door-to-door, she reported – that people keep saying Ann Arbor’s quality of life is not measured just by how high we can build, but also by how well our parks and neighborhoods are preserved.
Another issue she’s focusing on – as a CPA, and as an economist – is the ballooning unfunded liability of retirement benefits and the city’s debt. Debt service has increased about 50% in the last five years, she said. She said she wanted to respond to the idea that she would be asking questions as a councilmember. Yes, she said, she would be asking questions. That is her professional and academic training. She brings a healthy sense of skepticism to government, she said. And that is the reason we have three branches of government, she said. If we don’t want to ask questions, we can just have the city administration as our government.
Sturgis: He offered his thanks to the organizers and to everyone for coming out. He told attendees that he attended Northside Elementary School, Clague Middle School, and Ann Arbor Huron High School, concluding with “Go Rats!” [Huron High athletic teams are known as the River Rats.] He noted that he continues to be active in the school system and gives money to Huron High school athletics to help kids who cannot afford the pay-to-play fees or the equipment – that’s something that’s near and dear to his heart.
Sturgis grew up with a single mother with his grandparents in the house that his grandfather built. That’s where he is living now, he said. He wants to bring a positive vision to the city. Something he recently read is that Ann Arbor is rated one of the best places to retire in the nation and one of the best places to live in the nation. To him, he said, Ann Arbor is doing something right, if it is receiving all of these accolades. So the city needs a positive vision. We need to support maintenance of our parks, our neighborhoods and we also need to support our police and fire departments.
What is important in the Ward 1 race, Sturgis said, is that he’s the only candidate who has the endorsement of three former Ward 1 city councilmembers and the current city councilmember representing Ward 1 [Sandi Smith]. He said he has also been endorsed by the Washtenaw County Building Trades Labor Organization. His roots are here in Ann Arbor, he said, and he wants to bring a positive vision to the city and to Ward 1.
Working as a Group
Question: As a member of a legislative body, one of the things you’ll be judged by is what you can accomplish as a group. There’ll be group dynamics and differences of opinion. Mike Henry’s question invited candidates to talk about how they would approach finding solutions amid that difference of opinion.
Background: Henry’s question implicitly recalled the sentiments of Democratic county clerk Larry Kestenbaum, who wrote as a citizen to the entire city council in the fall of last year, roundly castigating councilmembers for decisions that resulted in the demolition of seven houses on South Fifth Avenue, to be replaced by two large apartment buildings (City Place). Kestenbaum had stressed the importance of working as a group: “A city council is not judged by the good intentions of its members. It is judged by what it accomplishes, or fails to accomplish, as a body.”
Sturgis: He feels that listening is very important. It’s also important to be open-minded and not have your mind made up or to be “indebted to people” for their views. If you come into a decision indebted to people or with your mind made up, then you’re not going to listen to what others say, he explained. He said he is open-minded and does not have his mind made up. He wants to listen to what people say on every issue. He said he would hold community meetings once a month. He would reach out and bring in those people who are involved.
He’s done a lot of work in adversarial contexts, Sturgis said. When he was at Oakland University, he worked on the Rochester Historical Commission – six Republicans and himself, the one lone Democrat. He was elected treasurer of the commission over a Republican, and on that commission he brought two sides together, he said. When he coached high school tennis and had to cut kids from the team, he tried to work with parents on those issues.
He characterized himself as independent-minded and open-minded, as someone who will listen to people. He would not come in with an attitude of “This is what has to be done.” He’s not indebted to anybody, he said, noting that mayor John Hieftje has not endorsed him. It’s important to have somebody who is open-minded and willing to listen to the people, he said.
Kailasapathy: She indicated agreement with the response from Sally Petersen, a Ward 2 candidate, which included support for an ethics policy. Democracy is not about men and women, Kailasapathy said, but rather about rules and regulations. The more we have rules and regulations to guide us, the less chance there is to make mistakes or take the wrong turn, she said.
Transparency is a big issue for her, too, she said. How much information are we willing to put out before a decision is made? She really felt that a couple of years ago, decisions were made behind the scenes about whether there was going to be a conference center on top of the South Fifth Avenue underground parking garage. And then a proposal for a conference center was brought forward, and people were asked: Would you like a conference center there? That’s not transparency, she contended.
People should not be given choices, she said, but rather the choices themselves should be generated by the public. It’s important to listen carefully and not make a mockery out of public debate, she said: Public debate should be public. From her professional background, she said, she brings a concept of “drilling down.” If you don’t have enough information and it doesn’t make any sense, then drill down. That itself will bring people together, she said.
[By way of brief background on the conference center to which Kailasapathy alluded, the council had voted on April 4, 2011 to end the RFP (request for proposals) review process for the top of the new underground parking garage. That decision came after a committee had selected a proposal for a hotel/conference center by Valiant Partners as the preferred proposal among six that had been submitted to the city.]
Moderator Mike Henry then picked up on the mention of transparency by Kailasapathy and Ward 2 candidate Sally Petersen. Henry asked those who are currently on the city council – Margie Teall (Ward 4) and Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) – how they felt about the current level of transparency. Sturgis made clear that he, and perhaps Ward 5 candidate Vivienne Armentrout, also wanted to respond to that question. Several of the candidates had a go at the question.
Sturgis: He gave the example of the 618 S. Main project, which he described as including a total of eight public and community meetings. There were many opportunities for the public to give their opinion, and to meet councilmembers. And there was overwhelming support for the project, he said. He also noted that every council meeting is televised and replayed. There’s easy access to the city budget, he said – electronically and in physical form. It is also important to have ward meetings.
But when you’re financially supported by people who try to “pay the city off” to just have a park on the Library Lot, that isn’t transparent, he contended. That stifles competition, he said.
[By way of background, one of the six proposals that came in response to the city's RFP for the top of the underground parking garage was from Dahlmann Apartments Ltd. for a project called Ann Arbor Town Square, which would have consisted of a park-like amenity. Part of the proposal was a $2.5 million payment to the city.]
Sturgis returned to the point that typically numerous meetings are held about projects and input is solicited from the public. He agreed with remarks from Chuck Warpehoski (a Ward 5 candidate) and Margie Teall (the incumbent Ward 4 candidate) when they said that a basic premise is that everybody here is doing this for the right reason. He feels that Ann Arbor’s city government is one of the most transparent governments in Michigan.
Top Issue (Fuller Road Station)
Question: Is there one overriding issue that you would like to work on? [Ward 5 candidate Vivienne Armentrout was the first respondent to the question, and she identified the proposed Fuller Road Station as one reason she'd been prompted to run for city council. So moderator Mike Henry asked the other candidates to try to share their thoughts on the Fuller Road station as well.]
Background: At its June 4, 2012 meeting, the city council accepted the award of a roughly $2.8 million federal grant to help fund a site-alternatives analysis for possible construction of a new train station. The Amtrak station is currently located on Depot Street, near the Broadway bridges. The site-alternatives analysis is meant to result in the confirmation of a locally-preferred alternative to be reviewed by the Federal Rail Administration. The preliminary locally-preferred alternative is a site on Fuller Road near the University of Michigan medical complex. That site preference is based on previous planning work, as well as work for which the city has already expended roughly $700,000 (which satisfies the 20% local match requirement of the FRA grant).
Previously, the University of Michigan and the city had a memorandum of understanding that would have led to the construction of a 1,000-space parking structure at the Fuller Road site, in conjunction with the train station. However, on Feb. 10, 2012, UM withdrew, for now, from a partnership on the project. The Fuller Road Station project has been controversial in part because the site is on land that’s part of the city’s Fuller Park. The area proposed for the train station has been a surface parking lot for many years.
Sturgis: He feels there are three kind of issues all kind of lumped together. He liked what Ward 5 candidate Chuck Warpehoski had said previously about the importance of customer service. He reported that he’d e-mailed Ward 1 councilmember Sabra Briere on different issues, and she had been very responsive about telling him who to talk to at the city. Having councilmembers who can do that is important, he said.
On the train station, Sturgis said he is not sold on the idea that the Fuller Road site is the best spot. He wants to hear what the Federal Rail Administration says. He wants to hear what the FRA’s recommendation is, because they are doing a comprehensive study, and they are using trained people with degrees, and they’ve done it on numerous occasions. He wants to hear why the FRA wants to put a station on Fuller Road or on the MichCon site. He would respect what the FRA said. He would also not be opposed to putting it on the ballot to talk about. But we should respect the people who work for the FRA, he said, because they have done this before, and they know what they’re doing.
Another issue he cited: Neighborhood concerns in the ward. For example, there are kids in the neighborhoods – kids who live at Arrowwood – who walk a mile to school in the dark without lights. It’s important to be able to work with the school board. Coming back to the rail station, he said we need to hold off on our opposition to the railway and hear what the FRA says.
Kailasapathy: She identified as a top issue the need to look at the issue of debt and the unfunded liability of retirement benefits. Being in a predominately Democratic city, we “kick the proverbial can down the road,” she said, and don’t want to address this issue. Most of those in attendance are for unions and are strongly committed to unions, she ventured. And she understands that we need to have a strong and vibrant middle class, which is what the unions had fought for and had given us. So what are we going to do with this issue of unfunded liabilities?
Pensions are about 88% funded, but retiree health benefits are only 33% funded, she stated. [For some background on recent changes in the way the city is allocating retiree health care costs to different units in the city, see Chronicle coverage: "Ann Arbor Budget Outlook Okay, CFO Cautious"] These are huge issues, she stressed, and local governments don’t have the fiscal tools of the federal government – that is, we cannot print money. So we need to negotiate with the unions and be honest with them, she said. One idea she floated is to increase the retirement age to 60. This is a Democratic issue, she said, because when these pension plans were set up decades ago, people’s life spans were much shorter – but people live longer now, she concluded.
[Kailasapathy did not address the Fuller Road Station question at the Ann Arbor Democratic Party forum. But at the League of Women Voters forum earlier in the week, she indicated that she felt a public referendum should be held on the question of building a train station on city parkland like the Fuller Road site.]
Sturgis: Going door-to-door, he hears a lot of different things, Sturgis reported. One of the underlying themes he hears is that people want someone who is positive and not opposing everything. People want to hear solutions – how are you going to help the transit? How are you going to better maintain our parks? What do you want to do on top of the Library Lot? They don’t want to hear that everything is wrong. They want to hear something positive.
Secondly, he said, there’s a notion that we are in debt, when he said in fact the city had enjoyed a surplus for its most recent year. Apparently attempting a sardonic quip, Sturgis said “usually” you’re not in debt if you have a surplus. The other thing is we can’t micromanage city staff, he said. We have to trust city staff, the people who have degrees, who’ve been hired to make those decisions. We need an open-minded, independent candidate who is not affiliated with any particular group, who’s going to vote based on the issues for the voters of Ward 1 and the residents of Ann Arbor. He concluded by ticking through a list of his endorsements.
Kailasapathy: She noted that she had been an active member of the Ann Arbor Democratic Party. She served as treasurer of that organization until the beginning of this year, when she stepped down from that post in order to run for city council. She told Mike Henry and the rest of the Ann Arbor city Democrats that they were doing a good job.
She then said she wanted to make a correction to a statement that Sturgis had just made in his closing statement. He had contended that the city did not have debt – because the city had just shown a surplus in it most recent year. That’s where having a CPA and a political economist on the city council is helpful, she said. There was a slight surplus in the general fund, she allowed. But he was wrong about the debt – because they were talking about two different things. He was talking about the financial statements for income and revenue.
But debt is about the balance sheet, she said. And on the balance sheet for fiscal year 2011, if you include the bonded debt, and the potential unfunded liability for the VEBA [the Voluntary Employees Beneficiary Association plan], it came to $457 million. For the next fiscal year, she expected it would be half a billion dollars. And that’s where it’s important to know the difference between income statements and balance sheets, she said. These are huge issues, she said, and we don’t want the city to tumble into debt, not knowing the difference between an income statement and a balance sheet. That ultimately determines how much money the city can borrow. She concluded by saying that she was happy to have the endorsement of the Sierra Club.
The Chronicle could not survive without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of public bodies like the Ann Arbor city council and other elections. 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!