On July 14, 2012, Ward 2 candidates in the city council Democratic primary – Sally Petersen and incumbent Tony Derezinski – participated in a forum with six other candidates in a total of four city council Democratic primary races. The event was hosted by the Ann Arbor Democratic Party. This article summarizes the responses from Ward 2 candidates. Other races are covered in separate Chronicle articles.
Derezinski has served on the council since winning election in 2008 and is seeking 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 2 will likely not face an on-the-ballot opponent in November, because no Republican has filed and the deadline for independent candidates to file is July 19.
Contested Ward 2 Democratic primaries are somewhat of a rarity in Ann Arbor. When Derezinski won the primary against Stew Nelson in 2008 with 60% of the vote, the seat was coming open – because Ward 2 incumbent Democrat Joan Lowenstein opted to run for judge of the 15th District Court (a race won by Chris Easthope, a former city councilmember). Derezinski was not challenged in the 2010 Democratic primary, but faced Libertarian Emily Salvette in the November general election that year, winning with 79% of the vote.
In her remarks about herself, Petersen stressed her significant business experience, and mentioned her MBA degree. Locally, she’s worked in senior marketing positions in the private sector for companies like CFI Group and ABN AMRO Mortgage Group. That experience led her to take customer-satisfaction as a principle that could be applied to local government – but she assured attendees at the forum that she did not want to try to run government like a business.
Petersen described her family upbringing as civic-minded, and cited her volunteer experience in Ann Arbor – as board member at the Neutral Zone, president of the Tappan Middle School PTSO, and secretary of the Huron High School Athletic Booster Club. She said she would bring a fresh voice and a fresh agenda to the council.
Derezinski appeared to chafe at Petersen’s description of herself as a fresh voice – raising the possibility that she’s alluding to his age. He ventured that the contrast he offered to a fresh voice was one of “seasoning.” He cited 40 years of experience in municipal law, an area he feels is relevant to city council service. He pointed to his service on the city council as the council’s representative to the city planning commission. He also serves on the public art commission. When he first ran for office, his slogan was: “Let’s make our great community even better,” and he said he wanted to continue his service, to make the community even better.
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 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.
For Petersen and Derezinski, the evolution of candidate remarks moderated by Henry revealed a difference of opinion between the two about inclusiveness and the adequacy of outward- and inward-bound communication. Derezinski was keen to stress the importance of being active in the local Democratic Party (to contrast himself with Petersen who has not been active in the local party) and the importance of electing Democratic candidates to the city council. That view appeared inconsistent with the one Derezinski had expressed at a local League of Women Voters forum held earlier in the week. At the LWV forum, he’d said that he’d be in favor of getting rid of the partisan aspect of Ann Arbor city elections – and conduct local elections in a non-partisan way like the vast majority of other Michigan cities do.
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.
Derezinski: He pointed attendees to the campaign literature table at the back of the room where his pamphlet was available. What he is stressing in his campaign, he said, is his experience. What is the experience that is relevant to serving on the city council? Frankly, he said from his point of view, he practiced law for 40 years and his specialty was municipal law. He completed courses in municipal law at the University of Michigan law school, and then when he returned from service in Vietnam, he went back to school and got a master of laws degree in municipal government.
After that Derezinski practiced law in Muskegon and Grand Rapids, and then in Ann Arbor. He represented local municipalities in his practice, he said. When he first ran for office, his slogan was: “Let’s make our great community even better.” The last four years he has served on the city planning commission and the public art commission. He’s been very active in trying to plan for the future. He feels the city is at a “threshold point,” and said he would like to continue his service to make our great community even better.
Petersen: She offered her thanks to the Democratic Party for hosting the event and to her supporters in the audience. She thinks it’s time for a fresh voice in a fresh agenda that resonates with Ward 2 residents. She said she’s a lifelong Democrat, with significant business experience and an MBA. She has skills that are not currently represented on the city council, she said.
She comes from a very civic-minded family, she said, growing up in Massachusetts – so she’s a “Massachusetts Democrat.” Her father was an Episcopal priest and a civil rights activist, and he demonstrated the value of living a life dedicated to community service. She’s carried on that commitment throughout her life, she said, including the last 16 years she’s been in Ann Arbor. During that time she spent about eight years in the private sector working in senior marketing positions for companies like CFI Group and ABN AMRO Mortgage Group. She also has volunteered significantly in the community throughout her time in Ann Arbor, Petersen said. She is currently a board member at the Neutral Zone, president of the Tappan Middle School PTSO, and secretary of the Huron High School Athletic Booster Club.
A major focus of her career has been customer satisfaction, and that translates to her desire to be a great representative and responsive voice for Ward 2 residents, Petersen said. The more satisfied our residents are, the more likely they are to invest their time and resources in our city. She wants to bring her community experience to the city council table.
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 2011, 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.”
Derezinski: He noted that he’d recently discussed with Mike Anglin – a Ward 5 councilmember who was also in attendance at the forum – the idea of bringing civility to the council. Civility is what makes the council function, he said – respecting each other and never taking away someone’s dignity. Every point of view has to be considered, he said. He believes in compromise, because too often things become competitive. Too often it is “I win and you lose.” We have to get away from that in politics and get back to the idea of working together, he said.
When he served in the state legislature, Derezinski recalled, both houses were controlled by the Democrats, but the governor was Republican William Milliken. Still, they had done a lot of good work at that time, he said, passing the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act. They had also passed a consumer protection act. They had done that through compromise, he said, and it had worked.
As a local example, Derezinski gave the example of Argo Cascades, which he characterized as a great success. Do you keep the river open, or do you close it and use it for recreation? The compromise was that the city found a way to do both. Other examples he gave of local collaboration included the cooperation among four communities along Washtenaw Avenue for the Reimagining Washtenaw Project. He reiterated that what he brings is collaboration – to make our great community even better.
Petersen: She wanted to expand on the theme of collaboration, having listened to the remarks from the other seven candidates. She cautioned that there are risks to collaboration – and one of those risks is communication that is not transparent. The other risk to successful collaboration is a lack of trust.
Petersen then introduced the idea of an ethics policy. She had been asked recently whether she thought the city needed an ethics policy. At first, she wondered why we would need a policy on the local level. If you simply know who has high standards for personal conduct, you elect them to office, she ventured. You shouldn’t have to worry about ethics at the local level, she said. However, good people who are elected to office have to deal with complex issues, she noted. Sometimes, conflicts of interests come up requiring recusal and disclosure, and that’s the reality of the city council.
Having an ethics policy would give clarity and guidance about how to make those tough decisions – and those tough decisions will need to be made, she said. It’s easy to say that we will all just collaborate and get along together. But the reality is a lot more difficult than that. Having guidelines, she felt, would instill trust in government among all stakeholders.
Moderator Mike Henry then picked up on the mention of transparency by Petersen and Ward 1 candidate Sumi Kailasapathy. Henry asked those who are currently on the city council – Derezinski and Margie Teall (Ward 4) – how they felt about the current level of transparency. Eric Sturgis, a Ward 1 candidate, made clear that he and perhaps Vivienne Armentrout, a candidate for Ward 5, also wanted to respond to that question. Several of the candidates had a go at the question.
Derezinski: Transparency is important, he said. He noted that he was involved with the passing of the state’s Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act back in the 1970s. Beyond those legal requirements, he said, there is an additional good-faith requirement to the community. He described the city’s website as tremendous. He noted that it is possible to track every project that comes before the city planning commission. Using websites is the new way to get information, he said.
In addition to that, he said, just about every councilmember has a website that tries to convey information. [Elected in 2008, Derezinski's website was launched just this year, on Feb. 19, 2012. Petersen had taken out nominating petitions on Feb. 2. When asked by The Chronicle in a telephone interview, Petersen recalled that she had discussed her intention to seek a seat on the council with Ward 3 councilmember Christopher Taylor in late December or January. Derezinski's inaugural post reads in part: "Look for lots of new content in the coming weeks! ... The City Council section will include matters that are being discussed and decided in the various Commissions and Committees and other entities I serve on ..." As of July 18, that section as well as a section on Ward 2 includes only placeholders: "More information coming soon."]
Derezinski also said councilmembers need to have ward meetings. He said he’d had four or five of these meetings already – one at Paesano’s restaurant and one at his house. When there are issues coming up, it’s very important to go out into the neighborhoods and to talk to people about those issues, he said. It’s also important to work with the neighborhood associations, he said. That’s important for government, and that’s what gives you faith in government.
Petersen: She asked moderator Mike Henry for an opportunity to address the issue of transparency as well: “With all due respect, Tony … I’ve never been invited to a ward event …” The message is not getting out, she said. Transparency really is a two-way street, she cautioned. We need to think about how information gets from constituents back to the city, not just from the city out to residents. She wants to make sure that the city council is cognizant of being good representatives of the voices of the people they are representing.
Derezinski: Invited to respond to Petersen by moderator Mike Henry, Derezinski seemed irritated. He contended that “My ward meetings are advertised, including on Democratic Party things – so if you’ve been an active Democrat, you would know about it.” [Anne Bannister, co-chair of the Ann Arbor Democratic Party, indicated to The Chronicle in a telephone interview that she had included notices of some of Derezinski's meetings in an email blast that she sends out.]
In addition, Derezinski continued, he saw some people in the audience who have been to his home more than once, giving Harvey and Nancy Kaplan as examples. Transparency is incredibly important, he said. He’d had a lot of meetings with groups, he said – at Thurston Elementary school for example. Besides him, who’d been there? he asked rhetorically. “A lot of Democrats” was his answer. If someone went to those meetings, he said, they would have seen him there talking about issues.
When the non-motorized path was put in alongside Washtenaw Avenue, he said, he held a meeting at someone’s home, because that was a controversial issue. You have to be available and work on those issues, he said, and he loves doing that. They had a lot of meetings for the Re-Imagining Washtenaw Avenue project, and those are all noticed to the public. If you’re watching public issues and if you’re really attuned to what’s going on in Ann Arbor, you would have known about his meetings, he concluded.
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.
Derezinski: The main issue, he contended, is how to manage change. Change is inevitable. We are at a real threshold in Ann Arbor right now, he said, about what kind of community we want to be. What is the shared vision of the community? We’re making decisions right now that will affect us for generations to come – and our children are going to benefit, as will our grandchildren. That’s a tough thing that the city council faces, he said. There are differences of opinion on where we are going, but you can’t deny the forces of change. The community’s demographics are changing, he said. By the year 2014, one third of residents will be over 65 years old, he noted. At the same time, we are trying to attract young people to keep the downtown vibrant. The question is how we do that in a reasonable way.
As far as the rail station, he agreed with Margie Teall, the Ward 4 incumbent who had suggested locating it near the University of Michigan hospital, which is a major employer for the city of Ann Arbor. It makes sense to have a train station near there, he said, so that people can walk from the station right across a pedestrian bridge to work. He had asked the mayor of Dearborn, when he attended a groundbreaking ceremony for that city’s new train station, how long it took to get to that point. And the mayor had told him: 12 years. Those are the kinds of decisions that Ann Arbor needs to start making now, Derezinski concluded.
Petersen: Her top issue, she said, is going to be defined by the residents of Ward 2. As she has been knocking on doors, she’s been asking everyone what their top three issues are. The top issue – though it changes on a day-to-day basis – has been fiscal sustainability. That means looking at the budget, she said, and really trying to make sure that it is rigorous and that it serves us well in the short term and the long term.
The second thing is schools – improving collaboration with the University Michigan and the Ann Arbor public schools. Ward 2 has a lot of families with young children, mostly in middle school and high school, she explained. Third is improving the delivery of constituent services – roads and all the other things that she and other candidates have been talking about. So, as far as her top issue is concerned, her goal is to be the voice of her constituents. One brief example of an idea she gave was to look at city of Ann Arbor parks and recreation and the public school system’s Rec & Ed. She felt that the recreation portion of those programs could be combined, and economies of scale could be found.
[Petersen did not address the issue of a rail station at Fuller Road within the time limit allotted. However, at the League of Women Voters forum earlier in the week, she'd indicated that if federal money were to become available, she felt that an expansion of the existing station at its current location would be preferable.]
Petersen: A key component of her campaign, she said, is to differentiate herself based on her business expertise. But she wanted to be clear that it’s not her intention to try to run the city government like you run a business. If you disconnect constituents from the government, they would be disenfranchised, she cautioned.
Instead, Petersen said she would use her business skills to ensure that our local government delivers services equitably and fairly – in two ways. The first way is with respect to budgets. She has served on several boards and committees, she said. She has had responsibility for building budgets and she feels very comfortable in dealing with budgets. She’s currently serving on the Neutral Zone’s board, she said. And she’d identified an accounting irregularity – “board giving” had been double-counted. So the Neutral Zone had to restate its financial statements for the prior year, and they’d reshaped how they report that in the future. With the Tappan PTSO, she had freed up about $20,000 in unallocated capital reserves, she said.
Besides her business experience, the other common thread, Petersen said, is customer service. She wants to be the voice of constituents. What people could expect from her, if elected, is that she would be a trustworthy and responsible steward of tax dollars. She’d bring a strong work ethic, and she’d be someone who would respond to their phone calls and e-mails. She would be a positive and energetic collaborator.
Derezinski: He noted that Petersen had emphasized that she is a “fresh voice.” What does the word “fresh” connote on the other side? he asked. It could be age, he ventured, but it could also be “seasoning.” Or it could be “experience.” That’s what he thinks he is bringing to the table. He is seasoned and he has a lot of experience in government, he said – both at the state and the local levels. Some of the legislation he helped pass as a state legislator is very relevant to the work of a local government.
He said he has represented a number of municipal governments across the state. That’s what he brings to the table – a specific education in municipal government in 40 years of experience practicing in that area of law. In addition, he said he comes to voters as a Democrat – and “Democrats are family.” He was one of eight children, he said, and at the age of seven he became the man of the family when his father died. They were a family that had “joyful fights,” he said, just like the Democrats do. They disagree with each other, but they never lose that abiding faith with each other.
There’s a need to see dignity in everyone, and that’s why he’s been a Democrat all his life, he said. When he arrived in Ann Arbor he got involved in the party right away. He said he’s gone door-to-door with people on campaigns, and he needs people’s help now. He’d like to run as a Democrat, to keep the Democratic Party in office, he said.
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!