All eight candidates in four city council Democratic primary races participated in a forum hosted on July 14 by the Ann Arbor Democratic Party. This article summarizes the responses from Ward 4 candidates – incumbent Margie Teall and challenger Jack Eaton. Other races are covered in separate Chronicle articles.
This year’s Ward 4 race reprises the 2010 contest that Teall won over Eaton with 69% of the vote. Teall has served on the council since 2002 and is seeking her sixth 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 Ward 4 Democratic primary 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.
In his remarks on local policy issues, Eaton stressed what he called sensible spending priorities – support for fire and police protection. He framed his thoughts on local issues by pointedly listing out those things he supports, not things he opposes.
Among those things he supports: city parkland – and specifically a possible charter amendment that would require a public referendum on the long-term leasing of parkland (not just sale, as the charter currently reads). He also supports the idea of a park on top of the new underground parking garage. He supports rebuilding the police and fire departments, and spending the city’s street reconstruction tax to repair roads in a timely fashion. If elected, he said he’d support neighborhoods by being a voice for their concerns.
Eaton also stressed some beliefs that could be characterized as classic Democratic Party values – support for labor. He cited his profession as a union-side labor lawyer and indicated that he’d fight against the tools that Republican “bullies” in the state legislature are giving local municipalities to reduce benefits to their union workers.
For her part, Teall cited her own labor credentials by saying she had support from several local unions. She gave an implicit response to Eaton’s focus on fire and police protection by saying that public safety had been a priority since 2002 when she first was elected to council. She indicated that residents could expect to see a greater police presence downtown, as the city has implemented a police recruit program. She identified flooding as currently a top issue for Ward 4, but pointed to the reconstruction of the East Stadium bridges and securing funding for future demolition of the Georgetown Mall as points of progress.
Teall said the city budget is in the best shape it’s been in the time she has served on the city council. The overall theme Teall stressed was a desire to keep Ann Arbor on the track that it started down 10 years ago.
Tracks were part of the one main policy question candidates were asked to comment on – the idea of a new rail station possibly to be constructed at the Fuller Road site. Briefly, Teall thinks it’s an ideal location for a rail station, proximate to the University of Michigan medical center, while Eaton feels it reflects inappropriate spending priorities.
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.
Broadcast live earlier in the week on the Community Television Network was a local League of Women Voters candidate forum that included Eaton and Teall, 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.
Teall: As she had said at the League of Women Voters forum earlier in the week, she is running for reelection in order to keep Ann Arbor on the track that it started down 10 years ago. She does believe that Ann Arbor is doing remarkably well. The city budget is in the best shape it’s been in the time she has served on the council, she said. The city is hiring firefighters and police again, she pointed out. And she contended that residents would see a greater presence of police downtown – because the bicycle patrols are starting up again.
A police recruit program has also been implemented, so we will see more police downtown, she said. At the same time, crime is at its lowest rate in 30 years. Some people have asked if we need more police, she said. It is a matter of perception, and it is important that Ann Arbor is perceived as a safe city. Over the years she has worked hard on many committees, she noted, including the environmental commission and the housing and human services advisory board, and the urban county board.
She’s also worked to address the many issues that Ward 4 faces, Teall said. One of those was the crumbling East Stadium bridges. That project is ahead of schedule, she said, and she was glad to see that State Street has been reopened. It’s great to see it, and she described it as a beautiful bridge. She also worked with state and county officials to secure a $1 million dollar grant for the Georgetown Mall demolition.
Eaton: He began by thanking the Democratic Party for holding the forum. He also thanked everyone in attendance for coming. He introduced himself as a union-side labor lawyer, a lifelong Democrat and a neighborhood activist. He’s running for city council to restore sensible priorities for the city budget. He brings a neighborhood point of view, he said.
He received the endorsement of the Sierra Club Huron Valley Group and the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter – the only environment organizations to make endorsements in city council races, he pointed out. He felt that the endorsement was based on his support for public parks. He supports the proposed amendment to the city charter that will require approval from voters before parkland is repurposed. He supports placing a park on top of the new underground parking garage on South Fifth Avenue.
Ward 4 residents tell him, he said, that city hall needs to focus on sensible priorities – like safety services, infrastructure, and public services. He supports rebuilding the police and fire staff, and using the accumulated street millage funds for the prompt repair of the city’s roads. He said he is a voice for sensible priorities. He’ll represent the neighborhoods and he will provide responsive leadership, he concluded.
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.”
Teall: She said she appreciated what Ward 5 candidate Chuck Warpehoski had just said about the importance of assuming good intent. [Coverage of other candidate responses is included in separate reports.] It’s something that they should work toward as an organization, she said. She thinks the current city council actually does move things forward – though it takes time and a lot of patience. It also takes listening, she said.
Councilmembers do not stop people from speaking to them, and anyone is welcome to get in touch with them, Teall pointed out. Councilmembers themselves often do have phone conversations about issues and express their intent on issues. On the whole, she felt the council works things through pretty well. She gave credit to mayor John Hieftje for facilitating issues on the council.
There is a perception of a lot of bickering, she allowed, but she felt that councilmembers don’t bicker as much as what might be portrayed in the media – which trades on bickering, she said.
Moderator Mike Henry followed up by asking Teall if she felt that the city council always comes up with the best solution as a group. Teall said that it’s not always been the perfect solution, but yes. The city council represents a very diverse community, she said, and by going through a lot of public process – public hearings and community meetings – the council tries to move forward in the best direction for the whole city.
Eaton: Earlier, candidate for Ward 5 Chuck Warpehoski had suggested that an essential premise for working effectively as a group is to assume good intent. So Eaton suggested that we should also start with the premise that mostly the city council does work together – as most votes are unanimous or nearly unanimous.
However, it’s important that the council have a robust discussion in front of the public about those things that are of great importance, Eaton said. Examples of things of great importance are spending priorities: Should we spend our money on police and fire protection or on something else? Those kinds of issues require good and robust public discussion, he said. He pointed out that in the past, there was some snarkiness behind-the-scenes in e-mails, and that had been destructive to the overall relationship on the council. But public disagreement among councilmembers shouldn’t be characterized as bickering, he suggested.
Eaton noted that he is a labor lawyer by trade, and works in adversarial contexts. His talent, he said, is to work with people who don’t agree, to try to find common ground and to mediate things, and to build a lasting relationship. It’s not whether you win this argument or lose that argument, he explained, but rather about building a relationship that will last over time. It’s not bickering, but rather a negotiation in a search for common ground.
Moderator Mike Henry ventured that Eaton agreed with Teall, that the council is moving forward in an orderly fashion. Eaton cheerfully objected to having words put in his mouth. Eaton clarified that he believes there is a majority on the council that comes to meetings with a predetermined outcome. And that meant that the discussion that happens is too late, and the public hearing that happens is too late – because the decision has already been made.
Eaton said that on those matters where there is not unanimous agreement on the council, councilmembers need to drag that discussion out into the public, and that discussion needs to take place after the public expresses its feelings at the podium. So he did not agree with Teall on that issue, he concluded.
In their responses to the question about working as a group, moderator Mike Henry picked up on the mention of transparency by Ward 2 candidate Sally Petersen and Ward 1 candidate Sumi Kailasapathy. 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. Ward 1 candidate Eric Sturgis made clear that he, and perhaps Vivienne Armentrout (Ward 5 candidate), also wanted to respond to that question. So some other candidates had a go at the question, too – but it didn’t come back around to Eaton.
Teall: She feels there is a great deal of transparency on the city council. We live in a society that includes not just men and women but also rules and regulations – and part of that in a representative democracy is that representatives are elected to the city council. [Teall used the phrase "men and women" because Ward 1 candidate Sumi Kailasapathy had suggested – in support of the idea of creating an ethics policy for the city council – that democracy is "not about men and women," but rather about rules and regulations.]
The RFP (request for proposals) review process for the Library Lot, Teall said, was very open and transparent: “I don’t know how many times I can say that, and people will still say that it wasn’t.” There were public meetings throughout, and there were no closed meetings – it was all open. She feels that the council does a pretty good job. It is much more transparent now, she allowed, than when she began her service on the city council. The neighborhood meetings that developers are now required to conduct is an example of that, and those meetings have been very successful. The public participation meeting is a required part of the development process now, she pointed out.
Teall felt that people often have issues with the fact that properties are owned by people, and we can’t tell the owners of the property what to do with their property. Moderator Mike Henry followed up by asking Teall why she thinks people say they still perceive that there’s a lack of transparency. Her answer: “I think it serves their interests.”
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.
Teall: She said she could not identify only one issue citywide, but for Ward 4 it would be to try to solve the flooding problems. She said she did not realize until recently that the footing drain disconnect program actually goes back to the 1990s, when there were hundreds of houses and people who were affected. That’s been significantly reduced due to the footing drain disconnect program, she said. But there is still a lot of work to do. She has learned about the extraordinary expense to actually replace all the infrastructure.
[The footing drain disconnect program aims to ensure that stormwater flow does not enter the city's sanitary system unnecessarily. In the course of developing some areas of the city, the footing drains of buildings were connected to the city's sanitary sewer system. That led to backups of raw sewage into some people's basements. The disconnection program aims to sever the connection between footing drains and the sanitary sewer system, and to connect the drains instead to the city's stormwater system. Chronicle coverage of the footing drain disconnect program is included in a May 2011 report on downtown planning.
This spring, the Ann Arbor city council has heard public commentary during its meetings on overland stormwater flow problems in the Churchill Downs neighborhood, which is part of Ward 4 – the ward that Teall and Eaton are competing to represent.]
As far as the train station goes, Teall supports an effort to relocate and build a new transit station in Ann Arbor. She feels that the current Amtrak station is not adequate – because she doesn’t feel that parking is adequate there. She does not support putting a new train station on the MichCon site [near the current location of the Amtrak site on Depot Street near the Broadway bridges], because she wants to see a beautiful park there on the riverfront. She thinks that the Fuller Road site is a perfect spot for a rail station.
Teall stated that 24,000 people a day come into work at the University of Michigan hospitals, so to help accommodate that and to take cars off the highway would be a very good thing, she said. She thinks that the funding will eventually be there for the station construction. She felt that it would not cost the city much to have what she thinks will be a world-class train station.
Eaton: He began by saying that he did not feel that any of the candidates had run on a single issue. But if he had to pick his top issue, then it would be the city’s spending priorities. That’s a very broad-based issue, he noted. When you have a $79 million general fund budget, you have to allocate that money based on priorities.
Eaton’s priority is public safety. This year, the city has started to rebuild its police and fire departments – partly through a SAFER grant, which came, he believed, from the state. The SAFER grant will allow more firefighters to be hired, Eaton said, but the city had not received the COPS grant it had applied for.
[The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) program is a federally funded program. The announcement of Ann Arbor's grant came on May 30, 2012. The Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program is also a federal program. Both grant applications factored into deliberations by the city council on the FY 2013 budget.]
So we’re back to having to make hard decisions in the budget, Eaton concluded. He does not believe that closing fire stations will remedy the fire department’s response time issue.
[The city has six stations, one of which was closed several years ago – Station #2. The proposal to which Eaton was referring is a plan to re-open Station #2, but to close Stations #4 and #6, using just Stations #1, #2, and #5. For Chronicle coverage of the proposal, including maps of how the coverage is proposed to work, see "A Closer Look at Ann Arbor's Fire Station Plan." The city is currently accepting feedback on the proposal. Emailed comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "Fire Proposal."]
Budget priorities have to accommodate the fact that we have a very tight budget, Eaton said. We shouldn’t be spending millions of dollars on an Amtrak station when we believe we can’t afford to re-fund our police and fire departments, he concluded.
Eaton: He began his closing statement by saying, “I’m a Democrat.” He feels that if someone runs or serves in local office as a Democrat, they should be active in the local Democratic Party [an implicit contrast between himself and Teall, who by many accounts is not active in the local organization.]. He said he had been active and would continue to be active in the Ann Arbor Democratic Party.
He’s a labor lawyer, and he believes that the labor movement is at the front line of the “war that the Republicans are waging on the middle class.” As a councilmember, Eaton would not accept the help that the bullies in the Republican legislature are giving local municipalities. We have to recognize the value of our employees, he said. [Among that "help" is legislation limiting the amount that public employers can contribute to their employees' health care. The sentiment expressed by Eaton was echoed at a recent board meeting of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, as some board members were reluctant to pass a resolution that reduced the AATA contributions to employee health care costs – arguing that just because the state had given them a hammer, that did not mean they had to use it against their employees.]
He’s a neighborhood activist, Eaton continued. Residents in Ward 4 neighborhoods want sensible priorities, he said – public safety, infrastructure and public services. Ann Arbor is a special town, he said. It’s the city council’s obligation to protect and preserve what’s great about the town while we address the fiscal problems that are upon us. It’s time to rebuild our city services – police and fire protection. He would fight to keep all the fire stations open, he said. We need to pay more prompt attention to repairing our roads. We need to develop a plan to address neighborhood flooding, he said. We’ve known since 1997 that the Lawton neighborhood needs relief from the flooding problem.
Teall: She thanked the Ann Arbor Democratic Party for hosting the event, and her supporters. She also appreciated the support of several local unions. She felt that the city needs to address both change and how to move forward. In supporting both businesses and neighborhoods, part of that is certainly economic development, she said. It’s important to have density downtown, to support businesses downtown. She said that all of the merchants are very appreciative of what the city is trying to do for business.
[Teall's remarks about the importance of economic development came after Ward 5 candidate Vivienne Armentrout had just previously criticized a proposal for a conference center on top of the Library Lot as responding to broader economic development objectives, instead of the needs of local Ann Arbor residents and local businesses. The council had voted on April 4, 2011 to end the RFP review process for the top of the new underground parking garage on South Fifth Avenue. 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. Teall voted against the termination of the review process.]
As far as the city’s budget priorities, safety services were prioritized starting in 2002 when Teall first was elected to the city council, she said. It’s always been a priority, but it hasn’t been easy – it hasn’t been easy in a time of recession to build safety services, she said. But the city has managed to do that, she contended. The fact that the city is hiring in both the police and fire departments is reflective of how strong the city’s budget actually is. She wants to keep the city moving forward in a collaborative manner with all city councilmembers.
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