A forum hosted by the Ann Arbor Democratic Party on July 14 featured eight candidates in four city council Democratic primary races. This article summarizes the responses from Ward 5 candidates Chuck Warpehoski and Vivienne Armentrout. The winner of the Aug. 7 primary will face Republican Stuart Berry in the November general election. Other races are covered in separate Chronicle articles.
The Ward 5 seat will be open this year, because incumbent Carsten Hohnke 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.
Hohnke was first elected to the council in 2008, winning the general election against Republican John Floyd. In the August primary that year, Hohnke won a very close race against Armentrout, who is competing for a Ward 5 seat again this year.
Armentrout said she’s running based on her experience – and her involvement in the civic life of Ann Arbor. She cited her involvement with organizations like the Ecology Center, Project Grow, and the League of Women Voters. She also cited her service on public bodies like the city’s solid waste commission, the city budget review committee, as well as the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, an elected position that she held for eight years.
After she left the board of commissioners, she worked as a journalist, she said, focusing primarily on city issues for the Ann Arbor Observer. And she’s been writing a local issues blog since 2009 – Local in Ann Arbor. She wants to apply her experience to represent the residents of Ward 5.
Warpehoski told the forum attendees that he is running because he wants to serve the community. He stressed his strong Democratic values – like environmental protection, and a commitment to a strong social safety net. In his day job as executive director of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, he is already serving the community, he said, but service on the city council is another way to serve the community. He stressed the importance of the mix that Ann Arbor offers – of a vibrant downtown and great neighborhoods.
Warpehoski noted that elections end up being a discussion about candidates. But fundamentally, he said, he does not believe that public service and elected office is about the candidate – rather, it’s about the community. That’s why the center of his campaign has been knocking on doors all across Ward 5, he said. And when he approaches the door, he said he’s not starting with a commercial for himself. Instead, he begins with a question: What’s on your mind about what’s going on in the city?
The single main policy issue that candidates were asked to address was a possible new train station at the Fuller Road site – and transportation is an issue on which Armentrout and Warpehoski have the most different perspectives. But the Fuller Road Station was touched on just briefly. Armentrout listed several reasons why she’s opposed to a rail station at Fuller Road, while Warpehoski is supportive of the idea. But he indicated that if the ultimate recommendation of a current study that’s being conducted is to locate a new facility at Fuller Road, he thinks it deserves a public referendum, because it is public land.
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.
Responding to the question of working as a group, Warpehoski described the techniques of “deep listening,” and stressed the importance of assuming good intent. For her part, Armentrout stressed the importance of expressing mutual respect and in making decisions based on data and on the merits of the case, and “arguing politely,” whatever the case is.
Broadcast live earlier in the week on the Community Television Network was a League of Women Voters candidate forum that included Armentrout and Warpehoski, 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.
Warpehoski: He led off by saying that voters could find out more about him by visiting his website: voteforchuck.org.
As he goes door-to-door, he reported, people ask him why he is running for city council. His answer, he said, might sound almost anachronistic, but the reason he’s running is because he wants to serve the community. He loves Ann Arbor, and in his day job as executive director of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, he sees an opportunity to serve the community. And service on the city council is another way to serve the community, he said.
Part of what makes Ann Arbor so unique, and so great, is that it has a really unique mix, Warpehoski said. The library is sited downtown, and people come from all over the state to experience what Ann Arbor’s downtown offers. And right next to the downtown, there’s a transition to great neighborhoods – he noted that the location of the candidate forum’s venue, at the Ann Arbor Community Center on North Main, is an example. The council needs to preserve both of those areas, he said.
As a Democrat, the values of environmental protection and human services funding are near and dear to his heart. That needs to be well-represented on the city council. The other thing he’s committed to, he said, is responsive government – whether that’s customer service trying to get a permit to build a deck or to get a pothole filled. It also means listening to and involving citizens in decision-making. From his work at the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, he’s learned that people can get across their differences by listening and engaging – and that’s what he hopes to bring to the city council.
Armentrout: She also gave the URL of her campaign website – viviennearmentrout.com.
She is running on her experience, Armentrout said. She represents all of the progressive ideas that she also thinks probably all the other candidates have. What she’s especially emphasizing, she said, is her past involvement in the civic life of Ann Arbor. When she arrived in Ann Arbor 26 years ago, the first thing she did was to get involved in the Democratic Party. The next thing she did was to volunteer at the Ecology Center. She got involved with Project Grow, and the League of Women Voters. She was appointed to the solid waste commission, and she served on the city budget review committee for over a year.
Then she was elected to the Washtenaw County board of commissioners and served eight years on the board. After she left the board of commissioners, she worked as a journalist, focusing primarily on city issues for the Ann Arbor Observer. Since 2009 she has written a local issues blog – Local in Ann Arbor. That’s experience, she concluded, but it also shows she has a real concern for this community and she hope she can apply her experience to represent the residents of Ward 5.
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.”
Warpehoski: As the question states, he began, the city council is a group that needs to work together. Right now, he said, there tend to be factions, and the city council doesn’t always move together.
In his experience with the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, he said, they often have differences of opinion around the table – about which issues they should address and how they should address those issues. What he’s found in his service is two parts to making it work. First, it’s important to engage in “deep listening.” When a concern comes up, he explained, if you’re able to take the time to listen – not just to the palpable concern, but also to what lies beneath it – you can find a workable solution that can move the group forward together. That takes work, and it takes time, and it takes attending to a culture of trust and openness, he suggested.
Second, when he does work around tense issues – like racial justice work or things like that – one of the ground rules you have to set is you have to assume good intent. All the candidates at the table, himself included, are there because they want to serve Ann Arbor. A seat on the Ann Arbor city council is not a position of power and glory, he ventured, but rather a position of service. It means recognizing that even though they might disagree, he said, they are all working for the benefit of the community. And assuming good intent helps to establish a culture of trust. He’s seen that work at the ICPJ, and he feels like that’s something that he can bring to the council.
Armentrout: She explained that she has served on many committees, some as chair, and she believes in expressing mutual respect to all members. She believes in making decisions based on data and on the merits of the case. She believes in arguing politely, whatever the case is. She described herself as very process-oriented. She has also participated in putting bylaws together for committees, she said, and she practices good parliamentary procedure. She does not believe in block voting, she said. When she served on the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, she was sometimes in a coalition with others whose viewpoints she opposed on other issues. She hoped that we would not see factional voting on the city council. She would work to see that that does not happen, she said.
Moderator Mike Henry then 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. Eric Sturgis made clear that he, and perhaps Armentrout, also wanted to respond to that question. So several of the other candidates had a go at the question.
Armentrout: She noted that she had once edited a book on planning techniques – it was called “The Planner’s Use of Information.” It had an excellent chapter by an author who specializes in the whole issue of public involvement, she explained. One of the things the author had written, which had made an impression on Armentrout, was that if you choose to involve the public in the process, you have to take into account what the public has to say.
She felt that the city council has moved in recent years really quite commendably toward the appearance of transparency – by making information much more freely available, which she really appreciates. In the case of the possible conference center on top of the South Fifth Avenue underground parking structure, it was really nice that a website had been established that included all of the responses to the RFP (request for proposals). And there were open meetings of the RFP committee. However, she said, the opinions of the public were not ever actually solicited. And there was no public comment opportunity made available at any of the RFP review committee meetings.
[By way of background on the conference center to which Armentrout alluded, the council had voted on April 4, 2011 to end the RFP 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. The lack of an opportunity for public comment at the RFP review committee meetings was documented as part of The Chronicle's coverage of the final meeting of that committee, in the form of a column.]
Warpehoski: He began by taking the advice of someone in the audience – that the candidates should stand up so that their voices would project better throughout the room. He quipped that, “Part of transparency is for everybody to be able to hear …”
He noted that several candidates had addressed the issue of transparency in terms of whether the information is out there and whether it’s available. One of the challenges we have today in the information age, he cautioned, is the “drinking from a fire hose effect.” There’s a tremendous amount of information on the city website and elsewhere, he noted. What he had found from his service on the countywide transportation district advisory committee was that very few people are up for reading all 180 pages in a document. So part of that process has to be making that information more accessible – so people don’t have to spend four hours reading it, but can identify what is involved.
He noted that some conversations are public – like when we have public hearings. But some of the conversations are one-on-one – like the conversations he’s had about the 4-3 lane conversion on Jackson Road as he’s gone door-to-door campaigning. Those are important conversations, too. He also pointed out that making decisions involves using multiple sources of information – public input and public perceptions being one source. Those types of information are actually vital, he said. But it’s also important to have expert opinion and expert analysis and really look at data.
Top Issue (Fuller Road Station)
Question: Is there one overriding issue that you would like to work on? [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.
By way of additional background on a specific issue Armentrout raised in her response, Amtrak has three routes in Michigan – the Pere Marquette, the Blue Water and the Wolverine. Ann Arbor residents will most likely be familiar with the Wolverine, which runs between Pontiac and Chicago via Detroit and makes a stop in Ann Arbor. Currently, the state of Michigan absorbs the operating subsidy (the difference between passenger fare revenues and costs) for the Pere Marquette and the Blue Water, while the Wolverine is subsidized on the federal level. The effect of the federal legislation to which Armentrout referred will be to transition the Wolverine to a state subsidy.
Michigan Dept. of Transportation communications officer Janet Foran responded to a Chronicle query by email as follows:
Section 209 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) of 2008 requires the states to agree on a costing methodology for all Amtrak trains running less than 750 miles in trip length. Under PRIIA, states will be required to pay these costs and for Michigan that would include the cost of the Wolverine service beginning in FY 2014 (we already provide state support for the Blue Water and Pere Marquette).
If we do nothing, based on current estimates from Amtrak, our subsidy for the Wolverine service would be $14.2M (includes operating and capital charge) and $6.1M for the Blue Water and $3.5M for Pere Marquette services (both those numbers include operating and capital charge). Total cost to Michigan is $23.8M. If we are able to make the improvements that enhance the service, our market analysis indicates there will be increases in both ridership and revenue, which will lower our subsidy.
Armentrout: There are broad issues, but as far as specific issues one of the things that motivated her to run for a seat on the city council is the proposal to build a new train station at the Fuller Road site. There are multiple reasons why she thinks that is very bad public policy: economic reasons; concerns about precedents that it sets for use of park property; a questionable need for such a station; the possibility it would actually diminish ridership (because it wouldn’t be convenient for people who are currently using the train to travel to Chicago); the lack of money to build it.
Further, she said, she does not believe that there will be trains running. She pointed to Section 209 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) of 2008, which will change the way that Amtrak will be funded. In the year 2014, the state of Michigan will need to absorb the cost of subsidizing the Wolverine Line – from Detroit to Chicago. There will not be federal funds anymore. We’re not currently working on a reality-based solution, she contended.
Warpehoski: In terms of his number one issue, he said, customer service is one thing he would like to see the city do a better job on.
He said he’s talked to a lot of people who’ve been trying to figure out how to solve some problem – get a pothole fixed or dealing with traffic on a residential street. And they don’t know how to get that information from the city. His own experience is that if you can find the right person, they will get things done – because we have a high-quality city staff. Out volunteering in his neighborhood park, people will ask him, for example, about a broken bench in a park on the north side of town.
If you know to talk to Amy Kuras, he said, she will make sure that it gets addressed by the right person. [Kuras is the city's park planner.] But if you don’t know to talk to Amy, he allowed, it can be a maddening experience. He noted that some of the people who are best in the world at customer service are in Ann Arbor – Zingerman’s [a collection of businesses, most famously a deli, which focuses heavily on the quality of its customer service]. And he thinks the city could do better. Though it’s not a flashy process, he feels that it’s an important one.
As far as the train station goes, he thinks the train station is important. He disagreed with Armentrout’s implication that the current station is very accessible. It’s actually difficult to get bus service to the station – to complete the last mile of the journey, he contended. Right now, there is a site selection process in place, and if the site that’s selected is the Fuller Road site, he feels it deserves a public vote – because it’s parkland, it’s a public good, and it deserves a public decision.
Armentrout: She reiterated that she is running on her experience – but she is also looking to the future, she said. She felt the decisions will be made in the next few years that will affect the future of Ann Arbor. The name of her campaign blog, she said, is “Ann Arbor – It’s Where We Live.” She’d named it that, she explained, because she is trying to focus on a city government’s first job: To serve the residents and local businesses of Ann Arbor.
Armentrout wants to preserve the city as a place where we can live and have a good quality of life. That does not mean that she’s against change, she said. As Ward 2 incumbent Tony Derezinski had said (earlier in the forum), she pointed out that we have to “manage change.”
She wants to see city resources used for the benefit of those who live here. One example that illustrates her view would be the proposed conference center on the Library Lot – which was proposed as a broader economic development objective, not just for the benefit of local Ann Arbor residents and local businesses. That idea of a conference center was killed last year – but it has come up again, she said. The Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority had commissioned a consultant study for its Connecting William Street project – and “just suddenly” a little report had been “spun off” about why we should have a conference center: “I’ve seen this movie before,” she quipped.
She said she’d been described as independent, and she felt that’s a pretty accurate description. Anybody who knows her knows that she’s pretty confident of her understanding of things, she said. Armentrout promised to be respectful and to judge issues on their merits.
Warpehoski: He thanked everyone for attending and for making an informed choice in the election. The way elections work out, he said, is that they end up being a discussion about candidates. He’s tried to share a little bit about himself with people – his strong Democratic values, environmental protection, commitment to a strong social safety net, his commitment to community service and to listening, as well as his experience in the neighborhood and community.
But fundamentally, he said, he does not believe that public service and elected office is about the candidate – rather, it’s about the community. That’s why the center of his campaign has been knocking on doors all across Ward 5, he said. And when he approaches the door he’s not starting with a commercial for himself. Instead he begins with a question: What’s on your mind about what’s going on in the city?
It’s been an education, he said, that he could not get any other way – listening to people at the doorstep about what is on their minds. For this election, people need to know that he has the values and skills to serve on the council, but fundamentally it’s about respecting the community and serving the community, he concluded.
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