On July 22, 2012, a hot summer Sunday afternoon, more than 35 people gathered at the Peace Neighborhood Center to hear Ward 5 Democratic primary candidates for Ann Arbor city council respond to questions.
Chuck Warpehoski and Vivienne Armentrout are contesting the seat that will be open because sitting councilmember Democrat Carsten Hohnke is not seeking a third term. The winner of the Aug. 7 primary will face Republican Stuart Berry in November’s general election.
The format of the forum – hosted by the Ward 5 Democratic Party organization, and moderated by Gus Teschke – allowed Warpehoski and Armentrout to offer a clear contrast to prospective voters. They had four minutes to respond to each question, with an opportunity for a rebuttal and additional follow-up by the person who’d submitted the question.
Both Armentrout and Warpehoski were obviously knowledgeable about the range of topics they were asked to address by questioners.
The contrast emerged mainly in terms of the types of themes they emphasized, rather than differences in specific policy points – but some policy differences emerged as well. Throughout her remarks, Armentrout stressed her experience, knowledge and study of policy. For example, she introduced broad policy issues into the topic of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority’s administration of the city’s public parking system – in part by calling the parking system the “parking utility,” drawing a parallel between that and utilities like water or electric service. And she explained her thoughts on providing affordable housing and human services by appealing to her understanding of the history of federal grant funding to the city of Ann Arbor.
On that same topic, responding to a question from local activist Alan Haber, Warpehoski said he would spearhead – and is already spearheading – an effort to replace 100 units of affordable housing that were lost when the old YMCA building was condemned and demolished. His effort on that issue is a function of his day job as director of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice. He frequently appealed to the skills he uses in that job – the notion of listening, and working to bring people together for the common good. He described several times the kinds of conversations he’s been having with residents of the ward as he goes door-to-door canvassing, relating some of the specific stories from each neighborhood. He pointed to those kinds of conversations as the kind that he’d like to continue if he’s elected, as part of an effort to hear all the voices in the community.
Warpehoski fielded some pointed questions from attendees, including one about his endorsement by mayor John Hieftje. Did that mean he’d favor decision-making behind closed doors? Warpehoski told the audience he’d made clear to Hieftje that if elected, he’d push the mayor on two issues: public process and the independence of board and commission appointments. Responding to another audience question, Warpehoski also said he’d recuse himself from votes if it were appropriate to do that – due to his wife’s job as director of the getDowntown program.
Warpehoski was also challenged to account for his use of the phrase “transit opponents” in an op-ed piece he’d written about the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority’s effort to expand its governance and service area to a countywide region. He explained his use of that phrase by saying you have to look at people’s actions and whether those actions actually support transit – drawing an analogy to someone who says they are for “health” but who sits on the couch eating Kentucky Fried Chicken all day.
Support for a current countywide transit proposal was one clear policy difference between the two candidates. Warpehoski supports the framework embodied in a four-party agreement – between Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Washtenaw County and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority – while Armentrout does not. At its Aug. 1 meeting, the Washtenaw County board of commissioners is expected to give final approval for that agreement, which the other three parties have already ratified.
After the jump, more detail is presented on questions and responses from the two candidates.
The paraphrases of candidate responses are presented in mostly chronological order. In some cases, a thematic grouping dictated re-ordering.
Like most candidate forums, there was an opportunity for opening and closing statements.
Warpehoski began by thanking everyone for coming out – he said it was good to see people attending and trying to make an informed choice for the election. It’s good to see people taking part in democracy, he said. He told forum attendees that he was running for city council to represent Ward 5 and noted that his day job as executive director of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice is also about community service.
What he tries to do every day at that job, he said, is to try to bring people together who have different backgrounds and different perspectives and different faiths, to see how people can work together – despite their differences – toward the common good. With a name like Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, he said, you can tell that progressive values are dear to him, and that is why he is running as a Democrat.
Since he announced his candidacy, he said, he’s been getting an education that is not possible from reading the Ann Arbor Chronicle or by reading AnnArbor.com or in any other way – by going door-to-door throughout the ward listening to people, trying to hear what’s on people’s minds about city issues. One thing he’s learned, he told the audience, is that each neighborhood has its own story. When he was knocking on doors up by North Seventh Street, the story was West Park. When he was knocking on doors on Abbott Street, just south of Jackson Avenue, he continued, the story was about motorists cutting through the neighborhood trying to avoid the traffic on Jackson Avenue.
This listening is what a good public servant does, he said. It’s an important skill for public office, he contended, and that’s something he’s committed to bringing to the city council, he said. He ventured that in the rest of the forum the audience would hear more about specific policy positions – but what he would bring to all of that would be a basic approach of listening to all of the people and all of the stakeholders, and he’d try to bring them together for the common good.
Armentrout began by saying that she is running for the city council based on her experience – but noted that she is not a career politician. She described herself as a citizen who cares about issues and who has taken many different paths to try to make a difference in our community.
She described how when she first arrived in Ann Arbor, she got involved in local Democratic politics. She volunteered in the Ecology Center, Project Grow, and the League of Women Voters. She was appointed to the city’s solid waste committee, she continued, just as recycling and composting was becoming a new part of the waste management plan for the city. She also served four years on the city budget review committee. She was then recruited to run for the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, and served in the district that covered most of Ward 5 as a county commissioner for eight years.
When she retired from the county board position in 2004, she said, she thought she was done with politics. But she couldn’t help but notice that there were some trends in city government that did not seem right to her. She felt that the city council was pursuing its own agenda without caring much about what the citizens thought. That’s why she was an early supporter of Mike Anglin, who challenged an incumbent [Wendy Woods] in 2007. In 2008, she noted, she ran on her own behalf for the city council.
[She lost a narrow race to Carsten Hohnke in the 2008 Democratic primary. Mike Anglin won the Ward 5 race against Woods in 2007 and was re-elected in 2009 and 2011. So the winner of the 2012 election will serve alongside Anglin as one of two ward representatives. Each of the city's five wards has two representatives; with the mayor, the council is an 11-member body.]
Then in 2009 she launched her local issues blog, Local in Ann Arbor. She’d done all that, she said, because she has a vision of what a healthy community is. Her idea of quality of life doesn’t just include parks and other amenities – but also extends to neighbors who feel secure in their homes and can expect the government to put them first, above lofty goals. She said we should expect our taxes to support our well-being as residents and local business owners. That’s why she’d made a quest, she said, to defeat the proposed conference center on the Library Lot. That experience – of working with so many community members to achieve that goal – is something she will always carry with her, she said.
[Questions were posed by audience members through submission on cards and then were read aloud as submitted. So the some questions themselves reflected a clear perspective on the part of the questioner. The first question is a good example of that.]
Question: The mayor has not favored or encouraged robust public process. How would you change this? If elected, how will you promote more transparency in city government?
Armentrout began by saying she’s been studying this question of public process for some time. She described her time on the county planning commission, saying she was the founding chair of the planning advisory committee. She told the audience she’s attended many conferences about planning. She has also edited a book on planning, she said. One of the central problems of planning is to meaningfully involve the public in decision-making, she said.
Implicitly alluding to Warpehoski’s emphasis on the importance of listening, she said that public process is not just a matter of listening – as there is a methodology, she said. And it’s complicated, she said. One of the conclusions she’d reached from her reading on the subject, she said, is that it’s important to bring the public in when public policy is first being formulated.
She contended that recently there’s been a tendency to maintain the appearance of public process by having a public hearing the night that the city council votes. She also characterized many public meetings as basically “marketing presentations.” That presents the illusion of public engagement, she said. If she were elected to the city council, she said she would work to involve community members early on in the process. She said she had a history of doing that during her service as a county commissioner.
Warpehoski called the concern about public involvement an important one. It’s one of the areas that the current city council has not done a very good job on, he said. As an example, he gave the proposed rail station at Fuller Park. What came forward, he said, was a proposal: Here’s what we would like to build, and here’s where we would like to build it.
[A partnership between the University of Michigan and the city of Ann Arbor – to build a 1,000-space parking structure and rail station at the Fuller Road site across from UM medical center – ended on Feb. 10, 2012, when UM withdrew due to its desire to add additional parking to its system in a more timely fashion. Currently the city has moved ahead with a site alternatives analysis, using a $2.8 million grant from the Federal Rail Administration, matched by $0.7 million in money the city has already expended in connection with the earlier partnership.]
Warpehoski felt that a lot of the contention could have been avoided and a better process could have been created, if the process had begun with questions like these: What are our needs for rail transit? How do we move forward with that? What are the possible sites? What are the criteria to evaluate the sites? On a short list of sites, what is good and bad about each? How do we deal with the fact that the Fuller Road site is parkland? Does that need to go to a vote? Do we need to find other parkland to offset that lost parkland?
The Fuller Road rail station situation is an example of how the failure to have a robust public process led to an increase in tension around the issue, and we lost opportunities to deal with some issues that would have come up and surfaced through that public engagement process, Warpehoski said.
The Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, which he directs, is a grass roots organization, so it’s member-led, he noted. Within each of the organization’s task forces, his role is to serve those activist volunteers and members. So his experience every day is working to say: What is our vision going forward?
There are two key challenges that he thinks the city council and the city government need to face with respect to a public involvement process, he said. The first one is casting a broad net. When he’s attended city council meetings or other attempts the city has made at public involvement, he said, he’s noticed that there are essentially two groups that tend to be represented there. One is a group of people who are in some sense “paid to be there.” When he appears to speak on behalf of the Interfaith Council Peace and Justice, that is the hat he’s wearing, he said. The other group that is represented, he said, are people who have tremendous time and passion and will show up at 7 p.m. on Monday, or whenever the meeting is.
Both of those kinds of voices need to be a part of the process – but that isn’t all of the process, he said. That doesn’t represent all of the community, he said. So a robust public engagement process has to address how to involve the people who are not around the table – who are not getting all the messages from the city about when the next planning commission meeting is. He picked up on Armentrout’s point about public hearings, adding that public hearings don’t necessarily represent people who are working the second shift downtown. So we need to do better at reaching those who have been excluded, who are not around the table already.
The second challenge, he continued, is that there are multiple sources of information for making a decision. Public involvement is one source of information. There is also the involvement of looking in depth at the data, and consulting expertise and expert opinion. He picked up on Armentrout’s point about the existence of a methodology for public involvement. He noted that the expertise of city staff has to be included systematically as well. Public involvement and public transparency are important, he said, and we need to do a better job at including more people and including all the sources of information that are necessary to make informed, engaged decisions.
Follow-up: The questioner invited the candidates to explore the timing of the public involvement and how that might be managed so that it happens at the beginning – before a request for proposals is sent out, for example.
Armentrout she said the questioner had put her finger on the most difficult part, which is how to reach people and let them know to be involved. It also depends on the type of issue, she said. If it’s something that’s going to affect a particular neighborhood, she pointed out, you have to seek out all of the connections that you can in order to find the affected people. If it is a more general issue, she said, you have to use a variety of media – e-mail sign-up and public notices. She concluded by acknowledging that the hardest part is to find a way to get the appropriate people to the table.
Warpehoski felt like both he and Armentrout had affirmed in their answers the importance of early involvement by the public. He called it an area where they both agreed. The timing of that involvement would be different depending on different issues, he said. The kind of involvement required for the future redevelopment of the old YMCA lot [at Fifth & William], for example, would require a different level of involvement than a proposal to redo a neighborhood park.
Addressing the difficulty of getting people involved, he said that his campaign had made him appreciate the opportunity to talk to people face-to-face at their doorsteps. He’s hoping that time would permit him, if elected, to continue to engage in those kinds of conversations. Otherwise, he felt that people are not getting adequate information or having their voices heard.
Follow-up: In a follow-up to a question that came much later in the forum, the questioner told Warpehoski that Warpehoski claims he wants robust public process, but appears to be aligning himself with the mayor’s group – which the questioner felt is more concerned with closed-room decision-making processes. He felt there was some dissonance there, and invited Warpehoski to explain that.
Warpehoski he stated that he does want robust public process – and acknowledged that he also had mayor John Hieftje’s endorsement. One of the things that he’d told Hieftje, he said, is that he would push him on two things: public process and the independence of board and commission appointments. Those are two areas where he thinks the city has done a poor job and could improve, Warpehoski said.
Question: What is your position on parkland repurposing, including the need for voter approval? In 2008 Ann Arbor voters approved a charter amendment to require a popular vote if parkland sale is proposed. Do you support another charter amendment to close a loophole to prevent leasing for non-park use of parkland? Why? How do you feel about councilmember Jane Lumm’s proposed council resolution to place a ballot question before voters in November that would amend the city charter with respect to the parkland issue?
Background: At the city council’s July 16, 2012 meeting, a resolution was considered that would have placed a ballot question before voters on Nov. 6. The ballot question would ask voters to amend the city charter to require a public referendum on any long-term lease of parkland for a non-park purpose. In 2008, Ann Arbor voters had approved an amendment that prohibited the sale of parkland unless it was authorized by a voter referendum.
Warpehoski observed that parkland has been a big issue this year, and it’s been receiving a lot of discussion. He stated that he supports public involvement before making decisions about parkland. For example, he said, if the Federal Rail Administration recommends the Fuller Road site for a rail station, he thinks that should go to a popular vote. He allowed that the letter of the current charter does not require a popular referendum, but he feels that the spirit of the charter provision does require it.
As far as the ballot question on a charter amendment to require a popular vote – before any long-term lease on city parkland is signed – he feels that the spirit of that resolution is important and he supports the spirit of it. As far as the particular language in the resolution, he still has questions. He told the audience that they did not want an elected official who is making up his mind before he’s gotten all the information. That’s an issue he still researching, he said. He would like to hear the park advisory commission’s view on the subject.
He also noted that the proposal talks about repurposing and long-term leasing. He wants a better understanding of what is, and what is not, included in that. There’s a concession stand in Gallup Park where you can get a coffee and a snack from Zingerman’s. If there were a proposal for another concession stand in another park, would that be considered a long-term lease or a repurposing, and would that require voter approval? he wondered. He described a bicycle rental in Traverse City by the bay right by the waterfront – something he thinks is privately run. If that bicycle rental company approached the city of Ann Arbor and said, “Hey, we’d like to do bicycle rentals at the Gallup canoe livery,” would that be considered repurposing, and require a popular vote?
Those are the kinds of questions he still has about the resolution, he said – before he could say yes to that particular wording he can support. However, the concept he supports is this: These are our public parks and these are our public lands, they serve the public good and they deserve a public process.
Armentrout she noted that she is already “on record” as supporting a charter change to prevent leasing and repurposing of parkland without a public vote. She agreed with Warpehoski that it’s important not to have unanticipated consequences. She felt that’s a matter of tweaking the language to make sure that things that we all agree serve a legitimate park purpose are not prohibited. Bike rental, she allowed, might be a good example. That she would leave to the lawyers and people who are currently working to formulate the exact language, she said.
The parks are a public trust, she stated. The park system is the history of accumulation of citizen efforts, and often private citizen investment, she said. Each park is a historic marker of citizen involvement, she said. Parks are very crucial to our quality of life, in terms of their preservation of natural communities, their environmental impact – with respect to cooling, air recycling, and the like. She felt that getting too legalistic with this particular charter amendment is not needed, as long as we make sure we don’t have unanticipated consequences.
Follow-up: The questioner was not happy with the responses of both candidates. She was sorry to disagree with them. She felt bad that the city needs the charter amendment because of the ethics of some councilmembers, if voters “don’t get the right people in.” She contended that there was a done deal with Miles of Golf – but because of the efforts of the Huron Hills golf course committee and community input and community support, that proposal was squelched. If they hadn’t spoken up, Miles of Golf would be operating the Huron Hills golf course, she said. She’d like to believe that everybody has the best interests of the city at heart, but it’s obvious from watching the city council in action with its current membership, that’s not the case. That’s why she thinks questions about the use of parkland must go to the voters.
[Responding to the follow-up, both Armentrout and Warpehoski appeared somewhat perplexed.]
Armentrout wondered what the conflict was between what the questioner had said and what she herself said. She’d meant to say that she supports the charter amendment that would require a public vote on the use of parkland.
Warpehoski picked up on the specific concern the questioner had raised – about the example of contracting with Miles of Golf to operate Huron Hills. That example, he explained, is one reason that he wants to do more research on the issue of the charter amendment. He noted that councilmember Sabra Briere – who had co-sponsored the city council resolution on the charter amendment ballot question, along with Jane Lumm and Mike Anglin – had raised the question of the Miles of Golf proposal in connection with the proposed charter amendment language.
Briere had questioned whether the currently proposed wording for the charter would have caused a popular vote to be triggered by the Miles of Golf proposal. [According to the city attorney's analysis, the proposed wording of the amendment would not trigger a popular referendum if something like the Miles of Golf concept were to be proposed.] Warpehoski reiterated that he supports the concept, but just wants to make sure that the details are right.
Question: Should the council obey the letter and spirit of the city charter clause about the protection of parkland, or override the charter when the majority is determined to accomplish its agenda?
Armentrout began her answer by stating, “The charter is the charter and the council has to obey the charter.” When you start talking about the spirit of the charter, that’s hard to define, she noted. If she were elected to serve on the council, she would try to obey the spirit of the charter, but she would certainly obey what the language says.
Warpehoski agreed with Armentrout on that question – that obviously the letter of the charter has to be obeyed. The spirit is something that is sometimes difficult to interpret, he allowed. On federal issues he is not a strict constructionist – not someone who says that we have to follow exactly what the founders meant on issues. With respect to the Fuller Road station issue, he felt that it’s not within the letter of the charter to require a vote on that, but it is within the spirit of the charter, and that is why he supports a popular vote on it – if the Federal Rail Administration selects the Fuller Road site, or any parkland site, for a proposed train station.
Follow-up: The reason for the question, stated the questioner, was that in 2008, when the charter amendment question had been put on the ballot, members of the local Sierra Club tried to “fix the amendment” because they recognized the loopholes that were in it. The mayor and council majority, she contended, “flat out refused” to make the change of language that would have protected parks from repurposing and leasing. She called it a cynical gesture on the part of the council and the mayor at that time. Voters thought they were actually protecting parklands when they passed the 2008 amendment to the charter, she continued. She asked the candidates again if they would honor the intent of the voters.
Warpehoski stated that in the form the charter amendment of 2008 had been approved, it does protect parkland. It might still need to be strengthened, he allowed, but what the amendment did was to prevent what happened in another Michigan community. He described a situation where a parcel was rezoned and then sold [to avoid the prohibition in the Michigan Home Rule Cities Act against sale of parkland and cemeteries]. Ann Arbor had recognized that we did not want that to happen here and passed a charter amendment that prevented it from happening, Warpehoski said. So the charter amendment, as passed in 2008, did provide additional protection, he said. He added that he could not interpret what everybody’s spirit was when they voted for that amendment. But for the issues that the city is confronting now, he felt he had explained where he stands on them.
Armentrout didn’t add to her previous response.
Question: What will you do to protect near downtown neighborhoods from developments like City Place?
Background: City Place is a residential development that’s nearing completion on South Fifth Avenue, south of William, and that’s marketed to students. It was built as a matter-of-right project under the city’s R4C zoning. A different project, Heritage Row, would have at least partly preserved the seven older houses on the site, which were eventually demolished. But Heritage Row would have required a rezoning of the land under a planned unit development (PUD). The city council could never muster more than 7 votes on the multiple occasions when it attempted to approve that rezoning. An 8-vote majority was needed. The council also could not achieve the necessary votes to establish the area as a historic district, following recommendation of a study commission to do so. The history of proposed development on the site dates back at least to 2008.
Warpehoski described the location of the City Place site – near Bethlehem Church just south of the downtown library. He described the two different proposals that had been made for the site. The proposal that wound up getting built, he said, was one that conforms with city zoning and demolished some historic buildings. He characterized that as the worst possible outcome for that site. He noted that there had also been a proposal to maintain the facades of the older houses and redevelop behind those facades. And there were also many people in the community who were hoping that neither of the two development proposals would go forward, and that the houses on the site would simply be maintained.
Warpehoski observed that the planning commission has just gone through a process to modify the way the zoning works in those areas that are zoned for multi-residence buildings [R4C zoning]. The reason that both City Place and Heritage Row were even possible, he noted, was that the current zoning practice allows for parcel consolidation – that is, it’s possible to purchase several properties and combine them into one parcel for development. That changes the math for what can and cannot be built there. There’s currently a proposal – he thought it had been passed through the planning commission, which is now working on developing the ordinance language for it – to make sure that parcel consolidation like that does not happen again. That’s something he supports, he said.
Armentrout began by saying that the particular development had a historical preservation component to it. Either development could have been prevented – if the city council had followed the recommendation of a historic district review committee to establish the area as a historic district. Ultimately, city council chose not to approve the district, she said. She picked up on Warpehoski’s characterization of the committee recommendation against parcel consolidation for R4C areas, and ventured that the planning commission has not actually considered it yet.
But in any case, Armentrout said, she supported the findings in the citizen advisory committee’s report, which include constraints on the consolidation of lots. The city council also needs to take more responsibility for evaluating site plan approvals, she said. The council has the ability to reject the planning commission’s recommendation, she noted. But in more recent years, she felt the city council has become really intimidated, saying, “Well, it seems to fit the criteria, so I guess we have to pass it!” She felt that the council must take into consideration how a site plan affects our overall planning goals and the community’s goals, including health and safety – to the extent that the law allows. [At the council's July 16, 2012 meeting, the issue of health, safety and welfare was cited by Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) in casting a vote against the Maple Cove project, which was presented to the council as a matter-of-right project.]
Warpehoski ventured that it would be possible to get some clarity right then at the forum on the issue of what the current status of the R4C citizen advisory committee’s report is – noting that Erica Briggs was in the audience, who until recently served on the city planning commission. Ask to clarify, Briggs said she thought it had made its way through a working session of the commission. [The committee's report was presented to the planning commission at its May 8, 2012 working session. The commission's ordinance review committee has met twice to work on changes to the ordinance, most recently on July 30.]
Question: How would you balance the need for mixed-use projects or multi-family projects and a desire for historic preservation? What about low-income housing? How would you replace the 100 units of affordable housing? Will you support downtown low-income housing?
Background: In connection with the construction of the new YMCA building located at Second and Washington streets, the city acquired the old YMCA building (at Fifth and William) in 2003 in order to preserve the 100 units of single-resident occupancy (SRO) affordable housing that the building offered. The YMCA had no plans to incorporate residential units at its new site, and neither did the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, which had contemplated redeveloping the old building as a transit center and office headquarters.
In 2005, mechanical systems in the old YMCA building failed to such an extent that residents needed to be moved out of the building. City staff led by Jayne Miller, who was community services area administrator at the time, worked over the following few years to find alternate accommodations for the residents, which they did. The city maintained a stated commitment to eventually replacing the 100 units, but not necessarily at the site of the old YMCA. A private development at that site, William Street Station, was to include some affordable units, but city council pulled the plug on that project when the developer failed to meet various deadlines. The site was converted to a surface parking lot, after the city decided to demolish the building. Demolition was funded by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority.
Armentrout stated that where multiple-family housing is built is a question of zoning. She places a very high value on historic preservation, but noted that zoning decisions are a matter of a public planning process. In the case of City Place, the multiple-family housing that is being built there is marketed to students, and it’s going to be very high rent – she does not consider that affordable housing. Affordable housing means different things to different people, she said. For a lot of people, affordable housing means that “I can afford to buy it.” For others, it has to do with the technical formula for levels of income.
Building new housing that is affordable for very low-income people, she said, simply requires public subsidy. There is just no getting around that, she said. You’ll not find any developer building new affordable housing without a public subsidy, she said.
Something she’s followed with a great deal of unhappiness, she said, is what she described as the dismantling of our revenue and processes for providing affordable housing. At one time, Ann Arbor had a city community development department, she recalled. The city had two citizen committees to oversee these issues. Ann Arbor was one of the first block grant communities in Michigan, and because of that, Ann Arbor had $400,000 a year grandfathered in for human services that came to Ann Arbor from the federal government. That money was available for use without further application, she continued – “it was just ours.” And what we’ve done, she said, is that we have turned that money over to the Urban County, and it has become a county function. She described the previously grandfathered-in human services money as having been lost to the whole system. She allowed that because Ann Arbor had joined the Urban County, some additional money had been obtained.
[What Armentrout was referring to is that Ann Arbor had a "grandfathered-in" ability to spend more of its CDBG (community development block grant) on human services than other communities. Joining the Urban County meant that without an additional waiver, Ann Arbor would become subject to the same 15% cap as every other community for its expenditures on human services. In actual dollars, this meant dropping from $396,000 to about $196,000 in human services expenditures. But it did not affect the amount of the CDBG funds for Ann Arbor – just the way it could be allocated. Based on an email to The Chronicle from Mary Jo Callan, head of the joint city/county office of community and economic development, Ann Arbor is currently operating within the 15% cap.
The additional money, to which Armentrout alluded, stems from the fact that Ann Arbor's joining the Urban County, according to Callan, created a "... large enough entity to receive a direct allocation of ESG (Emergency Shelter Grant) funds from HUD [the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development]. These funds are directed to housing and homelessness agencies, just as CDBG human services funds had been previously. In addition, we began utilizing a previously-unused eligible activity within the CDBG funding, called Community Based Development Organization (CBDO). Through this designation, we were able to provide funding to Community Action Network and Peace [Neighborhood Center] (previously funded through either CDBG or General Fund human service dollars) that carry out neighborhood revitalization efforts.” Peace Neighborhood Center, coincidentally, is where the candidate forum was held.]
In her remarks at the forum, Armentrout also noted that the city had spent a lot of money buying the old YMCA building and then demolishing it – to turn it into a parking lot. That means we’ve lost our capital resources, revenue stream and our policy mechanisms, she said. She supposed that what she would have to do is look at what other avenues might be open.
Warpehoski said that affordable housing and making sure that Ann Arbor is a community for everyone is something that is near and dear to his heart. He’s been working with members of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance on an advocacy committee to find out what some of the opportunities are to continue pushing for replacement of the 100 units of affordable housing. The loss of the 100 units of housing in the old YMCA building was significant, he said. He reviewed how there’s a range of options in the affordable housing spectrum. One option is a shelter that provides short-term housing. Family housing is different from individual housing, which is different from supportive housing, which Avalon Housing does such a great job with, he said. What we lost with the demolition of the YMCA building was 100 units of single-residence occupant housing with a staffed front desk – which makes sure that there was some level of security in the building.
Referring to the homeless encampment that was recently dismantled, he said, many of the people who lived out at Camp Take Notice were actually working – but even while working, they still couldn’t afford to pay for housing. It’s really important, he said, that we work to re-establish those 100 units of housing.
Warpehoski then picked up on Armentrout’s mention of the capital side and the revenue side of the equation. In connection with Camp Take Notice, he said there’s been some conversation with the state about identifying funds to create housing opportunities for the chronically homeless – that is one avenue forward. If affordable housing is not part of any of the plans that come out of the Connecting William Street planning process, he feels that some of the capital revenue from the sale of those properties should be put into capital needs for affordable housing, in order to make good on that promise to restore the 100 units.
There are definite advantages to having affordable housing downtown, he said – in terms of access to services for people who need it. At the same time, downtown land is expensive, so if we had an opportunity for one unit downtown and two units outside of downtown, but located close to transit, that would be a balance we’d need to look at. The push to consolidate and coordinate is coming from beyond Ann Arbor, he noted. It’s a push that the feds are making – and we would be in danger of losing a lot more funding if we didn’t do that. He said he still has questions, but he felt it’s important to listen to the perspective of those who are most intimately involved – both on the city staff and in the nonprofit world.
Picking up on Warpehoski’s mention of the use of proceeds from the possible sale of city-owned downtown parcels, Armentrout cautioned that talking about any sum of money from the sale of a city lot and funneling it toward a particular use, means talking about a competition of priorities. So would you rather have a park downtown, or would you rather sell the land to the highest bidder? she asked. She would not even get into police and fire protection, she said.
Warpehoski said Armentrout was right about the need to balance priorities, saying service on the city council would be easy if it were about saying, Oh, this is a good thing, so let’s do that! But the challenge of serving on the city council, he said, is choosing between good things, and making hard choices. That’s the challenge of any leadership position, but especially a public leadership position, he said.
Follow-up: It was activist Alan Haber who’d asked the question about affordable housing. He wanted to see both candidates recognize that there has been a hostility on the part of the city council to looking at the situation, and contended that the city council has not made it a priority, and has not listened to the people who’ve spoken before the council. He said there needs to be a change in the council’s attitude on this issue. He asked if either of the candidates would spearhead that change and say: This is an important priority.
Warpehoski answered Haber by saying, “Yes, I will spearhead it and I’m spearheading it now.” That’s why when the city was looking at its budget last budget cycle – and human services were one of the first things that the city was considering to cut – he had worked with other nonprofit leaders and business leaders in the community to say: No, don’t balance the budget on the backs of the poor, because this is the time when they need those services most.
He said he’s working with other nonprofit leaders and advocates to see how we can keep the promise that was made to restore those 100 units – that’s something that is near and dear to his heart, he said. He wants Ann Arbor to be a city for everybody – not just the One Percent, he said. Having a strong social safety net is part of that, he concluded.
Armentrout agreed that affordable housing is a desirable goal. She said she did not know how we can achieve it. It’s a matter of a lack of resources and competing priorities, she said. It would take real effort to work out, she said.
Question: What is your view on the four-party agreement? Warpehoski wrote an opinion piece for AnnArbor.com in which he characterized his fellow citizens who have concerns about the countywide transit plan as “transit opponents.” How is this an example of deep listening?
Background: A recent initiative by the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority to expand its governance structure and service area on a countywide basis dates back at least to December 2009. A four-party agreement – between the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Washtenaw County and the AATA – would provide a framework and chronological sequence for the transition of the AATA to a new governance and funding structure. The Washtenaw County board of commissioners is expected to ratify the agreement on Aug. 1 – the other three parties have already ratified it. The agreement would require a voter referendum on a funding mechanism, before a transition to the new transit authority could take place.
With respect to the four-party agreement, Warpehoski said – as a Democrat, and as someone who is committed to the values of environmental protection and services for people who otherwise would not be able to get services – he is a strong supporter of public transit. He thinks that transit will help us address the climate crisis, noting that it had been an unbearable summer for canvassing door-to-door.
Transit is important for ensuring that people with disabilities and young people and people who can’t afford to drive have access to their community and can maintain their independence, he said. So he’s a proponent of transit. He’s been working with transit advocates like Jeff Irwin, as he’s tried to help the county move forward towards a more regional approach to transit. [Irwin, a Democrat, is a member of the state House of Representatives. He represents District 53, which covers Ann Arbor.] There have been years of public process done by the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, intergovernmental negotiations and discussions – that included Jeff Irwin and Terri Blackmore of Washtenaw Area Transportation Study. There’s been a lot of study about the best way improve transit in the area, he said.
Ann Arbor has a decent transportation structure 9-5 Monday through Friday, Warpehoski said, but it doesn’t do a good job of providing evening and weekend service. Also, he said, his life does not stop at the city boundary, and the current level of service offered by the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority doesn’t do a good job of connecting people to everywhere they need to go. In that context, and in the context of all the research and background that went into developing the four-party agreement, he characterized himself as a supporter of the document. He does not think it is a perfect document, he said. There were some things that could have been improved on, he allowed. “But I don’t want that nitpicking to say it’s not perfect so we’re not going to do it.” He continued, “I’m glad that my wife did not approach our marriage that way.”
So he concluded that the four-party agreement is an appropriate way to move forward. In terms of the op-ed piece that he had written, he said he believes it’s important to look at people’s actions about whether they support transit. After years of negotiation, the four-party agreement is the proposal on the table to help improve transit for the community both in Ann Arbor and in the broader area. If someone says they are for health but they are sitting on the couch every night eating Kentucky Fried Chicken, he said, you have to look at their actions. So that’s what he’s looking at, he said: What actions will support transit and what actions will leave us behind?
Armentrout began by saying that she is “burdened with too much information.” She described how much she has written on this topic and how she has attended meetings of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board since 2008, and how she has been following the process closely.
With all due respect to Warpehoski, she said, she thinks that “nitpicking” is what governmental representatives have to do. The details of funding and implementation are crucial, she said. Armentrout said she wanted to make it clear that she strongly supports transit – she considers transit to be very important to the quality of life in the community, the environment, to our ability to “self actualize” and everything else. It’s not a question of being opposed to transit, she contended. It’s a question of whether we will destroy our transit system – by implementing a risky system in its place.
She said she didn’t have time in four minutes to go into the details, but noted that what we’re talking about is creating a new entity, a new regional transit authority, which will have the power to tax, to change fare structures, to encumber itself with debt. She sees a lot of dangers connected to the proposal, including the idea that the new transportation authority would be expected to realize the vision of the WALLY rail system – which she described as having no foreseeable form of financial support. And WALLY is not about our local transit system, she contended. WALLY is about a train to Howell. The new countywide authority, she said, would not empower Ann Arbor residents to travel outside the borders of the city – it would only fund commuter systems to bring workers to the center of Ann Arbor and then leave again at the end of the day.
[At its June 21, 2012 meeting, the AATA board authorized the expenditure of funds for planning the north-south commuter rail project – from Howell to Ann Arbor, known as WALLY (Washtenaw and Livingston Railway). The money had previously been included in the AATA’s approved budget for fiscal year 2012, which ends Sept. 30, 2012. But the board had passed a resolution that requires explicit board approval before the money in the budget could be expended. AATA’s portion of the $230,000 in planning costs is $45,000, with the remainder contributed by a range of other public entities – the federal government, the city of Howell, the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, and Washtenaw County. ]
Armentrout continued by saying the documents involved would weigh pounds if you printed them out. Her concern is that we are going to lose our transit system – and that’s why she’s been a strong opponent of this particular change. She also said that under the proposed agreement, accountability would be lost, compared to the seven-member AATA board that is appointed by our own city government. In the new system, Ann Arbor would have a minority stake, she cautioned. One of the first things that has been proposed is to raise fares by $.50, she said. So she does not see the four-party agreement as enhancing transit, but rather sees it as a danger to transit.
Warpehoski picked up on Armentrout’s comment about the importance of looking at details. He pointed out that those details were negotiated over years with a lot of stakeholders. Trying to understand the concerns of all the people who need to be part of this process is a difficult balancing act, he allowed. What he sees, however, is that people outside of Ann Arbor are worried that they are simply going to be subsidizing buses within Ann Arbor. And people in Ann Arbor are worried they’re going to be subsidizing buses that are not for Ann Arbor. That’s a difficult balance, he said.
That’s a balance that the governance structure in the four-party agreement tried to strike – where Ann Arbor has representation far in excess of its population. It tries to strike a balance between income-based representation and population-based representation, he said. [On the 15-member board, a population-based representation would give Ann Arbor just 5 seats. Based just on millage rates without attention to population, the 2 mills currently levied by Ann Arbor plus the 0.5 mill likely to be levied countywide would give Ann Arbor at least 12 seats.] He noted that Ann Arbor under the proposed governance structure [with 7 seats out of 15] is just one vote away from being able to get whatever it wants. That’s the kind of balance that the four-party agreement tried to strike, he said. And that’s why he supported it.
Armentrout allowed that Warpehoski is right – both township folks and city folks are worried about their contribution to the future system. If you listen to some Washtenaw County commissioners, they characterize it as a “power grab” on the part of Ann Arbor – that Ann Arbor is trying to get the townships to subsidize their buses. The facts are, she said, that Ann Arborites will be paying somewhere around 75-80% of the taxes to support the system, because Ann Arbor will begin levying its current 2 mills transit tax plus another 0.5 mill for the countywide tax. She also noted that the median income for Ann Arbor is lower than the entire western side of Washtenaw County. In fact, she continued, most of Washtenaw County has a higher median income than Ann Arbor. The only exception is Ypsilanti, she said – and she does feel that we should do something about Ypsilanti.
Follow-up: The questioner said it’s alarming to her to consider that Warpehoski could be her future representative and to hear him saying essentially that the plan couldn’t be improved on – and if you attempt to do so, you are one of “those naysayer obstructionists.” To her, that does not sound like he is listening.
Warpehoski noted that one of the factors is the role that he plays in different situations. The role he was playing when he was writing that op-ed piece, he said, was as an advocate for transit. He was not thinking about running for office, and he was not thinking about how to represent the whole community in writing that piece. He’d been thinking about how to represent those constituents for whom he had invested the deep listening in order to bring them together – that was the role he was playing when he wrote that piece.
That’s a different role than the one that a city councilmember plays, he said. He felt it would be possible to find things in other people’s writings, where you might conclude that someone is not listening – but they could be playing a different role. If Armentrout wrote something on her blog that he does not feel represents his concerns, he did not think that means she would not be able to listen to him if she were to serve on the city council.
DDA: Downtown Parking
Question: Do you agree with the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority’s action of building a new underground parking garage on South Fifth Avenue that cost around $70,000 per space to build, and charging two dollars a day for airport parking?
Background: The “airport parking” is provided by the DDA in partnership with the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority’s new AirRide service between downtown Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro airport, which was launched earlier this year. The introductory parking offer was $2 for up to two weeks of parking at the Fourth and William structure. The DDA will be transitioning to a rate of $2 per day.
Armentrout she began by saying that the Ann Arbor DDA is using parking as a policy instrument. She questioned whether that is appropriate. She posed a rhetorical question: Is parking a public utility that should be available to all people who are living in and visiting and doing business in Ann Arbor? Or is it to be used as an instrument to achieve certain policy goals? She felt that lately it’s been the second of those two possibilities. She felt it’s an issue that could use broad discussion.
Warpehoski recast the question essentially as: Do you support the subsidizing of the AirRide airport service with a $2-a-day parking fee in order to help the AirRide service? He noted that the AirRide service has been very popular, and he is still looking at that specific question. With respect to the parking structure, he noted that whether you supported or opposed it, now we have it. And now we have to pay for it, he observed. He did not feel that $2-a-day parking fees for the AirRide service would help that much.
He mentioned that the special rate structure in connection with the AirRide program is not the only instance of the Ann Arbor DDA using special prices to give people incentives to park in different places – alluding to the reduced costs for monthly permits that have been offered in the new underground parking garage. One of the questions he has: Is this an introductory thing that will be around for six months or a year until the usage of the underground parking structure increases significantly? Or is it going to be a permanent thing?
[In connection with the opening of the new underground parking garage, the DDA has also announced temporary lower rates for monthly parking permits for the new garage, to encourage its use. The incentive rate of $95 per month in the new underground structure – for current permit holders in certain other structures, or for new users – is good for two years. That compares to the $145-$155 monthly rate at other structures.]
Those are some of the questions Warpehoski said he has and he’s still trying to work through them. He’d be happy to hear what people think about this issue.
Armentrout followed up by saying she wanted to give an example of the Ann Arbor DDA using parking as a policy tool. As the underground parking garage was being planned and built, she said people were told it was because Ann Arbor suffered a parking deficit and that the merchants needed the parking to keep businesses viable. But now, she said, a considerable amount of the new garage will be assigned to a new office building that is being built downtown. So, she contended, the underground garage is being used to subsidize office development.
[The public commentary and deliberations at the Feb. 17, 2009 city council meeting when the bonds for the parking garage were approved included voices calling for increased parking to support merchants. The meeting also reflected arguments based on more general economic development. The office space to which Armentrout alluded is not a new building, but rather the old Borders corporate headquarters downtown at 317 Maynard. Barracuda Networks is expanding into the space. According to DDA staff, no parking spaces are being assigned to Barracuda. However, as new monthly permit applicants, individual employees of Barracuda would enjoy the same reduced rate as other new permit applicants, if they opt to park in the new underground garage instead of the Maynard Street structure immediately adjacent to their work place. An industrial development district at the 317 Maynard location, which would need to be established in order for Barracuda to apply for a tax abatement, will likely be on the Aug. 9 city council agenda.]
Question: What could be done to require the Ann Arbor DDA to engage in real public input? What is the role of active community members in planning for public spaces? The Connecting William Street survey was very biased against green space. What could be done to require the Ann Arbor DDA to engage the public in real public input?
Background: The Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority is undertaking the Connecting William Street project at the direction of the Ann Arbor city council. The council passed a resolution on April 4, 2011 that gave the DDA direction to explore alternative uses of city-owned parcels – currently used for surface parking – in a limited area of downtown. The area is bounded by Ashley, Division, Liberty and William streets.
Parcels included in the area are: the Kline’s lot (on Ashley, north of William), Palio’s lot (at Main & William), the ground floor of the Fourth & William parking structure, the old Y lot (Fifth & William), and the top of the Fifth Avenue underground parking garage.
Warpehoski said he’d heard a lot of concern about the initial survey and some of the public involvement – that there has been a “shaping of the path” to push people toward particular discussions. There are a couple of factors with that, he said. One factor is that the multiple choices presented on the initial survey had a set of options – and “open space” was not a part of that. That had resulted in a lot of people writing it in.
Also not included on the survey was affordable housing, he said. When the city purchased the former YMCA building, there was a promise made to replace the 100 units of affordable housing that were lost when the building was condemned and then demolished. So his concern is how that promise is to be kept. That wasn’t one of the multiple-choice checkboxes, either – so he had written that in. Pushing the DDA has to come partly from citizens and partly from the city council, he said. What would come out of the Connecting William Street process is a recommendation that would then go to the city council for approval. That’s a chance for the council to say: Well, this is what was left out!
With respect to the issue of open space as it relates to the top of the underground parking structure, he feels there are multiple stakeholders who need to be involved in that discussion. Whatever the future of that space is, it needs to include an open space component, he said. Questions include: How big? How much? What goes around it?
Public involvement should include citizen groups, including groups like Friends of the Library Green, he said. But it should also include the Ann Arbor District Library board – because the library sits directly adjacent to the parcel. It should also include other stakeholders in the area, he said – and some merchants are very supportive of a proposed park there. But just the previous day, he reported, he’d been knocking on the door of one Ward 5 resident who owns a downtown business – and who is absolutely opposed to having a park there. So he felt it’s important to have all the voices at the table.
His frustration with the process so far, he explained, is that he has seen park proponents and park skeptics talking past each other. He hasn’t seen the level of real engagement on the concerns that he would like to see. The process could be better, he said, and he would like to see an approach of shared problem-solving.
Armentrout began by saying she did not know how to get the Ann Arbor DDA to encourage more public participation – except to tell them really nicely that it would be really nice. She said we don’t have any direct influence on the DDA. As Warpehoski pointed out, she noted, whatever decisions are made by the DDA as a result of the Connecting William Street planning process would have to be endorsed by the Ann Arbor city council. That’s a place where citizens can bring up issues that they perceive as a lack of public participation. She traced the history of some failed request for proposals (RFP) attempts by the city – to find a solution for the YMCA lot and for the top of the underground parking garage. The RFPs tried to do too many things, and had very poor public process associated with them, she said.
The RFP that led to the conference center proposal from Valiant Partners had an appearance of public process, Armentrout said. But she said that the RFP advisory committee that was supposed to be considering the proposals had shown its bias – and didn’t really consider an open space proposal. So there’d been some bad blood about it, she said. There’d been outright rejection of open space, she said.
[The RFP advisory committee reviewed the six proposals that responded to the city's RFP. Two of them were essentially proposals for open space. The proposal selected as the most preferred by that committee was from Valiant Partners. However, on April 4, 2011, the city council vote to terminate the process of RFP review – as the city was poised to move ahead on a letter of intent with Valiant Partners.]
The DDA has had numerous discussions at their board table about how parks don’t belong downtown, she noted – how parks are suburban, and downtown shouldn’t have green space. She was dismissive of the kinds of open space that are sometimes mentioned – Main Street, where people sit outside and dine, or the ability to close off downtown streets and have parties there. There has been every effort to avoid the idea of open space downtown, she said. We’ll have to work as a community to change the conversation, she added, saying she did not have a magic bullet.
[In the DDA board discussions The Chronicle has documented, the distinction between the suburban and the urban has been highlighted by DDA board member Russ Collins. His view, however, is more nuanced than "parks don't belong downtown." From a March 2, 2011 DDA meeting report: "But the types of parks that are effective in a suburban area, Collins said, are not necessarily effective in an urban area. In urban areas, he said, density, activity and noise are positive attributes, even though those features are considered anathema in suburban areas. It’s important to separate the urban from the suburban, Collins concluded."]
Warpehoski agreed with Armentrout’s read of the initial request for proposals for the top of the underground parking garage. She was right, he said – that it was a terrible process start to finish – and he called it rushed, not transparent. He said it was a real problem. He stated that we do have open space downtown, pointing to Liberty Plaza [at the corner of Liberty and Division], saying the challenge is how to make that space work. He pointed to near-downtown parks such as Hanover Square by Blimpy Burger [at Packard and Division] and Sculpture Plaza [at Catherine and Fourth] – so we do have downtown open space, he said. He also believes that whatever goes on the top of the underground parking garage should have an open space component.
Armentrout responded to Warpehoski’s use of the word “stakeholder,” saying that word always causes concern for her. She described the typical process for “stakeholders” as one where you get one person from the merchants, one person from the library, one person from the chamber of commerce, and one citizen – everyone’s at the table, so what’s the problem? She said there are a lot of complexities with the way we make decisions, and once we start talking about “stakeholders,” it always makes her nervous, she said. [For a review of the term "stakeholder" and its original coinage, see "Column: Ann Arbor Parking – Share THIS!"]
Follow-up: Is there any way to redirect the Ann Arbor DDA to include green space in their Connecting William Street planning process – because that’s what the citizens want. The questioner noted that there were a very high number of mentions of parks and green space in the open-ended responses to the Connecting William Street survey.
Armentrout said she’d begun to count and enumerate the responses to that survey – but she had not finished because “a campaign came along” and interrupted some of her activities. But she noted that a very high percentage of the surveys that had been returned did say that people wanted open space or a park in the downtown area. She suggested that what citizens need to do is a proper job of tabulating the responses and then presenting that information to the DDA.
Warpehoski reiterated that in his day job as a community organizer, his job is to try to organize people and to get them to speak, to get them to weigh in on public issues. And often when he’s trying to do that, his job is to make the perspective he’s advocating for the loudest voice in the room. The challenge of an elected official, he said, is to work to hear every voice in the room. Those are different goals, he said.
He feels that stakeholder involvement is important, and what happens at that site affects merchants up and down that street more than it affects him – so we need to hear their voices, too. We need to hear all of the voices – including people who live in the neighborhoods. We need to push hard to consider what are the trade-offs – because when we say yes to something, we are also saying no to something, and we have to engage with that, he said. We need to think about how we can do a better job of hearing everybody, he said. He agreed that so far the Connecting William Street process has not done a good job of that.
DDA: TIF Capture, Conflict of Interest
Question: Should Ann Arbor continue with the Ann Arbor DDA and its current financial structure – which encourages bigger and more expensive financial development? For Warpehoski: Do you feel any conflict of interest voting on issues for the city government, DDA, and the AATA – given that your wife is so connected?
Background: The Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, like all downtown development authorities in the state of Michigan, is funded through a tax increment finance (TIF) district. TIF allows an entity like the Ann Arbor DDA to “capture” a portion of the property taxes in a specific geographic area that would otherwise be collected by taxing authorities in the district. The tax capture is only on the increment in valuation – the difference between the value of property when the district was established, and the value resulting from improvements made to the property. The Ann Arbor DDA TIF applies only to the initial increment, not to inflationary gains.
Ann Arbor’s DDA also manages the city’s public parking system under a contract with the city of Ann Arbor. As a part of that contract, renegotiated and finally ratified in 2011, the city receives 17% of the gross revenues from the parking system.
Warpehoski’s wife, Nancy Shore, is director of the getDowntown program. This is a program that was initially funded in a four-way partnership between the city of Ann Arbor, the AATA, the DDA and the Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce (now the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Regional Chamber). Initially, the chamber acted as the employer. In 2009, the chamber essentially withdrew from the partnership, which meant that the getDowntown program needed to find alternate quarters – part of the contribution made by the chamber had been to provide office space. The getDowntown program then moved to offices at 518 E. Washington, with the financial support of the DDA. But it’s the AATA that now acts as the employer for getDowntown staff.
So currently, getDowntown is funded through a three-way partnership: city of Ann Arbor, AATA and the DDA – and Shore is an employee of the AATA. The new Blake Transit Center is planned to include office space for the getDowntown program. The go!pass program, administered by getDowntown, is funded through a nominal charge per go!pass ($10) to downtown employers who participate, and a grant from the DDA. The DDA grant for the go!pass program is funded from the city’s public parking system revenues. The DDA has allocated $438,565 in FY 2012 and $475,571 in FY 2013 for the go!pass program.
Armentrout felt it would be valuable to assess the role of the DDA within the city government. There was a 30-year renewal of the DDA’s charter in 2003, she noted. She did not know what legal recourse we would have to re-examine that. The role and the scope of the DDA, however, she feels needs to be re-examined. She contended it has become like an “unaccountable government in its own right.” The DDA is setting agendas and priorities and has a substantial revenue stream. It’s like an organism, she said, and when given lots of fuel, it grows. The priority of the DDA in recent years has been to increase development that adds to the taxable value of property, so that they get more tax increment finance (TIF) funds – it has become a kind of development engine, she said. She felt that we need to ask: Is this what we really want? The original idea of the DDA, she said, was to keep the downtown alive – not necessarily to turn it into an economic development engine, she said, which seems to be what it’s attempting to do now.
Warpehoski began by saying that there are some things that the DDA does well, and there are some things that the DDA does not do well. He noted that the city had been sued over the sidewalks and their accessibility – and the DDA had funded installation of curb ramps in the downtown area to ensure ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliance. So, some of the things that the DDA does provide real public benefit and need to be supported, he said.
He pointed to the getDowntown program – which his wife Nancy Shore directs – as a program that encourages people to get out of their single-occupancy vehicles and use alternative forms of transportation. The DDA has been funding a lot of Shore’s program to get downtown employees to use the bus and other alternative transportation – and he thinks that’s a good thing. On the other hand, now that the DDA has the debt from the underground parking garage and the new parking contract under which it pays the city 17% of gross revenues, there’s been an increase in focus on parking revenue. He did not feel that that’s an appropriate part of the DDA’s mission.
In terms of the DDA’s structure overall, he said, he illustrated how the DDA’s TIF capture works by talking about a proposed redevelopment for the former Georgetown Mall, which lies outside the DDA tax capture district. He gets excited about the future new Georgetown development for two reasons, Warpehoski said. Neighbors want the blight in their neighborhood removed. The proposed development to that site will also add a half million dollars in property taxes to the community – across all the taxing authorities, he believed. That’s not taxes for the sake of taxes, but when we talk about things like paying for safety services, or funding leaf pickup, he said, that helps to close the gap.
But when there is a new development inside the DDA taxing district, he pointed out, that doesn’t address the citywide tax need in the same way [due to the DDA's capture on the increment in value between the original assessed value and new construction.] So it is worth asking: How do we make sure that we have a vibrant downtown? We need to ensure a vibrant downtown, Warpehoski said, and he thinks we can have a vibrant downtown. A lot of different groups deserve the credit for it – including the local business community. But it’s important to make sure that those TIF capture funds are serving not just the downtown, but also the broader community.
Warpehoski came back to the issue of his wife, Nancy Shore, noting that her position is with the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. Her salary, he said, is funded by federal grants, and some of the programs she administers are funded with DDA money.
The first issue related to conflict of interest, he said, is disclosure. There is no secret about the funding of his wife’s position, or his relationship to her, he said – as they are married, with a child. He’s very proud of the work that Shore does, he said, and he would not do anything to endanger her great work in promoting sustainable transportation. If a particular vote came up that warranted recusal, he would recuse himself, so that the law is obeyed, and that he does not endanger the work that he does or his wife does.
Armentrout added her view that it leads to confusion when the DDA is playing two roles – administering the “parking utility” as well as filling its role as a development authority. When we look at the role of the DDA in the future, she said, we need to make sure we’re not talking about apples and oranges. On the whole, the DDA has done a good job administering the parking utility, she allowed. But using parking as an instrument of policy worries her, she said.
Open Meetings Act
Question: Does the city council have too many closed sessions? What would you do when another closed session is called?
Warpehoski said the hard thing about a closed session is that you don’t know what’s going on in there – so you can’t say whether it’s appropriate or not. Certain topics are appropriate for a closed session. Personnel matters and some legal issues are appropriate to have a discussion and have some level of confidentiality to them. If you are around a table in a closed session and the discussion is not appropriate for a closed session, he’d be pushing back and saying: Wait a second, this is not something we should be having closed-door discussions on.
Armentrout noted that Michigan’s Open Meetings Act outlines what topics are appropriate for closed sessions – personnel matters, purchase of property, and litigation, among others. She said she also doesn’t know what’s going on in there, and said that it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on city councilmembers. As a Washtenaw County commissioner, she said, she participated in closed sessions, and they were told that if they revealed to anyone what was said inside the session, they would be breaking the law and could be prosecuted. That was a terrific burden, she said.
She was not sure if a single city councilmember could challenge whether a closed session is appropriate. But she noticed that the current city attorney [Stephen Postema] seems to have an “expansive view” of what attorney-client privilege is. She would like to bring whatever small influence she might have as a city council person to re-examine some of that.
Pension Fund Liability
Question: What specifically would you like to do about the pension fund liability?
Armentrout began by saying that she does not have a solution – as she has not studied the question in depth. She felt that it’s a valuable area to look at. She would not, however, consider altering the existing pensions that employees are getting. We have to keep the promises we’ve made, she said. It’s going to take a lot of analysis to figure out how to fix the pension system on an ongoing basis. It’s much more than she could take on in four minutes, she concluded.
Warpehoski called it an important issue – years in the making, which would take years to fix. But it’s an issue that the city council needs to address through the mechanism of the budget process. His understanding, he told the forum, is that there are two elements that have to be looked at – one is the city pension fund liability, and the other is the retiree health benefit liability. Both of them are concerns, he said. He allowed that he would probably misidentify which one was which, but he ventured that one of them had been fully funded before the stock market crash back in 2008 – and for that fund, the city is much closer to having a fully funded system than for the other. [Fitting that description is the pension fund liability.]
He also thought there had been changes in the federal accounting rules that had put a lot of municipalities into an “Oh, no!” situation. Like Armentrout, he allowed, he does not have a five-point proposal for how to address the problem – but said we absolutely have to look at it for the long-term financial health and sustainability of the city.
Armentrout she was really glad that the Ann Arbor Ward 5 Democratic Party put on the forum – she felt it was very valuable and felt that it had allowed attendees to get a good sense of the two candidates. She called it a very stimulating discussion on the issues. The reason she’s running is that she’s really asking people to put her to work for them. She felt that people know what they need to know about her, and what her concerns are, so she’s hoping for people support.
Warpehoski echoed Armentrout’s thanks to the Ward 5 Democratic organization. After leaving some of the other candidate forums, he said, he wondered if people had heard enough to make a decision. But he felt that the Ward 5 forum had allowed candidates to engage some of the key issues of the community. His commitment, he said, is a commitment to service – for the common good. That’s the reason he works with the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice. It’s a commitment to what is best for the community, what’s best for the world, and what is best for future generations, he said. That commitment is key if he is elected to office, he added.
People had heard the candidates talk about the issues and their perspectives on the issues, he said, but what’s important going forward are broader questions. When he was first considering running, he said he’d set up a meeting with Sabra Briere. One of the things she had told him was that she is more interested in knowing what a candidate’s values are – not their positions on issues. Positions will change as the issues change, she’d told him, but the values will stay. That thought from Briere had an impact on him, he said. [This is part of Briere's standard "Advice to the Candidate."]
He felt that his record of service with the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice shows that he is committed to the common good, shows that he is committed to bringing people together – and that’s part of what he’ll to bring to the city council, he said, if he is elected.
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