Competing for a position that many voters don’t even know exists – according to one candidate – Democrat Evan Pratt and Republican Eric Scheie answered questions about their approach to the job of Washtenaw County water resources commissioner at an Oct. 8 forum moderated by the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area.
Scheie, who ran for Ward 4 Ann Arbor city council last year but was defeated by incumbent Marcia Higgins, is concerned that environmentalists have prioritized water over people. He said he’s against water pollution, but thinks that in some cases the government goes too far in over-regulating. He also took issue with the approach of current water resources commissioner Janis Bobrin, saying he’d heard “horror stories” from some farmers who think there’s a plot to push them off their land.
In contrast, Pratt has worked closely with Bobrin and he highlighted her endorsement of his candidacy. He stressed his experience in working on public infrastructure projects as a civil/environmental engineer, as well as his work with the Huron River Watershed Council, the Ann Arbor planning commission and other local entities.
Both candidates have more information on their websites. Scheie’s site includes a description of his philosophy, including a reminder of the position’s origins as drain commissioner. Pratt’s site includes a list of supporters, which he also highlighted during his opening statement. Scheie and Pratt also supplied brief answers to five questions about their background and approach to the job for the League of Women Voters Vote 411 website.
The water resources commissioner is an elected position with a four-year term. Bobrin has served in that role since first being elected in 1988. She was instrumental in broadening the focus of the job – as well as its title – from drains to water resources. Bobrin decided not to run for re-election this year. She endorsed Pratt in both the Aug. 7 primary, when he defeated fellow Democrat Harry Bentz, as well as in the Nov. 6 general election against Scheie, who did not face a Republican primary challenger.
The Oct. 8 candidate forum was held at the studios of Community Television Network, and will be available online via CTN’s video-on-demand service. It was the first of three forums on Monday evening. Others covered the races for county treasurer and county clerk/register of deeds. The full schedule of candidate forums this week is on the league’s website. The forums are broadcast live on CTN’s Channel 19 starting at 7 p.m.
Information on local elections 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’s Vote411.org website also includes a range of information on national, state and local candidates and ballot issues, and a “build my ballot” feature.
Each candidate was given one minute to make an opening statement.
Pratt: He explained that the water resources commissioner is responsible for over 500 county drains, stormwater management systems, flood control systems and lake-level management systems. He directed viewers to his campaign website for more information, and to look at his list of supporters to see if there’s someone they know and trust on the list. He said he stands for running a fair and transparent office operation, as well as a lean, financially prudent organization focused on water resources management. He cited his experience leveraging taxpayer money, saying that he’s assisted the current water resources commissioner in obtaining over $17 million in grants.
Scheie: The original purpose of the drain commissioner – the original title for this job – was to put people first and get rid of water, he said. Maybe that was going too far, he noted. There are now additional responsibilities, but he thinks the office now goes too far in putting water first. He’s seen a lot of extravagant projects. One example is Malletts Creek, which used to have a nice forest where he walked his dogs. It’s been clear cut and now has stagnant water in pools, he said – the water isn’t flowing well. Scheie also cited problems with the stormwater management project at West Park in Ann Arbor. These are examples of things he’d like to look at, he said. You have to consider the budget and everyone, not just water, he concluded.
Explain the primary duties of the county water resources commissioner.
Pratt: As laid out in the drain code [Public Act 40 of 1956] the job duties are to deal with water quality and quantity, Pratt said. That’s one reason why the position’s title has been changed to water resources commissioner. He said when he’s talked to people about flooding problems, or when he’s investigated water quality or quantity issues, it comes down to two things. It’s like what Walt Kelly said, Pratt noted: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Most people say there was a problem on their property when they bought it, or that someone else did something and caused the problem. Most flooding and water quality problems are caused by human interaction with the existing environment. So it’s not really true that it’s a choice between water and people, Pratt said. You need to see what the water’s doing first, before you develop and build things, because there’s definitely going to be an impact.
Scheie: Saying he wasn’t speaking of Pratt, Scheie said there are a lot of people in the environmentalist movement who think that people are the enemy of nature. The current water resources commissioner has a reputation, he said. He’s talked to farmers and landowners who really feel threatened. One man told him that a drain hadn’t been maintained – it hadn’t been cleared since 1937 – and it has turned the land into unusable wetlands “and now he’s in trouble.” The office needs to be more considerate of people who’ve been here a while, Scheie said. They’re not going to be able to turn Ann Arbor into what it originally was, but sometimes he wonders if that’s the philosophy of some of the environmentalists. He hoped that’s not Pratt’s philosophy.
What professional experiences led to your run for water resources commissioner, and what was the most significant in preparing you for this office?
Scheie: He said he’s a licensed attorney in California – he’s not practicing in Michigan. He’s been a local volunteer. He was a police review commissioner for the city of Berkeley, so he has administrative experience in government, though not elected experience. When he was running for a seat on the Ann Arbor city council, “water kept coming up in a strange way.” [Scheie ran in Ward 4 against incumbent Marcia Higgins in November 2011, but lost.] People were up in arms about the city’s footing drain disconnect program, he said. That’s a major issue now, and it’s a question of drainage. As another example, County Farm Park is one of his favorite parks, he said, but he watched it become defoliated [because of the Malletts Creek restoration project]. These things have led him to look critically at what’s going on, and that’s why he’s running.
Pratt: He’s spent 25 years of his professional career working in water resources and other public infrastructure work. It’s been interesting to learn how government processes work, he said, and to understand how people need to have a say in projects that impact them. He’s also served on the Huron River Watershed Council, and gained understanding of why it’s important to protect natural resources. Certainly there can be situations where a drain hasn’t been cleaned out, he said, but sometimes trees grow into drains – and if you want a drain cleared, you sometimes have to cut down trees so the water can flow. That’s probably the reason why trees were cut down in County Farm Park, he said. Pratt says he brings 25 years of construction experience on public projects. That will help him manage the fine line between helping people and damaging the environment.
What values or beliefs do you hold that would influence your conduct as water resources commissioner, or impact the choices you’d make on behalf of the office?
Pratt: It’s critical to be fair, open and honest in these projects that are being considered. Projects done under the drain code are different from work done on streets, sewers or water mains, he said. The water resources commissioner is not involved unless people have a problem and want to get the office involved. Landowners have to make a petition, and there’s a specific process to involve those landowners in the decisions that are made, he said. The people who live in an area know a lot about what’s going on there, he said, and it’s important to listen to them. That value or belief would guide him the most, Pratt said. From the financial or fiscal side, he said, it’s cheaper to dig a ditch than to lay a pipe, and the ditch is more environmentally sound. So in simple terms, it pays to be environmentally aware.
Scheie: Philosophically, he said, he’s not comfortable with the idea of central authoritarian figures telling people what to do. That’s why he as a problem with top-down micromanagement telling people that they can’t do certain things or farm certain land.
The stories that farmers have told him have horrified him, Scheie said. The state Dept. of Environmental Quality has told farmers that any drain at all – even tile in a drainage ditch – is a navigable waterway. He said he’s as much against water pollution as anyone else. He grew up in Philadelphia, where there was real water pollution with industrial waste. It’s a much cleaner situation here, he said, and he’d like to keep it clean. But he doesn’t like the idea of ordinary roof runoff being treated as pollution – he thinks it’s going a little too far. “We do have a city here,” he said.
Since water resources are affected by policies of surrounding communities, what are your plans for working with neighboring communities?
Scheie: He’d like to become as informed as possible – and he said he suspects that Pratt is a bit more informed about these issues. The water resources commissioner does interact with Ann Arbor a lot, he noted, although Ann Arbor has its own policies. The water resources commissioner doesn’t have a lot of power beyond what’s allowed by state statute, he said, which is to maintain the drains and keep them running, as well as to manage soil erosion and sediment control. But other than contacting people for input, the office doesn’t really have a lot of say-so in the rest of the state, he said. It’s a big job here, so he’d keep focused on that, though he said he’d also try to do as much outreach as possible within the limitations of the office.
Pratt: This question applies to three levels, he said – drainage, water quality, and pooling resources. The last category includes things like sharing equipment for cleaning, mowing and tree-cutting – whatever can be done to minimize the cost. Many public works departments already work together on this, he said. Regarding water quality, the current water resources commissioner is involved in the Middle Huron initiative, which focuses on pollution in the section of the Huron River where the MDEQ has found that E.coli is above legally allowable limits and substantial work needs to be done to cut that. There are other orders from the MDEQ that are being worked on as well, he said.
What challenges are facing the office in the next two years, and what are your priorities for managing them?
Pratt: It’s the same challenge that all agencies have been facing for five or six years, he said – how to manage increasing responsibility with declining budgets. He said he’s given presentations on this topic in Michigan, Tennessee and Ohio. There’s a lot of work to do – not just footing drain issues, but other flooding problems too – but there hasn’t been money to solve them. So dealing with those fiduciary issues is the main thing, he said. That’s why it’s useful to have his experience bringing grants to projects that qualify for grants. It’s an important skill, he said – taking a project that’s needed and that people want, and shaping it into something that fits into a grant mold. He’s worked with a number of communities that have taken this approach.
Scheie: It’s a big enough job just to manage and take care of the drains, he said. With the additional responsibility of soil erosion and sediment control, it’s probably twice as big. He said he’s visited the website of the water resources commissioner and there’s more about the issue of soil erosion and sediment control than about drains. What bothers him is that the county has fewer resources. While the drainage systems tend to pay for themselves – because the drain commissioner has the power to impose taxes for such projects – some of these other projects, like Malletts Creek and West Park, are very expensive multi-million dollar projects, he said. Scheie said he’d want to look at how much of that is needed, and whether there are diminishing returns. He realizes that Malletts Creek has some problems, like a deficiency of macroinvertebrates, but how far do you go? Do you want to make a pristine stream? Scheie said he didn’t think it’s ever going to be pristine again.
Allen Creek Greenway
What are your thoughts and preferences for the Allen Creek greenway?
Scheie: He’s visited one of the city of Ann Arbor properties where the road commission was previously located and where there’s now a big surface parking lot [415 W. Washington]. He doesn’t think anyone objects to that property being turned into something else – because right now it’s an eyesore. If the voters like the plan, he’s all for it – this is a democracy, he said. But he’d be very wary about the cost. Sometimes you get into complex mistakes that have to be dug up and redone, he said. People in Ann Arbor are fed up with traffic associated with endless construction projects, he said. And a lot of people are upset about the character of Ann Arbor being altered by tall buildings and other things. As far as creating a nice park, he said he doesn’t have a problem with that, but he’d want to look at the money involved very carefully.
Pratt: It’s a two-fold issue, he said. Some people think more about Allen Creek, but others think more about non-motorized transportation. He defined the corridor as running from where the creek flows to the Huron River just downstream from Argo Pond, up to the area around Michigan Stadium. He said he’s met with people who serve on the Allen Creek Conservancy board and talked to them about their vision. He thinks they’re open to the idea that the project could be a number of different things. It’s hard to say that he’s for one thing or another, because there isn’t a specific proposal yet. It would be great if there’s a cost-effective way to restore Allen Creek and to include a greenway. It’s fairly common to have a low-lying flooding area used for non-motorized transportation. The city of Austin, Texas does a great job of that, he said.
What’s your long-term vision for this office? What projects would you like to start now for the next 10-20 years?
Pratt: He said he’d like to work on a program more than a specific project – a program that would lead toward his children not having to stay out of the Huron River for 48 hours after it rains, which is the current situation. You’re not supposed to have full body contact during that period, because of what’s in the river. The situation is better than it was, he said. He’s seen photos from the 1950s and ’60s. There were tanneries in the area near the area where DTE now operates. Cleanup is happening there now, and you can see oozing black tar coming out. He’d love to see that site cleaned up, and a mix of uses there – parkland as well as a nice place where he could go have dinner with his family. He wants to do things that enhance the river so that people won’t turn their back on it. In a totally different category, he said, he’d like to help out farmers with their agricultural drainage fields, which relates to an entire different set of needs.
Scheie: It matters what the local community wants, not what he would want. There are a lot of arguments, especially in Ann Arbor, over things like the removal of the Argo Dam. He’d like to see some effort to have community consensus so that people don’t feel that projects are rammed down their throats. A lot of people feel that way now, he said. A project starts and people start asking questions about why it’s happening. He’s like to see projects like this brought to a vote, perhaps by amending the city charter in Ann Arbor and looking at what the whole county thinks. There’s too much acrimony, he said, and he’d like to try to reduce that.
What question wasn’t asked tonight that you’d like to address?
Scheie: He said he hasn’t really talked about some of the horror stories he’s heard from farmers. The further you get outside of Ann Arbor, you get the picture that it’s really scary. Some farmers think there’s a plot to push them off their land, he said, to take their land away inch by inch – by restricting what can be done on the land. One thing that bothers him is that you have to go through the water resources commissioner just to get a building permit for almost any exterior work. That doesn’t seem right, he said. There’s too much government, and he’d like to have some discussion of that.
Pratt: He would liked to have been asked what people are talking to him about. In general, people are telling him that they don’t want water pushed their way. A lot of times when someone wants to fill in a low-lying area or put something on their land, they aren’t thinking about the fact that water gets stored there. If you fill a low-lying area where water gets stored, that becomes someone else’s problem. That’s why there’s a drain commissioner, he said, dating back to 1847. He said he explains to people that the drain code is set up not to push anything onto people, but to offer people the opportunity to have at least five landowners petition the drain commissioner to help them fix a problem that they can’t solve themselves.
Each candidate had the opportunity to make a two-minute closing statement.
Scheie: He thanked the league for hosting this forum – it’s good for Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County. He’s running for an office that most people he talks to have never even heard of. He points out to them that this office has more power than the governor, in terms of the ability to impose taxes unilaterally. When there’s a drain put in, the office has the statutory power to levy taxes. A lot of people don’t think about these things. He’s concerned that there’s too much emphasis on putting water first. He said he goes swimming in the Huron River and cares about water quality. But in a populated area, you have to balance things. That’s why he’s running. Things have gone too far in the direction of over-regulation.
Pratt: He also thanked the league and the viewers. It’s not just the water resources commissioner, but many others who work hard to help out people. Water is our most precious resource, he said, and he’d like to continue a career of protecting this valuable resource for his young children and everyone else in Washtenaw County. He noted that the retiring water resources commissioner, Janis Bobrin, has worked hard to improve water quality and address flooding issues, and she supports him. Pratt read a quote from her stating that he’s the most qualified candidate.
He’s a licensed engineer in Michigan and a graduate of MIT’s civil engineering program. He cited his community experience relative to water resources, including nine years on the Huron River Watershed Council, eight years on the Ann Arbor planning commission, and service on the Washtenaw County planning advisory board. He said he also brings experience as a treasurer for “two relevant nonprofits and a $20 million private corporation.” That gives him a proven record of success in financial oversight for multimillion-dollar budgets and projects, he said. Pratt asked voters to consider these qualifications when they go into the voting booth on Nov. 6. People shouldn’t have to pay for something that they don’t need or want, he said. He’s committed to protecting water resources, listening to people, and finding that right balance between a project’s benefit and cost.
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