In the Ann Arbor mayoral race, incumbent Democrat John Hieftje faces Albert Howard, who is running as an independent in the Nov. 6 general election.
The two men answered questions at an Oct. 10 candidate forum moderated by the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area. Issues ranged from the city’s relationship with the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority – which Howard described as a “shadow government” that he would dissolve – to nonpartisan elections, current challenges and a long-term vision for the community.
Howard repeatedly criticized Hieftje for a lack of transparency and fiscal responsibility, and for not focusing on public safety issues. He supported moving to nonpartisan elections, and for a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) program for the University of Michigan.
Hieftje, who was first elected mayor in 2000, defended his view that the city is one of the safest and most robust in Michigan. He said that he personally has been “extremely approachable” and that the city government itself is open and accessible. He advocated for an expanded transit system, and a focus on quality-of-life issues.
The office of mayor has a two-year term. In Ann Arbor’s council-manager system, the mayor is the eleventh member of the city council, with limited responsibility beyond that of a city councilmember. The mayor enjoys a power of veto over council actions, which can be overridden with an eight-vote majority. The mayor also makes nominations for most city boards and commissions, which then require confirmation by the council. The mayor has certain powers during emergencies, and serves as the ceremonial head of the city. Day-to-day management of the city is the responsibility of the city administrator – currently Steve Powers – who is hired by the city council.
The Oct. 10 candidate forum was held at the studios of Community Television Network in Ann Arbor, and is available online via CTN’s video-on-demand service. The forum included candidates for Ward 5 Ann Arbor city council – Stuart Berry and Chuck Warpehoski. The Ward 5 portion of the forum is reported in a separate Chronicle write-up.
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.
Each candidate was given the opportunity to make a one-minute opening statement.
Albert Howard: He looked forward to the opportunity for viewers to vote for him on Nov. 6 as the 61st mayor of Ann Arbor. There are three issues that are paramount with the current mayor’s administration, he said: A lack of transparency, a lack of fiscal responsibility, and a lack of taking initiative on immediate priorities. He wanted to bring light to the fact that even though the 60th mayor was sitting to his right, the language of Hieftje’s administration – especially in “referendums and addendums” – is not advantageous to the people. There’s more hidden behind this protocol than we know, he concluded.
John Hieftje: The city is doing well, he said, considering that it’s coming out of one of the worst financial climates since the 1930s. Ann Arbor has made it thus far by increasing efficiencies, he said. Unlike many cities, Ann Arbor hasn’t raised taxes – except for what he characterized as a very small increase so that the city could take over sidewalk maintenance. Otherwise, the city has maintained all services, he said. There’s low unemployment and new companies are coming to the city, he said – and there’s very robust job growth in the city’s future, according to UM economists. When you talk about things like local government, you need to look deep down and see what’s actually been going on, Hieftje said. He encouraged viewers to look at the city’s website. “Everything is out there,” he said – about the city’s budget and other information. The city does everything they can to make sure they are approachable and open to all citizens regarding anything that’s going on at city hall, he concluded.
What are the biggest challenges that the city faces over the next two years, and how would you act on them?
John Hieftje: Certainly the budget will continue to be a priority – it will continue to be a priority for a very long time, both for Ann Arbor and every city in the state and nation. He said he would not trade Ann Arbor’s budget position with any other city, particularly in Michigan. Ann Arbor continues to do very well and has a solid budget position. As far as basic services, he noted that Ann Arbor is in the top 20% of safe communities in the United States, based on FBI statistics. He pointed to a December 2011 article in the Ann Arbor Observer with the subhead “Crime Is Down – Way, Way Down.” If you look at it over decades, crime is going down – Ann Arbor is one of the safest cities of its size, he said.
Talking about leaf pickup, the city still picks up leaves, Hieftje noted, but not in the same way that it used to. [Stuart Berry, the Republican candidate for Ward 5 city council, had earlier in the forum mentioned that residents were upset that the city had stopped leaf pickup. The city previously designated two days on which residents could sweep their leaves into the street, and they would be collected using converted street sweepers, front loaders and large-capacity trucks. The city now uses a "containerized" approach that's integrated with the weekly compostables pickup.] There were some problems with the previous approach, he said, and almost every city in Michigan has moved away from doing it that way. It was a good decision, he said. In looking back, there were choices that had to be made as budgets were cut, but that was a choice that stood out as a simple one.
Albert Howard: It’s vital that the current administration and the next mayor not hide by using the language of subliminal, subtle signals, he said. The current mayor has had more Freedom of Information Act requests from the media than other mayors. The mayor rarely issues press releases, Howard said, and has never vetoed an action by city council during his administration. Alluding to Hieftje’s mention of FBI statistics, Howard said that the local 911 dispatchers are the people who handle calls about crime – and they make the determination about whether that crime will be in a particular category. The current mayor must be held accountable for transparency, he said, and for creating statistics that aren’t relevant to the city’s condition.
[That Hieftje has never exercised his veto power is a common belief – one held even by many long-time political insiders. The Chronicle is not aware that Hieftje himself has ever challenged this notion when it's been mentioned publicly – and he did not dispute it at the candidate forum. However, based on city council minutes from early in his tenure as mayor, Hieftje once vetoed a change to the ordinance that regulates the city employees retirement system. The change involved a calculation of final average compensation. The council subsequently overrode that veto. Minutes indicate that the council voted for the ordinance change on April 16, 2001, the mayor vetoed it on April 23, 2001, and the overriding vote came at the council's May 7, 2001 meeting.]
Relationship with the DDA
Are you satisfied with the relationship between the city and the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority? What are your thoughts about the DDA’s Connecting William Street project?
By way of background, in 1975 the state legislature authorized the Downtown Development Authority Act (Act 197 of 1975), which enabled cities to set up DDAs with the purpose of protecting and revitalizing their downtowns. The Ann Arbor DDA was established in the early 1980s, and renewed by city council in 2003 for another 30 years. It is governed by a board that’s appointed by the city council, based on nominations by the mayor, who by statute also serves on the board. The DDA is funded by tax increment financing (TIF) – that is, it “captures” 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. In Ann Arbor, the DDA also operates the public parking system under contract with the city.
Earlier this year, the city council also directed the DDA to embark on another project – now called Connecting William Street – focused on developing a plan for five city-owned properties along William Street, between Ashley and Division. Four of the parcels are surface parking lots; the fifth is a parking structure at Fourth & William. For more background, see Chronicle coverage: “PAC: Downtown Park, More Input Needed” and “Planning Group Briefed on William St. Project.”
Albert Howard: The DDA is part of a “shadow government” that the current mayor has established, Howard said. The DDA board is selected by the mayor, he said. It needs to be dissolved, Howard said, adding that he would work with city council to shed light on this shadow government that is taking taxes away from the city. The DDA is getting the benefit of the city, but is a separate entity – and it’s not healthy for the city, he said. Howard said that the original architect of the DDA, Louis Belcher, now says contends the way the DDA is currently operating was never the way he intended for it to be run. Belcher stated this on AnnArbor.com, Howard said. [He was referring to the transcript of a radio interview with Belcher conducted by Lucy Ann Lance, which was written up as a post on AnnArbor.com.]
John Hieftje: Responding to a previous statement by Howard, Hieftje said the FBI statistics are reported by the police department at the end of each year, and it’s a duty that’s taken very seriously. Regarding the DDA, he noted that such authorities exist across the state and were established so that downtowns had a way to renew themselves and make themselves vital – as shopping malls became more prevalent. Ann Arbor has done a tremendous job of keeping its downtown vital, he said. It’s probably the best downtown in the state or maybe the Midwest, Hieftje noted, and the DDA has played a very strong role in that. “There’s nothing shadowy about the DDA,” he said. Downtown development authorities exist in other cities and states. Northfield Township has a DDA, he noted – they are very common. All you have to do is visit downtown Ann Arbor and compare it with other downtowns across the state. That’s one of the great things that people cite about the city as a reason for living here, he said.
Traffic & Population Growth
Is the city’s planning for traffic growth keeping up with plans for the growth in population, with respect to parking, safety and other aspects?
John Hieftje: The population has been stable for quite a long time, he said, although he believes it’s starting to grow a little now. [The 2000 census recorded Ann Arbor's population at 114,024 compared to 113,934 in the 2010 census.] There’s been a lot of growth outside the city, he added. But the city is growing jobs, and the community will continue to do that. So the city needs to make a decision, he said – do we want to continue to grow jobs? If so, then there will be increased traffic congestion, pollution and the need for more parking structures. But the answer to that is more transit, he said. The city needs to expand transit – otherwise, the trade-off is traffic, pollution and congestion. It’s a simple equation and something that’s being looked at very closely, he said, adding that it’s something the whole community is engaged in right now. The question is how to expand transit. Is it bus or rail? Everything the city can do to get commuters out of cars and on foot, on a bike, a bus or train – all of those things will help avoid a future of traffic congestion, he concluded.
Albert Howard: A woman was recently riding a bicycle, he said, and was hit by a vehicle – so she was in intensive care. It was because of a local law that was set up by the current mayor, he contended. This woman was hanging on for life, he said. Now, the city has traffic growth and population growth, but what about the safety of the citizens? Howard asked. Did the current city administration conduct an investigation with the state regarding the city’s crosswalk laws? This is now being considered for revamping, he said. The population is growing, but the safety of the citizens is a priority, he said.
John Hieftje: Later in the forum, during his time allotted for another question, Hieftje responded to Howard’s comments. He noted that the woman – who he described as “tragically hit on her bicycle” – was on a road controlled by the Michigan Dept. of Transportation. That accident had nothing to do with the local crosswalk law, he said. If you’re in an intersection and are hit by a car, particularly on an MDOT-controlled road, that’s always been a traffic problem, he said. People need to be responsible for the people in front of them “and put the brakes on.”
Albert Howard: During his closing statement, Howard responded to Hieftje’s remark by saying MDOT is not responsible for the woman being hit. The mayor set up a unique system of crosswalk paths – that was done by this administration, he said.
Should Ann Arbor follow the lead of many other municipalities and abandon partisan tags for mayor and city council, particularly to take top vote-getters in a nonpartisan August primary and into the November general election?
Albert Howard: The current mayor has been in office for 12 years, and the system needs to change. Hieftje has taken advantage of the system, he said, and the system needs to be revamped. If there’s a mayor who’s been in office for 12 years, then something needs to change. A lot of people he speaks with – including a lot of Democrats – describe Hieftje as a “word mayor,” but not an effective leader, Howard said. The voters are consistently unhappy with the majority of things that the current administration is doing. When the system changes, the mayor will change, he said. The mayor is in the system because the system has not changed, Howard concluded.
John Hieftje: Party labels give voters a really good starting place and a good road map to begin assessing candidates, he said. There are basic values that people are looking at in candidates, and party labels are helpful in that. Ann Arbor happens to be a Democratic town, he said, but for most of its history, it was a very, very Republican town. “Perhaps someday it will switch back that way.” It’s been in this cycle since about 1990, he noted, but in the city’s history, very few of its mayors have been Democrats.
Looking ahead 10-20 years, highlight one or two projects that you’d like to support now to achieve your future vision of Ann Arbor.
John Hieftje: With ever-rising fuel prices and rising carbon levels, transit is the thing that the city needs to plan for now, he said. It takes decades sometimes to put proper transit systems in place, and the city needs to work at that.
Not all of the city’s workers or residents will be able to afford a $30,000 hybrid in order to keep up with rising gasoline prices, Hieftje said. It’s vital to look at long-term transit issues. At the same time, the city also needs to protect the environment in other ways, he said. Ann Arbor is known as one of the greenest cities anywhere, and we need to continue to work on that, he said. We need to keep Ann Arbor clean – noting that Ann Arbor has the cleanest urban river in the state. Focus needs to remain on quality-of-life issues, he said, because in today’s economy, that’s what attracts the businesses of the 21st century to the city. Ann Arbor needs to continue to be the award-winning city that it is by concentrating on the environment, transportation and quality of life – bringing all that together to make it a place where people want to continue to live and visit, he concluded.
Albert Howard: He’d like to see the relationship between the city and the University of Michigan become closer. He’d like to see payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) program. He said that the university has $11 billion worth of property. Howard noted that the billionaire Sam Zell, who spoke recently at UM, said the university should consider privatizing so that it would pay taxes that the city rightfully deserves. There should be some closer relationship so that the city will be fruitful and profitable, Howard said.
What question wasn’t asked tonight that you’d like to address?
Albert Howard: The mayor should be accountable for the words that come out of his mouth. Howard would like to see accountability with the statistics that the mayor cites. He’d like to see more transparency – not making the media file Freedom of Information Act requests, not a mayor who’s been in office 12 years without issuing a veto, and not a mayor who only rarely issues press releases. The people want a mayor who is approachable, who goes to town hall meetings and who holds town hall meetings, he said. “This mayor has not had any town hall meetings – he always sends other people.” The people want face-to-face meetings. The mayor is a very intelligent man, Howard said, but he needs to be accountable and approachable.
John Hieftje: Hieftje responded that he’s had open office hours almost every week he’s been in office, except for a few when he’s been out of town. He said he attends meetings for any and every group who’d like him to come. He’s attended several town hall meetings, including some regarding the budget. “I think I’ve been extremely approachable.” If someone can’t come to his office hours, he said he’ll make arrangements to meet at another time to hear their concerns. That’s very vital to city government, he said. The mayor and councilmembers need to be “just what they are – which is your neighbors, the person who’s in the same boat as you are.” He said he learns so much from talking with residents and neighborhood groups. He said he’d be attending another neighborhood meeting the following night. He’s happy to meet with people anywhere in the city, “whether it’s by ones or twos, or tens or twenties.”
Each candidate had the opportunity to make a two-minute closing statement.
Albert Howard: He said he wanted to talk about the current mayor and the administration that the mayor is responsible for. It’s important to bring transparency, fiscal responsibility and a focus on immediate priorities – the city’s public safety, the proper amount of police and fire personnel and equipment. The administration should be open and accountable, he said. The mayor has to realize that the picture he’s painting is not a realistic picture. The statistics he talks about aren’t realistic. There was recently a sexual assault downtown near campus, Howard said. The week before that, a woman was raped in her bed. The mayor is not being realistic – the numbers don’t match, and the words don’t connect. He needs to be held accountable.
Regarding the DDA, Howard reiterated an earlier point about Lou Belcher, who was mayor when the DDA was originally established. Belcher has said the way that the DDA is operated now is not the way it was intended to operate. The current mayor needs a reality check, Howard said – and Hieftje’s words are going to catch up with him. The city is unsafe because the priority of the city is not paramount, he added. This can’t be ignored – and a light needs to be shined on it. Howard urged viewers to visit his campaign website: AlbertHoward.org.
John Hieftje: He began by noting that a recent article in the press had the title “Why does Ann Arbor continue to win so many awards?” Certainly that has a lot to do with the way the city is run, he said, and it has a lot to do with being one of the safer cities in North America. It also has a lot to do with the city’s beautiful park system, a vibrant downtown, and the fact that the city is fixing all of its roads and bridges now, with the most robust road repair program in memory underway. That road repair will continue in the next building season, he said, adding that the East Stadium bridges will be opening next month.
So many things are moving forward as we come out of the greatest recession and economic downturn since the 1930s, Hieftje said, and he’s very excited. When you talk about why Ann Arbor wins awards, you also have to look at the people. There are so many people engaged, he said. People at the Rotary Club who plant 1,000 trees each year. People in nonprofits who work hard to make sure the community is providing services to those who need them the most.
Ann Arbor is one of only two communities in Michigan that continues to contribute general fund dollars to pay for human services, and that will continue, he said. The city’s human services funding has not gone down during the Great Recession, he said. The city is moving forward in many different areas. In the last few months, the city has hired 13 new police officers. Hieftje described them as young officers who are eager to work in this city and who are excited about what they can do.
Hieftje noted that Howard had mentioned a couple of recent crimes. For one, a suspect has been arrested, Hieftje said – it had been reported in the printed press on Sunday. For the other sexual assault, some believe that it might not have occurred. [The UM Dept. of Public Safety later issued an update stating that the incident did not occur.] In general, sexual assault is down this year and it was down the year before, he said. We have a very safe city and Ann Arbor continues to be one of the very best cities to live in North America, Hieftje concluded.
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