Aside from the mayor, only one Ann Arbor city council seat is contested in the Nov. 6 general election – in Ward 5. Candidates in four of the city’s five wards are unopposed.
The Ward 5 seat is currently held by Democrat Carsten Hohnke, who did not seek re-election for another two-year term. Vying for the opening are Democrat Chuck Warpehoski and Republican Stuart Berry. The two candidates answered questions about their background and vision for the community at an Oct. 10 forum organized by the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area.
Berry stressed the importance of basic services, and advocated for giving power back to the people. In general, he indicated a belief that government at all levels has overstepped its bounds.
Citing his experience as executive director of the nonprofit Interfaith Council for Peace & Justice, Warpehoski emphasized his skills as a listener and in bringing together people with different perspectives. Warpehoski also provided written answers to a set of questions on the league’s Vote411.org website. The site indicated that Berry did not participate.
Both candidates highlighted the challenge of providing services at a time when budgets are tight.
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 also included candidates for Ann Arbor mayor – Albert Howard and John Hieftje. The mayoral 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.
Chuck Warpehoski: He thanked the league, noting that this event is important to give viewers a better understanding of the candidates. He believes he brings important skills that are necessary to serve the community. He cited the past 10 years of experience he’s had as executive director of the Interfaith Council for Peace & Justice. In that role, he said he’s gained important experience in how to listen to constituents and bring people together across their differences to address their concerns. This is an important skill for serving the community, he said. Warpehoski’s work has also given him experience in balancing a budget and meeting payroll. Those are hands-on leadership skills that a councilmember needs, he said. He directed viewers to his campaign website to learn more, and he asked for their vote on Nov.6.
Stuart Berry: He also thanked the league for hosting the forum. He first came to Ann Arbor in the late 1960s to help his father, a Scottish immigrant, deliver milk to Ann Arbor families. It was hard work – and his father worked six days a week, 52 weeks a year, but was glad to do it because he came to America knowing that hard work paid off, Berry said. During those years, Berry said he witnessed the building of many great neighborhoods, commercial areas and parks in Ann Arbor. The city was changing then to redefine itself. Now, Ann Arbor must face new realities if it is to remain great. When he returned in 1989 to live and work here for the University of Michigan city services were very good. Over the years, declining revenues have forced some tough choices, and the city council has not always been wise in making those choices, he said. The council has chosen to reduce basic services, he noted, and to fund many projects of questionable value and benefit. He looked forward to discussing his concerns and solutions.
What are the biggest challenges that the city faces over the next two years, and how would you act on them?
Stuart Berry: The biggest challenge relates to basic services. Police and fire protection have been cut back, and it’s impacting the safety of the citizens and taxpayers, he said. Another basic service is the roads, which continue to be in poor shape. The city needs to improve the roads, he said. As he goes throughout Ward 5 knocking on doors, people are questioning why the city eliminated a fall leaf collection program, saying that many people feel that is a hidden tax – because they now have to spend money and time on it themselves. The city council needs to redefine itself so that it better provides the basic services of Ann Arbor, he concluded.
Chuck Warpehoski: Many of the challenges will be budget-related, he said. It isn’t always a choice between a good thing and a bad thing, he noted. Often it’s a choice between multiple good things, or the difficult choice of making cuts. The city has faced significant challenges. It lost property tax revenue when Pfizer left town, he said. Property values have declined, so the revenues from property taxes have declined. The city has lost several million dollars in state revenue-sharing, he said. So continuing to provide services and balance the different needs of constituents is a vital challenge.
Warpehoski said there are a couple of things he can bring to meet that challenge. With his background in listening and bringing people together, his goal is to have a participatory process that will bring people into that discussion. As they move forward in that process – having made cuts in the past – part of the challenge is how to look for alternative revenue sources to help fund community needs, he said.
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.”
Chuck Warpehoski: The downtown is part of what makes Ann Arbor great – that, plus the city’s dynamic neighborhoods, he said. As he hears people discuss the downtown and the DDA, he hears that some people are unhappy with the DDA’s administration, that it’s taking too many resources. But he also hears people argue on the other side – for example, that the DDA gave too much away when it negotiated with the city for the most recent contract to manage the city’s parking system, and that as a result the DDA is not able to fully fulfill its mission. He thinks the DDA is important for maintaining the downtown’s vibrancy. There are continuing discussions about how they can best do that. He hears a lot about the importance of making the community accessible to all residents. When the DDA puts in ADA-compliant curbcuts downtown, that’s a good investment, he said. The downtown is important, but it’s also important to make sure that the partnership with the DDA works for the community as a whole, he added.
Stuart Berry: He agrees that the downtown is very vibrant. People come in and spend their money, and pay a lot of money for parking, Berry said. The money that the DDA handles is, in effect, taxpayer money, he said, and the DDA’s board is unelected. He’d rather see more oversight over the DDA, because that’s the role of the city council – to make sure that the money collected by the DDA is properly handled. Ultimately, the city council is responsible for those dollars, he said, because councilmembers are the ones who are elected.
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?
Stuart Berry: Traffic in any city is a real concern, especially in Ann Arbor. The city is growing, but the infrastructure is shrinking, he said. The city is on a path to put all the pedestrians, bicyclists and cars in the road at the same time. It’s a prescription for a bad thing – and he’s concerned about that. The city has to find a way to get people into Ann Arbor, to move around safely, then get them out of Ann Arbor if they’re not residents here. Ultimately, the city needs more people and businesses to move in so that the city can grow, he said. To do that, the traffic situation needs to improve.
Chuck Warpehoski: Having a balanced and multi-modal transportation system is very important. Over the last five years, the city has seen almost a doubling of bicycle use, he said. So they need to look at a variety of factors when trying to manage mobility. Some people will drive to shop or work downtown, so the city needs to provide those driving and parking options. Some people will take the bus. Expanding options like park-and-ride lots will get people to the edge of the city so that they can take the bus, which will result in less congestion and less demand for new parking. It’s important to make sure that roads are safe for pedestrians, and that the city’s pathways are safe for cyclists. “It’s a matter of balancing all of these factors.” Overall, the city’s transportation planning has been good, Warpehoski said, given the constraints. Can it do better? Absolutely, he said – and he’s looking forward to helping find options for all of the city’s transportation needs.
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?
Chuck Warpehoski: There are arguments on both sides, he said. He noted that The Ann Arbor Chronicle published a column on this issue that made some good points. A proposal for nonpartisan elections might be something to bring to the voters. The advantage of a partisan election is that the party label gives voters an indication of things, he said. In the Nov. 6 election there are a lot of races. The League of Women Voters has been doing a great job of helping to educate voters, he said. But it’s very difficult to give attention to all the ballot initiatives, and all the races, to make sure people are really informed. The advantage of the current system is that when people go to the polls for the primary election – which ends up being the real race for many elected positions in Ann Arbor – there has been a lot of attention specifically on that race. The challenge of getting more attention for the general election and creating an educated populace is something that needs to be worked on, if the city moves forward with nonpartisan elections, he said.
Stuart Berry: Nonpartisan elections would be a very good idea for Ann Arbor, Berry said. The town has a majority of Democrats, so running as a Republican, Berry said it’s hard for him to get his points across to voters on their doorsteps. Many Democrats don’t want to listen to what a Republican has to say. But the ideas in Ann Arbor are not necessarily Republican or Democrat, he said. We need to work toward improving the city, and the way to do that is to have all ideas heard. With partisan elections, the real election is in the August primary. It tends to bring out the more partisan part of the voting block, he noted. It would be very good to move from partisan elections to nonpartisan elections.
Looking ahead 10-20 years, highlight one or more projects that you’d like to initiate or support now to achieve your future vision of Ann Arbor.
Stuart Berry: He’d like to see city council devote more time to basic services. The council has gotten too far afield in addressing all sorts of issues that are not necessarily the jurisdiction of the government, he said. There are a lot of things that the council does that they could investigate “transitioning back to the people.” Churches, community organizations and fraternal organizations used to be very strong, he said. As the government takes hold of all the services in the community that those organizations used to provide, those organizations tend to suffer. The church he attends is always looking around for things to do, he said, but there are not as many avenues for them as there were in the past. “Let’s transfer the power back to the people.”
Chuck Warpehoski: As he looks ahead 10-20 years, Warpehoski said he certainly would not want to erode Ann Arbor’s social safety net or try to cut funding for those services that make sure the community is responsive to all of its members. One thing that would really strengthen the community is to take a more regional approach to transportation, he said. The Ann Arbor Transportation Authority concluded its 30-year master plan after extensive listening and feedback from community members, elected officials and others across the county to help create a vision, he said. Nationally, communities that have the strongest transportation systems are also those that have the strongest job growth. It’s good for the economy. For him, as a Democrat, he cares deeply about our national heritage. Public transportation is good for the environment. And as someone who’s concerned about people who can’t drive because of income, disability or other reasons, he thinks it provides more opportunity for them.
What question wasn’t asked tonight that you’d like to address?
Chuck Warpehoski: As he’s been going door-to-door, one question he’s heard a lot is about shaping the future of downtown. People are on both sides of the issue. The city has taken important steps in trying to envision what the downtown should look like, he said, but there’s still more work needed. He’s heard some concerns about some of the designs of buildings that are going up. There’s an existing downtown design process, he noted. Does that meet the city’s needs? Is it giving us the quality of buildings that the city should expect in a great community like ours? If not, how can that process be strengthened? Ann Arbor is a great town and should expect great buildings, he said. The city’s zoning and design process should give us that.
Stuart Berry: He believes in the power and creativity of the people. Government at all levels should allow the people to do what’s necessary to create community and keep that community thriving. He doesn’t put as much credence in an elected body to plan and design and make sure a city goes from A to B. It’s the people who should do that. “We know what needs to be done. We’re out in the neighborhoods and in the downtown every day.” The city government needs to allow an atmosphere where people can come and take risks with their capital to improve what’s going on. That’s what really brings people to Ann Arbor, he said – the creativity and talent of the people. “We, the people, make that happen.”
Each candidate had the opportunity to make a two-minute closing statement.
Chuck Warpehoski: He thanked the league and viewers, and said he’s running because he wants the opportunity to serve the community he loves. He has a small daughter, and wants to make sure that the community she grows up in is one that’s as great as it can be. The city has tremendous assets – a fantastic parks system, wonderful neighborhoods, a downtown that draws people from all over. The challenge facing the city council now and in the future is how to keep this community great. For him, an important part of that process is listening. That’s what he does every day with his work at the Interfaith Council for Peace & Justice – figuring out how to bring together people from different backgrounds and perspectives. That’s a commitment to listening, inclusion and bridge-building that he said he’d also bring to city council.
Warpehoski described himself as a proud Democrat, and he holds those Democratic values of an inclusive community with a strong social safety net and strong environmental protections – he’d bring those values to his council service too. He thinks those resonate with Ann Arbor voters. Finally, he believes he has the leadership experience serving as a nonprofit director, handling the difficult balancing act in his day job or at council, whether it’s budget deliberations, how to use public lands, or other decisions. He asked for people’s vote on Nov. 6, and pointed viewers to his campaign website for more information.
Stuart Berry: Thanking the league, Berry said the “good people of Ann Arbor deserve more than the city council has been giving us.” He’ll focus on improved basic services – police and fire protection, good roads, timely snow removal, maintaining city parks. He said he’d provide oversight of how hard-earned taxpayer dollars are spent. He’d work for a climate change that promotes business growth in Ann Arbor. The growth he witnessed while lugging milk to Ann Arbor families was good for the city at that time, he said. Today, it appears to him that private-sector growth is resisted and blocked at too many opportunities. The paradox is that taxpayer-funded development is promoted at every opportunity, he said.
The purpose of the government is to do the things that citizens should not do – because those things are either too hard to do, or too dangerous. Examples of things that are too hard are building roads, sewer and water systems, or trash pickup. Examples of duties that are too dangerous are police and fire protection. He endorses a refocus of the city council onto its managerial role. Council has a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that tax dollars are spent wisely and appropriately. When he’s on doorsteps, he said he often gets asked “What are they doing, and when will it end?” He’ll promote a council that devotes its time and energy to serving the citizens of Ann Arbor, not on how it can expand. “I have no special interests and no hidden agendas. I support liberty, freedom, and responsible, limited government.”
He told viewers that they can help bring equitable, enthusiastic, efficient leadership to Ann Arbor, and he asked for their vote. He looked forward to representing everyone in the Fifth Ward. “I want to let Ann Arbor be what it can be, not what a few think it should be.”
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