The Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority has enjoyed significant attention from the city council through the spring – and that attention will continue at least through next week.
Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) has been leading the effort by the council to have an impact on the DDA – first by proposing ordinance amendments, then by bringing forward a proposal during the council’s FY 2014 budget deliberations on May 20 – to reallocate DDA funds toward housing. More on that later.
Next week’s June 3 city council meeting would have marked the start of a three-month DDA-free period on the council’s agenda. However, Ward 2 councilmembers Jane Lumm and Sally Petersen, joined by Sumi Kailasapathy from Ward 1, have now placed a resolution on that meeting’s agenda calling on the DDA to allocate money for three additional police officers dedicated to patrolling the downtown area.
For Lumm, this might appear to be a course reversal. Earlier this spring she argued that funding for police officers should be found within the regular city budgeting process. She argued that police officers should be paid for with city general fund dollars – because the city is responsible for public safety. Specifically, she argued that the city should not be looking to the DDA to pay for police.
Yet it’s not actually a course reversal for Lumm. If you follow the city council and the DDA closely, her position now – calling on the DDA to fund police – makes perfectly logical sense, if “logical sense” means “political sense.”
The fact that this reversal makes perfect political sense is not an indictment of Lumm specifically, but rather of the entire 11-member council. They’ve managed as a group to forget what they accomplished together at their retreat in December 2012.
At that retreat, the council achieved a consensus that the city’s achievement of success for the public safety area would not be measured by the number of sworn officers. Instead they agreed that success would be based by actual crime stats, perceptions of safety by residents, and an objective measurement of the time that officers can spend on proactive policing. Yet the council’s debate on May 20 reverted to the familiar past habit of measuring safety success by counting sworn officers.
To the credit of the June 3 resolution’s sponsors, their proposal at least claims that adding police officers downtown would contribute to the perception of increased safety – a nod to the council’s retreat consensus. But I can imagine arguments both ways about whether that claim is true.
The council’s general distraction from its budget retreat consensus might be linked to the energy spent on the DDA. So what has stoked that interest? The fuel for this political fire is the perverse interpretation the DDA has given to Chapter 7 of the city code, which regulates the DDA’s tax increment finance (TIF) revenue. The DDA contends that the revenue constraint that’s articulated in Chapter 7 isn’t really a constraint. The DDA further contends that the $470,000 it returned to other taxing jurisdictions in 2011 was paid back “erroneously.” Kunselman’s ordinance amendments would exclude the DDA’s interpretation.
Throughout the council’s months-long debate about the DDA, the DDA board and staff have enthusiastically participated in city council politics. They’ve done so in a way that has not added much value to the city of Ann Arbor, except in the form of political drama.
In this column I’ll lay out the DDA’s role in the most recent political play that was performed at the council’s May 20 meeting.
Setting the Stage
By way of background, this year’s council focus on the DDA began on Feb. 4, when Ward 3 councilmember Stephen Kunselman announced he’d be sponsoring an amendment to the local ordinance governing the DDA. A month later, on March 4, the council had the item on its agenda. After postponing it several times, the council eventually gave the measure initial approval. But at its May 6, 2013 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council decided to postpone final consideration of that ordinance revision until Sept. 3 – after the Aug. 6 city council primary election.
However, that postponement did not keep the DDA off the city council’s agenda for the regular meeting that followed – on May 20, 2013. That’s when the council debated the FY 2014 budget. During the budget debate, a proposed change to the DDA’s budget occupied more of the council’s time than any other budget amendment. To be clear, it is the statutory role of the city council to approve the DDA’s budget. It’s not so clear that the DDA should occupy so much of the council’s time on budget night.
At that May 20 meeting, Kunselman offered an amendment to transfer money from the DDA’s TIF (tax increment finance) fund to the DDA’s housing fund. It was ultimately approved – as a kind of compromise with a competing DDA budget amendment that mayor John Hieftje had hoped to bring forward. The transfer amount agreed upon by the council was $300,000 – compared to the $500,000 Kunselman had originally wanted to transfer.
The political backdrop for this includes the fact that Kunselman faces a challenge in the August Democratic primary from Julie Grand, who currently serves on the city’s park advisory commission. She also lives on the same block of Brooklyn Avenue as Christopher Taylor (Ward 3), who’s been one of the council’s leading defenders of the DDA. Taylor was elected to the council in 2008, over then-incumbent Kunselman. But Kunselman returned to the council the following year when he received more votes than Leigh Greden.
Kunselman is also a political rival of mayor John Hieftje, who sits on the DDA board. Kunselman has stated that if Hieftje seeks re-election in 2014, then Kunselman will run to oppose Hieftje.
The sparring between Kunselman and Hieftje can be overt, with Hieftje writing to Kunselman in an email sent during the second week of May: “I understand your need to automatically oppose anything I may be in favor of …” And on May 20, Kunselman told Hieftje during the council’s meeting, “Of course, you’re not going to support anything that I bring to the table.”
Budget Amendment & DDA Special Meeting
The fact that Kunselman proposed his DDA budget amendment on May 20 was not a surprise – because he’d announced at the council’s May 6 meeting that he’d be doing that.
Three days later, on May 9, the DDA board called a special meeting – scheduled for May 13. According to the posting, the meeting was for the “purpose of discussing budget priorities and any other business that the members deem necessary.”
The DDA board had already adopted its FY 2014 and FY 2015 budgets – an action that took place at its Feb. 6, 2013 meeting.
So when the special meeting was announced, I expected there was an interest among DDA board members in using the special meeting to modify the DDA’s adopted budget. If the board took action to modify its budget – at least in the spirit of Kunselman’s planned amendment, if not in the same dollar figure – that might have blunted the effect of Kunselman’s amendment.
The argument against Kunselman’s budget amendment would have gone something like this: The DDA already transferred $X from its TIF fund into its housing fund at a special meeting of its board held on May 13 – so why are we quibbling about the difference between X and $500,000?
As it turned out, the special meeting of the DDA board on May 13 did not result in the transaction of any business. No resolutions were considered. No votes were taken. The 12-member DDA board did not even achieve a quorum of seven members. I marked the following six board members present for the May 13 special meeting: Leah Gunn, Joan Lowenstein, John Splitt, Sandi Smith, Roger Hewitt and Newcombe Clark. That’s the same as the DDA staff’s tally of attendance.
An Accounting of Events
Yet during deliberations on May 20, John Hieftje described the gathering on May 13 as a having achieved a quorum. He also described “DDA action” taken on May 13.
In fairness to Hieftje, he had to rely on information from others – because he was absent from the meeting. But he also had no political interest in questioning or confirming the accuracy of the information.
What was Hieftje’s political interest? He certainly didn’t adduce the May 13 DDA gathering as a random point of recent history. He adduced it in support of his own DDA budget amendment, which was meant to compete with Kunselman’s. Hieftje took the occasion during the meeting to point out that his own proposed amendment was based on the DDA’s May 13 “action.” For example, the dollar amount to be transferred to the DDA housing fund in Hieftje’s proposed budget amendment was $100,000. That’s the amount that the DDA had purportedly resolved on May 13 to transfer from its TIF fund to its housing fund.
So how would anyone get the idea that the DDA board had – through a vote or some kind of other consensus of a quorum of its members – taken some action, or passed a resolution to update its previously adopted budget?
The part about a quorum is likely attributable, I think, to an inadvertent miscounting of board members by DDA board chair Leah Gunn. She sent an email to city councilmembers stating that seven members had attended the May 13 meeting. With six members plus staff sitting at the table, it’s the kind of miscount that anyone could make.
Except for the miscount, Gunn’s email does not, on my reading, try to portray the meeting as more than what it was – an informal meeting where no action was taken. From Gunn’s email:
The DDA had an informal meeting last Monday to discuss the allocations to the budget considering the added TIF that will be received in the next fiscal year. Although no formal action has been taken, the attached memo describes the consensus reached by the seven members present.
However, if the phrase in Gunn’s email were read contrastively as “no formal action” had been taken, the ordinary rules of contrastive stress would open the door for Hieftje’s description. So during deliberations on May 20, he could refer to some “DDA action,” presumably an informal one. I have no idea what it means for a public body to take informal action. But grammatically, at least, it works.
Gunn’s email refers to an attached memo. It’s the attached memo, written by DDA executive director Susan Pollay, that I think actually misrepresents what happened on May 13. The subject line indicates a “budget update” when no updating of the DDA’s budget was undertaken at the meeting.
And the body of the memo indicates formal action in at least three places, when no action was actually taken:
- “At its Monday morning meeting the DDA board members resolved that …”
- “The board members authorized me to …”
- “On Monday, the DDA members resolved to set aside $75,000 …”
Even if a quorum of members had been present, then based on my own attendance at the May 13 gathering, no action was taken by those assembled. It would perhaps be fair to say that among the six board members gathered, a general consensus, along the lines described by Pollay’s memo, was apparent during the casual conversation.
Pollay was present at the May 20 council meeting and was asked to the podium to respond to questions. She was present when Hieftje characterized the May 13 DDA gathering as having achieved a quorum, and she was there when he referred to the DDA board action. She had an opportunity to correct the statements made about the May 13 meeting.
So I inquired with Pollay by email about her memo’s characterization of the May 13 gathering – given that no quorum had been achieved on that occasion. Her response was to cite an email she’d received from board member Bob Guenzel saying that he couldn’t attend the meeting, but expressing his thoughts on the budget. From Pollay’s email:
Bob Guenzel wasn’t able to attend, but had shared ideas with me via email, and I let everyone know what these ideas were so they could be included as part of the discussion and ultimately weighed before they came to some kind of consensus. Bob’s interests were to direct additional funding to housing and to funding some kind of economic development study in partnership with SPARK. 6 board members were present for the discussion, but 7 provided input into the list of priorities.
Even given this additional context, I don’t think it’s remotely reasonable to represent the gathering of DDA board members on May 13 as having resolved anything or authorized anything.
Pollay’s justification for her memo’s portrayal of the meeting appears to be based in part on the idea that the seventh board member necessary to achieve a quorum was somehow actually in attendance – by dint of the email he sent prior to the meeting.
That’s just not how you count attendance at a meeting of a public body.
As it turned out, the DDA’s non-meeting of May 13 was not sufficient as a political prop on May 20 to allow Hieftje’s proposed budget amendment to win the day. I’m curious to see how the DDA will be used as a prop in the council’s June 3 discussion of downtown police funding.
Counting Police Officers
If the Ann Arbor city council wants to abandon its consensus success statements on public safety, and return instead to the familiar routine of counting police officers, then by all means let’s get the DDA involved, as proposed in the council’s June 3 resolution.
If the DDA is involved, perhaps we could adapt the DDA’s quorum-counting approach to police staffing levels. We could count officers as on patrol even if they don’t report for duty.
But, of course, we would still insist that such officers at least send an email to their shift commander, sharing their thoughts on how to fight crime.
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