Editor’s note: A forum hosted by the Ann Arbor Democratic Party on Saturday, June 8, 2013 drew six of seven total city council candidates who’ve qualified for the primary ballot.
In the Aug. 6 Democratic primary, only two wards offer contested races. In Ward 3, Democratic voters will choose between incumbent Stephen Kunselman and Julie Grand. Ward 4 voters will have a choice between incumbent Marcia Higgins and Jack Eaton. Higgins was reported to have been sick and was unable to attend.
The format of the event eventually allowed other candidates who are unopposed in the Democratic primary to participate: Mike Anglin (Ward 5 incumbent), Sabra Briere (Ward 1 incumbent), and Kirk Westphal, who’s challenging incumbent Jane Lumm in Ward 2. Lumm, who was elected to the council as an independent, was in the audience at the forum but didn’t participate. The event was held at the Ann Arbor Community Center on North Main Street. The Chronicle’s coverage is presented in a multiple-part series, based on common threads that formed directly in response to questions posed to the candidates, or that cut across multiple responses.
One question posed to candidates explicitly involved transportation: What do we do to implement an effective transportation plan for Ann Arbor that would decrease congestion and encourage alternative modes of travel? But transportation fit into a broader set of themes at the forum that could be collected under the notion of “connection” – connectedness of citizens not just to physical locations, but to their local government.
Candidates had clearly prepared to talk about the topic of transportation generally. Jack Eaton criticized last year’s demised countywide planning effort, based on the fact that other communities were not asked to defray the costs of that planning. At the same time he called for better maintenance of roads, partly out of concern for bicyclist safety. He also called for more frequent bus service during extended hours – but cautioned that he was focused on spending Ann Arbor’s local transit millage money on transit in Ann Arbor.
As far as millages go, Mike Anglin was clear that he would vote for a possible new millage resulting from the admission of Ypsilanti to the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. However, Anglin was emphatic that he did not support trains, but rather only buses – with a focus on moving people around inside the city.
Julie Grand said she was glad that the possibility of adding rail service was being studied, and that by council resolution, the question of possibly using the Fuller Road site for a new train station would go to the voters. She pointed out that the park advisory commission, on which she serves, focuses on the potential for non-motorized connections when it considers parcels to acquire as parkland. She called transit a regional issue, but said that ultimately we need to focus on transit within the community.
Stephen Kunselman was specific with a suggestion of how to return a focus to the city’s own transportation needs: Remove the city’s transportation program manager, Eli Cooper, from the AATA board – so that Cooper could focus on issues like sidewalk gaps and bicycle lanes. Kunselman also stated that he would be proposing that the city council rescind its memorandum of understanding with the University of Michigan to build a parking structure as part of the Fuller Road Station project.
Although UM has withdrawn from participation in that project under the MOU, Kunselman said he wanted to “kill it.” That way, he said, the conversation could turn away from using the designated parkland at the Fuller Road Station site as a new train station, and could instead be focused on the site across the tracks from the existing Amtrak station.
Sabra Briere ventured that the community did not have a consensus about the basic question of what kind of transportation system is best for Ann Arbor – one that was geared primarily to commuters or one that was designed mainly for city residents as a replacement for personal automobiles.
Kirk Westphal told the audience that he’d chosen a house to buy in Ann Arbor based on its proximity to a bus line. He ventured that the transportation system needs to be robust enough to attract people out of their cars, and that to be financial viable, a certain amount of density is required. It’s important to support development near transit lines to provide that density, he said.
In addition to the question about connecting people to physical locations (i.e., transportation), candidates at the forum responded to a question about connecting people to local government. The question was specific to involving youth in local government. But candidates also delivered a range of comments throughout the forum related to the theme of connecting residents to government.
Among the specific suggestions was one from Westphal, who floated the idea of a “citizens academy” for general government along the lines of Ann Arbor’s citizens police, courts and fire academy.
Part 1 of this series focused on the candidates’ concept of and connection to Ann Arbor, while Part 2 looked at their personal styles of engagement and views of how the council interacts. Other themes from the forum will be presented in subsequent reports. Chronicle election coverage is tagged with “2013 primary election.”
Transportation: Non-Motorized, Safety
Non-motorized connections were part of the forum conversation, even when the topic was not explicitly about transportation. Sabra Briere told the audience that when she was first elected to the council, she’d asked why voters hadn’t been asked to approve a millage to fund sidewalk repair. [The city previously took the approach of requiring owners of property adjacent to a sidewalk to pay for repairs, when the city's inspection determined that a slab needed replacement or repair.] The answer she got was: Nobody would vote for a millage for this. So she was pleased that the request of the voters had been made and that the city was now fixing the sidewalks, and the cost is not being assessed to individuals.
Briere also said she was really pleased that the city is finally beginning to tackle sidewalk gaps. That’s a “weird issue to care about,” she allowed. But Briere reported that in her part of the city, there are lots of places where there’s no safe way to walk anywhere except in the middle of the street.
Jack Eaton also addressed non-motorized transportation. The infrastructure needs to be improved so that the pavement is good enough to ride a bicycle on, Eaton said. Potholes and the horrible surfaces that drivers complain about are even worse for bicyclists and pedestrians, he noted. Eaton also suggested improving the markings on roads and bicycle lanes so that they are clearly maintained – so that bicyclists feel secure in their bike lane.
Julie Grand told the audience that one of her interests during her service on the park advisory commission and in work on the PROS (parks and recreation open space) plan has been in connections for non-motorized use. When PAC prioritizes which parcels of land to acquire or when the city is planning for a new park, the potential for creating non-motorized connections is an important consideration. The North Main Huron River task force, on which she serves, had focused on the city-owned 721 N. Main property for its potential to make non-motorized connections. She ventured that if the city wants people to use bicycles for transportation on roads, then the city needs to encourage people to use their bikes in a recreational setting. It becomes more feasible for that person to think about using a bicycle to get to work, if they’re accustomed to riding a bicycle for fun, she said.
Not in the context of the question about transportation, but nevertheless related to that theme, were remarks from Mike Anglin about a stretch of road in Ward 5 along Seventh Street, between Pauline and Liberty. The downhill stretch results in excessive speeds, he said. So he was looking forward to supporting the efforts of a resident who recently began documenting the issue and who has set up a Facebook page: SOS (Safety on Seventh St.) Ann Arbor.
Anglin was critical of “traffic calming” as a policy that could address safety needs. “For me, it’s really hard to let [traffic calming] policy dictate safety in our community,” he said. Anglin characterized traffic calming as making the road narrower so that the driver gets nervous and says, “I’m going to have to slow down, because I may have an accident and ruin my car here.” Personally, Anglin said, he thinks a stop sign does a really good job at slowing down traffic.
We have control of the streets, Anglin said, and it’s important that we look at the things we have control of – and that we work to do things for the people who live here.
Transportation: Regional versus Local
Jack Eaton observed that transportation is really a regional question. About Ann Arbor’s local millage, he felt recently too much of it had been spent planning transit for communities outside of the city – who are not interested in participating in transit. One of the ways that you plan for regional transit is you make those other communities pay their share of the planning costs, Eaton said – because it shows that they are interested in participating when the plan is done. Rather than spending millions of dollars on a countywide system that dissipates due to lack of interest, he wanted to focus on improving the service that we have. We need to increase the frequency of buses, he said, and the buses need to run later in the evening.
As far as regional transportation is concerned, Ann Arbor needs to seek financial participation at the planning stage, he said, before service is expanded to Chelsea or Canton or Saline. Eaton said he’d be careful with the money that is collected for Ann Arbor’s local transit system. He would focus on improving what Ann Arbor has – showing how well it works for Ann Arbor – to make it an attraction to live inside the city of Ann Arbor.
Kirk Westphal noted that transportation is part-and-parcel of any kind of urban planning theory – in the functioning of the city and region as well. It is said that nobody buys or builds next to a bus line, he allowed, but he and his wife bought their house because it was on a bus line. Westphal said he uses public transit or bicycles every day.
Westphal called transit an equity issue that ties into issues of congestion. Coming from New York, he allowed that his view of congestion is a little different from that of people here. He quipped that a lot of cities in Michigan would like to have a problem with congestion. But transit has to develop along with density – and transit doesn’t work sustainably without density, he stressed. So density has to be part of that conversation. He indicated that roads also need attention and that road repair and transportation need to be discussed as a whole. Transportation service has to be robust enough to attract people out of their cars, he said. And it’s important to support development near transit lines, in order to make it a sustainable financial endeavor.
Julie Grand described transit as ultimately “for a region,” but as a city there’s only so much control that Ann Arbor has. The only regional transit decisions that the Ann Arbor city council can make involve reaching out to other communities, she said. Ultimately, the city should focus on transit needs within its community. Grand called for diversification of transit options. The park-and-ride system has been very successful for a lot of people, she said, and she would like to see more of that. At the point she delivered her remarks, Grand noted that no one had yet brought up the potential for trains – which Grand knew is a hot button issue – but she said she was really glad that the issue is being studied, and that it’s going to go to the voters.
Grand called for diversity in transportation but allowed that we need to recognize the limitations in the priorities of the communities around us – even though the approach should ideally be regional.
Sabra Briere ventured that we have a difference of opinion as a community about how transportation should work. Some people think public transportation should be our substitute for owning a car – that we should be able to go to the doctor, go to the grocery, go to the library, without having to own a car. And that means a lot of neighborhood service, Briere concluded.
Other people think that the transportation system should be the means for people who are driving their cars into town to go to work, Briere continued. People coming to work should actually be able to take the bus or the train or some other form of mass transit. She felt there was not a consensus about those two viewpoints – not in the community, not on the AATA board, and not in the public meetings she had attended on the topic.
There is a real tension back and forth about whether it’s this or that kind of transportation system, Briere said. In order to provide services for commuters, you might not be able to afford to provide neighborhood service. To provide neighborhood services, should you ignore the commuters?
Briere pointed out that Ann Arbor’s population has grown for the first time in over 20 years. She observed that a lot more cars are clogging up Ann Arbor’s streets and parking spaces. Briere reported hearing a complaint just recently that somebody couldn’t get to an event because there was no parking available downtown. She hears all the time that people don’t want to go downtown because the parking is so difficult. But she also hears people say it had not been necessary to build more parking downtown. The fact that the community has these very different, polarized opinions about transportation shows that this is not a simple problem, Briere concluded. She ventured that it’s not within our control to decide if the trains will come, or if there will be regional transportation all around Ann Arbor all the way to Detroit.
What is in our control is the possibility that Ann Arbor residents could be asked to vote for another millage, Briere pointed out – in order to provide decent transportation within the urban core. [That additional millage would be requested in the context of Ypsilanti's admission into the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. The millage would be requested by the AATA itself.]
Transportation: Rail Service
Mike Anglin’s remarks were focused in large part on criticism of possible rail service. He blamed the fact that land designated as parkland along Fuller Road actually had the zoning classification of PL (public land) as allowing for the possibility that a train station could be proposed for that site.
The most economical way “to push people around the city” is on buses, Anglin contended. Buses are flexible and are much less expensive than trains. “If you think you can afford a train, you’re going to be really surprised how much that costs,” Anglin cautioned. While the majority of the cost of a bus system goes toward bus driver salaries, Anglin said, most of those salaries remain in the community, because the bus drivers work in the community and then spend their money in the community. “I’m a big supporter of the buses; I am not a supporter of the trains,” Anglin said. Amtrak should run the trains, Anglin said, and the city shouldn’t start getting into a business it knows nothing about.
Commenting on the AATA’s AirRide service between downtown Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro airport, Anglin allowed that it’s starting to gain popularity. But there are people who still take their cars to the airport, he said.
Anglin stressed that the city should focus on the essentials – fixing roads, and providing police and fire protection. He ventured that it was more important to plant trees and fix roads – once the basics are covered, only then is it appropriate to look beyond that. He wasn’t saying: Don’t have a vision. So he supported buses. He noted that the council had just approved a change to the articles of incorporation to include Ypsilanti in the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. But he cautioned that “It’s going to cost you money, though.” Voters would be asked to approve a millage, Anglin said, “and I will vote for the millage for the buses.” He would not, however, vote for a train, saying that the area doesn’t have the population density necessary to support a train.
Following Anglin was Stephen Kunselman, who echoed Anglin’s sentiments, noting that Anglin had said everything Kunselman had wanted to say. The discussion of Fuller Road Station had taken up too much of the transportation discussion, Kunselman said: “And we need to actually kill it.” If he wins the Democratic primary in August, he plans to bring forward a resolution to rescind the memorandum of understanding (MOU) that made Fuller Road Station a possibility. The MOU doesn’t have an expiration date, Kunselman said.
Kunselman called the idea of a 99-year lease to the University of Michigan in connection with the Fuller Road Station concept “a clear effort to evade the city charter requirement on the sale of parkland,” which requires a popular vote. Eliminating Fuller Road Station from the conversation would allow focus to be returned to the transportation needs of the community – transportation to get people to their jobs, to their homes, and to their recreational activities. As a planner, Kunselman continued, he understands the importance of a plan – as a document and as a vision. In that plan, he said, the city should be talking about park-and-ride, van pool, border-to-border trails, airport service, University Michigan, Amtrak, and a train station.
Kunselman then expressed support for locating any new train station directly across from the existing Amtrak station. He contended it would be out of the flood plain, based on looking at the huge drop-off down to the Huron River. But he wanted Fuller Road Station to be pushed aside so that the dialogue about a new train station can be more open and transparent.
Kunselman ventured that the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority is going to be more robust, now that Ypsilanti will have board representation.
Sidewalks and bike lanes are all things the city council is supporting, Kunselman said. And the city has a staff person who’s assigned to plan for those things. [Kunselman didn't name the person, but Eli Cooper is the city's transportation program manager, who also serves on the board of the AATA. Kunselman voted against confirmation of Cooper's appointment to the board.]
But Cooper couldn’t do his job as the city transportation program manager, because he was appointed to the AATA, Kunselman contended. That had led to the countywide transit effort that “flopped,” Kunselman said. “That failed – because it didn’t have the people behind it.” He called the countywide planning effort a classic example of “poker politics.” So Kunselman called for removing Cooper from the AATA – noting that Cooper doesn’t live in the city, and doesn’t “have an egg in the nest.” That would get Cooper focused on the city’s transportation planning, Kunselman concluded.
Connection: People to Services
Julie Grand said when she’s out in the community, she hears people talking about safety, about water problems and things that she can’t address – like their schools. She felt that one issue related to providing core services to the neighborhoods is that people are feeling very disconnected from their government.
She didn’t know that every road could be paved, or that all the other problems could be fixed. But one thing she felt she could do was to provide responsive communication. She described herself as “a problem solver,” saying that a resident could come to her and that she could immediately connect them to the person in the city who can address the concern. She told the audience that she’s trying to reach those people who are feeling disconnected, so that their voices are heard, and so that there’s a good sense of what those needs are and of how to meet those needs.
Connection: Youth Involvement
The specific question posed to candidates about connecting residents to local government was this: How do you plan within your ward to stimulate an increase in youth interest and participation in local government?
Grand suggested that one way you get young people involved in the community is “you take them very seriously,” and you understand their strengths. One of the things that made her want to stay in this community was an admission interview she’d done with a young woman years ago, who served on the board of a not-for-profit. And that experience made her think: This is where I want to raise my kids; this is a place where we involve youth on our boards and we involve them in politics. She felt that more of that should be done.
Grand thought that encouraging youth to volunteer, getting them to take leadership positions, taking their voices seriously – that is the way that you get them involved in the community. You don’t just give them some envelopes to stuff. Rather, you really allow them to be a part of policy decisions and allow their voices to be heard. The youth of the community are just as capable of making decisions and they know what is effective, she concluded.
Jack Eaton allowed he didn’t have an easy answer to the question of youth involvement. He pointed out there are “gradients of youth.” If you look at the college students who live here just for a few years, it’s particularly difficult to get them interested in local issues, Eaton said. He attends meetings of the College Democrats in hopes of figuring out what matters to them, but he’s not sure that they have burning local issues. He said he would continue to do outreach and participate in their organization to see what they’re concerned about and try to incorporate it into what he’s doing as a councilmember.
For younger people who actually live in the community, Eaton said, in his neighborhood there’s an organization that takes care of a local natural area preserve [Dicken Woods]. The organization gets youth volunteers to come to the woods and help chip the trails or pick up trash or to clean up. It’s good to involve students in a civic task that has a schedule, because a structured environment like that helps them feel like they have actually accomplished something, Eaton said, and they come back year after year. So he’d encourage various neighborhood organizations to be seen as a mechanism to reach out to schools to encourage youth involvement.
Stephen Kunselman said the No. 1 way to try to encourage youth involvement is to lead by example. In his campaigns, his kids have been involved, and their friends have been involved, and the kids of his friends have been involved. He cited Yousef Rabhi as an example – and pointed out Rabhi’s mother in the audience. Rabhi had helped him in his campaigns in years past, Kunselman said. Rabhi had learned from that experience and then ran his own campaign, Kunselman noted. And now Rabhi is chair of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners. That is how to engage the youth, Kunselman said. [When Kunselman concluded his speaking turn, moderator Mike Henry quipped: "We call that the 'Yousef card' because we all love Yousef!"]
Kunselman also mentioned that recently he’d attended the Portfolio Day at Scarlett Middle School, where he’d sat down with kids and asked about their aspirations, and told them a little bit about himself. He tried to encourage them to remember every vote counts, every person’s voice is important, that you make the difference and that you should participate. [The "every vote counts" point could have been made specifically with respect to Yousef Rabhi's first campaign – as he prevailed by a single vote.]
At that Scarlett Middle School event, Kunselman had heard from two girls that they wanted to work in the foreign service. That means that youth have aspirations, Kunselman said, and we need to listen to those aspirations and encourage them. But we also have to recognize that out of a community of 116,000 people, there are 11 elected officials on the city council and it’s very difficult to get there, Kunselman said.
Connection: General Participation
The specific question about youth involvement wasn’t posed to the candidates who don’t have contested races in the primary. But some of them commented on the general issue of participation and involvement.
Kirk Westphal observed that he currently chairs the city planning commission – and he’s served on the commission since 2006. It’s been an extremely rewarding volunteer opportunity. He tries to say that as many times as he can, to try to get more people participating on boards and commissions.
Westphal felt that creating stronger links between local government and neighborhood associations could result in encouraging more people to serve on boards and commissions. He observed that for many boards and commissions, the application files aren’t filled with a lot of resumes. He ventured that it was important to get more people running for the city council.
A lot of cities have citizens academies, he noted. And the city of Ann Arbor’s safety services area provides such an academy, focused on police and fire services. Westphal suggested that a citizens academy of some kind could introduce people to how local government works. That could bear fruit in the long run, he thought.
On the general topic of participation in local government, Mike Anglin observed: “Our turnout in a primary election is devastatingly low. It’s embarrassingly low. And our community cannot be proud of that at all.”
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