The Ann Arbor Chronicle » Hayley Byrnes it's like being there Wed, 26 Nov 2014 18:59:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 New Technology for Tech Bond Election Wed, 02 May 2012 03:37:03 +0000 Hayley Byrnes On Tuesday, May 8, Ann Arbor voters will be asked to approve a bond to support investments in technology for Ann Arbor Public Schools. And it turns out that new technology will play a part in the Ann Arbor city clerk’s implementation of the election.

Driver's license can be swiped for automatic lookup in the electronic pollbooks that will be deployed at eight precincts for the May 8 election. The voting process itself will take place using the usual paper ballots.

A driver's license can be swiped for automatic lookup in the electronic pollbooks that will be deployed at eight precincts for the May 8 election. The voting process itself will take place using the usual paper ballots.

In eight of the city’s 37 precincts, election workers will deploy electronic pollbooks (EPBs) – information downloaded onto laptop computers (the night before the election) from the state’s qualified voter file. (The count of 37 precincts arises from the combination of several of the city’s usual 48 precincts for this local election.)

The laptops are supplied to the city of Ann Arbor by the state of Michigan through the Help America Vote Act. Michigan’s secretary of state’s office told The Chronicle in a phone interview that of Michigan’s roughly 1,500 different municipalities across Michigan about 800 will use EPBs in the May election, and more than 1,000 will use them in the August primaries. In 2009 40 different municipalities had tested the system.

Ann Arbor is piloting the EPBs in eight precincts this spring, with an eye toward expanding citywide by the November 2012 presidential election. Voters in the eight precincts won’t need to do anything different to prepare to vote. The voting itself won’t take place electronically. Voters will still fill in ovals on paper ballots. EPBs are simply for pollworkers to check in voters and perform record-keeping tasks at the precinct through voting day.

The eight precincts where EPBs will be deployed on May 8 are 1-8 (Skyline High School), 1-10 (Arrowwood), 2-5 (Ann Arbor Assembly of God), 2-7 (King Elementary School), 4-4 and 4-8 combined (Pioneer High School), 5-3 (Second Baptist Church), 5-6 (Eberwhite School), and 5-11 (Forsythe Middle School).

Voters will have mostly the same experience voting that they’ve always had. For example, they’ll still need to bring a photo ID. If that ID is in the form of a Michigan driver’s license, a voter might enjoy an incrementally faster check-in time at the polls. That’s because election workers will be able to scan a driver’s license for automatic lookup in the EPB.

The city clerk trained election inspectors in the use of EPBs at three sessions last week. The Chronicle attended the Thursday, April 26 session.


City clerk Jackie Beaudry led the training, with Howard Scheps assisting. Scheps then began by asking that everyone turn off all electronic devices.

Beaudry told election inspectors that their precinct was one of eight that will use electronic pollbooks (EPBs) in the upcoming May 8 election. By the Nov. 6, 2012 election, the entire city will have switched to the electronic system, she said.

The EPB is an electronic version of a paper pollbook. Armed with a laptop and special software, poll workers no longer record by hand each ballot they issue.

On software designed for elections, three specific duties are completed electronically:

  1. List of voters: Poll workers have access to a list of voters in their precinct, along with a list of all registered voters of the city of Ann Arbor. (The list does not include surrounding townships or cities such as Saline.)
  2. Remarks section: This section, to which a few blank pages are usually devoted at the end of the paper pollbook, is a place for poll workers to note any special cases or difficulties for the Board of Canvassers.
  3. Statement of votes and ballot summary: The software includes a program that automatically generates a summary of how many ballots have been issued and to whom they have been issued.

A few items have remained in their paper form. For example, poll workers still receive a cover page that describes the election, jurisdiction, and their precinct. They also receive in paper form an equipment certificate and their oath of office. And a voter who’s ability to participate in the election is challenged – for residency requirements, for example – must still sign by hand a document attesting that they’re eligible to vote.

Once the polls have closed, election workers will print their final list of voters, remarks section, statement of votes and ballot summary at the clerk’s office.

Screen shot of electronic pollbook screen. The electronic pollbooks will help election workers with voter lookup and record keeping on Election Day. But voting will still take place with paper ballots.

Screen shot of electronic pollbook. The electronic pollbooks will help election workers with voter lookup and record keeping on election day. But voting will still take place with paper ballots.

Along with record-keeping during the voting process, the EPB also allows poll workers to swipe a driver’s license or other form of ID as a quicker way to find voter information. By swiping a card — as opposed to typing in a voter’s name — poll workers may save time. Beaudry allowed, however, that the feature may not actually be of much use in the predominantly student precincts, because student IDs aren’t recognized by the scanners.

Beaudry then reviewed the anticipated work flow on election day. First, a voter completes an Application to Vote and presents a form of picture ID. Then Inspector #1 verifies that the application matches the information on the ID. Inspector #2 verifies that the voter’s information provided on the Application to Vote is the same as what is in the EPB, and uses the EPB to produce the correct ballot number for Inspector #1 to issue.

What will be the same for poll workers? The morning of elections, they will still take the oath of office (on paper). At night all workers must sign a “Present at the Close of Polls” document, and two inspectors must sign while sealing the final ballot bag.

What will be different? Inspectors must begin the day by setting up their designated city-issued laptops. They are also required to save and back-up all information throughout the day (at least every 20 to 30 minutes).

The files and software are housed in a password-protected flash drive, which workers will keep in the laptop throughout the day. At the end of the day, workers must complete the electronic ballot summary and save it to the flash drive.

Workers are required to pick up their laptops the night before elections and return them to city hall after polls close.

Software Specifics

At that point, Beaudry began a demonstration of the software. Using a sample flash drive loaded onto her laptop, she opened the software.

The software that poll workers will use is password-protected. Poll workers are also prohibited from using the EPB laptops to connect to the Internet or any kind of wireless connection throughout the day. Beaudry cautioned that any use of the laptops to connect to the Internet would violate the city’s agreement with the state to use the electronic system – and on that basis the city’s funding from the state for the hardware could be revoked.

Beaudry also added that the software, because it is not associated with any Internet connection, is not really “interactive.” The list of voters is downloaded to the laptops from the state’s qualified voter file (QVF) the night before election day. No updates can occur throughout the day.


Screenshot excerpt from the center Voter Detail Screen. (Image links to larger file.)

When poll workers have successfully logged into the ballot-counting program, they must first check for the correct election and precinct — detailed at the top of the screen. The screen itself is divided vertically into thirds from left to right: Voter Search, Voter Details, List of Voters.

Voter Search is a way to look up voters. Searching or scanning an ID will generate a set of search results. Clicking on the name from the search result causes the voter’s name and address to appear in the Voter Details section in the middle third of the screen.

Along with each voter’s name and information, the search screen also indicates any special circumstances or details associated with that voter – with a question mark. A question mark may mean that the election worker needs to confirm the voter’s address; it may also signal that the voter has already registered by absentee ballot (in which case the worker must call the clerk’s office to clarify).

To execute any procedure with a voter selected from Voter Search — to issue a ballot, for example — poll workers click on “Lock this voter record” and, from a menu of choices, choose the desired procedure, like “Issue a ballot.”

The List of Voters, in the far right third of the screen, is a running tally of voters, used to summarize how many people have voted and how many ballots have been issued. This feature is similar to the running list that a poll worker would usually write by hand, and is simply a record of votes that day. It can’t be manually altered.

With the basics done, the rest of the demonstration was devoted to all the special cases — how to issue an envelope ballot, a challenged ballot, and how to reject or spoil a ballot. A spoiled ballot situation can arise, for example, if a voter realizes they filled in an oval incorrectly.

For example, to “spoil” such a ballot, the poll worker must find the voter again in Voter Search, click “Lock this voter” and click the command “Spoil this ballot.” From there, the worker can issue another regular ballot. Because the program automatically notes any special actions, there’s no need to write any special note to the Board of Canvassers.

If a poll worker accidentally chooses the wrong name in Voter Search (Jane Smith instead of John, for example) and issues the wrong ballot, there is also an “undo” button. At that point workers would be encouraged to write a remark detailing why they undid a specific action.

If a voter shows up who is registered in Ann Arbor but not at that precinct, a poll worker is supposed to urge the voter to go to the correct precinct. If the voter refuses, the worker can issue that an “envelope ballot” and enter the voter’s information into the system at that time. [Envelope ballots are reviewed by the city clerk after the election to determine if they should be allowed to count. If the person voted in the wrong precinct, then the ballot doesn't count.]

Other possible alternatives to a regular ballot include a “challenged ballot.” If a voter’s right to vote has been questioned by a poll challenger — say because they’re suspected of not meeting residency requirements — then workers must issue a “challenged ballot.” The EPB process is the same as for issuing a regular ballot, with the exception that a poll worker selects “challenged ballot” from the menu. The automatically-generated voter summary will indicate that the vote was challenged.

At the training session, Howard Scheps of the city clerk’s office also described what he called an “esoteric situation” – “rejecting” a ballot. This would occur if, for example, a voter walked around the polling place shouting who he was voting for, clearly telling everyone else to follow his choices. While Scheps says he has never seen it happen, rejecting a ballot is another easy choice under the menu of “Lock this voter record.” Workers are required to note why the ballot was rejected in the Remarks section.

At the close of the polls, a poll worker must enter the number of ballots voted that day – from the  voting machine tabulator, which automatically keeps track of the number of ballots inserted.

Most importantly, poll workers must make sure to save all updated versions of the ballot summary, remarks section, and running tally of voters. At that point, they must save everything to the flash drive and return the technology to city hall.

Election Day May 8, 2012

For a list of all candidates and ballot proposals anywhere in Washtenaw County on May 8, see the Washtenaw County clerk’s election website. To find a polling place in Ann Arbor, visit the Ann Arbor/Washtenaw County mapping service [requires Microsoft Silverlight].

Or to look yourself up to find where you’re registered to vote anywhere in Michigan and to view a sample ballot, visit the Michigan secretary of state’s website.

The Chronicle could not survive without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of local government and civic affairs. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to support The Chronicle, too!

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Ann Arbor’s Ward 1: Cthulhu Council? Fri, 03 Feb 2012 14:25:48 +0000 Hayley Byrnes Editor’s note: Ann Arbor city councilmember Tony Derezinski has already stated publicly that he’ll be seeking re-election to his Ward 2 seat in 2012. It was Ward 2 that offered the closest race in the fall of 2011 – a contest won by Jane Lumm over Stephen Rapundalo. Neighboring Ward 1 offered the least chance of a surprising outcome in 2011, featuring just one choice on its ballot – incumbent Democrat Sabra Briere. Briere was also unopposed in the August Democratic primary.

Ballot Mr. No Fuller

This ballot likely reflects a sentiment against the Fuller Road Station, which would include a train station, bus terminal and – in its first phase – a large parking structure. At last report, the facility would be a joint city of Ann Arbor-University of Michigan project, located on city-owned land that's designated as part of the park system.

Out of curiosity, The Chronicle asked intern Hayley Byrnes to take a look at the names of people voters wrote by hand on their ballots. 

Of the 1,206 Ward 1 voters who dragged themselves to their polling stations on a rainy Tuesday last November, 57 filled in the bubble next to the blank space for write-in candidates.

None of the people whose names were written on any of those 57 ballots could have won the election. Some were not the names of actual people who live in Ward 1, or even actual people at all.

But even among those actual Ward 1 residents whose names were put forward by voters, none of them had filed officially for a write-in candidacy. They were therefore not legal opponents in the election. Those 57 bubbles, however, reflected the votes of 57 Ward 1 voters.

Writing in the name of a person who has not registered as a write-in candidate – on a ballot that offers only one candidate – could reasonably be seen as an expression of dissatisfaction.

So The Chronicle wanted to discover: What form did voters’ dissatisfaction take?

Ward 1 Compared to Other Wards

How did the 57 write-ins (4.73%) for Ward 1 compare to other wards?

Percentage of Write-in Ballots for Nov. 8, 2011

Bar Chart A. Percentage of write-in ballots for Nov. 8, 2011 Ann Arbor city council elections by ward.

In Ward 3, 1.29% of voters wrote in a candidate. In Ward 4, that figure was 1.11%. Ward 5 had 0.81% write-ins, while Ward 2 had 0.17%. So Ward 1 had more than three times as many write-ins as any other ward.

To consider those numbers in the context of each ward’s contest, the lowest percentage of write-ins (by far) came from Ward 2, where Jane Lumm won one of the closest races, garnering 60% of the vote. The Ward 2 race was expected to be close, so it’s not surprising that only six voters ward-wide chose to “waste” their votes.

A slightly closer race than Ward 2 turned out to be Ward 4, where Marcia Higgins won with 59% of the vote – but it was not necessarily expected to be that close. That could explain a greater willingness of a Ward 4 voter to write in a candidate than in Ward 2.

But beyond numbers and percentages, available online on the Washtenaw County clerk’s website, no record is kept of the text of the write-ins themselves, other than the physical ballot. Ballots are sealed, and the number of handwritten candidate names are tallied as “write-ins” – even if no candidate registered as a write-in candidate.

Ballots as Public Documents

According to Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), citizens “are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and public employees.”

Ward 1 Write in ballots by precinct

Bar Chart B: Ward 1 Write in ballots by precinct

Whether that broad sentiment of “full and complete information” applies to voted ballots, which are entitled to strict secrecy, is not a part of the explicit language of the FOIA. But in May 2010, Michigan’s then-attorney general Mike Cox concluded that ballots are subject to the FOIA.

In attorney-general opinion #7247, Cox writes that voted ballots do indeed “constitute ‘public records’ for the purposes of the FOIA.” The opinion continues by explaining that because ballots are virtually untraceable to an individual after they have been tabulated, making them available to the public does not violate ballot secrecy.

While the public has the right to see voted ballots, the timeframe for that access is more restrictive than for an ordinary FOIA request. In the same opinion, Cox concluded that the ballots could be released 30 days after certification by the relevant board of canvassers.

For the Nov. 8, 2011 city of Ann Arbor election, the county board of canvassers certified the results on Nov. 16, opening the earliest window for access on Dec. 16. After that window opened, The Chronicle arranged with the city to inspect ballots. In the interest of efficiency, we targeted Precincts 4 and 8 in Ward 1, because together they supplied almost half of the write-in ballots (24 of 57).

While Precinct 9 offered another 16 write-ins, the Clague Middle School polling station for Precinct 9 was the same polling station for a precinct in a different ward – Ward 2, Precinct 6. The voting machine does not separate the ballots by ward, so on balance we expected to be more efficient by opting for precincts that wouldn’t require sorting by ward.

Names of Write-Ins

The 300 Ward 1 ballots we inspected were held in two blue-and-red bags – each with an unbroken seal on the handles. After breaking the seals, city clerk Jacqueline Beaudry remained present throughout the inspection, thus complying with another restriction that a city official be present at all times during ballot inspection.

After 30 minutes we’d confirmed all 24 write-in ballots from precincts 4 and 8. Here’s a sampling of the names that voters filled in on their ballots:

Ballot Anyone Else

Anyone Else.

Ballot John Hilton

John Hilton. Likely a reference to the editor of the Ann Arbor Observer. The printed monthly magazine's articles are also available on

Ballot Mr. No Fuller

Mr. No Fuller. This ballot likely reflects sentiment against the Fuller Road Station, which would include a train station, bus terminal and – in its first phase – a large parking structure. The facility has been proposed as a joint city of Ann Arbor-University of Michigan project, located on city-owned land that's designated as part of the park system.

Ballot Mary Elton

Mary Elton. Likely the car enthusiast, spouse of Bob Elton.

Ballot Robert Elton

Robert Elton. Likely the local car historian who is one of the founders of the Rolling Sculpture Car Show. Image links to Ann Arbor District Library video of a history of Chrysler by Elton.

Ballot Pat Clancy

Pat Clancy. Possibly the co-operator of Lil Dog Rescue.

Ballot Grant Weber 2

Grant J. Weber. Possibly a former student at the Ross Business School at the University of Michigan.

Ballot Wickboldt

Wickboldt. Likely Richard Wickboldt, who ran unsuccessfully for the Ward 1 Democratic nomination for city council in 2007, a race won by Sabra Briere.

Ballot Pinckleman

Sarah Pinckleman. Likely an English instructor at Washtenaw Community College.

Ballot Cthulhu

Cthulhu. A fictional character from the short story “The Call of Cthulhu” by H. P. Lovecraft, published in 1928. The creature has a following for the 2012 presidential election.

Wards are represented on the city council by two councilmembers, one of whom stands for election each year. Briere’s wardmate, Sandi Smith, has not announced publicly any plans for seeking re-election to her Ward 1 city council seat in 2012.

But of the names written in on last November’s Ward 1 city council ballots, Cthulhu is the least likely to challenge for her seat – he’ll apparently be otherwise occupied running for president: Chthulhu for President in 2012 Facebook page.

[.pdf of full set of 24 write-in ballots for city council in Ward 1, precincts 4 and 8, from the Nov. 8, 2011 election.]

The Chronicle could not survive without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of public bodies like the Ann Arbor city council. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!


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CTN: What’s The Vision for Local Television? Tue, 23 Aug 2011 13:42:17 +0000 Hayley Byrnes Editor’s note: In April 2011, The Chronicle sought to verify statements about Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority finances made by city staff at the Ann Arbor city council’s Feb. 17, 2009 meeting. We learned that the recording of the meeting was no longer available from Community Television Network (CTN), which is part of the city of Ann Arbor’s communications unit. The DVD of the meeting was missing and the online content had been deleted.

CTN Control Room

Chronicle file photo from September 2010 of the control room adjoining the CTN television studio, located on South Industrial Highway. On the screens are images from a local League of Women Voters city council candidate forum.

The Chronicle subsequently obtained an audio cassette recording of the Feb. 17 meeting made by the city clerk.

In relevant part, we report the contents of that city council cassette tape in a separate article. For this article, we take a view of CTN as an organization that’s broader than a missing DVD. But we still begin with a city council meeting.

In May 2009, former cable communications commissioner Paul Bancel addressed the city council during the time allotted for public commentary. He suggested that when councilmembers looked at the city budget, they’d see a $1.5 million allocation to community television. “It’s up to you to make it relevant,” he said.

Is it relevant? For 38 years, Community Television Network has served Ann Arbor. “There will always be cable providers or video providers,” said CTN manager Ralph Salmeron in a recent Chronicle interview.

But how does CTN fit within that media and communications landscape?

CTN’s Beginnings

In October 1973, Ann Arbor began broadcasting community television. After fighting for the creation of “public access television,” a group of local activists began running one public access channel – Channel 6. It would not be called “community television” until years later. They initially set up shop at 403 S. Fifth Ave., but by 1974 had moved to the Old Union Hall, located at 208 W. Liberty. The operation was known as Ann Arbor Public Access.

In February 1978, five years after public access television began broadcasting, the city of Ann Arbor took over the control of Ann Arbor Public Access. The city’s relationship with public access television, and the monetary support that followed through franchise fees, was not finalized until the start of 1980. By then, the name had been formally changed to the Community Television Network (CTN).

By the time current manager of CTN Ralph Salmeron took that position with the organization in 1989, CTN had expanded to include three channels – one each devoted to public, educational, and municipal programing. CTN continued to receive federal funding and franchise fees.

In reflecting on the network’s initial years, Salmeron observed in conversation with The Chronicle, “The roots of the organization are as a public access center … [A] center that makes training and resources available to citizens of Ann Arbor.”

The necessary connection between public benefit and cable companies’ use of the public resources is reflected in Ann Arbor’s city ordinance on cable communications and franchise fees (Chapter 32 of the city code). From the city code [emphasis added]:

Chapter 32, 2:100
The city council finds that the further development of cable communications may result in great benefits for the people of the city. Cable technology is rapidly changing, and cable plays an essential role as part of the city’s basic infrastructure. Cable television systems permanently occupy and extensively make use of scarce and valuable public rights-of-way, in a manner different from the way in which the general public uses them. The city council finds that public convenience, safety, and general welfare can best be served by establishing regulatory powers vested in the city to protect the public and to ensure that any franchise granted is operated in the public interest.

Part of operating a cable franchise in the public interest means providing “access channels”:

Chapter 32, 2:101
(1) “Access channel” means any channel on a cable system set aside by a grantee for public, educational, or governmental (“PEG”) use.

Of the different purposes for access channels, it’s public use that was CTN’s initial focus. “That’s our legacy,” says Salmeron, “and that’s where initially probably 75% of our resources went.” Now, CTN’s resources are divided across four cable channels:

The public access channel, A2TV, gets roughly one-quarter of CTN’s resources, Salmeron estimates – there’s a roughly even distribution across the four channels. Compared to the 75% of resources devoted to public access in the early days, it’s clear that CTN’s priorities have evolved in the last 30 years.

The Financial Picture

In reflecting on the value of CTN to Ann Arbor, one way to frame the question is in terms of dollars and cents. How much does Ann Arbor invest in CTN? The short answer this year is about $1.8 million – it’s increased in the two years since Paul Bancel addressed the city council.

Where does that $1.8 million come from? Cable franchise fees constitute CTN’s only significant source of funding. Cable operators (in Ann Arbor, it’s Comcast) pay to the city 5% of their yearly gross revenue from operations within Ann Arbor. And by city ordinance, the franchise fee goes directly into funding the activities for which CTN is responsible.

Chapter 32, 2:111
(7) The franchise fee revenues received by the city shall be directed to the cost of franchise administration, operation of PEG access television, and communications and media operations of the City.

That has more or less insulated CTN from discussion during the city council’s yearly budget talks, even during budget retreats in recent years when councilmembers have been encouraged by city staff to put everything on the table. CTN’s funding will be stable unless cable franchise fees were to be eliminated by the state legislature, or the city ordinance were changed to direct franchise fee revenues in some other way.

The percentage breakdown of the roughly $1.8 million in expenses varies from year to year. But staff compensation, like most city departments, consistently makes up the biggest single category of the CTN budget. Of the $1,843,116 in the current 2012 fiscal year CTN budget, $1,020,426 is for employee compensation. [.pdf of FY 2012 budget book for city administrator service area ] [.pdf of detailed CTN expenses]

The CTN budget funds the city communications manager, half the salary of the city’s communications unit manager, the CTN manager, two CTN assistant managers, three producers, two programmers and two training/facility coordinators for a total of 11.5 positions.

Given the technology- and hardware-based nature of operating a cable television network, equipment costs might be expected to be a large part of the budget. But compared to employee costs, equipment costs for CTN are not nearly as great.

In two out of the last three years, CTN has spent around $100,000 on equipment – in the other year, equipment expenses dipped to around $40,000. But the 2012 budget includes $326,616 for equipment, with almost $200,000 projected for FY 2013. The increase is due to additional capital outlays required to convert equipment to digital format.

The city of Ann Arbor leases space for the CTN offices on South Industrial Highway. It’s a 10-year lease, which began in 2008, with an annual cost of around $100,000.

CTN’s Current Programming

What kind of programming will $1.8 million support?

Part of Ralph Salmeron’s vision of the network is this: “What we try to bring to Ann Arbor is very much a local flavor. If we’re covering a story for our news magazine, it has to have some depiction of the community and some importance to the community.”

The news magazine Salmeron means is For Your Information (FYI), which airs on CitiTV, Channel 19. This past February, CTN aired the 500th edition of the show. A recent edition of FYI included segments on a theatre production in West Park, Ypsilanti’s Heritage Festival, and breastfeeding awareness month. Other Channel 19 programs include Ward Talk (interviews with city council members) and Conversations (interviews by Jim Blow with public figures). Recent programs aired on CTN’s Channel 19 are available online.

In seeking that local flavor on other channels, CTN fulfills two very separate functions.

The first coincides with the network’s history as a public access center. Channel 17, the public access channel, provides a venue for citizens. As Salmeron notes, “[A]ny citizen can step up and comment … [L]iterally, our programs are a soap box to get themselves heard.” One example of that is the CTN-produced Access Soapbox on Channel 17, a program that allows Ann Arbor residents to get in front of a camera and say their piece by expressing an opinion, announcing events, or raising any issues they think should be of concern for other Ann Arbor residents.

An example of a regular program airing on Channel 17 that is not produced by CTN staff is Other Perspectives, a public affairs interview show hosted by Ann Arbor resident Nancy Kaplan.

While it receives just one-quarter of CTN’s resources, a commitment to public access remains an integral part of CTN’s mission. That’s reflected in part by a recent effort to create a kind of online clearinghouse for video material related to Ann Arbor with a CTN Miro Community. In addition to hosting Channel 17′s public access material online, the Miro Community provides a way for Ann Arborites to add videos they’ve already uploaded to other online platforms – like YouTube, Vimeo, Blip.TV or Google Video – to CTN’s clearinghouse. Searches of those platforms for videos described with the term “Ann Arbor” currently return more than 10,000 results.

A second function of CTN’s other channels is described by Salmeron as “providing that window of transparency for government.”

Salmeron notes the growth of CTN’s meeting coverage on Channel 16 – a channel that began by airing only eight or so monthly meetings has grown to cover regularly 15 or 16 monthly meetings, Salmeron says. That works out to upwards of 210-220 live meetings a year, he estimates.

Over the last two years, the boards of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority have begun videotaping their meetings and making the recordings available through CTN’s online video on demand service. Earlier this year, the board of the Ann Arbor District Library considered, but ultimately rejected a proposal to videotape its meetings.

The Future of CTN

What if sometime in the future, a resident wants to review one of those government meetings that was previously broadcast live? And more generally, what is CTN’s future role in Ann Arbor?

The Chronicle followed up with Paul Bancel, who had addressed the city council back in May 2009 challenging the council to make CTN relevant. Bancel is a former member of the cable communications commission.

By way of background, the commission is an advisory board to CTN that Salmeron says “helps us work through policy issues and budgeting.” One of the key recommendations from a study of CTN, undertaken by then-University of Michigan student Matt Hampel, was to eliminate the commission in favor of an information technology advisory board.

Bancel offered two recommendations concerning CTN’s changing role in the future.

His first suggestion is to revise the city’s ordinance on cable franchise fees so that the franchise fee revenue would be directed to the city’s general fund.

Bancel argues that because this would make budgeting for CTN the same as other general fund activities, “the relevancy of CTN will soon become apparent.” Currently, Bancel says, CTN “gets an ‘Advance to Go’ card and collect your $200 at budget time.”

While acknowledging that cable franchise fees could be directed to purposes other than local cable programming, Salmeron argues that CTN’s mission includes fulfilling a community role that is noticeably absent in broadcast stations of major cities such as Detroit.

Another suggestion from Bancel to ensure the relevancy of CTN is to measure the viewership of every program. To guarantee a sense of accountability, Bancel says, “we recommended that CTN monitor and track the quality of the broadcasts.”

CTN has, to some extent, adopted that kind of approach. CTN does not have viewership data for its four broadcast channels, though it is possible to record the statistics for its online video-on-demand service. Here’s a sample of the viewership for May 2011 government meetings online:

 10 Ann Arbor Transportation Authority Board
  4 Cable Communications Commission
232 City Council
  2 Disabilities Issues
 13 Energy Commission
  2 Environmental Commission
  5 Greenbelt Advisory Commission
  2 Historic District Commission
  9 Human Rights Commission
 11 Park Advisory Commission
  9 Planning Commission
  5 Zoning Board of Appeals


[Note: Salmeron clarified that CTN is unable to identify the breakdown of IP addresses for each viewing, which means that theoretically the data could be skewed if, for example, one person decided to watch the zoning board of appeals meeting five times. But as Salmeron noted, “[T]hese are municipal meetings, and I would be surprised if there were more than a handful of people (excluding reporters) who watched the same meeting more than once.”]

Bancel also noted in conversation with The Chronicle that during his time on the cable communications commission, CTN did not have specific, measurable goals: “Goals were general, like improve communication with the university.”

In the FY 2012 city of Ann Arbor budget book, the kind of goals and metrics that are now indicated for the city’s communications unit (which includes CTN) are outlined as follows:

Service Unit Goals
A. Increase by 15 percent information distributed to internal and external audiences about Ann Arbor municipal news, innovative programs, awards and services from July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2012.
B. Develop and assist in the implementation of new technology resources to engage citizens and employees and enhance understanding of city services and initiatives from July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2012.

Service Unit Measures Status
A. Track the number of information pieces distributed monthly and highlight up to three hot topics via the Communication Office Matrix (information pieces include print/online newsletter, news releases, events, public information meetings, Gov Delivery notifications, CTN programs, social media tools, website page updates/development) by June 30, 2012.
B. Track status of technology resource project implementations each month. These new resources include integration of new media, such as Podcasts and live web streaming of city meetings to promote City information and CTN services, applications to monitor effectiveness of communication messages/vehicles (Google Analytics, GovDelivery subscribers and click throughs, A2C report, Survey Monkey, VOD views) by June 30, 2012.
C1. Track the number of new training participants, clients, and PEG programs (detailed information to include specific training classes, participants, and clients) via the CTN monthly report as a result of new trainer position/programs by June 30, 2012.

The 210-220 yearly government meetings aired live on CTN represent an archiving challenge, even in the digital age. CTN’s current online archiving policies encourages medium, but not long-term, preservation of government meeting material. City council meetings are archived online for two years, and all other meetings are stored for six months.

Salmeron says that a single factor dictates CTN’s online archiving policy: server space. He says, “It will all come down to the amount of space and what we can afford to build.”

CTN buys its server space for online streaming and video on-demand from Leightronix, a company based in Holt, Mich. CTN has two PEG Central accounts, a service offered by Leightronix, that costs $5,677 per year. Each account has 500 hours of storage, so CTN has 1,000 hours total of online storage available. If CTN wanted to increase its storage capacity, it could do so in 500 hour increments by adding additional PEG Central accounts.

CTN is still working on its archiving system. Only in 2009 did CTN start to convert its videotapes to DVD and begin to capture meetings on DVD. When The Chronicle was interested in reviewing the Feb. 17, 2009 Ann Arbor city council meeting, we first noted that the previously available online recording was no longer accessible – it had been a casualty of storage space limits. When we followed up with a request for the corresponding DVD, CTN staff reported that the disk was not in the slot in the binder where it was kept.

Salmeron says of the incident, “What we have determined is that that was a meeting where there were technical difficulties, so there’s no way to retrieve a recording that doesn’t exist.” He is also quick to note, “Our recordings are not the official record for documents. For council or for any of the other commissions or boards, the documented record is the clerk’s notes.”

However, the official written minutes made by the city clerk are “action minutes,” which record the outcome of all votes, but do not depict discussion among councilmembers, even in summary form. And the audio recordings made by the clerk’s office on cassette tape are not freely accessible to the public. No other organization besides CTN systematically makes visual recordings of government meetings. So CTN’s video is in some sense irreplaceable if it goes missing.

When asked where CTN’s online services and archiving policies are headed 10 years from now, Salmeron says, “We have to keep changing with the media that changes …  Unfortunately, we don’t have the type of budget to stay on the cutting edge with the national broadcasters … We’re just trying to keep up with the media as best we can.”

About the writer: Hayley Byrnes is an intern with The Ann Arbor Chronicle. The Chronicle could not survive without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of local government and civic affairs. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!

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Column: Pies, Politics, Polls Fri, 29 Jul 2011 13:15:11 +0000 Hayley Byrnes “Pie lovers … unite!”

As over 50 people throw their fists into the air, the contest resembles a superhero’s meeting more than a pie competition. On Sunday, July 24, Slow Food Huron Valley (SFHV) hosted its 5th annual Pie Lovers Unite! event at the Ypsilanti Ladies Literary Club. Most participants easily fit the “pie lover” label, considering themselves connoisseurs of crusts and aficionados of fillings.

Chronicle Pie Lovers Cutouts

Cardboard cutouts of the five wards of the city of Ann Arbor – not arranged in their actual geographic proximity to each other. (Photo for art by the writer)

But consistent with The Chronicle’s appetite for all things government-related, we could not simply let them eat pie. Instead, we brought handmade cardboard cutouts of Ann Arbor’s five wards and asked a roomful of pie enthusiasts which ward most resembles a slice of pie.


At its July 5 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council discussed redrawing the boundaries for the city’s five wards. And the city charter states: “The five wards should each have the general character of a pieshaped segment of the city with the point of such segment lying near the center of the city …” That discussion revealed that at least one councilmember holds some reservations about whether the current wards really are pie-shaped wedges of the city.

Kim Bayer, the program coordinator of Pie Lovers Unite!, began the night’s festivities by articulating the event’s mission beyond eating pie: “To strengthen our region’s food system, build community food security, and preserve our culinary heritage.”

She continued, saying, “When something is made from love, you can taste it.”

After a quick thank-you to the owner of Mighty Good Coffee, David Meyer, for providing the event’s coffee, Bayer addressed the audience: “What do you remember from last year?”

The pie lovers shouted back in unison, “PIE!” Then came individual murmurings – “pie-kus,” as the event’s pie-themed version of the Japanese form of poetry is known. And a piece of advice: “Pace yourself” – the evening includes feasting on pie.

Pie Lovers Pie

A sampling of the fifty-some pies submitted at Pie Lovers Unite! (Photo by Elizabeth Knight)

Before beginning the sacred annual ritual of pie-ku reading, Bayer posed one more question to the audience about pie making: “Any secrets?” No one skipped a beat – the most popular one-word reply was butter, followed jokingly by lard.

While most bakers during the evening seemed to calmly accept approaches to pie baking different from their own, one idea provoked collective annoyance. Never, ever use margarine.

Then came the treasured tradition of reading the pie-ku contest submissions. To formally submit a pie-ku, public recitation is mandatory. About 10 minutes’ worth of pie poetry followed. Each pie-ku was structured in the same way as the Japanese haiku: three lines, arranged around a set number of syllables (five/seven/five). A sampling: “Blueberries it is/other fruits try to compete/my tongue says no way.”

After everyone recited their pie-kus and entered them for a chance to win a pie-related prize, the “pie-tinerary” dictated the next event – pie walks.

Similar to cake walks, each pie walk promised one lucky winner a free Zingerman’s pie. Not content with just one pie walk, organizers offered multiple categories: one for people who baked pies, one for children under twelve, one for the teachers of pie-making, for pie-making kids, for grandparents, and one for flapping like a chicken. (This writer’s flapping led to a delicious peach pie from Zingerman’s.)

Pie Lovers 2

Pie lovers crowd around the main table as the pie eating begins. (Photo by Elizabeth Knight)

By the end of the pie walks, anticipation was building. The pre-feasting festivities could only curb an appetite for so long. So finally, when Bayer headed up to the microphone again, she gave us a much-anticipated announcement – that we could slowly make our way to the pie-laden tables in the next room.

A smorgasbord of pies appeared – everything from adventurous goat cheese with tomato to a classic very cherry.

After about half an hour of pie-filled bliss, the judges filed out to announce the winners. The event offered six categories: fruit, sweet (non-fruit), savory (the non-sweet treats like quiche and pancetta), crust, local, and kids.

But before announcing the winners, the judges outlined two very serious (and somewhat contradictory) philosophies.

First, the idea of being “true to the fruit,” as one judge said, is paramount to any pie-maker. Allow it to keep its texture, its flavor – in short, don’t complicate things. “Bells and whistles don’t impress us,” one judge commented.

But, as some other judges mentioned, originality and creativity are also key. Innovation in pie-making is always appreciated. With those two philosophies in mind, the judges announced the winners of the 2011 Pie Lovers Unite! event.

Pie lover Elizabeth Knight proudly presents her winnings from a pie-walk.  (Photo by Sarah Marshall)

Pie lover Elizabeth Knight proudly presents her winnings from a pie walk. (Photo by Sarah Marshall)

First announced was the sweet non-fruit pie and the winner, as one judge put it, “was an awesome pie.” A buttermilk chess pie won the sweet non-fruit category.

Next up was the category for kid pie-makers. The judges called the entries “amazing,” and praised them for a precocious grasp of pie-making. The winning pie had “the perfect mixture of sweet and sour, crumbly and delicious” – a blueberry crumble. When the young pie-maker was asked about his inspiration for making the pie, he replied, “Blueberries.”

Crust was the next category, and the winner’s pie was “light and flakey” – a classic apple pie. Accepting his prize, the winner urged everyone to take crusts seriously, “Go with the crust category.” Then came the cardinal caution yet again: Do not skimp on the butter and never use margarine.

The savory category was for pies that could be eaten as meals, not desserts. A pancetta with caramelized onions won, and the judges commented on its “excellent flavor and smooth custard.”

The fruit category was up next, and it drew hushed voices and respect from the crowd. Similar to the “Best Movie” of the Oscars, the fruit pies are the most eagerly awaited. Of the 50 or so entries, Bayer estimated that 15 to 20 competed in the fruit category. The winning pie was “visually arresting,” and epitomized the judge’s philosophy of being true to the fruit. The winning pie “let the fruits be themselves.” A blueberry peaches pie took home the honor.

Last was the category dedicated to locavores, where the ingredients of each entry must be “local.” Only a handful of pies entered this category, but the judges stressed its importance: “I think it’s important to remember that essentially every ingredient in a pie can be found locally,” one judge urged. The winner was a crunch apple tart.

After the formal judging, the last award to be announced was a Peoples’ Choice Award. A wild black raspberry pie won the prize, and with that, the awards ceremony for the pies ended.

One last non-culinary prize remained – the winning pie-ku. Drawn from a hat was the following: “Crust shaped of fingers/Curved in and out, to and fro/Memories of Mom.”

Pie Lovers Pie

A cutout of Ward 2, the ward voted the most pie-shaped, next to a piece of Zingerman's peach pie. Readers who are strict interpreters of the city charter will note a certain irony. (Photo for art by the writer)

Throughout the event, the pie chefs in attendance had a chance to tell us which Ann Arbor city ward they thought most resembled a pie-shaped wedge.

It may seem easy enough to point at a cardboard cutout of a ward and quickly announce a favorite in the pie-shaped ward contest. But most bakers scrutinized each choice.

Clarificational questions were asked: “Do you mean a slice of pie or a whole pie?” “Are you talking about the ward overall or does this include individual precincts?” And, a personal favorite from a confused passer-by, “What are you guys doing? Is this some sort of alien game? You’re so weird.” After much consideration, each pie-maker would point decidedly at one ward: “That one, definitely. Or at least that’s how my pie slices look.”

And the results were clear. Based on our polling, Ward 2 meets the city charter definition the best, while Ward 5 (which received zero votes) has a more questionable shape.

Editor’s note: The Chronicle is headquartered in Ward 5, which tallied zero votes in the poll. Note that the poll conducted on ward shape at the Pie Lovers Unite! event was unscientific and likely includes considerable margarine of error. On the Ann Arbor city council’s Aug. 4 agenda is a vote on the reapportionment of its wards. The staff-recommended tweaks on the Aug. 4 agenda are a little different from the changes presented on July 5. The specific changes have not been terribly controversial, but the timing was contested, and ultimately altered to be implemented after the November general election.

About the writer: Saline resident Hayley Byrnes is a Chronicle intern. The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of elections to public bodies like the Ann Arbor city council. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!

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Transit Planning Forum: Saline Edition Mon, 21 Feb 2011 22:39:17 +0000 Hayley Byrnes Editor’s note: Since July 2010, the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority has been developing a transit master plan (TMP) for transit service throughout Washtenaw County. Countywide service would represent an expansion of the service it currently offers in Ann Arbor, which is supported by a transit millage. The AATA also offers limited service in the rest of the county through purchase of service agreements (POS) with three of the county’s townships and the city of Ypsilanti. In November 2010, Ypsilanti voters passed a millage to fund its POS agreement with the AATA.

Saline City Hall, Harris Street

The view southward on Harris Street in Saline. Saline city hall, where the Feb. 8, 2011 transit master planning forum was held, sits to the left of the frame. (Photo by the writer.)

A second public engagement phase of the countywide planning exercise is now wrapping up, with 20 community forums held through the month of February at locations across the county. The final four of those forums will take place next week. Coverage of the forum hosted in the Saline area is provided by Chronicle intern and Saline resident Hayley Byrnes.

On Feb. 8, at Saline city hall, the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority sponsored the ninth of 20 community forums being held from the end of January through February. Every forum is open to all Washtenaw County residents, but they’re being held at locations across the county – like Saline – to make it easier for people to attend.

The goal of a previous round of 20 public forums, held last year, was to get participants to brainstorm about countywide transit. But the current set of forums is all about presenting participants with three specific scenarios that have been developed so far, based in part on those first 20 meetings. The AATA is calling these three scenarios: Lifeline Plus, Accessible County and Smart Growth. From those three scenarios, a preferred scenario will be developed. An AATA board consensus on that scenario is expected in March, with board action on adoption of a countywide transit plan expected in April.

Michael Benham, who’s coordinating the project for the AATA, and Juliet Edmonson, a consultant with Steer Davies Gleave (SDG), hosted the Saline forum. Michael Ford, CEO of the AATA, made an appearance in video form. For county residents who cannot attend any of the forums, the AATA is also seeking feedback on the three scenarios using an online survey.

A Digital Welcome: Overview of the AATA

The forum began with a video featuring Michael Ford, AATA’s CEO, describing the advantages of public transportation. Taking public transportation, he said, is “more than getting on a bus.” Alternative and public ways of transit shape our community, he continued. The video also featured various figures in Washtenaw County, including Ann Arbor mayor John Hieftje and Ypsilanti mayor Paul Schreiber.

Objectives: Developing a Preferred Scenario

After the brief introduction and video, Michael Benham outlined the objectives for the evening. The primary objective, he said, was to update attendees on the transit master plan (TMP), a project that the AATA has been working on since the summer of 2010. The AATA began the process with more than a hundred meetings last summer, including 20 public forums, asking for input from communities throughout Washtenaw County.

In broad strokes, here’s where the project stands: Based on prior public input, the review of existing plans and data, and an assessment of the county’s transportation needs, three possible scenarios have now been developed, out of which one preferred scenario will be constructed.

More specifically,, AATA’s website devoted to the development of the countywide master plan, outlines six steps to the process of implementing the plan: (1) visions and objectives; (2) existing conditions and needs; (3) transportation options and scenario development; (4) developing the preferred scenario; (5) transit master plan, (6) and funding and implementation plan.

The current round of public meetings is part of step (4). At the January AATA board meeting, board members indicated that they hoped to achieve a consensus on a preferred scenario in March and adoption of a transit master plan in April.

Along with familiarizing everyone with the distinctions between the three scenarios, Benham said at the Saline forum that he hoped to outline the benefits of each scenario. The ultimate goal, he said, is to “enable [citizens] to make an informed choice.”

Forum Goal: Feedback

Benham paraphrased the website’s timeline, stating that the AATA’s focus now is on honing and revising the newly-created scenarios that emerged from public meetings held last June and July. “We’re not just here to provide buses,” he said, “but buses for your education, for your community involvement.” Again he stressed that the role of the AATA is not simply transportation: it should serve to enhance the entire community.

At that point Benham stopped looking at a PowerPoint slide that listed the six stages of the TMP, turned to the audience and told them that feedback was the AATA’s primary concern. He didn’t want to just read off a PowerPoint slide for an hour and a half, he continued. Audience interaction and an informal atmosphere are paramount for the AATA to accurately gather feedback, he concluded, which was the primary purpose of the forum itself.

The Three TMP Scenarios: An Overview

Benham outlined four steps that the AATA took while creating the three scenarios for the TMP: public involvement, he said, was the primary step; the second came with research, particularly of other cities and transit systems; then came studies of other transit options; finally, the AATA took into account input from existing community plans.

Out of all that work, three distinct plans emerged, which the AATA is calling: Lifeline Plus, Accessible County, and Smart Growth. The plans are cumulative, meaning that everything included in Lifeline Plus is also included in Accessible County, with the addition of other features. The same can be said for Smart Growth, which builds upon Accessible County. Thus, the most comprehensive and expensive of the plans is Smart Growth, while Lifeline Plus implements the fewest number of changes.

The goal of Lifeline Plus is slightly different than the other two plans. Lifeline Plus primarily improves existing services and strengthens countywide connections for seniors. Rather than create new options or methods of transit, it enhances options already available to residents.

Accessible County also strengthens existing services, but would build more transit options for areas outside of urban areas. While Lifeline Plus would focus on densely populated areas such as Ann Arbor, Accessible County would have a more countywide perspective and integrate transit more thoroughly in areas such as Dexter and Chelsea.

The third plan, Smart Growth, would accomplish the same tasks as Accessible County, though it would possibly integrate rail elements (an element not found in either of the other two plans). Transit would become a permanent feature – it would serve to develop urban infrastructure and connect citizens to all parts of Washtenaw County.

Lifeline Plus: The Strengthening Scenario

Benham deferred to Juliet Edmonson to walk the audience through the scenarios in detail. Edmonson is a consultant with Steer Davies Gleave, which was contracted by the AATA to assist with the development of the countywide planning effort. She’s been living in Ann Arbor since last summer.

Lifeline Plus – Concept and Key Features

The first scenario, Lifeline Plus, is the one least different from existing transportation services. While Accessible County expands throughout all of Washtenaw County and Smart Growth aims to reinvent county’s transportation network, Lifeline Plus focuses on strengthening the current transportation options. It would start by enhancing the urban bus network. One key feature of the Lifeline Plus, explained Edmonds, is the expected increase in frequency of buses. More evening and weekend services would be available under the plan.

Along with increasing the frequency of services, Edmonson stressed that physical refurbishment and redevelopment of bus infrastructure would occur as well. Under the Lifeline Plus scenario, two existing transit stations would be developed further: the Blake Transit Center hub in Ann Arbor, and a similar one in Ypsilanti. The plan would also include a downtown circulator in Ann Arbor. In connection to circulators, Edmonson mentioned the LINK – an Ann Arbor downtown circulator that used to operate with purple-painted buses, but that was discontinued by the AATA board in August 2009. Under Lifeline Plus, she said, a service similar to the LINK would be restored.

AATA Lifeline Plus Map

AATA Lifeline Plus scenario (Image links to higher resolution .pdf of all three scenarios. )

Edmonson then relied on a colored map with various symbols to aid her next few points. The map gave a schematic representation of Washtenaw County, highlighting the cities of Chelsea, Dexter, Whitmore Lake, Barton Hills, Ann Arbor, Saline, Ypsilanti, Manchester, and Milan. Each town or city then had certain symbols next to its label – for example, all nine municipalities were tagged with a blue bus symbol, meaning that there would be vehicle improvements to buses across the county under the Lifeline Plus scenario.

Transit, Edmonson said, would also not be narrowly understood to include only buses: the Lifeline Plus scenario also includes enhancements for pedestrians and cyclists. Edmonson also indicated that in Ann Arbor there would be special focus on allowing for bus priority over other kinds of traffic. She said a chief goal of public transit is to allow for a reliable and consistent ride. If you are expecting your ride to take 20 minutes, she said, it should take 20 minutes.

Further emphasis would be placed on bus stops, including better shelters for the winter and easier sidewalk access. Integrated ticketing, she continued, would also be a priority under this scenario. Rather than penalizing people for using more than one kind of service, she said, the AATA would hope to centralize their ticketing, making it easier for customers to use multiple services.

Under the Lifeline Plus scenario, the kind of service offered currently by WAVE (Western Washtenaw Area Value Express), which is operated by a nonprofit, would be enhanced further, with longer operating hours; it would also be expected to integrate Chelsea and Dexter, as part the AATA’s vision for countywide transportation. The People’s Express, a transportation service for seniors, currently providing service in the townships, would also be enhanced to include Canton and Chelsea.

While the Lifeline Plus scenario improves existing options in Ann Arbor, the scenario also strengthens local transportation in Chelsea by including a local circulator. A shuttle currently operates in Chelsea, through a partnership with WAVE and the United Methodist Retirement Communities (UMRC). Under the Lifeline Plus scenario, that kind of shuttle would have longer operating hours.

On a more Ann Arbor-centric note, Edmonson explained that on the Lifeline Plus scenario, six new intercept park-and-ride lots would be available to commuters into downtown Ann Arbor. Park-and-ride commuters could park in a lot on the outskirts of Ann Arbor and catch a bus into the downtown area. The AATA already has four such park-and-ride lots, including the lot near Plymouth Road and US-23, which was constructed last year specifically as a park-and-ride lot.

An airport express shuttle would also be implemented on the Lifeline Plus scenario, making it easier to get to and from the Detroit Metro Airport. On a final countywide note, Edmonson said that two measures would be enhanced and promoted throughout the county: car/vanpools and door-to-door services. While both these services are available currently, Edmonson stressed that they would be even more accessible for everyone within the county under the Lifeline Plus scenario.

Accessible County: The Expansion Scenario

Edmonson assured the audience that her explanation of Accessible County would not be quite as comprehensive as Lifeline Plus, simply because every single feature included in Lifeline Plus would also be included in Accessible County. The Accessible County scenario would simply build even further on that base.

Accessible County – Concept and Key Features

Edmonson dived in to the Accessible County scenario by stressing a countywide express network and local transit hubs. Under this scenario, she said, Manchester, Saline, Milan, and Whitmore Lake would be included in this countywide network.

AATA Accessible County Map

AATA Accessible County scenario (Image links to higher resolution .pdf of all three scenarios. )

For example, there would be an express service from Milan to Saline, and then to Ann Arbor. There may be another express service that runs through Manchester, then Saline, then finally to Ann Arbor. Faster trips would be an aspect of transportation addressed in Accessible County.

In the Lifeline Plus scenario, only Chelsea and Ann Arbor had a local circulator incorporated in the countywide transit plan. But under Accessible County, Chelsea, Dexter, and Saline would all have local circulators.

The final aspect of Accessible County not included in Lifeline Plus was a “Flex” ride service available for all residents of Washtenaw County. The Flex Ride would aim to fill in any gaps of other services and would have a personalized approach. The idea, Edmonson said, would be that a resident could call up the AATA and say, “I need to make this trip at this time,” and the AATA would make it work. That may be a door-to-door service, or that may mean sharing a car with more than one person, but the service would be for everyone, she said.

Smart Growth: The Re-Invention Scenario

The final scenario, Smart Growth, has the goal to “invest in transit across the county to stimulate economic growth and focus on land development in areas that best accommodate growth,” according to an AATA information booklet detailing the three scenarios. As with the second scenario, Smart Growth is cumulative and encompasses all the services offered in Lifeline Plus and Accessible County.

Smart Growth – Concept and Key Features

A defining feature of the Smart Growth scenario is the investment in regional rail systems, a feature not included in either of the other two scenarios. One rail line, the east-west connection, would run from Ann Arbor to Dearborn and Detroit.

AATA Smart Growth Map

AATA Smart Growth scenario (Image links to higher resolution .pdf of all three scenarios. )

A second rail line – the WALLY (Washtenaw Livingston Rail Line) – would be a commuter connection running north-south between Howell and Ann Arbor. Edmonson added that cities like Toledo were not included in the plan, but there is still the potential for those places to be incorporated in the Smart Growth model.

Two somewhat more local “high capacity” transit options would be included in Smart Growth: (1) Ann Arbor Connector – a connector running along the Plymouth Road and State Street corridors in Ann Arbor, bridging the University of Michigan campuses; and (2) Washtenaw Corridor Connector – a connector along Washtenaw Avenue between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. The term “high capacity” was left deliberately vague, with Edmonson saying this could mean light rail or perhaps bus rapid transit, where high-quality buses would be used. In both cases, the trip time for passengers would significantly decrease. [For more detailed Chronicle coverage of the Plymouth-State connector option, see: "AATA: Transit Study, Planning Updates"]

A Conversation Among Citizens

When Edmonson described the Plymouth-State connector, one forum attendee asked what would happen to University of Michigan buses running through that area. Benham responded that they would be replaced, at least partially, by something like the Ann Arbor Connector. Benham said this would reduce the currently cramped nature of these buses. “I know,” the attendee responded, “they’re standing room only.” Benham continued that if you want to get to downtown Ann Arbor, congestion clogs many of the roads before you arrive at Main Street. The idea of park-and-ride, he said, is to park on the outskirts – say around Briarwood Mall – and take a straight shot downtown using public transportation.

A second person asked, on a related note, whether the AATA was thinking to penalize people who drive to downtown Ann Arbor by increasing parking rates, thus indirectly encouraging the use of public transportation. [Setting parking rates is not within the purview of the AATA. Parking rates are currently set by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, with the city council holding a veto power.] Benham generalized, “I’ve heard talk of that; we welcome opportunities to get new riders.” The first attendee piped up again, saying, “For 75 cents, it’s worth it.” [Full fare on regular AATA buses is $1.50, but there's a $0.75 fare for students, as well as seniors age 60-64 (above 64, rides are free), income-eligible and disabled people.]

A third attendee brought some local perspective to the discussion. He mentioned the “good efforts” made in Saline in the past to bring about public transportation, but said that such offerings died for a lack of ridership. Do you think, he asked, enough people will support the comprehensive offerings of Smart Growth? Benham again responded in a general way, saying that’s a challenge faced by the AATA whenever they implement new programs.

Benham continued by stressing that the AATA is a creature of Ann Arbor – residents pay a transportation millage. Outside of that, however, the AATA has no guaranteed funding. The majority of funding for construction of these scenarios – Lifeline Plus, Accessible County, and Smart Growth – would come from federal grants. But in the past, these services have barely been able to get started before funding runs out. The whole rationale of this master plan, he continued, would be eventually achieve a more stable funding source.

The first attendee made a comment that followed up on the idea of transportation local to Saline, emphasizing that these buses can’t just run over by Briarwood or Ypsilanti – they have to come into Saline. Benham continued by acknowledging that the population of Washtenaw County has spread out, but the transportation system has not followed. We must, he said, start providing services for everyone within the county.

The Three Plans: Local Community Benefits

As a part of the scenario development, the AATA has attempted to quantify the benefits of different scenarios. [.pdf of benefit estimates]

Benham first highlighted the number of cars estimated to be taken off the road annually: the Lifeline Plus scenario would eliminate 2.9 million car trips, the Accessible County would eliminate 3.3 million, and Smart Growth would eliminate 5.4 million car trips annually.

Benham also highlighted the number of new jobs each scenario would create: from 418 for Lifeline Plus to 1,830 for Smart Growth. He then moved to the number of serious road accidents annually – under Smart Growth, a projected 111 serious car accidents are estimated to be prevented per year.

Along with that, he continued, there would be an increase in the senior population who are within walking distance to transit. Environmentally, each plan would include a significant reduction in emissions.

Benham emphasized that the numbers were conservative, and that perhaps even more businesses would relocate to Ann Arbor just because of Lifeline Plus. The effect, he explained, is indirect. With a stronger public transportation plan, he continued, employees would easily be able to get to and from work.

Additionally, the congestion in Ann Arbor would be eased because of the decrease in cars on the road. Even the smoggy atmosphere of Ann Arbor, one forum participant chimed in, would be relieved. As a result of all these positive impacts, Benham concluded, businesses would be more likely to locate near Ann Arbor, thus bringing more success and prosperity to the area.

Capital and Operational Costs

Benham then moved to the question of cost – both to build the infrastructure and to operate the system once it’s built. [.pdf of cost estimates]

Capital costs for the different scenarios break down like this for a 30-year period:

  • Lifeline Plus: $48 million
  • Accessible County: $51 million
  • Smart Growth: $465 million

Annual total operating expenses break down like this:

  • Lifeline Plus: ~$73 million
  • Accessible County: ~$78 million
  • Smart Growth: ~$100 million

While the Lifeline Plus and Accessible County are similar in capital cost, the Smart Growth scenario is considerably higher, because offers a new dimension of high-capacity transit and regional rail services. But, Benham pointed out, not all of those costs would be paid by Washtenaw County taxpayers alone. In the case of the rail options included in Smart Growth, roughly two-thirds of the track would be located in Wayne County. We want to emphasize cost, Benham said, not funding.

Benham then introduced a pie chart indicating various sources of funding. Historically, the federal government has paid for 45% of the funding; the state has paid another 13%; local sources contribute 16%; and the final 26% is generated directly through fares.

Benham cited the Millennium Park project in Chicago as a model for how funds could be broken down to minimize the expense on the taxpayer – in that example, the project cost half a billion dollars. Yet one-third of that came from private sources. Edmonson added that individuals, institutions, and corporations all have an incentive to contribute. Benham then returned to the local scenarios, saying that one-third of the operating costs would be shouldered by local residents.

The total operating cost divided into a scenario’s total community benefits makes up that scenario’s cost-benefit ratio. The Smart Growth scenario has the highest cost-benefit ratio, of 3.12 – that is, for every $1 of additional operating cost, the community receives an additional $3.12 of benefit. Lifeline Plus has a 2.6 cost-benefit ratio, while Accessible County’s is a near-identical 2.62.

Conclusion: Addressing Transit Needs

After discussing the funding side of the transit equation, Benham and Edmonson quickly switched to general benefits of transit, on any of the three scenarios. Transit, they said, relieves congestion, boosts our regional economy, increases choice riders, and allows senior populations to age in place. Benham continued, saying that people don’t realize they actually get time back on the bus. “Get some work done – sleep,” he said, adding jokingly, “text.”

But the AATA, he said, cannot do this alone. In every one of the scenarios – as well as for its current operations – the AATA has “strategic alliances” with WAVE, People’s Express, and Manchester Senior Services, Benham said.

He underlined that the term “transportation” need not be limited to buses and railways. The AATA also seeks to expand bikeways and sidewalks, along with roadways. One forum attendee, who had not spoken until that point, added that they’d seen how a person in a wheelchair had not been accommodated on a bus on South University Avenue.

Another forum attendee pointed out the need for additional bike racks or some similar device to allow cyclists to use buses. Benham responded by saying that currently buses do allow for bikes to be attached to front-mounted racks, but sometimes space is limited. “We are victims of our own success.” Safety is the top priority, and the possibility of hooking bikes to the back of buses – as the citizen was suggesting – allowed for a potential danger of theft. We can’t, he stressed, create situations that are potentially unsafe.

Switching gears, Benham pointed out that if the current trends continue, development will be everywhere. But if planning tools are used, space can remain open. Benham then showed a slide illustrating the projected impact on land use in the county, with and without investments in transit and other development tools. Without transit investments, the slide showed a continued loss of open space and agricultural land and a decrease in sense of place.

AATA Impact on Land Use Map

Contrasting maps showing future development in Washtenaw County. (Image links to higher resolution. pdf file)

Benham then used a transit center in Tempe, Ariz. to illustrate the potential of transit hubs. The Arizona center is a multi-use green facility that serves as a center for the entire community. It includes a bike station and even showers – it became more than a transit stop.

As his PowerPoint presentation came to an end, Benham said again that community input is vital. What do you, as residents, want the future to be like? With that, two forum attendees shared their own experiences with transit.

The first was a woman from Chelsea who helped establish the local circulator that runs through town. While the circulator began strictly for those in Chelsea’s United Methodist Retirement Communities (UMRC), she emphasized that it is hard for nonprofits to get funding. Eventually, they collaborated with the WAVE. She emphasized that even a simple circulator helps seniors maintain their independence. Saline, she added, also needs something like that.

The second resident has a son with a developmental disability, and emphasized that public transportation is crucial. Especially from Saline to Ann Arbor, she said, we need countywide transportation.

And with those last two comments, Benham thanked attendees for coming and expressed his appreciation for the community’s interest and involvement. [For county residents who cannot attend any of the forums, the AATA is also seeking feedback on the three scenarios using an online survey.]

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More Solar Energy Projects In the Works Mon, 06 Sep 2010 14:39:21 +0000 Hayley Byrnes Bonnie Bona insists that the best way to make pesto is with a mortar and pestle. While she admits the method is more labor-intensive than using a food processor, Bona cites it as yet another tip to become more eco-friendly.

MIchigan Theater Building on East Liberty

The plain brick wall on the Michigan Theater Building on East Liberty in downtown Ann Arbor – rising up behind the storefronts – will be the site of a solar panel installation funded by XSeed Energy, a program of the Clean Energy Coalition and the city of Ann Arbor. (Photos by Mary Morgan.)

As a project manager for the Ypsilanti-based Clean Energy Coalition, Bona specializes in this art of saving energy. She is quick to add, however, that “my goal isn’t to make people sacrifice and suffer. It’s to make them see opportunities where life can be better and, oh, by the way, it uses a lot less energy.”

But it’s not just about using less energy. Bona and others in the Ann Arbor area are involved with projects that focus on generating alternative energy, too – in particular, solar power. Prompted in part by the lure of tax credits and available state and federal funding, an increasing number of efforts are underway to install solar panels on individual residences, businesses, nonprofits and schools – including, as one recent example, the Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor.

And in mid-August, the Ann Arbor Historic District Commission unanimously approved two solar installation projects in historic districts, one for a private home on South Seventh Street, and another at the Michigan Theater. With some citing concern over aesthetics, commissioners acknowledged that they’ll likely see more of these requests in the future, and discussed the need to develop guidelines for solar installations within the city’s historic districts.

City Solar Initiatives: XSeed Energy

The Michigan Theater solar project is being funded by an especially ambitious program that Bona is leading, called XSeed Energy. The program, part of the Clean Energy Coalition (CEC), aims at installing solar projects and encouraging “community-supported local energy,” Bona says, “which means that whether it’s solar or wind or geothermal, it’s locally-sourced energy versus having coal shipped from West Virginia.”

XSeed evolved from a partnership between CEC and the city of Ann Arbor, through the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s Solar America Cities program. In 2007, the U.S. Dept. of Energy declared Ann Arbor one of 25 Solar America Cities. As a result, the city received $632,000 in funds dedicated to advancing solar energy. Since then, the city has published a comprehensive report titled “Solar Ann Arbor: A Plan for Action” – a 114-page document that Bona strongly recommends reading. XSeed was launched to help implement the plan. [.pdf of the plan's executive summary – the full document is available on the city's website.]

Andrew Brix, the city’s energy programs manager, worked closely with the consultant who created the plan, and says of its purpose: “It helps to remove or reduce the barriers associated with solar energy, such as cost, and tries to allow [solar energy] to become a mainstream production of energy.” Bona adds that the plan details the “potential for Ann Arbor, as a city, to be entirely powered by locally-generated power.”

Solar installation at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market

Solar panels are installed on the shelter roof of the Ann Arbor Farmers Market.

One of the city’s already-installed solar projects is a 10-kilowatt solar array at the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market, put in place in 2008 with money from the Dept. of Energy along with matching funds from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. Not only does the system advance the goal of using solar energy, it also tackles another facet of the city’s solar plan: awareness. The strategically placed array is easily within view, and – given the popularity of the farmer’s market – is guaranteed many viewers.

Public awareness is key, says Bona, who is also a member of the city’s planning commission: “The goal of XSeed is two-fold: one is to implement the installation of solar panels in lots of different locations – starting with nonprofits. The second piece is to make the general public aware of the installation, aware of how it works, have read-outs where people can see how much power it’s generating.”

The city is already providing information for property owners to raise awareness about the potential of solar energy. Wayne Appleyard, chairman of the city’s energy commission, explains that city staff, with the help of some University of Michigan interns, developed a system that estimates how much energy each residential home could generate via solar power in Ann Arbor.

Residents can use that system by visiting the city’s website and entering their address. They’ll then see a list of tabs, including one that’s labeled “Solar Potential.” Clicking on that tab generates a listing that looks like this:

Address: 101 Your Street
Full Zip Code: 48103-4357
Solar Potential: Excellent
Solar Hot Water Candidate: Yes
Roof Size:  756 sq. ft.
Estimated solar PV potential: 0.55 - 1.09 KW
Estimated electricity produced: 717.3 - 1434.61 KWh/yr
Estimated electricity savings: 304.9 - 383.81 per year
Estimated greenhouse gas savings: 1.65 - 2.36 tonnes CO2/yr


Appleyard, who has been a member of the energy commission for over 10 years and chair for the past year, cautions that the information is “an approximation.” But it’s useful as a guide for homeowners who are interested in the solar-energy option. Encouraging the use of residential solar energy is an explicit city goal, as outlined in its effort to put solar installations on 5,000 roofs by 2015, primarily for solar hot water systems.

Working Within a Historic District

While the city has a history of advocating for solar energy, it’s not common for solar projects to be located within the city’s historic districts. But during the Historic District Commission’s Aug. 12 meeting, the group unanimously approved two proposed solar initiatives: one for a Seventh Street residential home, and one for the Michigan Theater that’s funded by XSeed Energy. When completed, it will be the most high-profile solar project in the city.

In early 2010, XSeed began an application process for a solar panel project. The nonprofit Michigan Theater had the most potential of the applicants for two reasons, Bona explained. First, the project at the Michigan Theater offers an additional aspect of awareness because of the theater’s downtown location and because the system, once installed, would be easily visible from the street – the solar array will be installed on the south-facing wall of the theater, rather than on the out-of-sight roof.

As another factor in choosing Michigan Theater, Bona also cites the willingness of the theater’s staff – including executive director Russ Collins – to work with XSeed and fundraise, bringing in money to fund future projects.

Along with installing the solar system, XSeed required the Michigan Theater to reduce its energy use by 5%. Including the 5% that the solar array will offset from the theater’s electrical use, the entire project will reduce the theater’s need for fuel-based electricity by 10%.

“The goal with solar is not to replace the electricity we’re using today, but to step back and reduce the wasted energy,” says Bona, in explaining XSeed’s requirement for separate conservation measures. “Then we won’t need as much solar to make up the difference.” It’s an approach akin to avoiding the food processor while making pesto.

While the Michigan Theater was the first of the applicants selected by XSeed, Bona says they intend to do more projects.

Deliberations at the HDC: Questions, Concerns – and Approval

At their Aug. 12 meeting, historic district commissioners spent about 90 minutes discussing the two solar proposals. The first was for a home at 553 S. Seventh St., just north of West Madison in the Old West Side historic district. Homeowner Chris Hewett was asking for a “certificate of appropriateness,” which would allow him to proceed on installing solar panels on the roof of his 19th-century house.

House at 553 S. Seventh Street

The house at 553 S. Seventh St., with an indication of one option for installing solar panels on the roof. This image was included in the Aug. 12 meeting packet for the Ann Arbor Historic District Commission.

At the request of the city’s planning staff, he presented three configurations for installing the panels – commissioners were asked to weigh in on which of the three options would be most preferable, from their perspective.

Hewett told commissioners that he and his wife bought the house about a year ago, and were planning to make it more sustainable and energy efficient, while at the same time restoring its historical features. He said they were trying to take advantage of the credits available through DTE and federal programs, which would make the project financially feasible.

He said they use about 3 kilowatts of energy each month, and that the solar panels would likely generate about 1 kilowatt. In the future, they might return to the HDC to seek permission to install additional panels, he said.

Some commissioners posed questions about structural issues related to placing the array of 3-feet-by-5-feet panels on the roof. Kristina Glusac stated repeatedly that she felt there was insufficient information provided about the structure of the house and how the panels would be installed. Lesa Rozmarek was concerned about the possibility of ice damming.

Some of the commissioners were concerned about aesthetics, and initially wanted to choose an option that would minimize the visual impact of the panels. That issue was reflected in the staff report, presented by historic preservation coordinator Jill Thacher:

Staff’s initial thoughts on solar panels are that they are an acceptable, reversible addition to residential structures in historic districts if the panels a) match the color of the roof, b) match the angle of the roof and do not project more than eight inches above it, and c) do not cover more than 30% of the roof surface on which they are installed if any part of the panel is visible from a street or sidewalk, and most importantly, d) do not detract from the historic character of the house or destroy, obscure, or damage character-defining features.

During the time available for public comment, several people spoke – including many who were attending the meeting in connection with the Michigan Theater project, and who responded to some of the concerns raised by commissioners.

Saying he was a huge advocate of historic preservation, Matt Grocoff – founder of Greenovation TV – noted that he lived down the street from Hewett, and that he intends to make his home the oldest in America to achieve net-zero energy. While he was excited by the discussion, he said the commissioners were asking the wrong questions about the aesthetics. “The real question is what point is there in preserving our history if we don’t protect our future?” He urged commissioners to set a precedent by unanimously approving the installation of solar panels.

Clean Energy Coalition project managers Dave Strenski and Christina Snyder both spoke to the commission, addressing some of the technical concerns. Both have worked on other solar panel installations, and said they didn’t have problems with drainage or ice damming. Strenski, who volunteers with Solar Ypsi and did the installation of panels at the Ypsilanti city hall, said it was dumb to install the panels in a way that wouldn’t yield the highest efficiency. Shading was another factor to consider, he said – if any part of the array is in shade, it affects the performance of the entire system.

When asked by commissioner Tom Stulberg for his thoughts on the question of aesthetics, Strenski said aesthetics is in the eye of the beholder. Most people who install solar panels are proud of them and want them to be visible, he said, but energy efficiency – not aesthetics – should be the main factor.

Later in the meeting, HDC chair Ellen Ramsburgh said it was important for the commission to weigh in on placement. Part of their job was to make sure the additions didn’t detract from the historic character of the house, she said, and a roof is a very visible part of that. In general, she said, she preferred a less-distracting placement of the panels.

The fact that the solar panels could be removed was compelling for several commissioners, and some mentioned that they had a steep learning curve on this issue. But despite some concerns, the project received unanimous support from commissioners, giving the homeowner the option of choosing which solar array would work best for the site.

Next up was the Michigan Theater project on East Liberty, an installation on the south-facing wall of the main theater building, which is located in the State Street historic district. Though the wall is set back 58 feet from the front of the shops along East Liberty, the panels will be visible from the street.

The staff report recommended approval of the project, but again brought up aesthetic issues. Of particular concern to the XSeed project team was a possible restriction on color. From the staff report:

Staff supports the proposal if the panels and their supporting armature are a neutral, and preferably matte, brown, gray, or black color when feasible. Very conspicuous panels, such as bright blue ones, and bare metal frame finishes should be avoided if they detract from character-defining features of the structure and neighboring ones.

In addressing the commission, Bonnie Bona noted that the color of the panels is determined by the technology that’s used to create them, and that she would not want to restrict their ability to select the appropriate technology for the project. They plan to put the project out to bid, and would be open to new technologies, she said.

Mark Ritz, a volunteer with the Clean Energy Coalition who’s working with the XSeed program, elaborated on that topic, saying he’d researched the different types of solar panels available and that almost without exception, the panels are dark blue, mounted on silver anodized aluminum frames. The panel absorbs light and creates electricity from the light it absorbs, he explained. The most efficient wavelengths of light are the longer ones, he added, so what’s reflected are the shorter wavelengths – the dark blue and violet, which are not as efficient in being converted to electricity. By imposing a color restriction, he said, it would restrict their choices immensely in selecting the best technology for this site.

Both Snyder and Strenski spoke again in support of the project. Snyder noted that the panels that commissioners might find the most “distracting” from an aesthetic view – made of polycrystalline silicon, with the crystals showing – are those she finds most beautiful. “I could stand and look at them for hours,” she said. “It’s almost like looking at fire or moving water.”

Strenski encouraged commissioners to check out seminars offered by the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association, based near Lansing. In addition to solar energy, the group provides training for wind energy too. “Wind energy’s going to be next on your list here,” Strenski said.

Andrew Brix, who’s a member of the XSeed advisory board, also addressed the commission. He mentioned that the city council approved a “green energy challenge” in 2006, with the goal of achieving 20% renewable energy use by 2015. He said he hoped the HDC would support the project and that they could continue this conversation about solar installations in historic districts, finding ways to address both the needs of historic preservation and the energy goals of the city.

During the commission’s deliberations, Lesa Rozmarek pointed out that the panels are being deliberately placed in a location that’s very visible. She said she didn’t have a problem with it in this case, but it’s something the commission should be aware of.

Diane Giannola said that a major point with this project is that the panels will be placed on a plain brick wall, and won’t interfere with the building’s historic front. She said she liked the educational aspect of the project, too.

The commissioners voted unanimously to issue a certificate of appropriateness for the Michigan Theater solar installation.

Coda to HDC Approval

In a follow-up email, Bona told The Chronicle that XSeed has budgeted about $30,000 for the Michigan Theater installation – $10,000 per kilowatt for a 3 kilowatt array. Bids are expected back from solar installers by the end of September. For other recent projects, prices have been in the range of $7,000 to $9,000 per kilowatt.

They expect to get about $15,000 from the DTE SolarCurrents program. The program allows the energy utility to buy renewable energy credits (RECs) from the state – credits that would otherwise go to homeowners or businesses. This helps the utility meet Michigan’s renewable energy standard, which was established by Public Act 295. The standard is a state mandate for Michigan electric utilities to generate 10% of their power from renewable resources by 2015.

In addition, XSeed is using the Michigan Theater installation to raise funds from corporate sponsorships, private donations and grants for public awareness efforts and future projects. That funding, in turn, will allow XSeed to provide incentives for private projects at residences, businesses and organizations. XSeed will also be pursuing public installations to provide power to residents, businesses, and organizations that don’t have adequate solar access on their own sites.

The focus on solar power, Bona wrote, is because of attractive incentives that are currently available to offset the cost of installation. In the future, XSeed will be looking at other renewable energy sources, too.

DTE, State Incentives Help Rudolf Steiner School

Yet another solar installation is coming in October – this one at the Rudolf Steiner School, on the campus of its high school on Pontiac Trail. The school received funding through two grants in June of this year: one from the Michigan Renewable Schools Program, which is funded by the Michigan Public Service Commission and administered by Energy Works Michigan; and one from DTE through its SolarCurrents program.

Rudolf Steiner School will receive $1,000 annually, says Sandra Greenstone, the school’s administrator, and is expected to save another $1,000 in electricity costs – about 12,000 kilowatt hours’ worth. In addition to a solar installation, the school will be making energy-saving changes based on results of an energy audit funded by the Michigan Renewable Schools Program, such as replacing windows and using energy-efficient light bulbs and fixtures.

Appleyard, of the city’s energy commission, considers the importance of the DTE program to be paramount in the accessibility of solar-powered systems. “It makes pretty good sense,” he says. “Certainly with DTE’s [SolarCurrents] program, photovoltaic arrays are a relatively secure investment in these times of uncertainty … since you’re signing a 20-year contract with DTE that basically guarantees that they’re going to pay you upfront money and then pay you every month for whatever you generate.”

Though DTE’s SolarCurrents program is viewed as progressive, hopes are set still higher for the possibility of incentives by the city, if pending state legislation is passed.

Andrew Brix, the city’s energy programs manager, believes the single most helpful piece of legislation is PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy). Through the program, the city would use municipal bonds  to fund the upfront installation of a solar system to a resident’s home. The resident would then pay the city through property taxes in the coming years – probably over 15 to 20 years.

Wayne Appleyard, Bonnie Bona

Wayne Appleyard and Bonnie Bona at a joint working session of the Ann Arbor planning commission, energy commission and environmental commission in April 2010. Appleyard chairs the energy commission. At the time, Bona was chair of the planning commission. (Chronicle file photo)

“This is incredibly helpful,” says Brix, “because most people don’t have the money for solar initiatives. It’s been passed in the House and is waiting to be reviewed in the Senate.” If legislation is approved, Brix says the city is “poised and ready” to run a PACE program.

The issue of PACE legislation came up during an April 13, 2010 joint working session of the Ann Arbor planning commission, energy commission and environmental commission, focused on the topic of sustainability and organized in part by Bona, who served as planning commission chair at the time. Matt Naud, the city’s environmental coordinator, explained some of the issues related to implementing a PACE program. From Chronicle coverage:

The program would be voluntary. Homeowners would first get an energy audit to find out if they’ve already taken initial steps on their own – for example, Naud said, you wouldn’t want to install solar power if you haven’t sufficiently caulked around your windows. You’d sign a contract with the city, which Naud said would microfinance the improvements. To repay the loan, homeowners would get an additional assessment on their property tax bills.

The risk is low, Naud said, as long as they structure the program in the right way – for example, not lending to people who are upside down on their mortgages, owing more than the home is worth. There’s already a system in place to make payments – the tax bills – and the improvements would add value to the property. The city has set aside $400,000 from a federal Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant it received, to use as a loan loss reserve fund. If the enabling legislation is passed, the city would be able to put together a package that would work, Naud said.

[Link to a September 2009 article about the PACE program, written by Eric Jamison, a law student at Wayne State University Law School who's working with the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center to develop the program in Michigan. More information is also available on the PACE Now website. Previous Chronicle coverage related to PACE: "Special District Might Fund Energy Program"]

Local banks will likely be involved in the effort as well – the Bank of Ann Arbor, for example, has been talking with the city for several months about how a “green lending” program might be structured.

Appleyard says that the DTE program certainly changed the economics of solar installation, but he hopes a feed-in tariff law will be enacted, too. He contends that it’s a case of politicians saying they want to do it and then having the political will to back it up. “It’s just a question of how long we wait and how many more droughts we have and sea level rises and all those other things that are happening – climate change – before we go ahead and decide that we have to do something.”

Hayley Byrnes is an intern with The Ann Arbor Chronicle. Chronicle Publisher Mary Morgan contributed to this report.

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Know Your Kirk: Public Servant Mon, 30 Aug 2010 21:54:04 +0000 Hayley Byrnes About six years ago, Kirk Westphal was living in New York City with his wife, Cynthia. So it’s a fair question to ask: “How did you get here?” Sitting in one of the cozy lounge chairs in the the Espresso Royale on Main Street, Wesphal talked about how he gets to places like the café, how he came to his current line of work, and how he made his serendipitous move to Ann Arbor.

Kirk Westphal seems to recognize the guy on his video-editing screen. (Chronicle file photo, June 2010.)

“[My wife and I] were on a run in Central Park one night and we thought, we love New York but we’d be open to going someplace else,” Westphal recalls. When asked by his wife where he would want to move, Westphal’s automatic response was one that surprised her: Ann Arbor. “Her jaw went to the floor, ‘cause she didn’t think I knew anything about Michigan,” Westphal says, “which I didn’t.” The next day, Westphal’s wife searched online for jobs at the University of Michigan, and found an open faculty position at the School of Music. “One thing lead to another and she got that job,” Westphal says. “It was a message.”

Though Westphal may be a recent “import from New York,” he has already accumulated a range of community service experience in his six years here in Ann Arbor. Westphal serves as vice chair of the city’s planning commission, having been a member for four years, and also holds a spot on the environmental commission. He’s also serving on the design guidelines task force that is working on the final piece of the recent rezoning of downtown, known as A2D2.

While talking with The Chronicle, Westphal jokingly asked that the headline not reflect just one of his commitments to public service for fear that one commission or the other might be offended. He was alluding to the typical “Know Your” pattern for headlines The Chronicle uses for profiles of public servants: “Know Your AATA Board,” “Know Your DDA Board” or “Know Your Library Board.”

Westphal began his public service while earning his master’s in urban planning at UM. “I got to know the mayor,” he explains, “because I took his class in public policy school … I had also asked him about keeping me aware of any opportunities to volunteer.” [Mayor John Hieftje teaches a course as a lecturer at the UM Ford School of Public Policy: "Local Government, Opportunity for Activism."]

Westphal got his start in Ann Arbor community service on the city’s Housing Policy Board, to which he was appointed in March 2006. He served on that board just a few months, until September 2006. “And then,” he says, “when an opening came up on the planning commission, I applied for that and got appointed.”

With his interest in urban planning, Westphal’s participation on the planning commission proved a good fit. His appointment to the city’s environmental commission is rooted in that body’s practical need to have a representative from the city’s planning commission. “The environmental commission’s by-laws require a liaison to the planning commission, so I volunteered for that.”

But beyond filling that administrative need, Westphal continues, “There is such a huge environmental implication to land use and I felt like I could be useful in helping to bring in that perspective to environmental issues.” Emphasizing the connection between the two commissions, Westphal notes, “Any time there is a rezoning of something, it has an environmental impact, whether it’s stated or not. Every planning decision has far-reaching environmental consequences.”

My other car is a bus

Kirk Westphal's bag with button: "My other car is the bus." (Chronicle file photo, June 2010.)

The expected eco-friendly lifestyle of an environmental commissioner is one that Westphal exemplifies. “I actually just recently took advantage of something I found out about from the last email I got from the city, where the state and DTE are subsidizing energy audits and also offering incentives to complete the recommendations of those audits.  I’m happy to say that we got it recently and it was a fantastic analysis.” Later in the interview, he noted with pride about his family of four: “We are a one-car family. It’s biking and busing distance for both my wife and I.”

Like his move to Ann Arbor, Westphal notes, “My career path sort of happened accidentally.” While in New York, Westphal worked doing traditional market research, often purely quantitatively focused, usually for advertising agencies. As an undergrad, Westphal studied economics at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  Soon, however, “I started to be the person that they would send out to the street, with a videographer and a microphone to ask people questions about what beer they drank, where they shop for pantyhose,” Westphal adds, “You name it, I researched it.”

“That always got so much more attention, rightly or wrongly, than the $10,000 quantitative research report we hired someone to do,” Westphal says. Realizing the effect such videos had on people, Westphal’s interest in filmmaking grew. For his thesis in graduate school, Westphal began independently making videos on urban issues. He considers his first video and thesis film, “Insights into a Lively Downtown,” to be his most memorable. “The basis of the video was my going out and first asking people, pedestrians around Ann Arbor, what they consider to be the heart of the city, and they could define that any way they wanted.”

On YouTube, the 20-minute video has received over 26,000 views since it was posted in early 2007, and is currently one of the first search results returned on YouTube for “urban planning.”

“It helped reinforce the message to me,” Westphal says, “that it’s great to recommend books to read about urban issues, but you can really reach a whole new segment and more casual observers just by doing a video. I don’t know what that says about our culture, but it did generate a lot of interest.”

After earning his master’s in urban planning in 2006, Westphal opened Westphal Associates on South Main Street.  While Westphal is the only full-time employee of the company, he often hires videographers to help with particular projects. Westphal focuses on a small number of projects per year, though they tend to be larger assignments, he says.

One of Westphal’s upcoming films is an educational video on the council-manager form of government. His client in that case was the Michigan Local Government Management Association. He’s previously done video work for MLGMA on the awareness of the council-manager form of government. At time stamp [4:19], this video [link to YouTube] features Westphal asking several different people on the street the same question: “Have you ever heard of the council-manager form of government?” Hilarity ensues.

And recently, Westphal received a grant from the Urban Design and Preservation division of the American Planning Association to film “a more broad interpretation of my first film … on how to make downtown streets more attractive, more viable.” The project, called “The Great Street Toolkit,” will soon be available on DVD, though most of his videos are posted on his YouTube account [KirkWestphal] as well.

But upcoming work on Ann Arbor’s city planning commission will also focus on areas of the city outside the downtown. “There’s a new R4C/R2A  study committee,” Westphal explains. He hopes that the study committee will provide an opportunity for the planning commission “to talk about people’s visions for those neighborhoods and how they’re changing and what people would like to see.”

[From the city's zoning code on R4C: "... intended to permit dwelling units to be arranged one above the other or side by side ... to be located in the central area of the City, in close proximity to the central business district and The University of Michigan Campus." From the city's zoning code on R2A: "This district is intended to provide residential areas in the City which are suitable for 2 single-family attached dwellings occupying 1 lot."]

While Westphal’s commitment to the planning commission remains strong, he says, “I think if I volunteer for anything else, there might be some issues at home. The babysitting budget has already been blown on night meetings for these commissions.”

Hayley Byrnes is an intern with The Ann Arbor Chronicle.

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Know Your AATA Board: Roger Kerson Tue, 17 Aug 2010 20:14:07 +0000 Hayley Byrnes “I grew up in New York City, Queens, where the world was very different and mass transit was a daily part of everybody’s daily life,” says Roger Kerson. But Kerson opted for personal transit when he biked to the Sweetwaters café on West Washington to discuss with The Chronicle his recent appointment to the board of the  Arbor Transportation Authority (AATA).

Roger Kerson at the AATA board retreat on Aug. 10. (Image links to higher resolution file.)

The AATA, branded on the sides of buses as “The Ride,” aims to be the public transportation provider for Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, as well as all of Washtenaw County. Kerson is one of seven members on the AATA board.

While he may be the newest board member, Kerson does not lack for eagerness in promoting the AATA’s current initiative to develop a countywide transportation plan. “We’re engaged in a planning process,” he says, “for developing mass transportation and we encourage people to go to … We need to engage in a lot of conversation.” The Moving You Forward website seeks community feedback on every aspect of public transportation.

“Where do you live? Where do you work? Where do you shop? Where do you go to the movies? Are there ways in which you could reduce your carbon footprint by using transit, using the bike?” Kerson asks, adding that the AATA welcome views from all Ann Arborites and county residents, whether they use transit or not.

Encouraging that kind of communication is familiar ground to Kerson. He is currently a media consultant at RK Communications, his consulting firm. Kerson’s roots in Ann Arbor stretch from his time at the University of Michigan, where he graduated with distinction in 1980. “I think Woodrow Wilson was president then,” he quipped. Kerson stayed in Ann Arbor after college, soon becoming interested in journalism.

He began writing for a publication called The Alchemist, which he describes as “The Ann Arbor Chronicle in its day, before the Internet.”

[The editor of The Alchemist back in 1980 was James Delcamp, who's currently running for the state House seat in District 66, which includes parts of Livingston and Oakland counties. Though his time at The Alchemist apparently didn't overlap with Kerson, Delcamp wrote to The Chronicle that he has an old 1981 issue containing a Kerson piece with the headline: "Ann Arbor's Oldest Food Coop on the Brink." Delcamp called it "a great article."]

In 1988, Kerson moved to Chicago to become a freelance writer. Though he has written for mainstream publications like the Chicago Sun-Times and Columbia Journalism Review, Kerson identifies his main work as “indie media,” writing for publications such as The Michigan Voice, Michael Moore’s newspaper in Flint before Moore became a filmmaker.

Although Kerson was a stringer for the Hammond Times in Indiana, he says, “I never had a nine-to-five job … I just became a freelance writer by doing it, so I guess I’m a citizen journalist, rather than a professional one.”

Before moving to Chicago, Kerson held “one sort of leisurely job” as an intern [in 1984-1985] and ultimately a staff writer [in 1986-1987] for Solidarity, a UAW monthly publication. The job marked the start of his long affiliation with the labor union. Four years later, he ended his freelance writing to become a communications consultant, still in Chicago.  While there, the UAW became one of Kerson’s chief clients: “That was pretty interesting to me because I wasn’t just writing about it; I was being part of the issue.”

In 1999, Kerson relocated back to Michigan to become the assistant director of public relations for the UAW. By 2006, he had become the director of public relations, a job he held until earlier this year. When asked what some of the highlights were to the job, Kerson answered lightly, “We saved the auto industry.” He quickly went on, “I mean, that wasn’t just me, but that’s what happened while I was there.” As public relations director during the auto crisis, Kerson led a UAW advocacy campaign throughout 2008 and 2009 for federal aid to the auto industry.

Yet as an AATA board member, Kerson’s tendencies favor bikes and buses over cars. Kerson contrasted the shrinkage of the auto companies with his experience on the AATA: “We’re talking about expanding … Yesterday we talked about a fixed service to Ypsi, a potential train to Brighton, a potential bus service to the airport, all different kinds of services that either exist now in some form, or the AATA could do them.” Kerson was referring to a discussion that he and his fellow board members had held about those various strategic initiatives in a four-hour long board retreat/meeting on Aug. 10. [Chronicle coverage: "AATA Targets Specific Short Term Strategies"]

A good transit system, he continued, facilitates economic development and is economical to the consumer. Citing statistics from the American Public Transit Association, he said that switching to transit can save an individual $9,000 a year.

Not only is transit economically viable, he says, it’s also environmentally viable: “Transit jobs are the original green job. Every bus driver is keeping fifty cars off the road.” He cautioned, “We have to do this. We have to change how we move around because climate change is real, and the human and economic costs of that are maybe, in some ways, beyond calculation.”

Environmentalism has been a theme common to Kerson’s community activism. For three years he has served as president of the Ecology Center’s board of directors, though he ultimately considers transit and housing his two principle issues. Along with his service with the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center, Kerson has served on the board of directors of the Washtenaw County chapter of the ACLU and the Ann Arbor Housing and Human Services Advisory Board.

In reflecting on his impressions of the AATA as a new member, Kerson emphasized the importance of forming partnerships. Although Ann Arbor is the only municipality that collects a tax to support the AATA, economic activity spreads throughout the county. He says the AATA has collaborated successfully with Ypsilanti, various townships, the University of Michigan, and private bus companies.

That spirit of collaboration runs through the rest of Kerson’s life. For example, the former journalist cites Facebook as a main medium for gathering news. While allowing he reads the New York Times and Talking Points Memo, he says, “I also get news that’s not always news of the world, but the news of the community and friends I care about.” For additional knowledge, Kerson often relies on his knowledgeable Facebook friends to scope out relevant news: “My universe of things I can look at has gotten larger – I have other people looking for me, if you know what I mean.”

Hayley Byrnes is an intern with The Ann Arbor Chronicle.

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Know Your DDA Board: John Splitt Thu, 05 Aug 2010 14:19:01 +0000 Hayley Byrnes As John Splitt walked in to greet me at the Espresso Royale on State Street, his familiarity with the shop and street was immediately apparent.


John Splitt holds the commemorative plaque he received last month as outgoing chair of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development board. It's fashioned from earth retention lumber from the underground parking structure currently under construction along Fifth Avenue.

Splitt strolled into the cafe, having walked from his dry-cleaning business, Gold Bond Cleaners. “It’s located on Maynard Street, just on the other side of the arcade,” he said, motioning toward Nickels Arcade, a covered passage connecting Maynard and State.

State Street holds a special significance for Splitt as the gateway to his community involvement. In 2004, Splitt joined the board of the State Street Area Association, an experience he described as an educational process, that “opens your eyes to some of the larger downtown issues.” Once on the association’s board, his interest in community service continued, and in 2006 he was appointed to the board of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority (DDA).

Splitt has served on the DDA board since then and for the past year has served as chair. Joan Lowenstein was elected the new chair at the board’s recent annual meeting, which immediately followed the board’s monthly July meeting.

nickels arcade maynard view

The view from just outside Gold Bond Cleaners – looking east across Maynard Street to Nickels Arcade, a pedestrian passage leading to State Street.

When asked what issues have been especially memorable during his time on the DDA, Splitt cited the underground parking structure currently under construction on the city-owned Library Lot at South Fifth Avenue. The project, which began construction in October 2009, will include 600 parking spaces. The bond payments for the project are planned to be made out of the DDA’s parking revenues.

The garage includes environmental elements, with the DDA project website touting LED lights and recharging stations for electric cars. The underground parking structure is only part of what the DDA’s website hails as a “new core area redevelopment project,” including “new water mains and electric capacity, a new alley, midblock street and extensive pedestrian improvements.”

The parking structure has been a central focus of Splitt’s time on the DDA, as he is chair of the DDA’s capital improvements committee. Though the underground structure has already begun construction, an ongoing and vibrant discussion remains on what to put on top of the structure once it’s built. During our conversation at Espresso Royale we didn’t discuss that topic explicitly.

However, city officials have been struggling to find an appropriate development proposal for the 1.2-acre lot. In late November last year, six proposals were made for the lot, ranging from an urban park to a hotel and conference center.  By January, the Library Lot Request for Proposal (RFP) Advisory Committee – of which Splitt is a member – had eliminated four of the proposals, leaving two proposals for a hotel and conference center.

Recently, the conversation about what goes on top has been revived as steps are being taken to hire a consultant to evaluate the financial merit of the remaining proposals, using $50,000 provided by the DDA. Stephen Rapundalo, a city council representative for Ward 2, gave an update indicating a re-start to the months-dormant process at a July council council meeting.

As part of current talks, the city and the DDA have been considering how the DDA might take on the primary role in spurring downtown development, specifically that of city-owned surface parking lots within the DDA district boundary. That empowerment of the DDA may impact how future committees similar to the Library Lot RFP Advisory Committee are organized. While Rapundalo chairs the Library Lot RFP Advisory Committee, it’s conceivable that DDA members might chair similar committees in the future.

Though the DDA’s future leadership in downtown development is uncertain, Splitt’s commitment to the DDA has been clear. Before adding community involvement to his list of other obligations, Splitt paused to clear his extracurricular plate. He admitted, “I was pretty involved in my other hobbies and work up until five or six years ago.”

One such hobby: softball. Having grown up playing baseball, Splitt resorted to fastpitch softball due to the lack of opportunity to play baseball as an adult. “It’s amazing how much time that occupied, both in the summer and the rest of the year,” he said. Yet Splitt quit the sport in favor of the State Street Area Association board and, ultimately, the DDA. Splitt describes a simultaneous dry-cleaning decline since 2006, which he said “works out well for the DDA and volunteer work, because I have a little bit more time to devote to that.”

Nevertheless, Splitt said he always finds time to appreciate Ann Arbor.  When asked what it is he enjoys doing downtown, Splitt answered simply, “Walk, eat, and drink,” echoing the State Street Area Association website’s motto: “Shop, eat, live, work, and enjoy entertainment in the heart of Ann Arbor.” Soon, Splitt will find it even easier do just that, as he and his wife are planning to move into the downtown area from one of the leafy neighborhoods near Eberwhite Woods. They’ll relocate to the western edge of downtown, just inside the DDA district.

He explained the decision to move, saying, “I think that we [he and his wife] both are downtown people. We like being close to our businesses, we like the energy of downtown and have grown tired of yard work.” Splitt’s wife, Judy Splitt, is the owner of Salon 344 on the corner of Ashley and William.

Nickels Arcade State Street side

Looking west across State Street, through Nickels Arcade. On the other end of the arcade, on Maynard Street is Splitt's dry cleaning business, Gold Bond Cleaners. To the right is Espresso Royal, where the interview for this article took place.

While Splitt’s enthusiasm for his yard might be slack, he is still entirely industrious in his involvement with the State Street Area Association. Most recently, he volunteered at the State Street Art Fair, one of the main events the association runs. When I relayed a personal story of being stuck in the basement of the Michigan Union because of tornado sirens while recently trying to go to the art fair, Splitt eagerly interrupted, adding “A false tornado warning! They sounded the sirens by mistake. That was not a good thing. It hurt sales, certainly.” He continued by saying the State Street Art Fair is especially “cool” because of the mix of artists and merchants.

Splitt’s four-year term on the DDA is done this year, though he has made it clear to the mayor that he hopes to be reappointed. He says with an amiable smile, “So I keep showing up until I’m either reappointed or replaced.”

[Editor's note: The city council agenda for Aug. 5, 2010 indicates a nomination of Bob Guenzel to serve on the DDA board. Guenzel retired as Washtenaw County administrator in May 2010. There's no indication if Guenzel is to replace Jennifer S. Hall or Splitt, both of whose terms ended July 31.]

About the author: Hayley Byrnes is an intern with The Ann Arbor Chronicle.

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