The Ann Arbor Chronicle » Judy McGovern it's like being there Wed, 26 Nov 2014 18:59:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Nichols Arboretum Wed, 04 Jun 2014 16:52:47 +0000 Judy McGovern Even in rain, peonies are looking good. [photo] Multilingual sign [photo] and one to promote free June 8 concert in The Arb [photo].

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Skies Above Ann Arbor Fri, 14 Sep 2012 23:52:41 +0000 Judy McGovern Look up – it’s about to say #GoBlue. [photo] And now it does. [photo]

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W. Stadium & Arbordale Sun, 10 Jul 2011 21:44:28 +0000 Judy McGovern Washboard madness from the Joybox Express crew at Wolverine State Brewing Co. [photo]

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Hate Crime Rhetoric Not Supported by Facts Sun, 15 Aug 2010 04:19:47 +0000 Judy McGovern Last September, the start of the Ann Arbor Public Schools academic year was marred by news of a fight described as an attack on an Arab-American girl.

Street sign at Hollywood and North Maple in Ann Arbor

An incident last year at Hollywood and North Maple in Ann Arbor was originally described by some as a hate crime against an Arab-American girl. Instead, the girl was charged with disorderly conduct, and recently found guilty by a jury.

The episode prompted a media blitz by the advocacy group Council on American-Islamic Relations and calls for investigations by state and federal civil rights agencies.

The tenor changed little when the Washtenaw County prosecutor’s office charged the alleged victim, signaling that authorities believed the then-16-year-old shared culpability in the incident.

At the time, Nabih Ayad, a lawyer representing the girl, called the charge “outrageous.”

A jury has disagreed, and later this month the teen will be sentenced on two counts of disorderly conduct.

In all, four young people – then all students at Skyline High School – were charged with crimes related to the incident that began as a school bus dropped students off near their homes on Maple Avenue.

However, Ann Arbor police were unpersuaded by claims that Arab-American teens were the victims of crime motivated by bias. In fact, investigators found evidence that contradicted much of what the 16-year-old Arab-American girl had said about the altercation that left her with an injury reportedly requiring half a dozen sutures.

She was not “jumped” or assaulted by a “mob,” says Beryl Goldsweig, the assistant Washtenaw County prosecutor who tried the case. On the contrary, independent witness accounts suggested the teen was a willing participant or even aggressor in a series of scuffles with another 16-year-old girl, an African-American.

“No one touched her except the one other girl,” says Goldsweig. “It was just a fight between two kids and the jury saw that.”

Ordinarily, the matter wouldn’t be of much interest beyond the families of the young people involved. But in this case, CAIR and Ayad, the girl’s attorney, had raised the profile and the volume:

  • Detroit and local news organizations covered the story of a potential hate crime.
  • The director of the state Department of Civil Rights issued a statement calling on the school district to implement conflict resolution and “cultural competency” programs.
  • “We went to the Islamic center in Ann Arbor to talk with congregants,” says Dawud Walid, who heads the Michigan chapter of CAIR based in Southfield. “They were very concerned.”

“That group got a hold of it and ran with it,” says AAPS spokeswoman Liz Margolis, referring to CAIR.

Ayad and the Council on American-Islamic Relations

Ayad keeps a high profile himself.

A Granholm appointee to the state Civil Rights Commission, he is – according to the commission website – the chairman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Last month, The Arab-American News reported that he hosted a fundraiser for Democratic gubernatorial candidate for governor, Virg Bernero, at his home in Canton.

Nabih Ayad

Nabih Ayad, in a photo printed in the Michigan Dept. of Civil Rights 2009 annual report. Ayad is a member of the state’s Civil Rights Commission.

Ayad was among the plaintiffs in the American Civil Liberties Union 2006 suit against National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program. He also represents the family of Luqman Ameen Abdullah, the imam of a small Detroit mosque who was killed in a raid by federal agents in October 2009.

And he’s a target for critics – like conservative pundit Debbie Schlussel, who peppers her commentary with assertions like, “Islam is not an ethnicity, CAIR – it’s an intolerant cult.”

Ayad represented the Arab-American girl when the disorderly conduct case was heard in juvenile court last month. But he did not respond to repeated Chronicle requests for an interview about the outcome of the case or the rhetoric around it.

CAIR’s Dawud Walid did.

“Any time a constituent is saying their child was assaulted and was called names, and had her head scarf ripped off, it’s sufficient premise for us to ask to have it investigated as a potential hate crime,” Walid says.

The possibility that someone involved in an altercation might be less than truthful is problematic, he allows. “That’s why the facts have to be discerned and why we asked for it to be investigated as a possible hate crime.”

However, the facts discerned by investigators – and affirmed by the jurors who last month listened to accounts presented by Ayad and Goldsweig – are not yet reflected in information on CAIR’s website or in any public statement. Instead, the website continues to carry information about the incident that’s largely at odds with the evidence gathered by police and accepted in juvenile court. From CAIR’s website:

On Tuesday [9-8-09], two Ann Arbor Muslim students were assaulted on a school bus by a mob of youth. One of the students, a 16 year old female, had her hijab ripped off and was told “F*** Arabs; they’re dirty.” “Why are you wearing a scarf?!”

Walid does not dispute the conclusions of the 22-page police report that was the foundation of the prosecution case against the teen.

But he declines to address questions about updating or amending material on the website to reflect the outcome of the criminal case. He similarly deflects questions about the potential harm done by alarm that, if one accepts the jury’s conclusion, was unnecessary.

“The major thing we asked for was that this be investigated as a potential hate crime based on what the complainant said. The prosecutor said the facts around case didn’t merit that.

“I wasn’t at the trial,” he says, though, “I’m somewhat familiar with the outcome.”

Yousuf Vaid, president of the Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor, says CAIR does speak for the local Arab-American community. He referred all questions to the organization.

The Investigation: No Mob, No Ethnic Slurs

What investigators found was very different than that CAIR description.

No mob, no slurs. There was a second Muslim student, a brother of the girl in the eye of the storm. But his involvement didn’t come until long after the Skyline High School students had left the school bus that was bringing them home to North Maples Estates, on the city’s northwest side.

Here’s what did take place, according to authorities. (It is, again, a version Ayad failed to upend in court and declined to discuss for this story.)

There were hostilities brewing on a school bus. The driver got those involved to settle down.

Map detail of North Maple and Hollywood in Ann Arbor

Map detail of North Maple and Hollywood in Ann Arbor. North Maple is the four-lane road running north/south on the right side of this map. (Links to larger image)

When the bus reached a regular stop on North Maple Avenue and Hollywood, the Arab-American girl got off. Her foe, an African-American girl then also 16, was much farther back in the bus, the driver told authorities.

“The bus driver estimated it took the second girl 15 to 30 seconds to work her way forward and disembark,” says Goldsweig, the assistant prosecutor. The Arab-American girl could have started to walk home but apparently chose to wait for the other girl to leave the bus.

“There’s no way the other girl pulled off the hijab (or head scarf) as the Arab-American girl was exiting the bus, as she claimed,” says Goldsweig. “They were nowhere near one another at that point.”

Once on the street, though, the two began to fight.

“It was two girls fighting,” says the assistant prosecutor. “They were pulling on each other, pulling hair. That’s when the head scarf must have come off.”

A passing driver saw the fight and shouted at the girls to stop.

That driver, who became a witness, provided information about an injury the Arab-American girl had suffered at that point and about subsequent behavior that helped police unravel the story.

The driver was a “good Samaritan,” says Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackie. The woman was also a disinterested party who therefore made a credible witness, says Mackie, who’s part of the Michigan Alliance Against Hate Crimes.

The fight did, in fact, stop.

The African-American girl left the bus-stop area, heading down Hollywood to Vine Street and a well-worn footpath that serves as an alternate route to North Maple Estates.

The Arab-American teen then pursued her.

“The Arab-American started to walk down Maple Avenue toward home,” says Goldsweig. Then, according to witness accounts, the teen threw her books on the ground and went the other way, following the other girl.

Another fight began.

This time, two boys – then age 15 – put their hands on the Iraqi-American girl’s brother, also 15, apparently to prevent him from aiding his sister.

Those youths, both African American, were charged with assault.

The girls were charged with two counts each of disorderly conduct, misdemeanors. The African-American girl entered a guilty plea, which led to the dismissal of one of the charges.

The Arab-American girl wanted a jury trial. That took place last month. Sentencing is scheduled for Aug 19. The sentence will likely be community service, fines and fees, and an order to stay of trouble, says Goldsweig.

Other assertions about adult involvement or the Arab-American girl being “dragged” to a home were simply unfounded, says Goldsweig, who also prosecuted the duo charged with assaulting the Arab-American boy.

“The young lady couldn’t keep her story straight,” says Goldsweig. “She talked about going down the footpath to find her headscarf when it had come off near the bus stop. She said the African-American girl’s mother was responsible for the cut on her head, but the witness in the car saw the injury back at the bus stop and actually called out to the girl that she was bleeding.”

Three police officers testified at the trial. Several others had also worked on the case.

Hate Crimes: A Broader View

Michigan’s law on hate crime, or ethnic intimidation, dates to 1988. It adds to the penalty in cases where an offender is found to have committed a crime motivated in whole or in part by bias against a race or national origin, religion, sexual orientation, mental/physical disability or ethnicity.

The state regularly has one of the highest incidences of reported cases (726 in 2008 and 914 in 2007), perhaps due to reporting practices.

“Accurate data collection of hate crimes depends heavily on proper training of law enforcement to recognize such incidents and the cooperation and desire of communities/victims to report these incidents to law enforcement.” –Michigan Incident Crime Reporting

Bias against African Americans is the most prevalent of the reported crimes.

Recent reports also include crimes based on bias toward lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgendered people; Hispanics; members of the Jewish and Islamic faiths; and those of other, unspecified, ethnicity and national origin. Anti-white bias accounted for more than 20% of the incidents statewide in 2008. [.pdf files of 2007 and 2008 Michigan hate crime reports]

Chart showing 2008 bias crimes in Michigan

This chart shows a subset of 2008 hate/bias crimes in Michigan: Incidents that took place at residences. Of the 252 incidents reported, 52 involved neighbors.

In Washtenaw County, there were 38 reported hate or bias incidents in 2007 and 24 in 2008, the most recent years data is available. That’s one incident per every 9,149 county residents in 2007 and one in every 14,487 residents in 2008. Statewide, the incidences for those years were one per 10,904 and one per 13,732 residents, respectively.

In Washtenaw County, African-American and LGBT residents were most often the targets of such crimes. Members of those groups represented more than 60% of the victims in 2007 and 75% in 2008.

There was a single report of an anti-Islamic bias crime in Washtenaw County during those two years. Statewide there were seven anti-Islamic incidents in 2007 and 20 in 2008.

The reports include a category of bias toward other, unspecified, ethnicity and national origin. There were two during the two-year period in the county; 31 over the two years statewide.

Arrests are more rare than incidents.

There were no ethnic intimidation charges in 2009 or 2010. There were four in 2008, one in 2005, two each in 2004, 2002 and 2001, and one in 2000, said Brian Mackie, the county prosecutor.

A small number of incidents in the data sets were crimes against a business or institution rather than an individual.

Nabih Ayad, the attorney representing the Arab-American girl in last year’s incident, had called for a U.S. Justice Department investigation. The department’s Civil Rights Division declined comment. A spokesman says the division’s general rule is not to discuss possible complaints.

The state Civil Rights Commission bowed out because Ayad, a member of the commission, was representing the Arab-American family, says spokesman Harold Core. “That’s done to avoid any conflict of interest.”

Reflections a Year Later

The so-called Skyline incident leaves city residents like Leslie Krauz Stambaugh with mixed emotions.

“I was so disturbed when I heard about it last fall,” says Stambaugh, chairwoman of the city’s Human Rights Commission. “I imagined a demur young girl with her head scarf pulled off.”

(In contrast, the school bus driver told authorities the girl left the bus telling the other girl she would “beat your ass” and other obscenities.)

“I’m glad to know that didn’t happen,” says Stambaugh, “but it doesn’t mean there aren’t serious problems out there.”

The city commission had no role in reviewing the episode. Its task is to advise the city council, focusing on trends rather than individual cases, she says. But commission members are also working to create a “community response group” that could offer assistance to police, victims or others in the community.

Coordinated by the commission, the fledgling group is a network of organizations including local schools, the NAACP, sheriff’s department, Dispute Resolution Center, University of Michigan’s Department of Public Safety and others.

“We’ve been working on this for a while. The idea would be to find out what’s going on and what resources might be helpful without taking sides,” says Stambaugh. “I can also see that we need to think about getting accurate information out… and how to be as sure as possible of what’s accurate.”

That would undoubtedly suit Ann Arbor schools’ spokeswoman Liz Margolis.

“We have many programs that teach tolerance and understanding and different cultures starting in elementary school,” she says. They’re part of the curriculum and the focus of special programs and events.

More than 70 languages are spoken in the school district, Margolis notes.

But after last year’s start-of-school fight, she said, “we were looked at as not doing anything about it.”

Indeed, a headline based on then-state Department of Civil Rights Director Kelvin Scott’s statement about the importance of the district engaging in these issues is featured in the department’s 2009 annual report: “Rights office urges Ann Arbor schools to cool ethnic tensions following beating” – from the Sept. 12, 2009 Detroit News. (Scott died of cancer in February.)

“For us, it was a fighting incident, not ethnic intimidation,” says Margolis.

The same four students later charged with crimes were suspended. The Arab-American family subsequently withdrew from the school, Margolis says. Those children had not previously attended Ann Arbor schools.

Setting aside this particular incident, Michigan continues to be in the top five on the FBI’s annual hate crime report, observes Stambaugh, currently fourth behind California, New Jersey and New York. “That tells me there’s plenty to worry about, but we’re interested in easing tensions, not adding to them over things that, in hindsight, appear to be unfounded.”

Mackie is more blunt: “A great disservice was done to the people the advocates involved say they want to help. This is an example of people who fit things into a narrative that matched their world view and weren’t interested in looking any further.

“I can sum up the lesson from this in two words,” he says, “Shirley Sherrod.”

Sherrod is, if course, the African-American woman fired from a top-level job in the U.S. Agriculture Department when Obama administration officials acted on what appeared to be anti-white bias in a video clip – without looking at the entire video for context or talking to Sherrod. A public apology followed.

“If we did our business in that fashion,” the prosecutor observes, “the world would be a scary place.”

About the writer: Judy McGovern lives in Ann Arbor. She has worked as a journalist here, in Ohio, New York and several other states.

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Settlement Reached in Fair Housing Case Thu, 08 Jul 2010 14:03:52 +0000 Judy McGovern Pam Kisch has a vivid, and unpleasant, memory of what happened when a federal civil-rights suit was filed against the owners and managers of a south Ann Arbor apartment complex this past March.

Ivanhoe Apartments office sign

The Fair Housing Center of Southeastern Michigan found that potential renters of Ivanhoe Apartments in Ann Arbor sometimes had different experiences, depending on their race. (Photos by the writer.)

“Channel 7 came in and did a story that had these sound bytes from residents,” says Kisch, executive director of the Fair Housing Center of Southeast Michigan. ”People got on camera and said ‘No, there’s no discrimination here.’

“They might live there,” says Kisch, “but they don’t know.”

By then, Kisch was sure she did know.

Between 2006 and 2009, the Ann Arbor-based Fair Housing Center sent 18 men and women to the Ivanhoe Apartments to present themselves as prospective tenants. Some were African-American; some were white. The very different experiences they described prompted the U.S. Justice Department to file a race discrimination suit.

Although they deny any wrongdoing, the owners and operators of the apartment complex have now agreed to pay $82,500 to settle the case. The details of a settlement were announced this week by the Justice Department. The agreement must still be approved by U.S. District Court Judge Sean F. Cox.

The History of Fair Housing

The federal Fair Housing Act is a product of the 1960s.

Part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, it prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, sex – and, today, handicap or family status.

What it doesn’t do is provide a mechanism for ensuring compliance. That’s where groups like the Fair Housing Center come in.

Incorporated in 1991, the Fair Housing Center was organized by local NAACP chapters and others involved in civil rights issues. The idea, says Kisch, was to have an organization that actively protects the rights of those facing discrimination in housing.

The center provides community education, advice and advocacy for people who believe they’re victims of discrimination. It also provides legal referrals and – in some cases – investigative services.

Those investigations revolve around what the staffers in the Fair Housing Center’s small office in Kerrytown call “testing.” Testing establishes what one individual’s experience cannot. It provides a basis for comparing the way people are treated by rental or real estate agents, property managers or lenders.

In the case of the Ivanhoe apartments, “testers” who visited the complex within hours of one another reported being given different information about the availability of apartments, different access to the facilities and to materials like applications and brochures.

African-American testers reported being told there were no vacancies or that apartments would not be ready for move-in for extended periods of time.

White testers said they were told about more vacancies, shown more apartments, and more often shown facilities like laundry and storage areas. White testers were also given applications, business cards and other printed material more often than African-American testers.

“We’d heard about this place [Ivanhoe] practically since we opened,” says Kisch. “We finally decided to take a hard look at it and Kristen did a tremendous job.” Kristen Cuhran is coordinator of investigations at the Fair Housing Center.

Ivanhoe Apartments: What the “Testers” Found

Located on Pine Valley Boulevard, off Packard Avenue near the Georgetown Mall, the Ivanhoe Apartments are nestled in the midst of a several blocks of apartment buildings. The street winds beneath shady trees and, this time of year, the terraces that jut from each apartment are filled with flowering plants.

But the hospitable feeling projected from the street belies the evidence in the Fair Housing Center’s files.

For example: In a March 2006 test, two female testers met with apartment manager Laurie Courtney, who would eventually be a defendant in separate suits brought by the government and Fair Housing Center.

Both testers wanted to move into new apartments as quickly as possible. The white tester reported she was told one unit was available. She was given an application and told that, if she wanted to fill it out and return, the manager would be there all day.

The African-American tester arrived 90 minutes later.

Although the white tester had told Courtney she planned to look at other apartments, the African-American tester said she was told that the last available apartment had been rented and she should check back in the summer.

Several of the tests used a three-person strategy.

In one – on April 11, 2008 – the African-American tester reported she was told the earliest vacancy would be July or August. Her request to see an apartment was refused on the basis that the unit was occupied.

Two white testers – visiting separately – each said they were shown an apartment. The first white tester reported she was told one apartment would be available in about a week and that another unit would be open later in the month, on April 23.

The second white tester said she was told about a late April vacancy and another in mid-June. Courtney also volunteered to show the second tester’s husband the apartment over the coming weekend.

In another three-person test on Jan. 30, 2008, one African-American and two white testers visited Ivanhoe expressing interest in one- and two-bedroom apartments.

The African-American tester said she was told there were no apartments available and that there was a waiting list for some that could be open in a month – in late February. Courtney had told other testers that Ivanhoe did not keep waiting lists.

The two white testers reported they were told a one-bedroom unit was available and a two-bedroom would be ready in two to four weeks, by mid- or late February.

Ivanhoe Apartments brochure

A brochure from Ivanhoe Apartments.

Other tests yielded similar results:

  • On Feb. 8, 2008, an African-American tester was told that a one-bedroom apartment would be available at the end of the month. She was also advised that it was one of Ivanhoe’s smallest units. In contrast, a white tester was told a one-bedroom would be ready in 10 days and that it had a “view of the courtyard.” Both were shown the same unit. Courtney offered the white tester an application. The African-American tester had to ask for one.
  • On Jan. 15, 2009, a white tester seeking a two-bedroom apartment was offered what Courtney described as the complex’s largest unit. An African-American tester was shown a different unit, which was undergoing repairs. As with many of the visits, the African-American tester’s visit was appreciably shorter than the white tester’s visit – 6 compared to 20 minutes.
  • In one case, Courtney showed white testers three units while telling an African-American tester there was nothing available.
  • Numerous testers reported that Courtney described the Ivanhoe tenant mix as a group with “no undergraduates,” an apparent bias against a class protected under a city of Ann Arbor ordinance. [Chapter 112 of the city code states (emphasis added): "It is the intent of the city that no person be denied to equal protection of the laws; nor shall any person be denied the enjoyment of his or her civil or political rights or be discriminated against because of actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, height, weight, condition of pregnancy, marital status, physical or mental limitation, source of income, family responsibilities, educational association, sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status."]

Courtney remains at the apartments and says she expects to stay. “We’ve been here for 30 years,” she says, referring to her husband with whom she shares responsibilities as “resident managers.” She declined to discuss renting practices, referring questions to the owner.

The owner, Troy attorney David Lebenbom, operates The Ivanhoe Apartments under the corporate name Acme Investments Inc. He could not be reached for comment.

In the settlement agreement, the defendants deny “violating any law or engaging in any wrongful conduct of any type or nature as Plaintiffs allege in their actions.” The agreement further holds that the settlement ”is a compromise of disputed claims and is not an admission by Defendants, each of which expressly deny liability.”

The plaintiffs and defendants “have agreed that in order to avoid protracted and costly litigation, this controversy should be resolved without a trial.”

How the Testing Works

The blind testing employed by the Fair Housing Center, and organizations like it, has itself been tested. In a case that worked it way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982, it was found to be legal.

A form used by Fair Housing Center "testers" to record their experiences.

From the files of the Fair Housing Center: These forms were used to record the experiences of testers sent to the Ivanhoe apartment complex on the same day. (Links to larger image)

Some testers are paid; some are volunteers. When they’re sent into the field, they don’t know the suspected bias being tested: it could be family status, for example, age or marital status.

They are, however, well prepared. Testers are ready to answer questions about where they and any spouse or partner work, how much they earn and their reasons for relocating.

In the Ivanhoe case, any inquiries were limited. But the testers’ individual dossiers are designed so that members of the protected group compare favorably to members of the control group. For instance, the African-American testers earned more and had longer tenure in their respective jobs than the white testers.

The Fair Housing Center investigates about 140 complaints a year, mostly from African-Americans, people with disabilities and people with children.

It’s helped file more than 60 fair-housing lawsuits with combined settlements of more than $1.4 million. A recent grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has allowed it to expand from Washtenaw, Lenawee, Monroe counties into Ingham, Jackson, and Livingston.

Landlords who stipulate that children can’t share a bedroom or that a ramp can’t be installed to accommodate a disability risk running afoul of the law. There are things that tip you off, says Kisch.

“You’re not likely to hear direct statements about race, but you’ll find that an apartment manager has lost an application, or that he or she is still waiting to get information from a previous landlord, or that there must be something wrong with a Social Security number so they’re not able to do a credit check. Eventually, they just wear an applicant down,” she says.

“It’s not illegal to act tough, but you’ll sometimes find a manager or landlord who’s got a lot rules and tells you you have to abide by them or your stay will be short. It’s OK, if they’re like that with everybody, but not if they’re selective.”

In the Ivanhoe case, the Fair Housing Center contacted the U.S. Justice Department with its findings. Justice staffers did some additional research and filed suit against Ivanhoe’s owner and manager. The Fair Housing Center filed a separate lawsuit. They were combined in federal court and settled together.

Because the settlement was reached before any of the discovery that precedes a trial, it’s not clear whether Courtney was acting on directions from the owner or on her own, says Judith Levy, assistant U.S. Attorney and chief of the civil rights unit for the Eastern District of Michigan.

But it doesn’t matter, says Levy. Owners are liable for an employee as well as any policy of their own.

Details of the Settlement

Under the terms of the agreement, Ivanhoe Apartments must put a nondiscrimination policy in place, post a fair housing sign on premises and include the fair housing logo and/or the words “Equal Housing Opportunity” in all published materials, along with specific language in rental contracts.

When any unit is available for rent, the landlord must post a visible “for rent” or “vacancy” sign in the apartment complex.

In addition, the company must provide training for all employees involved in renting or managing the apartments and keep records about the availability of apartments and prospective tenants’ inquires.

As part of the settlement, the defendants also agreed to periodic testing to identify any discrimination.

The U.S. Attorney’s office must approve the training and a number of other provisions. It’s also responsible for monitoring compliance, Levy says. The Fair Housing Center will also get periodic reports on compliance.

Three individuals discriminated against because of their race will share $35,000 in damages. The settlement also includes $7,500 in a civil penalty; and $40,000 to the Fair Housing Center as damages for its work testing and investigating the apartment complex.

The Fair Housing Center will pay its legal fees from that share and use the balance to further its work, Kisch says.

About the writer: Judy McGovern lives in Ann Arbor. She has worked as a journalist here, in Ohio, New York and several other states.

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Nichols Arboretum Sun, 30 May 2010 20:43:41 +0000 Judy McGovern Updated peony report: The heat accelerated the bloom. Also, lots of Shakespeare being recited. [photo]

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Local Concealed Weapons Permits Increasing Wed, 19 May 2010 13:13:13 +0000 Judy McGovern Washtenaw County is on pace to set another new record for applications for “concealed-carry” weapons (CCW) permits.

Sign in Washtenaw County administration building

A sign in the Washtenaw County administration building directs residents who want to apply for a concealed weapons license.

Whether more adults legally able to carry guns enhances or erodes public safety is a matter of debate. What’s not in doubt is that more community members want the option: A member of about 1 in every 20 households in the county now holds a permit.

The number climbed in late 2008 and 2009 as people across the U.S. acted on concerns that Democratic leadership in Washington might promote restrictions on firearms, according to law enforcement officials.

The upward trend has continued in Washtenaw County, fueled – according to gun-rights sympathizers – by continuing worry about potential legislative restrictions, along with concerns about crime and shrinking public-safety budgets.

So far this year, 1,019 county residents have applied for permits. If that rate continues, the county would see a more than 20% increase over 2009’s record-setting 2,255 applications.

“It’s amazing,” says retired Washtenaw County sheriff’s deputy Ernie Milligan, who chairs the county’s concealed weapons licensing board, which held its monthly meeting this week. “In the past year or so, I’ve started to see roadside signs advertising CCW classes. That may help fuel it, but there’s a fear factor, too.”

Under legislation that liberalized Michigan’s gun laws in 2001, state residents 21 and older who complete a safety course can apply for a permit to carry concealed weapons. Criminal convictions and mental-health problems can disqualify applicants. But unlike the “may-issue” law it replaced, the 2001 “shall-issue” law leaves local gun licensing boards with little room for subjectivity. For the most part, an application yields a permit.

In 2010, 983 permits have been issued so far in Washtenaw County. Seven applications were denied.

CCW Applications: Putting the Trends in Context

Looking at the data requires some sense of history.

When the law was changed in 2001, there was a wave of new applications. The numbers then fell off until the three-year permits first issued under the “shall-issue” law started expiring. Renewals pushed applications up in 2004.

In the meantime, rules were changed so that permits would be valid for five years. That contributed to higher numbers in 2009. And it makes the increased activity this year – an off year for renewals – all the more striking.

Indeed, more county residents applied for CCW permits in the first three months of 2010 than did in all of 2006 or 2007.

The average number of applications per month so far this year – 230 – dwarfs the monthly averages for most of the past five years (54 in 2006; 45 in 2007; 98 in 2008; and 188 in 2009, a year when many permit holders were renewing.)

In 2004, that first renewal year, the average was 85 per month – a total of 1,025 for the year. [.pdf file of Washtenaw County CCW applications, by month, from 2004 through April 2010.]

About 15% of the permit holders in Washtenaw County are women, Milligan says. The greatest concentrations of permit holders are in rural parts of the county.

With a population about 4,967 and 437 permits, for example, nearly 9% of the residents of Chelsea can carry concealed weapons. Assuming one permit holder per household, that means there’s a CCW permit holder in about 20% of the occupied households (2,093) in Chelsea.

About 23% of the permits countywide are issued to Ann Arbor residents, and 33% to residents of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township. With their larger populations, that means about 1.6% of Ann Arbor residents and 3.3% of Ypsilanti area residents hold permits. [Those figures are approximate, as data from the county gun licensing board is broken down by mailing addresses, which are imperfect reflections of actual community boundaries. Link to listing of CCW permits by location, as of April 2010.]

“The trend in Ann Arbor is more permit applicants this year,” says Ann Arbor police chief Barnett Jones. “But they’re still not big numbers.” There were 206 applicants from Ann Arbor residents in the first four months of this year, compared to 162 during the same period last year.

“I don’t want to suggest that means Ann Arbor is an easy place to commit crime,” says Jones. But neither does he encourage the idea that armed civilians enhance public safety.

“Over the course of my career, I’ve seen officers with very rigorous training make mistakes,” he says. It’s logical that the risk is greater for a civilian with far less training. “We just saw that play out in Detroit when the victim of a robbery fired at the perpetrator and accidentally killed a woman in her house,” Jones says.

How It Works: The Weapons Licensing Board

Obtaining a license takes one to three months. The process includes 1) filling out a one-page application with a $105 fee, a photograph and proof that you’ve completed a pistol safety training course; 2) getting fingerprinted and a background check by the sheriff’s department, and 3) additional background checks by the state police and FBI.

Members of the Washtenaw County Concealed Weapons Licensing Board

The Washtenaw County concealed weapons licensing board at their May 18 meeting. From left: Ernie Milligan, chair; Jennifer Beauchamp of the county clerk’s office, who serves as the board’s staff support; Sgt. Kurt Schiappacasse of the Washtenaw County sheriff’s department; and Lt. Wynonia Sturdivant, Michigan State Police Ypsilanti Post commander.

The final step is a review by the county’s weapons licensing board. The board meets monthly – since applications have increased, they now meet for two full days, reviewing applications and holding interviews with a small subset of applicants.

The May meetings were held this week on Tuesday and Wednesday in a small conference room near the county clerk’s office, at 200 N. Main St. in Ann Arbor. Chaired by Milligan, the three-person board includes Sgt. Kurt Schiappacasse of the Washtenaw County sheriff’s department and Lt. Wynonia Sturdivant, Michigan State Police Ypsilanti Post commander.

Jennifer Beauchamp, deputy county clerk, takes minutes of the meetings and is the staff person who processes all the applications. Before October 2008, the job took up about 20% of her time – now, it’s closer to 60-65%, she says.

For May’s meeting, the group was reviewing 242 applications and had scheduled 18 interviews over the two days. The meetings are open to the public, but the interviews – during which criminal histories and other personal information might be discussed – are not. Much of the meeting that The Chronicle observed on Tuesday morning consisted of the three board members reading through stacks of blue file folders that contained the applications and other documents, making notes, and calling staff at the sheriff’s department or state police post to get additional information.

Periodically they would compare notes to see if any of them had questions about the applications. Of the first two dozen or so applications reviewed, only two were flagged – one for a missing zip code, and another for what appeared to be an incomplete background check. The others in that batch were approved.

The group has a comfortable rapport, teasing each other and swapping stories as they work. Sturdivant related how she worked security detail for President Obama’s May 1 speech at the University of Michigan commencement – she got a photo taken of herself with Obama. Schiappacasse was there too, also working security, but more on the perimeter – he did, however, get a photo taken standing next to Marine One, the helicopter that brought Obama to Michigan Stadium.

But mostly, their focus was on the applications – with 242 to process, including the 18 interviews, they were settled in for two long days.

The Fear Factor

There’s no objective way of knowing what’s behind the trend of increased applications. Applicants are not required to state their reasons for wanting to carry a concealed weapon. However, those closest to the situation tend to point to the same things.

“People are afraid the president is going to take away their guns,” says Milligan.

Former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin repeated that assertion just last week. In the 2008 election campaign, Obama did pledge to 1) revive an assault-weapons ban; 2) press states to release data about guns used in crimes; and 3) close a loophole that allows the sale of firearms at gun shows without background checks. He has yet to take up any of those issues.

“There are a lot of people who want to make a statement about their right to bear arms,” says Milligan. “And the economy has a lot to do with it. People are worried.”

Washtenaw County’s unemployment rate of 9.6% in March 2010 is up significantly from 4.9% in March 2008.

Monroe County resident Frank Purk is a National Rifle Association-certified instructor who teaches firearms-training classes in Washtenaw County. He says his students range from 21-year-olds to “great grandmas and grandpas.” All, he says, are people who want to be able to protect themselves.

Increases in the number of applications for weapons permits are a “function of the inability of government to provide the protection we need,” says Purk. High unemployment can lead to crime, he says. “People want firearms for self protection.”

Like Milligan, Michigan NRA representative Alan Herman sees many people getting permits on principle. “They’re just exercising their right and have no intention of carrying.”

“Others go through training and think it’s real exciting, but then they find out it’s a pain in the butt because you can’t go into different places,” says Herman.

Concealed-carry permit holders are barred from taking firearms into schools and child-care facilities, sports arenas and stadiums, taverns, hospitals, casinos and large entertainment facilities, college dorms and classrooms, and religious facilities – except when allowed by the presiding official.

In addition, property owners and operators can set their own policies and some do prohibit weapons.

“If you’re going somewhere where carrying could be problem, you have to think twice,” says Herman, a Bay City resident who’s taught firearms-safety classes and served on his local gun licensing board. “Most people can’t carry every day.”

“I think the big reason that the number of permit applications is still escalating is concern about safety, because of things like police layoffs,” he says.

Public Safety Concerns: Perception, Reality

It’s certainly true that financial pressure on all levels of government has affected law enforcement.

Data collected by the FBI shows sworn officers in the Michigan State Police down about 12% statewide from 2000 to 2008.

The contraction in the Ann Arbor police department during the same period was 20%, and more positions have been eliminated since then. The city of Ypsilanti and county sheriff’s department have reduced their head counts by 15% and 5% respectively.

Crime statistics are more mixed.

Data reported to the FBI by the Washtenaw County sheriff’s department, and Ann Arbor and Ypsllanti police departments in 2000, 2005 and 2008 (the most recent year available) does show spikes in some kinds of crimes. For example, the number of aggravated assaults, robberies and burglaries reported by the sheriff’s department all increased from 2005 to 2008.

On the other hand, there were more reports of violent crime, robberies, property crimes and burglaries in Ann Arbor in 2005 than in 2008. And the city saw more robberies, burglaries and larcenies in 2000 than in 2008.

In some cases, perceptions don’t align with data, says county Sheriff Jerry Clayton.

For example, in Ypsilanti Township, home invasions have gone down, says Clayton. “But because of what they hear in the media, most people in that community still feel more threatened when they should feel safer.”

In other cases, the overall incidence of a crime may not change, but the locations may. That, too, can shape perception in ways that may not be accurate, says Clayton.

County prosecutor Brian Mackie says there have been some upticks in crime. Nevertheless, he’s skeptical about a correlation between crime rates and demand for CCW permits.

“When we had discretion (under the “may-issue” law) and could ask why people wanted permits, a solid majority talked about going to or near Detroit,” he says.

Still, it does appear that more women and families are applying for permits, says Mackie, who declined to serve on the county weapons licensing board after the shall-issue law was enacted. Milligan was appointed by the county board of commissioners in 2001 to fill the seat usually held by the prosecutor’s office.

The demographic data that could create a profile of typical permit holders is confidential, as are the identities of permit holders. A Michigan State Police spokeswoman said that the agency is not allowed to release information beyond what appears on its website. The local data in this report has been provided to The Chronicle by local officials.

Do Concealed Weapons Make Us Safer?

The shall-issue law was enacted over the objections of statewide police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors associations. And while CCW champions make the case that the ability to carry concealed weapons improves safety, others see prohibitions on firearms as a security measure.

At Briarwood Mall, for instance, the Simon Property Group has a code of conduct for patrons that precludes them from carrying firearms and knives. That code is posted at most if not all entrances and at the mall office, says Simon spokesman Les Morris. “We overtly prohibit guns. We’re cognizant of safety and have really enhanced security from a technological standpoint. We take it very seriously and that begins with that code of conduct.”

For Sheriff Clayton, the increasing number of civilians potentially carrying firearms is cause for some concern.

“It causes concern with our own staff and we train continuously,” he says.

“We train, not just in how to use firearms and accuracy, but on how to manage a situation so that we never have to engage,” he says. “In law enforcement, we own every round we fire. We emphasize decision-making around the use of a firearm – who’s behind an aggressor … The unintended consequences should always be on people’s minds.”

Milligan, of the county gun licensing board, offers additional perspective: “Even if you have good training, these are perishable skills. You have to practice. It worries me a little that, to renew a permit, you don’t need any proof that you continue to practice. You just sign a statement. … You have to maintain a pistol. There’s a lot to it.”

But the NRA’s Herman sees armed citizens as a crime deterrent.

“The increasing numbers work in our favor,” he says. “They change the perception for bad guys.”

Chronicle publisher Mary Morgan contributed to this report. About the writer: Judy McGovern lives in Ann Arbor. She has worked as a journalist here, in Ohio, New York and several other states.

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Novak Hired to Lead Housing Commission Thu, 13 May 2010 15:51:21 +0000 Judy McGovern Officially, it was an interview. But with just a single candidate vying to head the Ann Arbor Housing Commission, there was little doubt about the outcome.

On Wednesday evening, the commission’s five-member board listened to a 30-minute presentation by interim executive director Marge Novak and voted unanimously to take the interim off her title after posing fewer than a dozen questions during a 40-minute Q&A.

With 10-plus months as a temporary leader of the commission, Novak has considerably more time with the organization than some of the commissioners who endorsed her. Effective today, the hiring comes less than two months after the Ann Arbor city council dissolved the previous board. [See Chronicle coverage: "Housing Commission Set to Hire Director"]

Despite the unusual circumstances, the decision was well received by most of the roughly 30 residents of commission-run properties who attended Wednesday’s special meeting.

Gathered in a modest meeting room at Miller Manor, a public housing complex on Miller Avenue west of downtown, the onlookers applauded when the commissioners voted to keep Novak in the post.

“She inherited a mess,” said Jane French, who serves on the Miller Manor residents’ council. “A big issue was trust and trust has been restored. It’s a huge, huge thing.”

The commission operates 67 buildings that provide 355 units of low-income public housing. It also administers the federal Section 8 voucher program that subsidizes the cost of rent in privately owned properties.

The commission has been without a permanent director since last summer and has faced financial and other strains for years. Those challenges – documented in a report by a consultant retained by the city last year – were also reflected in Novak’s presentation. [a .pdf file of the consultant's report is downloadable here]

The lone candidate after the withdrawal of a second finalist for the job, Novak reviewed her professional background and – as the board had requested – detailed priorities for her first 120 days as permanent director.

A Background in Affordable Housing

A graduate of Brandeis University near Boston, Novak said she has worked in affordable housing for almost 20 years. That experience included stints with state programs in Wisconsin and Illinois, and with Fannie Mae. The latter was not in the government-sponsored organization’s now-beleaguered single-family mortgage program, she said, prompting some laughter, but with its low-income housing investment arm.

“I want to take what I’d learned and apply it at a local community level,” said Novak, who moved to Ann Arbor last summer.

As for those near-term priorities? Most build on efforts begun during Novak’s extended tenure as interim executive director. They include:

  • Improving financial management and securing financial support beyond the funding provided by the federal Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. HUD funding simply doesn’t cover the cost of running housing programs, said Novak, echoing the consultant’s assessment. Housing agencies elsewhere have learned to tap other sources to meet their costs.
  • Restructuring property maintenance to beef up preventative work and handle repairs in vacant units for efficiently. Consistent with the consultant’s recommendation, the commission has begun to outsource some of that work, Novak said.
  • Improving communication with residents and building collaborative relationships with other public, nonprofit and related groups.

Following Novak’s presentation, the housing commissioners collected questions submitted by residents. Board president Jayne Miller interspersed those questions with her own queries and those from other commissioners.

The questions that appeared to be from residents dealt with parking and the safety of handicapped residents. The commissioners’ questions focused on administrative issues, board-staff relations and funding.

Commissioner Mark McDonald asked Novak whether there was a single housing authority that provided a good model to emulate. Novak said Grand Rapids would be an example.

McDonald also asked whether a less than full-time commitment to grant writing would yield the needed financial resources. Deputy director Nick Coquillard has become the commission’s primary grant writer. While that is only one of his duties, it is a big improvement from no grant writing, noted commissioner Marta Manildi, the only member of the previous board still serving since the city council dissolved it earlier this year.

For her part, Manildi asked Novak how the commissioners could help the staff. Novak suggested community outreach and connection with potential funders, among other things.

Miller, who until recently was a ranking administrator for the city, quizzed Novak on how she might handle any breach of resident privacy and how she handled making unpopular decisions. Commissioner Ronald Woods asked Novak to talk about her approach to delegating authority.

Following the interview, there was no debate on the board about moving forward with the hiring.

Some 40 minutes after the Q&A had begun, the commissioners were polishing a resolution to hire Novak. Several took the opportunity to praise their new executive director.

In addition to a strong technical background, Novak has leadership skills that have helped put the housing commission on track, said Manildi. “We could do another national search and not do any better.”

Miller, whose previous city-hall portfolio included oversight of the Housing Commission, agreed. “This is a turnaround like I’ve never seen before,” said Miller, who now heads the Huron-Clinton Metroparks.

The other finalist for the job, John Hurt, took another position, Miller said.

The resolution to hire Novak authorizes Miller to negotiate compensation on the board’s behalf.

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UM Credit Union Eyes Former News Building Mon, 26 Apr 2010 17:49:38 +0000 Judy McGovern The University of Michigan Credit Union is real-estate shopping and is looking at the now-vacant Ann Arbor News building on the southwest corner of Huron and Division streets.

The former Ann Arbor News building

The building that formerly housed The Ann Arbor News, at the southwest corner of Huron and Division.

However, the three-story News building is only one of several properties being considered as a potential home for the credit union’s administrative offices, says Jeff Schillag, the institution’s vice president of marketing and community relations.

Not all the potential sites are downtown, Schillag says. And any acquired space would replace leased office space.

Opened in 1936, the Albert Kahn-designed News building was shuttered last July when Advance Publications closed the daily newspaper.

A two-story press remains in the 80,000-square-foot building. The property also includes on-site parking, with entrances off of both Washington and Huron, and an additional parking lot on Ann Street. The building was renovated in 2004-05.

As part of its investigation into the property, the credit union retained Atwell-Hicks to take soil samples at The News building last week, Schillag says. Boring equipment in the parking lot was visible to passers-by as the engineers did that work, and prompted The Chronicle to follow up.

Filled-in hole at Ann Arbor News parking lot

Pavement in the parking lot of the former Ann Arbor News building shows remnants of work done last week by Atwell-Hicks.

Schillag emphasized that the activity does not mean the credit union has decided to purchase the property.

Tax assessors put the 2009 value of The News building, at 340 E. Huron, at about $10 million and the lot at 336 E. Ann St. at about $600,000. The News building occupies the width of a block, with frontage on West Washington as well as Huron Street. The properties went on the market in October and are listed with Colliers International, with an asking price of $9.3 million.

In January, Swisher Commercial reported a vacancy rate of 17.6% in Ann Arbor’s office market. The rate for the downtown area was 16.5%, or 288,223 square feet.

The privately held Advance Publications Inc. bought The News – along with the Grand Rapids Press, Flint Journal and several other Michigan papers – in 1976.

Last year, the company reduced the number of publication days at the Journal and a number of the other Michigan papers. It also closed The News – in its place, the company launched a new enterprise,, which publishes online and offers print editions twice a week.

The UM Credit Union operates six branches in Ann Arbor, plus a branch on UM’s Dearborn campus. Its main downtown Ann Arbor office is next to the Ann Arbor District Library, at 333 E. William.

University of Michigan Credit Union building on East William

The University of Michigan Credit Union building on East William. The view is to the northwest. Behind the building, at the top of this photo, is the top of a crane being used on construction of the Fifth Avenue underground parking structure.

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Huron & Division Thu, 22 Apr 2010 15:20:44 +0000 Judy McGovern A crew from Atwell Hicks takes some boring samples in the parking lot of the former Ann Arbor News building. [photo]

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