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AAATA Gears Up for More Accessible Service Sat, 02 Aug 2014 15:56:23 +0000 Dave Askins Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority board meeting (July 24, 2014): The board’s meeting this month was the next-to-last one before the initial expansion of services that the transit authority will be implementing. The expansion results from the new millage that was approved in a voter referendum held on May 6, 2014. The rollout of additional service is scheduled for Aug. 24, while the board’s next meeting is three days before that.

From left: AAATA strategic planner Michael Benham, Ed Vielmetti (background) and CEO  Michael Ford, talked after he meeting.

From left: AAATA strategic planner Michael Benham, Ed Vielmetti (background) and CEO Michael Ford, talked after the meeting.

The board barely achieved a quorum – with six of 10 board members attending. Anya Dale presided over the meeting in the absence of board chair Charles Griffith.

The board received some updates on the preparations for implementing that expanded service plan. And three of the board’s July 24 voting items were related at least indirectly to the additional services: a plan for acquiring 20 new buses; adjustments to the current fiscal year’s operating budget; and a tweak to the AAATA’s mission statement.

The mission statement was modified to highlight “accessible” as the kind of transit services that the AAATA aspires to provide. The change to the mission statement also reflected the addition last year of the word “area” to the name of the organization. That name change came as the result of adding the city of Ypsilanti as well as Ypsilanti Township as members of the authority. Previously, the city of Ann Arbor had been the sole member. The additional services will be paid for with a millage levied on property owners from all the member jurisdictions.

The fiscal 2014 budget ends Sept. 30. Revenues were adjusted to reflect the millage revenue. Of the additional $4,543,695 in local millage revenues, $3,850,000 is being put toward next year’s FY 2015 budget. Adjustments to this year’s budget include changes to reflect the hiring and training of 11 new bus drivers, bringing the total to 138 drivers. An operations supervisor, two new vehicle mechanics, an additional service crew member, and a human resources administrative assistant will also be added.

The additional 20 buses the AAATA is acquiring for the service expansion are spread over the next three years, with two to be acquired this year, 11 in FY 2015 and 7 in FY 2016. The buses for FY 2015 and 2016 will be paid for with the additional local millage funds, while the buses this year will tap a federal grant with matching state funds. A public hearing was held on the federal grant application that will include those two buses.

Potential future expansion of services – in addition to those to be implemented starting Aug. 24 – was also reflected in a voting item on the board’s July 24 agenda. The board approved an increase in the contract with SmithGroupJJR from $105,200 to $800,000 – to continue study of north-south commuter rail options between Howell and Ann Arbor. An earlier phase of the study for the WALLY (Washtenaw and Livingston Railway) project identified a segment of the Ann Arbor Railroad right-of-way, between Liberty and Washington streets, as a preferred location for a downtown Ann Arbor station. A portion of the work is being paid for with a $640,000 federal Transportation, Community and System Preservation (TCSP) program grant.

The final voting item on the board’s agenda was a $234,360 contract with GZA GeoEnvironmental to perform environmental cleanup work at the AAATA headquarters building at 2700 S. Industrial Highway. The cleanup, which involves contamination from a gasoline leak that was identified in 2010, is covered by insurance.

At its July 24 meeting, the board also heard its usual range of updates, reports and public commentary, much of which highlighted the idea of accessibility.

AAATA Mission Statement

The board considered an update to the organization’s mission statement – to reflect the new name of the organization and a few other concerns. The proposed modified mission statement, which reflected board discussion at its June 10 retreat, read as follows [added words in bold, deleted words in strike-through]

It is the Mission of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority to provide accessible useful, reliable, safe, environmentally responsible, and cost-effective public transportation options for the benefit of the Greater Ann Arbor Area Community.

The mission statement had been last affirmed over five years ago at the AAATA’s Feb. 18, 2009 board meeting.

The word “useful” was critiqued by some board members at the June retreat as too modest an attribute, and they argued for “valuable” instead. Ultimately, the consensus was that this positive, goal-oriented attribute could be incorporated through adding the word “benefit.”

Inserting the word “accessible” was championed at the retreat by board member Jack Bernard. He works in the office of the University of Michigan’s general counsel and serves on the university’s council for disability concerns.

The insertion of the word “area” in the mission statement reflects the geographic expansion of the AAATA’s jurisdiction in 2013 to include the city of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township – as well as the formal change of the authority’s name to include “area.” [.pdf of memo on AAATA mission statement]

Mission Statement: Public Commentary

Thomas Partridge addressed the board’s mission statement. He said it needed to be expanded – to serve the needs of the most vulnerable riders. The operating budget needs to have additional funding to greater serve the most vulnerable riders in terms of disabled persons and senior citizens in particular, he said. And the board needs to answer how, with the passage of the millage, service will be targeted to the disabled people and seniors. Partridge did not see those priorities in the existing materials and the existing applications to the FTA for formula funding. He also questioned whether existing funding could be used to continue planning for a true countywide transportation system. Such a system is certainly needed to serve those areas of the county that do not have existing bus service, senior ride service, or paratransit handicap ride service, he said.

Mission Statement: Board Discussion

Roger Kerson reported out for the performance monitoring and external relations (PMER) committee. He noted that the revised mission statement was on the board’s agenda. He pointed out that there had been some debate about the use of the word “useful.” He urged the board to take a careful read of the proposed new language, saying that the issue should not be re-debated at every meeting – the board should adopt a mission statement that it really likes.

During question time, Jack Bernard talked about the image of the “service star” in some of the marketing materials and how it matches up with the mission statement. He asked that the board continue to think about how that star is going to look after the mission statement is adjusted. He put a plug in for “accessibility” to be added into that graphic.

When the board came to the item on its agenda, Kerson was asked to read aloud the new mission statement, which he did. Larry Krieg said he rather lamented the demise of the word “useful” but was willing to live with a mission statement as it stands. He felt it would require too much revision of planned materials to change it now. In some ways, usefulness is so fundamental to the mission of any transit organization that it almost goes without saying. So Krieg could live without saying it, as long as the AAATA remembers that it needs to be useful to the community – that is why it’s there.

Jack Bernard thanked his board colleagues for including the word “accessible.” He also appreciated the fact that the word had not been relegated to the end. So often, accessibility is relegated to an afterthought at the end of the statement. Putting it at the beginning heralds that all the programs, services and buses are to be accessible to all – people who have disabilities, older passengers, kids, people with resources and people who don’t have a great deal of resources. It’s the entire community that they are trying to serve. So he commended the board for stepping up to this and including the word “accessible.”

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to adopt the new mission statement.

Mission Statement: Accessibility

During his report to the board, CEO Michael Ford noted that during public commentary at the planning and development committee meeting, there had been a request for additional information at bus stops to aid passengers. The AAATA is considering redesigning its bus stops and changing the size of the signs to provide more information on each side of each sign, he said.

During question time, Jack Bernard thanked Ford for talking about the expansion of information at the bus stops. He felt it was a very important thing. But as the organization thinks about doing that, he wanted to encourage people to be aware of a general trend across organizations: When more information is provided, the font tends to be shrunk. He encouraged the AAATA, as it thinks about the real estate of the sign, to understand that there’s a cost associated with shrinking everything down – because it ends up not having a great deal of utility.

Bernard asked that a QR code be included, as more information is added on bus stops signs. That would enable somebody to get that information and then enlarge it or get expanded information using a mobile device. Those QR codes are a very efficient way to drive people to information that they want, which can not be included on the sign. He allowed that not all riders have a smartphone, so essential information still needs to be included on the physical sign. Increasingly, however, riders are connected with mobile devices.

Ford responded to Bernard by saying that staff just had a meeting about QR codes and signage, and they discussed issues of color contrast, placement and height. So Ford welcomed Bernard’s comments.

During public commentary time at the conclusion of the meeting, Ed Vielmetti responded to Bernard’s suggestion about QR codes. A local example of where that’s being done is the University of Michigan’s transit system, he said. There are QR codes on a number of the university’s bus stop signs. You put your phone up to it, it beeps, and it gives you a link to information that is specific to that individual stop – so it is not general information about the system, or general information about the line that you’re on, but rather it’s information relevant to your exact location. That is immensely helpful, Vielmetti said, especially if you are in an unfamiliar spot wondering where the bus goes, or when the bus coming, or if it is even running right now. It’s not a trivial exercise to assemble real-time, pinpoint information for thousands of stops, he ventured, but he called it a worthwhile goal.

Also during public commentary at the end of the meeting, Thomas Partridge told the board that he had attended the AAATA’s meetings numerous times over more than a decade, pleading for greater assistance for the most vulnerable riders – including handicapped riders and senior citizens. He questioned whether the board and administration of the AAATA comprehended and absorbed the full range of difficulties that disabled people and senior riders have in using the system.

Earlier in the meeting, during his report from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, Roger Kerson noted that a new web developer has been hired on staff: Preston Stewart. Kerson felt it was a good transition to bring the web project in-house so that the AAATA is not at the mercy of a contractor. If you think about the core functions of the agency, Kerson said, the ability to communicate regularly with its customers in an efficient and up-to-date manner is not an add-on – that is a core function. He called Preston’s previous experience very impressive.

Bernard said he was thrilled to hear that a new web developer had been hired. It remains continually important for the website to be accessible. He said that strides have been made, but the website was not yet completely accessible. He hoped that the web developer would be provided any support that he needed to make the AAATA website as accessible as it can be. Bernard asked if the new web developer had any experience in accessible websites. Ford was not sure, but said the AAATA was focused on that issue.

New Buses

The board considered a change to its capital and categorical grant program – in order to acquire new buses needed to implement expanded services. The services will be funded by the new millage that voters approved earlier this year on May 6, 2014. The expanded services are scheduled to begin on Aug 24.

The plan is add a total of 20 new buses over the next three years to the AAATA’s existing fleet of 80 buses. Total cost for the vehicles is $9 million.

The initial service expansion will not require many additional buses – as expanded services focus on extended hours of operation. But over the five-year service expansion, new route configurations and higher frequency services will require the additional vehicles. By year, here’s how the bus acquisition breaks down:

  • 2014: 2 buses for service expansion. Federal grant and state matching funds ($1,016,250). [Tentative: clean diesel.]
  • 2015: 11 buses for service expansion. Local funds from new millage ($4,903,300). [Tentative: clean diesel.]
  • 2016: 7 buses for service expansion. Local funds from new millage ($3,187,100). [Tentative: clean diesel.]

A tentative decision appears to have been made to specify the drive train on the new buses as conventional clean diesel, as opposed to the hybrid electric technology used by 52 of the current 80-bus fleet. However, no final decision has been made on the technology choice. The incremental cost per bus for the hybrid technology is nearly $200,000.

Minutes from the board’s July 8, 2014 planning and development committee show that AAATA maintenance manager Terry Black has indicated a final decision on the type of power unit for the buses needs to be made by November or December of 2014 – and certainly no later than February of 2015. The battery packs for many of the existing hybrid buses are reaching the end of their projected life, and the AAATA is also weighing the hybrid-versus-conventional diesel decision for replacement of those buses.

Among the issues to be weighed for the hybrid-versus-conventional diesel decision are fuel savings and noise reduction associated with hybrids. At the AAATA’s June 10 meeting, Black reported that for the newer clean diesel models, there is not a significant difference in the fuel economy. Some of the AAATA’s existing hybrid buses have had some transmission problems, which have resulted in a cost of $50,000 per bus. Even though that cost has been covered under warranty, the manufacturer is looking toward reducing the warranty coverage.

The board’s planning and development committee is supposed to receive a report on the hybrid-versus-diesel issue at its August meeting.

Outcome: When the board reached the voting item on its agenda, there was no additional discussion. The board unanimously approved the amendment to the capital and categorical grant program.

New Buses: Federal Grant Application

While most of the new buses needed for the expansion of service will be purchased with new millage funds, at least two buses will be purchased with federal grant money. A public hearing was held on the federal grant applications, which essentially mirrored the capital and categorical grant program already approved by the board last year, with the exception of some “livability” funds that the AAATA had been awarded a few months ago.

Chris White, AAATA manager of service development, explained that the public hearing was about the FY 2014 program of projects. The program of projects and the public hearing notice had been published in the Ann Arbor News twice. And it had been posted on the AAATA website for the last 30 days. No written comments had been received either by mail or by email at that point, White said. He then reviewed the entire program.

The projects in this program come directly from the capital and categorical grant program that was adopted by the board in December 2013 – with one exception, White said. When the AAATA was developing the capital and categorical grant program, a process was used that was open to the public. That included three meetings of the planning and development committee, and the board meeting at which the program was actually adopted. Any additional comments received that night would be included in the record for the Federal Transit Administration to review, White said.

White explained that the amounts in the program – Section 5307 ($6,457,306), and Section 5339 ($752,049) funds – are formula funds that are allocated to the Ann Arbor urbanized area. The southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority (RTA) is now the designated recipient for those funds, but the RTA has given the AAATA the authority to program that money and to make applications directly to the Federal Transit Administration for those funds. Livability Section 5309 ($813,000) funds are discretionary, White said.

There was also an amount for 5307 carryover ($622,969), White said. Those are funds from last year that the AAATA did not program. The funds are available to the AAATA for the two years following their appropriation. So the AAATA always uses up the money, but not always in the year that the funds are appropriated.

The total program is for the use of a total of $7,521,000 in federal funds. The total amount available is $8,645,324, so about $1.1 million will be carried over into FY 2015, White said.

White then reviewed the items in the program – nine small “expansion buses.” These are buses that AAATA will purchase that the paratransit contractor now provides for A-Ride service, White explained. So these buses are not to expand A-Ride service, so much as for the AAATA to provide that service directly, he clarified.

The second item on the list of projects is three large buses for expanded service. Those buses will use the federal Livability Section funds – the discretionary funds that the AAATA received. The AAATA had been informed that it had received approval for funds during the year – just a couple of months ago. And they were not included in the capital and categorical grant program, because the AAATA didn’t think it had the funds for the buses at that time.

White noted that this item was labeled as “up to three large buses.” He explained the $813,000 was actually not enough for three full buses – it’s enough for two buses and a fraction of a bus. The AAATA must record “up to three” in order to spend the entire amount, White said. Those are buses for the AAATA’s expansion for the five-year transit improvement program. The millage funds that were approved by the voters were programmed to buy expansion buses. Most of those buses will still be purchased from the local funds, White said. The livability funds would help the AAATA purchase two and a fraction of those buses.

All the other items on the program of projects are being paid for with the Section 5307 formula funds – computer-aided reservations dispatch for A-Ride, computer hardware and software, bus components (for hybrid buses), bus stop improvements (a Super Stop on Washtenaw Avenue), capital costs of subcontracted service, preventive maintenance and operating assistance.

New Buses: Federal Grant Application – Public Hearing

Jim Mogensen told the board that he thought it would be helpful in the future to have an issue paper that explains how the formula funds work. Is it because of the amount of service that we have? It seems that what is happening, Mogensen said, is you find out how much the funds are and then you figure out how to allocate the money in these various categories. But for someone who doesn’t have that information, it’s a little unclear how that would work. The other thing that would be helpful to know is what happens if for some reason federal money doesn’t come through. How would that impact how the funds are sorted out?

Tom Partridge questioned whether the existing formulas are sufficient to serve the most vulnerable paratransit riders. He said he heard no significant amounts being dedicated to extending and expanding the service that is available to handicapped riders or senior riders and other people who are disadvantaged in the community. He called on the AAATA to take steps before sending this on to the federal government. He called on the Federal Transit Administration to give priority for expansion of transit services for senior and handicapped riders.

FY 2014 Budget Adjustments

The AAATA fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 through Sept 30. At its July 24 meeting, the board considered an amendment to the budget for FY 2014 fiscal year to increase total expenses by $41,597 – from $34,073,795 to $34,115,392.

The proposed change also reflects adjustments to incorporate proceeds from the new millage, approved by voters on May 6, 2014. Of that additional $4,543,695 in local millage revenues, $3,850,000 is being put toward next year’s FY 2015 budget. Although that net amount of the expense adjustment is small, the infusion of new millage funds was offset by several hundred thousand dollars that were not spent this fiscal year for north-south commuter rail study.

It’s not uncommon for public bodies to make adjustments to the budget toward the end of the fiscal year.

The AAATA’s proposed amended budget reflected a number of changes related to the new millage and the service expansion that it will pay for. Among those changes are the hiring and training of 11 new bus drivers, bringing the total to 138 drivers. An operations supervisor, two new vehicle mechanics, an additional service crew member, and a human resources administrative assistant will also be added. [.pdf of detail on FY 2014 budget amendment]

The fares collected under the AAATA’s agreement with the University of Michigan are under budget for the year, because the proportion of the $1-per-ride fare booked as cash has decreased. A federal grant – which is recorded as federal operating assistance – has increased.

In the report to the board treasurer, AAATA controller Phil Webb reported an $81,254 surplus. But the report also noted an unrestricted net asset reserve amount of 2.64 months. The board’s reserve policy is to maintain at least the equivalent of a 3-month operating reserve.

FY 2014 Budget Adjustment: Public Commentary

Jim Mogensen addressed the board during the board’s first opportunity for public commentary at the start of the meeting. He said he’d always been very impressed with how detailed the information is about the operating budget. The AAATA presented both the standard operating budget and the extended notes. Because people are trying to understand how this all works, he suggested that materials also include a discussion of how the money is flowing in. For example, in the category of “special fares” – which related to the University of Michigan and the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, Washtenaw Community College and Eastern Michigan University – it would be helpful to have that broken out so that people could see how the total number is determined. He suggested that the board figure out a way to include that kind of information in the extended notes on the budget.

FY 2104 Budget Adjustment: Board Discussion

Reporting out from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, Roger Kerson noted that the proposed budget revision includes the new millage funds and the expansion of service. The total amount of the adjustment is small because the AAATA spent less in a different area – namely, the north-south rail study. There were a few hundred thousand dollars not spent on that project in this fiscal year. So even though there is more than $42,000 going to new activities, the net effect is the increase that is included in the budget. The committee had discussed with staff the fact that the board wants to track as carefully as the AAATA can exactly how the new millage funds are used for the new service – so that the AAATA can report to voters on that in an ongoing way, he said.

The committee had reviewed financial reports. Budget-wise, the organization is under budget on both revenues and expenses, so that matches up fairly well, Kerson said. The news on performance reports is that over the year, ridership is down overall as a result of the severe winter weather. People stay home and work at home or make other arrangements so that they don’t have to travel, and that impacts the quantity of service that gets delivered, he said.

AAATA board member Eli Cooper.

AAATA board member Eli Cooper.

When the board came to the voting item on its agenda, Eli Cooper stressed that the amendment of the budget is a positive aspect of the effort, which is a culmination of the efforts that led to the successful millage. The budget amendment is needed, to incorporate resources to sustain the new services that are being offered. The AAATA needs to be able to account for the resources that have been bestowed on the organization, and they need to be vigilant to ensure that the pledges made with respect to the five-year service plan are kept. Those pledges should be kept in a way that is consistent with the mission statement – in a cost-effective manner.

The budget is a planning instrument expressing the AAATA’s plan as it moves forward, Cooper said. It’s not merely an item where the board says: Yep, the numbers all add up and we’re going to approve that. So Cooper asked that the board take a moment to reflect on the value and the meaning of the budget – as a device that reflects all the hard work and that prepares a platform for the services to be delivered in a manner that is fiscally responsible. That’s one of the challenges the AAATA as an authority does well with, Cooper said, and it needs to continue to do well with that. So Cooper was pleased to speak in support of this amendment to the operating budget – because of the work done in the last six months, the last year, and even before that.

Outcome: The board unanimously approved the budget adjustments.

North-South Rail Study (WALLY)

The board considered an $800,000 contract with SmithGroupJJR for additional study of north-south commuter rail project. [.pdf memo for July 24, 2014 WALLY resolution]

Planning and work for north-south commuter rail between Ann Arbor and Howell in Livingston County has been going on for several years in a project that has been called WALLY (Washtenaw and Livingston Railway). The AAATA appears to be transitioning to a project label that incorporates “N-S Rail” as part of the description.

About two years ago, at its Aug. 16, 2012 meeting, the AAATA board approved the award of a $105,200 contract to SmithGroupJJR for “station location and design services” in connection with the WALLY project. The board’s authorization at that time included an option to increase the contract scope at a later date. That’s what the board’s July 24 item was proposed to do – increasing the total amount of the contract from $105,200 to $800,000.

Of that $800,000, a significant portion will be covered with a federal grant received by the AAATA in 2012 under the federal Transportation, Community and System Preservation (TCSP) program. The federal grant award of $640,000 requires a $160,000 local match, which will be made by the Howell Downtown Development Authority, the Ann Arbor DDA and Washtenaw County – equaling a total of $143,000, with the remaining $17,000 to come from the AAATA.

The initial $105,200 contract with SmithGroupJJR was focused on a station location study and is now largely complete. The conclusion of that station location study was to identify a segment of the Ann Arbor Railroad right-of-way, between Liberty and Washington streets, as a preferred location for a downtown station.

The scope of the additional work under the contract considered by the AAATA board on July 24, 2014 will:

  • Thoroughly examine alternatives/supplements to N-S Rail service such as express bus, bus-on-shoulder and HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) options.
  • Complete the evaluation of boarding areas (stations) in terms of locations, costs and required features.
  • Estimate operating and capital costs at a much finer level of detail, taking into account new service concepts, rail right-of-way work, ownership changes, and railcar acquisition that has taken place since 2008.
  • Undertake a more rigorous approach to demand estimates in full compliance with FTA New Starts / Small Starts requirements.
  • Incorporate “green” concepts and operating principles.
  • Be accompanied by a robust public involvement effort aimed at informing stakeholders and testing public support for the service, governance and funding elements of the plan as they evolve.

The timeframe for the second phase of the study is about 18 months.

North-South Rail Study (WALLY): Board Discussion

In his report out from the planning and development committee, Larry Krieg noted that there was a federal grant of $640,000 to undertake the study. He noted that the city study would include not just the possibility of a rail corridor, but also the use of express buses, and high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on US-23. The study would take about 18 months, he said, and the federal portion covers 80% of the cost. Several organizations – including Washtenaw County, the city of Ann Arbor, the Howell Downtown Development Authority – had contributed to the local match for that. Krieg concluded that the study had received a lot of support from around the region.

In his report out from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, Roger Kerson also commented on the north-south rail feasibility study. He felt that including express buses in the scope of the study is a very good idea – so that the AAATA would have a good sense of what the cost and time alternatives are.

Kerson said he was personally a big fan of trains and noted that the reason the board had a quorum for the meeting was because of the efficiency of DC Metro – which had gotten him from his meeting in Washington, D.C., that morning to Union Station, and then to another train to get to his plane. But that system had cost taxpayers billions and billions of dollars. And WALLY would cost millions and millions. “We can have a bus for thousands of thousands of dollars,” Kerson said, and probably have it in a matter of months, instead of years.

The AAATA had hit a home run with its service between downtown Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro Airport, he said, so the AAATA now knows how to provide that kind of service. AirRide is receiving very high marks for convenience and rider experience. So that’s in the AAATA’s inventory now of services it can deploy. Kerson wanted to see side-by-side from the feasibility report what it will take moneywise and timewise. He also wanted the study to find out people’s opinion about the different kinds of service. He felt that if people are exposed to that type of express bus service, they would really really like it, and it could be done in a cost-effective manner.

Outcome: When the board came to this item on the agenda, there was no additional discussion. The board voted unanimously to approve it.

Environmental Cleanup Work

The board considered a $234,360 contract with GZA GeoEnvironmental for environmental remediation work at the 2700 S. Industrial Highway headquarters of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority.

The need for the work dates back four years to 2010, when an in-ground gasoline leak was discovered during an upgrade to the fuel tank monitoring system.

The $25,000 insurance deductible through Chartis, the AAATA’s insurance company, has already been paid through previous work associated with this contamination. The current work – up to the $234,360 amount of the contract – will be reimbursed by Chartis for the total project price.

The work includes the following:

  1. Installation of new monitoring wells.
  2. Perform baseline groundwater sampling.
  3. Chemical analysis of groundwater samples.
  4. Anaerobic biodegradation bench scale study.
  5. Soil and dewatering excavation.
  6. Collection of excavation verification of soil remediation sampling.
  7. Introduction of selected bioremediation enhancement materials.
  8. Backfill restoration and concrete replacement.
  9. Groundwater sampling (will occur a year after remediation activities has been completed).
  10. Completed summary report that will be filed with MDEQ for satisfactory closure of incident.

Environmental Cleanup Work: Board Discussion

During his report out from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, Roger Kerson noted there are procedures and equipment in place to prevent that kind of leak from happening again.

AAATA controller Phil Webb

AAATA controller Phil Webb

Larry Krieg asked for clarification of the word “gas” in the report. Was it natural gas, diesel fuel, or gasoline? AAATA maintenance manager Terry Black explained that it was gasoline. There had been a connection on a tank that had probably been seeping for several years, he said. And it had previously been undetected.

Eric Mahler asked about the contingency costs. If the additional work is not necessary, he wondered if the money would be returned to the AAATA. AAATA controller Phil Webb explained that the AAATA would pay only for the work that was done. If additional work is needed, then there would be an additional negotiation about how that would be paid for. Webb also pointed out that it’s part of the insurance coverage the AAATA has. So the AAATA had worked with the insurance company on this project – which has been approved by the insurance company. The AAATA would be reimbursed through the insurance claim.

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to approve the contract for the environmental work.

Communications, Committees, CEO, Commentary

At its July 24 meeting, the board entertained various communications, including its usual reports from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, the planning and development committee, as well as from CEO Michael Ford. The board also heard commentary from the public. Here are some highlights.

Comm/Comm: Title VI Compliance

During his report to the board, CEO Michael Ford noted that the planning and development committee had heard from members of the public during public commentary at its meeting on the issue of Title VI compliance. The AAATA is close to completing the new requirements under Title VI, Ford reported. The full board had approve the Title VI policy earlier in the year, he noted, and the five-year transit improvement program will provide consistent service in the member jurisdictions, starting with the service improvements in August.

The performance monitoring and external relations committee was also working on revisions to service standards that would need to be approved by September, Ford noted. With those elements in place, Ford continued, the AAATA would be submitting all of its materials in October to the Federal Transit Administration about how the AAATA is meeting Title VI standards. The performance monitoring and external relations committee would be working throughout fiscal year 2015 on service standards, which are not required, but would be updates to Title VI material.

Jim Mogensen said that the previous week he’d attended two public meetings. The first was a University of Michigan’s regents meeting. His topic was public transit and the university. It was a topic that he talked to the regents about a couple of years ago, he said. At that time, he had said: Look, I’m probably gonna file a Title VI complaint against the AAATA – because there are structural issues the university needs to pay attention to when they merge their own transit plans with the AAATA’s. He’d suggested that because outside people would be looking in [to review Title VI compliance], one of the things the university should consider is providing transit out to its East Ann Arbor medical center. What he had not told the regents is that he had decided not to speak to the regents again until he actually filed the complaint. So he had not spoken to the regents for a couple of years.

He told the AAATA board to remain calm – because he had not actually filed a Title VI complaint yet. But he felt it was time to revisit the situation. The M-Ride agreement – between the University of Michigan and the AAATA – is being re-authorized next year and there was a year to figure it all out. So he suggested to the regents that this continues to be an issue – even with the new transit millage, because it is based on property taxes. And if you evaluate service based on municipal capacity, that will always be a challenge.

He suggested that the M-Ride agreement should be linked to the full actual fair, which is $1.50 – whereas the agreement now is for UM to pay $1 per ride. His suggested approach would recognize that what is happening was: People affiliated with the university have their fares paid by the university. The idea would be to tie it to the full fare. So, over the longer term, if fares for the general ridership went up, they would also go up for university affiliates, and would be linked to the university’s use of the transit system.

The second meeting that Mogensen had attended the previous Thursday was the WeROC (Washtenaw Regional Organizing Coalition) meeting. He brought up the Title VI issue up with WeROC – which had worked in support of the public transit millage. So Mogensen wanted to convey to the board that this was something he was working on, and that he was not working on it just by himself. He asked the board to please not short-circuit the idea before it’s given the opportunity to happen. Because sometimes, when you put ideas forth, things actually happen, Mogensen said.

Comm/Comm: Construction Detours; On-Time Performance

During his report to the board, CEO Michael Ford noted that there have been some challenges with construction and detours throughout the city. He ventured that everyone had felt the pinch of that. Some of the routes of been impacted by traffic backups, he reported, which affected the AAATA’s customer satisfaction and on-time performance. They’re doing everything they can to mitigate those issues, but it’s a difficult slog, he said.

AAATA board member Roger Kerson.

AAATA board member Roger Kerson.

Traveling right now in Ann Arbor is a pain in the neck because of all the construction, Roger Kerson noted during his report out from the performance monitoring and external relations committee. That’s true whether you’re walking, riding a bus, or in a car. And that is impacting the AAATA’s ability to meet on-time standards. They’re doing the best they can, but when virtually every major artery and every major entrance and exit to town has construction, and the buses just can’t move.

Kerson was surprised to hear about the situation on Pontiac Trail, where the AAATA literally cannot run the buses down the street and has to stop and turn around and have a detour. Obviously that is going to impact people there quite a bit, he said, but added: “We are at the mercy of the construction project.”

During question time, Larry Krieg asked about the difficulty in achieving on-time performance. He asked if any of the methods the AAATA was using to do the best it could, were impacting budget. Ford replied that they were actually suffering in that area. They are adding buses, and according to AAATA manager of transportation Ron Copeland, the estimate of the additional cost is $4,000-$5,000 a week. There is not a lot of bandwidth available to the AAATA, Ford said, and so they’re trying to do the best they can – trying to communicate as best they can with customers, and to get them where they need to go, as efficiently as they possibly can. He allowed it is costing the organization money to do that.

Comm/Comm: Public Comment – Compliments

Ed Vielmetti addressed the board during the first opportunity for public comment. He introduced himself as an Ann Arbor resident. He told the board that he rides the bus from time to time. As he’d look through the board packet before coming to the meeting, he noticed some of the statistics that were gathered and reported with respect to complaints about drivers and service – as well as compliments about drivers and service. He was surprised to see that the number of compliments was just 41. When he rides the buses, people are generally friendly with the bus driver and say hello and they seem to be cheerful about the whole process – especially in the summertime. Since he had never registered a formal compliment, Vielmetti wasn’t sure what the process was for doing that. He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to send an email or fill out a form at the transit center. He had no clue about how he would add one to the number of compliments. He asked the staff to figure out what needed to be added to signage or to the RideGuide to let people know how they can report on how the ride went, and to encourage people to give positive comments.

Comm/Comm: BTC Public Art

During his report to the board, CEO Michael Ford noted that the planning and development committee had requested a summary of the evolution of the Blake Transit Center art project and the details on the warranty of the artist’s work. Issues of durability and the warranty had been discussed with the artist as a result of the PDC request, Ford said, and that agreement would be committed in writing. The AAATA is also documenting the award of the art project to this particular artist.

During his report out from the planning and development committee, Larry Krieg noted the committee had received an update on the artwork that was funded as a part of the new Blake Transit Center. The artist, Roberto Delgado, made a visit to Ann Arbor and had made photographs of the distinctive parts of the region so that those images can be incorporated into the artwork. The final artwork would be made of tile and would be vandal-resistant, Krieg said. Sue Gott had urged the AAATA to set aside funds for the maintenance of the art, saying that any outdoor artwork would require maintenance.

Comm/Comm: Art Fair Ridership

During his report to the board, Michael Ford noted that the Ann Arbor art fairs had taken place the previous week. Ridership for the AAATA’s art fair shuttle from Briarwood to downtown was up over 30% compared to last year, he reported. There were about 79 riders per service hour and the weather was great. He thanked everyone who was involved in the process.

Present: Eric Mahler, Eli Cooper, Roger Kerson, Anya Dale, Jack Bernard, Larry Krieg.

Absent: Susan Baskett, Sue Gott, Charles Griffith, Gillian Ream Gainsley.

Next regular meeting: Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014 at 6:30 p.m. at the Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave., Ann Arbor [confirm date]

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

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Column: City Council as Entertainment Mon, 24 Mar 2014 20:06:32 +0000 Dave Askins About the author: Dave Askins is editor and co-founder of The Ann Arbor Chronicle. He’s covered  every Ann Arbor city council meeting since September 2008.


This is a mock-up of how the city of Ann Arbor might provide a text box with councilmember amended text in real time, just underneath the online CTN video stream of council meetings. (Art by The Chronicle.)

If you’ve never watched an Ann Arbor city council meeting in person or on Community Television Network, you really should give it a try sometime. The next chance to watch your local elected officials in action is April 7, 2014 with a scheduled start of 7 p.m.

As an entertainment option, I’d allow that a city council meeting probably falls somewhat short of the Netflix series “House of Cards” or the ABC series “Scandal.” That’s actually OK with me – because journalists in those dramas have been shoved in front of trains and shot dead on the street.

But any long-running TV series is more entertaining to watch if you understand exactly what is going on. If you have elderly eyes, for example, you might not be able to see if that text message Frank Underwood received was from Zoe Barnes or Olivia Pope. It makes an episode hard to follow, if you don’t know who sent Underwood that text message.

One of the hardest parts of a city council meeting to follow – even if you are well-versed in the subject matter – is any deliberation featuring wordsmithing of amendments to text.

So in the interest of making Ann Arbor city council meetings more entertaining, I’d like to propose a simple step toward helping the viewing public understand exactly what’s going on: Let the public see amended text in real time.

How could councilmembers, in real time, make visible to the public proposed amendments to text already under consideration?

An easy technical solution already exists.

It’s free, and it requires no registration or creation of user accounts. And it’s not Google Drive.

How Does Text Currently Get Shared?

As city councilmembers debate a resolution or an ordinance, it sometimes happens that someone will propose an amendment. Sometimes that amendment is so substantial that it amounts to a substitute for an entire paragraph (or more) of text. Other times, it’s a matter of striking a word or a phrase.

The council has an established procedure during a meeting for sharing among members of the council proposed amendments to text: email. The council rule allowing this electronic communication reads as follows [emphasis added]:

Rule 8: Council Conduct of Discussion and Debate

Electronic communication during Council meetings shall pertain only to City matters. During Council meetings, members shall not send electronic communication to persons other than City Staff; provided however, that members may send draft motions, resolutions, and amendments to all members. Members shall not respond to member-distributed draft language via electronic communication. All draft language sent by electronic communication during Council meetings shall be read into the record prior to discussion by Council.

How is the viewing public supposed to follow along? The media might be able to help disseminate fresh text; however, councilmembers are prohibited by rule from emailing the media during the meeting.

Still, in the past Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5) has simply flouted that rule, at the same time announcing that he was breaking the rule, in the interest of providing greater accessibility to the council’s work. From the Nov. 18, 2013 live updates filed by The Chronicle during council deliberations on a revision to the ordinance regulating the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority’s TIF capture:

10:47 p.m. Lumm is reciting the reason she’s supportive of the ordinance. It’ll mean a 55% growth in TIF for the DDA over the next three years. She thinks it would have been better to impose the cap sooner so that sharing with the other jurisdictions would have began sooner. [Lumm's voice is failing her – she sounds under the weather.]

10:48 p.m. Warpehoski says he’s violating council rules to share the amendments with the media.

10:49 p.m. Eaton says he would have preferred a lower cap and a shorter term limit, but applauds the effort of the committee. Taylor says he won’t support it. The DDA has proven itself as a reliable steward of taxpayer funding. He recites familiar arguments in support of the DDA.

More recently, that approach has been eschewed in favor of one that abides by the letter of the council rule: Councilmembers have on occasion emailed the city clerk  and requested that the clerk disseminate the new text to the media.

Whether it is a councilmember or the city clerk who sends an email to the media during a meeting, that’s a pretty clunky way to proceed. In actual practice that probably results in at least a 10-minute delay between the council’s access to the new text and the public’s access to it.

Besides the delay, I don’t think members of the public should be required to rely on the media as an intermediary in order to understand exactly what is going on during their local city council’s meeting.

How Could Text Be Shared in Real Time?

My guess is there are several technical approaches that would allow any councilmember to dump some text into a box on their computer screen so that it would immediately become visible to everyone else – on the city council or in the public.

The specific solution that I stumbled across is stunning in its elegance: WriteURL. It’s a solution brought to you by a couple of guys with a Swedish address with Swedish-looking names.

The whole approach would be based on the existence of two URLs. One URL would be known to those who have editing privileges (councilmembers) for a document. The other URL would be known to people who just want to watch text in the document change in real time.

Here are five easy steps that would establish a suitable sharing environment provided by WriteURL:

  1. Do not create accounts or user names or establish passwords of any kind.
  2. City clerk visits WriteURL website and clicks once to create a new document.
  3. City clerk names the new document something like “Council Meeting Scratch.”
  4. City clerk sends the writeable access URL for “Council Meeting Scratch” to all councilmembers.
  5. City clerk includes readable-only access URL of “Council Meeting Scratch” as part of the meeting agenda information packet that is disseminated to the public.

As a demo, I created a document called “Council Meeting Scratch.” Here’s the URL for the read-only access version: “Council Meeting Scratch.”

That kind of read-only URL would not depend on The Ann Arbor Chronicle or any other media outlet. Of course, The Chronicle would likely want to embed a view of that read-only document in our live-updates that we typically file from council meetings, something like this:

And as the lead art for this article suggests, the city of Ann Arbor might provide that same kind of embedding on the city’s website, in conjunction with the online live video stream of council meetings.

In conclusion, yes, I know that Frank Underwood would never receive a text message from Olivia Pope, because she’s in “Scandal” and he’s in “House of Cards” – so that would not make any sense. Also important: Frank Underwood is a fictional character, as are Olivia Pope and Zoe Barnes. They are fake.

But the Ann Arbor city council is not fake. It is real. And real always has the potential to be more entertaining than fake – if you know exactly what’s going on. For that reason, I think the city council should give something like WriteURL a try.

The Chronicle could not survive without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of public bodies like the Ann Arbor city council. We sit on the hard bench so that you don’t have to. 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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AirRide OK’d, State Funding Reviewed Mon, 24 Mar 2014 15:24:11 +0000 Dave Askins Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority board meeting (March 20, 2014): Board chair Charles Griffith opened the meeting by noting that the agenda was a lot lighter than last month, when the board had passed 10 separate resolutions – including a vote to put a transit millage proposal on the May 6 ballot.

Looking north on Fifth Avenue at the AirRide stop, just south of the newly opened Blake Transit Center.

Looking north on Fifth Avenue at the AirRide stop, just south of the newly opened Blake Transit Center. (Photos by the writer.)

The only voting item handled by the board at its March 20 meeting was the extension of a contract with Michigan Flyer to provide service between downtown Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro Airport. The board authorized the first of three one-year extensions on the initial two-year contract for the service, called AirRide.

For the third year of the agreement, the not-to-exceed amount is $170,000. That compares with the first year of the contract that was not to exceed $700,000. The drop in the cost to the AAATA stems from a revenue-sharing agreement based on fare revenues – and ridership has exceeded projections.

The board also received an update on statewide transit issues from Clark Harder, executive director of the Michigan Public Transit Association, and Dusty Fancher, a lobbyist with Midwest Strategy Group. A main theme from their presentation was the need to focus on overall funding increases, as opposed to trying to fine-tune the part of the funding formula that divides public transportation funding among the 78 transit agencies in Michigan.

Harder also described an initiative to provide a non-emergency medical transportation brokerage that would tap public transportation resources. A demonstration program, to be provided through the newly formed Michigan Transportation Connection (MTC), could be up and running by Oct. 1, 2015, Harder reported.

Another highlight of that presentation included the idea that the abysmal road conditions – which have resulted from the long and harsh winter – could be a rallying point for more transportation funding. To the extent that additional money for transportation is funneled through the general transportation funding formula, that would lead to an increase in public transportation funding, along with funding for road infrastructure.

The harsh winter and the challenge of clearing snow at the 1,200 bus stops was also a part of another basic theme of the board’s discussion – accessibility of the bus service to those in the disability community. Carolyn Grawi of the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living addressed the board to stress the importance of making sure all the bus stops are accessible. She also reiterated the CIL’s support for the upcoming May 6 millage vote.

Other highlights from the meeting included a round of applause for AAATA maintenance manager Terry Black, who managed the Blake Transit Center construction project. The driveways still need concrete to be poured before the project is completed, but the building itself is now open to the public.

AirRide Contract

The board considered a contract with Michigan Flyer to provide transportation between downtown Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro Airport for a third year, in a service called AirRide.

The average number of passengers for the last four weeks is 1,406, according to the AAATA .

The average number of passengers for the last four weeks is 1,406, according to the AAATA.

Two years ago, the board had authorized Michigan Flyer’s two-year contract, with the possibility of three one-year extensions, at its Feb. 16, 2012 board meeting.

The first year of the contract specified an amount not to exceed $700,000 per year. The first year’s cost proved to be less than half that ($326,600) due to higher-than-projected ridership. The anticipated cost for the second year of the agreement was expected to be $216,522.

Based on additional negotiations, the cost of service for the third year is not expected to be more than $170,000. That cost will include AAATA’s share of an AirRide/Michigan Flyer staff position – who will help passengers board and load luggage. The drop in cost to the AAATA is in part attributable to Michigan Flyer’s receipt of a federal Transportation, Community, and System Preservation (TCSP) grant. The third year of service includes adjustments that eliminate the stop on the University of Michigan central campus transit center, but add a 13th trip between Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro Airport.

AirRide Contract: Board Discussion

During her report out from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, Anya Dale reported that ridership on the AirRide service is up 22% for the year. The average number of weekday riders for AirRide has hit 200, she said. Dale also described the historical background for the contract.

When the board reached the resolution on its agenda, board chair Charles Griffith called it an incredibly nice trend to see the cost of the service coming down each year as the ridership on the service continues to increase. He called it a great story. It reminded him of the transit improvement millage that’s on the May 6 ballot – because you take a leap of faith when you keep hearing from people about the service they want, and you think it’s the right thing to do, and then you actually provide the service.

AirRide is an example of where people really did line up and take advantage of the service, Griffith said. He ventured that it might be possible eventually to bring the price of the service down. Michael Ford noted that the AAATA is adding even more customer service components to the AirRide – as assistance loading luggage and boarding is now being provided.

Eli Cooper called the service “really outstanding.” When it was first started, the AAATA was thinking about spending around $750,000 on it, but now the cost is down to $170,000 year. It’s just remarkable, he said, what this public-private partnership has achieved. The efficiency and effectiveness of public transportation is clear in select markets, Cooper said, and it was being demonstrated here in Ann Arbor. It’s not so much a cost reduction in the contract, Cooper said, but rather a reflection of the efficiency and effectiveness of working with Michigan Flyer.

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to approve the AirRide contract with Michigan Flyer.

During public commentary at the conclusion of the meeting, Carolyn Grawi of the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living called the AirRide service fantastic, saying that she and her family had used it several times going to and from the airport as well as going to and from East Lansing.

Statewide Perspective

The board received an update from Clark Harder, executive director of the Michigan Public Transit Association, and Dusty Fancher, a lobbyist with Midwest Strategy Group. Their presentation had been originally scheduled for the board’s Jan. 16 meeting, but was cancelled due to bad weather.

Statewide Perspective: MPTA History, Purpose

Clark Harder, executive director of the Michigan Public Transit Association, opened his remarks by thanking the AAATA board for the invitation to come down from Lansing and speak. He noted that some of the faces on the board were recognizable from his last visit two years ago, but others were new to him. He allowed that sometimes local transit authority boards don’t really understand what the MPTA does or why they do it. So he wanted to share some information about the MPTA.

The Michigan Public Transit Association was created in 1977, he said, as a 501(c)(6) nonprofit. The MPTA exists to be an educational and advocacy arm for members of the association. Out of the 78 transit authorities in the state of Michigan, 50 are members of the MPTA, he said. He characterized 50 members as a high-water mark for the MPTA, and it’s been at that level for a number of years. Some of the smaller systems, which the MPTA would love to have as members, have not joined. Harder ventured that sometimes the reason was budgetary, or for very small systems they did not see any reason to be involved. But for a very small system, he continued, that’s all the more reason to be involved. “We are all working collectively for the same goal, which is stronger support, stronger funding for public transportation,” he said. That’s why the MPTA was created, he added.

The MPTA was created with a lot of direction and support from the Michigan Dept. of Transportation (MDOT), Harder explained. In the early days of public transit in the state of Michigan, MDOT noticed that all the other entities it dealt with – like road commissions – had some kind of association to represent them. But public transit authorities had nothing at that point. So at that time a number of different people came together – including the forerunner of the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART), which was called the Southeastern Michigan Transportation Authority (SEMTA), and the Capital Area Transportation Authority (CATA) in Lansing. Those two entities were instrumental in creating the MPTA.

It wasn’t very long after the initial creation of the MPTA that the long-standing association between the MPTA and AAATA came into being, Harder said. “You are one of early members and one of our very active members.” He pointed out that Dawn Gabay, deputy CEO of the AAATA, is the AAATA’s representative on the MPTA’s board of directors. AAATA manager of service development Chris White had been extremely active in the MPTA across the years, and AAATA maintenance manager Terry Black chairs the maintenance committee at the state level, Harder pointed out. So the AAATA has a high level of involvement and a large stake in what the MPTA does.

The MPTA was created for advocacy, but over the years that role has evolved, Harder said. About 10 years ago, MDOT – which had previously done a lot of training and educational programs – stepped back and said it could no longer afford to do it. As a result of that, MPTA had moved into a variety of educational and training programs, he explained. So now the MPTA has a dual role: advocacy and education/training. As a result of taking on the additional role of education and training, Harder explained, the committee structure that already existed was made more robust and more active. The MPTA now has a very strong committee structure, he said.

There are four annual conferences a year and an annual meeting, which is always in August. There’s a legislative conference in February. There’s a rural transit managers workshop typically at the end of March. And every June, the MPTA holds a transit vehicle maintenance seminar. That was something that historically MDOT had done. They stopped doing it for four or five years and a lot of transit systems approached the MPTA and asked for that program to be restored.

During question and answer time with Harder and Fancher, board chair Charles Griffith asked if the MPTA offered anything for board members by way of training on how to be a good board member, or on governance issues. The AAATA is not the only transit agency that is looking to expand, he said, and the AAATA has learned a lot about several related issues – so maybe some of that information could be shared with other transit authorities.

Michigan Public Transit Association executive director Clark Harder told the board that state public transportation funding had remained basically level over the last 10 years, which was a success in the context of other departments that had seen drastic reductions.

Michigan Public Transit Association executive director Clark Harder told the board that state public transportation funding had remained basically level over the last 10 years, which was a success in the context of other departments that had seen drastic reductions.

Harder told Griffith that it had been one of the long-term goals of the MPTA to have a transit boardsmanship training program – similar to what the Michigan Municipal League does for city council members. Some steps have been made in that direction, he said. He provides one-on-one training sessions with transit authority boards. He does not charge anything to members for that service, because he thinks that’s part of what MPTA members already pay for. He does not push it or advertise it a lot. He hoped that one day there would be a transit board certification program that would be offered on an ongoing basis.

Another program the MPTA has launched this year is called the “Route to Excellence” customer service training program, Harder reported. It’s the first one of its kind in the nation, he said, and the first one of its kind that he was aware of that any state transit association has put together. It’s a transit-based customer service program. The MPTA has been in the process of rolling out that program.

Statewide Perspective: Funding Levels

The MPTA’s main focus over the years has been to advocate for transportation funding – for operating funds and for bus capital, Harder stressed.

The MPTA had been successful in that advocacy over the last several years, he said. Throughout all the state cuts that every other department has faced, transportation has been able to hold its funding. He allowed that due to the cost of doing business rising, the dollars don’t go as far.

But in the face of severe budget cuts, public transportation is one of the very few things that has remained consistent across the board over the last decade, he said: “We are rather proud of that fact.” The MPTA’s current focus is on the transportation funding package in front of the legislature.

Fancher explained that the state is in the middle of the budget cycle for fiscal year 2013-14. A supplemental budget bill has just been passed in Lansing, she said.

Statewide Perspective: Funding Levels – Potholes

The big issue surrounding the supplemental bill was the condition of the transportation infrastructure, Fancher said: “You may have noticed there are a few potholes. I saw some coming down Main Street tonight!” There’s been discussion in Lansing for a long time about how to come up with a solution, she said, to solve transportation funding. There was a budget surplus this year, and the legislature decided to spend $250 million of that surplus to go toward the road budget. Some of that will take care of winter maintenance – salt and overtime to cover plowing activity. There’s also some additional money to go out and “cover up some of those potholes.”

AAATA board members Eli Cooper and Gillian Ream Gainsley.

AAATA board members Eli Cooper and Gillian Ream Gainsley.

Fancher ventured that the long winter had awakened a new sense of urgency for the public to do something about road funding. And that urgency has been lacking up to now. Everybody recognizes the need to fix the roads, but nobody wants to pay for it, she said. Right now there are a lot more holes in the road and it’s definitely going to get worse as the spring freeze-thaw cycle continues. So talks on the issue are starting back up, she reported.

Democrats are talking to the Republicans and they are sitting at the table and they are having conversations, she said. She wished that they were talking about a larger dollar amount, but at least they were talking. She was happy that they’re talking about a dollar amount that will flow all the way through the transportation funding formula – that is, to public transportation systems as well. When you hear people talk about “road funding” in the newspaper, it always makes her nervous, she said. While road funding is a part of transportation funding, it’s also important to make sure that it flows through to all the other parts of the transportation system. So she’s encouraged that the talks continue to focus on the entire CTF [comprehensive transportation fund] formula.

When the board was given a chance to ask questions, Eli Cooper noted that because the potholes are real and people see them, it might give cause for action. But the needs for the transit industry go far beyond just those visible infrastructure deficiencies, Cooper stressed. Funding is woefully lacking with appropriate regional and local transportation in the Ann Arbor community, in southeast Michigan and statewide, Cooper continued. He told Harder that the AAATA looked to the MPTA to advocate so that the legislature and state administration understands the need.

Cooper thought there’s a real responsibility to review both the levels and the mechanisms for funding local and regional authorities. So he asked Harder and Fancher to please keep that in mind as they head back up to Lansing and talk with other authorities. There’s an opportunity right now because the potholes are creating focus. “We should never let a crisis go unused,” he quipped. Harder agreed with Cooper, but said that some of the MPTA members get a little antsy and concerned when everything they read in the newspaper is about potholes. But that is what drives the message statewide. And if that is what they have to use to get more funding for public transportation, then Harder was OK with that –as long as they don’t lose sight of the big picture.

AAATA board member Larry Krieg.AAATA board member Larry Krieg. He represents Ypsilanti Township on the board.

AAATA board member Larry Krieg. He represents Ypsilanti Township on the board.

Larry Krieg offered a suggestion as a slogan that could be used, which he’d heard from AAATA staff: “You are one pothole away from public transit.” Krieg noted that public transit had taken a hit as a result of the snow, and the impact was felt not only on the roads. Krieg cited a figure from AAATA maintenance manager Terry Black – that nearly $144,000 extra was needed for snow removal contracts alone, not to mention the overtime of the AAATA’s own staff.

So when we think about regional transportation, we also need to keep ourselves running, Krieg stressed.

During his report to the board, Michael Ford – chief executive officer of the AAATA – noted that he’d had an incident with a pothole this week and found himself taking the bus. “It’s nice to have that option,” he said.

Statewide Perspective: Funding Levels – By Formula

The transportation budget for the fiscal year 2014-15 – which will start on Oct. 1, 2014 – is currently being debated, Fancher told the AAATA board. She expected the state House of Representatives to vote their budget out of committee later this month. She thought that funding for transit would remain about the same. In the last two years, there has been a $5 million operating line item that MDOT could use for discretionary funding. The MPTA had argued to get that in because of the southeast Michigan regional transit authority (RTA), which creates a disruption in the funding of the system. She did not think that the $5 million would be part of next year’s budget.

She was hearing that there might be some money in the budget – whether it’s in MDOT’s budget or in some other budget – for the RTA. The MPTA had advocated for $2 million in the supplemental budget bill, but there was “not enough education on the House side” to get that done, she said. So what the governor’s office has done is to say “we will find the money for fiscal year 13-14 … we’ll figure it out.” And then the governor’s office would advocate for the remaining money in the next year’s budget. That would allow RTA members to go out and educate members of the House of Representatives. She pointed out that the RTA is a member of the MPTA.

Board chair Charles Griffith recalled the situation last year when there had been an interpretation of the CTF formula that had been unexpected – and it took almost a year for the AAATA to get the money back that it had expected. “Has that been fixed in a permanent way, or is that still something we still need to get done right for the long-term?” Griffith asked. Fancher indicated that it was in fact something that could happen again. She reviewed how the Detroit Dept. of Transportation’s reduction in funding had impacted other transit agencies when the regular funding formula was applied. There has not been a permanent fix for that, she said. She would be happy to find a permanent solution moving forward. She felt there was interest among legislators in finding a permanent solution. But she said the focus right now is on finding an overall transportation funding increase “before we bust into fixing things inside Act 51.”

Harder added that the MPTA has tried to spur that conversation with MDOT, but said that the MDOT was not just rather resistant, but “adamantly resistant” to carrying on that conversation – until there is new, additional funding for the formula. They’ve made that pretty clear, he said. That’s clearly coming from the governor’s level – that they don’t get into these conversations until they get appreciable new funding.

Eli Cooper added that a couple of days ago there was an article in the local media that talked about 15,000 new jobs coming into the Ann Arbor community. That’s 15,000 people looking for ways to get to work. In our economy and our community and in this state, we need to have travel choices – proper local travel choices, regional and statewide travel choices, Cooper said.

Cooper appreciated the MPTA’s work and encouraged the MPTA not to argue over the smaller pieces, but to look more broadly and into a brighter future where transit authorities and transit services in our community and statewide are adequately funded – so that local transit agencies have the ability to provide the service without worrying about whether a millage is passed or not.

In response to Cooper’s remarks Fancher said her focus was on making sure that everything goes through the formula.

Statewide Perspective: Detroit

Eric Mahler noted that in Detroit’s state of the city address, mayor Mike Duggan had made it clear that public transportation is a focus. Duggan had also said he was looking to the federal government for buses and other things. Mahler asked if Harder and Fancher had heard anything from the state level about partnering between the federal government and the city of Detroit and some kind of collaboration for other transit authorities around the state.

AAATA board member Eric Mahler.

AAATA board member Eric Mahler.

Harder told Mahler that he had heard there was interest on the part of the administration in Washington to try to identify some additional funding. Of course the issue for the state is the match for any federal dollars on the bus capital side. Harder said that Gov. Rick Snyder’s recommendation is still very strong on the bus capital match side – and that is one of the things that Snyder’s administration had prioritized right from the start.

Harder indicated that right now, on the federal side, the reauthorization for transportation funding is being discussed. He allowed that the state of Michigan is not doing as well now, as when earmarking was the normal process. “We had a senior delegation and we did very well with earmarking,” Harder said. But “earmarking” is a dirty word in Washington now, so they don’t do that, Harder said.

On a more positive note, Harder pointed out that right now the city of Detroit and the new mayor have the ear of the U.S. president. And sometimes miraculous things can happen because of that kind of relationship, Harder said. Mahler was right about Duggan being a very strong supporter of public transportation – as a former manager at SMART. “[Duggan] gets it in terms of fixing what’s wrong,” Harder said. Fancher added that she has heard that MDOT is trying to turn over every stone to make sure that they are making the best use of grants that are available and are really trying to help out as much as possible to pull in federal funding.

Statewide Perspective: Regional Thinking

Eli Cooper recalled about a year ago a conversation about the RTA and the state budget. It focused on whether money was going to be available and that local CTF funds would be supporting the RTA. It sounded like things might be a little bit different this year, he ventured. The AAATA had wanted to support the RTA – but not at the expense of the rides that are provided within local communities, he said. Cooper was looking to the MPTA to continue to advocate on the AAATA’s behalf.

Statewide Perspective: Non-Emergency Medical Transportation

MPTA executive director Clark Harder reported that last year, the MPTA has put a lot of time into researching non-emergency medical transportation with the goal of creating a statewide public-transit-based brokerage for those non-emergency rides. There’s been great input from the AAATA on that topic. Vanessa Hansle, the AAATA’s mobility manager, has been leading the mobility management aspect of that study, Harder reported.

In just the last month, the MPTA has authorized moving that forward, creating the Michigan Transportation Connection (MTC), which will be the coordinating body. They will soon be bidding out some of the managed care contracts across the state. It’s possible that by Oct. 1, 2015 there will be at least one demo project up and running to handle Medicaid non-emergency medical transportation, coordinated through the MTC, Harder said.

Later in the meeting, Midwest Strategy Group lobbyist Dusty Fancher mentioned that she had been advocating legislatively on the issue of non-emergency medical transportation – within the state’s Dept. of Human Services budget. She had arranged for the committee to hear from Harder, and he had testified in front of that committee. It had put on the committee’s radar screen that they could be thinking about public transportation as a tool to save on Medicaid dollars. There’s no reason to contract out transportation service at a higher rate than what could be provided by the local public transportation service. People are already paying tax dollars for that, she pointed out, so full advantage should be taken of it.

Dusty Fancher is with Midwest Strategy Group, a lobbyist firm in Lansing.

Dusty Fancher is with Midwest Strategy Group, a lobbyist firm in Lansing.

Responding to AAATA board questions about overall transportation funding in Michigan, Harder said one reason he was excited about the non-emergency medical project is that he sees a lot of potential to alleviate some of the pressure on the existing funding formula. That’s because it’s a new source of funding that does not come with the same strings attached as the current formula. But Harder could also see the benefit that it would bring to moving the conversation forward on a regional basis. In the time he has worked for the MPTA, he’s concluded that is really what is needed – something that can drive the arguments regionally. Those who work in public transit understand the importance of moving toward regionalization, he said. But there has not been an overriding issue that they could fall back on and point to and say: This is why we need regional transportation and here’s an example of how it pays off and works.

A non-emergency medical transportation brokerage is regional transportation, Harder said. If success is achieved with that, they would be brokering rides for people – whether it is rides on public transportation or private transportation. That will help to build the case that people don’t just live within the confines of their city or their county. Services are not just confined to the city or the county where people live, Harder said. People need to get across those artificial boundary lines that have been put up. He said public transportation was initially set up in ways that actually helped to encourage those artificial boundary lines – so that now they have to be broken down. The MPTA felt that the RTA is a wonderful thing that needs to happen – but not if it’s funded on the backs of all the existing transit agencies in the state. That would tear down the infrastructure that has taken 35 years to build.


Accessibility of the AAATA’s service – particularly to those in the disability community – was a significant theme of the March 20 board meeting. Clark Harder, with the Michigan Public Transit Association, gave a presentation to the board about the MPTA’s efforts on behalf of its member transit authorities, of which AAATA is one. He fielded questions from AAATA board members after that presentation, including one from Jack Bernard.

Bernard wanted to know what the MPTA is doing for riders who have disabilities. He asked what was happening in Lansing specifically with respect to disability issues. Harder replied that MPTA has a strong partnership with the state-level disability organizations. In the past, the MPTA had led coalition efforts involving disability groups, but had backed off in recent years, he said. A new coalition called Transform had emerged. MPTA had encouraged the groups that they had previously worked with to get involved with Transform.

Transform had some funding available and was able to do some things that MPTA was not able to do, Harder said. The MPTA would continue to work closely with the disability network – saying that they had always worked very closely with United Cerebral Palsy and groups like The Arc. He could not tell Bernard that there are any new sources of funding being identified for persons with disabilities in terms of public transportation usage. But he felt there was a keen awareness that for many people who have disabilities, public transportation is their only way to be mobile in our society. He felt that there is certainly room to add funding to assist persons with disabilities.

Accessibility also came up in connection with the issue of snow clearing at bus stops. During his report to the board, CEO Michael Ford noted that it had been the worst winter in many years, and with that came many challenges. Shelters and walkways get cleared and then the street plows come along to do their job, which means that the AAATA needs to redo its job. That’s particularly difficult with 1,200 bus stops, Ford said. The effort is actually coordinated, Ford added, between various agencies and contractors. AAATA works with the city of Ann Arbor and the community standards department to address sidewalk complaints. And as the season draws to an end, the AAATA staff will be meeting with representatives of the city of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County to review how things went this year, and to start thinking about how things can be improved and coordinated next year.

AAATA board member Jack Bernard.

AAATA board member Jack Bernard.

During the “question time” agenda slot, Jack Bernard told Ford that he appreciated the emphasis that Ford had placed on making services accessible. It’s of critical importance that the AAATA do that, Bernard said. The AAATA is uniquely situated to be able to serve populations who cannot drive or who don’t drive, so it’s critical that the AAATA make its services accessible.

On the topic of snow removal, Bernard allowed that it’s very difficult to make sure the 1,200 bus stops are accessible for all of the AAATA’s patrons so that they can get on and off buses safely and conveniently. He allowed that not every bus stop could be cleared the way the AAATA would ideally like it to be cleared. But when the AAATA knows that there are particular patrons who had disability issues or have difficulty boarding, he wondered if snow clearance could be prioritized in those spots. He allowed that it’s important to get every spot, but AAATA drivers know their passengers – so he thought it might be possible to target those spots.

Ford responded to Bernard by saying an internal meeting had been held recently on that topic. Ford said the AAATA wants to make sure it does the best job possible. Accessibility is definitely a high priority for the AAATA, Ford said.

During public commentary at the conclusion of the meeting, Carolyn Grawi of the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living commented on the snow removal issue. She reported that she gets calls from people who are able to get out on the bus, but when they come back – because of the way things get plowed, or shoveled after they’ve left their home – they are stuck. Bus drivers try to be helpful in helping people off the bus, but the drivers can’t leave the bus.

Grawi noted that the University of Michigan has a strategy where patrons can provide information about where they live and where they need to go – and as a result, certain locations receive an asterisk so that they receive extra attention for snow removal. But it’s not just a question of where the person lives or where they board on a regular basis, she cautioned. Because the bus will take us wherever life takes us, and people are getting on and off the bus everywhere in the community. So it’s every curb ramp in every subdivision that needs to remain cleared, she said. There’s still ice on some ramps, even though a lot of it has melted. She suggested that in the spring, the AAATA and others should start to think about a plan so that for next winter a plan is in place.

Ford also acknowledged the issue during his March 20 report to the board. He noted that during its Feb. 20 board meeting, the board had also heard about the critical need to make the system accessible. He noted that Carolyn Grawi of the Center for Independent Living had met with staff during the past week to discuss specific concerns. Making services and systems accessible is a priority for the AAATA, Ford said, and will continue to be.

The board also received a report from the local advisory council, a group that provides input and feedback to AAATA on disability and senior issues. Rebecca Burke reported from the most recent LAC meeting, that the group had received a presentation on the Jewish Family Services (JFS) vehicle accessibility plan. The group had also reviewed a users guide, which is due to be out in May. They had also reviewed data from a survey from a small population of users. The survey had covered items like destinations that users would like to reach that are currently not served by AAATA.

Communications, Committees, CEO, Commentary

At its March 20 meeting, the board entertained various communications, including its usual reports from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, the planning and development committee, as well as from CEO Michael Ford. The board also heard commentary from the public. Here are some highlights.

Comm/Comm: Financial Report

Reporting out from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, Anya Dale gave an update on the financial report the committee had received. Revenue is under budget by 0.1% but expenses are under budget by more than that, she said. Some of the extra costs the AAATA has incurred involved additional expenses due to weather-related items, she noted. Because of the very cold weather in January, ridership had dropped off. But the other indicators – operating expense per passenger, operating expense per service hour, operating expense per service mile – were all slightly better than budget for the fiscal year, she said. In that context, everything is still doing well, she said.

Ridership on ExpressRide is doing well – as it is up 10% for the year, Dale said. There is an increase in ridership on the Canton route, so that Canton and Chelsea are now about equal in ridership, Dale said.

Dale reported that the committee had received a presentation from the getDowntown program director Nancy Shore. Shore had presented the committee with results from a survey of downtown business owners and commuters in 2013. Dale pointed her board colleagues to the full report, which is available on the getDowntown website. Something that stood out for Dale was that employers considered the go!pass program a significant benefit used to attract and retain employees – with 76% of businesses using it as a way to recruit people. Among bus riders, 34% of respondents said they would be driving downtown if they did not have a go!pass. That’s 1,000 people who are choosing to ride the bus rather than driving, she said. Results from the AAATA’s ridership survey are in draft form and that would be available later, Dale reported.

AAATA controller Phil Webb.

AAATA controller Phil Webb.

During question time, Gillian Ream Gainsley asked about the “interest, advertising, and other” line item. She recalled that last year, advertising revenue had exceeded expectations. She asked if there were any insights that could be provided into why it’s down this year, or if there is anything that can be done about it. AAATA controller Phil Webb explained that the budget line item is a combination of a few different items.

It includes advertising revenue and some other revenue from the getDowntown program. He allowed that advertising revenue is a little bit down compared to budget. Just this week, however, he’d received a report for February, and revenue had shot back up again. The monthly amount received by AAATA was $26,000 – which was ahead of the monthly average, whereas in January it was below average for that month. “It’s starting to come around,” he said.

On the topic of low ridership in January, Charles Griffith said that a lot of people just did not get out on the very cold days. As a regular bus rider, he said, there were a lot of days he would’ve been very unhappy, if he’d had to take his car out. But the buses were still running. And “miraculously,” he said, buses were running for the most part on time. He was able to commute to work very consistently, saying it was almost kind of surprising. Off mic, Ford lightly ribbed Griffith about the idea that it was surprising to him. Griffith responded by noting that everyone else was struggling out on the roads, but the buses have good traction and they get around quite well.

Comm/Comm: Blake Transit Center Opening

In his report to the board, Michael Ford noted that the new Blake Transit Center had opened. It’s located on South Fifth Avenue across from the downtown location of the Ann Arbor District Library, north of William. It had been opened as part of a soft launch on Monday, March 17. Staff had been on hand throughout that day to share information, he said. The new center will better serve passengers and employees, Ford said. The facility also provides a chance to make the urban core communities a more attractive place to live and work. Ford thanked everyone who had helped with the Blake Transit Center. Ford noted that additional work still needs be done – including concrete that needs to be poured.

Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority maintenance manager Terry Black got a round of applause at the board March 20, 2014 board meeting. He was project manager on the construction of the new Blake Transit Center in downtown Ann Arbor, which had a soft opening on March 17, 2014.

Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority maintenance manager Terry Black got a round of applause at the March 20, 2014 board meeting. He was project manager on the construction of the new Blake Transit Center in downtown Ann Arbor, which had a soft opening on March 17.

Ford thanked staff for all the hard work that it’s taken to get things to this point: “I think it’s a magnificent facility. I also just want to acknowledge Terry Black for all of his hard work and effort. This guy has been relentless day in and day out, just being there making sure everything is going to work, and I just want to thank you personally for all your hard work.” Ford’s remarks prompted applause for Black.

Board chair Charles Griffith noted that some board members had an opportunity to get a tour just before the board meeting and he’d visited the facility on Monday during the soft launch. He asked Black for a report on how things had gone with the BTC construction. “You don’t have to tell any horror stories – we don’t need to hear those,” Griffith quipped.

Black reported that most of the feedback he received so far has been very positive. A lot of staff had worked really hard on Saturday and Sunday to get the facility to the point where it could be opened on Monday, Black said. He felt that the reaction had been positive – as far as the bus drivers and passengers were concerned. Like any new building, there are some things that need to be tweaked, he said. He was looking forward to a little warmer weather so that the concrete could be poured.

Eric Mahler asked Black to summarize some “lessons learned.” Black replied that there were a lot of lessons learned and he wanted to leave it at that. Those lessons would be incorporated into the AAATA’s future work on the Ypsilanti Transit Center.

Comm/Comm: May 6, 2014 Millage Vote

The upcoming millage, which the board approved for the May 6, 2014 ballot at its Feb. 20, 2014 meeting, came up at several different points during the March 20 board meeting.

During communications time at the start of the meeting, Gillian Ream Gainsley reported some “really great endorsements” had come out of Ypsilanti. She thanked the AAATA staff for coming to give a presentation to the Ypsilanti city council. That same morning, AAATA staff had presented to the Ypsilanti Downtown Development Authority. The Ypsilanti DDA had passed a resolution of support for the millage with wording similar to that of a resolution passed by the Ann Arbor DDA – saying that if the millage passes, the Ypsilanti DDA will increase its support for transit and transit-related activities.

During his report to the board, Michael Ford noted that the ballot language for the 0.7 millage request had been delivered to the Washtenaw County clerk the day after last month’s board meeting. During the last four weeks, staff had been hitting the road and hitting the pavement with the message about the urgent need for improved transportation services within the community and within the greater Ann Arbor area. As campaigns often go, he said, the AAATA had received some negative press recently. Ford said he recognized that’s part of the process and said the AAATA would do its level best to balance that part of the equation by continuing to provide good factual data. Internally, the AAATA is engaged in a readiness process to ensure that it’s in a position to deploy new services shortly after funding is approved, if it is approved, Ford said.

During public commentary at the conclusion of the meeting, Carolyn Grawi of the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living reiterated her support for the May 6 millage vote. Grawi said she was pleased to see the number of endorsements that were starting to be announced. The whole community benefits from transit expansion, she said. We need the service now – we need the service today, she concluded.

Comm/Comm: Connector Study

An alternatives analysis is currently being conducted by the AAATA for the corridor running from US-23 and Plymouth southward along Plymouth to State Street, then further south to I-94. The alternatives analysis phase will result in a preferred choice of transit mode (e.g., bus rapid transit, light rail, etc.) and identification of stations and stops. The study has winnowed down options to six different route alignments.

During his report to the board, Michael Ford gave an update on the connector study. The project team recently reviewed updates on the timeline, modeling, and finances. Ridership estimates are scheduled to be completed at the end of March, he said. He was recently in Washington D.C. and met with Federal Transit Administration (FTA) officials, who support the connector study concept and had agreed to meet with project partners to discuss possible opportunities for federal funding.

Comm/Comm: Ann Arbor Station Environmental Review

During communications time at the start of the meeting, Eli Cooper reminded the board that the Ann Arbor Station environmental review project was getting underway. The first of a series of three public meetings would be taking place on April 2, he said. Meetings will take place at the downtown location of the Ann Arbor District Library at 343 S. Fifth, he noted, starting at 4:30 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. For people who want to come earlier in the day or those who preferred to attend later in the afternoon, there would be opportunities to attend. At those meetings the project would be introduced, he said, and the dialogue would begin – which he hoped would culminate in the identification of an appropriate intercity passenger rail station for the city of Ann Arbor and its environs.

Comm/Comm: Annual Board Retreat

Eric Mahler reported out from the planning and development committee meeting. The committee has spent a great deal of time planning for the board retreat, he reported. The committee had discussed what it wanted to get out of the retreat. They were at this point looking at June as the likely time for the retreat, he said.

Present: Charles Griffith, Eric Mahler, Susan Baskett, Eli Cooper, Anya Dale, Gillian Ream Gainsley, Jack Bernard, Larry Krieg.

Absent: Sue Gott, Roger Kerson.

Next regular meeting: April 17, 2014 at 6:30 p.m. at the Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave., Ann Arbor [Check Chronicle event listings to confirm date]

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Rotary to Fund Universal Access Playground Thu, 06 Feb 2014 17:45:57 +0000 Mary Morgan Ann Arbor park advisory commission meeting (Jan. 28, 2014): Park commissioners got news at their most recent meeting that the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor is making a $250,000 contribution to the city of Ann Arbor for a major new “universal access” playground at Gallup Park, to celebrate the club’s centennial anniversary in 2016.

Bob Buckler, Bernie Lugauer, Rotary Club of Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Bernie Lugauer and Bob Buckler of the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor talk with Christopher Taylor, an ex officio member of the Ann Arbor park advisory commission. (Photos by the writer.)

After a presentation on Jan. 28, commissioners recommended that the city apply for a state Dept. of Natural Resources grant to help fund the remainder of the work, which is estimated to cost $500,000.

Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, told commissioners that although there are about 80 playgrounds in Ann Arbor, none are universally accessible. It’s a “huge shortcoming” for the parks system, he said. The exact location within Gallup Park hasn’t been determined, but the playground would be about 5,000 square feet and exceed the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The design and equipment is intended to create environments that can be used by all people, with features like ramps, color-contrasting structures, wider bridges and walkways, and playground equipment that makes it easier for people using wheelchairs.

Two Rotary representatives attended the Jan. 28 meeting to help describe the club’s role in the project. Bob Buckler, a Rotary director and co-chair of the group’s centennial committee, told commissioners that in general the Rotary’s primary focus is on supporting children, by funding scholarships, Washtenaw Success By Six and other programs. That’s why the universal access playground is so appealing as a way to celebrate Rotary’s centennial, he said. Buckler indicated that fundraising for this project has already begun. The grand opening is expected to be on Labor Day in 2016.

In other action on Jan. 28, commissioners approved the location for new tennis courts at Windemere Park – a project that’s been in the works for about two years. The location has been somewhat controversial among neighbors, and prompted a review of the previously selected site. The current courts have deteriorated and are in a location where it’s unsuitable to rebuild.

Also on Jan. 28, PAC recommended the purchase of two vans to keep up with the increasing shuttle transportation demands for Huron River trips in 2013, following the opening of Argo Cascades.

The meeting marked a transition of members on PAC. It was the first meeting for David Santacroce, who was appointed by the city council last year to replace Julie Grand. And it was the final meeting for Jen Geer, who has resigned after less than a year on the commission. Paige Morrison was appointed by the council on Feb. 3 to fill the remainder of Geer’s term – through May 19, 2016.

Universal Access Playground

At its Jan. 28 meeting, PAC considered a resolution recommending that the city apply for a state Dept. of Natural Resources grant to help fund a “universal access” playground at Gallup Park.

Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, gave a special presentation on the universal access playground at Gallup Park, funded in part with a $250,000 contribution from the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor to celebrate the club’s centennial anniversary in 2016.

Bob Buckler, Bernie Lugauer, Rotary Club of Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Bob Buckler and Bernie Lugauer of the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor.

Smith told commissioners that the city has 80 playgrounds, but none of them have universal access. “It’s really a great shortcoming in the parks system,” he said. Such playgrounds aim to exceed the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and strive to be as inclusive as possible. The design is intended to create environments that can be used by all people.

The design and equipment for this type of playground is more expensive. The playground will include ramps, color-contrasting structures, wider bridges and walkways, and playground equipment that makes it easier for people with wheelchairs to use, for example.

Smith then introduced Bob Buckler, a Rotary board director and co-chairman of the club’s centennial committee, along with Bernie Lugauer. Buckler described Rotary as the largest service organization in the world, primarily focused on humanitarian projects. The Rotary Club of Ann Arbor is one of the largest clubs, he added – it’s the largest club in Michigan, and the 32nd largest Rotary club in the world, with 350 members. [There are several Rotary clubs in this area. The Rotary Club of Ann Arbor holds its weekly meetings at the Michigan Union.]

Buckler told commissioners that the club’s focus in this community is the children of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County. Support includes scholarships to Washtenaw Community College, and funding for Washtenaw Success By Six and other programs.

In 2016, the Ann Arbor club will be 100 years old, Buckler said, and they’ve been trying to figure out an appropriate gift back to the community on this occasion. They evaluated many options, he said. Describing their relationship with Colin Smith as a “godsend,” Buckler said they came up with a project that will be great for the community and all children, and something that Rotary members will be incredibly proud of. The club is committing $250,000 and has already started fundraising for it, he said. He hoped commissioners would endorse it and provide input to make it the best playground possible.

Smith continued his presentation, describing the values that Rotary and the city’s parks and recreation system share: community service and the goal of enhancing quality of life.

He noted that an ADA playground complies with minimum accessibility standards as established by the Americans with Disabilities Act – that is, it meets the letter of the law. But universal access playgrounds go further, with the goal of being usable by all people. It’s one of the elements highlighted in the city’s parks and recreation open space (PROS) plan, he noted.

Design elements include a playground surface that’s level with the entire perimeter of the playground, so that people can access the playground easily. The surface is made out of material that’s uniform, and that’s easy for someone with a wheelchair or a walker to use. Ramps are used to provide access to different levels of the play structures. Equipment is designed to be used for multiple purposes, including platforms to help transfer children from wheelchairs, for example. Paths and bridges are wide enough to accommodate a child in a wheelchair and a caregiver. Interactive play elements are at ground level, using high-contrasting colors for people with poor eyesight.

One aspect of this kind of playground that’s often overlooked, Smith said, is that it doesn’t just provide access to children, but can also be used by parents who are in a wheelchair or have other accessibility needs.

Jenn Geer, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

It was the last meeting for Jen Geer, who resigned after less than a year through her three-year term.

The parks staff is recommending that the playground be located at Gallup Park because it’s a popular regional park, attracting people from beyond Ann Arbor. “Having a playground like this there paints Ann Arbor in a very good light,” Smith said. In addition, an existing playground by the children’s pond isn’t in good shape, he noted, and it needs to be replaced. That replacement is already included as a potential project in the city’s capital improvements plan (CIP). The location of the new playground within the park, which would be about twice the size of the existing one, is yet to be determined.

The total cost of the 5,000-square-foot playground is estimated at $500,000 – including the design, construction, equipment and landscaping. “It’s not an inexpensive project, by any stretch of the imagination,” Smith said.

In addition to the Rotary funding, the city would contribute $100,000 to the project. It’s hoped that some of the remaining $150,000 funding would be provided by a grant from the state’s Dept. of Natural Resources grants management program. The project would be attractive for a grant because it would provide universal access in a heavily used park. Smith noted that PAC would be voting on a recommendation to apply for a grant later in the meeting. Although no amount has yet been specified, Smith said it’s likely that the grant application will be for the balance of the project – $150,000.

Outlining the potential timeline, Smith noted that the deadline for the current grant cycle is April 1, 2014. This year would be spent on public input, design and approval, with city council approval of a construction contract targeted for 2015, and groundbreaking in the spring of 2016. The new playground is anticipated to be open by Labor Day of 2016.

Smith also described several ways that the city could recognize the Rotary club for its contribution, including the possibility of naming the playground, and installing plaques to indicate how the playground was funded.

Universal Access Playground: Commission Discussion

Alan Jackson suggested that the playground structure itself could perhaps be designed to incorporate the word “Rotary” into it. He observed that this type of playground might lead to more demand for ADA parking nearby, and he’d be supportive of that. It’s something to be sensitive to as the project moves forward, he said.

Alan Jackson, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Ann Arbor park advisory commissioner Alan Jackson, who also serves on the board of the Leslie Science & Nature Center.

Jackson also wanted to be prepared to maintain the playground for use all year, even during the winter months. Colin Smith reported that the city is hiring a playground safety inspector. He said it’s not unusual to see children using playgrounds in the winter.

Bob Galardi wondered who’d be in control of this project, after all of the funding is in place. Smith replied that this project is analogous to the Ann Arbor skatepark that’s now under construction at Veterans Memorial Park. It’s located in a city park and becomes city property, even though much of the funding comes from various non-city sources. The city will oversee the public engagement, design and construction.

Karen Levin asked about other playgrounds at Gallup Park. There is another playground located at the canoe/kayak livery, Smith said, on the opposite end of the park.

Several commissioners thanked the Rotary for helping the city with this project.

Regarding PAC’s resolution on the grant application, Smith noted that the process works like this: Staff will come to PAC to ask for a recommendation to submit the application, then that recommendation is forwarded to the city council for approval.

Alan Jackson noted that the resolution is specific to the DNR grant. He suggested amending it to recommend support for applying for other funding in general. Galardi wondered if it was important to identify a specific source. Smith indicated that it would be preferable to have separate resolutions for each grant application.

Smith noted that the application for a grant can have implications on public policy – that’s why grants require council approval. As a hypothetical – and he stressed that this was indeed a hypothetical case – if city staff applied for a grant to remove the Argo Dam and the grant were awarded, that would have policy implications that are the purview of the city council.

Galardi agreed, saying the city doesn’t want “grants gone wild.” He moved the resolution recommending that the city apply for the DNR grant.

Outcome: The recommendation to apply for the DNR grant to help fund a universal access playground passed unanimously.

Windemere Park Tennis Courts

Commissioners were asked to approve a revised new location for tennis courts at Windemere Park, on the city’s northeast side. The new location for the tennis courts has been disputed among neighbors who live near Windemere Park, a nearly four-acre parcel north of Glazier Way between Green and Earhart roads.

Windemere Park, tennis courts, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Recommended new location for new Windemere Park tennis courts. (Image included in Jan. 28, 2014 meeting packet for the Ann Arbor park advisory commission.)

The tennis courts there have deteriorated, and the city has been looking at options for replacing them. Neighbors had originally advocated keeping the courts in the same location, but the soil there is unstable. Before the area was developed, the current location of the courts was a pond.

In 2012, city staff held two public meetings to seek input on options for locating the new courts. The option recommended by staff – to locate the courts to the east of the current location – was one that a majority of residents at a public meeting on Oct. 8, 2012 had favored. That location was ultimately recommended by PAC at its Oct. 16, 2012 meeting.

The cost of the project was estimated at around $100,000. Bids were expected to be solicited, with construction to take place in the summer of 2013.

However, some neighbors subsequently raised concerns about the option that was recommended by PAC – Option 4 of the four options that were considered. It had been a compromise proposal, moving the tennis courts closer to the center of the existing open space at the park, farther away from homes around the perimeter of the park, compared to other options.

Because of those concerns, staff held off on construction of the new tennis courts and have been talking with residents about other alternatives. Residents conducted an online Doodle poll comparing the option that was recommended by PAC to one of the other options – Option 1, located slightly further to the north – that had been rejected. Lobbying for Option 1 at a PAC meeting on Nov. 19, 2013 were several residents – including representatives of the Earhart Knolls and Glacier Highlands homeowners associations. Ward 2 Ann Arbor city councilmember Jane Lumm also attended that meeting and advocated for Option 1, on behalf of residents.

There was not universal agreement, however, so additional input was sought, including a survey on Ann Arbor Open City Hall. The parks staff also held another public meeting on Jan. 15, 2014, which was attended by about two dozen residents, several park advisory commissioners and some city councilmembers. At that meeting, yet another option – labeled Option 1A – was brought forward. It shifted the location in Option 1 slightly to the north and east, and changed the location of the path entering the courts.

Windemere Park Tennis Courts: Public Commentary

Rita Benn reminded commissioners that she had spoken to PAC last year, when they made the decision to hold a third public meeting regarding the location of tennis courts at Windemere Park. [The PAC meeting that Benn mentioned took place on Nov. 19, 2013.]

Rita Benn, Colin Smith, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Rita Benn, a resident who lives near Windemere Park, talks with Colin Smith, the city’s parks & recreation manager.

Benn said that several city councilmembers, PAC members and community members attended the public meeting on Jan. 15, 2014 at the Gallup Park meeting room. She praised Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, for maintaining calm and presenting the information.

After hearing all the information, Benn still supported Option 4, which was the compromise made at the previous public meeting – on Oct. 8, 2012. A major contention had been that children would be playing in a different direction, she said – north/south, instead of east/west. There were no safety issues, however, she noted, and she hoped that the commission would recommend Option 4.

Benn also referred to Option 1A, which was introduced at the Jan. 15, 2014 public forum. It would move the location of the tennis courts further away from her property, but it wouldn’t be as aesthetically pleasing as Option 4, she said.

Regardless of the option that PAC recommends, Benn said, she hoped they would include a recommendation for landscaping around the tennis courts. It would also be good to have landscaping for the site of the current tennis courts, she added, so that the area won’t be an eyesore after those courts are removed.

Ed Weiss of the Earhart Knolls Homeowners Association and Jeff Alson, a member of the Glacier Highlands Homeowners Association, had previously addressed PAC during the Nov. 19, 2013 meeting, in support of Option 1. They also attended the Jan. 28 meeting but did not address the commission during public commentary. City councilmember Jane Lumm (Ward 2), who also had advocated for Option 1 on Nov. 19, attended the Jan. 28 meeting but did not speak formally to commissioners.

Windemere Park Tennis Courts: Commission Discussion

Graydon Krapohl, PAC’s vice chair, gave a report about the Jan. 15 public forum that was held on this issue. At that forum, Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, had reviewed the four options that had been considered, as well as an overview of the project’s history. About 25 community members attended, Krapohl said, as well as himself, Ingrid Ault and Alan Jackson from PAC. Attending from city council were Christopher Taylor, who serves as one of two ex officio members of PAC, and both Ward 2 council representatives – Sally Petersen and Jane Lumm. The park is located in Ward 2.

Jeff Alson, Ed Weiss, Jane Lumm, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Jeff Alson of the Glacier Highlands Homeowners Association and Ed Weiss of the Earhart Knolls Homeowners Association. Sitting behind them is city councilmember Jane Lumm (Ward 2).

Krapohl said the group had a good discussion about the pros and cons of all four options. [.pdf of options] Options 2 and 3 weren’t seen as desirable, he said. Option 1 was modified during the forum to shift the location slightly to the northeast, and move the entrance into the courts from the west to the east side. [That new location was labeled Option 1A.] The project would include “enhanced landscaping,” he said, to provide more cover between the courts and nearby houses.

Alan Jackson noted that Option 1A had been introduced at the Jan. 15 forum for the first time – and that kind of last-minute option had been a problem at the previous public meetings. He hoped there had been enough time for Option 1A to be reviewed by the community.

The resolution considered by PAC included a statement that this project should be no more than 10-20% above normal reconstruction costs. Responding to a query from Bob Galardi, Smith noted that the commission’s meeting packet included a lot of information about soil borings and other tests related to the different site options. All of the potential sites are suitable for tennis courts, he said, so it’s expected that the construction bids would be within normal reconstruction costs. However, until the city actually receives the bids, he added, it’s not possible to say for sure. Parks planner Amy Kuras noted that the cost will be somewhat higher than normal, because of plans to include storm drains.

Ingrid Ault said the Jan. 15 public forum included discussion of the orientation of the tennis courts. The orientation needs to be north/south, so that the players aren’t looking into the sun. There was also discussion of how the soccer fields in Windemere Park are oriented from east to west, she said. Jackson added that the discussion also touched on how to keep the largest possible contiguous piece of property available for other uses, like baseball, soccer and Frisbee.

Ault reported that the owner of the home located closest to the tennis courts in Option 1A did not attend the Jan. 15 public forum.

Ingrid Ault, Graydon Krapohl, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Ingrid Ault and Graydon Krapohl, chair and vice chair of PAC.

Regarding the site where the current tennis courts will be removed, Krapohl noted that it’s in a location that was previously a pond, so it will take a few years to seed. Kuras added that she’s looking at doing some soil stabilization at the old site, as well as regrading the site and putting in drain tile.

Smith summarized results from a survey that the city conducted about this project, using Ann Arbor Open City Hall. [.pdf of survey responses] Of the 95 respondents, 68 (about 70%) preferred Option 1. Ault noted that Option 1A wasn’t included in the survey, because the survey occurred prior to the Jan. 15 forum when that option was presented as an alternative.

Jackson said the main difference between Option 1 and Option 1A is the entrance. He also thought that 1A offered better screening for the neighbors, and mitigates some of the problems for nearby homes. It also has the merit of preserving a large portion of the park for other uses, he said.

Ault noted that the Jan. 15 public forum discussion included talk about windscreens. Smith replied that there are different views about such screens. The only tennis courts in the city’s parks system that use windscreens are at Veterans Memorial Park. Players tend to like them, he said, but screens are “less preferable” for people who live nearby, because of the aesthetics.

Ault told commissioners that part of this discussion should include how the park is used overall, because the objection they’d heard about Option 4 was that it put the courts in the middle of a large field, which would disrupt soccer, baseball, pick-up football and other play. Krapohl described it as a community park, where kids have a safe place to play.

Galardi noted that Option 1A seemed to be the best solution. “We know that there’s a demand for tennis – otherwise, people wouldn’t be clamoring to have this fixed,” he said. There aren’t a lot of tennis courts in that part of town, he added.

Galardi then formally proposed selecting Option 1A for the new tennis courts.

Outcome: Commissioners voted to approve Option 1A for new tennis courts at Windemere Park. David Santacroce abstained.

Jackson asked staff to inform PAC if there’s any delay in implementing this project.

Van Purchase

Commissioners were asked to recommend purchasing two 15-seat GMC Savana passenger vans from Red Holman GMC in Oakland County for a total of $50,212.

Bob Galardi, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Bob Galardi of the Ann Arbor park advisory commission.

According to a parks staff memo, the city’s current fleet of seven 15-passenger vans was unable to keep up with the increasing shuttle transportation demands for Huron River trips in 2013, following the opening of Argo Cascades. Between 2012 and 2013, the city saw a 22% increase in rentals. More vans are needed to transport people on these trips, which start at the Argo livery and end at Gallup Park. “There were some very long waits last year,” Smith said, and it’s something that the parks and recreation staff hope to improve.

They don’t plan to increase the number of canoes or kayaks, he added. Rather, it’s to increase the service for the current capacity, and to improve day-to-day operations.

One van in the fleet needs to be replaced. “It served the city well, but it is now unwell,” Smith quipped. The other van purchase would increase the total van fleet to eight.

The new vans will be purchased out of the FY 2014 parks and recreation services general fund budget, following operational savings that have freed up funds for this purchase. According to parks staff, the purchase follows guidelines of the city’s “green fleet policy” to reduce the amount of fuel used and to pay a premium for “greener” vehicles.

Alan Jackson noted that there have been complaints about parking in the Argo Park area, and he hoped that the additional van would help with that. Smith reported that there will be another public meeting regarding the shortage of parking in that area. He noted that the increased number of vans isn’t intended to address that issue, although it might have a slight beneficial impact. “It’s not a cure, by any means,” Smith said.

Outcome: PAC voted unanimously to recommend approval of the purchase. The item will require approval by the city council.

Communications & Commentary

There were several opportunities for communications from staff or commissioners during the Jan. 28 meeting. Here are some highlights.

Communications & Commentary: Manager’s Report

Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, noted that the season’s extreme cold weather had resulted in the temporary closing of the Buhr Park outdoor ice arena. [It was subsequently re-opened.] He’d been concerned about the well-being of staff and users when temperatures are so low. Some indoor swimming lessons had also been canceled, in line with cancellations by the Ann Arbor Public Schools.

He highlighted upcoming events in February, including the start of registration for summer day camps on Feb. 1, and “Dive-in Movie” at Mack indoor pool on Feb. 1 – a showing of “Despicable Me 2.”

Smith also noted that the effort to select public art for Argo Cascades has been “restarted.” Julie Grand had served as the PAC representative on that selection committee, but her term ended last year.

Regarding the city’s grant application last year to the state Dept. of Natural Resources for 721 N. Main, Smith reported that the city was not awarded that grant. He wasn’t sure what next steps would be taken regarding funding for that site.

Communications & Commentary: Dog Park

Karen Levin reported on the work of the dog park subcommittee, saying that the group is developing a formal document that will include a mission statement, goals, and history, as well as procedures for setting up new dog parks and maintaining existing ones. Subcommittee members are contacting other cities and gathering as much information as possible, she said. The next subcommittee meeting was set for Feb. 6.

Communications & Commentary: Transitions

Ingrid Ault, the chair of PAC, noted that there are some transition of membership on the commission. A new commissioner, David Santacroce, was attending his first meeting on Jan. 28 after being appointed by the city council on Nov. 7, 2013 to replace Julie Grand. He had not attended PAC’s Nov. 19 meeting, and the commission’s December meeting was canceled.

David Santacroce, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

David Santacroce, the newest member of PAC. In the background is commissioner Karen Levin.

Santacroce is a law professor at the University of Michigan, and he chaired the city’s North Main Huron River corridor task force, which worked for a year on a report with recommendations for the corridor.

Ault also noted that it would be the last meeting for Jen Geer, who was resigning from PAC. Ault thanked Geer for her service. Geer had been appointed to the commission on May 20, 2013. At the council’s Feb. 3, 2014 meeting, Paige Morrison was appointed to fill the remainder of Geer’s term – through May 19, 2016.

Finally, Ault reported that a new representative from the Ann Arbor Rec & Ed’s recreation advisory commission still hasn’t been appointed. The previous long-time RAC representative, Tim Berla, was not reappointed last fall. That appointment is made by RAC.

Present: Ingrid Ault, Bob Galardi, Alan Jackson, Graydon Krapohl, Karen Levin, David Santacroce, Jen Geer, and councilmembers Mike Anglin and Christopher Taylor (ex-officio members). Also Colin Smith, city parks and recreation manager.

Absent: Missy Stults.

Next PAC meeting: Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014 at 4 p.m. in the city hall second-floor council chambers, 301 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. [Check Chronicle event listing to confirm date]

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Rotary Pledges $250K for Gallup Park Playground Tue, 28 Jan 2014 22:49:26 +0000 Chronicle Staff The Rotary Club of Ann Arbor is making a $250,000 contribution to the city of Ann Arbor for a major new “universal access” playground at Gallup Park, to celebrate the club’s centennial anniversary in 2016. A presentation about the project was made at the Jan. 28, 2014 meeting of the Ann Arbor park advisory committee meeting.

Colin Smith, the city’s parks & recreation manager, described a universal access playground as one that exceeds the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It aims to create environments that can be used by all people. There are about 80 playgrounds in Ann Arbor, but none are universally accessible, he said, calling it a “huge shortcoming” for the parks system. In part that’s because the design and equipment for this type of playground is more expensive. The playground will include ramps, color-contrasting structures, wider bridges and walkways, and playground equipment that makes it easier for children with wheelchairs to use, for example.

The total cost of the 5,000-square-foot playground is estimated at $500,000. Smith noted that the existing, smaller playground at Gallup needs replacement and is already included as a project in the city’s capital improvements plan (CIP).

In addition to the Rotary funding, the city would contribute $100,000 to the project. It’s hoped that some of the remaining funds would be provided by a grant from the state’s Dept. of Natural Resources grants management program. Also at its Jan. 28 meeting, PAC unanimously passed a resolution recommending that the city council direct the city administrator to apply for the grant. The deadline for the current grant cycle is April 1, 2014. Although no amount has yet been specified, Smith said it’s likely that the grant application will be for the balance of the project – $150,000.

Two Rotary representatives attended the Jan. 28 meeting to help describe Rotary’s role in the project. Bob Buckler, a Rotary director and chair of the group’s centennial committee, told commissioners that in general the Rotary’s primary focus is on supporting children, by funding scholarships, Washtenaw Success By Six and other programs. That’s why the universal access playground is so appealing as a way to celebrate Rotary’s centennial, he said. Buckler indicated that fundraising for this project has already begun.

The new playground is anticipated to be open by Labor Day of 2016.

This brief was filed from the second-floor council chambers at city hall at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link]

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Monthly Milestone: Watching Words Tue, 29 Oct 2013 20:51:43 +0000 Dave Askins The Chronicle’s November milestone column comes to you a few days earlier than the customary second day of the month. That’s because I wanted to include a quick preview of a performance scheduled for Nov. 1 at the Kerrytown Concert House – by mezzo soprano Laurie Rubin.

Laurie Rubin, photo from press kit.

Laurie Rubin. (Photo from press kit.)

The Chronicle has rarely, if ever, written about entertainment. And as I explained to Laurie, when she called me up to make her pitch, our approach to covering Ann Arbor’s community doesn’t include standard “preview” pieces for live performances.

The boilerplate explanation I typically use on the phone includes a description of The Chronicle’s preferred strategy for giving readers advance notice of interesting performances. That strategy is an event listing that runs off Internet standards-compliant data feeds and helps to strengthen the community’s “calendar web.” So obviously the tactic here is partly designed to bore the caller to death, so that they’ll just give up and accept the fact that I’m not going to write a preview article about their performance.

You will find Laurie’s Nov. 1 Kerrytown Concert House performance included in The Chronicle’s event calendar, categorized as music.

Fortunately for you, dear readers, Laurie declined my gambit that she surrender to my boring, rambling talk about data feeds and technology platforms. Instead she expressed a weirdly geeked-out interest in these data feeds and calendars, which I probably seemed very excited about. She instantly grasped the concept of maintaining a calendar that automatically generates a data feed that any publication or individual can access. I didn’t figure that an opera singer would be such a receptive audience for that sort of thing. But at least she had stopped talking about her Nov. 1 performance at Kerrytown Concert House, so that was a good thing, from my point of view.

But in closing out the conversation, Laurie renewed her pitch for a preview article, based on her memoir, “Do You Dream in Color: Insights from a Girl Without Sight.” Even though I was still thinking to myself, “No preview articles! Not even for blind opera singers!” I figured Laurie might be a receptive audience for some additional conversation about a different topic.

That topic is an accessibility project for public meetings that The Chronicle has been working on somewhat sporadically. The idea is to provide digital streaming text for members of the deaf and hearing-impaired community to read – either live at public meetings or during a video replay. Yes, I fully understood that I was talking to a self-described “blind girl” – for whom this particular accessibility project offered zero obvious benefit. Yet Laurie turned out to be a willing conversation partner. And in The Chronicle’s basic technological approach, she saw a potential benefit to the blind and visually impaired community that would never have occurred to me.

By way of basic background, Ann Arbor’s Community Television Network (CTN) now makes two kinds of video available over the Internet for its four channels: (1) live streams (whatever is currently being broadcast); and (2) video-on-demand (recordings of past programs). It’s really pretty incredible, when you think about that. Even if you decide to travel thousands of miles away from Fifth Avenue and Huron Street, you can still watch the Ann Arbor city council inaction (or add a space if you like) from the comfort of your Internet portal.

If you want to know what’s being streamed at any given time, CTN has made that easy by adopting a programming calendar that generates a data feed that can be displayed by any third party.

Sue Deer Hall was set up to provide CART services for the Oct. 16, 2013 meeting of the AAATA board.

Sue Deer Hall was set up to provide CART services for the Oct. 16, 2013 meeting of the AAATA board.

But I think it’s a little surprising that CTN does not provide closed captioning of its broadcasts. I don’t want to dwell on the legal and policy considerations that have not resulted in closed captioning. But in a community that takes a great deal of pride in how technologically cutting-edge it is and where the local business press salivates over new tech companies and the “knowledge economy,” it’s somewhat remarkable that our local public access programming is not accessible to the deaf and hearing-impaired community.

I’m not suggesting that CTN should or could “just do it.” Instead, I’m suggesting that the steps that CTN has taken already create an environment where third parties could help bridge the gap.

CTN is currently providing both types of video – live streamed and video-on-demand – in a way that allows any third party to embed the video frame in a web page. That means that a third party could also embed a text window in that same web page, and provide a viewer with the running text corresponding to the video content.

For a live-stream broadcast, the running text could be provided through a Communication Across Real Time (CART) services provider. For a video-on-demand program, the text window with a transcript would need to be synchronized to the video in some fashion.

For the Oct. 16, 2013 meeting of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority board, The Chronicle demonstrated a proof of concept. AAATA board meetings aren’t broadcast live on CTN. So it was not “closed captioned.” We were just provided a streaming text window in a separate web page. The live streaming text window was embedded from That’s the service used by the CART (Communications Across Real Time) provider Sue Deer Hall – hired by The Chronicle to text-stream the meeting.

The text sitting there now is just a plain text file saved after the last live transmission. [Note that it's uncorrected. CART service providers are very very good. But they are not magic.]

An additional step would be needed to sync up the text to the video through some sort of auto scrolling. That I imagine to be a straightforward javascripting exercise (says the guy who would not be doing the javascripting). The ideal functionality would allow also clicking on a point in the transcript to trigger the video player to move to that point of the video.

A somewhat different approach would exploit the “track” element of HTML5, but I’m not sure if adoption of that standard is wide enough to make it feasible. The synching piece is a “future project.”

In any case, the proof of concept we demonstrated shows that when CTN is broadcasting live, it would be possible to supply what would be the equivalent of closed-captioning of that live event – with a text window embedded under the embedded video stream. The only barrier to that is cost and availability of a CART services provider.

As an alternative, I’ve experimented with re-voicing meeting talk in real time with products like Dragon Naturally Speaking. It’s technically feasible, but requires tremendous concentration. Also, it can’t be done from the back row of a city council meeting – because that would be super annoying to other meeting attendees. (But that’s perhaps part of a case for a new council chambers meeting facility with an isolated soundproof “press box” separate from the general audience.)

Here’s what is encouraging: By making these video streams accessible in the way that it is, CTN is creating an environment that might allow for third parties to help bridge gaps in accessibility to its programming.

It’s important, I think, that CTN continue to provide video in a way that allows for third parties to explore different technical approaches to providing text for video. I don’t have any reason to think that CTN would arbitrarily discontinue providing video in this way. But sometimes organizations alter their operational procedures in ways that unintentionally undo positive impacts those organizations don’t even realize they’re having.

What Does a Blind Girl Care About Streaming Text?

One byproduct of this approach to “closed captioning” is a text file transcript. That transcript itself has a value to almost everyone in the community, not just the deaf and hearing impaired. That’s because text is much easier to machine-search than real-time video is. If you want to know exactly when or if the mayor of Ann Arbor said “withdraw the nomination” during a city council meeting, it’s easy to search a text file and answer that question.

But what good is a transcript to a blind person?

In talking to Laurie Rubin about this project and its basic technology, she immediately saw the potential for an additional benefit – to the blind and visually-impaired. It’s conceivable that a third party could provide an additional audio channel to the Internet streams that CTN is providing – to give the blind and hearing impaired a description of what’s on the screen. The concept of “descriptive video” – an additional audio channel to provide descriptions of the action – isn’t new. Laurie told me she grew up with descriptive video listening to Masterpiece Theater.

But an additional audio channel with descriptions, streamed at the same time as CTN’s video, creates the potential for increased access for everybody. The commentary could include not just the description of the physical action (e.g., “Eli Cooper is now approaching the podium…”) but also clarifications and annotations (e.g., “When Cooper just now said, ‘when we did this before’ he’s talking about the demised Fuller Road Station project…”).

For Laurie’s Nov. 1 performance at the Kerrytown Concert House, I imagine the descriptive audio channel could start off something like this: “The stage is empty. Laurie and her pianist Jennifer Taira are not yet on stage. The camera is now showing the packed house, so pre-concert publicity must have been great …”

Dave Askins is editor of The Ann Arbor Chronicle. For the first four years of publication, a milestone column was published every month in The Chronicle. Now the column is only an occasional feature. When the milestone column does appear, it’s usually on the second day of the month – to mark the anniversary of The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s Sept. 2, 2008 launch. It’s an opportunity for either the publisher or the editor of The Chronicle to touch base with readers on topics related to this publication. It’s also a time that we highlight, with gratitude, our local advertisers, and ask readers to consider subscribing voluntarily to The Chronicle to support our work.

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Gallup Park Accessibility Work OK’d Tue, 02 Apr 2013 03:44:40 +0000 Chronicle Staff A $512,180 contract to Construction Solutions Inc. for improvements at the Gallup Park canoe livery has been approved by the Ann Arbor city council. The council’s vote came at its April 1, 2013 meeting.

The Ann Arbor park advisory commission had recommended the contract award at its March 19, 2013 meeting. The project budget includes a 10% construction contingency, bringing the total cost to $563,398.

Gallup Park, canoe livery, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Schematic of the proposed Gallup Park canoe livery improvements.

Construction Solutions, based in Ann Arbor, was the lowest qualified bidder on the project. Other bids were submitted by Braun Construction Group ($534,600); Detroit Contracting Inc. ($554,620); The E&L Construction Group ($580,700); A.R. Brower Company ($607,160); and Terra Firma Landscape ($612,137).

The improvements include barrier-free paths to the docks; barrier-free docks and fishing facilities; an expanded patio area to create barrier-free outdoor seating and to separate these areas from the pedestrian circulation; sliding glass doors from the meeting room; and redesign of the park entry to create a separation between the service drive and the pedestrian pathway.

The project will be funded in part through a $300,000 grant from the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources Trust Fund, with matching funds from the FY 2013 park maintenance and capital improvements millage.

The project’s first phase will begin on the docks and livery area, with work continuing until Memorial Day in late May. Work will resume after the summer season on Labor Day, focusing on paths and the park entry reconfiguration. The entire project is expected to be finished by mid-November.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link]

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Park Issues Dominate Council Deliberations Mon, 23 Jul 2012 15:34:07 +0000 Dave Askins Ann Arbor city council meeting (July 16, 2012): The bulk of the council’s recent meeting was related to parks – either directly or tangentially.

Sandi Smith (Ward 1) asks to be called on during the meeting.

Councilmember Sandi Smith (Ward 1) asks to be called on during the July 16 meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

The council considered a resolution that would have placed a question on the Nov. 6 ballot about a charter amendment affecting city parkland. The amendment would require a voter referendum not just for the sale of parkland, but also for leases or other contracts that have a practical effect similar to a sale.

The majority of the council wanted to allow time for the city’s park advisory commission (PAC) to weigh in before taking council action. To facilitate that timeline, PAC is convening a special meeting on Aug. 8 to consider the matter. The council’s postponement was until Aug. 9 – its next regularly scheduled meeting. That’s a Thursday instead of the usual Monday, pushed back because of the Aug. 7 primary election.

Some supporters of the possible amendment had hoped to bring the matter to a council vote before the August primary, because they wanted incumbent council candidates to be judged by the electorate based on their vote on the parkland ballot question. That led Sandi Smith (Ward 1), who is not seeking re-election to a third term, to call the resolution on the ballot question a “poorly disguised political stunt.”

Other park-related items on the agenda included approval of a $89,560 contract with Wally Hollyday Skateparks for the design and construction oversight of a skatepark to be built in the northeast corner of Veterans Memorial Park. The council also gave initial approval to the rezoning of two parcels recently acquired by the city for expansion of the Bluffs Nature Area at 1099 N. Main St., north of Sunset Road. On final approval, both parcels will receive the PL (public land) zoning designation. The city expects the additional land to make the entrance to the nature area more accessible.

The Leslie Science and Nature Center will get $115,309 worth of improvements to create accessible pathways at the city-owned site – the council approved a contract with JB Contractors Inc. for that work. The center is operated by a separate independent nonprofit on land and buildings that are owned and maintained by the city of Ann Arbor.

The possibility of a mixed-use park and art center at the city-owned 415 W. Washington property was given a chance to move forward, with the council’s authorization of $50,000 in general fund money to pay for physical surveys of the building on the property. The building, which would potentially house a space for working artists, would need environmental, hazardous materials and topographic surveys done, even if a decision were ultimately made to demolish the building.

Open space outside the city got a boost from the council’s acceptance of $396,900 in federal funds for the purchase of development rights (PDR) on properties in Webster and Superior townships. The federal funds will be matched with city funds from the open space and parkland preservation millage, which supports the city’s greenbelt program.

The wetlands at Plymouth Parkway Park that were impacted by last year’s railroad embankment washout along Plymouth Road will be restored through a $97,687 contract with Fonson Inc. authorized by the council. The funds will come from the city’s park maintenance and capital improvements millage.

Only tangentially related to parks was the council’s approval of the site plan for the Maple Cove development. Located on 2.96 acres at 1649 N. Maple, north of Miller Road between North Maple and Calvin Street on the city’s west side, the plan calls for combining two sites – 1649 N. Maple and 1718 Calvin – and demolishing an existing single-family home and detached garages there. Two 3-story apartment buildings would be built with a 64-space parking lot. The project also includes building a private street to serve seven new single-family houses near Calvin Street.

The parks connection to Maple Cove is that the city requested a $26,660 contribution from the developer to support the city’s parks – a voluntary contribution, with the amount determined by formula. The developer has declined to make that contribution.

The council also voted to appoint John Seto as chief of police and head of safety services – he’s now permanently in charge of policing the city, including city parkland. Seto has served since April as interim in the wake of Barnett Jones’ retirement.

In other action, councilmembers voted to suspend the use of construction unity board (CUB) agreements in construction contracts – after voting to restore their use earlier this summer. On the CUB issue, the council has been responding to a changing landscape of law, as state legislation is passed and court decisions are handed down.

Park Lease Ballot Question

The council considered a possible ballot question on a charter amendment affecting city parkland. It would require a voter referendum not just for the sale of parkland, but also for leases or other contracts that have a practical effect similar to a sale.

Ultimately, the council voted to refer the issue to the city’s park advisory commission (PAC).

Jane Lumm (Ward 2) and Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) confer after the meeting.

Councilmembers Jane Lumm (Ward 2) and Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) confer after the meeting.

The chair of that commission, Julie Grand, had written in an email to mayor John Hieftje on July 12 that she felt “… it is critical for PAC to provide a formal resolution prior to any council vote. I therefore propose to find an alternative time for PAC to hold an open work session with councilmembers [Jane] Lumm, [Mike] Anglin and [Sabra] Briere [co-sponsors of the resolution] in accordance with the deadlines imposed on ballot initiatives prior to council’s vote on this matter.”

In the last two months, the nine-member PAC has seen the departure of three long-time members, because of term limitations: Gwen Nystuen, Sam Offen and David Barrett. Nystuen and Offen were replaced by Ingrid Ault and Alan Jackson. Nominated at the council’s July 2 meeting and confirmed on July 16 was Barrett’s replacement – Bob Galardi, a former Ann Arbor Public Schools administrator.  The two city council representatives to PAC – Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) and Mike Anglin (Ward 5) – are non-voting ex officio positions.

The special meeting by PAC is scheduled for Aug. 8 at 3 p.m. at city hall. The Ann Arbor city council has until its second meeting in August to put various questions before voters on the Nov. 6, 2012 ballot. A resolution placing a question on the ballot requires a seven-member (2/3) majority on the 11-member council.

The draft language before the council on July 16 was: “Shall Section 14.3(b) of the Ann Arbor City Charter be amended to require voter approval for long-term (greater than 5 yrs) non-park or non-recreational uses of parkland within the city while retaining the section’s current requirement for voter approval of the sale of any city park, or land acquired by the city for a park or cemetery?”

If approved by voters, the charter would be changed to read [added language in italics]: The city shall not sell, lease, or contract for any non-park or non-recreational long-term use, without the approval, by a majority vote of the electors of the city voting on the question at a regular or special election, any city park, or land in the city acquired for park, cemetery, or any part thereof. For purposes of this subsection long-term shall be defined as a period greater than 5 years.”

The existing charter provision, which deals only with the sale of parkland, had been approved in November 2008 by a 81%-19% margin of voters (42,969 to 9,944).

Michigan’s Home Rule City Act already lists among a city’s prohibited powers: “… to sell a park, cemetery, or any part of a park or cemetery, except where the park is not required under an official master plan of the city …”  The council voted to place the question before voters in 2008 over dissent from councilmember Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) and former councilmember Leigh Greden.

That year, the council had consciously settled on wording that included just selling, as opposed to leasing. In an Oct. 31, 2008 Ann Arbor News article, mayor John Hieftje was quoted as follows: “From time to time, we’ve thought about how nice it might be to have a restaurant near the river. I think it’s something people would really enjoy … That would be impossible if the ballot measure was expanded to include leasing.”

Park Ballot Question: Public Commentary

Several people spoke in favor of the resolution that would place a ballot question before voters, including two candidates for city council who are competing for seats in the Democratic primary. One person spoke against the resolution.

James D’Amour spoke on behalf of the Sierra Club Huron Valley Group. A fundamental value of the Sierra Club is protection of parks, he said. The Sierra Club stands fully behind the effort of councilmembers Jane Lumm and Mike Anglin to “close a loophole” in the charter amendment passed by voters in 2008. [The council resolution was also co-sponsored by Sabra Briere, but she was not mentioned by D'Amour.]

He called the parks a trust meant for future generations. D’Amour described city actions in connection with Huron Hills golf course and Fuller Park since 2008 as demonstrating a fundamental betrayal of that trust, he contended. It could be argued that the events that occurred were within the letter of the law, he said, but the long-term arrangements that were contemplated were a violation of the intent of the voters in 2008. He asked councilmembers to support the resolution.

Rita Mitchell also encouraged the council to vote for the resolution, because it provides support for parkland – which is jointly owned by all Ann Arbor taxpayers, she said, and is enjoyed by residents and visitors. She pointed to the significant environmental benefit that parkland provides to the city as a whole. She said the 2008 charter vote shows that citizens do want a voice in how the city uses parkland. Subsequent actions have challenged the spirit, if not the letter of the charter language. As an example she gave the plan for a large parking structure and train station at Fuller Park. If a good case can be made for land transfer or different use of a park, then that case can be made to the “real owners of the land,” she said.

Lawrence Baird described the proud history of natural area preservation and parkland protection in Ann Arbor going all the way back to 1920 when Huey Eli Gallup was the city’s first parks superintendent and created the first parks development plan. Since then Ann Arborites have placed a high priority on protecting open space and parkland. Baird reminded the council of Washtenaw County’s natural area preservation millage which Ann Arbor citizens had helped pass and renew. He reminded the council of the city’s 2003 open space and parkland preservation millage passed by Ann Arbor voters. [That millage funds the greenbelt program to preserve natural areas and farmland outside the city, as well as park acquisition within the city.]

Jane Lumm (Ward 2) talks to Lawrence Baird before the meeting.

Jane Lumm (Ward 2) talks to Lawrence Baird before the meeting.

He reminded councilmembers of the city’s park maintenance and capital improvements millage that voters had approved and will likely renew this year. There’s a loophole in the 2008 charter amendment, he said, and recent events show that if the city chooses to do so, it can enter into long-term leases for non-park purposes. That violates the spirit of the 2008 charter amendment, he said. It also violates the spirit of the various millage votes Ann Arbor voters have made, he said. He contended that greenbelt properties enjoy more protection than city parkland. He described Ann Arbor voters as a “smart, informed, passionate bunch,” and they should be entrusted with the bigger decisions now and then.

Jack Eaton, who is challenging incumbent Margie Teall for a seat on the council representing Ward 4, told the council he was there to support the resolution. He was opposed to putting off the vote on the resolution until a meeting after the primary election. He felt it’s important to consider what’s not involved in passing the resolution. The council’s resolution does not amend the charter, he stressed, but merely allows voters to express their opinion on amending the charter. If the council opposes the resolution because of a fear that voters might approve the amendment, then the council is trying to circumvent the will of the people, he contended. But even if voters approve the charter amendment, the new protections don’t prevent putting the train station at Fuller Park – but rather requires that voters approve it. If the council fears that voters won’t approve the train station, he said, then they’re trying to circumvent the will of the voters.

As he talks to voters, Eaton said, he hears that the community holds parkland in special esteem. He asked the council to pass the resolution and to move it to the ballot immediately before the primary so that voters can know who supported the amendment and who opposed it, before residents cast their votes in the Aug. 7 primary. If the council expects voters to trust them with another park maintenance and capital improvements millage, the council needs to trust voters to weigh in on decisions about parkland, he concluded.

Sally Petersen, who is challenging incumbent Tony Derezinski for a seat on the council representing Ward 2, urged the city council to approve the resolution, because not doing so is not consistent with the city’s open space and parkland preservation, the parks and recreation open space (PROS) plan and the city’s 2008 charter amendment. The additional clarifying language would close a loophole, she said. She reported the results of an informal poll she’d sent to 160 people measuring their support for the resolution: by 6 p.m. she’d received 70 yes votes, compared to 7 no votes.

Gwen Nystuen, who served on the city’s park advisory commission until recently, told the council that until a few years ago she thought the city’s parks were permanently protected. But she contended that it’s not true – and much of the city’s parkland would be commercially valuable. She then enumerated some of the ways that parks are protected. One way is through deed restrictions, and conservation easements. Another way, she ventured, is if parkland has been purchased with millage money voted by the people. She’d contacted the head of county parks, and found that the county’s parks are considered protected because they’ve been purchased with millage money. Another way parks are protected, she said, is through tradition. Ann Arbor has been acquiring parkland for over a century – and most of our leaders say they’d never ever sell parkland. Beyond that, she said, she can’t find any real protection. The proposed resolution doesn’t prevent the sale or alternate use, but it does require a consensus by the voters, she said.

Elizabeth Colvin told the council she lives on Maiden Lane near the University of Michigan medical center. She urged the council not to support the resolution. She spoke as a supporter of parks and as a supporter of some of the projects that have been proposed for some parkland that don’t involve parks and recreation. The current process of handling projects involving non-park uses provides the public with sufficient opportunity to make their wishes known, she said.

Colvin perceives the current process as consisting of professionals with expertise in their fields – whether running a golf business or planning a train station – studying options, comparing alternatives, making recommendations, drawing up plans, submitting ideas for review and input. During that process, she said, people like her who are interested in a particular process can make their preferences known – by speaking during public commentary at meetings or emailing councilmembers. She felt that requiring a public referendum on top of that process adds unnecessary steps and adds delays to projects that should be completed with all due speed. For her, she said, it hits home with the train station that was initially proposed for parkland at Fuller Road. That project means the most to her, she said, because she feels strongly that improved public transit is absolutely key to the long-term economic health of the community. A new and improved train station in the right location is a critical component of a long-term mass-transit plan for our community, she said. Because that’s important to her, she said, she’d follow those discussions closely and she’d provide input on it. For those projects she doesn’t feel strongly about, she wouldn’t follow them closely and she wouldn’t care if there were a public vote.

Summarizing, Colvin said she thinks the current process works and it gives the public opportunity for input. She was addressing the council on behalf of herself, she said, but knew that several of her neighbors shared her view. She encouraged the council to vote no or at least postpone the issue to get input from the city’s park advisory commission.

Park Ballot Question: Council Talk – Intro

Jane Lumm (Ward 2) led off deliberations by noting the resolution had been co-sponsored by Mike Anglin (Ward 5) and Sabra Briere (Ward 1). She thanked assistant city attorney Mary Fales for her help in drafting the language of the resolution. Councilmembers had been given the draft a week ago, she said, and it is unchanged from that version. The language has received a preliminary approval from the state attorney general’s office.

Lumm reviewed the purpose of the resolution – to close a “loophole” left when the 2008 charter amendment was approved. That amendment only specifically referenced the sale of parkland. As a result, the city could retain ownership and not sell it, but could still change the use of that parkland to a non-recreational or non-park use. The resolution is not about Huron Hills golf course or Fuller Road Station or about any specific site, she said. Those situations demonstrated the existence of the loophole. It also does not establish a principle that voters have a say in the long-term use of parkland – because that principle was already established with the charter vote in 2008. It’s simply tightening up the language, she said.

Park Ballot Question: Council Talk – Postponement

Briere said she cheerfully co-sponsored the resolution when it showed up – because she’d heard the same discussion over the last four years as everybody else on the council. However, she looked for unintended consequences. When the ballot measure was placed before voters in 2008, the council anticipated that a problem was being solved. But an unintended consequence was that the city could engage in long-term leases, she said, and indeed had flirted with that idea. The city had not followed through on that – but had talked about it. And that’s what the city is supposed to do, she said – look at its options. It’s that “opening” that the current proposal is intended to close.

Left is assistant city attorney Mary Fales. Right is Sabra Briere (Ward 1)

From left: assistant city attorney Mary Fales, councilmember Sabra Briere (Ward 1).

But there are also unintended consequences for the current proposal, Briere said, which she’d learned of that day. If the current version appears on the ballot, here’s what could occur without a public vote, she said: The city could contract with a company that manages water parks to run Fuller pool – because it would be the same recreational use. The city could contract with a golf-course operator to operate Huron Hills – because it’s the same recreational use. Or the city could build and own a fire station, a homeless shelter, a train station or a parking structure on a park without voter approval – because the city wouldn’t be selling land or engaging in a long-term lease or contract.

She knew that these were not things the framers of the resolution had intended. So she indicated a desire to postpone the resolution to try to work out the details and at the same time refer the topic to the park advisory commission (PAC), to look at any implications she might have missed.

Briere noted that they needed to specify a date to which the resolution would be postponed. Mayor John Hieftje noted that the chair of PAC, Julie Grand, had written to the council, and the PAC meeting for the following day, July 17, had been cancelled. But the intent was to use the first Tuesday in August, which is the scheduled time for PAC’s land acquisition committee meeting, as a time to hold a full PAC meeting to discuss the park ballot question. [Because that day, Aug. 7, coincides with the primary election, it was abandoned as the time for PAC to meet. Currently, PAC is scheduled to meet on Aug. 8 at 3 p.m.]

The council’s first meeting in August is Aug. 9 – due to the primary election. So Briere made her motion for postponement specifically to the council’s second meeting in August – Aug. 20.

Park Ballot Question: Council Talk – Postponement to When?

Lumm moved to amend the postponement to the first meeting in August.

Sandi Smith (Ward 1) responded to Lumm’s proposal to postpone just to Aug. 9 by saying, “I’m not sure why we’re rushing this.” It could be voted on at either meeting in August, Smith said, and that would be soon enough to place it on the Nov. 6 ballot. The only reason that the item was on that night’s agenda [the last council meeting before the Aug. 7 primary], she said, is that “it’s a really poorly-disguised political stunt.” The remark from Smith, who is not seeking re-election to her Ward 1 seat, generated a discontented murmur among some in the audience.

In support of her contention that the timing of the resolution was political, Smith noted that the council had heard from a city council candidate during public commentary [Jack Eaton], which had indicated to her that it was a political stunt. It’s not about parks, she contended. Smith said the council does not as a habit rush things, noting that they had postponed the four-party transit agreement three times. The council didn’t vote on something that significant for three meetings, she said.

What was before the council that night affected the city charter: “This is our constitution! This is what we operate our city on. I cannot see the rush.” Smith noted there’s no memo or cover letter on the agenda, and councilmembers have had very little information delivered to them. The council should slow the whole process down, she concluded.

Responding to Smith, Lumm told her she had the draft of the resolution on June 26. Subsequent to that, she was trying to answer questions, she said, and she had been told [by Smith] that by answering questions she was potentially violating the Open Meetings Act (OMA). She had been trying to be helpful, Lumm said: “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, I guess.”

By way of background on the OMA issue, Smith had emailed questions about the resolution to the city administrator and the city attorney, CC-ing the message to all councilmembers. Lumm responded to everyone with her answers to Smith’s questions and what Smith perceived as possible advocacy of a point of view on the questions. That was the source of Smith’s caution about OMA issues. If more than a quorum of councilmembers engage in back-and-forth via email it could establish a “meeting” that has not been properly noticed to the public and not open to the public.

The strongest rationale for postponement, Lumm felt, had to do with the definition of potential uses of parkland that might not have been addressed. She felt that assistant city attorney Mary Fales was “Thomas Jeffersonian” in her efforts to craft the language. Fales addressed concerns about the things the city wants to continue to do. It’s a matter of not being able to legislate everything and anticipate every eventuality, she said. Lumm stated that it’s not political. She felt it should not be postponed, but if it were to be postponed, it should be just to the first meeting in August.

Mike Anglin (Ward 5) and Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) before the meeting.

Councilmembers Mike Anglin (Ward 5) and Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) before the July 16 meeting.

Mike Anglin (Ward 5) said that back in 2008, the moment had been right, even though some members of council at the time didn’t want it to move forward. But the moment was right then, and it moved forward – with its limitations. He believed the moment was right now. It had been addressed at PAC several times, he contended. Mayor John Hieftje cautioned Anglin that the issue under discussion was to postpone to the first or the second meeting in August.

Anglin felt that the historical context was important. He felt that the council had not rushed – that it had been very deliberate and it had been going on for some time. As policymakers, that’s the council’s role. The city would have a continual rehashing of the issue – or it could be settled, by saying that those who own the parks have the right to say what happens to them. So he was not in favor of any kind of postponement. He had not been able during that night’s deliberations to speak to the main issue, because the postponement had been brought up before he’d had a chance do that. Postponement will send a chilling statement to those who support parks, he contended.

Briere appreciated the comments by Lumm and Anglin, and indicated that her discovery of loopholes in the current proposal was also a problem for her. If everyone were to move “extraordinarily expeditiously,” the issue could be resolved by the first meeting in August. If not, then the council still has another meeting in August. It’s important that it go to the public, she said, so it’s important that it be the best legislation that the city could have. She said she was content to bring it back on Aug. 9, knowing there’s another meeting in August.

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) confirmed with city clerk Jackie Beaudry that the last date for certifying ballot language with the county clerk is Aug. 28. Kunselman ventured that even a special meeting could be possible. He called it the “common practice” to postpone it initially and then postpone it again if necessary. He’d support postponement to the first meeting in August.

Hieftje expressed concern about the timing, but didn’t have a problem postponing to the first meeting in August. But he was not enthusiastic about the kind of special meeting that Kunselman had described.

Smith took exception to something that Anglin had said about a “thorough and deliberate process.” Speaking to Anglin, Smith told him: “You serve on PAC and you didn’t feel this was appropriate to bring it to the commission you serve on.” Smith stated that the council is delaying in part because PAC hasn’t weighed in. PAC consists of citizen volunteers, she said. It disrespects PAC not to include that body in the process, so she questioned if it had really been a careful and deliberate process. The only appropriate way to go forward, Smith continued, is to have PAC weigh in on it. A Thursday council meeting [on Aug. 9] catches the public off guard, she said. It’s not always the best time to do something – because it’s harder to get the word out. Because of the need for PAC to weigh in appropriately, and because of the Thursday council meeting, she couldn’t support a postponement any earlier than the second meeting in August.

Kunselman sought confirmation that PAC would have time to weigh in on the proposal before Aug. 9. Hieftje told him that was the plan that PAC chair Julie Grand had proposed.

Outcome on postponement timing: The council settled on the timing of the postponement as Aug. 9 – over dissent from Sandi Smith (Ward 1) and Tony Derezinski (Ward 2).

Park Ballot Question: Council Talk – Postponement or Not

At that point, the question before the council was to postpone to Aug. 9 or not.

Lumm felt the resolution is very straightforward. She indicated that the concerns people had expressed about the language had already been addressed by the city attorney. She felt the language offered a good framework. And she reiterated that it could not anticipate every eventuality. She reviewed the basic arguments for the resolution. Lumm did not understand the need to postpone or the need for PAC to review it. The charter was not being changed, she said, but rather the issue was being put before the voters. She didn’t have a problem with PAC providing comment. She had a problem with the timing, she said. She said she didn’t receive a response from a question she’d posed to PAC chair Julie Grand about the scheduling of the meeting.

Responding to Smith’s criticism of Anglin for not moving the proposed charter amendment through PAC, Lumm said Smith had taken an unfair “potshot” at Anglin. PAC cancelled its meeting scheduled for July 17, when Anglin had been “poised to speak to this.” Apparently, Lumm said, PAC didn’t have very much on the agenda and had cancelled its meeting.

Smith picked up on the timeline issue that was part of Lumm’s argument. Smith said she was not sure how PAC could inform the council that night if the commission had been scheduled to talk about it the following day.

Smith then recalled the discussions the council had earlier in the year on the four-party transit agreement. She found some parallels that she found ironic. She then cited coverage in The Chronicle from deliberations conducted at the Jan. 9, 2012 meeting. The complete passage reads as follows:

Lumm reiterated many of her concerns, saying she felt the timeline is “backwards.” She said she doesn’t understand how the council could go forward without having critical documents. Lumm said the issue is not about whether regional transit is good. It’s about seeing information about the specific benefits. She described the process as a “rush” and as putting the cart before the horse.

Smith ventured that “parks” could be swapped in for “regional transit” in that quote. In February 2012, Smith continued, Lumm was quoted by The Chronicle during the four-party transit deliberations as saying “If it’s a good concept today, it’ll be a good concept tomorrow.”

If the park proposal is not on the Nov. 6 ballot, Smith said, it can be on a different ballot. She didn’t necessarily care if it was on this November’s ballot, she said, because she didn’t think there was an impending issue that would change things. She didn’t feel that the city council would be taking a vote on a long-term lease anytime in the next year – though she allowed she could be wrong about that. She did not see the need to rush. It’s important that the council have some robust input from citizens, and that night was the first opportunity she knew of that citizens had a chance to come to the podium to talk to the council about it. So it had to be postponed at least until the first meeting in August, she said.

Anglin said he was fearful the proposal would disappear and then never appear again. He felt the presidential election year, with its larger turnout, would yield a resounding yes or no answer. Over the last few years, the issue has been very contentious, he said, costing time and effort by staff and the council. He described most of the work as having been done by the Sierra Club – writing and re-writing language.

Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5)

Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5).

Anglin  contended that he’d raised these issues at PAC, but they were dismissed – because PAC members didn’t see them as significant enough to discuss. For his part, if the council goes back to PAC, “We’ll just get an opinion.” He noted that PAC has three new members. So the “real skilled PAC members” who served for multiple years, are now out in the community willing to work. [He was referring to Gwen Nystuen, Sam Offen and David Barrett, whose terms recently ended on PAC.] The council does itself a disservice not to see this as a public process, he said. “Just ask the voters – it’s so simple,” he said.

Carsten Hohnke (Ward) said he felt that there were good reasons to consider the proposal and to look at the language – but he hadn’t heard any reason not to postpone. Getting input from PAC makes perfect sense, he said. Having PAC’s input can only help, he said. While Anglin might feel PAC’s input doesn’t add value, Hohnke didn’t think it would hurt. In the interest of furthering the dialogue on a thoughtful effort to change the charter, he’d support postponement.

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) indicated that he felt it was important to have PAC weigh in. He lamented the fact that back on Nov. 5, 2009, when the council had approved an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the University of Michigan on Fuller Road Station, the council didn’t get advice prior to voting. But two wrongs don’t make a right, he said.

Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) weighed in supporting the postponement to the first meeting in August. A problem with the volume adjustment on Higgins’ microphone prompted Thomas Partridge to chime in from the audience with a request that Hieftje make certain to ensure that microphone levels are loud enough for people to hear. Hieftje retorted with, “Could you make certain to keep quiet?”

Hieftje said the worst thing the council could do is put a flawed proposal on the ballot – a proposal that doesn’t do what voters think it will. So he’d support postponement.

Outcome: The council voted to postpone the proposal until Aug. 9, over dissent by Mike Anglin (Ward 5).

Skatepark Design Contract

The Ann Arbor city council was asked to authorize a $89,560 contract with Wally Hollyday Skateparks for the design and construction oversight of a skatepark to be built in the northeast corner of Veterans Memorial Park. The city’s park advisory commission had recommended approval of the contract on June 19.

City council action on the skatepark at that location dates back to a Dec. 1, 2008 approval of a memorandum of intent. [.pdf of memorandum of intent]

The roughly $1 million project – including an anticipated $100,000 endowment for ongoing maintenance – will be financed through a combination of funds. Those include private donations – primarily solicited through the Friends of the Ann Arbor Skatepark – as well as a $300,000 state grant, and up to $400,000 in matching funds from the Washtenaw County parks and recreation commission. The Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation is acting as fiduciary.

Selection of Wally Hollyday Skateparks for the work came after a selection committee reviewed six responses to a request for proposals (RFP) issued by the city of Ann Arbor in April. The committee selected two California firms – Wally Hollyday Skateparks and Wormhoudt Inc. – as finalists. Additional review and interviews resulted in the choice of Wally Hollyday Skateparks as the recommended designer. Wally Hollyday had already been involved in the project to some extent, leading design workshops for the Friends of the Ann Arbor Skatepark in 2009 and 2010.

Outcome: The council voted to approve the skatepark design contract as a part of its consent agenda.

Initial Rezoning for Bluffs

The council considered giving initial approval to the rezoning of two parcels that were recently acquired by the city for expansion of the Bluffs Nature Area at 1099 N. Main St., north of Sunset Road. The city planning commission had recommended the rezoning at its June 5, 2012 meeting.

A 1.12-acre parcel to the north of the Bluffs – connecting the existing parkland to Huron View Boulevard – is currently zoned O (office), and had been donated to the city by a nursing home near that site. A 0.57-acre addition to the south connects the existing parkland to Sunset Road and is currently zoned R4C (multiple-family dwelling). It had been purchased by the city from the Elks lodge, using funds from the open space and parkland preservation millage. Both parcels were recommended to be rezoned as PL (public land).

City planner Alexis DiLeo told planning commissioners at their June 5 meeting that the parcels make the nature area more accessible. Though there is frontage onto North Main, there’s no easy access there for pedestrians or cyclists.

Outcome: The council voted unanimously to give initial approval to the rezoning of the parcels.

Accessible Path Work at Leslie Science Center

The council considered approval of a $115,309 contract with JB Contractors Inc. to construct barrier-free pathways at the Leslie Science and Nature Center. The recommendation includes a 10% contingency, for a total project cost of $126,840.

The city’s park advisory commission had recommended approval of the contract at its June 19, 2012 meeting.

JB Contractors provided the lowest of two bids. Fonson Inc. had submitted a much higher bid of $197,459. Funding is available from the city’s park maintenance and capital improvements millage.

Francie Krawcke with a snowy owl

Francie Krawcke, raptor program director with the Leslie Science & Nature Center, brought a snowy owl to the June 19, 2012 meeting of the Ann Arbor park advisory commission. The owl did not fly around council chambers, but did enjoy a few snacks at the meeting.

PAC had been initially briefed on this project – the first phase of a larger renovation – at its Feb. 28, 2012 meeting. The center, located at 1831 Traver Road, was previously part of the city’s parks system, but since 2007 has operated as an independent nonprofit. However, the city still owns and maintains the buildings and property.

Parks planner Amy Kuras told commissioners at PAC’s June 19 meeting that the goal of the changes to the pathways is to make the center compliant with requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and to make the pathways and overall organization of the site less confusing. The project includes replacing the paths that connect various buildings on the site, and constructing new paths to connect the center’s raptor enclosures.

At the council’s July 16 meeting, mayor John Hieftje expressed general support for Leslie Science and Nature Center, mentioning the Mayfly annual fundraiser. [Hieftje is a former board member for the center.] Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) added that representatives of the LSNC attended the July 16 Townie Party and brought the center’s raptors.

Outcome: The council voted unanimously to approve the contract with JB Contractors Inc. for work at the Leslie Science & Nature Center.

Physical Testing of 415 W. Washington

The Ann Arbor city council considered a resolution approving $50,000 of general fund reserve money to be used for various physical surveys on the city-owned 415 W. Washington property. The property, with its three buildings, was previously used by the city as a vehicle maintenance facility, before the construction of the Wheeler Service Center south of town on Stone School Road.

Carl Goins, executive director of 555, and architect  Chuck Bultman

From left: Carl Goins, executive director of 555 Nonprofit Gallery and Studios, and architect Chuck Bultman before the city council’s July 16 meeting.

The council received a presentation at its May 7, 2012 meeting from representatives of 555 Nonprofit Gallery and Studios on the physical survey work. The 555 group has assumed responsibility for the art community’s component of an initiative established by the city council on Feb. 1, 2010 to explore a collaboration between the greenway and art communities for adaptive reuse of the property. The 555 group stepped in when the Arts Alliance could no longer devote staff time to the project. Prior to that initiative, the city had gone through an RFP (request for proposals) process for the property that did not lead to the selection of any of the three proposals submitted.

Chuck Bultman, an architect who is working with the 555 group, had attended the Sunday night city council caucus on July 15. He had compared the physical surveys to be done on the 415 W. Washington property to a through medical workup for a patient. It would be more than taking blood pressure, and would include “drawing blood samples.” For the buildings, the work will include taking core samples to evaluate the structural integrity of the concrete and steel.

Besides the structural testing, other work to be done includes: an environmental survey; hazardous materials assessment; a topographic and boundary survey; a site survey; and architectural drawings of the existing buildings.

Bultman, along with several other professionals, have thus far volunteered their time to move the project forward. Others include: Paul Dannels (a structural engineer with Structural Design Inc.), Shannan Gibb-Randall (a landscape architect with Insite Design Studio Inc.), and Matt Grocoff (an energy performance consultant with Thrive).

Much of the survey work – in particular, the environmental, hazardous materials and topographic surveys – would be required regardless of the parcel’s future use.

415 W. Washington: Public Comment

During public commentary at the start of the meeting, Carl Goins – executive director of 555 Nonprofit Gallery and Studios – told the council that a team of local professional had been working with the city’s task force. He noted the 555 group’s experience in transforming underused spaces into facilities that provided resources to hundreds of artists. The 415 W. Washington building’s size, location and historic character make it an ideal candidate for that kind of re-use, he said. The project could be a model for public, private and nonprofit collaboration. The physical surveys could put things on track for the building to become a regional hub for the arts.

415 W. Washington: Council Deliberations

Mayor John Hieftje led off deliberations by saying that the funding would move the process along. The city had been working with the Allen Creek Greenway Conservancy and the Arts Alliance for the last couple of years, on the idea of developing a greenway park and art center. He alluded to an “outshoot” of the North Main corridor task force that was focusing on the greenway. The first greenway park, he said, would be the 721 N. Main city-owned parcel. The effort on 415 W. Washington and 721 N. Main need to be coordinated and connected, he said. He mentioned hooking up the greenway to the county’s Border-to-Border trail. Even if you don’t agree that the dream of an art center will come to pass, the surveys would need to be done, he concluded.

Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) agreed that it was an important and judicious investment in preserving options for the building. Absent a clear understanding of the potential for re-use, he said, the move would be toward seeing the building demolished. [The city's historic district commission would need to grant the city a notice to proceed with that demolition, which is not a foregone conclusion.] Hohnke noted there are a number of people now involved with the effort, who have experience with this type of repurposing. The expenditure increases the likelihood that something exciting happens at the site, he said.

Sandi Smith (Ward 1) called it pretty exciting that the city is going forward with the work. She made a note that the terminology used in the resolution refers to the future “conveyance” of the land. The council’s deliberations on the ballot question then spilled into the 415 W. Washington item, when Smith said she’d love to have a legal opinion on what the city would need to do in order to “convey” the property. It was an excellent example, she said, of a situation where a special election might have to be called in order to enter into an eventual long-term lease. She wanted to know what the impact would be of the proposed city charter amendment on the 415 W. Washington project – not that night, but eventually.

Responding to Smith, Jane Lumm (Ward 2) ventured that the 415 W. Washington project would not be affected at all – because the proposed charter amendment speaks to parkland and cemetery use. The 415 W. Washington site is public land, not parkland. So it has nothing at all to do with the 415 W. Washington site. Responding to Lumm, Smith said, “Thank you very much, councilmember Lumm. I’d love to have a discussion with the attorneys at a later time.” Lumm wrapped up the exchange with “Sorry, I was just trying to help.”

Lumm continued with her remarks by thanking Chuck Bultman, the architect who’s been working with the 555 group. Bultman had given her and others a tour of the site last week. Bultman really has a vision for the future of the building, she said. She understands that what’s contemplated is finding a positive use for the city-owned site. She asked city administrator Steve Powers to outline what the resolution does. Powers reviewed the physical surveys of the building that would need to be done – regardless of its future re-use. To provide more detail on what’s been done to date, Powers told Lumm he’d need to prepare that information and provide it at a later time.

Lumm wanted more information about what the phase 2/3 environmental surveys would tell us. Public services area administrator Craig Hupy was called on to address that question. Hupy described a phase 1 environmental assessment as an analysis of past use. The site does have a history of past uses that causes a suspicion of contamination. A phase 2 study looks at the ground more in depth to see if pollution exists, and if so, to what level.

Lumm asked why the funding was not included in the FY 2013 budget. Powers characterized it as an oversight and nothing more. He was not aware of the momentum of the project at the time the budget proposal was put together, he said.

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) reported to her colleagues that the previous night at the council caucus, she heard from people who are working with the 555 group [Bultman and Trevor Stone] and had heard quite a bit about what could be learned from an environmental assessment – from taking core samples of concrete, looking at groundwater, studying what part of the flooding is caused by the water table and what part is caused by grading of the site and the additional gravel that’s been added to create the parking lot. At the caucus meeting, she’d also learned there is a section of the site that is inaccessible.

Responding to Lumm’s concern about the failure to include this item in the FY 2013 budget, from Briere’s perspective, she was not surprised to see the item come forward until after the budget was approved. Frequently, she said, an item is not “ripe” until after the budget has been approved. It’s a one-time expense, she continued, and she indicated that it’s typical for such items to be approved outside the regular budget cycle.

Margie Teall (Ward 4) said she appreciated all the words of support from other councilmembers. She’s excited about this project, she said, which she contended she’d been working on for a decade – a public space for the arts and the performing arts. She characterized it as a first step. The surveys will tell us whether the building is usable, she said, and she hopes the answer is affirmative.

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) said he supported the resolution and viewed 415 W. Washington as a roadmap for how to deal with 721 N. Main. He noted there’s a lot of community interest in how to use the 721 N. Main property for community needs – whether it’s a day-use center or not. [The council has heard frequent public commentary at its meetings since the fall of 2011 on the idea of a day shelter and warming center. And 721 N. Main has been a property that organizers asked the city to turn over for such use.] How the city handles 415 W. Washington sets up a framework for other city-owned properties, and he’s excited to hear what information the city gets from the work, Kunselman concluded.

Hieftje responded to the 721 N. Main thread that Kunselman had picked up. Hieftje indicated that 721 N. Main is moving forward as part of a state Natural Resources Trust Fund application by the city – because 721 N. Main already has its environmental “clearance.”

Outcome: The council voted unanimously to approve the $50,000 expenditure for physical surveys on the 415 W. Washington building.

Federal Money for Greenbelt

The council considered approval of the acceptance of $396,900 in federal funds from the Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program (FRPP) for the purchase of development rights (PDR) on properties in Webster and Superior townships owned by the Robbin Alexander Trust (90 acres) and Robert Schultz (136 acres). The grant amount represents 49% of the purchase price.

Ann Arbor Greenbelt as of June 2012

Ann Arbor greenbelt as of June 2012 (not including the properties the council voted on at their July 16, 2012 meeting). The large square-ish area is the greenbelt boundary area – the land eligible for protection with Ann Arbor greenbelt millage funds. Darker green areas indicate protected property. (Image links to dynamic map.)

The council had approved the application for the federal funds at its Feb. 21, 2012 meeting. The local share will be provided through the city’s parkland and open space preservation (greenbelt) millage.

Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5), who serves as the city council representative to the greenbelt commission, noted that the applications for federal grant money had been approved by the council in February 2012. He highlighted the fact that the federal grants covered 49% of the purchase price, which is the maximum amount that the FRPP will approve. Hohnke said that 49% reflects the quality of the applications that the city staff are submitting. He characterized it as great leverage for the millage funds that Ann Arbor voters have approved.

Jane Lumm (Ward 2) said she certainly supported accepting the funds but contended that it could be better – if other sources of local funding (from the townships) besides the city’s greenbelt millage had factored into the local match component. She ventured that this was not the funding proportion that had been anticipated when the millage was approved.

Outcome: The council voted unanimously to approve the receipt of the FRPP funds.

Wetland Restoration at Plymouth

The council considered approval of a $97,687 contract with Fonson Inc. for restoration of a wetland in Plymouth Parkway Park that was filled in as a result of a railroad embankment collapse caused by heavy rains in July 2011. The funds will be taken from the park maintenance and capital improvements millage.

Immediately after the collapse, about half of the soil from the embankment washout was removed from the site, and the rest was removed last month, according to a staff memo accompanying the resolution. The staff memo also states that  Ann Arbor Railroad worked with the city to restore and improve drainage systems in and around the railroad embankment.

The work covered by the contract with Fonson is to repair underground drainage systems in the park, complete final site grading and replanting the wetland with appropriate species.

Council deliberations consisted of a remark by Sabra Briere (Ward 1) that she is delighted the restoration will go forward.

Outcome: The council voted unanimously to approve the contract with Fonson Inc.

Maple Cove Site Plan

The council considered the site plan for the Maple Cove development located on 2.96 acres at 1649 N. Maple, north of Miller Road between North Maple and Calvin Street on the city’s west side.

The plan calls for combining two sites – 1649 N. Maple and 1718 Calvin – and demolishing an existing single-family home and detached garages there. Two 3-story apartment buildings would be built with a 64-space parking lot and eight bike spaces. The project also includes building a private street to serve seven new single-family houses near Calvin Street, but with an entrance off of North Maple. According to a staff memo, there will be no access to Calvin Street, which “is a private street with a checkered history regarding access rights.” The apartment complex would have a separate entrance, also off of North Maple.

Each apartment building would contain a total of 18 one-and two-bedroom apartments ranging from 745 to 1,057 square feet. The plan calls for each apartment building to have a rooftop patio for use by residents, with the possibility of a vegetated cover (green roof) for the remainder of the roof surface. The staff memo noted that the city has requested a $26,660 parks contribution, but the developer has declined to make that contribution.

The project has a somewhat unusual history. Planning commissioners originally approved it at their March 20, 2012 meeting. But that vote was rescinded because Scio Township residents on Calvin Street had not been included in an original public notice mailed out for the commission’s March meeting.

There were no changes to the plan in the interim period, but at their May 1, 2012 meeting, planning commissioners voted to postpone action to get more information from the traffic engineer about whether the proposed two separate entrances to the property created a health, safety and welfare hazard. According to city planning staff, the city’s traffic engineer raised some concerns, but he subsequently confirmed that the site plan – with two entrances off of North Maple – does conform with city code.

Planning commissioners ultimately approved the project at their June 5 meeting on a unanimous vote, but three of the nine commissioners – Bonnie Bona, Evan Pratt and Kirk Westphal – were absent. Bona and Eric Mahler had dissented on the commission’s March 20 original approval. Part of their objection stemmed from concern that no sidewalks were planned for the private street.

At the Sunday night city council caucus held on July 15, the project’s developer indicated the possibility that the private street portion of the project might be sold to another developer – and that developer would have the option to submit a revised site plan that includes sidewalks.

Maple Cove: Public Hearing

Thomas Partridge spoke, describing himself as an advocate for the most vulnerable residents of the city. He contended that amendments should be made to the proposal that would require a percentage of the units to include affordable housing.

At the conclusion of the public hearing, mayor John Hieftje responded to Partridge’s mention of an affordable housing requirement by saying that with a planned unit development (PUD), the city could require affordable units; but for a “by right” development like Maple Cove, something like that couldn’t be required.

Maple Cove: Council Deliberations

Project area for Maple Cove

Project area for Maple Cove is shown outlined in black. (Image links to higher resolution .pdf file)

Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) began by saying that there are some positive aspects to the proposal, including the fact that it will help fill in Maple Road. He noted there had been a healthy discussion by the planning commission on the site plan. The developer had been asked to consider some minor improvements – not required by code, but that would have improved the experience for future residents of the project and for the public at large. The developer had not undertaken the suggested changes. He was disappointed, Hohnke said, but did not feel it rose to the level of concern that would cause him to vote against the project.

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) said he wouldn’t support the project. As city councilmembers, he said, they have a right to do everything they can to protect the health, safety and welfare of the community. Because the developer did not want to include some things that affect safety – like sidewalks on the private street – he would not support the project. He characterized that as “cutting corners,” saying the developer should be held to the same standards as everybody else.

Mayor John Hieftje then asked city planning manager Wendy Rampson to the podium to ask her a single question to which everyone already knew the answer: “Is this a by-right development?” Rampson told Hieftje that yes, Maple Cove meets the requirements of the zoning ordinance.

Hieftje then ventured that if Kunselman requested it, the council could have a closed session to discuss the ramification of voting no. [Assistant city attorney Mary Fales whispered to Hieftje words to the effect that Hieftje's idea for a closed session wouldn't work, because the council would need a written memorandum from the attorney's office to discuss in order to justify the closed session. That had been part of the point of a lawsuit filed by The Chronicle in September 2010. Since that time, closed sessions held by the Ann Arbor based on the attorney-client privilege have become rare events, when previously they were regular occurrences. Hieftje subsequently relayed Fales' comments at the table.]

Because Maple Cove is a by-right development, Hieftje said, a vote against it would be a “protest vote” but he felt the course was clear. There are many by-right developments where the developer doesn’t cooperated to the utmost, but the council has to follow the law.

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) noted that many councilmembers would like to see sidewalks included in all new neighborhoods, but that’s not a code requirement. While the council could change the city’s ordinance to require sidewalks in the future, it was not an option that night. She indicated she would cheerfully tell the developer that, as she did the previous night at the council’s caucus.

Jane Lumm (Ward 2) noted that it’s a complicated project that has generated a lot of discussion by staff and the neighbors. She concurred with Hohnke in his conclusion that the developer had not been very flexible – with respect to the possibility of eliminating one of the driveway entrances (curbcuts) and the voluntary parks contribution. But she concluded that the project met the code requirements. She felt that the project reflected an improvement.

Responding to a question from Lumm about the city staff’s recommendation for approving the project, Rampson said that “as near as we can tell” the project complies with city code.

Rampson noted that city code requires a sidewalk for a private street with eight lots or more, but the private street for Maple Cove includes seven lots, so there’s no requirement for sidewalks. She noted that the project had been reviewed twice by the planning commission, because the township neighbors weren’t notified the first time around. Neighbors from the township had concerns about the different lot sizes in the Maple Cove project compared to those on Calvin Street – and they felt the project reflected an increase in density. However, Rampson pointed out that the property was already zoned, and the proposed lots are consistent with zoning.

On the traffic issue, related to the two driveways, a city traffic engineer took a look at the placement of the two driveways. The conclusion, Rampson allowed, was that the two driveways were “not ideal” – in that they don’t have the desired spacing between each other or the desired distance from the intersection. But the city does not have anything about access management in the code. According to the traffic engineer, Rampson said, if the driveway configuration becomes a hazard, one of the drives can be removed under the city code.

About the parks contribution, she noted that it’s a suggestion based on a formula, but it’s not a code requirement. She noted that there are some amenities included in the project that might actually count toward the park contribution.

Hohnke asked Rampson to share some views of the expected benefit for the development, compared to the existing situation. Rampson told Hohnke that the planning commission had pointed to the fact that the current site is not very well maintained. The project would bring additional housing to the area – both rental and homeowner opportunities. It would also provide a sidewalk link on the public frontage along North Maple, so it’s consistent with the city’s master plan, she said.

Maple Cove driveway configuration

Maple Cove driveway configuration. Magenta arrows show the two driveways.

Hohnke said he shared Kunselman’s concerns, but indicated surprise that Kunselman was considering voting against the project. He felt it’s hard to make a reasonable argument that it’s a detriment to health, safety and welfare. He ventured that it could be considered irresponsible [of Kunselman] to put people of Ann Arbor at [legal] risk by denying a site plan that meets code and provides some benefit. He encouraged people to understand the weightiness of denying a by-right proposal.

Kunselman responded by noting that Rampson had said the driveway curbcuts don’t meet the desired standard, but that the city doesn’t have a mechanism in the city code to do anything about that. If it were determined that there was a hazard being caused, he said, and the driveway entrance to the private street had to be closed, then the only access to the private street would be through the other driveway entrance – and that would lead past the additional lot for the multi-family housing in the project, for a total of eight lots. If that’s what happens, Kunselman ventured, the developer will have been able to circumvent the requirement of having sidewalks for the private street.

Kunselman restated his view that it’s an issue of public safety. There are no sidewalks in his neighborhood, he said, and walking down the street last year with the mayor of Tübingen [Ann Arbor's sister city in Germany], they almost got run over. He rejected Hohnke’s suggestion that Kunselman’s would be a protest vote. Kunselman noted that he grew up in that part of town. He wanted to make sure that sidewalks are added.

Tony Derezinski (Ward 2), who is the city council’s representative to the city planning commission, contended all these questions were raised and answered. He restated the fact that it’s a by-right development. “When it meets the code, that’s it!” he said. He characterized the application of the rubric of health, safety and welfare as a very “slippery slope.” He felt the council should vote for the project.

Hieftje indicated he would support the project because he did not think there’s any latitude, citing the potential of a lawsuit, and saying the council would be on extremely thin ice to deny it.

Outcome: The council voted to approve the Maple Cove project, with dissent from Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3).

Ann Arbor Police Chief: John Seto

The council considered a resolution appointing John Seto as permanent police chief and head of safety services.

John Seto at the March 30 farewell for former chief Barnett Jones

John Seto at the March 30, 2012 farewell for former chief Barnett Jones.

Seto has served as interim in both roles since the resignation of former police chief Barnett Jones effective March 31.

At his farewell sendoff on March 30, Jones was emphatic about his view that Seto should be hired as permanent chief, describing Seto as “the right person to follow me.”

Seto was hired in 1990 as a patrol officer in the AAPD and achieved the rank of deputy chief in 2008.

Seto’s college degree is from Eastern Michigan University, and his subsequent professional development has included training from the FBI. He also holds certification as a firefighter.

As head of safety services, Seto oversees the fire chief. The administrative position of safety services administrator is appointed by the city administrator. But the city charter requires that the council approve the appointment of police chief.

Police Chief Appointment: Public Commentary

During public commentary, Ann Arbor resident Blair Shelton reprised sentiments he’d expressed at the council’s March 19, 2012 meeting, alleging racism on the part of the Ann Arbor police department and Seto specifically. [By way of brief background, Shelton won a lawsuit against the city of Ann Arbor in the mid-1990s in a case involving racial-profiling in the AAPD's approach to collection of blood samples.] At the July 16 meeting, Shelton told the council that in 1995 when Channel 7 came to his home to interview him about winning his lawsuit, Channel 7′s Bill Proctor told him that on the way there, the AAPD had pulled over the Channel 7 news truck on suspicion of having stolen the vehicle. He invited people to ask Proctor about the ethnicity of the AAPD officer.

[Shelton was implying that the officer was Seto. In a phone conversation with The Chronicle, Proctor could not confirm the episode that Shelton described. Proctor noted that he did not recall interviewing Shelton, noting that the incident in question took place in 1995. Proctor indicated he did not recall ever being pulled over in the news truck because an officer questioned his legal right to be behind the wheel.]

Shelton contended that the “vestiges of racism have been enshrined in the department” since its inception. He pointed to the hiring of the first African American officer in the early 1900s, an officer Thomas Blackburn. He contended that Blackburn had been accused of raping a white university student and that the courthouse had been surrounded by people screaming: “Lynch the ‘n-word’ kill the ‘n-word.’”

In connection with his court case, he said, through the discovery process, they’d learned that the AAPD had wanted to perform DNA testing on the University of Michigan football team, but coach Bo Schembechler had said, “Hell, no.” Shelton told the council, “I am a human being!” with the right to move freely through the community. On the hiring of Seto as permanent chief, he told them, “Good luck.”

By way of additional background on the history of the Ann Arbor police department and racial issues, from former AAPD police officer Michael Logghe’s “True Crimes and the History of the Ann Arbor Police Department“:

Officer Clayton Collins was thought to be the first black Ann Arbor Officer when he was hired in 1950. However, according to Officer Camp’s report, a black officer named Thomas Blackburn, was hired in 1907. I discovered a photo of Officer Blackburn and it does not appear that he was black. Officer Blackburn was with the department for ten years and it is open for debate if he or Officer Collins was the first black officer. …

Officer Collins told me he was asked to apply to the department by Albert Wheeler (Wheeler would later become mayor). He stated Wheeler was always trying to get blacks to apply for positions which they had historically been barred. Officer Collins thought about it and finally applied. The department hired him and thus he became the first black officer in the city’s history. (I should note that in Officer Camp’s report, he stated a black man named Thomas Blackburn was an officer with the department at the turn of the century. Officer Collins had heard about Blackburn and thought he was half-Indian. In any event Officer Collins was the first black officer in the modern era.)

I was surprised to find that Officer Collins encountered very little racism, not only within the department, but within the city. Almost all of the officers were very accepting of him and none made a negative comment to him. At worst, some of the officers were distant to him. He stated his experience as an Ann Arbor Officer was very positive and enjoyable. He said Ann Arbor was a wonderful place in the 1950′s.

Jonathan Marwil’s “A History of Ann Arbor” gives an account of the hiring of Blackburn that’s consistent with Logghe’s. The Chronicle was not able to confirm in those two sources Shelton’s account of the rape accusation against officer Blackburn.

More recently, the AAPD was reviewed for possible racial profiling in a 2004 study of traffic stops, conducted by Lamberth Consulting. The AAPD scored well in the study, according to a Feb. 12, 2004 Ann Arbor News article. [.pdf of the Lamberth Consulting study on AAPD traffic stops]

Police Chief Appointment: Council Deliberations

Mayor John Hieftje said he’d had an opportunity to work with a few police chiefs in his time as mayor – Dan Oates and then Barnett Jones. Hieftje felt like he knows what it takes to be a good police chief – and whatever it is, John Seto has it. Seto has proven himself in this interim period, he said.

John Seto received a round of applause on his appointment as chief of Ann Arbor police.

John Seto received a round of applause on his appointment as chief of Ann Arbor police. From left: Sandi Smith (Ward 1), Sabra Briere (Ward 1), Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) and Jane Lumm (Ward 2).

Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) praised Seto in the context of her work with him over the years. She was pleased to see promotion from within. She said that former chief Barnett Jones did a great job of succession planning. Jane Lumm (Ward 2) said she wholeheartedly supported the appointment. Sandi Smith (Ward 1) asked Seto to come to the podium so that the public could see him.

Mike Anglin (Ward 5) congratulated Seto for his work on sensitive issues. He was impressed with his professionalism and sensitivity. Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) hoped that Seto recognized the unanimous support from the council reflected full faith and trust on the part of the council for his ability to lead. Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) offered a single word: “Amen!” Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) called Seto’s appointment a recognition of the quality of the department as a whole, saying that it was the department that helped create Seto as he moved up the ranks.

Outcome: The council voted unanimously to appoint John Seto as chief of police and head of safety services. He was given an enthusiastic round of applause.

Seto thanked city administrator Steve Powers for the confidence to make the recommendation to appoint him. For the last 22 years, Seto said, it has been a privilege to work with the men and women of the police and fire departments. He’s witnessed first-hand the hard work, dedication and the sacrifices they’ve made to serve and protect the community. More than the honor of being appointed chief, he said, it’s his honor to be a part of this organization. Throughout his entire career, he said, he’d worked very hard to represent the city in the most professional manner and to treat everyone he meets with great respect – and he’d continue to do that, he concluded.

CUB Agreements

The council considered a resolution to reverse at least temporarily an earlier action on restoring the use of CUB agreements. Construction unity board (CUB) agreements are negotiated between local trade unions and contractors, and require that contractors who sign the agreement abide by terms of collective bargaining agreements for the duration of the construction project. In return, the trade unions agree that they will not strike, engage in work slow-downs, set up separate work entrances at the job site or take any other adverse action against the contractor.

The resolution considered by the council at its July 16 meeting suspended the use of CUB agreements for contracts over $25,000. The resolution appeared on the agenda after Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed Public Act 238 of 2012 into law on June 29. The law amends the Michigan Fair and Open Competition Act.

The council’s previous action was taken about a month earlier on June 4, 2012, and had restored the use of such CUB agreements. The July 16 suspension allows for the resolution using the CUB agreements to be restored administratively, pending possible court rulings.

An alternating series of positions by the city of Ann Arbor began with the adoption by the city council of the use of CUB agreements at its Nov. 16, 2009 meeting. The resolution required that contractors and subcontractors execute such agreement with the Washtenaw County Skilled Building Trades Council as a condition of award for all city construction contracts.

But last year, the Michigan legislature passed Act 98 of 2011, which prohibited municipalities from signing construction contracts in which contractors were required to make an agreement with a collective bargaining organization.

So on Aug. 15, 2011, in response to the state law, the city council rescinded that requirement. However, the U.S. District Court subsequently found Act 98 to be unenforceable, based on the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution and the National Labor Relations Act. So at its June 4, 2012 meeting, the city council restored the use of CUB agreements. The lone voice of dissent at that meeting was Jane Lumm (Ward 2), who opposed the resolution on philosophical and practical grounds. She pointed to similar pending legislation (Act 238) that might be enacted.

And the pending legislation was, in fact, passed and signed into law, which led to the city council’s action on July 16 again to suspend the use of CUB agreements.

The staff memo accompanying the resolution states that the suspension of CUB agreements does not affect the city’s living wage ordinance. Not discussed in the memo is how a Michigan Supreme Court order from April 7, 2010 might affect the city’s living wage ordinance. The order affirmed an unpublished court of appeals opinion that found a Detroit living wage law to be unenforceable.

During the brief council deliberations, Margie Teall (Ward 4) noted that the way the resolution is intended to work is that the use of CUB agreements will be suspended – but on the outcome of court decisions, the use of the agreements could be restored administratively.

Outcome: The council voted unanimously to approve the resolution suspending the use of CUB agreements.

Communications and Comment

Every city council agenda contains multiple slots for city councilmembers and the city administrator to give updates or make announcements about important issues that are coming before the city council. And every meeting typically includes public commentary on subjects not necessarily on the agenda.

Comm/Comm: Library Lane Parking Structure

Sandi Smith (Ward 1) reported on the grand opening of the new underground parking garage at South Fifth Avenue, called the Library Lane parking structure. [As of July 20, the parking facility was open with temporary occupancy permits, according to Susan Pollay, executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. Remaining issues to be finalized include one elevator (which has a wall that's damp to the touch) and the water pressure in the fire suppression system.]

Smith invited mayor John Hieftje to reprise his remarks made on the occasion of the grand opening. He held forth at length. Highlights included the fact that the parking structure did not use any city general fund money, but rather money dedicated through the DDA. The parking structure revenue is supposed to pay for the bonds. [The DDA will be drawing on tax increment finance (TIF) capture for some initial capital costs and debt service.]

Later Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) would pick up on the bond payment topic, noting that it was Build American Bonds that were used to pay for the structure. He wanted some communication directly from the city’s bond counsel on any restrictions to the possible uses for the parking spaces. By way of background, in April 2010 the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center had sent the council a letter outlining its view of the applicable restrictions. The concern in the letter is that dedicated use of spaces in the structure by private, non-governmental entities could jeopardize the federal subsidy provided to the city through this type of bond. [.pdf of GLELC bonding analysis]

Kunselman’s view is that any problem caused by a private entity undertaking a development on the site could be solved if the Ann Arbor District Library were to build its new building on top of the structure, just to the north of its current location. That same night, the AADL board voted to place a $65 million bond proposal on the Nov. 6 ballot for construction of a new library on its current site. It appears unlikely that the library would follow Kunselman’s suggestion.

Comm/Comm: Non-Partisan Elections, Public Speaking

During public commentary at the conclusion of the meeting, Michael Benson noted that of the eight candidates for four city council seats that are contested in the Aug. 7 Democratic primary, the vast majority have responded positively to the idea of converting Ann Arbor’s local city elections to a non-partisan format. Regardless of whether non-partisan elections are a good idea or bad idea, Benson said, he thought it might be good for the council to form a task force to study the issue and report back on it.

Benson also pointed out to the council that for that night’s agenda, more than 10 people had signed up to speak for public commentary at the start of the meeting. So some people who wanted to address the council on an action item had been assigned only an alternate slot and had not been able to address the councilmembers. Benson alluded to the fact that some speakers will meet the condition of speaking on an “agenda item” by referencing attachments of communications on the agenda, like minutes from various boards and commissions. He suggested that the council look at its priorities on allotting public speaking time. [Benson has previously suggested that the time per speaker be reduced from the current three minutes to two minutes, while adding 10 minutes to the current 30-minute time block. That would result in a doubling of the number of possible speakers from 10 to 20.]

Comm/Comm: AATA

Tim Hull related to the council how he had needed to travel to Canton and had discovered there is no way to ride on the Canton Express from Ann Arbor to Canton. [The service is configured for commuters from Canton to Ann Arbor, not the other way around. The issue has been raised by Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) when the council has been addressed by Michael Ford, CEO of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority.] Hull was critical of the AATA’s plan for countywide expansion – it amounts to an effort to get people from the county into Ann Arbor, and running empty buses out to Chelsea and Canton to start the service. AATA remains “woefully inadequate,” he said. He pointed to the New Year’s Day Winter Classic hockey game, a day when there’d be no regular bus service scheduled.

Comm/Comm: Better Services

Thomas Partridge told the council he was there as he has been for over a decade to lobby for increased services, attention and priorities for residents needing and deserving services the most. He told the council he was there as a candidate in the Democratic primary for the state house of representatives 53rd District, which covers most of Ann Arbor. [He's running against incumbent Jeff Irwin.] He called on the council and the public at large to adopt a progressive agenda. He called for expansion of affordable transportation and housing in a way that is balanced and that is backed by adequate appropriations. He contended that the expansion of employment in the city is being neglected.

During public commentary at the conclusion of the meeting, Partridge repeated his call for expanded services, including an expanded competent public transportation system. He lamented the lack of a public hearing on John Seto’s appointment as permanent police chief. He said the public deserves open, transparent government. It’s not good public policy to approve large contracts without due deliberations on them or to approve site plans that would require little children to walk in the streets, he concluded. [Partridge was alluding in his last comment to the Maple Cove site plan approved by the council that night. The site plan does not include sidewalks for a private street leading to single-family homes.]

Present: Jane Lumm, Mike Anglin, Margie Teall, Sabra Briere, Sandi Smith, Tony Derezinski, Stephen Kunselman, Marcia Higgins, John Hieftje, Carsten Hohnke.

Absent: Christopher Taylor.

Next council meeting: Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012 at 7 p.m. in the council chambers at 301 E. Huron. [Check Chronicle event listings to confirm date]

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Ann Arbor Public Meetings Now Live on Web Tue, 22 Mar 2011 03:33:57 +0000 Chronicle Staff At the city council’s March 21, 2011 meeting, city administrator Roger Fraser mentioned that the city council’s meetings would now be available streamed live over the web: [CTN Channel 16 Live]. Previously, the city has provided access to archived coverage of public meetings through its video-on-demand service: [Ann Arbor Public Meetings Archive]

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