The Ann Arbor Chronicle » taxicab it's like being there Wed, 26 Nov 2014 18:59:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Taxicab Board Considers Rates, Drivers Sun, 25 May 2014 14:16:26 +0000 Dave Askins Ann Arbor taxicab board meeting (May 22, 2014): Two topics addressed by the board at its April 23, 2014 meeting received additional conversation this month. First, the board discussed the possibility of deregulating taxicab fares, or setting them at a much higher maximum. The board also continued discussing whether to recommend that the city council enact an ordinance to regulate all drivers for hire – taxicab drivers, limo drivers, as well as those who drive for Uber and Lyft.

Screen of iPhone showing Uber vehicle responding to request for a pickup on May 24. The resulting trip – from Jackson & Maple to Liberty & Main was calculated by Uber as $8. With the current introductory promotion it cost nothing.

Screen of iPhone showing Uber vehicle responding to request for a pickup on May 24. The resulting trip – from Jackson & Maple to Liberty & Main – was calculated by Uber as costing $8.

Both topics will also be considered at the board’s next meeting on June 26.

Consideration of a general driver-for-hire ordinance comes in reaction to the recent entry of Uber and Lyft into the Ann Arbor market. However, taxicab board chair Michael Benson stressed during the meeting that the point of the possible new ordinance was not to “target” Uber and Lyft, but rather to ensure that all drivers for hire are registered with the city. Those two companies, which coordinate drivers and passengers through software applications, have been sent cease-and-desist letters by the Ann Arbor city attorney’s office – for aiding and abetting the violation of a state statute regulating limousines. [.pdf of cease-and-desist sent to Lyft] [.pdf of cease-and-desist sent to Uber]

But the board heard from a University of Michigan student during public commentary time, who reported that the cease-and-desist letters, dated May 14, 2014, were having no impact – as he’d used one of the services three times the previous evening. In the course of his remarks, the UM business undergrad outlined several advantages of Uber and Lyft, including price, convenience and efficiency.

The board had voted at its April 23 meeting to ask the city attorney’s office to draft general driver-for-hire ordinance language for consideration at its May 22 meeting, but that draft was not yet available.

So at its next meeting on June 26, the board is expecting two possible proposals to be ready for consideration: (1) a new rate structure proposal; and (2) a draft ordinance on regulating all drivers for hire. The taxicab board could forward a recommendation to the city council to enact either proposal. A decision on enactment rests with the city council.

Discussion of the driver-for-hire issue at the May 22 meeting included themes familiar from the board’s April 23 conversation, mostly centering on the desire of board members to ensure public safety for patrons of businesses that operate on the public right-of-way. They want to ensure that drivers who are being compensated for their work are registered with the city, that their vehicles are inspected, and that they are adequately insured.

The rate changes to be considered by the board on June 26 come in the context of board interest in seeing the taxicab industry able to compete with limousine services, as well as with services with business models like those of Uber and Lyft. Currently the maximum rate in Ann Arbor is $3 to get in, $2.50 per mile, and 40 cents per minute waiting time.

Those maximum rates were last adjusted upwards three years ago, on May 16, 2011, in response to gas prices that had nudged past $4 per gallon. At that time, the taxicab board indicated it did not anticipate considering another rate change until the gas prices were over $5 for at least two consecutive months.

So the board’s thinking is not being driven by gas prices, which are currently between $3.75 and $4 in the Ann Arbor area. Instead, a possible increase in allowable fares is based on concern that the taxicab industry in Ann Arbor might not be able to survive unless taxis are allowed to charge more. Taxicab board member Robert Goeddel supported setting a significantly higher maximum, saying that if the taxicab industry does not survive, he does not want it to be because the basic costs of doing business can’t be covered.

City CFO Tom Crawford, who sits on the taxicab board as an ex officio member, noted that it’s a challenge to consider changes in rate structures at the same time as new entrants have come into the market – who have a lower cost structure than the taxicab industry. He expressed some concern that the result could be a “race to the bottom” for pricing that could work to destroy the taxicab industry.

In other business, the board elected its officers for the next year – an annual task. Benson and Stephen Kunselman were re-elected as chair and vice chair of the board.  

Public Commentary: Meeting Start

There are two opportunities for public commentary – one at the start of the meeting and another at the end. One person spoke at the start of the meeting.

Tyler Hoffman introduced himself as a University Michigan undergraduate. He wanted to give his perspective, having been here for three years now – as he’d seen the way things were before Lyft and Uber were in Ann Arbor and after Lyft and Uber are here. The positive public response has been too great to try now to make Lyft and Uber go away, he contended. “The cease-and-desist letters have done nothing,” he said, and he knew that because he’d used those services many times since the cease-and-desist letters were sent.

“It’s a great service and is something that the public and especially the students want,” Hoffman told the board. Uber and Lyft are also generally cheaper, he said. He was glad that the board was talking about rate deregulation, calling it very proactive. Taxicab medallions are an outdated business model, he said. With a cab, you’re given a window where you have to wait. With Lyft and Uber, he has a 10- or 15-minute wait, and he can see where the car is at any given point in time. So you can see, for example, that the car is nine minutes away.

Instead of making a taxicab wait five or 10 minutes outside, he knows when his ride from Lyft or Uber is coming, he gets a text message when that the car has arrived, and there is no wait involved. Hoffman went on to describe how using Lyft and Uber is very quick and efficient. It is also cashless, he said, as there’s no cash exchanged. Taxicabs might use Square, but the service provided by Lyft and Uber is even simpler than that. They don’t take cash tips and if you try to give cash tips, the drivers don’t take them.

Another advantage cited by Hoffman is that Lyft and Uber have a more modern fleet. As a college student, when he wants to get a ride to Scorekeepers on a given night, he might not care about how modern the car is. But UberBlack has nicer cars with chauffeur-licensed drivers, he said, describing how Uber and Lyft do have requirements on their fleet. Hoffman reported that he asked a Lyft driver what he does when he’s not driving for Lyft, and the driver said he also worked for a taxicab company.

The driver was reckoning with getting fired – but had told Hoffman that he knew this is the direction that innovation was going in the industry. These new services also created competition and Hoffman felt that’s always a good thing: “It’s got everyone shaking in their boots, so to say.” Hoffman characterized the issue of insurance as convoluted, so he didn’t know if he was going to be protected if he gets into an accident. But the difference between having a chauffeur’s license and not having a chauffeur’s license is the difference between spending 45 minutes at the Secretary of State’s office and handing over $25, he said. To him, that procedure did not improve your ability to drive safely. The question of insurance was more of a legitimate issue, he added.

Changing Rate Structure

Stephen Kunselman, who is the city council’s representative on the taxicab board, opened up the May 22 discussion on raising rates, saying it’s been many years since they were last raised. But he really didn’t want to be “guinea pig” community trying to create a rate system that is more complicated. “If we just want to raise the rates to allow the taxicab companies to have a better time trying to compete, then I’m all for that.”

The bigger issue, Kunselman said, is whether the city is going to begin enforcement against “gypsy companies” – by which he meant Uber and Lyft. Kunselman said he appreciated the comments from Tyler Hoffman during public commentary, but the point that Hoffman had skipped over was the insurance requirements that are necessary to operate vehicles for hire. Competition is important, Kunselman said, but when you compete by cheating, that’s not acceptable – and that’s what Uber and Lyft were doing when they use drivers who are using private cars with private insurance. What Kunselman had read is that when an accident occurs, then a passenger is not covered.

A $1 million insurance policy that’s provided by Uber and Lyft is not necessarily a guarantee, Kunselman said: “It’s just a marketing ploy.” It’s a new and dynamic change in the industry, he said, but that’s not to say that Yellow Car, Amazing Blue, and other local taxicab companies will not come out with their own apps and provide that same sort of service. When that competition catches up, Uber and Lyft would be pushed aside, he felt.

Ann Arbor is a hot market that has a lot of peaks and valleys in the demand, Kunselman said, and that led him to another concern he had with the Uber and Lyft business model: “Surge pricing” is more like price gouging, he said. That’s why there are taxicab rates, so that it’s fair to everyone – wealthy, poor and middle class alike. If the industry uses “surge pricing,” he noted, then during peak demand, only the wealthy are going to get ride. “That’s not equitable, and that’s not appropriate, and I don’t think that’s what this community is about. If that’s the kind of elitism that University Michigan students want, then that’s disappointing,” Kunselman said.

During public commentary at the end of the meeting, Rick Clark of Amazing Blue taxicab company was skeptical that software apps were the answer to everything – partly because of the surge pricing. A young college student might think it’s great that he can get a ride like that, Clark said, but during a UM football game, that student is going to get gouged.

Kunselman ventured that there are issues the state of Michigan might need to address. Kunselman characterized the business models used by Lyft and Uber as “basically cheating,” and ventured that they would get caught eventually, citing other states where Uber and Lyft had been accused of racketeering. Uber and Lyft are pushing the envelope, he said, but at some point it only takes one accident and one lawsuit to shut them down. As far as taxicab rate deregulation, Kunselman said he’d just as soon recommend raising the rates at the next meeting, and let the taxicab companies try to compete at that level, then see what happens.

Eric Sturgis followed Kunselman’s comments by stressing that the number one goal is safety. Uber and Lyft use drivers who are not registered with anyone. The city doesn’t know if there’s a felon out there taking people around in a car, he said. Sturgis pointed out that the number of registered taxicabs was decreasing: “We are losing taxicabs.” So that made him want to consider full rate deregulation. Ann Arbor is an intelligent community, Sturgis said, and he didn’t think the board should be telling people that they’re not smart enough to know which taxicab to take based on fares. He said he’d be willing to look at taking small steps to start, but he’d like to see the board head in the direction of deregulation.

Responding to Hoffman’s remarks, board chair Michael Benson said the board has to balance a few competing priorities – first and foremost public safety. The taxi industry is the only industry that solely operates on the public right of ways, he noted. So the city has a responsibility to ensure not just safety, but a level of competitiveness.

About the Uber and Lyft issue, he noted that the cease-and-desist orders are a first step. Benson said he didn’t know what Lyft or Uber do to inspect vehicles. Maybe the standards are different from what the city requires for vehicles for hire. So if someone is offering to drive a vehicle for hire, there should be a common standard, he said. The city needs to be able to address that.

All of these businesses are operating in the public right-of-way, Benson said, and that makes them different from a restaurant or anything else. That’s why the taxicab industry should be regulated at all. Benson felt that some kind of rate increase is necessary. He expressed concern that the current rates don’t take into account the rising cost of insurance for taxi operators. One approach would be to increase the fares beyond a small $0.25 increase. He also supported allowing a surcharge for three or four passengers.

LuAnn Bullington ventured that if the board deregulated taxicabs, then cabs would essentially be providing limousine service. She felt it would be appropriate to increase the maximum rate based on increases in gas prices. She would like to see Uber and Lyft enter the Ann Arbor market, but she also has concerns about public safety. If Uber decides to go to the state and get themselves a limo license and compete like everybody else, she’d have no problem with that. It’s just another business model.

Bullington also felt that taxicab companies would be adopting new technologies as well, and would be able to let customers know when they’re coming in real time. She mentioned that Yellow Car has been working with the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority [as the AAATA's paratransit contractor] to notify passengers at home to tell them that the ride is almost there. As far as options available to the riding public, she did not want to see everything “turning into vanilla.” She hoped that Uber starts playing fair and becomes registered as a limo company, like they should be.

Number of taxicabs licensed in Ann Arbor by Year. (Data from the city of Ann Arbor, chart by The Chronicle.)

Number of taxicabs licensed in Ann Arbor by year. (Data from the city of Ann Arbor, chart by The Chronicle.)

Sturgis came back to the point about the number of registered taxicabs in the city, saying that the decrease is a great concern. That is allowing Uber and Lyft to enter the market, he said, because they’re seizing upon an opportunity. He felt the reason the number of taxicabs is decreasing can be attributed to the cost of insurance. He said he wants the best service possible and the safest service possible, which Uber and Lyft don’t provide. Raising the maximum rate could be a short-term fix, but Sturgis wondered if there were a longer-term vision.

Tom Crawford offered two points of caution. The first is how to interpret the number of taxicabs registered in the city in 2014, which was recorded as 96 in the materials provided to the board. Crawford pointed out that the figure is footnoted because the count had not been completed, calling it an “interim number.”

While this board is talking about the taxicab industry, Crawford continued, it may be that the city’s perspective is to have a variety of ways to meet transportation needs – taxicabs being one of them. So the board should be cautious about concluding that there is some “right number” of taxicabs. The city may need more taxicabs or fewer, in light of other transportation options that are available, Crawford concluded.

In support of Crawford’s observation, Kunselman noted that voters had just approved a new transit millage that’s going to increase service in the evenings and weekends. That’s going to change the dynamic as well – because bus transportation would be a lot cheaper than a limo or a taxi.

Crawford pointed out that the board was discussing two things going on at once: Rate deregulation and a new entrant in the market. The new entrants actually have a business model, as he understood it, where they potentially have a lower cost of doing business than the taxicab industry. So that would drive rates down. When you have a new entrant that is competing with a different cost structure, that could work out economically to lead to the destruction of the taxicab industry. So now might be exactly the time when you do not want to deregulate, he said.

Instead, it might be more important to make a very clear distinction about what is a taxicab and what is not a taxicab. Crawford understood the excitement of the new business model, but it is not a model that is delivering the same product that a taxicab is delivering, he said. A differentiation of those business models might be healthier for the industry, he said. Crawford ventured that deregulation at this time might result in a race to the bottom of the lowest rate. And that could lead to riskier, less secure businesses, he cautioned.

Responding to Crawford, Robert Goeddel said the current rate structure – which set a maximum rate – did not prevent a race to the bottom. Rates can already go as low as they need to go, he ventured. So we’re already in a situation where a race to the bottom is a risk. But he did not want to see a scenario where people are not using taxicabs because taxicabs are going out of business – because they cannot afford to be in business. If the taxicab industry going to change because of the dynamic in the market, he wanted that to be because there’s a better service out there – not because it’s impossible to do business. And right now, he continued, it seems like it’s not possible to do business and be competitive.

Goeddel agreed with a comment that Kunselman had made at the board’s previous meeting, that more options might not lead to better price – citing the example of increased downtown housing units. After building all those new apartments downtown, many people thought it would drive rents down – but that is exactly the opposite of what has happened, he said. He was paying more to live in Ann Arbor than ever before, reporting that his rent rose by 10% last year. He was amenable to raising the rates, but felt that $0.25 would not be sufficient. He said he might be interested in “pseudo regulation,” where rates are raised beyond the point of reason, which would give the appearance of deregulated rates without taking the full leap.

Bullington contended that Ann Arbor has some of the highest gas rates in the country, so she was interested in raising the maximum rate for that reason. Crawford pointed out that the last time the board had recommended raising the maximum rate, the board had also concluded that if gas prices moved out of a certain range for a certain period, then the maximum rate could be revisited. But gas prices have been lower than that since that time, Crawford said. So he thought that insurance has been more of a cost issue than the price of gas.

Benson noted that the option being considered is not to deregulate the taxicab industry: “We’re still going to inspect vehicles. We’re still going to license the drivers.” The point of discussion was the fare structure, he said. Even if the fares were deregulated, the city would still have interest in compliance on vehicle inspection and licensing the drivers.

Benson said he was pleased that the board was considering either a potential rate hike or deregulation – to allow the industry to be able to compete, but also perhaps distinguish itself in the service it was offering. He pointed out that there are multiple models in which a taxicab can operate. For example, a taxi can be hailed on the street – and that’s the only vehicle that can legally do that. But you can also call a taxicab dispatcher and if a company does have an iPhone app or something similar, you can request a cab and away you go, much like a limo service, he said.

Benson thought it was critically important to educate people about the difference in the modalities – and the city had actually tried that. An ordinance change was approved by the city council a few years ago that tried to help make that distinction, he said. He wondered how effective the educational campaign was. Some people are aware of the difference between a taxicab and a limo, but a lot of people just aren’t, he said. So the educational component is critically important.

Benson asked AAPD officer Jamie Adkins, as she was on the front lines, what could be done to educate folks that taxis are taxis and limos and limos, and there is a difference. Adkins told Benson that part of the problem is getting police officers to understand the difference – because they think that all for-hire drivers are the same.

At the end of the meeting during public commentary, Bill Chinchen, owner of the AirTran taxicab company, addressed the issue of limos acting as taxicabs. He told the board that he’d done a count in the area of South University and Church on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. There were 32 unlicensed cabs sporting top lights and picking up passengers off the curb. He’s talked to talked to the police officers, he said, but not gotten any satisfaction.

Chinchen reminded the board that in October 2012, there was a big crackdown on the “fake cabs,” and that lasted about a week. Then they all started filtering back. Chinchen said it’s not that officers don’t know who is who – they just don’t want to be bothered with it. “They have other better things to do than chase around all these guys taking away our business,” he said.

Benson summarized the option that the board had discussed: full deregulation of rates; a fare increase to cover cost of business, including insurance; or a fare increase beyond the cost of doing business to allow some play in the market. Benson also mentioned the possibility of allowing for a passenger surcharge to allow a higher rate for three or four passengers.

Kunselman then suggested that the board ask Crawford to prepare a change in taxicab rates for discussion at the next meeting.

Crawford told Kunselman that he didn’t have a problem with the rates and the publication structure that had been suggested by one of the taxicab companies. Crawford then checked his understanding of the kind of rate structure the board wanted him to draft. Crawford said he got the message that the board wanted to see a substantially higher maximum fare set. He also understood that rates would be published on the rear vehicle doors.

Benson added that the rates should be published so that passengers would see the rates as they entered, and also as they’re sitting, riding in the cab. Crawford noted that a meter should be revalidated if a fare is changed. Considerable back-and-forth ensued between board members and Crawford on this point, with the basic conclusion that the ordinance should state that a penalty would be incurred if the meter was set to a rate that was higher than the published rate, but not if it was lower. But in any case, the meter would need to be revalidated if the company changed its published rates.

Kunselman also wanted to allow for flat rates. If a taxicab drops the flag on the meter and goes out to the airport, the meter might say $60, but they should be able to charge $40 for the trip. Kunselman summarized his view by saying he wanted to give taxicab companies the ability to charge a higher rate, but to compete by offering cheaper rates.

Regulating Drivers for Hire

Benson led of the discussion of the general drivers-for-hire ordinance by saying he understood that the assistant city attorney did not have a draft ordinance ready for review that day – but it was in the works. Later in the meeting, Sturgis asked if the city attorney’s office was confused about what the taxicab board was asking them to do. No, Crawford, said, they’re not confused. Kunselman added: “Government just doesn’t work that fast.”

Kunselman stated that he didn’t think the ordinance should be about registering vehicles, but rather about registering drivers for hire. He noted that vehicles are registered by the state under the limousine act, or by the city as taxicabs. He wanted to focus on drivers: Taxi drivers are licensed by the city but limousine drivers are not.

He continued by saying that drivers for Uber and Lyft are not registered anywhere. About the Uber and Lyft business models, Kunselman said he didn’t know of any private sector business that self-regulates for public safety – and that’s the problem with the Uber and Lyft business model, he said. Uber and Lyft are cheating by not requiring proper insurance, Kunselman said. He ventured that the new ordinance might need to be separate from the taxicab ordinance.

The basic issue, Kunselman continued, goes back to using the public right-of-way to pick up the public and make a profit using public resources – our public roads. That’s very different from regulating restaurants, he said. The taxicab board has a responsibility to protect the unsuspecting public, he said. Education of the public could be talked about all day long.

But based on the remarks of Hoffmann during public commentary, University of Michigan students are just interested in the cheapest ride, Kunselman said – until they end up in a hospital and are hit with a bill of millions of dollars for head injuries. He thought people had forgotten one of the reasons the state’s limousine law was tightened up years ago. It happened when one of the Detroit Red Wings players [Vladimir Konstantinov], following the Stanley Cup win back in the 1990s, had ended up in the back of a limo – which Kunselman believed was improperly regulated – and was paralyzed when he went flying from one end of the limo to the other. That resulted in a tightening up of the limo industry, Kunselman said. When that happens with an Uber driver and their uninsured car, we’ll end up with the same problem, Kunselman ventured.

It’s unfortunate that the younger generation has forgotten the experiences of the older generation with respect to public safety, Kunselman said. So Kunselman wanted the board to consider a totally separate ordinance that regulates drivers who are offering their vehicles for hire. The ordinance should allow the city to require that drivers provide proof of insurance, that the vehicles they’re driving for their business are safe. That way, the city could do its part as a public entity to ensure public safety.

Benson responded to Kunselman’s focus on registering drivers as opposed to vehicles, saying that the city should have a way of registering vehicles other than taxicabs, which it currently licenses. The idea would be to ensure that a vehicle used to provide rides for hire meets minimal standards. Those standards might be the same as what the state requires for limousines. Or maybe the standards would be more like the standards for taxicabs. But Benson felt that all vehicles for hire in the city needed to be registered.

Kunselman agreed with Benson’s remarks – if the city has the ability to enact those requirements under state law.

Sturgis disagreed with the idea that young people don’t care about public safety: “I think they do care about public safety. I think they may be not educated about Uber and Lyft.” Sturgis ventured that students are price conscious because of the high cost of tuition.

Bullington wanted police officers to have the ability to pull over a driver for hire and ask if they are registered with the city. It’s about putting more teeth in the law, she said.

Crawford offered a word of caution about lumping Uber and Lyft into the same category, saying that based on his very cursory research on Uber and Lyft, they appear to have different business models. It might turn out that one or the other of those business models is more amenable to the way the taxicab industry wants to proceed.

A brief discussion among board members – on the point of putting some additional teeth in the existing taxicab ordinance as well – resulted in an approved motion to add that to the board’s request of Crawford and the city attorney’s office.

Public Commentary: Meeting End

Public commentary not already included in the report above included remarks from Stadium Taxi and SelectRide representatives.

During public commentary at the conclusion of the meeting, Mark Newman, owner of Stadium Taxi, told the board he thought the taxicab board needed to get the word out to the students that services like Uber and Lyft are illegal. He suggested that the president of the University of Michigan should send a mass email out to the students telling them that Uber and Lyft. Newman raised the specter of a students getting into an accident and suing the city of Ann Arbor. He’s talked to several different police officers in the evenings, he said, and they’re not doing anything. His business has gone down 30% because of Uber and Lyft, he said.

Newman called on the city to put a cease-and-desist order on the software application itself, so that it could not be used. When he concluded his remarks, board chair Michael Benson got clarification that Newman’s company is not at taxicab company, but rather a limo company. Kunselman responded: “But we are the taxicab board!”

Newman replied that the taxicab board works with the city – and they know the city staff – whereas he does not.

Mark LaSarge with SelectRide objected to the board “stomping on” Newman for not being a taxicab company, pointing out that public commentary is for the public. At the end of all the public commentary, Benson extended his apologies to Newman for any implication that he didn’t have a right to speak.

LaSarge complimented Kunselman for his remarks about price gouging, possible racketeering issues associated with Uber and Lyft. Many of the concerns are based on fear and doubt, he said. Fear and doubt are “twin thieves” that steal from you the ability to do what you would otherwise do right, he said. A business model is the business of that business, not the city, he said.

The city’s business is making sure that everybody is conducting business safely according to the appropriate regulations, and providing a basic standard uniform service. Is the driver a safe driver? Are the vehicles appropriate? Is the insurance appropriate? About those questions, LaSarge told the board: “That’s your job. How I price my ride is irrelevant to you.” Whether the application is called Uber or Lyft or TaxiMagic, “so we can get a cute little dot on the screen coming toward you – that’s not your business. That is ours.”

Present: Tom Crawford, Jamie Adkins, Eric Sturgis, Stephen Kunselman, LuAnne Bullington, Michael Benson, Robert Goeddel.

Next taxicab board meeting: June 26, 2014 at 8:30 a.m. at city hall at 301 E. Huron. [Check Chronicle event listings to confirm date]

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Ann Arbor Taxi Board Reacts to Uber Tue, 29 Apr 2014 13:12:14 +0000 Dave Askins Ann Arbor taxicab board meeting (April 23, 2014): In its one action taken at the meeting, the board approved making a request of the city attorney’s office to come up with a draft of an ordinance amendment – that would require all drivers for hire to be registered in the city.

April 23, 2014 meeting of the Ann Arbor taxicab board.

April 23, 2014 meeting of the Ann Arbor taxicab board at city hall. (Photo by the writer.)

The action comes in response to Uber‘s entry into the Ann Arbor market. Uber is a service, based on a mobile app, that coordinates prospective passengers with drivers who are willing to make the trip. Currently the city’s taxicab ordinance covers only taxicab drivers – not limousine drivers or any other drivers for hire. The board wants to see a draft ordinance that would include all drivers for hire – so that Uber’s drivers would need to be registered in the city of Ann Arbor.

Stephen Kunselman, who serves as the city council’s representative to the taxicab board, put it this way at the meeting: “The number one issue of regulating drivers in the industry is for public safety, alright? I want to know who these drivers are who are driving around picking up people in our town, okay? Number one issue.”

A change to the city’s ordinance could come only after approval by the city council.

The action requesting the city attorney’s office to begin work on an ordinance amendment was not actually on the board’s meeting agenda. The one item for discussion had been to consider possible deregulation of taxicab fares in the city – a topic the board has been considering for about a year. As board chair Michael Benson put it, “It’s time to address it one way or the other.” Currently the maximum rate is $3 to get in, $2.50 per mile, and $0.40 a minute waiting time.

Those rates were last adjusted upwards on May 16, 2011, in response to gas prices that had nudged past $4 per gallon. With one exception, representatives of taxicab companies at the April 23 meeting were not looking for the kind of $0.25 adjustments that have been made in the past. Instead, they’re looking for a high maximum – along the lines of $5 to get in and $5 per mile – so that a competitive market could develop under that cap.

Benson and Tom Crawford – the city’s CFO and an ex officio member of the board – steered the conversation toward identifying ways to measure success of any change in the city’s approach to regulating fares: “What is it that you want to achieve? Let’s get some clarity on that so that we can identify whether we have succeeded or not. That’s the real point,” said Crawford.

What came out of that board discussion was that the measurement of success should include the number of taxicabs being operated in the city. At the meeting, Ann Arbor police officer Jamie Adkins told board members that for the three years from 2008 to 2010 there were 177, 193, and 179 taxicabs operating in the city, respectively. But when Yellow Car converted all but one vehicle to limousine, that number dropped to 111 in 2011. In 2012 there were 132 taxicabs, she said, and the current figure is 124.

The board’s past effort to regulate the entire livery industry – including limousines, which are supposed to take only pre-arranged, not hailed rides – has included recommendations to revise the city’s ordinance so that limousine companies cannot hold themselves out as taxicab companies. And the city council enacted those changes in 2011. But according to officer Adkins, AAPD has learned that those aspects of the ordinance can’t be the primary reason for a police traffic stop. [.pdf of Ann Arbor taxicab ordinance]

Public Commentary: Initial Opportunity

Rick Clark of Amazing Blue Taxi addressed the board at the start of the meeting during time allotted for public commentary. He contended that in essence, the transportation industry in Ann Arbor has been deregulated as far as fare structure goes. Uber is coming to town, he noted, and that is the market.

The ordinance that Ann Arbor has is a fine ordinance for 1984, but now it’s 2014, Clark pointed out. Technology has changed, but the city has not changed the regulations – to take into account how the market has changed. The city has to decide whether it wants to have a healthy taxicab business over which the city could have some control, he said, or if it would prefer just to have the wild, wild West.

Deregulation of Fares?

Board chair Michael Benson noted that the deregulation of fares has been on the taxicab board agenda for about a year now. “It’s time to address it one way or the other,” he said. He reported that he and Tom Crawford, along with financial services support staff Sarah Singleton, had met during the previous week and talked about key questions. One of them was: How do we quantify success?

Crawford, who serves on the board in an ex officio capacity as chief financial officer of the city, said that during his time on the board, what he’d seen is the board react to a things that happen – things don’t just stay the same. As the board thinks about either experimenting or moving to a deregulated restructure, he suggested board members think about ways to measure success. “What is it that you want to achieve? Let’s get some clarity on that so that we can identify whether we have succeeded or not. That’s the real point,” said Crawford.

The way Crawford understood fares to work is that the city sets the maximum rate – and drivers may charge less but they cannot charge more. Typically when you deregulate rates, the intent is that the rates become more competitive, and that competition would drive the rates down, Crawford said. He wasn’t sure he would see that happening here. The question he put to the board was: Why should we make any change? Just to say that technology is out there was not enough, he said. What is not working, and why should the city change fares? Crawford asked.

Board member Eric Sturgis said that Rick Clark of Amazing Blue Taxi had made a good point in a letter he’d written to the board: What else does the city set prices on and regulate what a business can and cannot charge? If the taxicab board let the taxis set their own rates, Sturgis thought it could drive prices higher or lower. He wondered if the city had ever tried deregulating fares.

Board member LuAnne Bullington ventured that the city of Ann Arbor already had a situation where fares were not regulated – with limousines. The city doesn’t regulate limousines, she said, so was that not already an experiment that the city was in the midst of?

Initial Discussion of Uber

After a few minutes, the fact that Uber has entered Ann Arbor’s market was mentioned.

Board member Stephen Kunselman agreed with Crawford’s framing of the question. Kunselman thought that limousines were pricing themselves based on taxicab rates. Taxicab fares are the benchmark used by limousine companies, Kunselman said. Everyone knew that Uber is already in Ann Arbor, Kunselman said. He’d received a call from the Detroit Free Press writer commenting on this, and the Free Press reporter had notified him that the city of Detroit has issued a cease-and-desist order against Uber.

Kunselman noted that assistant city attorney Kristen Larcom was in attendance at the meeting, so he expected that Ann Arbor would be following Detroit’s lead. “The number one issue of regulating drivers in the industry is for public safety, alright? I want to know who these drivers are who are driving around picking up people in our town, okay? Number one issue.” As far as setting rates, the other issue identified by Kunselman is that bartering should not happen: The city doesn’t want people getting in a car in and bartering, so that it costs someone $10 to get across town and the next person pays $30.

Back to Fares

Bartering would create a lot of issues, Kunselman thought, and the taxicab board would end up hearing complaints about why people are getting gouged. In terms of the deregulating fares, from all the discussions that he’d had with Rick Clark and what he’d been finding, Kunselman had not seen any other community that has no regulation of rates, or that does anything complicated. Kunselman was not sure he wanted Ann Arbor to be the guinea pig in that respect. At the same time, he said, he recognized that the technology and the industry are changing pretty dramatically. So he didn’t know what the next step is. But the most important issue is that the city should make sure it knows who the drivers are in town, Kunselman concluded.

Bullington said she’d been talking to people who use cabs, and she uses cabs herself. Right now, we have the best of both worlds, she said. Ann Arbor has limos that are deregulated and can set their own price, and also has taxicabs that are regulated. So if people want to call around to find out what the prices are to get from A to B, they can do that. The people she was talking to know what they will get charged by a taxicab, and they know that taxicabs are regulated and they’re very comfortable with that. But there’s another group who want to see who can get the best rate so they call the limo companies. Bullington concluded that Ann Arbor has the best of both worlds.

Benson responded to Sturgis’ question by saying that Ann Arbor had not ever tried deregulation. Crawford ventured there was a time that the ordinance had a provision such that if you don’t have a meter, then you must post your rates – but he was unsure of the details. He did not think it was completely deregulated. Larcom’s recollection of that version of the ordinance was also vague. She said there was a provision of the kind Crawford described, but she didn’t recall exactly what it said or how it worked. She didn’t recall anybody ever using the alternative of posting rates instead of using a meter.

Benson noted that it’s important to remember that the taxicab board could not itself deregulate rates: That would require an ordinance change, he said. Any decision the board eventually made would likely just be a recommendation. Benson also agreed with Kunselman’s point – that the principal goal is to ensure safety. At the same time, the board was doing its best to make sure that the taxicab industry can thrive and succeed. Benson was concerned that if the board does nothing, more and more of the taxi companies would become limos, which could upset the balance. Now, is that the city’s responsibility to try to keep the balance? Benson asked. How many cabs does the board actually want on the streets of Ann Arbor? What makes sense?

Sturgis agreed that the point about safety is a good one.

Uber Redux

Kunselman noted that a lot of the issues the board is trying to deal with are handled at the state level. He thought there has been some legislative movement on the state level. On the other hand, he also recalled hearing that the state would actually allow cities more flexibility, and the city just hasn’t tried taking action. Kunselman said he was open to pushing the envelope and passing an ordinance amendment that basically requires all drivers – taxicab drivers and limo drivers alike – and push that to see what happens. If the limo companies take the city to court, then maybe that’s something the city needs to do. “We need to push from the bottom up as well as the state pushing down,” Kunselman said.

About Uber’s position that it does not take responsibility for the transportation and that the company is just coordinating these drivers, Kunselman said: “I’m not buying that. They have direct involvement in using their technology and they’re doing it to make money. If they are making money, then they should be subjected to our regulations.”

“Uber is here and we’re going to counter it,” Kunselman said. “We have to counter it. We can’t just let them come into our community and dictate that they are basically going to wipe out the taxicab industry because they are only using limo drivers.” From what he’d read in the paper, Uber was using all licensed limo drivers. But if they’re not using limo drivers, and if they are not being regulated, then the city needs to regulate them. Any driver who is picking up passengers for a fare should be licensed by the city of Ann Arbor, whether they are a limo driver or a taxicab driver, Kunselman said.

At that point, it was apparent that the board’s conversation about fares had been transformed into a discussion of what to do about the entry of Uber into the Ann Arbor market.

Sturgis ventured that it would be possible to have an ordinance that requires all drivers to register with the city, but also to deregulate fares.

Kunselman felt that deregulating fares is a good concept but agreed with Crawford that the board doesn’t know what the impact of that would be. He thought that step might drive fares higher – because limos are benchmarking themselves to Ann Arbor taxicab rates. Kunselman then drew a comparison of the effect of increased housing supply in downtown Ann Arbor: Everyone thought that increased supply of housing downtown would cause prices to come down. What had actually happened is that the new units just filled the market for 5,000 additional students that have been enrolling at the University of Michigan in the last decade, he said.

The introduction of services like Uber into the market means that it’s a very dynamic market, Kunselman said. He continued by describing the Ann Arbor taxicab market as kind of boom-and-bust, with weekends getting heavy use. That’s why the board needs to stay very focused on the safety issue, he said.

Kunselman called the taxicab rate issue very delicate, and suggested that rates should be calibrated to gas prices. Fares haven’t been changed due to increases in gas prices since 2011, he pointed out. If fares need to be adjusted, Kunselman was open to that and he was willing to tweak the fares. But he didn’t want to try to create a new fare system that included zones or other complicated features.

Success Metric: Number of Taxicabs?

Benson tried to get board members to focus on the question posed at the start: How would the board measure success, if it decided to change the fare structure? Benson then asked: Are we succeeding now? Since 2011 have we been succeeding? Hypothetically, if the city council allowed the board to raise the maximum fare to $10 – in effect deregulating fares – how would the board define success? Is it the number of cars on the street? Is it the number of companies? The number of incidents? The number of complaints? What might make sense? Benson asked. He noted that these are the kind of questions that should be answered, whether rates are deregulated or not.

Distribution of taxicabs companies operating in Ann Arbor by the number of vehicles in operation. Only three companies have more than 18 cabs. Most companies have just on cab in operation.

Distribution of taxicabs companies operating in Ann Arbor by the number of vehicles in operation. Only three companies have more than 18 cabs. Most companies have just one cab in operation.

Board member Robert Goeddel ventured that the main incentive for deregulating would be to encourage more taxicabs – because however the city of Ann Arbor filters drivers, the city at least knows who is on the street picking up passengers. He thought success should be tied to the number of taxicabs operating in town, as opposed to limos. One thing that prompted this call for deregulation of fares, Goeddel said, was that a lot of cabs were switching over to limos – which are under state control, not under city control.

Crawford then asked Adkins to share information about the number of taxicabs that are operating in the city of Ann Arbor. Currently there are 124 vehicles and 21 companies. Previously, there were significantly more – when Yellow Car was part of the taxicab industry. From 2008 to 2010 there were 177, 193, and 179 taxicabs operating in the city, respectively. But when Yellow Car converted all but one vehicle to limousines, that number dropped to 111 in 2011. In 2012 there were 132 taxicabs, she said, and the current figure is 124.

Kunselman summarized the numbers by saying that when Yellow Car converted to primarily limo service, that took a big chunk of the taxicabs out of service, and it’s been pretty steady since then.

Success Metric: Citations for Limo-as-Taxicab?

Benson again asked the board to focus on metrics for success – whether the board takes on fares or not. Kunselman said he did not know if it was a metric for success, but he’d like to know on a regular basis how many limos are being pulled over for operating as taxis.

Adkins responded to Kunselman by saying that part of the city’s taxicab ordinance is very difficult to enforce – especially once the limos caught on. Adkins explained that when a limo is pulled over, before an officer makes contact, the driver would tell the passenger to tell the officer that it was a prearranged fare and tell the officer that the passenger had called for the ride. Kunselman ventured that the limo driver would still need to show their licenses. Adkins told Kunselman she’d talked to the state police about whether Ann Arbor police officers could stop limos – to make sure they were properly licensed through the state and that they had their current driver record with them. Adkins explained that it could not be the primary reason to pull over a limo.

The state police had suggested that Ann Arbor look at enacting a local ordinance regulating limousines. Kunselman’s response: “Then let’s do it.”

Adkins said that East Lansing has done something like that already. Kunselman ventured that the state is realizing it’s not working to regulate limos at the state level. If the limo company wants to sue Ann Arbor over a local ordinance, that company will need to have something to point to at the state level saying the statute clearly prohibits cities from enacting ordinances regulating limousines. Kunselman understood the message from the state to be that it’s not that clear.

Sturgis said he did not know why the board did not simply place on a meeting agenda an ordinance amendment that requires all drivers to register with the city. “To me, that should be a no-brainer,” he said.

Registration of All Drivers for Hire

Crawford asked for clarification, saying he thought the limo drivers were licensed by the state and not licensed by local municipalities. Adkins explained that limo drivers have to have a chauffeur’s license, but it’s the vehicles that are registered by the state, not the drivers.

Sturgis said that the drivers should be registered locally if they’re not registered by the state.

Bullington noted that building trades contractors get a license from the state, but they have to be registered in the city. Sturgis again pushed for the board moving toward an ordinance amendment that would register all drivers – limo drivers and taxicab drivers alike. “I don’t understand why we can’t move that forward,” Sturgis said. Kunselman replied: “All right, let’s do it. I move that we ask the city attorney’s office to draft an amendment that would allow for the regulation of all drivers for hire in the city of Ann Arbor.”

Crawford ventured that the draft would come back for a broader discussion by the board. He got clarification from Kunselman that standards for taxicab drivers would be the same as for limo drivers as well.

Larcom, who will be doing the work to write the ordinance amendment, got clarification that the board wanted all drivers for hire – taxicab drivers and limo drivers – to get what is essentially right now is just a taxicab driver’s license. Kunselman indicated that he wanted all drivers for hire to be registered, because his understanding of how Uber works is that there is no cash transaction between the driver and the patron – but that’s still a driver for hire.

Benson raised the question of whether this issue falls under the purview of a taxicab board – or if the board should be named the taxicab/limo board? Kunselman ventured that changing the title of the ordinance itself might be an option. Benson got confirmation from Kunselman that he definitely wanted the taxicab board to be involved.

Crawford got additional clarification that the board’s intent was to require all drivers for hire to be registered, whether the rides were hailed (as with a taxicab) or pre-arranged (as with a limo).

Sturgis ventured that once the safety issue is figured out, the board could then talk about the fares.

Outcome: The board unanimously approved the motion to ask the city attorney’s office to draft an ordinance amendment that would require all drivers for hire to be registered with the city.

Later in the meeting, the board came back to the issue of the city’s ability to enforce ordinances on limo drivers holding themselves out as taxicab drivers, and on other ancillary issues.

Benson asked Adkins to what extent the city is trying to enforce the city’s ordinance now? Adkins told Benson that what can be done about it must be done through ordinance changes. In terms of current enforcement on limousines holding themselves out as taxicabs, there’s no enforcement because officers can’t make it the primary reason for a traffic stop. AAPD has tried, but it’s very difficult, she explained. There are officers who make sure that a limo or taxi has proper documentation, when the officers stop a limo or taxi for other reasons. But as far as enforcement of the prohibition against limos working as taxicabs, it is not happening, Adkins explained.

Kunselman ventured that if the city enacted an ordinance that requires all drivers for hire to be licensed, that would give the AAPD the responsibility to make traffic stops. Adkins was not sure that was automatic, saying “We have to make sure that that’s a primary offense that we can stop for. That’s something that I would defer to the city attorney’s office for.”

Adkins explained that this issue is something the police department is confronting now on the state regulations: They can’t stop somebody just to make sure the limo or taxi is properly licensed. That’s a secondary offense, and so an officer would need to stop them for a primary offense first. As an example of a primary offense, she gave a traffic violation.

Kunselman asked if stopping in the road to pick somebody up could count as a traffic violation. Adkins indicated that impeding traffic is one possible traffic violation. Adkins said she’d like to have something with more meat to it – so that officers on patrol would be able to enforce it instead of having to wait for some other traffic violation to occur.

More Discussion on Uber

During the final round of public commentary, the board returned to the subject of Uber.

A representative of Arbor Taxi ventured that Ann Arbor already has the highest taxicab fares in the whole country – the same rates as in New York City. Rates should go down, not up. But with Uber’s arrival in the market, he wanted to hear from board members: What you going to do to protect us?

Kunselman reiterated that with Uber, one issue is the drivers. The other issue is insurance. If you pull over a person who is impeding traffic to pick up a ride and is doing it for hire, can you ask for proof of insurance to drive for hire? Kunselman asked. The answer from Adkins was: Not until the city has done what the city of Detroit has done – by attempting to regulate Uber. Detroit has issued a cease-and-desist order and told Uber that the business needs to register with the city as a limo company. So until Ann Arbor has city ordinances in place and the business is required to register as a limo company, not much can be done.

Adkins reviewed how there are two kinds of services offered by Uber: UberX and UberBLACK. For UberBLACK, they’re contracting with limo companies, she said. It’s UberX that’s of more concern, she said. Anybody passes Uber’s vetting system if they have an operator’s license in a vehicle that accommodates four people and personal insurance.

Kunselman wanted to know if Ann Arbor could piggyback on what Detroit is doing and issue some sort of cease-and-desist order. “We need to send that message pretty clearly to Uber,” Kunselman said. If their app is allowing for drivers for hire without the proper credentials and insurance, then Kunselman thought “it behooves us as a city to make sure that they are notified that that’s not acceptable.”

Larcom responded to Kunselman by saying she couldn’t say right away if action could be taken now. If the business is violating a city ordinance, then just like an officer can write a ticket without going to the city council, the city can enforce its ordinances, Larcom said.

Kunselman asked what had caused Detroit to issue a cease-and-desist order. Adkins explained because Uber was registered as a limousine company. The city of Detroit has a limo ordinance in addition to a taxicab ordinance, she explained. Kunselman said his understanding is that once Detroit’s population dropped below 750,000 that Detroit no longer had the authority to have a limousine ordinance. But if Detroit issued a cease-and-desist, then the city was “pretending” it did have that authority, he said.

Adkins told Kunselman that there is currently some language within the state statue that she felt the state attorney general’s office and certainly the Michigan State Police have interpreted to mean that cities can regulate limousine companies. Adkins said she only knew what had been explained to her. At any rate, she reported that the previous evening she’d looked up on the state’s website to see if Uber was even registered as a limo entity within the state – and they are not. [Updated after initial publication: A query from The Chronicle about the ability of cities to regulate limousine companies was referred by the state attorney general's office to the Michigan Dept. of Transportation. Jeff Cranson, MDOT director of communications, emailed The Chronicle the following statement: "Public Act 271 does NOT prohibit local limo regulations."]

Adkins also reported that she’d been provided that morning with descriptions of eight different cars that were seen on the road the previous night that are providing transportation for Uber. Only one of them had a commercial plate; the other seven did not have commercial plates. She described how there’s a light that plugs into the cigarette lighter and sits on the dashboard, to identify that the vehicle is providing rides through Uber.

Kunselman said the bottom line is that the city needs to enact some ordinance amendments to reflect the change in business practices, and then start enforcing the ordinance. “We can’t wait for the state. I would like to follow the lead of the city of Detroit,” Kunselman said. So Kunselman told Larcom he was looking to the city attorney’s office to start that ball rolling.

Kunselman indicated that he would certainly bring it up at the next city council meeting and report that as a result of the taxicab board’s meeting, that process is getting started. He ventured that there are other, ancillary issues that need to be dealt with – and he would look to the city attorney’s office to somehow “draft that up.” Larcom indicated that she would rely on Adkins to learn what exactly Uber does.

Metrics for Success

The board continued with its discussion of metrics for success. Sturgis said that success should depend on safety – not having incidents come up with customers. He also felt that riders should feel like they’re getting a fair deal for the ride. Benson ventured that whatever the board does or doesn’t do affects the industry and affects the riding public. Ann Arbor loves transportation, Benson continued, so as the board proceeds in this discussion and its multiple facets, he would envision a good amount of public interest with “folks wanting to tell us things.” The traveling public wants cheap transportation and safe transportation, Benson said. At the same time, people who work in the industry need to be able to earn a living.

Benson summarized what he was hearing – that people would like to see the general case addressed to some extent before the board looks to deregulate fares, if the board were to do such a thing. As far as measures of success, he said it would be measured in terms of safety, in a variety ways. Success would also be measured by maintaining the number of companies operating vehicles in the city. Benson was concerned that if a critical mass of taxis is lost, the limos will be able to ignore the basic taxicab fare as a basis of comparison. Benson felt that fares would rise as a result.

Crawford wondered how the number of vehicles licensed in the city would be used as a metric. The number could go up or down – so would that be a reflection of success or a lack of success? Having more taxicabs in the city might make it more difficult for the industry to survive, he ventured.

Kunselman observed that the seasonal character of the Ann Arbor market – with football games, for example – would make it difficult to measure success. Kunselman indicated he was not interested in creating anything complicated.

Bullington noted that success would be difficult to measure in a college town where the population fluctuates. Crawford suggested that if the board does go through with setting a much higher maximum fare, under its existing authority, it might be done as a pilot – and that would have to be for a full year, because of the seasonality.

The conversation then moved to how rates are advertised, but again swung back to the issue of regulating drivers for hire. Larcom, who would be doing the drafting of the ordinance amendment, stated: “I just need to know what is being proposed.”

Kunselman ventured that at this point, Ann Arbor might be the city to push the envelope because the state is not able to. The state is essentially saying that the locals need to take care of it, he said.

Goeddel returned to the historical data about the number taxicabs operating in Ann Arbor. Adkins reviewed how it had remained pretty steady since about 2011, but there’d been a significant drop when Yellow Car converted all but one of its vehicles to limousines. Benson ventured that it would be interesting to know how long various companies have been registered in the city. Benson said that if the board knows how many limos are running in Ann Arbor, and also knows how many taxicabs are here, then the board will have a better idea of what’s going on in the city.

Crawford responded to Benson by saying he thought the board could get an idea of how many drivers are registered in the city but not necessarily how many are operating. The drivers might not be operating here. Kunselman pointed out that there might be four drivers per car.

Crawford indicated that to get a clearer picture, you’d have to start counting vehicles, drivers, and hours of operation. Adkins added that drivers migrate between companies, so initially the city might know who they’re working for, but that ebbs and flows over the year. The drivers could start out today with one limo company and then for whatever reason tomorrow go to a different one, she said.

Public Commentary

After the board discussion, toward the end of the meeting during public commentary, John Etter of Blue Cab told the board he was kind of impressed that board members had focused so heavily on customer safety. He’d thought he’d just been yelling into a void about the importance of safety. He felt that the primary purpose of the board was to ensure public safety in the industry. On the topic of fares, he thought the fact that almost all taxicab companies charge the maximum rate indicates a flaw. There should be variation in a competitive marketplace. He wanted the city to set a high maximum and then let people come in under it. That way you prevent absolute gouging, he noted – you can’t tell somebody it’s 10 bucks to get in and 20 bucks a mile.

But a high maximum of $5 to get in and $5 a mile – might be something to explore, he said. Etter indicated he would never charge anything as high as 5 bucks to get in and 5 bucks a mile – because he would lose most of his customers. But if you set it high, then the prices that companies would set, under that high maximum, would at least resemble a market. If he wanted to run 2013 Tauruses and someone else wanted to run 2004 Crown Victorias, then some people would take the Crown Vic because it’s cheaper, Etter said, and other people would take a ride in a 2013 Taurus because they’re willing to pay for it.

Etter then criticized the idea that taxicab rates should be regulated at all. The state regulates a lot of things about restaurants to ensure public safety, he said, but the state doesn’t regulate price. If you want to eat a McDonald’s burger, you do that. Or if you want to pay Zingerman’s 18 bucks for sandwich, he said, you can do that.

Etter also touched on the topic of insurance, saying there are only two or three companies that provide insurance for taxicabs in the state of Michigan. He reported a recent conversation with a colleague about his insurance, and the first quote he got was $2,000 higher than last year. If that happened to him, with his 50 cabs, he would convert his business to limos immediately, saying he would have no choice. With a $100,000 increase in operating costs, it would just be a no-brainer – because he could not pass that cost along to riders.

Benson asked Etter: If the city were to set a high maximum, what should that high maximum be? Etter told Benson that if the board didn’t want to keep revisiting it, he couldn’t imagine in the near future anybody wanting to charge $5 to get in and $5 a mile – but that kind of maximum would give companies potential for a lot of range, he said. He couldn’t see his company approaching that limit in 20 years – barring an explosion in insurance and gas prices.

During public commentary, Rick Clark with Amazing Blue Taxi told the board he was interested in seeing added features of a fare structure that would include the ability to charge different rates for groups of a certain size, for example.

Kunselman told Clark that just keeping track of the drivers is what he wanted to focus on. Managing the rates is a lower priority for him right now, Kunselman said. Clark told Kunselman that if he wanted taxicabs in Ann Arbor, they had to be allowed to be profitable. Kunselman indicated that there was openness to the idea of raising the allowable fare.

Clark told Kunselman that it’s not just gasoline that has increased in price. Insurance is up and the cost of tires is up, he pointed out. Kunselman said he was in favor of tweaking the rate, by increasing it by $0.25 or something like that. “That’s not going to do it,” Clark stated. Clark said it was an economic decision.

Kunselman told Clark that what he saw in the industry is cheating. The limo industry and Uber are cheating the public trust if they’re not holding the proper insurance, Kunselman said. They are cheating the public trust if their drivers don’t have proper licenses. Clark told Kunselman that it might be that the public trust is being violated with respect to insurance and registration, but “the public is not being screwed or shafted on price.” Clark indicated that he needed room under the maximum fare to be able to react to a rise in insurance rates.

Adkins told the board that based on her experience, the majority of the taxicab companies in Ann Arbor are really doing their best job to upgrade their fleet. There are a lot of vehicles that are only a couple of years old. The quality of the vehicles is high, she said, and there’s only one, maybe two, companies that she’d have to go after.

Mark LaSarge with SelectRide thanked Kunselman for his comments on public safety. He thought the biggest thing for Ann Arbor is driver safety. His company does both taxis and limousines, he said. He’d been licensed as a taxicab driver in the city of Ann Arbor, and he’s also a limousine chauffeur in the state of Michigan. So he’s operated on both sides. He called Ann Arbor a testbed.

He felt Ann Arbor is in a really neat position to deal with all the different issues: taxis versus limousines versus Uber. He felt that if the board focused on transportation for hire, that would actually be more accurate, because the reality is it’s the livery industry. He questioned why price was being regulated. Students show an ability to evaluate the price of milk at Plum Market versus Whole Foods versus Kroger – they know where to go for cheap milk. He reiterated that safety is the number one issue: We want to know who our drivers are, he concluded.

Present: Tom Crawford, Jamie Adkins, Eric Sturgis, Stephen Kunselman, LuAnne Bullington, Michael Benson, Robert Goeddel.

Next taxicab board meeting: May 22, 2014 at 8:30 a.m. in the city council workroom on the second floor of city hall at 301 E. Huron. [Check Chronicle event listings to confirm date]

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City Council Puts Off Townhouse Zoning Sun, 10 Feb 2013 18:44:56 +0000 Dave Askins Ann Arbor city council meeting (Feb. 4, 2013): Two significant land use items were included in the council’s agenda, but councilmembers moved ahead on just one of them. A request to zone a recently annexed piece of property as R3 (townhouse district) prompted long deliberations by the council, and ultimately a referral of the item back to the planning commission for further review.

Current zoning of properties surrounding the parcel requested to be zoned at R3 (townhouse dwelling district).

Current zoning of properties surrounding the parcel at 2081 E. Ellsworth Road – denoted with a “?” Owners are requesting the parcel to be zoned as R3 (townhouse dwelling district). (Map labeled by The Chronicle.)

Dependent on the R3 zoning is Summit Townhomes – a proposed project for the 2081 E. Ellsworth Road site, located in the southern part of the city just east of Stone School Road. The townhouse project’s site plan is expected to come before the council for approval later this month. The planning commission has already recommended that the Summit Townhomes project be approved, and previously recommended the R3 zoning. The council itself had already given the zoning its initial approval at a previous meeting.

But during the public hearing about the zoning on Feb. 4, the council heard from several people who spoke against the zoning and the project, reprising many of the same objections that had been raised more than seven months ago at the June 19, 2012 meeting of the planning commission. Concerns included overcrowding and congestion in the area, and a lack of adequate city services. Also weighing in with general support for zoning that fits with the desires of residents was Washtenaw County commissioner Andy LaBarre, who represents the county district where the site is located.

Another item related to future land use was council action to authorize the distribution of the draft South State Street corridor plan to neighboring jurisdictions and other stakeholders, such as the University of Michigan, the Ann Arbor Public Schools, and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. After a mandated comment period, the city planning commission will have the opportunity to make revisions to the plan, before the commission and the city council make a decision to adopt it.

A major infrastructure study, with a roughly $1 million budget, was also authorized by the council – to give the city a clearer understanding of how flows behave in the sanitary sewer system, especially during rainy periods. The study is prompted by a desire to measure the impact of a footing drain disconnection program that the city has implemented for over a decade. In the last year, the program has generated strong protest from the Glen Leven neighborhood. The footing drain disconnection program was created in part to remedy the backup of raw sewage in basements during heavy rains.

The city council also authorized revisions to two existing technology agreements. One was an agreement between the city of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority to act as a purchasing consortium. The modification to the agreement will allow other participants to be added to the consortium in a streamlined way. The second agreement was the extension of a contract with the city of Chelsea to provide various IT services.

The council put off a decision on issuing bonds to support energy improvements for its property assessed clean energy (PACE) program. The item had been added late to the agenda, and several councilmembers had questions they wanted answered before voting on it.

Although the agenda itself was light, several significant communications were included, either as written attachments or conveyed verbally. The written reports attached to the agenda included a revised auditor’s letter and a report on how the street resurfacing millage money was spent during the 2012 season.

Conveyed verbally was a report from the council’s budget committee chair, Marcia Higgins (Ward 4), who alerted councilmembers that on Feb. 11 and Feb. 25 the council would hold budget work sessions starting at 6 p.m., with each meeting consisting of two 2-hour sessions with a break.

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), chair of the city’s taxicab board, called for enforcement of the city ordinance that is meant to prevent the operation of “rogue limousines” – in the context of a reported sexual assault of a University of Michigan student by the driver of either a taxicab or limousine.

Kunselman also called for a number of revisions to the city ordinance that establishes the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, including stricter regulations on membership of the board, but more significantly a limitation on the way the DDA’s tax increment finance (TIF) capture is calculated.

Townhouse Zoning

The council considered a second and final approval of zoning for a recently-annexed city parcel as R3 (townhouse dwelling district). It’s a roughly 3-acre site, just east of Stone School Road, that was previously part of Pittsfield Township.

The city’s planning commission had voted to recommend the zoning at its Nov. 20, 2012 meeting and the city council gave initial approval at its Jan. 7, 2013 meeting.

Parcel (shaded yellow) requested to be zoned as R3 (townhouse dwelling district). The blue boundary delineates the Malletts Creek watershed.

Parcel (shaded yellow) is requested to be zoned as R3 (townhouse dwelling district). The blue line is the boundary between the Malletts Creek and the Swift Run watersheds.

When the council gave its initial approval, Christopher Taylor had indicated that while he was voting for the zoning on that occasion, he wanted to alert his council colleagues to the fact that he’d heard some concerns about the type of progress and development that the zoning represents. Taylor represents Ward 3, where the proposed project is located. So Taylor said the issue might be a point of discussion when the council was asked to give the zoning its final approval. That reflected concerns also expressed at the planning commission’s June 19, 2012 meeting from residents of the nearby Forest Hills Cooperative.

R3 zoning is consistent with the intended development of the site – to be called Summit Townhomes – for which the city’s planning commission recommended approval at its Jan. 3, 2013 meeting. The developer wants to build 24 attached residential units in four separate buildings, with each building between 80 to 160 feet in length. Each of the 24 units would have a floor area of about 1,300 square feet, and an attached one-car garage. The site plan includes two surface parking areas on the east and west sides of the site, each with 12 spaces.

Townhouse Zoning: Public Hearing

Andy LaBarre told councilmembers he was addressing them as a city resident and also as a Washtenaw County commissioner. The parcel is in the district he represents on the county board of commissioners – District 7. [LaBarre is serving his first term as a Washtenaw County commissioner, having been elected in November 2012.] In the course of the campaign and since then, LaBarre said, he’d had a chance to meet Claudia Myszke [managing agent of the Forest Hills Cooperative] and other leaders of neighborhood and homeowners associations in the area.

Left to right: Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) and Washtenaw County commissioner Andy LaBarre.

Left to right: Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) and Washtenaw County commissioner Andy LaBarre.

LaBarre believed that residents hoped to have as little dense development as possible. He allowed that city councilmembers have hard jobs with the number of constituents that they have to respond to, and they have different ideas amongst themselves on the council and “frankly, within your own heads at times.” So he wanted to offer any and all assistance that he could provide – in his capacity as a resident or as a single commissioner on the county board – to work to make sure there’s some level of future use of that land that fits with the desire of current residents there. LaBarre said he’d follow up later with Ward 3 councilmembers Christopher Taylor and Stephen Kunselman.

Aiji Pipho introduced herself as a resident and committee member of Forest Hills Cooperative. The project planned for the 3-acre parcel will be the fifth to be “shoe-horned” into a quarter mile, she said. The city’s goal is that everybody is supposed to be able to walk to a park that’s within a quarter mile of their home. The park that is walkable from her house, she said, is one where people get attacked. Her son got his jaw and nose broken in the park closest to their house. The city should be thinking about providing services to a poor community, she said – something that would create a separation from “gang members” who hang out in the parks and the “latch-key children” who come home from school and have to manage without their mom and dad being there. What’s shown itself to be a positive influence in other areas, she said, are good community services. So she wanted part of the land to be reserved for a community center – in this part of the city, where many poor people are concentrated.

Flo Hepola told the council she had concerns about the population density. She described the traffic on Ellsworth as horrible – saying it was bad to begin with, even without the new development. She asked for more infrastructure support for the growing and expanded population. She said it was difficult to find a decent park to take her granddaughter, so she’d wound up driving to a county park. There’s only one drinking fountain in the closest park – Southeast Area Park. The kids in the neighborhood liked to hang out at that park, she said, but there’d been incidents of kids having heat stroke while playing basketball. She wanted to see the land developed for use by the community. She thanked Christopher Taylor, Chuck Warpehoski and Andy LaBarre, who she said have been very helpful.

Claudia Myszke, managing agent of the Forest Hills Cooperative, told the council she was there representing her board of directors and the 306 limited-income families who live in Forest Hills. She was also there on behalf of the “sister cooperatives” – Colonial Square Cooperative and University Townhouse Cooperative – which have 427 and 630 limited-income families, respectively. She thanked Christopher Taylor, Chuck Warpehoski and Andy LaBarre for working with members of the Forest Hills community as they’ve tried to educate themselves. She also thanked Leonard Michaels, who represents the Summit Townhomes development.

Myszke told the council she was there to oppose zoning of the land as R3. She told the council that within a five-mile radius, there are over 2,400 units of multi-family housing. All of it is limited-income, affordable housing. She calculated that this translated to about 6,000 people. She had major concerns about the potential zoning to accommodate more people in an area that is already saturated.

Thomas Partridge told councilmembers he wanted them to take the zoning proposal back and make sure that it provided for some prospect of integrated affordable housing with retail or community services and affordable, accessible transportation for the most vulnerable residents.

Townhouse Zoning: Council Deliberations

Sabra Briere (Ward 1), who is the city council appointee to the city planning commission, briefed the council from her perspective serving on the planning commission since December 2012. When the planning commission had deliberated on the Summit Townhomes site plan in early January, planning commissioners had not heard from residents with the kind of objections that they’d expressed that evening to the city council, Briere said. [Later in deliberations, city planning manager Wendy Rampson pointed out that these issues had been raised at a meeting earlier in 2012, in the summer before Briere had been appointed to the planning commission.]

Planning commissioners had discussed transportation and congestion issues and whether there was a way for children to walk to school without having to walk along Ellsworth or Stone School roads, Briere reported. The planning commission had not discussed whether property should be acquired for a city park, she said.

Briere allowed that it’s a very congested area and the zoning is intentionally for multi-family use. Since she lived in the area 40 years ago, it’s been an “entry level” of housing for people with low incomes, she said. She noted that the Community Action Network (CAN) provides services in this neighborhood. [CAN runs the nearby Bryant Community Center, under contract with the city.] The requests from residents for more services and more thoughtful planning were reasonable, she said. But Briere also noted that the proposed project absolutely fits the zone and the master plan. She noted, however, that the council had options – including saying that it was the council’s desire to step back and think about it.

Margie Teall (Ward 4) and Christopher Taylor (Ward 3)

Councilmembers Margie Teall (Ward 4) and Christopher Taylor (Ward 3).

Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) allowed that the proposed zoning is probably consistent with the master plan because that’s generally what is in the area now. But it’s important to acknowledge the feelings of the residents who live there who’d expressed concerns about the livability of the area. He ventured that perhaps the implementation of the city’s master plan had “outstripped” the master plan itself.

Taylor asked city planning manager Wendy Rampson to address the rationale for the parcel’s R3 zoning. Rampson indicated that the project had been reviewed by the planning commission and staff several times before it had come before the city council. When the parcel was under Pittsfield Township’s jurisdiction, it had a single-family home. Upon annexation, the city must assign appropriate zoning, she explained. The city’s South Area Plan, which she allowed was somewhat dated, identified 20 acres at the corner of Ellsworth and Stone School as being appropriate for single-family attached and detached use. The R3 zoning designation, which was being requested, is single-family attached housing – which translates to a maximum density of about 10 units per acre, she said. The Summit Townhomes project is actually about 8 units per acre. The other alternatives would be single-family or duplex. At the planning commission, there hadn’t been a suggestion that either of those should be applied.

The report from the city traffic engineers, Rampson said, indicated that the impact from a single-family attached development is minor compared to a Tim Hortons at the corner of Ellsworth and South State. The Summit Townhomes development would add a small amount of traffic to what’s already there.

Taylor got clarification from Rampson that application of single-family or duplex zoning to the parcel, instead of townhouse zoning, would reduce the number of allowable units by half to a quarter. She note that there’s a slope on the land that makes it a challenging site to develop, so she ventured that a certain minimum number of units would be required in order to make it financially feasible.

Two-foot contour map for area requested to be zoned R3 (townhouse dwelling district)

Two-foot contour map for the area on Ellsworth Road that’s requested to be zoned R3 (townhouse dwelling district).

Responding to a question from Taylor about drainage, Rampson indicated that the parcel drains to the south and west side, so the drainage doesn’t affect Arbor Oaks to the north – because water from the parcel flows toward Ellsworth. Later in deliberations, Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) questioned whether the parcel had a different drainage area from Arbor Oaks, saying that he believed that both were a part of the Mallets Creek watershed. Rampson agreed that both pieces of land were part of the Mallets Creek watershed, and that the drainage from the Summit Townhomes parcel went to Mallets Creek, but not through Arbor Oaks.

Public services area administrator Craig Hupy was not able to recall what the topographic maps for the area looked like to settle the question for Kunselman.

Kunselman also pointed to the parcel zoned R1C to the east, which would become isolated as an R1C area if the council approved the R3 zoning for the Summit Townhomes parcel. He asked Rampson if assigning R1C zoning to the parcel would stop the Summit Townhomes development. Yes, Rampson confirmed. Kunselman asked if there’d be any legal issues associated with a council decision to do that. Rampson declined to speculate, saying that the zoning decision is discretionary on the council’s part. She ventured that if the council was not inclined to support the R3 zoning, the item could be rescheduled or postponed. The zoning and the site plan could be considered together at the council’s Feb. 19 meeting.

Kunselman and Taylor both indicated a willingness to postpone the zoning question.

There was no opposition to postponement expressed by other councilmembers. The ensuing discussion centered around the nature of the direction to be given to the planning commission. The consensus coalesced around the idea that the planning commission should consider lower density zoning – without specific direction from the council to consider specific zoning options.

Leonard Michaels of CIW Engineering was present at the meeting on behalf of the developer and asked to comment.

Michaels described how the project began more than a year ago, noting that Taylor had been present for the required citizens participation meeting. The location of that meeting had been changed to accommodate as many people as possible. He noted that the report from Claudia Myszke, managing agent of the Forest Hills Cooperative, had been included in the developer’s report about the citizens participation meeting, without any omissions. He noted that the Summit Townhomes proposal adds less density than is allowed by R3. The drainage is still being designed, he said, but it will not increase the runoff into the Ellsworth ditch.

Michaels reported that he’s still “playing phone tag” with the Ann Arbor Public Schools, trying to understand where to put a pedestrian connection to the school.

Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5) said he was comfortable with having the planning commission take another look at the zoning. He summarized the concerns as involving three issues: driving, drainage, and public services. He noted that the area is not in the ward he represents, but he knows people who live there.

Outcome: The council voted unanimously to refer the issue back to the planning commission. The commission’s next regular meeting is on Thursday, Feb. 21.

Distribution of South State Street Plan

The council considered a resolution to distribute a draft of Ann Arbor’s South State Street corridor plan to neighboring jurisdictions and other stakeholders, such as the University of Michigan, the Ann Arbor Public Schools, and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. The planning commission had voted to recommend the corridor plan’s distribution at its Jan. 3, 2013 meeting. [.pdf of draft South State corridor plan]

The plan includes more than 40 overall recommendations for the corridor, which stretches about 2 miles between Stimson Street at the north end down to Ellsworth in the south. Recommendations are organized into categories of the city’s sustainability framework: Land use and access, community, climate and energy, and resource management.

Among the recommendations are: (1) Evaluate use of vacant parcels for alternative energy generation; (2) Evaluate integration of public art along the corridor; (3) Evaluate use of open land for community gardens; (4) Assess and improve high crash areas along the corridor; (5) create boulevard on State Street between Eisenhower and I‐94 to enable safer automobile, bicycle, and pedestrian movement; (6) consider utilizing vacant parcels for athletic fields and recreation facilities; (7) develop a pedestrian and bicycle path along the Ann Arbor railroad that will connect the planned Allen Creek bikeway to Pittsfield Township through the corridor; and (8) resurface roads in the corridor.

Each recommendation includes several related action items. The plan also provides a section that organizes the recommendations into each of three distinct sections of the corridor: (1) from Stimson on the north to Eisenhower Parkway; (2) from Eisenhower south to the I-94 interchange; and (3) from I-94 to Ellsworth. In addition, there are nine site-specific recommendations for areas including Briarwood Mall, the complex of hotels near Victors Way and Broadway, and the research park development near the corridor’s south end.

The city planning commission and staff have been discussing this project for several years, but have accelerated work on it within the past 12-18 months. See Chronicle coverage: “South State Corridor Gets Closer Look,” “Sustainability Goals Shape Corridor Study,” and “Ideas Floated for South State Corridor.

South State Street Plan: Council Deliberations

Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) clarified with planning manager Wendy Rampson that the plan to be distributed is a draft plan, and asked that the word “draft” be inserted in one instance where the plan was described in the resolution. Higgins also confirmed with Rampson that a comment period would follow the draft plan distribution, which would include possible comments from the public. Revisions to the draft could be undertaken, but the planning commission and the city council would then need to adopt the plan to make it final, following a public hearing.

Rampson noted that the planning commission and the city council would need to adopt the same plan. She noted that in the past, the city council hadn’t agreed with the planning commission’s version of a plan and had returned the plan to the commission. [She was referring to the downtown plan, which was most recently adopted in 2009.] Rampson said she’d prefer for that not to happen again, and for differences between the council and the commission to be sorted out before voting.

Outcome: The council voted unanimously to authorize distribution of the draft South State Street corridor plan.

Sanitary Sewer Flow Study

The council was asked to consider authorizing a study of Ann Arbor’s sanitary sewer flows – meant to assess the impact of a decade-long footing drain disconnection program. The study is to be conducted by Orchard, Hiltz & McCliment Inc. over the next year-and-a-half to two years.

The $968,348 contract with OHM is part of a project budget that includes a $192,000 contingency and $85,000 to account for city staff time. The money will come from the city’s sanitary sewer capital fund.

The city of Ann Arbor’s footing drain disconnect (FDD) program was implemented in 2001, prompted by repeated incidents of raw sewage backing up in residents’ basements and the discharge of only partially treated sewage into the Huron River.

The city of Ann Arbor has separate sanitary and stormwater conveyance systems. However, during construction of new developments before 1980, footing drains – permeable pipes buried around the perimeter of a foundation, roughly at the depth of a basement floor – were frequently connected directly to the sanitary sewer pipes. Those connections were convenient to make, because the footing drains and the sanitary sewers are buried at roughly the same depth.

However, during very heavy rains, that configuration leads to a volume of stormwater flow into the sanitary sewer system that it’s not designed to handle. That can cause two problems. First, near the point where the extra water is entering the sanitary system, it can cause raw sewage to back up through the floor drains of basements. Second, farther downstream at the wastewater treatment plant, the amount of water flowing into the plant can exceed the plant’s capacity. That can result in only partially-treated wastewater being discharged into the Huron River.

It was wastewater discharges into the river that led the city to agree to an administrative consent order with the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) to establish a way to offset the impact of new connections to the sanitary system required by new developments. That program essentially requires developers who are building projects that place additional burdens on the sanitary sewer system to pay for a number of footing drain disconnections elsewhere in the city, according to a formula.

The footing drain disconnect program was targeted initially in five neighborhoods that accounted for about half of all reported basement sewage backups. Since implementation, 2,538 footing drains have been disconnected, including nearly all of the houses in three of the five areas. In the two other areas, between 55% and 60% of footing drains have been disconnected.

Cresson Slotten, engineer and unit manager in systems planning for the city of Ann Arbor.

Cresson Slotten, engineer and unit manager in systems planning for the city of Ann Arbor.

In one of the remaining areas – the Glen Leven neighborhood – overland flooding during heavy rains in the spring of 2012 resulted in basement flooding in some houses that had been included in the disconnection program. The procedure includes the installation of a sump to collect water from the footing drains – which previously fed into the sanitary system – and a pump to move the water from the sump to the stormwater system.

Emphatic protest came from residents of that neighborhood, which has in recent weeks included rumblings of possible litigation. The litigation would be based on the legal theory that the city’s footing drain disconnection program has proceeded without valid contracts with homeowners, and that the installation of the wells and pumps constitutes an illegal “taking.” The city council decided on Sept. 17, 2012 to suspend temporarily the footing drain disconnection program.

It’s in that context that the city is now undertaking the study to be done by OHM – to determine if the footing drain disconnect program needs to continue and if so, where the efforts should be focused.

The scope of OHM’s work includes: (1) perform flow monitoring on the sanitary sewer in the five priority areas; (2) update, calibrate, and validate the existing sanitary sewer model; (3) evaluate the effectiveness of the current FDD program; (4) provide recommendations for reducing or eliminating wet weather flow impacts; and (5) do public engagement throughout the entire project, including a citizen advisory committee, a technical oversight committee, focus groups, and the general public.

Sanitary Sewer Flow Study: Council Deliberations

Cresson Slotten, an engineer and manager in the city’s systems planning unit, responded to questions about what the study would entail. The first part of the study, he explained, would include monitoring the sanitary system during heavy rains.

Margie Teall (Ward 4) drew out the fact that the city has also undertaken a study of the stormwater system – which is separate and distinct from the study of the sanitary sewer system. Teall encouraged members of the public to attend the public outreach meetings for the stormwater project.

Left to right: Ward 5 councilmembers Chuck Warpehoski and Mike Anglin

Left to right: Ward 5 councilmembers Chuck Warpehoski and Mike Anglin.

Responding to a question from Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) city administrator Steve Powers indicated that the sanitary sewer project could be part of the council’s discussion of the capital improvements plan (CIP) at a working session on Feb. 11.

Mike Anglin (Ward 5) observed that when people live in a neighborhood, they expect that it’s not going to flood. He felt like the measurement study should have taken place earlier.

The Landsdowne neighborhood had paid for the fact that this study was only now taking place, he contended. Anglin asked Slotten why the city staff couldn’t undertake the study: Why did an outside contractor need to be hired? Slotten explained that the project is very intensive with respect to the equipment and staff resources.

A lot of human resources are required to gather all the data – to analyze and check for errors ,and to maintain the devices that are deployed out in the sanitary sewer system, Slotten said. The devices require a high level of expertise to operate, and a lot of expertise to take the data and analyze it with a computer model.

Slotten allowed that the city did have a computer modeler on staff – but his role is to maintain and utilize the existing model. The study is an effort to “advance” the city’s model of the system, to see how the system has evolved in the last 10 years – over the period when the footing drain disconnections have taken place. If the city’s one modeler were tasked with the study, it’d take a longer time and he wouldn’t be able to perform his usual duties.

Jane Lumm (Ward 2) concurred with Anglin, saying that for the homeowners who’d been impacted by it, this situation has been a nightmare. She allowed that $1 million is a lot of money, but said the city needs to do what it can to remedy the situation.

Outcome: The council unanimously approved the contract with OHM to conduct the study of flows in the sanitary sewer system.

Tech Agreements

Two technology agreements were before the Ann Arbor city council for consideration – a three-way agreement with the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority and Washtenaw County, and another two-party contract with the city of Chelsea. Both agreements existed previously.

The three-way accord had been approved by the council on May 2, 2011. This interagency agreement for collaborative technology and services (IACTS) is meant to provide a way to procure and maintain common technology platforms and services centrally.

The modification to the agreement, approved by the city council on Feb. 4, allows for adding other entities into the agreement in a more streamlined way, by “giving each founding member the ability to approve a process to enable an administrative individual to sign on behalf of that founding member for purposes of this adding new participants.” Other members could thus be added without modifying the agreement itself. With the amendment, Ann Arbor’s process for adding a new participant would include simply the approval of the city administrator on recommendation of the IT director and chief financial officer.

According to city of Ann Arbor IT director Dan Rainey, responding to an emailed query, one of the entities interested in participating in the IACTS is the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD).

In May 2011 – when the Ann Arbor city council approved the IACTS with AATA and Washtenaw County – the council was also asked to consider the approval of an agreement with Washtenaw County for data storage services and for backup services. At the May 2011 council meeting, Rainey explained the nature of the shared storage and shared backup – there will be one machine at city hall and one at the city’s Wheeler Center.

The topic of backup and disaster data recovery issues was identified as one area of minor concern in the city’s most recent audit in late 2012. In chief financial officer Tom Crawford’s response to the auditor’s note on that topic, he outlines how the city uses a “separation of risks” approach and has always been able to backup and recover data in individual computing environments. Crawford’s written response also describes the city’s current work to improve its disaster recovery plan in terms of the IACTS: “Because of the nature of our interdependences, the information technology departments of the city of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County and the AATA are collaborating on developing a common disaster recovery plan. The current state of the plan is that all parties know what is being backed up, where it is stored and that there is the ability to recover backed up data on a small number of servers.” [.pdf of revised auditor's letter] [.pdf of Crawford's Jan. 24, 2013 response]

Responding to an emailed query, Washtenaw County IT manager Andy Brush explained that certain IT services are already provided by Washtenaw County to various entities – like the city of Ypsilanti, Dexter’s fire department, and the 14B District Court – although they aren’t yet parties to the IACTS agreement.

The agreement between Ann Arbor and the city of Chelsea, which the council also considered on Feb. 4, dates back to 2011. Under the agreement, the city of Chelsea will pay the city of Ann Arbor up to $55,614 for the following services: helpdesk, management of the city’s website, server hosting, data backup and recovery, overseeing IT contractors, project management, and representing the city of Chelsea in regional technology efforts and meetings.

Tech Agreements: Council Deliberations

Jane Lumm (Ward 2) said she supported the concept of intergovernmental cooperation, and was supportive of this specific resolution. It’s nice to see other agencies joining in partnership with the city of Ann Arbor, so she ventured that the city’s approach to IT must be working.

But she noted that one of the aspects of the arrangement is that it’s a procurement cooperative. She wanted to know what other procurement cooperatives the city was part of, how the city decided to use them and when. She asked Dan Rainey, head of IT for the city, how can adding new members benefit the city?

Rainey explained that in the past there were occasionally opportunities to collaborate between the city and the county. The two entities would generate contracts and they’d done that one, two, three times. They’d then decided to come up with a platform to handle things in a more streamlined way. The benefit to the city is that the city’s expenses have been offset by investments the county has already made. In the other direction, other entitles have benefited from the investment the city has made in its data center. The council was being asked to consider a revision to the agreement that evening, because the existing partners are trying to get other entities to participate in the mindset of sharing. The idea is to not make other organizations feel like they’re being bullied into joining. They can join of their own accord, Rainey said.

Outcome: The agreement with Chelsea was on the consent agenda, which was approved unanimously. Separately, the council also unanimously approved the revision to the IACTS agreement.

Bonds for Clean Energy (PACE)

The Ann Arbor city council was asked to approve a step that would help owners of commercial property make improvements designed to help save energy under the city’s property assessed clean energy (PACE) program.

That step was to authorize the issuance and sale of up to $1 million in bonds in support of energy improvements to be undertaken by five property owners. In broad strokes, the PACE program is enabled by state legislation – the Property Assessed Clean Energy Act 270 of 2010. Property owners take out loans to make energy improvements to be repaid through regular installments as part of their taxes. Municipalities like the city of Ann Arbor administer the program. More than a year ago, on Jan. 9, 2012, the city council set the fees for participation in the program. Prior to that, on March 7, 2011, the city set up a loan loss fund with about $430,000 granted by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Properties for which owners have applied for improvements under Ann Arbor’s PACE program include: (1) Arrowwood (2566 Arrowwood Trail) for new HVAC equipment, insulation, occupancy sensors and lighting upgrade for the clubhouse; exterior lighting upgrade to LED; and solar shingles on one apartment building; (2) Big Boy (3611 Plymouth Road) for HVAC upgrade, lighting upgrade, cooking equipment replacement with energy efficient equipment, and controls; (3) Bivouac (330-336 S. State) for interior lighting upgrade; (4) Goodyear Building (118-124 S. Main) for HVAC replacement (boilers and A/C units), and lighting upgrade; and (5) Kerrytown Market & Shoppes (403 N. Fifth Ave.) for lighting upgrades in tenant areas and common areas.

Bonds for Clean Energy (PACE): Council Deliberations

The item was not added to the agenda until the day of the council meeting. Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) said she wanted to postpone the item, in light of the many questions she’d heard about the program. She reported that the city’s chief financial officer, Tom Crawford, had indicated that a two-week postponement wouldn’t present a problem.

Mayor John Hieftje, who’d co-sponsored the addition of the agenda item, said he didn’t know why it had been added late to the agenda. He said he thought it was to be added to the agenda that’s publicized on the Wednesday before the following Monday’s council meeting.

Hieftje said he had been working on the PACE program for years and would be “joyful” when it finally was implemented.

Outcome: The council voted unanimously to postpone the issuance of the PACE bonds.

Reports, Written Communications

Every council agenda includes a raft of written reports and communications. Here are two highlights from the Feb. 4 agenda.

Reports: Revised Auditor’s Note

A revised auditor’s letter to the city of Ann Arbor was attached to the city council’s Feb. 4, 2013 agenda, and has been formally received by the council as a written communication from the city administrator.

The original version of the letter had indicated three instances of an employee with a vehicle allowance also being reimbursed for mileage, and characterized those reimbursements as a “violation of city policy.” It was subsequently revealed that it was the mileage reimbursements of city attorney Stephen Postema that had caused the auditor to flag the issue.

But after further review – pushed by Postema and chief financial officer Tom Crawford – auditor Mark Kettner agreed that there was no written policy per se that disallowed the dual claims. Kettner is a principal at Rehmann, the city’s auditor, which is in the first year of a five-year contract.

But Kettner also noted that his original conclusion of inappropriateness was based on his view that the dual claims would be “illogical,” whether a policy existed or not. Kettner also indicated in reaching his conclusion of inappropriateness that he had not reviewed Postema’s employment contract, which Postema and Crawford contend would have permitted Postema to claim mileage reimbursements in addition to the vehicle allowance.

Postema’s contract was altered last year, chronologically after the contested mileage reimbursements, so that his vehicle allowance was eliminated.

The new wording of Kettner’s letter omits the characterization of the mileage claims as a “violation” but still calls attention to the issue, and adds language to highlight the problematic character of the reimbursements – that “… in each instance the expense report was not subject to independent review and approval.”

Postema’s contract stipulates that his reimbursements for travel are to be made according to standard city procedures. And one new procedure recommended by Crawford in his written response to the auditor’s report would address the lack of independent review. The recommendation is to require that reimbursements claimed by the city attorney or the city administrator – who are the city council’s two direct reports – be approved by the chair of the council’s administration committee.

[.pdf of original letter] [.pdf of revised letter] [.pdf of Crawford's Jan. 24, 2013 response]

Reports: 2012 Street Millage

The city of Ann Arbor’s street millage expenditure report for the 2012 construction season indicates that approximately 25 lane miles on 36 different streets were resurfaced or reconstructed this past season. Total construction cost was about $8.2 million, allocated between major streets (one-third) and local streets (two-thirds).

The street repair millage, renewed by voters in 2011, is levied at a rate of 2 mills, which generates about $9 million annually. The street millage expenditure report was attached to the city council’s Feb. 4, 2013 meeting agenda as a communication.

According to city project manager Nick Hutchinson, responding to an emailed query, the miles of streets resurfaced as reported in the city’s comprehensive annual financial report (CAFR) is a different measure – in two ways – from the lane miles reported in the 2012 millage report. First, the CAFR statistic (which has typically ranged between 4 and 7 miles over the last six years) reflects simply the length of the roadway. Second, the CAFR statistic is based on fiscal years (starting on July 1), whereas the millage report is a based on the activity in a calendar year.

Also approved by voters in 2011 was a new 1/8 mill sidewalk repair millage, which generated roughly $500,000 in revenues. According to the city’s report, about $561,000 worth of work was done under the sidewalk repair program, which included replacement of 1,475 slabs of sidewalk and the trimming of an additional 6,380 slabs.

Work also completed that was funded by the street millage program – not the sidewalk millage – were sidewalk ramps on 395 street corners, which are on a list to be replaced under a consent decree. The consent decree requires curb ramps to be installed on all street corners where the city resurfaced or reconstructed streets between 1992 and 2004. The Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990. [.pdf of street millage report] [.pdf of map showing streets resurfaced in 2012]

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: Downtown Parcels – Library Lot, Y Lot

During public commentary, Alan Haber ventured that the council had heard from the “fringe” pressing on issues with thoughts that the council didn’t particularly want to hear – concerns about the homeless and about Palestine and about an energy farm.

Haber referred to a written statement he’d circulated to councilmembers about the interim use of the top of the Library Lane underground parking garage. [.pdf of Haber's message to the council.] Haber’s remarks came in the context of a presentation by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority to the city council on Jan. 14 about the Connecting William Street project. The presentation had included the DDA’s recommendations for the future use of five city-owned downtown parcels, which includes the top of the new Library Lane underground parking garage.

Haber called for allowing people to begin to have activities on top of the structure. If it were allowed to be open, he told councilmembers they’d be surprised by the creativity that Ann Arbor shows. He told them that Ann Arbor really needs a place for the community to come together, and asked councilmembers to take a look at his ideas – including a temporary skating rink with artificial ice.

Two days later, at the Feb. 6, 2013 meeting of the DDA board, Haber reprised his comments.

By way of additional background, at its Dec. 19, 2012 meeting, the DDA’s operations committee was provided with a draft of ideas for a policy on special events at the Library Lane mid-block cut-through and the top of the Library Lane parking garage.

The preamble to the draft includes the expectation that the site would eventually include a building with public open space, but indicates support in the interim for the kind of activity that Haber called for:

The structural component of the underground Library Lane structure was designed to anticipate the construction of a future building and a future public open space area. In the meanwhile, until such time as these elements are designed and constructed, the DDA is supportive of community groups using the Library Lane surface parking lot and the adjoining Library Lane for events, public gatherings and meetings.

In the draft, the main bureaucratic requirement is approval by the city of Ann Arbor for a special events permit, which currently costs $34.

During his communications time at the Feb. 4 council meeting, Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) addressed a second parcel that’s part of the Connecting William Street project – the former Y lot at Fifth and William streets. Kunselman contended that it was pretty clear that “the DDA missed the boat on what to do with the Y lot.” Kunselman said the city needed to get that parcel listed for sale, so he’d be bringing forward a resolution directing the city administrator to solicit a real estate broker so that the Y lot can be offered for sale before the balloon mortgage payment on the property comes due at the end of this year. [The site is known as the Y lot because it was the former location of the YMCA. The property was sold to the city when the Y moved to its current location at 400 W. Washington.]

Comm/Comm: Budget Sessions

During communications time, Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) reported that the council’s budget committee had met and has mapped out the next few council work sessions.

City administrator Steve Powers and Marcia Higgins

City administrator Steve Powers and Marcia Higgins (Ward 4).

The Feb. 11 session will consist of two 2-hour sessions, starting at 6 p.m. The first session will cover affordable housing and the 15th District Court. The second session will cover the city’s capital improvements plan (CIP).

By way of additional background on pending proposed changes to the Ann Arbor housing commission’s housing stock, see: “Housing Commission Selects Co-Developer.

For additional background on the 15th District Court, including an explanation of its responsibilities and funding sources, see coverage from the budget planning session two years ago: “Ann Arbor 2012 Budget: 15th District Court.”

For additional background on the status of the CIP as a planning document and the recent history of inclusion in the CIP of a proposed runway extension at the city’s municipal airport, see “Ann Arbor Budget Process Starts Up.” According to Craig Hupy, public services area administrator with the city, the fact that the runway extension is listed in the CIP for 2014 – with $2.135 million of funding – means that all other things being equal, $2.135 million will be spent on the runway extension in 2014 (i.e., it will be done in 2014), provided that funding is available. One factor that could change that would be for the city council to exercise its budgetary control and not to fund the project.

On Feb. 25, the work session will cover the specific budget impacts to individual service units and the council’s five key priority areas. The top three priority areas are: (1) city budget and fiscal discipline; (2) public safety; and (3) infrastructure. Two additional areas are: (4) economic development; and (5) affordable housing.

On March 11, Higgins continued, the council would talk about conflicting issues and would have a much larger discussion. That will give the city administrator time to finalize the budget. [Under the city charter, the city administrator must submit the budget for the next fiscal year, which begins on July 1, at the second regular council meeting in April. The council then must amend and adopt any changes by its second meeting in May.]

Higgins noted that the night of March 25 would be reserved for a possible additional working session, but she recognized that it’s the first night of Passover. She observed that no votes would be taken.

Comm/Comm: Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority

During communications time, Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) noted that for the previous meeting’s agenda, the council had received the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority’s annual report. [.pdf of FY 2012 DDA annual report]

That had reminded him that in August of 2011, he’d indicated to his colleagues that he’d wanted to make some amendments to the city ordinance establishing the DDA.

[That was on Aug. 4, 2011, two days after Kunselman won the Democratic primary election, on a campaign that was partly based on criticism of the DDA. That primary was a three-way race that included Marwan Issa and Ingrid Ault. Ault was subsequently appointed to the city's park advisory commission. The current chair of the city's park advisory commission, Julie Grand, could provide some competition for Kunselman in his re-election bid for 2013 – as she is now mulling a possible candidacy. Kunselman took out petitions on Nov. 3 to run for re-election to council for Ward 3.]

On Feb. 4, Kunselman highlighted the $2.1 million in the 2012 annual report from the DDA that was labeled “administration.” To have $2.1 million going toward administration seemed “a little outlandish,” Kunselman maintained.

By way of background, the line item labeled “administration” in the DDA’s annual report does not correspond just to those items typically associated with administrative overhead, like staff salaries and benefits. The amount includes, for example, about $0.5 million as a grant to the city for the police/courts building, as well as the subsidy of bus rides taken with the getDowntown’s go!pass. Responding to a request from The Chronicle, DDA executive director Susan Pollay provided the following breakdown of that amount:

Staff, office, professional services    $1,018,259
Grant to the city for the Municipal Ctr   $508,608
Other TIF grants and projects             $110,267
Grant for go!passes, other alt programs   $467,392
Total                                   $2,104,526


Among the revisions to the DDA ordinance Kunselman described were changes to DDA governance, which would include term limits on board members, a prohibition against elected officials serving on the board, a requirement that any TIF (tax increment finance) expenditures outside the DDA district boundaries need the council’s approval, and a stipulation that TIF “rebates” for projects require city council approval.

Sumi Kailasapathy (Ward 1) and Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3)

Councilmembers Sumi Kailasapathy (Ward 1) and Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3).

But more significantly, Kunselman is proposing to change the way that the tax increment finance (TIF) capture by the DDA is calculated. The change to the way that TIF is calculated would be based on a different interpretation of the existing language in the ordinance, but would result in roughly $600,000 a year less in TIF capture by the DDA. It’s the same proposal Kunselman made on May 21, 2012 – as a proposed amendment to the city budget last year. On that occasion, his proposal received just three votes on the 11-member council; however, the current composition of the council includes three new councilmembers. For additional Chronicle reporting of the TIF calculations, see: “Column: TIF Capture Is a Varsity Sport.”

Kunselman’s view on the correct interpretation of the TIF calculation is one that was shared at least at one time by the Ann Arbor city attorney’s office. An apparently overlooked clause of the city’s ordinance on DDA TIF capture led the DDA board nearly two years ago, on May 2, 2011, to delay a vote on the new contract between the city and the DDA, under which the DDA administers the city’s public parking system. The Ann Arbor District Library, whose taxes in the district are subject to the DDA’s TIF, has also questioned the correct interpretation of the ordinance.

Kunselman concluded his Feb. 4 remarks on the DDA by saying that the ordinance needs some teeth to “rein in” the DDA board and the amount of TIF that is captured.

Comm/Comm: Taxicab Sexual Assault, “Rogue Limos”

During communications time, Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) noted that he was chair of the city’s taxicab board and also the parent of two teenage daughters. He’d recently received a crime alert through the University of Michigan, reporting a sexual assault of a young woman, in either a limo or a taxi. Kunselman said the incident raises the issue that the taxicab board has been grappling with – the issue of “rogue limos.” He was describing limos that “impersonate taxis” with their marking and top lights, and pick up passengers as taxicabs do, but are not licensed as taxicabs under the city’s ordinance.

The city council had amended the taxicab ordinance [on Nov. 10, 2011] so that tickets could be written for limos that “impersonate” taxicabs by using top lights. If they’re not licensed, Kunselman said, the city doesn’t know who those drivers are. Kunselman thought it’s time the city do something about it. As chair of the taxicab board, he would ask for a monthly report of enforcement activities – how many limos are pulled over and how many have been ticketed. Kunselman identified two companies as having “rogue limos” – Yellow Car and Green Cab.

Responding to a question from mayor John Hieftje, Kunselman said there’s a state law that the city is trying to get strengthened and that he’d forwarded the crime alert to the city’s lobbyist, Kirk Profit. But Kunselman said he wasn’t sure it’s not possible to take action under existing laws and ordinances. At the most recent meeting of the city’s taxicab board, which took place before the reported sexual assault, the issue of limos impersonating taxis also arose.

Comm/Comm: Coleman Jewett, Public Art

During his communications time, mayor John Hieftje mentioned the memorial service for Coleman Jewett held the previous Saturday. Hieftje noted that Jewett had been a member of the Pioneer High School championship basketball team in the early 1950s. Hieftje passed along a suggestion that a bronze Adirondack chair be placed at the city farmers market as a remembrance to Jewett, who had sold Adirondack chairs and other furniture there for many years. Hieftje indicated that he hoped the public art commission would follow up on the idea.

Comm/Comm: Ending Homelessness, Cold Weather

Thomas Partridge introduced himself as a resident of Ann Arbor and a recent candidate for the state senate and house. He was there on a frigid night to urge the mayor and the city council to show immediate concern for the homeless in Washtenaw County. He expressed concern for people who show up on local news programs as causalities, hospitalized with frostbite or in the morgue frozen to death. He called on the council to empower the disenfranchised, and to give voice to continued union representation in contracts. He called on the city council immediately to end homelessness in Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County and Michigan. The Ann Arbor police department, fire department, Washtenaw County sheriff’s office and other organizations should be out looking for people who need shelter. He called for affordable transportation. Partridge observed that Feb. 4, 2013 was the 100th anniversary of the birthday of the most famous public transit rider in history – Rosa Parks.

During his communications time, mayor John Hieftje cited a report he’d received from Ellen Schulmeister, executive director of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, saying that no one has been turned away from the shelter system this winter. There’s outreach going on, done by a group that goes out and looks for people who might need shelter. But Hieftje said that some people won’t come in.

Comm/Comm: Energy Farm

Kermit Schlansker described again his concept of an energy farm as a showplace where many people could come together to work out ideas that would support a comfortable, sustainable society that could last 1,000 years. Beyond a multipurpose building, one of the first projects would be to construct a bunk house where people could stay while they are working on projects. The ultimate goal of the farm would be the construction of an energy efficient apartment building that could last 1,000 years, he said.

Comm/Comm: Israel, Palestine

Three people spoke on the issue of Israel and Palestine during public commentary at the council’s Feb. 4 meeting.

Henry Herskovitz told the council that Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends, a group he’s a part of, has been holding peaceful vigils for over nine years outside the Beth Israel congregation. The group is known for raising the issue of Palestinian sovereignty and what he described as Israeli war crimes. When a member of the city council lashes out with false accusations, he continued, he felt the need to “play a little defense.” He alluded to an Ann Arbor Chronicle article that reported comments from Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5). From that report of the city council’s Jan. 7, 2013 meeting:

In Ann Arbor, Warpehoski said, we like to assume we’ve got everything all worked out, but when a Muslim woman driving home from her job at the university hospital had a gun pulled on her and was told to “go home,” that indicates that there’s work yet to be done. Another example he gave was the idea of putting a swastika over the Star of David, or circulating literature saying that Jewish religious observances turn boys and girls into “monsters.”

Herskovitz said that a website dedicated to ending his group’s demonstrations did not show any photographs of a swastika over a Star of David, and that if such a photograph existed, he was sure that it would be posted on that website.

Herskovitz then characterized the claim about religious observances turning boys and girls into monsters was out of context. Herskovitz indicated that the context should include Ovadia Yosef’s remarks as quoted in the Jerusalem Post: “Goyim were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world – only to serve the People of Israel.” Herskovitz noted that Yosef is former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel and spiritual leader of the Shas political party in Israel.

Herskovitz pointed to another work by an Israeli rabbi, Yitzhak Shapira, who wrote “The Complete Guide to Killing Non-Jews.” Herskovitz quoted another former chief rabbi, Mordechai Eliyahu: “It is important to make one thing clear – the life of one yeshiva boy is worth more than the lives of 1,000 Arabs.”

Herskovitz concluded that those quotations were “monstrous” and ventured that those who’d said those words were probably indoctrinated into an ideology that makes such statements possible – likely at an early age. Herskovitz contended that Beth Israel rabbi Robert Dobrusin takes Jewish children on tours of Israel and poses them with armed soldiers. Dobrusin indoctrinates children into a Zionist ideology, Herskovitz contended.

[Based on the Anti-Defamation League's frequent condemnation of various remarks by Yosef (including those cited by Herskovitz), Shapira's book and remarks by Eliyahu, the views expressed by the men could fairly be considered to be inconsistent with the mainstream.]

Blaine Coleman began his remarks by saying that Warpehoski had made a promise not to vote for any resolution that criticized Israel – at a time when Israel is, Coleman contended, massacring Palestinians. Coleman described that as a “monstrous” promise to make, and hoped that Warpehoski would retract that promise. Coleman hoped that Warpehoski would support a resolution to boycott Israel, to divest from Israel or at least divest from companies that supply arms to the Israeli military. Coleman pointed out that Warpehoski’s own organization, the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, had approved a resolution to divest from Israel’s military, and he said that it’s Warpehoski’s responsibility to support that resolution as a city councilmember. Coleman described Israel as a “monstrously racist state” that could be compared to the racist ideology of Nazism.

Coleman showed the council a map of Palestine, which existed before Israel was established. One day, Coleman said, the Palestinian people would be free again to walk “in every inch of their land as free people.” That could only happen if “the racist state of Israel” were abolished, he said, in the same way that racist South Africa was abolished.

Coleman called on Warpehoski to lead the way by retracting his promise not to support a resolution critical of Israel. He closed by asking to whom Warpehoski had made the promise, and if someone had asked him to make such a promise.

Mozhgan Savabieasfahani called Israel a “racist state” and contended it could be compared to a Nazi state. What Israel is doing to the people of Palestine, she said, is nothing less than what Nazis did to Jews. She contended that people were being kicked out of their homes in East Jerusalem by the Israeli military, with the full support of the U.S. She said the U.S. contributes $5 billion a year to Israel so that Israel can kick “regular people” out of their homes. Addressing the several high school students who were attending the city council meeting as part of a class assignment, Savabieasfahani told them that thousands of Palestinians their age were in jail without any charges being pressed against them.

Among the councilmembers, one had said he’d be in favor of cutting funding to the “racist, Nazi state of Israel,” Savabieasfahani continued – Chuck Warpehoski. That’s to his credit, she said. Now she wanted to see him push forward and act on that, given that he now has a position where he can do that. Nothing has changed, since Warpehoski made that statement. She concluded with a call for a boycott of Israel.

During council communications time, Sabra Briere (Ward 1) responded to the commentary about Warpehoski. She said that in the five years she’s served on the council, one councilmember or another has been singled out for “less than positive feedback” during public commentary – something that always makes her “squirm.”

Left to right: Ward 1 councilmembers Sumi Kailasapathy and Sabra Briere

Left to right: Ward 1 councilmembers Sumi Kailasapathy and Sabra Briere.

She was told when she ran for the city council that no matter how liberal she might be as a person, to please try hard not to bring resolutions to the council that have nothing to do with local government. When she brought a resolution to the council about immigration reform, she heard from a lot of people who felt that was really none of the council’s business. She has brought other items like that in the last five years, because she thinks that they’re important when they have a “local connection.” But at the same time, she allowed that there were a lot of people in the community who think the council should be “focused on the business of doing business in Ann Arbor.”

Briere thanked Warpehoski for recognizing that there’s no city investment in Israel, and that there’s no money the city is sending to Israel. She thanked him for recognizing that without some kind of local connection – unlike the boycott of South Africa over apartheid – there is no “local hook.” The city’s ability to influence federal spending decisions is very limited, Briere contended. She said she had wanted to say something, because she’d been on the receiving end of occasional “interesting communication” with members of the public. [.pdf of city council resolution rescinding South Africa boycott]

Present: Jane Lumm, Mike Anglin, Margie Teall, Sabra Briere, Sumi Kailasapathy, Sally Petersen, Stephen Kunselman, Marcia Higgins, John Hieftje, Christopher Taylor, Chuck Warpehoski.

Next council meeting: Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013 at 7 p.m. in the second-floor council chambers at city hall, 301 E. Huron. The meeting date is pushed back a day to accommodate the Presidents Day holiday on Feb. 18. [Check Chronicle event listings to confirm date]

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

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Ashley & Liberty Sun, 27 Jan 2013 02:54:16 +0000 Trevor Staples Three Ann Arbor “Licensed Limos” parked in tow away-zone with drivers nowhere to be seen. [photo]

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Council Takes Step to Alter Pedestrian Law Sun, 13 Nov 2011 03:23:28 +0000 Dave Askins Ann Arbor city council meeting (Nov. 10, 2011): A further revision to the city’s pedestrian safety ordinance took up most of the council’s time at Thursday’s meeting.

Rapundalo signing student attendance sheets

Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) was first to arrive at the council’s meeting and was rewarded by a dozen or so requests from high school students who needed a signature to attest to their attendance for a class assignment. It was Rapundalo’s last meeting, having lost the Ward 2 election on Tuesday, Nov. 8, to Jane Lumm. (Photos by the writer.)

The council had made several revisions to the law in 2010, including a requirement that motorists accommodate not only pedestrians who are “within” a crosswalk, but also those who are “approaching” a crosswalk. Thursday’s initial revision amended out the “approaching” language in favor of the following wording: “… the driver of a vehicle shall stop before entering a crosswalk and yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian stopped at the curb or ramp leading to a crosswalk and to every pedestrian within a crosswalk.”

The second and final vote on the pedestrian ordinance change is expected to come after a council working session in December, and after a public hearing at the council meeting when the final vote is taken. Based on deliberations on the change at Thursday’s meeting, the outcome of that vote is not a foregone conclusion, and further revisions might be possible.

The council also took action at the Nov. 10 meeting that will allow two downtown residential projects to start construction. The council approved the site plan for The Varsity Ann Arbor, a “planned project” consisting of a 13-story apartment building with 181 units at 425 E. Washington, between 411 Lofts and the First Baptist Church.

And the final deal was approved with Village Green to purchase the city-owned parcel at First and Washington. On that site Village Green will build a 244-space parking deck as the first two stories of a 9-story building with 156 dwelling units – City Apartments.

The council gave final approval to a change in its taxicab ordinance, spelling out conditions under which licenses can be revoked or suspended.

The council also gave final approval to two ordinances that make retiree health care and pension benefits for two of the city’s larger unions parallel to benefits for non-union employees. The approvals gave Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) an opportunity to comment on the labor issues that had been a centerpiece of his re-election campaign, which concluded unsuccessfully on Tuesday.

It was due to the election held on Tuesday that the council’s meeting was shifted from its regular Monday meeting slot to Thursday. The shift is stipulated in the city charter. All council incumbents won their races except for Rapundalo, a Democrat defeated by Jane Lumm, who was running as an independent. Rapundalo began his final meeting by signing multiple attendance sheets for high school students who were attending the meeting on a class assignment, and ended it by hearing praise from his colleagues around the table.

Pedestrian Safety Ordinance

Before the council for consideration was initial approval to a tweak to its pedestrian safety ordinance. The language given initial approval by the council now reads in relevant part: ” … the driver of a vehicle shall stop before entering a crosswalk and yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian stopped at the curb or ramp leading to a crosswalk and to every pedestrian within a crosswalk, …”

Some amendments to the law made by the council over a year ago – on July 19, 2010 – included an expansion of the conditions under which motorists must take action to accommodate pedestrians. Specifically, the 2010 amendments required accommodation of pedestrians not just “within a crosswalk” but also “approaching or within a crosswalk.”

A draft of the current revision that was circulated prior to Thursday’s meeting would have simply struck the phrase about “approaching” a crosswalk – which resulted in a mischaracterization in other media reports of a possible council action to “repeal” the ordinance.

Besides the “approaching” phrase, the 2010 amendments also contained two other key elements. The 2010 amendments included a requirement that motorists “stop” and not merely “slow as to yield.” And the 2010 amendments also eliminated reference to which half of the roadway is relevant to the responsibility placed on motorists for accommodating pedestrians. With regard to that amendment, the intent of the council was to place responsibility on motorists when pedestrians approach crosswalks on either side of the roadway.

Revisions contemplated by the council this time around do not change the intent of the ordinance on either the “stopping” or the “roadway side” elements. However, language has been inserted to make explicit that motorists have a responsibility “without regard to which portion of the roadway the pedestrian is using.”

Pedestrian Ordinance: Public Commentary

Matthew Grocoff led off public commentary from the contingent of advocates for pedestrians who attended the meeting. He said it’s been an interesting week for pedestrians. The issue is not really about pedestrians, bikes, and cars, but rather about the value of people, he said. He appreciated the shifting of the burden from the pedestrian. He said he is looking forward to strengthening the language that’s in the ordinance now.

Joel Batterman introduced himself as a 2006 graduate of Huron High School, vice chair of the Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition (WBWC), and an urban planning student at the University of Michigan. Changing the ordinance [from the 2010 amended version] would make the community less safe, he said. The ordinance is working, he contended. A few months of education and enforcement has increased the number of people stopping.

Joel Batterman

Joel Batterman.

Batterman said that media reports have attributed collisions on Plymouth Road to the 2010 amendments to the ordinance. But he said that Plymouth Road has always been a problem, and he reminded the council that in 2003 two students died trying to cross Plymouth Road. [From a Nov. 15, 2003 Ann Arbor News report: "Teh Nannie Roshema Rolsan, 21, and Norhananim Zainol, 20, both engineering students at the University of Michigan, were killed Sunday night after they left the Islamic Center of Ann Arbor, 2301 Plymouth Road, and tried to cross the five-lane road."]

Batterman noted that many students trying to cross Plymouth are international students who find it difficult to make their voices heard. He called on the council not to backpedal on their commitment.

Responding to the criticism that Ann Arbor’s pedestrian safety ordinance is at odds with prevailing traffic culture, Batterman said that’s exactly the point. Metro Detroit has the highest pedestrian fatality rate in the country and is three times that of New York City. He called for change at the state level as well.

Thomas Collet told councilmembers that they could likely tell from his accent that he grew up in Europe. He reported that he commutes on Plymouth Road, and it’s atrocious how fast people drive – motorists are looking to get on US-23 and turn on their cell phones. He said Ann Arbor is a community that is accommodating to pedestrians and bicyclists. Regarding possible traffic accidents, he said the actual problem is people driving too fast and following too close.

Isaac Gilman introduced himself as an urban planning student at UM and a resident of Courtyard Apartments, near Plymouth and Broadway, for over a year. It’s difficult to cross Plymouth at non-signalized crosswalks, he said. Two specific locations he noted are at the Islamic Center and at Traver Village, where Kroger is located.

Cars travel 40-45 mph when the posted limit is 35, Gilman said. It takes three to five minutes to make it across. The pedestrian island helps, but he said he doesn’t feel safe there. The pedestrian ordinance is a great plan – human life should be the most important focus. He encouraged the city to adopt crosswalk design guidelines, to identify improvements, and to implement them. He said it was important to educate pedestrians, motorists and bicyclists. He encouraged the council to keep the ordinance. People shouldn’t fear crossing the street, he said.

Erica Briggs introduced herself as a board member of the WBWC. She supported the revisions, she said. She agreed that the “approaching” phrase is vague. The WBWC had received a grant from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority and the Washtenaw County public health department to do outreach and education, and she wanted to give a status update. She’d done observations in the spring and fall of this year of actual driver behavior at different intersections, which she then shared with the council.

[The study did not use pedestrians observed in the wild. Briggs acted as a pedestrian, and an observer monitored motorist behavior. For the study, at each location observations were recorded over a period of about an hour and a half, with roughly 50-80 attempted crossings. Stop rates were calculated based on the number of cars that should have stopped, by ordinance, compared with the total number of vehicles traveling through the location.] Stop rates were measured in the spring of 2011 and again in the fall. Fall figures are given in parens.

Plymouth Road
Stop Rate: 1.5% (9.5%)

Liberty Street
Stop rate: 8% (24%)

Main Street
Stop rate: 5.3% (14%)

Stadium Blvd
Stop rate: 1.2% (12%)


Briggs noted that there had been improvement in the stop rates as measured by the WBWC, but it’s nowhere where it needs to be.

Kathy Griswold told council she’s been speaking about pedestrian safety long before it was popular. Transportation engineering is life and death, not trial and error, she said. She didn’t support the pedestrian ordinance revision, saying that it’s not the optimal approach, because it introduces unnecessary conflict and risk. She said the discussion needed to be framed more broadly. She noted that people want to model the pedestrian safety ordinance on the city of Boulder’s law, but she noted that Boulder has other laws supporting that one, like a law on sight distance. She compared Ann Arbor’s approach to someone taking a laxative to get in shape.

Griswold asked why Ann Arbor needs a local ordinance that is inconsistent with the Uniform Traffic Code (UTC). She wondered why local politicians are editing traffic engineering laws, wordsmithing language at the council table. The city of Ann Arbor is reluctant to maintain sight distances, she contended, and it doesn’t keep rights-of-way free of overgrowth. There’s not adequate lighting at crosswalks, she continued, and utility boxes are placed in the line of sight. From a historical perspective, she said, there’s been a trend of politicizing traffic engineering. You can’t just pick and choose high visibility projects, she cautioned.

Larry Deck introduced himself as a board member of the WBWC. He said it looks like the council has made good progress. He cautioned that a cultural change takes time. The focus should first be on education instead of the punitive part. He said that the group is working on crosswalk design guidelines. As an example of items to be addressed are consistent signage across the city, advance yield signs, High-intensity Activated crossWalK beacons (HAWK), and Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons (RRFB). He said the community shares a common interest in making crosswalks safer.

Pedestrian Ordinance: Council Deliberations

Sabra Briere (Ward 1), a co-sponsor of the amendment, noted there had been a grammatical error in the updated online version on Legistar. So she asked her colleagues to consider the updated version she’d passed around printed on sheets of paper. [Compared to the version approved by the council in July 2011 2010 additional language is in italics and deleted language is struck through.]

[Proposed Amendment Nov. 10, 2011] 10:148. Pedestrians crossing streets.
(a) When traffic-control signals are not in place or are not in operation, the driver of a vehicle shall stop before entering a crosswalk and yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian approaching or stopped at the curb or ramp leading to a crosswalk and to every pedestrian within a crosswalk, without regard to which portion of the roadway the pedestrian is using. 
(b) A pedestrian shall not suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into a path of a vehicle that is so close that it is impossible unsafe for the driver to yield.
(c) Every pedestrian crossing a roadway at any point other than within a marked crosswalk or within an unmarked crosswalk at an intersection shall yield the right-of-way to all vehicles upon the roadway.

Briere said she’d heard a lot of concern about the ordinance in the last 13-14 months since the it was revised. There’d been a flurry of publicity when it was approved in 2010. Many people had written about their concern, but had also expressed their gratefulness. For occasional pedestrians, crossing at anywhere but a signal is difficult, she said. The council had approved the language with “approaching” as a way to evaluate the intent of pedestrians. Since then, the council had heard a lot of discussion about understanding what that means.

At the Oct. 24 council meeting, those concerns had been discussed by the council, Briere said. She’d volunteered to work on this issue, but said the current amendment didn’t reflect her work alone – it’s the work of other councilmembers and community members, and she thanked them for their input.

Christopher Taylor (Ward 3), who also co-sponsored the amendment, said he’d heard a great deal from his constituents about the ordinance. Two main points of that communication were that: (1) there is great value in a pedestrian-friendly culture, and (2) the “approaching” standard is problematic due to perceived and real ambiguity.

The current revision advances public safety, he said, and provides clarity without forcing pedestrians into the crosswalk before they get the right-of-way. He said he continues to learn about the issue through communication with advocacy groups and he thanked them collectively for it.

Margie Teall (Ward 4) said she is very appreciative of work that Briere and Taylor had put into the ordinance.

Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5), who had sponsored the original 2010 amendment to the ordinance, said he was glad that the sponsors had stepped back from the previous draft that would have simply struck the phrase with “approaching.”

Hohnke said it’s important to keep in mind what’s important: the safety of pedestrians. It’s important that the city is not asking people to risk life and limb to claim the right-of-way. He said he wasn’t sure the newly revised language is a huge improvement. He was inclined to support the revision in paragraph (a), but wanted to note that the original language was the result of a multi-stakeholder process, that included physical audits, videos, data, and a publicly-held forum with traffic engineers and experts from Lansing.

Through that process, Hohnke contended, people had wrestled with the issues that people are now identifying. He cautioned against taking a reactionary step backwards. He agreed with the concern that Griswold had raised during public commentary about councilmembers trying to wordsmith traffic safety laws. To a lay person, the revised language might seem to accomplish the goal. But Hohnke said the “so-called ambiguity” is something the city needs to educate people about. That kind of ambiguity already exists in the traffic code in other places, he said, giving tailgating as an example. He was willing to support the paragraph (a) revisions if it would make people feel more comfortable, saying at least it’s not the step backward.

But as for the revisions in paragraph (b), Hohnke said the language strays from UTC guidelines and is inconsistent. He contended that the addition of the word “unsafe” adds ambiguity that sponsors were trying to avoid.

Later during deliberations, Taylor offered, in response to Hohnke’s concern about paragraph (b), that he would be willing to consider a reversion to the original language in that paragraph as friendly. And that amendment was accepted without requiring a vote.

Mayor John Hieftje said he appreciated the work done by Briere and Taylor. Noting he was a sponsor of the 2010 amendment, the “approaching” standard was a term that worked well in other places and that traffic professionals had worked with him and Hohnke to develop the language. Hieftje said there’d be a working session on the topic in December and that a second and final vote on the ordinance change would be taken at a meeting following the working session. Hieftje said progress is being made in recognizing pedestrians who are within and approaching crosswalks.

Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) said he was appreciative of the councilmembers who had made the effort to bring the revision forward. He was glad the council was not considering simply striking the “approaching” language, because he would not have supported that. Pedestrians need strong language to support them, to support a level of walkability in the city. Saying it’s a step in the right direction, he cautioned that there are still inconsistencies with the UTC. Rapundalo said he thinks other things to contemplate are: technological options; definitions of everything a “crosswalk” includes; and signage.

Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) said he also wants the effect of the ordinance on liability studied, in particular with respect to the “last clear chance” doctrine. Does this change that liability? [The "last clear chance" doctrine is that, independent of the negligence on the part of one of the parties, if the other party had the last opportunity to avoid an accident, the negligent party could still avoid liability for that accident.]

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) said it’s great the council is talking about this, because it’s consistent with the council’s practice of revisiting ordinances a year after the ordinance is amended, which is now. Kunselman asked chief of police Barnett Jones to come to the podium.

A back-and-forth between Jones and Kunselman drew out the fact that under state law, Ann Arbor police officers can ticket motorists for failing to accommodate pedestrians who are in a crosswalk and that it results in two points on the motorist’s license.

To illustrate the kind of friction that exists between motorists and pedestrians on the ordinance, Jones related receiving a call about a situation at Huron and State streets. The motorist was eastbound on Huron Street approaching State Street. A pedestrian pointed at the crosswalk and stepped in. The motorist pointed to the green light and drove around the pedestrian.

Jones said he believed some relief is needed for mid-block major road crossings, and the city is starting to get better compliance. Jones then implicitly disputed a report in that attributed the cause of some rear-end accidents to the pedestrian ordinance. Jones said that when the third, fourth or fifth cars behind a stopped car have a rear-end accident, it’s not the fault of the pedestrian ordinance. Instead, Jones said, that kind of accident is caused by a driver who failed to keep their vehicle under control.

Briere told Jones that when she’d looked at the reports that were supposed to be the basis of the claims published in that the pedestrian ordinance had caused accidents, she’d found that a lot of the reports didn’t deal with areas that would be affected by this ordinance. The accidents had happened at signalized intersections (which are not included in the scope of the pedestrian safety ordinance) or else involved bicyclists on sidewalks, she said. She said that looking at the actual reports was surprising to her, because having read the coverage in she’d expected to find an uptick in rear-end accidents at those crosswalks without a signal.

Jones said that on Plymouth Road, the accidents he’d looked at had involved a distracted driver who did not stop behind a car that was already stopped. Briere requested a comparison of rear-end collisions today versus 2009, so that there can be an effective comparison.

A question from Hohnke to the chief about what it means exactly for a pedestrian to be “stopped at the curb” resulted in a couple of suggestions from Jones. First, he said there were some bus stops that might need to be moved from their locations immediately proximate to crosswalks. Second, he suggested the possibility of extending the crosswalk striping from the road onto the sidewalk pad to clearly delineate an area.

Hohnke reacted to the extended striping by saying that was new information to him. Hohnke said that’s a pretty significant change and wondered if the ordinance language actually entailed such a delineation and a requirement that engineering of the crosswalks be undertaken.

Marcia Higgins

Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) took over the duties of chairing the Nov. 10 council meeting midway through it, when mayor John Hieftje could no longer continue, due to hoarseness. The duty fell to Higgins as mayor pro tem. Hieftje remained at the meeting. 

Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) was chairing the meeting (as mayor pro tem) by that point due to illness-induced hoarseness on Hieftje’s part. She said the council had heard that the city needs engineered crosswalks and it’s important to look at different needs for Seventh and Liberty streets as compared to Huron Street and Plymouth Road. She ventured that the city’s traffic engineers would be able to weigh in on the issue at the December work session and the council would have that information before taking a final vote.

Briere wanted to remind people that ordinances don’t control everything. She referred to the three Es: education, enforcement and engineering. Putting up signs has alerted motorists that crosswalks are there. Getting a standard warning sign across the city will be valuable to residents, as well as to people who are driving through the city. It’s the lack of clarity that has compounded the problems, she said. The city also needs to look at the engineering of crosswalks.

Mike Anglin (Ward 5) noted that the city needs to think about how to fund engineering improvements to crosswalks. He noted the reduction in bus service provided by the Ann Arbor Public Schools system meant that more people were walking.

Outcome: The council voted unanimously to give initial approval to the revision to the pedestrian safety ordinance. A working session and a final vote are anticipated for December 2011.

Pedestrian Ordinance: Remembering Kris Talley

When the council revised the city’s pedestrian safety ordinance on July 19, 2010, the public hearing included remarks from Kris Talley on behalf of the Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition, a group she chaired for a time. From The Chronicle’s July 19, 2010 meeting report:

Speaking during the public hearing on behalf of the Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition, board member Kris Talley indicated the group had been working on the issue for more than a year. She pointed the council to a video that they’d created to illustrate what motorist behavior is like towards pedestrians who are trying to enter crosswalks.

What had been particularly striking, Talley said, was a forum attended by city transportation staff, a city attorney, a police officer and advocates for non-motorized transportation where there’d been a lack of consensus about what was required by the city’s current pedestrian ordinance – for pedestrians and motorists alike. The proposed revision, she said, is language that makes crosswalks meaningful.

Advocacy for pedestrians in the current round of legislative review will be missing Talley’s voice. Last week, on Nov. 4, she died of ovarian cancer. In a message to the WBWC newsgroup, her husband Phil Farber described Talley as “a tireless advocate for pedestrians and non-motorized transportation, especially bicycling.”

Kris Talley, July 2010

In this Chronicle file photo from July 19, 2010, Kris Talley addressed the city council that night in support of the amendment to the city’s pedestrian safety ordinance. Tally died of ovarian cancer on Nov. 4, 2011.

Farber continued, “I want to ask everyone reading these words to consider what they can do in large or small ways to improve conditions for those of us who walk and bicycle for our transportation needs.”

In a May 2007 interview, Talley related a vignette that illustrates the large and small deeds she contributed to the walking and bicycling community. After being run off the road by a gravel truck while riding her bicycle on Scio Church Road, she followed the truck to the gravel pit and tracked down the driver, who was called “Catfish.”

Said Talley: “I went into the dispatch office and that’s how I found out his name. She called down and said, Catfish, there’s someone up here who wants to talk to you or something. Yeah, he wasn’t too receptive to my message of sharing the road.”

Talley continued to deliver that message as recently as early October of this year. She sent an email to several parties, including The Chronicle, asking for help in an attempt to convince Zipcar (a car-share company) to stop using a particular advertisement: “Aaaargh, I can’t take it that Zipcar still has this ad in its rotation, almost a month after Bike Portland first pointed it out: [link] … I was hoping if the AA entities that deal directly with Zipcar and at least one AA customer (I think you are, HD?) could protest it would have more impact than the average cyclist.”

When Talley asked people to do something, it was hard for them to find a way to say no. [.pdf of email written to Zipcar at Talley's request]

The Varsity Ann Arbor

On the council’s agenda was a resolution for approval of a residential project on East Washington Street: The Varsity Ann Arbor. The Varsity is a “planned project” consisting of a 13-story apartment building with 181 units at 425 E. Washington, between 411 Lofts and the First Baptist Church.

The city planning commission recommended approval of The Varsity at its Oct. 4, 2011 meeting.

Intended for students, it’s the first project to go through the city’s new design review process. The Varsity was first considered at the planning commission’s Sept. 20 meeting, but postponed before eventually winning recommendation.

A “planned project” allows modifications of the area, height, and placement requirements related to permanent open space preservation, if the project would result in “the preservation of natural features, additional open space, greater building or parking setback, energy conserving design, preservation of historic or architectural features, expansion of the supply of affordable housing for lower income households or a beneficial arrangement of buildings.” However, all other zoning code requirements must still be met – including the permitted uses, maximum density, and maximum floor area.

The Varsity was submitted as a planned project in order to make the plaza area off Washington Street larger than what would have been required by the zoning code.

The Varsity: Public Hearing

Thomas Partridge stated that he felt the requirements for the property should include access on a non-discriminatory basis to transportation.

Chris Crockett noted that the proposed building is bounded on two sides by structures in the Old Fourth Ward historic district. She had met with developers and architects for a number of months, she said, and allowed that The Varsity is an appropriate development for the site – it is tall and could be taller. However, she still had real concerns about some issues to which she’d not received a good response from the architects and the developer. One concern is the Huron Street facade, she said. It’s a major thoroughfare and buildings on the street should be architecturally significant. But The Varsity’s facade on Huron Street is anything but that, she contended. It offers a flat face with an entrance for pedestrians and a garage door.

Alluding to the design changes that had been made since the initial review by the city’s design review board, Crockett called it a “glorified garage door.” The developer had been asked to change it, but it hasn’t been changed, she said. The door is also dangerous, because traffic on Huron Street could get backed up. She expressed skepticism that it would be effective, for the developer simply to tell residents they can’t turn left out of the garage. She maintained it would be a hazard for drivers on Huron Street. She noted that The Varsity was the first building to go through the city’s new design review process and the garage door entrance had been brought to the attention of the development team as unacceptable, she said.

Ethel Potts called The Varsity the first test of the city’s new planning process. Next spring there’ll be a review of how well it’s working, she said. She criticized the fact that height and mass was not considered by the design review board, and that resulted in a project that is not compatible with its context – next door to a small, elegant historic church.

Potts said the reason the design review board didn’t consider height and mass was because those elements were made a part of the zoning code, which was a mistake, she said. A flaw of the project is a lack of green space – it has open space, but that’s not green space. “So much for downtown livability,” she said. She concluded that she doesn’t think the ordinances are working.

Steve Kaplan introduced himself as the owner of the apartment building at 418 Washington. He said he was excited to see the project get built on the street. He told the council he’d attended the design review board and had been impressed with the energy the development team had put into the changes they’ve made.

Kaplan said he appreciated that a developer must balance concerns that are financial with those that are aesthetic. But he suggested that some improvements could be made that do not impact affordability of the construction. On the east wall, the current plan calls for just one color of brick. But with such a large face, he suggested it might make sense to alternate colors to break it up.

Kaplan also said the parking offered inside the building at grade level squanders an important opportunity to contribute to the community. That block of Washington Street has been historically a “sleepy block,” he allowed, but it seems to be changing towards something more exciting. The space allocated to parking could be commercial or retail, so allocating it permanently to parking seems wasteful, he said.

Brad Moore introduced himself as working on the project as an associate architect. He noted that other members of the team were also there. The approval was being sought under the city’s “planned project” provision, he said, a designation that has a controversial history. For this project, Moore explained, the “planned project” designation allows the developer to provide a larger public plaza on Washington Street – at the request of the First Baptist Church. The “planned project” designation is not being used to gain increased mass, density or height, he said. The project team has worked very hard with the neighbors, the design review board and the city planning commission.

The project has evolved, Moore said, and they had done the best job possible. One challenge noted by Moore is that the width of the lot on the Huron side of the site is quite limited. The garage door mimics a “curtain wall,” he said. There is room for the staging of cars, he said. A car can be completely outside the garage, before it gets to the Huron Street edge.

Bob Keane, a principal with WDG Architects in Washington D.C., told the council that the project team had been working together with a local group [Brad Moore]. He described how they’d had a nice process with the design review board, the neighborhood and the church. The team took the commentary seriously, which they’d received as feedback. He called the evolution of the Huron Street facade a great improvement. The way the building steps back responds to the two houses appropriately, he said.

Although Keane had heard people describe the Huron Street facade as “flat,” he said he felt it had a rich texture. He allowed that the long facade facing east really was a bit plain originally, and vertical elements had been added, as well as a metal element at the top to define the building top. He also noted that the team had looked at ways to enhance the mid-block pedestrian connector – the mews, which runs between Huron and Washington.

John Floyd introduced himself as treasurer of the First Baptist Church, located next to the proposed project. He allowed it “could be a lot worse” but told the council that the reason it’s going to be built is: “You guys passed the zoning!” He allowed that the developers are probably nice people, who are nice to kids, and nice to have a pint with.

John Floyd Tom Heywood

Tom Heywood (left) and John Floyd (right) chatted during a recess in the meeting. 

At that point Floyd paused and said he wanted to wait until all the councilmembers were ready to listen, saying that Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) and Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) seemed to have other things to do besides pay attention to him. [Hohnke has also in the past made a point of not looking at Floyd when Floyd has spoken during public commentary.]

Floyd ventured that Hohnke was writing an email, at which point Hohnke was piqued into responding verbally to Floyd during Floyd’s commentary. [Councilmembers have rarely if ever responded to speakers during public commentary over the more than three years of Chronicle coverage. They will on occasion offer a response later in the meeting.] Hohnke told Floyd he was taking notes on what Floyd was saying.

When Floyd continued, he called the construction of The Varsity in that spot civic vandalism and church desecration. He said Huron Street used to be the most elegant street in town, and The Varsity starts its diminishment, he said. To take a building that scale and put it through the whole block [from Washington to Huron] is wrong, he contended. It was an “act of irresponsibility” by the council to approve the zoning, he said. It was wrong, Floyd said, and will be wrong for the next 100 years, and is the responsibility of this city council.

At the time allowed for public commentary at the conclusion of the meeting, Floyd also addressed the council, again on the topic of The Varsity. He told them he had a passion about The Varsity and Huron Street. He responded to remarks made by mayor John Hieftje during the council deliberations on The Varsity – Hieftje had called the process of rezoning inclusive and open.

Floyd recalled that part of the public process had involved the Calthorpe study, which had introduced the idea of “transition zoning.” Out of that public process, he said, Huron Street originally had been designated as D2, the transition zoning. The eventual change later in the process from D2 to D1 – zoning that allows for denser development – did not have the appearance of an open process, Floyd said. Instead, it had the appearance of a middle-of-the-night process. That part seemed like it threw out a large part of the public process and ignored it, he said.

Tom Heywood introduced himself as executive director of the State Street Area Association. When the owners of the project had approached him eight months ago, he asked them to work with neighbors. He turned to Floyd and asked if he’d met with the developer – no, answered Floyd. Heywood went on to say that the co-pastor of Floyd’s church, Stacey Simpson Duke, couldn’t be at the meeting that night – her twin boys had a “family thing” – but Duke supported the project. [However, during the rezoning process to which Floyd had referred during his commentary, Duke had weighed in against the D1 zoning that the council ultimately approved for that area.]

Heywood noted that the developer could have proceeded with a “by right” project, but chose not to. The plaza proposed on the Washington Street side was added so that the building would flow with the rest of the street. The State Street Area Association board had unanimously approved a resolution supporting the project. He said he understood that there are people who don’t like the massing of the building, but he believes it reflects the future of downtown.

Ray Detter spoke on behalf of the Downtown Citizens Advisory Council. He said the group has urged the developer to improve the project, and that many changes have been made that have improved the project. For example, a small green roof was recently added. The group supported the increased setback on Washington Street and the resulting plaza. The group would have liked the developer to eliminate the Washington Street parking entrance.

The mews on the east side is of special interest, said Detter, because it’s a public benefit. He contended that expansion of the surface to the church property would require only administrative review of the city’s historic district commission. He hoped the mews will result in a crosswalk and a connection to the alley between Washington and Liberty, which he said is now a “stinking, dirty, nasty alley.” Detter wants to see that alley turn into a well-designed pedestrian walkway.

The Varsity: Council Deliberations

Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) led off deliberations, saying the project was unanimously recommended for approval by the city planning commission. [Derezinski serves as the council's representative to the planning commission.] He noted that the new design review board process is new. Some people who were most enthusiastic about the project were neighbors, he said. The sticking point was the Huron Street entrance. The only way to solve it completely would have been to eliminate it, he said, which the developer didn’t do. He alluded to the idea that the perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good, and said that there’d been a lot of public input.

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3 ) said he was glad the issue of the two entrances had been raised – he had a problem with the Washington Street entrance, because it’s pedestrian unfriendly. He said the city’s experience with garage doors between Division and Fifth along Liberty was not good – it’s unsightly along that corridor, he said, and makes it difficult for pedestrians. Why does the building need two entrances? Kunselman asked.

Brad Moore clarified that the project is not changing anything that doesn’t already exist – both entrances already exist. The Washington entrance is back far enough for a motorist to pull out of the garage and still be cognizant of pedestrians. The lot has a panhandle shape, with the narrow end on the north (Huron Street). In trying to find a way to use one entrance and build a ramp inside the building, they discovered that it just didn’t work, Moore explained. As a result, from the Huron Street side, you descend to one level of parking.

In response to questions from Kunselman about required parking and the ability to convert space to retail use, Moore explained that there’s a congregational space, a lounge, on the ground floor, so that if retail demand exists, it could be converted to retail. That would still leave a lounge on the top floor.

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) asked for the plans to be shown that illustrated the contrast between the original plans and the changes that had been made in response to suggestions from the design review board and others. The contrasts were then discussed by councilmembers and the design team.

Mayor John Hieftje said he was normally not a fan of “planned projects,” so he appreciated the work the developer was willing to do with the neighboring First Baptist Church. He said he grew up attending that church. Hieftje then referred to Floyd’s comments about the zoning, but refrained from mentioning Floyd’s name. Hieftje said that thousands of hours had been put into it and it was one of the most participatory things he’d seen in government. He said not everybody would be happy with everything about it, but it’s something they could live with.

Village Green, First and Washington

The council was asked to consider final authorization of a land deal to sell the city-owned First and Washington lot to Village Green. Village Green will build a 244-space parking deck as the first two stories of a 9-story building with 156 dwelling units – City Apartments.

Village Green: Background

The purchase price of the land is $3,200,000, the bulk of which ($2,500,000 plus $500,000 previously borrowed from the risk fund to cover construction costs) is earmarked for the city’s new municipal building fund. This has been a part of the city’s financing plan for that building. Construction of the municipal building is now essentially completed.

The city has previously received $103,000 in earnest money from Village Green. The city is covering $5,000 in closing costs – that puts net proceeds of the transaction at $3,092,000. The remaining $92,000 (after appropriating the $3 million total for the municipal center) and the earnest money will be appropriated to the general fund, designated as “non-departmental” (as non-recurring revenue), where it will add to the general fund reserve.

The Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority has pledged around $9 million of support for bonds to pay for the parking deck component of City Apartments – the city will own that part of the project. Payment is not owed to Village Green for the parking deck construction until a certificate of occupancy is issued for the parking deck, which is expected to open for business in about a year (late 2012), before the residential portion of the project is complete.

The deal had a five-year trajectory after the city council first approved the recommendation of the First and Washington RFP Review Committee, and the city started negotiations with Village Green for the sale and redevelopment of the site. The goals of the deal were: to increase downtown residential density; replace public parking spaces; maximize the sale price; and maximize future tax revenue, captured by the Ann Arbor DDA Authority TIF (tax increment finance) district.

The vote by the council required an 8-vote majority on the 11-member body, because the city charter stipulates that “The City shall not purchase, sell, or lease any real estate or any interest therein except by resolution concurred in by at least eight members of the Council.”

Also before the council on Thursday night was the affordable housing component of the project. Under those terms, 16 of the units must be permanently affordable to households earning no more than 80% of the area median income (AMI).

The Ann Arbor DDA has also agreed to support the project with $400,000 from its housing fund, if four of the 80% AMI rental units are made affordable at the 60% AMI level. The affordable units will be of the same appearance and finish as other units and would be distributed throughout the project. Village Green does not have the option of making a payment in lieu of providing the affordable units as part of the project.

Village Green: Council Deliberations

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) asked city of Ann Arbor chief financial officer Tom Crawford about how the proceeds of the sale would be appropriated. She contended one step has been missed – it should first go into the general fund before being appropriated to the municipal building fund.

By way of background, Briere was making the point that in 2008, the council had included a condition on a further extension of Village Green’s purchase option that proceeds of the sale be deposited into the general fund, not the municipal building fund. From The Chronicle’s meeting report ["Council Revisits the Mid-2000s"]:

As a historical point related to the planned use of the sale proceeds for the new municipal center construction, the council defeated a resolution on March 17, 2008 to extend the Village Green purchase option agreement for First and Washington. At the council’s following meeting, on April 7, 2008, the measure was brought back for reconsideration, and the council voted unanimously to extend the agreement. The key difference was the addition of a “resolved clause,” which stated: “Resolved, that the proceeds from this sale shall be designated to the general fund, Fund 010.”

Responding to Briere’s question, Crawford said that all along the financing plan for the municipal center has included proceeds of the First and Washington sale. As a reason for not first running the money through the general fund, he said, when citizens sees spikes in the fund balance level, it causes confusion. Briere noted that one of the reasons the project moved forward was the 2008 agreement that proceeds of the sale would go into the general fund.

Crawford told Briere that he wasn’t following her reasoning. From the beginning, he said, the proceeds of the sale were planned to pay for the municipal center. Briere allowed that Crawford was right, but noted that the first time the council had a chance to vote on the project, it was rejected on the theory that one project shouldn’t depend on another. The result was that the council approved it later, on the condition that the proceeds go to the general fund.

Crawford told Briere he didn’t recall that. If it were the council’s desire, he said, he didn’t have a problem doing it that way, but he said it was a matter of expediency to put funds where they’re eventually headed.

Sabra Briere

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) retrieved her laptop from the podium after showing the city’s CFO, Tom Crawford, a 2008 resolution the council had passed, requiring the proceeds of the Village Green land deal to be deposited into the general fund.

Briere gave the matter a rest, but continued later after she’d looked up the council resolution on her laptop computer and walked to the podium to show Crawford the resolution. Returning to her seat at the table, she asked Crawford if he saw what she meant. He confirmed he did, and offered his apology – he had not recalled the 2008 decision when he drafted the resolution for that night’s agenda. He said he wouldn’t recommend running the money through the general fund, but said he had no issue with first putting the money into the general fund and then moving it to the building fund.

Mike Anglin (Ward 5) ventured that the 2008 vote had meant the council had decided not to put the proceeds towards the municipal center. Crawford stated that he did not believe the 2008 resolution said the city shouldn’t use the money for the municipal center.

The council as a whole did not seem to be in a mood to insist on conformance with its own 2008 resolution, or to undertake a revision to that night’s resolution to explicitly rescind that part of the 2008 vote.

Responding to a question from Anglin, Crawford said construction would start very soon. The actual closing would need to happen before Dec. 3, because that’s how long the purchase option is good for.

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) said he wanted to hear very clearly that there’s no risk to the general fund if the project were to fall thorough. After several turns back and forth between Kunselman and assistant city attorney Kevin McDonald, a couple of points were established. First, no money was owed by the city to Village Green until the parking deck is completed and the certificate of occupancy has been issued. Second, the closing on the land deal with the city and the financing of the project would happen simultaneously.

The question of making payments in lieu of providing affordable housing units as part of a proposed project has been discussed recently by the council at its Oct. 24, 2011 meeting, in the context of a revised proposal for the Heritage Row project. At that meeting, Jennifer L. Hall – housing manager for the Washtenaw County/city of Ann Arbor office of community development – had told the council that the city’s current thinking was that payments in lieu might be a more effective policy than requiring affordable units to be provided on site. [The fact that this transition in policy direction has taken place over the lifetime of the Village Green deal speaks to the length of time that the First and Washington project has been in the works.]

Kunselman got confirmation from McDonald that Village Green can’t make a payment in lieu of providing the affordable units as part of the project.

Outcome: The council voted unanimously to approve all the elements of the Village Green deal.

Taxicab Law

The council considered final approval to a set of changes to its taxicab ordinance. The changes make explicit how long a taxicab company license is valid (10 years) and spell out some additional conditions on revocation or suspension of the company license.

The revisions also add reasons that can be used for suspending an individual taxicab driver’s license, which include a city administrator’s view that a driver “has acted in an unprofessional, harassing or threatening manner to passengers, or others.”

At the council’s Oct. 17, 2011 meeting, when the revision had received its initial approval, Tom Crawford – the city’s chief financial officer – had briefed the council on the changes. Crawford serves as a non-voting member of the city’s taxicab board, which had recommended those changes. Crawford characterized the changes as falling in three areas. In the first area, related to licensing, Crawford said that in the past the city had seasonal operators who would want to come in and work the football season and then disappear. The ordinance is being changed so that if a company ceases operation for 45 days, the city can revoke the license. Crawford explained that a healthy taxicab industry needs stability and this is a mechanism to help guard against companies frequently coming in and out of the market.

Another area of change has to do with solicitations and how the companies represent themselves. Several companies advertise themselves as taxis, but they’re in fact limousines. Crawford characterized it as a safety issue for someone who believes a vehicle is a taxi, but it’s in fact a limo. [A taxi is per code "... accepting passengers for hire within the boundaries of the city as directed by the passenger." A limousine is pre-booked.] If a company holds itself out as a taxicab company, it has to be licensed as a taxicab company, Crawford said. [The city's taxicab code already prohibits advertising in the reverse direction – it prohibits taxicabs from holding themselves out as limousines.]

During the public hearing on Thursday, only one person spoke. Thomas Partridge began by saying he was opposed to the mayor using admonitions at the start of public hearings to speak only to the topic of a public hearing, saying it suppressed public comment. The ordinance, Partridge said, was misnamed. The name should refer to business subjects related to taxicab drivers and vehicles, he said. He told the council it should go back for discussion and further work.

Partridge called for a progressively-based fee, based on the assets of the applicant. The proceeds of the fees should be used to provide better accessible taxicab transportation for seniors and disabled people. He called for a committee to encourage courteous behavior and non-discrimination by taxicab drivers and to prevent unethical and illegal setting of fares. He raised the specter of illegal setting of fares possibly involving computer hacking.

During the scant council deliberations, Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) urged his colleagues to go ahead and approve it. As the council’s representative to the taxicab board, he vouched that the ordinance revision has been vetted by drivers and companies and members of the community.

Outcome: The council voted unanimously to approve the taxicab ordinance revision.

Labor Retirement Benefits

Before the council for consideration was final approval to revisions of ordinances that govern the retirement and health care plans for two of the city’s unions: the Ann Arbor Police Officers Association (AAPOA) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

The revisions to the ordinances resulted from a collective bargaining agreement with AFSCME and a binding arbitration under Act 312 with AAPOA. The changes are similar to ordinance changes already enacted for non-union city workers.

The pension contribution for AAPOA and AFSCME workers will rise from 5% on a post-tax basis to 6% on a pre-tax basis. The vesting period for new hires will increase from 5 years to 10 years. Also for new hires, the final average compensation (FAC) calculation will be increased to a five-year period. The previous FAC was based on a three-year period.

On the health care side, the AFSCME and AAPOA employees will have the same access-only retiree health plan as non-union employees have.

Initial approval of the ordinance change came at the council’s Oct. 17, 2011 meeting.

Thomas Partridge spoke during the public hearings on both ordinance changes. He said his state senate campaign had included a platform that increased services to the public and avoided discrimination towards public employee unions. He viewed the ordinance change, albeit after negotiations, as bullying tactics. He said the city of Ann Arbor should turn its back on former city administrator Roger Fraser and his recruitment by Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration. [Fraser took a job earlier this year as deputy treasurer for the state of Michigan.]

The council should, Partridge said, reject the anti-democratic attitudes of bills put through the Republican administration, and not follow along. On their face, the bills are discriminatory towards the unions. He asked the council to table the ordinances and give them further consideration.

Speaking to the health care ordinance, Partridge contended that it impedes the ability of employees to access full and affordable health care.

Comment from the council on the two ordinances came only from Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2), who noted the council had already seen the changes when the bargaining agreements were ratified. The greater contributions by employees, the longer vesting periods and the increase in the period for final average compensation is the kind of approach that the city needs in the future, he said. He said he was glad to see both groups agree to that. Rapundalo noted that the changes put new union member hires on the same basis as non-union employees. It is a long-term strategy of having parity and equity, he said.

Outcome: The council unanimously approved the changes to the ordinances on pension and the retiree health care benefits for the AFSCME and AAPOA unions.

Recycling Contract

The council was asked to ratify a revision to the city’s contract with RecycleRewards (parent company of RecycleBank), starting Dec. 1, 2011. Under terms of the new contract, Ann Arbor’s base payment to RecycleRewards will be reduced from $0.52 to $0.35 per household per month. Annually, that translates to a reduction from $149,244 to $100,455.

Under the contract revision, RecycleRewards will receive a $50 per ton incentive for any increase above 11,332 tons – that’s the amount collected in the first year of the RecycleRewards program (Sept. 1, 2010 to Aug. 31, 2011). However, even with possible incentives, the city’s payment is limited to a maximum of $150,000 in any fiscal year.

At its Sept. 19 meeting, the council had made the decision to direct city staff to renegotiate the new contract, after weighing the possibility of terminating it.

During the brief council deliberations, Sabra Briere (Ward 1) reminded everyone that the contract revision came in response to the council re-examining the contract. She noted that the city is not committing to continuing the contract next year, if the council decides not to appropriate funds for RecycleBank.

Outcome: The council voted unanimously to amend the contract with RecycleRewards.

Greenbelt Addition

On the agenda was a resolution to approve use of the city’s open space and parkland preservation (greenbelt) millage funds to preserve two parcels outside the city through the purchase of conservation easements.

The city of Ann Arbor is partnering with Ann Arbor Township and Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation by contributing $49,500 towards the $99,000 cost of a conservation easement on a 23-acre property owned by Joe Bloch in Ann Arbor Township. Part of the land is currently used for farming.

For a second parcel, the council was asked to authorize $15,000 to partner with the Legacy Land Conservancy to preserve a 30-acre property owned by Charles Botero in Northfield Township. Botero is donating the conservation easement to the Legacy Land Conservancy – the $15,000 will cover the closing, due diligence, and stewardship costs for the property.

The greenbelt advisory commission recommended both fund expenditures at its Sept. 14, 2011 meeting.

Outcome: The council voted unanimously to approve the expenditures of greenbelt funds.

The council postponed a vote on the appointment of Shannon Brines to the greenbelt advisory commission until Nov. 21. The resolution on the agenda would have made the effective date Nov. 21, and the council wanted to time their vote to the effective date. The next meeting of the greenbelt advisory commission is Dec. 14.

Leaf Truck Lease

As part of its consent agenda, the council was asked to approve a $93,720 emergency purchase order for the lease of trucks to help with the fall leaf pickup. The contract is for six trucks for two months from Premier Truck Sales & Rental Inc.

leaf truck in action

A leaf truck rented from Premier Truck Sales & Rental in action on the Old West Side in Ann Arbor.

The emergency nature of the purchase order resulted from the fact that a different company, Big Truck Rental LLC, was unable to provide the eight trucks the city had originally agreed to lease. The council had approved a $138,000 purchase order for Big Truck Rental at its Sept. 19 meeting.

The city no longer picks up leaves by asking people to rake them into the street, and instead requires residents to use containers – carts or bags. The rented trucks supplement the city’s regular trucks, and reduce the number of times that trucks would need to be emptied as they cover their routes.

When the city budgeted for 2011, it expected to save $104,000 by moving to containerized leaf collection. In fact, it realized a $200,000 savings (based on unaudited figures). For the 2012 fiscal year, the city is estimating $150,000 in savings.

Outcome: As part of its consent agenda, the city council approved the emergency purchase order for the lease of trucks .

Rapundalo’s Last Meeting

Nov. 10, 2011 marked Stephen Rapundalo’s (Ward 2) final council meeting of his council term.

Rapundalo: Background

Rapundalo lost Tuesday’s general election to Jane Lumm. She will take office on Monday, Nov. 14, based on the Ann Arbor city charter provision on terms of city council office:

Terms of Office
SECTION 12.4. (a)
The term of office of each member of the Council, including the Mayor, except as by this section provided, shall be two years. Such term shall commence on the Monday next following the regular City election at which such officers are elected. …

Lumm will be ceremonially sworn in at the council’s Nov. 21 meeting.

During his last communications to the council, Rapundalo reminded them that there is a vacancy on the local development finance authority (LDFA) board that they would need to fill.

Rapundalo serves as the city council representative to the LDFA. However, at its Sept. 19, 2011 meeting, the council approved a change to the agreement between Ann Arbor and the city of Ypsilanti, so that the city councilmember representative to the LDFA board would cease to be a member of the board immediately when membership on the council ceased.

One scenario would be for the council to appoint Rapundalo to the open seat, because he’s now available to serve as a non-council member of the LDFA board. The council will also need to appoint one of its own members to serve as council representative. Appointments of councilmembers to other boards and commissions, as well as to subcommittees of the council, are typically decided at the second meeting in November or the first meeting in December.

Rapundalo: Council Words of Farewell

Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) led off the words of farewell to Rapundalo, saying that on Rapundalo’s last evening he wanted to tell him how much he’d appreciated working with him. Hohnke appreciated Rapundalo’s thoughtful and fact-based approach to issues in front of the council. Rapundalo would be missed. Hohnke thanked Rapundalo for his hard work over the years. He’d taken on duties that someone needed to take on – duties that would not generate additional friends, but that need to be done.

Hohnke Briere

Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) and Sabra Briere (Ward 1) before the meeting, discussing changes to the pedestrian safety ordinance. Hohnke is signing Rapundalo’s farewell card. 

Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) noted that he and Rapundalo were wardmates. They both represented Ward 2 together for three years. One of the things that is under-appreciated about service on the council is the amount of time it takes, Derezinski said. Tough decisions are made, the effects of which will not be noticed until a long time from now. Derezinski said he and Rapundalo were not always in agreement, but most of the time they were.

Margie Teall (Ward 4) said she would miss Rapundalo and thanked him for his service. She told him he had never veered away from saying what needs to be said and told him he had a lot of courage and great insight. She said he was very thoughtful and is the kind of amazing thinker who is needed on council.

Mayor John Hieftje said he very much appreciated having Rapundalo on the council, and that Rapundalo’s scientific way of thinking was beneficial to the council.

Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) echoed his colleagues’ sentiments, saying it’s been a pleasure to serve with Rapundalo. Taylor said he still recollected being fresh on the council and had enjoyed learning from Rapundalo. Taylor then attempted a joke based on the fact that Rapundalo and Hohnke, who sit on opposite sides of the table, hold PhDs. Taylor ventured that Rapundalo’s side of the table now had a deficit in doctorates, but that perhaps his and Derezinski’s JD degrees might balance that out.

Mike Anglin (Ward 5) said that often he and Rapundalo had been on different sides of issues. But he and Rapundalo had served on the liquor committee together, and Rapundalo had done an outstanding job. Rapundalo had done the rudimentary things necessary to get the liquor committee board in shape to be able to deal with the issues that arise with bars, Anglin said.

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) said he’d enjoyed his time working with Rapundalo – noting playfully that they shared the same name. He noted that he and Rapundalo had at times been on the same side of issues and also on opposite sides. He told Rapundalo he appreciated Rapundalo’s support on the Argo Dam issue [both men supported keeping it in place], but not so much on the issue of the airport runway extension [unlike Rapundalo, Kunselman was adamant about not extending the runway].

Stephen Kunselman Christopher Taylor Stephen Rapundalo

Right to left: Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) and Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2). Kunselman is telling Rapundalo that he figures Rapundalo will find it difficult to stay away from involvement in city issues.

Kunselman said he greatly admired Rapundalo’s service to the city. He then told Rapundalo that “I have been where you’re going” – an allusion to the fact that three years ago, in 2008, Kunselman had lost his seat on the council, but returned the following year to defeat Leigh Greden, winning back a seat. Kunselman said Rapundalo would have a hard time leaving, and he suspected Rapundalo would be back in some form or another. Kunselman then alluded to the fact that Rapundalo enjoys dual Canadian-U.S. citizenship, and told him to “go have some fun, eh.”

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) told Rapundalo he’d always been gracious, kind and thoughtful. She told him she’d miss sitting “not quite next” to him. [Derezinski sits between Briere and Rapundalo at the council table.]

Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) told Rapundalo she would miss looking at him across the table. She said that the first she’d met him, he was an involved citizen, and the issue they were looking at was sewer backups. She noted his service on the park advisory commission before being elected to the council. Noting he’d been involved in many aspects of public service before sitting at the table, she hoped he would consider some of those things again.

During the meeting, two speakers during public commentary mentioned Rapundalo’s service. John Floyd, former candidate for Ward 5 city council, thanked Rapundalo for doing what Rapundalo thought was right, even though mostly Floyd disagreed with him. And Tom Heywood, executive director of the State Street Area Association, told Rapundalo he appreciated working with Rapundalo, and also looked forward to working with Lumm.

Rapundalo: Response

Rapundalo responded to the remarks of his colleagues by saying he appreciated their kind and generous words. It was a privilege and honor to be a public servant. He said he’d had “a lot of darn fun” serving with all of them. He’d tried to serve with dignity and with thoughtfulness and integrity – that’s the only way he knew to approach it. He said he called things as he sees it.

He hoped he’d been able to make some contributions, and he’d worked on some issues he’d enjoyed – from labor issues to human services. He ventured that in serving, one hopes to make a difference in people’s daily lives. To that end, his focus had been on finding solutions. He contended he’d never been motivated to serve on the council because of ego or a power trip. He was just doing what was right, he said. He appreciated the help, advice and criticism he’d received from his colleagues on the council.

Rapundalo singled out former city administrator Roger Fraser for special thanks, saying he’d enjoyed Fraser’s leadership. One of Rapundalo’s disappointments was not being able to work with new administrator Steve Powers. Rapundalo said he also wanted to thank the city staff, because they often get forgotten. The staff works hard in every corner of the organization and they don’t get enough respect, he said. Responding to Kunselman’s suggestion that he’d be back, Rapundalo said he didn’t know about running again, but he would find a way to contribute to the community.

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: Pancreatic Cancer Awareness

Mayor John Hieftje issued a proclamation making November Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month. On hand to accept the proclamation was Mary Wenners, who told the council about her friend Jim Hetzel, who died of the disease last year at the age of 62. His death didn’t make headline news, she said. She called the council’s attention to the purple ribbons and bracelets associated with pancreatic awareness as well as the slogan: Know it, fight it, end it.

Comm/Comm: R4C Review

Tony Derezinski (Ward 2)) reported that the R4C zoning review committee had held its 11th and final meeting. A report will be forthcoming to the planning commission, he said. It had taken two years and there’d been a lot of public input, he said.

Comm/Comm: Unwanted Newspapers

Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) said that many constituents had communicated their displeasure about undesired delivery of newspapers and other commercial handbills to their residences. He said he was working with Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) on an ordinance change that would address that issue.

Comm/Comm: 618 S. Main

Mike Anglin (Ward 5) alerted the public to a meeting the following day at the location of the former Fox Tent and Awning building for a citizen participation meeting regarding a proposed residential development. The site is zoned D2, he said, and is on the edge of the Old West Side historic district.

Comm/Comm: Medical Marijuana

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) reported that the medical marijuana license board, on which she serves, has now met three times, and she expected it would meet again on Nov. 30. The board is supposed to deliver a report to the council in January 2012, she said, and is working towards that deadline. At this point, she said, no applications for medical marijuana licenses have been evaluated.

Comm/Comm: Partridge

Thomas Partridge spoke at both times slots on the agenda available for public commentary. He said he had been “working unceasingly” on ending discrimination and called for access to affordable housing, transportation, education and health care. He called the city’s greenbelt program a carry-over from the Eisenhower administration that used the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture to take land out of useful agricultural production. He complained of discrimination he’d encountered at the polling place at Dicken Elementary School.

Comm/Comm: Energy Farms

Kermit Schlansker described the use of biomass in energy production. Energy production will always accompany food production, he said: with corn there will always be the cob. He called on people to plant trees from seeds. Specifically he called for the planting of nut-bearing trees in parks. Even school children can do it, he said. At age 86 he allowed he has difficulty walking. But he still scattered 100 walnuts this year, so that they can grow into trees.

Comm/Comm: Israel

Henry Herskovitz reminded the council he’d spoken during public commentary the previous month and had showed them a world map. He then pointed the council to work done by Alison Weir, who’d founded an organizations called If Americans Knew, which he called an informative and unbiased source of information on Israel’s founding. He then went through some of Weir’s arguments that some of the votes for Israel at the United Nations came as the result of political pressure applied by the U.S.

Present: Stephen Rapundalo, Mike Anglin, Margie Teall, Sabra Briere, Tony Derezinski, Stephen Kunselman, Marcia Higgins, John Hieftje, Christopher Taylor, Carsten Hohnke

Absent: Sandi Smith

Next council meeting: Monday, Nov. 21, 2011 at 7 p.m. in the second-floor council chambers at city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. [confirm date]

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Ann Arbor Taxicab Law Gets Initial Tweak Tue, 18 Oct 2011 00:12:18 +0000 Chronicle Staff At its Oct. 17, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council gave initial approval to changes in its taxicab ordinance. The changes make explicit how long a taxicab company license is valid (10 years) and spells out some additional conditions on revocation or suspension of the company license.

The revisions also add reasons that can be used for suspending an individual taxicab driver’s license, which include a city administrator’s view that a driver “has acted in an unprofessional, harassing or threatening manner to passengers, or others.”

Like all ordinance revisions, the taxicab licensing revision will need a second and final approval from the council in order to take effect.

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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High Gas Prices: Ann Arbor Raises Cab Fares Tue, 17 May 2011 00:38:35 +0000 Chronicle Staff At its May 16, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council held a public hearing and subsequently approved an increase in the allowable fare for cabs operating in the city. The rate increase affects only the mileage component of fares, which were last approved on May 19, 2008.

The mileage increase from $2.25/mile to $2.50/mile had been requested by several taxicab companies in light of rising fuel prices, which are currently just over $4/gallon. The city’s taxicab board has indicated that with this increase, it does not anticipate considering another rate change until the gas prices are over $5/gallon for at least two consecutive months. The board had voted to recommend the change at its April 28, 2011 meeting.

Members of the taxicab board include the city’s CFO Tom Crawford, and William Clock, an officer with the Ann Arbor police department, as non-voting members. [The city's ordinance actually requires that the city's CFO and the chief of police serve as non-voting members.] The five voting members are Stephen Kunselman (representative to the board from the city council) as well as Barbara Krick, C. Robert Snyder, Tom Oldakowski and Timothy Hull.

Hull has filed nominating petitions to contest the city council Democratic primary in Ward 2 against incumbent Stephen Rapundalo. Kunselman will be running for re-election in the Ward 3 Democratic primary.

Crawford, who is also interim city administrator, had announced the public hearing on the taxicab fare increase at the city council’s May 2, 2011 meeting.

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 of the meeting will follow: [link]


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