On Thursday evening, the first day of July, the North Central Property Owners Association (NCPOA) hosted a forum for candidates in two Democratic primary races: Ward 1 city council representative and mayor. Around 60 people packed into the lower level of a room in the Ann Arbor Community Center.
Coverage of mayoral candidate responses to audience questions is provided in a separate article: “Ann Arbor Dems Primary: Mayoral Race.”
The Ward 1 city council race this year is contested by incumbent Sandi Smith and challenger Sumi Kailasapathy. City council representatives are elected for two-year terms and each of the city’s five wards has two seats on the council, one of which is elected each year. The winner of the Aug. 3 Democratic primary will not face a Republican challenger in November.
The other representative for Ward 1 is Sabra Briere, who was in the audience at Thursday’s forum, seated next to John Hilton, editor of The Ann Arbor Observer and a member of the NCPOA. The location of the forum at the Ann Arbor Community Center on North Main Street and its sponsorship by the NCPOA was significant – the site is across the street from Near North, which was a controversial affordable housing development approved in September 2009.
Development and the definition of downtown was one of several topics raised by questions put to the candidates. For her part, Smith emphasized that experience was needed on the city council during these tough economic times, and that she has that experience. Smith questioned Kailasapathy’s basic contention that there was a significant amount of waste in the city’s budget and pointed to other cities that were not weathering the economic storm as well as Ann Arbor.
Kailasapathy stressed her expertise in financial matters as a CPA, but said that she was not merely a “bean counter.” She repeatedly returned to a theme of emphasis on the basic core services and eliminating waste in the budget. Through the course of the evening, she drew several laughs from the audience for various quips, like one suggesting that Ann Arbor was trying to become a “knock-off” of Southfield.
The moderator for the event was David Santacroce – a professor of law at the University of Michigan, specializing in civil rights and health care issues. He laid out the ground rules: (i) five minutes per candidate for opening statements; (ii) roughly 30 minutes total for responses to audience questions – one minute per response per candidate; and (iii) two minutes per candidate closing statement. His only job, he said, was to pronounce names correctly and to read the questions, which audience members submitted on cards.
Margaret Schankler was the organizer for the North Central Property Owners Association (NCPOA). Candidates all opened by thanking the organizers and those in attendance.
Each candidate had five minutes for an opening statement.
Kailasapathy’s Opening Statement
Kailasapathy began with thanks all around. She said she really did believe in democratic debate – it is a fight over ideas, not people, she said.
She said that she wanted to make clear that although she was a certified public accountant, she had two graduate degrees in political science from the New School for Social Research. So she also has democratic beliefs, she said.
Even though she felt she could be “the numbers expert” on the city council if she is elected, she felt that society’s choices are not always based just on dollars and cents. So if we decide to pursue an Allen Creek greenway, or not to pursue privatization of Huron Hills Golf Course, those decisions could be about quality of life, not just about money, she said.
When she’d started knocking doors, she said, she’d heard from someone the suggestion that the proposed Fuller Road Station meant that Ann Arbor was trying to be a knock-off of Southfield. [The line drew a laugh.] That person had made her promise, she said, to put a stop to that – Ann Arbor doesn’t want to be another Southfield.
She suggested that Ann Arbor should build on what Ann Arbor is: environment, nature, beauty. She wanted people to understand that she was not just “a bean counter” – she loves Ann Arbor for what it is, she said. She does not want people to destroy Ann Arbor, she said, and that’s why she jumped into the race.
She said she did not believe that the city was making the right choices – the layoff of four firefighters is an example of a poor choice, she said. We should start from the core services, she said. If we believe that a certain minimum amount of police and fire services should be there, that’s where we should start. Then we can decide whether we have $11 million to put into the Fuller Road Station.
We have our own Sarah Palin, she said, with “Dig, baby, dig!” at the underground parking garage, and “Build, baby, build!” with all the ugly construction that was coming. If elected, she said, she would take things back to core values.
She said she’d heard from neighbors that they didn’t feel like they were being listened to.
At one point Kailasapathy encouraged people in the audience to look at the list of endorsements on her website. [Among them is Jennifer S. Hall, who served as Sandi Smith's campaign manager when Smith first ran for city council two years ago.]
Smith’s Opening Statement
Smith began by thanking everyone for giving up their beautiful evening to attend the forum. She then described her own personal background, beginning with her move to Ann Arbor as a student. While attending the University of Michigan, she said, she felt an inexplicable love for Ann Arbor. Now, she said, she can finally place her finger on that attraction: the quality of life, the culture, the progressive values, the engaged populace (as evidenced by the full house at the forum), and an overall “funkiness.” These, Smith said, are the things that keep people in Ann Arbor.
Along with her partner, Linda Lombardini, Smith opened a real estate firm in 2001. The two renovated a house in Braun Court in Kerrytown for their office. Smith is especially proud of the building’s environmental friendliness, describing it as “super green,” as well as the local materials that went into the making of it.
Smith then segued to her community experience, mentioning boards for nonprofits, and task forces for joint city-county initiatives. It’s important to consider someone’s experience, she said, during economic times like these. She then listed out various boards on which she has proven experience – among them, the Housing and Human Services Advisory Board, the city council rules committee, and the Downtown Development Authority.
She transitioned again to the current state of Ann Arbor, first by citing situations in other Michigan cities. Grand Rapids, she pointed out, has increased their income tax, while Royal Oak has spent their reserves down to a dangerous level and had to negotiate with city workers, but still laid off people. Ann Arbor, she said, has not sold any parks, raised any taxes, or laid off any police officers. Instead, she said, we have passed a balanced budget – even after the Pfizer property purchase by the University of Michigan, which reduced property tax revenue by 4.86%.
The University of Michigan, she said, is the “economic engine” in Ann Arbor. UM had just bought 174 acres, 30 buildings, and 2 million square feet of research space from Pfizer. [The drug company closed its Ann Arbor operations here in 2008.] If we don’t think the university will generate growth in the city, what is our alternative?
Smith said with the economic engine of the university, Ann Arbor has an opportunity to define how we grow. She favors compact growth of the city as opposed to suburban sprawl. She said she favors thoughtful infill development and the resulting diversification of housing stock that would bring. Those are core Ann Arbor values, she said, which she promised to support, if re-elected.
City Income Tax
Question: Should Ann Arbor have an income tax? Why or why not?
Smith on City Income Tax
Smith began by stating that she has not been in favor of putting an income tax on the ballot. Once implemented, she argued, it would never go away.
Yet, she’d heard a lot of people in favor of an income tax as she went door to door. What she’d come to decide, she said, was that it wasn’t up to her. It’s up to her to vote to put it on the ballot, to allow a larger community dialogue about it, she said, but on the income tax itself, “It’s not my decision.” She is considering putting it on the ballot, if only to let the people decide whether to enact the tax.
Kailasapathy on City Income Tax
She said she was opposed to the idea of an income tax. She felt it would discourage businesses to locate here. She said that based on her study of the budget, there was so much waste there that it was not necessary to think about an income tax – if the city could get its priorities right.
Question: The Chamber of Commerce has been talking about expanding the boundaries of downtown. How far out does the “buffer zone” go?
Kailasapathy on Downtown Boundaries
She said that increased density should be limited to the areas zoned D1 and D2 – there’s no need to jump over the boundary and take higher density outside D1 and D2, she said. It is wrong to take higher density into single-family residential neighborhoods, she said. [D1 is a zoning designation for core downtown that allows for the highest density, while D2 is seen as transition zoning between core areas of downtown and the neighborhoods.]
Smith on Downtown Boundaries
It’s not for the Chamber of Commerce to expand the downtown boundaries, Smith said. That’s not their purview. Five or six years ago, she said, the Downtown Development Authority’s charter had been renewed, and at that time, the boundaries of the DDA district had been discussed and they’d remained the same.
The whole rezoning process, Smith said – which included the downtown residential task force and the Calthorpe process, and the A2D2 process – had established the highest density areas for the downtown. The areas zoned R4C outside of that area are now being studied by a task force, Smith explained, and they were looking at the zoning definitions for R4C. She said she hoped that the outcome of that was primarily that we did not get big, blocky apartment buildings with 6-bedroom apartments – that’s not what we want, she said. “Monstrosity buildings with no character” are not what we want.
Appropriateness of National-Level Issues
Question: Do you feel it’s appropriate for the city council to make statements about national matters – like foreign policy, energy policy and the like?
Note: An issue that possibly fits this category is the law recently passed by Arizona allowing law enforcement officers to require all local law enforcement to investigate a person’s immigration status when there is a reasonable suspicion that the person does not have proper documentation. Sabra Briere is bringing forward a resolution at the council’s next meeting, on Tues., July 6, opposing any similar legislation that might be passed in Michigan. The resolution will be co-sponsored by Smith. Text of resolution: [link]
Smith on National-Level Issues
“In general,” Smith said, “most of us on council can actually chew gum and walk at the same time.” We can talk, we can have a dialogue, she continued, that extends beyond city boundaries. Smith commented on the intelligence of Ann Arborites, citing the fact that 69% of our community has a college degree. She cautioned, however, that the city council should not spend resources on such national issues.
Kailasapathy on National-Level Issues
She said it really depends on the issue. She noted that Ann Arbor is a progressive, left-of-center city – or was at least reputed to be that [the line drew a laugh]. So if the city felt like it was important to send a message like “Bring the troops back,” or “End the war,” then that was okay. But she agreed with Smith that the city council should not waste time and resources on it.
Question: What do we do about affordable housing?
Kailasapathy on Affordable Housing
Kailasapathy pointed out that in cases of proposed developments in residential neighborhoods, the proposals had included removing existing affordable housing. She recalled the public hearing on The Moravian where there’d been a young woman who’d complained about the “shitty” housing in the area. Kailasapathy suggested that meant that the houses should be restored – it is not necessary to build something new, she said.
She said many of the doors she knocked on, using her voter list, were empty. That suggested to her that there were opportunities to restore the existing housing stock, rather than building something new.
Smith on Affordable Housing
Smith began by stating that Ann Arbor does have an affordable housing “trust fund” – something that Patricia Lesko, a mayoral candidate, had suggested needed to be created. Developers pay into the fund, and it’s held until there’s enough money in it to use for something. Having served on the Housing and Human Services Advisory Board (HHSAB), Smith said that there was not enough money in the trust fund to build a single unit – there’s no construction happening at the moment. She pointed to a development at Plymouth and Green, where the developer is supposed to pay into the fund, but has asked for an extension until he’s successful selling more of the units in the project. [She was referring to Plymouth Green Crossings, and developer David Kwan.]
It’s a function of the economic downturn, she said. In the meantime, she said, the HHSAB had decided to use the money to keep people in their houses, investing in foreclosure prevention. The HHSAB had also given money to the Ann Arbor Housing Commission, which operates affordable housing owned by the city. We want affordable housing, Smith said. She ended by quoting another city councilmember – who supports the slate of candidates challenging Smith and other incumbents – as saying, It’s OK if downtown is just where the rich people live.
Question: What is your position on Argo Dam? If it stays, is there a need to shift the funding source out of the drinking water fund into the parks and recreation fund?
Kailasapathy on Argo Dam
Kailasapathy said that she’d looked at the engineering and the financial reports on the Argo Dam and could not figure out why “study after study” had been conducted. She then learned that there had been some problems with the toe drains, but that Argo Dam is fine.
She characterized the situation as financial mismanagement due to the fact that the council majority has a view of what they want to do and they keep pushing it. She compared it to the emperor’s new clothes phenomenon – saying something often enough makes it seem true. With respect to Fuller Road Station, if people kept saying “The train is coming, the train is coming” then people begin to wait. [The line drew a laugh.]
Smith on Argo Dam
Smith said she firmly supports leaving Argo Dam in, especially in order to provide a place for the rowers who depend on the water. Without any suitable replacement, she went on, the removal of Argo Dam cannot be considered. The pond, she said, is sometimes a deciding factor in where people choose to live.
Another reason she does not support removing Argo Dam is the lack of community consensus, she continued. People are either “dam in” or they are “dam out” – people with their scientific studies in their hand on both sides of the issue. Until we get that community census, she said, any removal would be premature.
Just for Smith
Question: You are running as a “green candidate.” Why and what distinguishes you as a green candidate?
Smith on Being Green
“It’s how I live my life,” Smith answered. Environmentalism, she said, is one of the things we can do to put Ann Arbor on the map. She supports single-stream recycling, she said, saying that single-stream recycling will save $650,000 per year. Smith added that she’d created an energy program for downtown businesses [through the Downtown Development Authority] and supports the PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) program. The PACE program, she explained, would allow citizens to finance environmentally friendly initiatives, such as buying a newer furnace, through future taxes. [Chronicle coverage of PACE: "Special District Might Fund Energy Program"]
Just for Kailasapathy
Question: Outside of your educational and work experience, what community and civic work have you done that prepares you for work on the city council?
Kailasapathy on Civic Work
She began by noting that she’s an immigrant from Sri Lanka. She’d fled Sri Lanka because she was part of a human rights group as an undergraduate student. Everyone in her group had gone underground, or was killed – she was one of two who had managed to escape.
When she immigrated, she went to Wellesley College and worked there on getting Amnesty International (AI) to amend its position on the incarceration of political prisoners. In 1993, she explained, AI advocated only for people who were incarcerated by governments, not by non-government entities. Her friends, she said, were being held by the Tamil Tigers, which was not an governmental entity. That was her human rights background, she said.
Here in Ann Arbor, she’s a mother, she said, who worked for the John Kerry 2006 presidential campaign in her precinct, as well as the 2008 Barack Obama presidential campaign.
Each candidate had two minutes for a closing statement.
“Mismanagement” and “waste” were two terms used by both challenger candidates at the forum – Sumi Kailasapathy for councilmember and Patricia Lesko for mayor. Smith began her closing remarks stating her curiosity about that and asking whether they had any specific examples of such waste and mismanagement. “I don’t see all this excess fat,” she declared. In light of the still-grim economic situation, it will, she allowed, be a struggle to continue to make the budget decisions that are needed to keep our quality of life.
Smith said she’s heard about a call to make the city’s fleet biodiesel but also the call to say no to any spending request. She said she’d heard a lot of rhetoric and stone-throwing, but had yet to hear a single idea that would take the city forward.
She finished by citing her experience and background and ability to work with other people to move the city forward. We must, Smith said, stop living off of our grandparents’ infrastructure and balance our budget.
She began by responding to a point that mayor John Hieftje had made multiple times during his remarks – the contention that Ann Arbor is doing better than other Michigan cities. She called it a fallacy to compare Ann Arbor to other cities. Can we compare ourselves with Flint, she asked, which is a blue-collar city? Of course, Ann Arbor should be expected to do better than Flint, because Ann Arbor has a different economy, she said. She also rejected the idea that Ann Arbor should be compared with Detroit.
It’s like saying that George Bush was better than Ahmadinejad, she suggested. [The line drew laughs and applause from the audience.]
Responding to Smith’s call for a concrete example of waste, Kailasapathy cited a $975,000 expense for security equipment for the new police-courts facility. If we had efficient management, she said, we could have saved the jobs of the four firefighters who were laid off.
Hayley Byrnes, an Ann Arbor Chronicle intern, contributed to this report.