Police-Courts Building: Politics of a Veto

Was Hieftje strong-armed out of using his mayoral power?

Editor’s note: A quote from Leigh Greden in the July 2010 edition of The Ann Arbor Observer about the police-courts building struck The Chronicle as interesting enough to ask Jim Leonard, who wrote The Observer piece, to follow up. At issue is whether mayor John Hieftje was intimidated into not using his mayoral veto to block the police-courts project back in 2007.

Though the new $47 million police-courts building is on schedule to be completed in December, it’s still a major issue in Ann Arbor’s current mayoral campaign.

Challenger Patricia Lesko asserts the project is not just a waste of money; she claims the decision to build it is a prime example of what’s wrong with the current mayor and city council.

“Emails [between council members] came out that show [mayor John Hieftje] was possibly intimidated into withholding his veto by the majority on city council who composed an email saying if you veto this, we will make it so that you can’t get anything passed,” Lesko told The Ann Arbor Observer in a June interview. “It’s like blackmail, right? Extortion? Which is the word we’re using nowadays?”

Hieftje rejected the challenger’s accusation in an Ann Arbor Observer interview shortly afterward. “If you look at the email, you’ll see that it was never sent – at least not to me.”

Leigh Greden, the former councilmember who wrote the 2007 email in question, likewise denied Lesko’s charge that he blackmailed the mayor. “Absolutely not,” Greden wrote in an email to The Observer. “I drafted that email, but the email was never sent to the mayor. The mayor didn’t even know the email existed – and tellingly, it took about a year before the mayor decided to support the project.”

However, a look at the actual email makes it clear that the draft cited by Greden in his recent interview was not of text to be sent by email to the mayor. Instead, it was a draft of talking points for a meeting that Greden wrote should take place between councilmembers and the mayor: “Here’s what I propose. We schedule a mtng with him this week. We say the following: …”

The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s city council meeting report from April 19, 2010 lays out some historical details behind the 2007 Greden email to provide context for some of Hieftje’s remarks made at the April council meeting.

Greden’s initial draft of the talking points included the following message to Hieftje:

If you follow through with your veto, we are prepared, as a group, to vote against all committee appointments, Agenda items, resolutions, budget amendments and other projects you bring to the City Council for the foreseeable future. We constitute a working majority of City Council. We will not announce this to the public in order to give you the chance to do the right thing w/o our position being made public. The choice is yours.

The talking points suggested by Greden could have been conveyed easily in private meetings between the mayor and the council members who supported the police-courts building.

It’s certain that the meetings happened. “Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje has backed away from his promised veto,” the Ann Arbor News wrote in March 2007. “Hieftje said Monday that after meeting privately with various council members that he expects the council will reconsider the vote and bring it back up at next week’s meeting.”

The actual vote to be reconsidered, and which Hieftje had threatened publicly to veto, had been for the professional services contract with the architect. As predicted by Hieftje in The News article, the vote was in fact brought back for reconsideration by councilmembers Marcia Higgins, Margie Teall and Wendy Woods, who had voted for it on the prevailing side.

The reconsideration of the vote resulted in an amendment to the resolution that split approval of the architect’s fees, postponing approval of the bulk of the amount for two months until the council’s second meeting in May. The professional services contract was then approved by the council in May, but with Hieftje and three others still voting against it.

If Greden and the “working majority” communicated the drafted sentiments to the mayor by email or in person, it could certainly be analyzed as Hieftje getting strong-armed by the council majority not to use his veto. But Greden, now executive director of governmental and community relations at Eastern Michigan University, denied anything like that happened.

“I never threatened the Mayor about the police/courts project or anything else,” he wrote in a July 2010 email. “The Mayor and anybody paying attention was well aware that I supported the project because it was a wise investment and we’d exhausted all other ideas. I repeatedly encouraged John to support the project and worked closely with him to make sure the finances were viable.”

Though Joan Lowenstein, then city councilmember, acknowledged meetings took place between the mayor and the council’s “working majority,” the Downtown Development Authority’s recently elected chairperson likewise denied anything nefarious occurred. “I don’t remember anyone ever threatening,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “I certainly did not. As with most issues, a lot of us talked to him privately, and I did speak to him privately about it.”

Hieftje himself did not deny he met privately with councilmembers to discuss the police-courts building. But he categorically denied anyone blackmailed him.

“I meet with Council Members all the time and did so throughout that year,” the mayor wrote in a July 2010 email. “There was the usual back and forth on issues with some council members expressing their support for the building over and over but no threats to block anything I wanted. The whole premise is ridiculous.

“What was it I wanted?” Hieftje asked rhetorically. “Can you imagine members of council blocking proposals to make the city more energy efficient because they wanted to build a new Police/Courts building? Would they try to block proposals to make the city more accommodating for pedestrians and cyclists? I want the city to constantly strive for greater efficiency in all its operations. Would they block that?”

In a comment he left on the now defunct website ArborUpdate in March 2008, Hieftje seems to suggest that back then, his answer to the rhetorical question might have been yes:

Council veterans supported me in devoting more funding and staff support to non-motorized transit. They supported the Greenbelt Campaign and the Clean Communities Program. They supported the Mayor’s Green Energy Challenge and the commuter rail proposal and One Percent for Art. Disagreeing with a majority of council members whom I respect is one thing, a veto is yet another. A veto would make it harder for me to work with the majority of council members on other issues. Frustration over this issue could spill over into other council business even more than it already has.

But Hieftje’s current summary on whether a threat caused him to re-think his veto concludes with a threat of his own: “I have had the good fortune to work with council members who would never threaten me with anything,” the mayor wrote. “If someone ever does they will discover that the outcome will not be to their liking.”

About the author: Jim Leonard’s byline appears regularly for The Ann Arbor Observer.


  1. July 31, 2010 at 12:20 pm | permalink

    Thank you for documenting this and for finding the Arbor Update quote. I remembered this statement but was unable to find it later.

    Among my other grievances against the Percent for Art program is that I believe we have it to blame in part for our over-the-top expensive (and amazingly ugly) new city hall.

  2. By Jenkins
    July 31, 2010 at 12:51 pm | permalink

    @ Vivienne Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The style of architecture one likes is a preference. I actually really like the look of the new city hall more than I thought I would. I am very happy with the results so far. I wonder if the public will get tours of the inside before it becomes a functioning court?

    As for the price tag, the library wanted to build a new branch for twice as much money (70 million I think it was). That to me is way too much money for a building that currently is good shape. The police courts building appears to be a bargain if a new library branch, which houses books, costs twice as much.

    You might not want to acknowledge the facts, but the facts are we needed to move the courts somewhere and the police have been working out of a damp, radon and asbestos filled basement. It is the responsibility of the city and it s residents for that matter to house their police force in an appropriate building.

    I am happy with the decision to build the police courts building and am grateful we have councilmembers who stand up for what is right.

  3. July 31, 2010 at 1:19 pm | permalink

    @jenkins, apparently “the facts” are also in the eye of the beholder. I’m not going to go over my version of them yet again.

  4. July 31, 2010 at 2:07 pm | permalink

    The Library Board decided not to build a new Main Library because of the expense. Too bad the Council Party took the bit in its teeth and went ahead with the Courts/Police Facility.

    It’s hardly worth having a mayor if s/he is unwilling to use the veto to stop unwise projects.

  5. By Aaron
    July 31, 2010 at 2:18 pm | permalink

    Some people may like the look of the new building, but that minuscule proportion of the population simply has no imagination at all and is just finding that they aren’t repulsed, they aren’t comparing it to other options they could imagine existing. It is extremely easy to find examples of architecture that are really great and maintain greatness when experienced day after day for generations.

    The real travesty is the implication that because YOU like it, the rest of the community should be alright with paying for it when the vast majority understand that it is ugly (or at least on the bottom range of beauty as buildings go). If you think it looks good, what do you think is ugly? You probably think just about every building ever looks pretty good.

  6. By Frank Spagnuolo
    July 31, 2010 at 3:44 pm | permalink

    If the Mayor loses this race it is this building and artwork that would be the critical factor in any defeat.

    The Mayor should have announced his opposition to this wasteful spending, stuck to his guns, and lobbied public support for his position.

    One reason I and many others are ooposing the Mayor this time around is that Lesko is going to expose fight the bull going on in local politics so that the public interest is protected.

  7. By ChuckL
    July 31, 2010 at 4:25 pm | permalink

    If you want to understand the current slate opposing the Hieftje Seven, you need to understand how this building came into existence. It all starts with this building. Even if Hieftje wins this primary, his vulnerable underside has been exposed, and the next challenger could very well knock him off. Politics in Ann Arbor will never be the same.

  8. By Jenkins
    July 31, 2010 at 4:28 pm | permalink

    @ aaron actually the real travesty is that just because YOU don’t like it the rest of the community has to put up with all this nonsense from people who go on endlessly about this. Many, many people do like it and are happy that the building is being built. Why do you automatically assume you are in the majority? Cause I can tell ya, you are not.

    @ Frank It goes both ways. When the mayor wins this race, maybe all the anti-police/courts crowd will finally admit that the majority has spoken and is in favor of the building.

  9. By Rod Johnson
    July 31, 2010 at 5:10 pm | permalink

    I know people on the internet will debate just about anything, but taunting someone over their taste in architecture seems extra pointless somehow.

    Footnote: I thought it looked cool when it was bright yellow-green.

  10. By Isabelle
    July 31, 2010 at 6:20 pm | permalink

    I agree with Jenkins that there are many people who not only see nothing wrong with the police courts building, but also think it was about time something was done about the poor accommodations that the police have had to put up with.

    Our current city hall is a pit…it is an actual embarrassment for our city. Everyone I know does not understand how there can be a controversy over constructing a new police courts building. It is a no brainer to us. How bad does a building have to be before some of you will think it is ok to construct a new one? Cities that are half the size of Ann Arbor have better municipal buildings. Anyone who has ever lived anywhere else can tell you that. But by the tone of some of the naysayers on this subject every time this subject comes up (here in other news articles), one would think that no other city has ever built a police/courts building for their city. Really? Is Ann Arbor the only place on earth that has built a municipal building to house their police and/or courts? Our police and courts deserve better from us than what they have had.

    The county insisted we move the court out of their building AND we desperately needed better accommodations for the police. Council actually did a smart thing by combining both into the same building. I think most cities, including the one that I grew up in outside Detroit, had separate buildings for police and courts. Council actually saved the city money by combining the two together.

    As for the process of how council decided all this, it just sounds like politics to me. Council is going to discuss this and argue over the merits of it in private discussions and at the council meeting before the vote is taken. This is how decisions are made in everyday life, in politics and quite frankly in every workplace. Again why would anyone think that is controversial?

    A veto should only be used in very special circumstances it should not be used to push the preference of the mayor on to other councilmembers. Because I don’t know anyone in the city that actually is against this project, this project is not outside the realm of acceptance by the majority of the residents. IMO the use of the veto would not have been justified.

  11. July 31, 2010 at 7:01 pm | permalink

    This building was based on false premises. One such false premise is that the “requirements” of the courts for security made it impossible to convert an existing building (such as the City Center building) to court use. However, what the State Court Administrative Office in Lansing came up with was a list of suggestions, not requirements. It is always up to the local unit of government to decide what security, etc., are needed. For example, Ypsi Township’s court has no security installation through which people must pass.

    Another false premise is that the County administration forced the City to move the District Court. In fact, many County Commissioners were willing to negotiate, and some City Council members were also, but the circuit judges were not willing – for personal reasons. Circuit Judge Tim Connors wanted the District Court to hire his wife as magistrate several years ago. The court refused. From that moment on, he made it his mission to evict the District Court. And then there was Circuit Judge Archie Brown, who physically took over District Judge Ann Mattson’s courtroom while she was on vacation. Mattson had to go to Lansing to get it back.

    Couple that with the fact that then-Council members Chris Easthope and Joan Lowenstein wanted to be district judges and saw nothing wrong with voting to build themselves a plush new building – it’s not a pretty picture.

  12. By John Floyd
    July 31, 2010 at 7:26 pm | permalink

    Mr. Cahill,

    For some time I have heard rumors to the effect of your comments re: county’s willingness to negotiate over “evicting” the city. Is there hard evidence supporting that claim? A memo or letter or other substantiation?


    John Floyd
    Republican for City Council
    5th Ward

  13. July 31, 2010 at 7:45 pm | permalink

    John, I think all of the exploration of negotiations was done by word of mouth. Bear in mind that “the County” is a Hydra-headed monster. There are the County’s central administration, the Board of Commissioners, and the judges who all played roles here.

  14. By Patricia Lesko
    August 1, 2010 at 12:12 am | permalink

    You forgot to mention that I blogged about this email exchange eight months ago [link]. It’s actually one of the most popular reads on A2Politico.

    If Council can’t be persuaded to negotiate a sale price for the land U of M wants, and then put the disposition of the parkland to a public vote, as per the 2008 Charter amendment, I’ve made clear that I will use the veto to halt the Fuller Road parking garage project.

    As for the Police-Court building, as I told Jim it’s a done deal. The only recourse that remains is directing the City Administrator to make certain the project comes in at or, more preferably, under budget. At the AADem debate the mayor claimed it was always “the plan” to go over-budget. That’s not an option I’m willing consider. Tom Crawford stood before the public and Council and said the building would cost a set amount. Evidently, Mr. Crawford made a mistake; Mr. Fraser needs to answer for it, and then be directed by mayor and Council to see to it that the building is value-engineered down so that the cost to taxpayers is exactly as promised.

  15. By John Floyd
    August 1, 2010 at 3:33 pm | permalink

    Thanks for the reminder, Pat. I’ll go back & re-read it.

    BTW, did you know that Mr. Carsten Hohnke is stealing some of your lines? In a recent mailer, he claims that “We have to get the basics right”. Then he claims he has made “delivery of comprehensive and efficient core services a priority”, and “Protected vital police and fire services…” Interesting claim from a guy who supports “1% for sewage art”. I forgot, have police and fire ranks grown, stayed pat, or shrunk on his watch? Did he support spending $7 million to get 16 cops to retire 2 years early, without replacing the positions?

    Two years ago, Mr. Hohnke seemed to think he was Vivienne Armentrout. This year, he seems to think he is Pat Lesko. Makes you wonder what female democrat he will seem to want to be next: Rebecca Warren? Pam Byrnes? Jennifer Granholm?

    A strange bunch, this Council Party.

    John Floyd
    Republican for City Council
    5th Ward

  16. By Kerry D
    August 1, 2010 at 4:40 pm | permalink

    “….Circuit Court Judge Tim Connors wanted the District Court to hire his wife as a magistrate several years ago. The Court refused. From that moment on he made it his mission to evict the District Court….”

    Can you tell us, Dave, what Tim Connors actually did to further this “mission”. I fail to see what authority he has over the county building, which is under the control of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners.

    Also, Dave, why did Judge Brown take over Ann Mattson’s courtroom?

  17. By Patricia Lesko
    August 1, 2010 at 4:53 pm | permalink

    John, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Your comment made me chortle out loud, and believe me a good laugh was something I needed just about now.

  18. August 2, 2010 at 10:37 am | permalink


    For what it is worth, I had a personal converstion with Bob Guenzel very late in the debate and he told me the County absolutley would negotiate with the City because at the time they already had an $8 million deficit to plug. Publicly the County tried to stay neutral for obvious reasons but in private everyone knew they would negotiate.


  19. By Patricia Lesko
    August 2, 2010 at 10:50 am | permalink

    This, most likely, will be the last piece posted to AnnArborChronicle.com about the Democratic primary. I have refrained from commenting here for the simple reason that it’s more important to listen than to talk, IMHO, when running for office. Believe me when I say I have listened very carefully to your thoughts, questions (many of which I’ve answered, as I announced on another thread here, on posts at my blog, A2Politico.com), criticisms, fears, and words of support.

    Please know that as the next mayor, I’ll continue to answer your questions directly, and read your comments on the various online sites, such as this one, AnnArbor.com, etc… I intend to blog on the city’s web site, as the Mayor of Madison does, and hand off A2Politico to someone who will, I imagine, grill me to perfection. I’ll keep my Facebook page, and Twitter account, as well, so you can know what I’m doing during the course of my duties and always have a chance to participate and comment.

    I’ll continue to go door-to-door after I’m elected, as well. Keeping regular weekly office hours is a good basic step, but I feel like that puts the onus on you to come to me, and I want to change that dynamic. Every Sunday, weather permitting, I’ll walk the neighborhoods of our city. You might just say hello; you might not be home (I’ll leave a note), or you might be ready to sit down and have a talk.

    For the first time in a long time, Ann Arbor will have a mayor with school-age children. You should know that I have a keen interest in rekindling the once close relationship between the School District and the City. There is a committee of Council and the School Board, I was told by a School Board member, that hasn’t met for years. The School District and the city receive almost exactly the same amount from each tax dollar you pay (28 cents), and there are many opportunities to find synergy in that relationship, shared resources, a shared commitment to economic vitality, a shared commitment to keeping and growing Ann Arbor as a magnet community for families.

    Above all, I want those of you who have posted here, and who live in Ann Arbor, to know that I’ll work to make government more transparent and inclusive. I applied to sit on the AATA Board in 2008, and the lack of follow-up and communication from the incumbent and the city was disappointing and, ultimately, instructional. I’ll make bipartisan appointments to boards and commissions, and I’ll open up the applicant pool by nominating more individuals to serve, as opposed to nominating individuals to serve on multiple boards.

    I will, one last time, thank the incumbent for his decade of service. I also want to pass on some kind words I got from some voters at the University Commons debate recently: They thanked me for running, because to run for office is to make a commitment to one’s community in a very tangible way. So, I want to thank Sumi Kailasapathy, Sandi Smith, Jack Eaton, Margie Teall, Carsten Hohnke, Lou Glorie, John Floyd, Newcombe Clark and Steve Bean (in advance), Tony Derezinski and Christopher Taylor, as well, for making the sacrifices and personal commitment necessary to run for local office.

    Finally, and as I’ve said in public many times, I plan to work together with city staff and Council to refocus city government on the basics: responsible spending, services, infrastructure and neighborhoods. We won’t always agree, but I’ll always listen and expect to be held accountable. The issues are of paramount importance, and so is increased interest and participation in local government. On A2Politico.com today, I wrote about the plebis scitum. I look forward to tomorrow evening, and hearing exactly what your decree will be.

    Thank you.