Ann Arbor City Council meeting (Sept. 20, 2010): On a unanimous vote at its Monday night meeting, the council approved a ban on placement of upholstered furniture in outdoor locations, if that furniture is not designed for outdoor use.
The case for the change in the city’s code was based primarily on the fire hazard posed by outdoor couches as compared to indoor couches – increased oxygen supply outdoors, coupled with decreased ability of indoor occupants to detect outdoor fires.
The council chambers were filled with friends and family of Renden LeMasters, who died in an April 2010 fire on South State Street. Though that blaze did not start in upholstered furniture, a porch couch was analyzed by city fire officials as contributing to that fire by helping to spread flames from a waste container to the house itself.
University of Michigan students opposed certain aspects of the proposed enforcement mechanism, and after the vote reminded the council that the measure they’d enacted that evening was one part of a large piece of work yet to be done on ensuring safety of off-campus student rental housing in the city.
The council also approved the creation of a task force that will work for the next six months to identify cost-effective ways to achieve better enforcement of the city’s ordinance against panhandling, and to provide help to panhandlers who are addicted to drugs. The idea is to build on the knowledge gained from the work of a previous task force that had been formed in 2001 and continued through 2003.
Several people addressed the council in support of a resolution, added to the agenda on Monday, which reaffirmed community support for religious freedom, in the wake of increased anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence. The resolution required some modification to gain support of all councilmembers – Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) was dissatisfied with the singling out of Muslims in the language of the resolution – but in the end, it passed unanimously.
Some councilmembers made clear on Monday night that they saw the vote as a reaffirmation of the council’s previous 2004 resolution, which condemned the demonstrations against U.S. support of Israel that had then begun each Saturday outside the Beth Israel synagogue on Washtenaw Avenue – and continue to the present.
The meeting was also notable in that no action was taken to reconsider the Heritage Row project. Betsy de Parry, wife of developer Alex de Parry, attended on his behalf and expressed her disappointment that the council had not seen fit to bring back the project for reconsideration that evening, reviewing many of the same points of discussion at the previous evening’s caucus.
Ban on Upholstered Furniture Placed Outdoors
Before the council for its second reading was a proposed revision to the city’s nuisance code that prescribes a fine of up to $1,000 for a “responsible person” who places or allows to be placed “upholstered furniture which is not intended or designed for outdoor use” in various outdoor locations.
For details of the history of the measure, which dates back to 2004, and discussion of the contrasts between that version and this one, see previous Chronicle coverage: “Couch Ban Smolders.”
The basic case for the ban on porch couches was based on safety risk. That case was advanced during the staff presentation at the council’s Sept. 7, 2010 meeting by city housing inspector Rita Fulton: couches placed outdoors have a virtually unlimited supply of oxygen; if a couch is burning on the outside of a structure, people on the inside have little opportunity for early detection – either through smell or through detection devices. That case was advanced again on Monday night by the sponsor of the ordinance change, Christopher Taylor (Ward 3), as well as by several speakers during the public hearing.
Ban on Upholstered Furniture: Public Hearing
A dozen or so people addressed the city council during the public hearing on the couch ban, which had begun at the Sept. 7 meeting when the council chose to postpone a decision on the measure until Monday, Sept. 20.
Thomas Partridge questioned whether the proposed ordinance went far enough, wondering if it would have an impact on the misuse of grills on balconies, patios and porches. He called for an ordinance with greater impact that would have amendments providing for the involvement of insurance companies.
Several of the speakers were members of Renden LeMasters’ family, or mentioned his death as part of their remarks. LeMasters had died as a result of burns sustained in an April 2010 house fire on South State Street.
Gary Supanich extended his condolences to the LeMasters family. He said that while the ordinance cannot bring Renden back to life, it could prevent the next loss of life. He suggested that the piece of city code be called the LeMasters Ordinance. He called passage of the ordinance a “no-brainer,” asking since when does the city council not listen to its own fire department and housing inspectors. He asked that a decision not be based on the “temporary whims” of student residents and called the idea that porch couches are an Ann Arbor tradition a “silly, sophomoric claim.”
Jeff Crockett noted that he’d appeared before the council to speak in support of the ordinance that had been considered, but tabled by the council six years ago. At that time, he said, then-fire chief Joe Gorman had given the reasons for a ban, which included the lack of detection systems on porches and the blockage of egress that porch couches posed. He suggested that for people who valued the social dimension of porch couches, they could be equally social inside the house.
Fifteen-year-old Alex Semifero delivered a narrative that recalled the morning before Easter earlier this year when her stepbrother, Renden LeMasters, was lying in a bed in a small hospital room with attending family after suffering burns in a house fire to which a porch couch contributed. She said that they had prayed for him to pass so that he didn’t continue to suffer. She called on the council to pass the ordinance – a life could have been saved just by taking a couch off a porch.
Kim Pisano noted that student housing needs should be addressed and that the safety of kids should be the top priority for parents, as well as for the university and the city. She allowed that the origin of the fire was still unknown, but said that the fire was accelerated by the couch.
Jim Mogensen introduced himself as a former occupational safety and health engineer and stated that he was speaking in favor of the ordinance. He framed the issue in terms of a tension between the zoning for student rental areas – which provides for multi-family housing – and the kind of housing stock that predominates. That housing stock, he said, consists of older houses, which lack fire stops between stories, which the staff presentation on the subject had highlighted at a previous city council meeting.
One approach, Mogensen said, would be to say you can’t have multi-family housing in old houses – which he rejected as a bad idea, because fires don’t happen often. However, when fires do happen in those older homes, he cautioned, they are catastrophic – in the same way that plane crashes are not terribly frequent, but when they do, it’s catastrophic. So the council needed to think about how to make the older housing stock that houses lots of students as safe as possible. He encouraged the council to pass the ordinance, without making it too complicated.
Cindy Kominek introduced herself as Renden LeMasters’ aunt. She related how Renden’s uncle had once remarked that it’s going to take someone dying in order to get couches off of porches – and it was her nephew’s death that had prompted the ordinance. It was a shame, she said, that it had come to that.
John Nystuen introduced himself as a neighbor of a fraternity that was not a good neighbor. He reported that his car has been damaged by the activities of the fraternity. He encouraged the council to pass the ordinance.
Tony Pinnell encouraged the council to think about the issue from the point of view of a probabilistic safety analysis, weighing the benefit against the hazard. He concluded that he hoped the council would pass the ordinance.
Deanna LeMasters introduced herself as Renden LeMasters’ stepmother. She said that one death is too many, when the problem could be so easily solved. After the staff presentation at a previous council meeting on the safety risks of porch couches, she said she was flabbergasted that anyone could still be against the ordinance.
Kim LeMasters introduced herself as Renden LeMasters’ mother, noting that she’d spoken at two previous council meetings. She allowed that it was understandable that the Michigan Student Assembly would oppose the ordinance, but that its enactment had been delayed so that students could fully participate in the discussion.
Michael Benson introduced himself as president of the Rackham student government, which represents 7,000 graduate students at the University of Michigan. He thanked the city council sponsor of the ordinance, Christopher Taylor, for his assistance. The student government had entertained three weeks of discussion on the issue, Benson said, and people spoke on both sides of the issue, with those voices ranging across the various graduate school disciplines.
Their vote, Benson said, was resoundingly in opposition. The specific criticisms of the ordinance included: the fine, at $1,000, is too high, with no graduated schedule; the mechanism to ensure notice to the responsible parties is not clear – an up-to-date database of contacts for properties does not seem to exist; the notion of separately, but jointly responsible parties is problematic; the list of city officials who can enforce the ordinance is extensive and should be reduced; the code is being enacted as part of the city’s nuisance code as opposed to the fire safety code; the time limit for exceptions for yard sales, at 6 p.m., is too early.
The issue of a landlord database was one that was taken up by another Rackham student government leader as well as city officials later during council deliberations. As city officials clarified, they maintain a list of rental properties for purposes of executing rental property inspections. What Benson and Cherisse Loucks were concerned about is the lack of a database that lists the contact information for the possible responsible parties as defined by the ordinance.
Cherisse Loucks introduced herself as treasurer of the Rackham Student Government. She said that she believed in there being a partnership between students and the community. She asked for a justification of the fine amount, saying that graduate students were trained to base decisions on well-thought-out and executed research. She asked why there was no up-to-date database of landlords. She noted that graduate students might oftentimes leave town for 4-5 months on research trips, which could complicate notification. She also questioned the ability of the cable television administrator, for example, to enforce the ordinance and suggested the ordinance needed more thought.
Ban on Upholstered Furniture: Council Deliberations
The council sponsor of the ordinance change, Christopher Taylor (Ward 3), characterized it as a “vital safety measure necessary to protect Ann Arbor’s residents.” He allowed that it would not protect everyone, but called it a reasonable measure that would reduce risk. Upholstered furniture in outdoor locations, when the furniture is not designed for outdoor use, poses a significant safety hazard, he said, due to the fuel load as well as its outdoor location. Outdoor locations, as contrasted with indoor locations, provide ample oxygen but little opportunity for detection and warning for inside occupants, he said.
After the council’s initial discussion, Taylor reported, the city fire marshal Kathleen Chamberlain had provided additional data:
Upholstered Furniture Fire Data (furniture outside of structure/on porch) 124 Total fires 2000 – present 80 Total fires April 2003 – present 7 Significant structure fires 1 Civilian deaths 7 Civilian injuries
The 80 fires involving upholstered furniture reflect 21% of the 373 total fires in multi-family dwellings. [That data had been available the previous evening at the council's Sunday night caucus, and had convinced one attendee from the public who had been opposed to the couch ban to flip his position.] Taylor thanked the Washtenaw Area Apartment Association and the Michigan Student Assembly for their useful input and their interest in an ongoing conversation.
Margie Teall (Ward 4) thanked Taylor for putting together the ordinance and doing the leg work, meeting with all the parties and making everyone feel heard. That element had been missing six years ago, she said – when the council had voted to table a similar proposed ordinance. As a member of the city council at the time, Teall said if she went back in time six years, she felt she should have pushed for it and that she felt bad that she had not done so.
Sandi Smith (Ward 1) said she was troubled about the mechanics of the notification. She asked for a comparison with the enforcement mechanics of other code violations. Rita Fulton, a city housing inspector who had given the staff presentation at a previous council meeting on the fire hazards posed by porch couches, told Smith that every 2.5 years all rental property is inspected. Most of the time, she said, the property owner is present for the inspection.
For violations on trash and debris, Fulton said, a notation is made on the three-part form she fills out and which the property owner must sign, acknowledging the infraction. She tells them they have a couple of days to address the problem, and that is what always happens. Smith then surmised that from a practical sense, the goal is not to fine people for the infraction, but rather to give notice and have the offending furniture removed. Fulton confirmed that was the case and said that compliance with her personal directives on those occasions was good – “I guess they take me seriously,” laughed the diminutive Fulton. Smith quipped, “You’re intimidating.”
Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) picked up on Smith’s concern about the mechanism of enforcement. She expressed some skepticism about effecting enforcement merely through the regular rental housing inspections – enforcement as set forth in the ordinance would allow over 20 different city staffers to write citations for porch couches. Higgins noted that the procedure Fulton had described, where a hand-written note was put on a rental housing inspection form, is not the same as a citation. Higgins also noted that the ordinance does not just apply to student rental housing – if someone puts a couch on their porch in her neighborhood, said Higgins, the ordinance says they should get a citation.
City administrator Roger Fraser weighed in on the issue of the number of staff who are able to write citations, saying that it gives the city flexibility as the city experiences staff shortages.
Higgins clarified with the fire marshal that the manufacturing processing for upholstered furniture designed for outdoors is different from that designed for indoors – outdoor furniture does not deteriorate as quickly, because it is designed and manufactured to be outdoors.
Higgins then picked up on the remarks of the representatives of the graduate student government and asked how the 2.5 to 3-year rental housing inspections were accomplished, if there was no database of landlords, as the students had contended. Sumedh Bahl, the city’s community services area administrator, stated that the city maintained a list of rental properties.
Higgins questioned how removal of existing porch couches would be handled – the spring and fall en mass solid waste removal days cost the city around $30,000 a year. If additional days were going to be offered, then it would have an impact on the city’s bottom line, she cautioned. Bahl said they had not talked about having additional days for solid waste pickup. [The city has previously established free solid waste drop-off sites in campus neighborhoods, timed to coincide with student move-in and move-out.]
Addressing the issue of disposal of existing couches, Taylor indicated that he’d discussed with Sue McCormick, the city’s public services area administrator, the idea of some kind of “couch amnesty” with a solid waste pickup. Higgins concluded that there would be an additional cost to the city of Ann Arbor for this.
Higgins noted that six years ago, when the ordinance was proposed, it was a case of lease provisions that were already there, but not being enforced. Landlords, in effect, said Higgins, wanted the city to enforce their leases. She’d voted against it six years ago, said Higgins, because it had not been clear how it would be uniformly enforced across the city and that there had not been sufficient discussion and buy-in – she would support it this time around for those reasons, not based on the loss of someone’s child.
Hieftje interrupted Higgins during her remarks when she spoke of voting against the ordinance previously, saying that previously it had never come to a vote, never even making it to a first reading before the city council. Although Higgins accepted the mayor’s comments unchallenged, they are not historically accurate – the council did consider the ordinance at a first reading, but tabled it. From the council minutes of Aug. 16, 2004:
ORDINANCES – FIRST READING 22-04 TABLED
FIRE PREVENTION An Ordinance to Amend Section 9:111and Add New Section 9:110, of Chapter 111, Fire Prevention, of Title Ix of the Code of the City of Ann Arbor (The complete text of Ordinance 22-04 is on file in the City Clerk’s Office.)
Council Member Greden moved seconded by Council Member Teall that the ordinance be approved at first reading. Council Member Greden moved, seconded by Council Member Reid to table the ordinance. On a voice vote, the Mayor Pro Tem declared the motion carried.
Speakers during recent public commentary have also made explicit reference to the vote and the tabling. From The Chronicle’s report of the Aug. 5, 2010 city council meeting:
As [Bob] Snyder pointed out, the council had considered a similar ordinance back in August 2004. But they’d tabled it, which meant that after six months, with no councilmember willing to take it up off the table for action, the measure died. Snyder had also spoken in favor of the ordinance at the city council’s Aug. 16, 2004 meeting. At that meeting, he was joined in his support by Lou Glorie, who lost the Ward 5 Democratic primary last Tuesday to incumbent Carsten Hohnke.
The Aug. 16, 2004 tabling had come after a postponement of the measure from the July 19, 2004 meeting.
At Monday’s council meeting, Taylor clarified some of the features of the ordinance in response to questions from Higgins and Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5). The $1,000 fine is “up to,” so the exact amount would be set at the magistrate’s discretion. The language of the ordinance will also be included in the standard tenant’s rights and responsibilities handbook.
Hohnke stated that he supported the ordinance, citing the fact that if a couch catches fire, then it’s a hazard for the occupants and the safety responders. There’s a balance and trade-off between quality of life and safety, he said, but he felt that not having couches on porches didn’t impinge much on the overall quality of life, citing the fact that in other communities similar ordinances are in place.
Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) indicated that he felt the overwhelming support for the ordinance was an indication that the ban was an idea whose time had come. The idea had unfortunately come too late for one family, he said.
Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) indicated that he’d been reluctant to support the ordinance previously but that when tragedy had struck, he’d changed his mind. He thanked Taylor for incorporating some exceptions in the ordinance that could be used as defenses – moving days and garage sales. He did note that his practice of moving his furniture out onto his porch to refinish his hardwood floors would make him out of compliance.
The range of different staff who are allowed to enforce different ordinances is something he’s been concerned about previously, Kunselman said – but on inquiring about it, he’d learned that it goes back to the early 1990s and was beyond his comprehension.
Sabra Briere (Ward 1) said she supported the ordinance, and reminded her council colleagues about what Michael Benson and other students had told them – students want to work to address a broader set of issues. The council should not consider its work done if they passed the ordinance.
Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) indicated that he agreed with Briere, saying that he had hesitancy about the ordinance because he sees it as a small piece of the larger puzzle.
Mike Anglin (Ward 5) said that for him, the most important thing was to extend their condolences to the family of Renden LeMasters – all of the council shared their grief, he said. The council would continue to address safety issues, he said.
Hieftje said he’s always been very reluctant to impose additional restrictions, but in some cases it’s warranted, he said. For example, some people are against requirements that motorcyclists wear helmets, when it’s clear they should – as should bicyclists. He also introduced the idea of cement siding on houses – he’d had cement siding installed and had tested whether he could set it on fire and could not do that. He speculated that if the rental house where Renden LeMasters lived had had cement siding, he didn’t think the tragedy would have happened.
As he was wrapping up his remarks, the mayor said there was “a culprit that I don’t want us to let off the hook tonight. With everything we know about this particular fire, somebody set it.” Seeking confirmation from city fire chief Dominick Lanza, the major invited him to the podium, where Lanza stated: “That’s not true.” Nothing in the investigation had proven that, he said – which included laboratory tests.
From the preliminary investigator’s report, which was widely circulated soon after the fire took place [an "accelerant dog" is a canine trained to sniff out gasoline and similar substances]:
An accelerant dog did not hit on any accelerants in the area of origin. At this time there has not been any evidence to indicate that this fire was deliberately set. Samples have been collected and are being processed at the Northville State Police Crime Lab. We are awaiting their results to see if they pick up on any “foreign” material.
Hieftje then asked the fire chief to confirm that around the same time there’d been several deliberately set vehicle fires, which the chief was able to confirm. But the chief said it appeared to be coincidental. Further questions from Hieftje to the fire chief yielded the same conclusion about the idea that the fire was deliberately set: “We have no evidence.”
Hieftje said that he would support the ordinance.
Outcome: The council voted unanimously to approve the ordinance that prohibits placement of couches on porches.
Ban on Upholstered Furniture: Commentary Coda
At the conclusion of the council meeting, Michael Benson and Cherisse Loucks – representatives of the graduate student government – re-addressed the council, urging better communication between the council and the student community. Benson also cautioned against lumping “students” together into a single unified homogeneous group.
Benson, for his part, noted that he personally supported the ban, even though as a representative of the student government he’d conveyed the opposite position to the city council. He suggested that the city treat the couch ordinance as it sometimes treated other ordinances, reviewing them and their effect after a specified time period. As far as the ordinance goes, Benson said, “Education starts now.”
Resolution to Support Religious Freedom
The resolution before the council was reaffirmation of religious freedom. In its original form, it read as follows – the portion that is struck through in the first resolved clause was eventually amended out:
Whereas, The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution has enshrined religious freedom as a fundamental right and Thomas Jefferson considered it to be “the most inalienable and sacred of all human rights;”Whereas, Since the foundations of this country, this freedom has historically been extended to people of all religions and those who are nonreligious, as seen in the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom in 1779, explicitly referencing but not limited to Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and Atheism, along with Christianity;Whereas, In recent weeks there has been an increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric in the public discourse, especially surrounding the construction of the Park51 Islamic Community Center, formerly known as Cordoba House, in the borough of Manhattan in New York City;Whereas, This anti-Muslim rhetoric has translated into violent actions across the nation. On August 24, 2010, Ahmed H. Sharif was stabbed in New York by someone who attacked him because he was a Muslim. In the early morning of August 28th, parts of the construction to the Islamic Center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, were set on fire;Whereas, On September 10, 2010, a burned Qur’an was found at the front entrance of the Islamic Center of East Lansing, Michigan;Whereas, Ann Arbor, Michigan is home to a sizeable Muslim community that is put at risk by the rise in anti-Muslim activities;Whereas, On October 18, 2004 the Ann Arbor City Council unanimously passed a resolution recognizing the importance of religious freedom and affirming that, “Democracy and the freedoms it engenders cannot exist without civil discourse that shows tolerance for all beliefs;”Whereas, The Council on American Islamic Relations – Michigan, and local interfaith organizations have asked that communities and their elected leaders affirm their commitments to religious freedom and tolerance;RESOLVED, That the City Council of Ann Arbor continues to affirm its commitment to the full rights and dignity for people of all religions and those who are nonreligious, promotes a community of respect and compassion for all people, and condemns harassment and violence based on religious bias, including anti-Muslim harassment and violence;RESOLVED, That the City Council of Ann Arbor encourages community members and organizations to participate in Religious Freedom Day activities on the weekend of January 16, 2011, as a time to learn about different faith traditions and to foster respect for religious diversity.RESOLVED, That the City Clerk be directed to transmit copies of this resolution to the President and the Vice President of the United States, to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, to each Senator and Representative from Michigan in the Congress of the United States.
Religious Freedom: Public Comment
Blaine Coleman led off public commentary on the religious freedom resolution by asking the camera to focus on the sign he’d brought to the podium, which read “Boycott Israel.” He noted that a lot of coordination and work had gone into that night’s resolution that had come to the conclusion that “violence against Muslims is bad.” He told the council that if they really cared about Muslims, they would pass a resolution to stop spending money on killing millions of Muslims in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, and instead spend the money rebuilding Detroit. He characterized the resolution as “pitifully microscopic,” and reflective of the hard work that had been done to “smother talk of boycotting Israel.”
The remaining speakers were uniformly supportive of the resolution, many of them representing organizations who had helped draft its language. Leslie Stambaugh spoke as the chair of the city’s human right’s commission. She noted the participation of several other organizations who helped with the drafting of the resolution, including Michigan Peaceworks, Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, the Interfaith Roundtable of Washtenaw County and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, among others. Several suggestions from the various organizations had been incorporated into the resolution, she said.
Speaking on behalf of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, Lucia Heinhold thanked the city council for appointing a human rights commission that would put forward such a resolution. In an apparent response to Coleman’s earlier remarks, implying that the crafters of the resolution did not really care about Muslims, Heinhold stated that she did care about Muslims, and pointed to the fact that the city council began its meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance, which includes the phrase, “with liberty and justice for all.”
Heinhold said she watched Muslim children take the bus to Skyline High School, and said that Muslims number among her neighbors. She reported that her husband teaches English as a second language, and that Muslims were among his students. As evidence of Ann Arbor’s religious diversity, she cited the 123 different religious organizations listed in the Ann Arbor Observer’s City Guide. The resolution, Heinhold concluded, was not little, it was important. Things can go from bad to worse in a hurry, she cautioned, noting that Michigan Catholics had had crosses burned in their yards.
Ian McGregor identified himself as a resident of Ann Arbor and a social worker. He encouraged the city council to reaffirm its commitment to religious freedom.
Introducing herself as a member of the ICPJ board was Vickie Wellman, who noted that the country was founded on the principles of religious freedom. She talked about how it’s possible to teach hate, but that it’s also possible to teach love, and that people can learn to celebrate our rich and diverse background. The resolution is a tiny bit, she allowed, but it’s an important step.
George Lambridges, director of the Interfaith Roundtable of Washtenaw County, said his organization is in the business of building bridges – it consists of 30-40 different religious congregations, he said. He described Ann Arbor as a “welcoming community” and said that the spirit was quite positive, but that we never know when some unwelcoming act might emerge out of nowhere. He acknowledged that the Muslim community is a vulnerable part of the community, but that other faith communities are as well. He said that Religious Freedom Day on Jan. 16, 2011 would be an occasion for education.
Also speaking on behalf of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice was its director, Chuck Warpehoski, who addressed the question of why the resolution was needed now. He ticked through stories in the press, which included a burned Qur’an left at the door of a mosque in East Lansing in early September 2010. That kind of act sent a message that Muslims are not wanted here, he said, and the resolution is meant to repudiate that message of hate: We will stand with them when they’re threatened, he said.
The local aspect of this issue, Warpehoski continued, was not based on any headlines from Ann Arbor, but he noted that in the community there is hateful language and cold stares. Muslims are wondering, he said, if anybody will stand with them. The resolution, he said, is not meant to focus only on Muslims, but rather on particular acts of violence and rhetoric. The resolution is meant to be a reminder of a deeper commitment to religious freedom. He concluded that the resolution strikes a good balance between the specific and the particular and the global – it deserved the council’s support, he said.
Leslie Desmond spoke on behalf of the Washtenaw County branch of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, extending thanks to Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) and the city’s human rights commission. In her remarks, she took pains to include the freedom not to worship as well as the freedom to worship in whatever way people wanted. She said that preventing Muslims or any other group from the free exercise of their religion violates the Constitution.
Ahmed Chaudhry spoke in favor of the resolution. He said that in his role as a contributor to AnnArbor.com, providing an interfaith perspective, he’d found the majority of commenters to be supportive, but he noted that there was some anti-Muslim sentiment expressed – anonymously. He allowed that Ann Arbor was welcoming and accepting, but was also politically charged. As a Muslim, he said, the resolution doesn’t make him feel safer – he doesn’t feel unsafe now. He said he felt the resolution would be helpful to other minority groups as well.
Religious Freedom: Council Deliberations
The initial sponsor of the resolution, Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5), began deliberations by apologizing for the fact that it had not been added to the agenda until that very day. He was not just concerned, he quipped, because he was sitting “within striking distance” of Marcia Higgins (Ward 4). [She sits immediately to Hohnke's right at the council table, and has cultivated a reputation for being a stickler about following rules, and there's a council rule that indicates that councilmembers will use their best efforts to place items on the agenda prior to the Friday before the next council meeting.] Rather, he said that it was important that agenda items be added in a timely way.
However, Hohnke noted that he had announced at the previous meeting that it would be coming forward. From The Chronicle’s report of the Sept. 7 city council meeting:
Council To Take Stand Against Quran Burning
Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) indicated that the city’s human rights commission had asked that the council address the anti-Muslim rhetoric that had received national attention recently, partly in the form of threatened burning of the Quran. He indicated that he would be bringing forward a resolution to the next meeting to condemn that kind of rhetoric. Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) also expressed his support for that kind of resolution. Sabra Briere (Ward 1) commended Hohnke for bringing forward the resolution.
At Monday’s meeting, Hohnke thanked the various organizations who had helped craft the language of the resolution. He said that because those organizations felt that the timeliness of the resolution itself was also important, he’d agreed to add it on the same day.
Hohnke addressed the potential criticism that the resolution was not substantive, in that it did not address fixing roads or picking up trash. He said the resolution did not take away from the council’s focus on physical infrastructure and went on to say that physical infrastructure was a means to an end, not an end itself. Contrasting the community’s physical infrastructure with its “intangible infrastructure” of values, Hohnke said that the community’s intangible infrastructure also required maintenance.
Sabra Briere (Ward 1) thanked Hohnke for his eloquent speech and reflected on the fact that the previous Friday had marked the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution.
Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) asked for the phrase “including anti-Muslim harassment and violence” to be stricken from the first resolved clause, saying she did not want to separate Muslims out. Mike Anglin (Ward 5), who had been added as a sponsor to the resolution along with Christopher Taylor (Ward 3), said that this issue had arisen in discussion of the resolution language. He said it was not meant to separate out Muslims, but rather to related the resolution to specific events.
Hohnke noted that he considered the input from Higgins as “friendly” but did not extend that to wanting to incorporate the suggestion as a friendly amendment. [Friendly amendments are made with the consent of the maker of a motion and the seconder, without vote of the entire body.] His reasons for not wanting to do so essentially echoed Anglin’s comments about wanting to connect the resolution to recent activities.
Higgins stated that for her to support the resolution fully, the language would need to be removed. She recalled how the council had affirmed in the aftermath of 9/11 that there should not be repercussions against Muslims, that they are all equal and that no one group should be singled out.
Higgins then proposed the change in language as an amendment. Hohnke then said he would vote for the amendment, saying it was more important to have unanimity than to “wrestle” over a clause in the language. Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), however, said that he felt that anti-Muslim activities were front and center in the reason why this kind of resolution had come back around. The clause called out what we’re dealing with today, not highlighting one religion, he said.
Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) said he supported the amendment, saying there should be no tolerance for any bias. Today there is anti-Muslim activity, he said, but tomorrow it could affect some other group. He stated that week after week there is “bigotry on display” on Washtenaw Avenue. [The allusion was to weekly demonstrations against U.S. support of Israel that began in
2004 2003 each Saturday outside the Beth Israel synagogue on Washtenaw Avenue – and continue to the present. The 2004 city council resolution mentioned in the "whereas" clauses of Monday's resolution condemned those demonstrations.]
Outcome on amendment: The amendment citing the specific reference to anti-Muslim violence was struck from the first resolved clause, with dissent from Kunselman.
When deliberations resumed, Anglin noted that it was important to have freedom from fear.
Mayor John Hieftje reiterated Rapundalo’s point about the demonstrations on Washtenaw Avenue. He recalled how he’d addressed a crowd on the UM Diag in the wake of 9/11 and had been quoted in the media for his remarks saying that Ann Arbor would not tolerate religious discrimination. He said he felt his statement had had an effect. Ann Arbor, he continued, had not had some of the same kind of problems as other communities had had. This type of resolution has a tradition in Ann Arbor that goes back for decades, he said.
Outcome: The resolution reaffirming religious freedom was unanimously passed.
Panhandling Task Force
Before the council was a resolution to establish a task force to address the problem of aggressive pan handling in downtown Ann Arbor. The group will work for the next six months to identify cost-effective ways to achieve better enforcement of the city’s ordinance against panhandling, and to provide help to panhandlers who are addicted to drugs.
The task force will include members representing the homeless community, the county/city office of community development, Dawn Farm, legal services providers, downtown merchant associations, the Downtown Development Authority, the Ann Arbor police department, the Downtown Citizens Advisory Council, and a member of the city council. Serving on the task force for the city council will be Sabra Briere (Ward 1), who sponsored the resolution.
The topic has received discussion at the Downtown Citizens Advisory Council, as well as at the September meeting of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board.
During public commentary reserved time at Monday’s meeting, Lily Au stressed that not all panhandlers are homeless.
The city’s “panhandling ordinance” is not known by that label in the city code. It’s a part of Chapter 108 on disorderly conduct and is covered in the section on solicitation:
Except as otherwise provided in Chapters 79 and 81 of this Code, it shall be unlawful for any person to solicit the immediate payment of money or goods from another person, whether or not in exchange for goods, services, or other consideration, under any of the following circumstances:
1. On private property, except as otherwise permitted by Chapters 79 and 81, unless the solicitor has permission from the owner or occupant;
2. In any public transportation vehicle or public transportation facility;
3. In any public parking structure and within 12 feet of any entrance or exit to any public parking structure;
4. From a person who is in any vehicle on the street;
5. By obstructing the free passage of pedestrian or vehicle traffic;
6. Within 12 feet of a bank or automated teller machine;
7. By moving to within 2 feet of the person solicited, unless that person has indicated that he/she wishes to be solicited;
8. By following and continuing to solicit a person who walks away from the solicitor;
9. By knowingly making a false or misleading representation in the course of a solicitation;
10. In a manner that appears likely to cause a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities to feel intimidated, threatened or harassed;
11. Within 12 feet of the entrance to or exit from the Nickels Arcade, located between State Street and Maynard Street; the Galleria, located between S. University and the Forest Street parking structure; and the Pratt Building, located between Main Street and the Ashley parking lot; or
12. From a person who is a patron at any outdoor cafe or restaurant.
Briere led off the council deliberations by noting that nine years ago to the day, the council had established a previous task force to address the same issue. The purpose of re-staffing a task force, she said, was to find cost-effective solutions to enforcement that would not necessarily bring back downtown police patrols, while meeting the needs of those on the street.
Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) wanted to know the budget implications. Briere noted that previously one of the major efforts at enforcement was by means of foot and bicycle patrols in the downtown, and that the ordinance is still there, but the foot and bicycle patrols had been reassigned.
Sandi Smith (Ward 1) asked chief of police Barnett Jones to give an update. Jones indicated that from a practical point of view, the No. 1 crime in Ann Arbor this past summer was aggressive panhandling. He attributed it to the culture and nature of our community – it has both the wherewithal and the inclination to share, he said. He said that those who visited the city during Punk Week this year had taken advantage of the goodwill of the community, citing a post on a website that stated: “Let’s see how much we can get away with.” He also cited the sentiment of some of the Punk Week visitors: “You don’t like us, we don’t like you, give us money, we’ll go away.”
Smith thanked the chief for the perspective. She noted that in Northville and Plymouth there is not a panhandling problem. She noted that even if the panhandling is not aggressive, it’s still perceived as aggressive.
At the urging of Margie Teall (Ward 4), representatives from State Street and Kerrytown were added to the task force.
Mayor John Hieftje stressed the need to react to facts, not perceptions. He suggested that some of the perception could be attributed to just a couple of individuals, one in particular. He noted that panhandling per se is not illegal. He agreed with Jones’ sentiment that the problem was partly attributable to the culture of Ann Arbor and how it’s perceived – Ann Arbor offers more support services than any other city, he said. He said that the goal of many panhandlers is to purchase alcohol. He also described how panhandlers at expressway ramps worked in shifts, with cars arriving to pick people up and drop others off.
Outcome: The resolution to establish a panhandling task force was unanimously approved.
Heritage Row Not Reconsidered
Staying until the end of the council meeting and addressing the council during public commentary general time was Betsy de Parry. Although she’d held out hope that the Heritage Row project would be reconsidered on Monday night, Betsy de Parry, wife of developer Alex de Parry, did not see those hopes realized.
Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2), who was a strong supporter of the Heritage Row project, spoke with Mike Anglin (Ward 5) before the meeting, who’d voted against it twice. However, that conversation did not result in a third consideration for the project on Monday night.
Heritage Row was a proposed 154-bedroom residential project by Alex de Parry, which would have been located on Fifth Avenue, a few squares south of the city-owned Library Lot, where an underground parking structure is being built. Heritage Row was rejected by the council at its June 21, 2010 meeting, on a 7-4 vote in favor of it, falling one vote short of the super-majority needed to approve the planned unit development (PUD) project. The super-majority was needed because of a protest petition filed by nearby property owners.
Heritage Row was brought back for reconsideration at a subsequent council meeting on July 6, 2010, but again failed, that time on a 7-3 vote. It was nearly brought back a third time – on that same evening. But Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) abandoned the effort in the middle of a parliamentary procedure that had appeared momentarily would result in another vote, this time with the possibility that Hohnke would provide the deciding vote in favor of Heritage Row. Hohnke had voted against the project on both previous occasions.
De Parry has an already approved “matter of right” 144-bedroom project in the same location as Heritage Row – called City Place. Approved last year, the City Place project contrasts with Heritage Row in that it would demolish seven existing houses and replace them with a streetscape consisting of two buildings separated by a parking lot. In the Heritage Row project, the seven houses would be renovated, and three additional buildings would be constructed behind them, with parking located under the site.
De Parry would like to begin construction in May 2011 – on either Heritage Row or City Place – and he indicated at Sunday’s caucus meeting that the necessary lead time for permitting means that work on construction drawings needs to start now.
In her remarks to the city council on Monday, Betsy de Parry told the council that Alex was out of town and could not attend. She said they’d truly hoped the council would bring it back for consideration that night. She told councilmembers that she and her husband appreciated their patience. She felt it was a case of not being able to see the forest for the trees. She talked about how developers typically don’t think about preservation, but that the neighbors had managed to change her husband’s mind about that. She said that they were “so close to a compromise.”
What she meant by a compromise had been discussed in more detail at the previous evening’s Sunday night caucus. The Heritage Row proposal on which council has already voted included up to 163 bedrooms in 82 total units – distributed in three newly constructed buildings and seven existing houses. Of those 82 units, 14 would have been offered as affordable, based on 80% annual median income (AMI) of renters. Under the modified version, the total number of bedrooms dropped to 154 and the unit count dropped to 79, with 12 units offered as affordable, but six of the 12 would be offered to renters earning lower incomes – 50% AMI.
In the modified version of the proposal, the “greenness” of the project would be boosted, by having the new construction certified according to the LEED standard, and by increasing the insulation and upgrading windows in the existing houses. Under the modified proposal, the height of the three new buildings would be reduced by two feet.
On Monday night, Betsy de Parry noted that Alex had already met with a city engineer and construction drawings needed now to be prepared for City Place. She asked councilmembers to think about what it would be like to drive past the site on Fifth Avenue and see an empty hole.
Communications and Comment
There are multiple slots on every agenda for city councilmembers and the city administrator to give updates or make announcements about issues that are coming before the city council. And every meeting typically includes public commentary on subjects not necessarily on the agenda.
Comm/Comm: Glen Ann Place
Tony Derezinski (Ward 2), who is the city council’s representative to the city planning commission, reported that the developer of the Glen Ann Place project has asked for an extension of the site plan approval, which is due to expire on Nov. 30. The request for an extension will come before the city council at its Oct. 4 meeting, he said, and in order to inform the vote, he asked that a report be prepared by staff on the question of whether to extend the approval, and if so, for how long, with the pros and cons of various alternatives.
Glen Ann Place is a mixed-use residential project proposed for the west side of Glen Avenue between Ann and Catherine streets. It would stand 10 stories tall. Its approval was denied by the city’s historic district commission, but the developer, Joseph Freed and Associates, contested the denial in court in 2006, and in a consent judgment, the project won approval.
Comm/Comm: Police/Courts Building – City Hall HVAC
As part of the update on the construction of the police/courts facility directly adjacent to city hall, city administrator Roger Fraser indicated that the move-in would begin in two weeks, with the IT department the first to take up residence on the first floor. Their space can be isolated by the HVAC system. Fraser enumerated a number of other departmental shuffles between floors in city hall.
Fraser indicated that as part of the construction work, on Friday, Sept. 24, the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system in city hall would be shut down – for three weeks. He said that they were hoping for decent weather that was not too hot or cold. There would also be no air circulation provide by the HVAC system, he said, so that would be achieved through fans.
By way of background, the 15-day weather forecast from AccuWeather starting on the day after the HVAC is turned of is as follows:
HI LO Sat 9/25/2010 68° 40° Sun 9/26/2010 63° 41° Mon 9/27/2010 66° 47° Tue 9/28/2010 69° 46° Wed 9/29/2010 73° 47° Thu 9/30/2010 71° 44° Fri 10/1/2010 67° 36° Sat 10/2/2010 56° 36° Sun 10/3/2010 56° 35° Mon 10/4/2010 57° 39° Tue 10/5/2010 62° 40° Wed 10/6/2010 57° 39° Thu 10/7/2010 64° 35° Fri 10/8/2010 55° 43°
Present: Stephen Rapundalo, Mike Anglin, Margie Teall, Sabra Briere, Sandi Smith, Tony Derezinski, Stephen Kunselman, Marcia Higgins, John Hieftje, Christopher Taylor, Carsten Hohnke.
Next council meeting: Oct. 4, 2010 at 7 p.m. in council chambers, 2nd floor of the Guy C. Larcom, Jr. Municipal Building, 100 N. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]