In the mayor’s race, Ann Arbor voters are offered a choice in the Nov. 2 general election between Democratic incumbent John Hieftje and independent candidate Steve Bean. On the last Monday in September, the League of Women Voters hosted a forum for the mayoral candidates. The mayoral forum took place at Community Television Network studios and was recorded – it is available online through CTN’s video-on-demand service.
By way of general background, in Ann Arbor, the mayor is elected for a two-year term and is a member of the 11-member city council. The other 10 members of the council come from the city’s five wards – each ward has two seats on the council, one of which is elected each year for a two-year term. In addition to the rights and responsibilities of a councilmember, the city charter assigns the mayor other rights, including: a veto power, the responsibility to make appointments to committees, certain powers during emergencies, and the responsibility to preside over city council meetings. The management of the city is handled by a city administrator [Roger Fraser], who is hired by the city council. The mayor’s annual salary is $42,436.
Hieftje has served as mayor for the last 10 years, first elected in 2000 after serving half a term on the Ann Arbor city council representing Ward 1. At the League’s forum, Bean highlighted his own record of 20 years of service to the city on the energy and environmental commissions – currently chairing the environmental commission. Board and commission service for the city is not compensated.
The two men share many similar views – they occasionally expressed their agreement with each other’s views during the forum. They get along well socially – in fact, they carpooled together to the League of Women Voters event. Still, it’s possible to discern some differences between the two candidates on local issues as well as in their national perspective.
For example, Bean’s take on the proposed Fuller Road Station is that a citizen vote is needed and that the accompanying parking deck doesn’t move us in the right direction of alternative transportation. Hieftje, on the other hand, promoted the location as the best place in all of Michigan for a transit center. Hieftje’s focus on the city’s budget is to continue to find efficiencies to reduce expenses in the face of declining state and federal revenues, while Bean’s perspective seems to include more prominently the possibility of a severe national financial crisis that could be further complicated by declining world oil production capacity.
Bean and Hieftje’s responses are described in greater detail below.
Each candidate made a 1-minute opening statement.
Steve Bean said that the reason he’s running for mayor is to bring to our local government the context of climate change, peak oil and a future financial crisis. He said he didn’t feel like we take that broader context enough into consideration at the local level. He noted he has more than 20 years of experience in local Ann Arbor government, serving on the environmental commission – for the last five years as chair – and also the energy commission prior to that. He said that if people didn’t hear their questions answered that evening, to contact him and he’d be happy to respond.
John Hieftje thanked the League of Women Voters for hosting the event. He said that the last decade has been a tough one for the country and the entire world and certainly for local governments in Michigan. He allowed that cuts have had to be made, but said that Ann Arbor has done this through finding greater efficiencies – he contended that about the same work is done by the city as was done 10 years ago, but with many fewer people. He said that while other cities in Michigan have had to raise taxes, the millage rate in Ann Arbor is slightly lower now than it was 10 years ago. Ann Arbor will need to focus on finances, he said. He said he felt that Ann Arbor will be able to “keep all the balls in the air” as we move forward with the various initiatives that the city has in place.
Question: What challenges specifically will the city face in the next two years?
Hieftje on Challenges: Financial challenges are major
John Hieftje said that every city needs to be focused most acutely on the bottom line financially – we don’t know what to expect from the state in terms of state revenue sharing, he said. He noted that the state has recent cut state revenue sharing as well as funding for roads, funding for the arts, and funding that was previously available for affordable housing. Federal funding has also decreased, he said. Finances will continue to be a major chore, Hieftje said, and he thinks that the city will continue to do a good job of that. That doesn’t mean the city can’t continue to look at alternative transportation and be one of the nation’s leaders in environmental issues, he said.
Bean on Challenges: Financial challenges will become more serious
Steve Bean said that he largely agrees with Hieftje – that the financial situation is already a challenge. He said he felt that we’d see rising gasoline prices, which will dampen economic growth. We’re in a situation where we can’t expect to get out of the recession very soon, Bean said, so we’ll likely go into a deeper recession. We have an opportunity to continue to be creative and innovative in continuing our quality of life, he said, but it will be very challenging and we need to be open to exploring alternatives.
Question: What role does the mayor play in a city manager type of government such as we have in Ann Arbor, and what strengths would you bring to that role?
Bean on Mayor’s Role: Leadership
Steve Bean said that the mayor plays primarily a leadership role, both on the city council and in the community. The 11-member council develops policy for the community and directs administration and staff, and it’s the mayor’s role to guide that process. It’s also important for the mayor to play an educational role in the community about what we’ll likely face in the future – about budget issues as well as opportunities.
Hieftje on Mayor’s Role: Evolution of role due to electronic communication
John Hieftje said that as the system is set up, the city administrator handles the day-to-day activities and makes sure the garbage gets collected. The mayor and the city council hire the city administrator and the city attorney, he said. He compared the mayor to the chairman of the board of directors, but said that there’s a lot of room for the mayor to be more active or less active – he characterized his own approach as more active.
He said that the role of mayor and the city council had changed over the years, particularly with the growth of electronic mail. People take advantage of the fact that the mayor and city council members are very accessible through electronic mail. As a result, the mayor and the city council are the liaison to the community, which is as appropriate, he said. The role of the council has expanded, Hieftje said, and in the past decade it has taken a greater role in watching over city finances and making sure that the work that’s done throughout the city meets the expectation of the residents. There’s been an evolution in the roles of mayor and city council, he said, compared to the way they’ve been set up in the city charter.
Question: Are the city parks under threat? For example, what should be the future use of Huron Hills golf course?
Hieftje on Golf: Huron Hills needs to pay for itself
John Hieftje characterized Huron Hills as a beautiful piece of property. He said the city has been struggling for a couple of years to see if it can be made to pay for itself, so that golf is not taking away from the general fund budget. Golf seems to be on the decline as a sport, he said, with many golf courses built over the last several years going out of business or being converted to other uses. If Huron Hills can make a go of it as a golf course, he said, that would be a great thing.
Hieftje mentioned that the city has put out a request for proposals (RFP) on the course to try to get some new ideas, but that it would certainly remain a park. He said the golf task force had made a lot of progress and Huron Hills is a better course than it was before – it’s less expensive to play. If it turned out that it could not be made to be viable as a golf course, there could be some other park use for the land.
Bean on Golf: Why not Leslie, too?
Steve Bean said that for the short term it would be preferable for it to be a viable golf course. In the future, he said, he agreed with Hieftje that if it can’t be viable as a golf course, it should remain a park. He asked, however, if we are exploring the possibility of making Huron Hills viable with a private operator, why we are not doing the same thing with the city’s other golf course – Leslie Park golf course. He said that we are not being consistent in that respect.
Parks: Fuller Road Station
Question: Is a parking garage and transit station an appropriate use of Fuller Park?
Bean on FRS: Citizen vote is needed
Steve Bean said he tended to look at the question as: Is a parking structure appropriate at all? The concept for Fuller Road Station, he said, is to develop a train station, but a parking structure is not moving us in the direction of alternative transportation or in bringing in commuters on a train line. He said there’s an agreement with the community regarding how to use park land in the long term – it’s a matter of semantics, he said, and he felt it should be put to a vote and get community buy-in before going forward.
That’s especially true, Bean said, because there is no commitment beyond a parking structure at this point. In order to get the long-term commitment for a transit station with trains and buses, we need to get the community’s full support, he said.
Hieftje on FRS: Full support
John Hieftje said that while the place where there’s a paved parking lot at the base of the University of Michigan hospital is “technically park land,” it’s been a parking lot since 1993. There was a land swap with the university, he said. The key point, he said, is that the location is possibly the best place in the state of Michigan for a transit station. There are 18,000 people who go there every day, Hieftje said, 12,000 of whom work there and 6,000 who are patients and visitors. There are 4,000 people with an Ypsilanti zip code who work there. He described a train that would allow them to commute to UM as a huge economic development tool for Ypsilanti. He said that like Bean, he’d like to see the number of automobile trips into the city limited, but he does not think they should be trying to “starve” the most vital employer in the city. As far as the park question, it has not been what we think of as a park for a very long time, he said.
Question: Development is always a hot topic in Ann Arbor. There may be an attempt to bring back Heritage Row/City Place to the city council. Which of these projects do you think would be the best use of the property: Heritage Row or City Place?
By way of background, Heritage Row is 154-bedroom residential project, which would have been located on the block of Fifth Avenue, south of William Street. 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 Hohnke providing the deciding vote in favor of Heritage Row. Hohnke had voted against the project on both previous occasions.
The developer of Heritage Row, Alex 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. At a recent Sunday night caucus, the prospects for Heritage Row getting a third consideration by the council looked slim [Caucus Chess Talk: Building City Place].
Hieftje on Development: Heritage Row would be better
John Hieftje noted that the proposal for a historic district in that area failed. [Hieftje voted for the district.] That means, he said, that the developer could choose to pull a permit for demolition of the houses next week if he chose to do so – the houses belong to him. He said he’d prefer to see Heritage Row than City Place, because Heritage Row would preserve the seven houses. He noted that he’d voted for it at the last council meeting.
He then said he wanted to “drop back” to the question about the Fuller Road Station question and said that he’d agonized over the project. He contended that you’d be hard pressed to find a mayor who had done more for parks. The Fuller Road Station situation would be different, he said, because the university would be a user and the city would also be a user, and eventually Amtrak would be a user. We have an opportunity to use the university’s investment to make the entire match that’s required for federal money, he said. That’s why the city is continuing to pursue that project, he said.
Bean on Development: Let’s reflect on the accumulation of lots
Steve Bean said that Heritage Row is definitely a preferable option between the two – Heritage Row and City Place. But he said he didn’t see those as the only choices. He noted that The Moravian had also been proposed in the same neighborhood.
Both Heritage Row and The Moravian were planned unit developments, he said, where the developer had accumulated multiple lots and put them together for the project. Bean said that he did not feel that the PUD process or the zoning for that neighborhood [R4C – multi-family dwelling] anticipated that kind of proposal. He said it’s inappropriate for the city to accept those kinds of proposals until we define what constitutes a public benefit in those kinds of areas. He called for a community discussion about the near-downtown neighborhoods and whether we wanted to expand the downtown.
Development: Washtenaw Avenue Corridor
Question: Would you favor the development of a corridor improvement authority for Washtenaw Avenue that would oversee development from East Stadium Boulevard to the Ypsilanti water tower? If so, should the authority have the ability to capture future tax increases that results from new development along Washtenaw Avenue?
Bean on Washtenaw Avenue: Support for an authority
Steve Bean said that such a corridor improvement authority was very appropriate, because that might be the only way development would occur along that transit corridor the way we’d like it to. It’s an important connection between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, he said. It’s currently not very pedestrian-friendly – the street width and the setbacks are not helpful in that sense and it’s not safe to bicycle on. Bringing buildings closer to the street – along the lines of the new area, height, and placement changes – would help, he said. Bean said that the authority should include stakeholders along the corridor, in particular those in Ypsilanti.
Hieftje on Washtenaw Avenue: Not sure about tax increment financing
John Hieftje said he felt that Bean had described it very well. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done there, which currently has a strip mall kind of look to it. He said he had some questions about establishing a tax increment financing (TIF) zone out there – that would need to be looked at very carefully. But he suggested that some kind of mechanism was needed to help finance improvements in the corridor.
He then said he wanted to go back to the previous question about Heritage Row and City Place. He said it was important for people to understand that because the historic district had not been approved, it leaves it open for City Place to be developed. He noted that seven city councilmembers, including himself, believed that Heritage Row would be a better way to go. The developer might have to go through with the City Place development, he said, which would be a shame, because it would remove the seven old houses, completely changing the look of the street.
Budget: Expenses or Revenue?
Question: Looking at the city budget, what further cuts, if any, would you favor? Should the city look for additional sources of revenue – and if so, what?
Hieftje on Budget: Additional cuts will be needed
John Hieftje said that the last decade had been the worst financially of any decade since the 1930s. Unlike other cities, Ann Arbor has not raised taxes, he said, with a millage rate a little bit lower than it was 10 years ago. The city would continue to look for efficiencies without targeting any one thing, he said. The last fiscal year, ending on June 30, had finished with a modest surplus, he said. He characterized the general fund reserve as adequate and said that compared to other cities, we’re doing very well.
Hieftje said we’d probably need to make some additional cuts this year and the year after that, and they’d watch the state budget to see what happens there. He said he didn’t want to put a finger on any one area to see where to make cuts. Up to now, the city had been trying to find efficiencies through the whole system. He concluded by saying that he was sure they’d get through the next budget year.
Bean on Budget: Need to prepare for crisis of inflation or deflation
Steve Bean said he agreed with Hieftje that we shouldn’t choose winners and losers about where to make budget cuts. He anticipates that we will need to make further cuts. The next decade might be worse than the previous one, he warned. He said he’d encourage the city administrator to develop a budget that anticipates either inflation or deflation in the future. We need to be prepared for more volatile financial situations. What he’d prioritize, Bean said, was ways to transition away from reliance on fossil fuels. Services that involve moving a lot of trucks around, he said, we need to think of ways to reduce. He suggested we could put more police on bicycles or think of other ways to move in that direction.
Question: How would you rate the business climate in Ann Arbor? Is there anything we can do to make it better? If so, what?
Bean on Business: Generally good climate, energy improvements can help
Steve Bean said the business climate is relatively good, considering the broader context of the state and the nation, where the climate is not so good. He said he serves on the board of Think Local First and certainly supports local and independently owned businesses, and through that effort we can cooperate more at the local level and find ways for local businesses to be more successful.
The property assessed clean energy (PACE) program could be helpful in that sense, he said, where low-interest loans could be extended to businesses to help finance energy improvements. Hopefully down the road, he said, homeowners would also be able to take advantage of PACE. It would help them to be more energy efficient, so that their money stays in the local economy and supports it rather than going to fuel sources outside the state and the community.
Hieftje on Business: Quality of life is key
John Hieftje said that Ann Arbor has one of the best business climates in the state. He also said that Ann Arbor competes with cities around the world for top-level researchers and other talent. He said he believed in continuing to invest in and improve Ann Arbor’s quality of life, because it’s an attractant to the best talent in the world – that’s an accepted theory about attracting the creative class, he said. He suggested continuing down that road. We have beautiful parks and a clean, green environment, stable finances, a good public school system, a great university. He also cited awards won by the city.
Each candidate gave a 2-minute closing statement.
John Hieftje said it’s vitally important to continue to improve our quality of life. The city continues to win many awards, he said. He distanced himself from the idea that the awards have literal significance but said that winning them was better than not winning them and they indicated we’re moving in the right direction. The fact that Ann Arbor is an attractive place to live is our economic calling card, he said. We’re also doing many things to move towards sustainability. This year, he said, Ann Arbor had achieved 20% renewable energy for the municipal government. A lot of that had been achieved through reducing energy use. The city’s work for the environment, as well as his own work, has been recognized, citing his endorsement by environmentalists locally and various organizations.
He also said that the financial picture is very important – that’s the bottom line.
Steve Bean said that he’s very much in agreement with Hieftje about the quality of the community, its residents, the university, and the resources we have, including the people. He said that he wanted to say a bit about himself, because people might not be familiar with him. He said he’d live in Ann Arbor for 28 years, came to study physics as well as ecology and environmental policy, and decided to stay. While still a student, he said, he’d become involved in city issues around recycling, and since then he’s served for over 20 years on city commissions – the environmental and energy commissions.
Bean also noted that he’s served as a park steward, served on the Think Local First board, volunteers with a number of nonprofits, works for a small business in the city, and was married for a time to a small business owner on Main Street. So he has familiarity with the downtown and the local business situation, he concluded. His focus, he said, is not just on what we’ve been doing so well, but to look at the challenges we face if the financial situation get worse, if oil prices go up – now that we’re probably past the world’s peak capacity to produce oil. We need to transition away from fossil fuels, he said, and be creative and innovative. To do that, we’ll need to work together, he said. We need to be open to other possibilities without believing we have all the answers, he said.