Ann Arbor Council Agenda: Ask for RTA Veto

Special city council session of Dec. 10 to include resolution protesting Washtenaw County's inclusion in new regional transit authority

Four Ann Arbor councilmembers are currently listed as sponsors of a resolution that calls on Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to veto legislation that establishes a four-county regional transit authority (RTA) for southeast Michigan. The area of the authority includes the city of Detroit and the counties of Washtenaw, Wayne, Oakland and Macomb. [.pdf of state Senate Bill 909]

The council has called a special meeting for Monday, Dec. 10 to consider the resolution.

A basic reason for the council’s possible request that Snyder veto the legislation is the inclusion of Washtenaw County in the RTA. The resolution indicates concern that the inclusion of Washtenaw County in the RTA would potentially risk the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority’s ability to continue its role to serve effectively as a transportation provider for Ann Arbor.

Among other additional reasons given in the draft resolution for the council’s objection is the characterization of the bill as containing “onerous and offensive provisions related to consideration of rail based transportation.” That’s a reference to part of the legislation that requires unanimous approval from the 9-member board of the new RTA to “acquire, construct, operate, or maintain any form of rail passenger service within a public transit region.” An east-west rail connection has been an aspiration of Ann Arbor mayor John Hieftje and other local officials for several years, and is reflected in a current study being done with federal funds to determine a locally preferred alternative for the location of a new Amtrak station.

The implications of the RTA legislation for federal and state funding of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority are not entirely clear. Both types of AATA funding appear to be impacted, although AATA staff were still sorting through the implications late Friday afternoon. AATA manager of community relations Mary Stasiak characterized the AATA’s position this way: “We support regional transportation but want to ensure that Washtenaw (Ann Arbor’s) interest and federal funding is not compromised in the process.”

The council’s Dec. 10 special meeting falls four days after the state House of Representatives gave approval to the same bill passed earlier by the senate – in a lame duck session of the legislature. The council’s meeting is scheduled to start at 4 p.m. in the jury room of the Justice Center, located at 301 E. Huron St. The council had already been scheduled to hold a budget planning session at that same time and location. Update: On the morning of Dec. 10, the city announced that the location for the special session has been changed to the second-floor council chambers at city hall, next to the Justice Center.

Currently listed as sponsors of the resolution are mayor John Hieftje, Marcia Higgins (Ward 4), Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), and Sabra Briere (Ward 1).

The state RTA legislation was opposed by District 53 state Rep. Jeff Irwin, a Democrat who represents most of the city of Ann Arbor. Irwin attempted to make two amendments to the bill during the Dec. 6 session of the House. One of the amendments would have simply removed the unanimous voting requirement for rail systems. The other amendment would have substituted the entire bill with one that excluded Washtenaw County from the region of the authority, but left in place the legislation’s provisions for adjacent counties to join the RTA at a later time. [.pdf of Irwin amendment 1] [.pdf of Irwin amendment 2]

However, Irwin’s amendments were gaveled down in the current custom of the Michigan House. In that process, the presiding officer announces that the voting board is open and that members of the House are free to vote at their desks, and in the same breath declares that the amendments are not adopted.

The ability of the RTA to fund transportation service will depend on the approval of voters in the four-county region. However, the legislation allocates $250,000 a year to the new RTA from state operating assistance. The governance of the 9-member RTA board is structured so that any vote to place a tax assessment or vehicle registration fee on the ballot for residents of the four-county region – in order to fund transportation services by the new RTA – could be vetoed by the representative from Detroit, or by a dissenting vote from both representatives of a single county.

Conan Smith, chair of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, has been an advocate for the RTA effort, both as chair of the county board and in his role as executive director of the nonprofit Michigan Suburbs Alliance.

Assuming that Snyder does not heed the Ann Arbor city council’s call to veto the legislation, the chair of the Washtenaw County board will make the two Washtenaw County appointments to the RTA board. Following the custom of the county board, Smith will likely rotate off that position, which is elected by fellow board members in January. Yousef Rabhi, who has also been a strong supporter of the RTA concept, is most likely to be elected as the new county board chair starting in 2013.

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  1. December 7, 2012 at 8:19 pm | permalink

    I am sympathetic to the feelings behind this move. However, it is unlikely to have an impact. The RTA legislation was a direct result of Gov. Snyder’s vision and was pushed through with his support. As I understand, the reason Washtenaw County was not removed in the House was that it would have then required returning the package to the Senate, and the delay might have endangered the success of the package.

    SB 909 was moved successfully as immediate impact. Therefore, if signed in a timely manner by the Governor, it is hypothetically possible that Conan Smith can appoint Washtenaw County’s representatives. He is Chair until December 31.

  2. By Alan Goldsmith
    December 8, 2012 at 6:29 am | permalink

    Apparently, Yousef Rabhi has has private conversations with the Governor about this and won’t reveal what was discussed. If it’s ‘tradition’ and he’s next in line to be the Board Chair, perhaps tradition be damned and the entire board elect someone else who is open and transparent and not, apparently, a lapdog for Conan Smith and Governor Snyder’s power grab. If selling your soul for support of Warren/Smith for some higher political office is worth selling out the voters of Washtenaw County, then he doesn’t deserve either. Al Wheeler is rolling over in his grave. Hope Mr. Smith enjoys his thirty pieces of silver, oh I mean a seat at the big boy table with other political hacks like Bob Ficano and whatever job he was promise for his betrayal.

  3. By Yousef Rabhi
    December 8, 2012 at 10:49 pm | permalink

    Mr. Goldsmith,

    I respect your point of view and your right to post freely on this and other sites. However, before making these sorts of accusations, please verify your information.

    I have never had a private conversation with the Governor on this issue.

    Conan is his own man, he is a strong supporter of the RTA and has not been afraid to say that. That being said, I will not sit here quietly while you call me a “lapdog”. That is disrespectful and reduces my opinion as a free thinking human to a merely sheepish devotion to an individual. Your statement shows a lack of respect for my intelligence.

    I have always been transparent and have prided myself in being open and accessible to my constituents when they have questions or concerns. Unlike others in politics, closed doors make me nervous, I operate in the public eye. However, if there is something that I can improve on, I would like to know.

    Finally, I must ask what “higher political office” you are referring to above. Saying that I have “sold my soul” to achieve higher office is a steep and empty accusation. I have no intention at this time to seek higher office. When I have been asked about whether or not I intend to seek higher office, my response has been consistent: Right now my goal is to be the best county commissioner that I can be and to serve the people of my district. Constantly aligning yourself to run for higher office is not serving the people of your district, it is serving yourself.

    As I stated above, I respect your right to free speech, but I could not pass up the opportunity to respond to your concerns and accusations. I am not selling my soul, or hiding anything, and I am certainly no one’s lapdog. I work for the People of Washtenaw County and I fight every day for the People of my district. I have always served ethically, please do not falsely accuse me otherwise.

  4. By Alan Goldsmith
    December 9, 2012 at 6:49 am | permalink


    As you know from the email we traded on this topic, I told you I had a great deal of respect for you (and for Jeff Irwin) for standing with the University of Michigan Nurse Union during their negotiations last year, something very few of your fellow Democratic Party elected office holders did at the time. Some, like Conan Smith, expressed their praise for the anti-work emergency manager model. While it seems like a simple thing, for the Democratic Party to stand with organized labor, that’s seems to be a rare thing in this town with some Dems. Your public support of organized labor was to be commended

    Most everyone in this city wants strong and progressive public transportation and we tax ourselves a generous two mills to make this happen. The recent, failed push to roll out a County wide model failed because of poor AATA leadership and the threat of another half mill of taxes without a clear cut plan in place. Also, I think it was rejected because some of us felt that Ann Arbor was giving away hundreds of millions of dollars worth of assets that took decades to build up without a fair trade off with the amount of control we would have with the proposed transit authority.

    I have the same fears over the proposed RTA. This was rammed through the Legislature during the lame duck session with little discussion and likely we’re not going to know what the new law is going to do until it’s too late to do anything about it. It will add new taxes, result in less funds coming to Washtenaw County and the voters of Ann Arbor will have a diluted say over where our currents and future dollars will go. It’s a tax increase and while we cut funding for schools, health and the poor, there seems to be no issue with building another layer of government control, most like a busload of political patronage jobs beloved by the likes of crooked Wayne County boss Bob Ficano. Ceding control of our tax dollars for something that is going to impact the AATA isn’t something an Ann Arbor elected official should be supporting.

    Back to Conan Smith. You don’t think Mr. Smith has a nice plum political job lined up for his (and his wife’s co-sponsoring of the bill in the Senate) support of RTA (and his tacit silence that assisted in Rick Snyder’s election) then you are being naive.

    Did you have any conversations with anyone on the Governor’s STAFF or other officials in Lansing? Did you have any conversations with Conan Smith or others about who would be appointed to any of the positions on the new board or any of the paid staff positions? You suggested in your private email to me you would not be appointing Smith as one of the two Washtenaw County RTA representatives to this Board. Have you had discussions with anyone, including Conan Smith, who they might be? Are you planning on appointing representatives who promise you they won’t vote to opt out of the new organization? Have you had conversations with Mr. Smith about his conflict of interest with his elected positions, his support of the RTA and his day job as a lobbyist? You current plans aside, did Conan Smith or anyone else offer you support in the future if you decide to run for any future office? Did anyone offer you a job? To your knowledge, did anyone give Conan Smith a offer of a position in the RTA of any other paid government position as a result of his strong support of this?

    This is about losing control of local control and control of our tax dollars and of a system (AATA), which is far from perfect but still a semi-shining jewel when it comes to a transportation organization. While I’ve been critical of AATA’s losing site of its core mission (ANN ARBOR) I shutter to think where it will be five years from now if Ann Arbor is not allowed to opt out of this new power grab.

    This is a major issue. If you chose to ignore the concerns of elected and non-elected locals on this and have already made up your mind you are going to use your authority to make sure there will be no chance for Wastenaw County to remove itself, then the entire County Board should carefully think about whether you are the best choice to be the next Board Chair.

    Whether you feel comfortable snuggled on the lap of someone who appears to be looking out for himself ala Conan Smith and whether at this point the support of Smith and his wife would be worth anything after all their bridges have been burned on this and other issues remains to be seen. I assume you didn’t foresee the backlash from nearly every other elected Democrat on your support of this. But if you move forward with something so clearly against the wishes of most of us in Washtenaw County, then we’ll know soon enough whether is this is a trade for your political soul or just political business as usual. For me those are one and the same.

  5. December 9, 2012 at 10:46 am | permalink

    Just as a point of information, Mr. Rabhi would not be able to appoint Conan Smith unless Mr. Smith resigns his place on the BOC. There are a number of restrictions on appointments in SB 909:

    (3) A board member shall not be an employee of the county or
    city appointing the board member under subsection (1) or an employee of a public transportation provider operating in a public transit region.
    (4) A board member shall not be a currently serving elected officer of this state or a political subdivision of this state.
    (5) A board member shall be a resident of and registered elector in the county or city from which he or she is appointed.
    (6) A board member shall have substantial business, financial, or professional experience relevant to the operation of a corporation or public transportation system.

    One of the slender points in favor of Washtenaw County is that we did not lose one of our two seats on that board, though Mr. Smith was ready to bargain it away earlier in the year. (As stated in the Chronicle and elsewhere.)

    More relevant is the conflation of Smith’s interests as the director of Michigan Suburbs Alliance and his role on the BOC, from whence he persuaded the BOC to appoint him to the original study committee (the Fab Five). Here is what he said in a recent email copied to me and several other individuals:

    “Regarding your concern about a conflict between my day job and my position as an elected official, the issues I engage in and the positions I take are reflective of my interests and my values. I am one of the lucky few who have the complete freedom to be who I am in both places. I have a very generous board at the Suburbs Alliance that does not direct my policy work within the organization or at home. They understand my values and trust that they guide me 24 hours a day, not just when I’m at work. Similarly, I strive to be consistent with those values in my role as a county commissioner. I am always open with my constituents about why I do or don’t support an issue, and I am always eager to engage on a policy issue.”

  6. By Peter Zetlin
    December 9, 2012 at 1:15 pm | permalink

    I’d prefer that the chair of our County Commissioners wasn’t employed as the executive director of a lobbying group.

    It’s implausible that the political positions taken by Conan Smith’s employer have no impact on his ability to represent our interests. As far as I can tell, Conan believes his role is to represent his personal vision and that employment by a political lobby is a good fit.

    Conan’s active push for the passage of Regional Transit despite the BOC’s formal withdrawal of support for it has certainly conjured the image of conflict of interest. I don’t know whether his lobbying constitutes a conflict of interest, but so far, everybody I’ve spoken with feels he acted improperly.

    Perhaps some of our commissioners look askance when the public becomes concerned about conflict of interest. If instead, the board approves of Conan’s actions, I encourage members to make statements which might help the public regain confidence in the board.

  7. By Alan Goldsmith
    December 10, 2012 at 6:55 am | permalink

    Cutting to the chase:

    Unless Yousef Rabhi pledges to appoint two Washtenaw County members to the RTA Board who support opting out, the entire Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners should break with ‘tradition’ and appoint someone else as Board Chair in January.

  8. December 10, 2012 at 8:15 am | permalink

    Re: [7] “… two Washtenaw County members to the RTA Board who support opting out, …”

    Alan, it’s worth pointing out that the legislation doesn’t appear to allow for a mechanism to opt out (as the countywide Act 196 legislation did). So unless the bill is altered by the legislature (which is the desired impact of the Ann Arbor city council’s resolution for tonight – with the specific request being made of the governor to veto the bill and return it to the legislature), Washtenaw County is in. Now, the RTA legislation does provide that in order to put anything on the ballot in the four county region — a tax or a vehicle registration fee — at least one vote from each of the four counties is required. Otherwise put, two representatives from a single county could paralyze the RTA by voting against placement of any proposal on the ballot. So an analog of your suggestion might translate into a pledge that only people be appointed who would vote against placement of any ballot proposal. That would wreck everything for the residents of three other counties — which seems like a fairly destructive approach, and strikes me as counter to basic democratic principles (even if legal), and could in fact deprive Washtenaw County of considerable benefit. Elsewhere online, I’ve made a golf analogy: The ball is in a difficult lie; the Ann Arbor city council’s resolution is asking for permission to take a drop. If we don’t get permission for the drop — that is, if Washtenaw is in the RTA — then it seems to me like we should hack at the ball as best we can in the crappy lie, still with the idea of putting it in the hole eventually, instead of setting fire to the entire golf course.

  9. December 10, 2012 at 8:37 am | permalink

    With all due respect, Alan, your solution is infeasible.

    First, no responsible elected official would make the type of pledge you suggest (to appoint board members who immediately wish to remove their jurisdiction from the entity to which they were appointed).

    Second, even if such upstarts were appointed, they would have no power to opt-out Washtenaw County. That simply is not provided for in the legislation.

    Third, the only tradition with regard to the BOC leadership offices is that the offices rotate. Yousef Rabhi has simply gained that level of political support on the BOC, and it is all based on politics. I doubt that most of the “out-county” commissioners will see this as the number one issue.

    Not clear to me is what will happen if the funding ballot measure fails. That will have to pass in the 4-county region. If a majority of voters in the entire region reject it, I am not clear about what will happen with the RTA, but I suspect that like any bureaucracy, it will find a way to survive.

    I have been maintaining a blog post on this subject with updates by following action on the House floor and through news bulletins. [link] There are still two bills in the package pending. I’ll also update the post if any news comes out about the Governor’s decision.

  10. By Andy
    December 10, 2012 at 8:40 am | permalink

    Richard Murphy provides a summary of some reasons why Ann Arborites might refrain from panicking about the RTA, which I personally found helpful: [link]

  11. By Alan Goldsmith
    December 10, 2012 at 9:37 am | permalink

    Not sure about the definition of ‘democracy’ by drawing a circle around a four county area and then telling voters democracy matters but it matters more if you are a voter in Wayne County and can tax residents of Washtenaw County. And as for shooting down the funding vote, I prefer the think of it as using all the clubs in your golf bag until you pick the right one for the job. If one club works in making sure Washtenaw County’s interests are protected, then maybe we need to pick a non-traditional club to halt the entire process. Keeping in mind how this bill was rammed through in a lame duck session without openness and transparency. But it appears whoever is appointed to the Washtenaw seats will be rubber stamps. Vivienne, if the BOC commissioners are opposed to the RTA, is would be wise to elect a Chair who agrees. We’ll see about the ‘out county’ vote.

  12. December 10, 2012 at 10:37 am | permalink

    Re: [11] “Not sure about the definition of ‘democracy’ by drawing a circle around a four county area …”

    I’m understanding this comment as expressing the intuition that it feels odd for the state legislature to be enacting legislation that affects only one corner of the state. Can the legislature even do that? Under Michigan’s constitution (Article IV Section 29) local or special acts (like this seems to be) require a 2/3 majority in the legislature. But if you look at the RTA bill, the counties are not mentioned by name, but rather are described in terms of their population. This makes the RTA legislation seem to be about just some collection of counties that are described in a certain way, not about any specific counties. And it just happens that the only four counties that are accurately described by the legislation are Macomb, Wayne, Oakland and Washtenaw. Apparently this is a legal strategy for getting around the constitutional requirement of a 2/3 majority vote required for local or special acts. In that sense it’s not “enabling” legislation in the same way that the DDA statute is – as it sets out the ground rules for any municipality to follow in establishing a downtown development authority.

  13. By Steve Bean
    December 10, 2012 at 10:56 am | permalink

    @5: “I have a very generous board at the Suburbs Alliance that does not direct my policy work within the organization or at home.” (Attributed to Conan Smith)

    Then the organization’s (not “his”) board members aren’t performing their duty.

    @8, 11: Raises the question of what is democratic–or, more to the point, constitutional–about a regional (taxing) authority created by the state government. What’s the mechanism that allows such a thing?

  14. By Steve Bean
    December 10, 2012 at 11:00 am | permalink

    @12: Thanks, Dave. (I guess I should have refreshed the page before sending #13.)

    Next question is whether the city would have a viable legal case that would be worth pursuing.

  15. December 11, 2012 at 3:49 pm | permalink

    The Michigan legislature, regardless of the party in control, has a long tradition of getting around the higher vote count for “local legislation” through describing communities of particular sizes rather than by name. Most of these are related to Detroit — you may remember the post-decennial census spate of legislative work needed to hit several bills because Detroit had fallen below the population threshold described in the legislation.

    One of my favorites, though, is in the Planning Enabling Act (PA 33 of 2008), which requires that local Planning Commissions must have 5, 7, or 9 members, except “in a city that on September 1, 2008 had a population of more than 2,700 but less than 2,800,” which may have a Planning Commission of 3. (Not favorite enough to figure out what community that is, though.)

    As far as I know, all such legislation is considered legitimate, and none has been struck down by the courts.

  16. By Jack Eaton
    December 11, 2012 at 6:01 pm | permalink

    While this regional transit authority act does not name the included counties, Public Act 204 of 1967, the metropolitan transportation authorities act of 1967, formed the southeastern Michigan transportation authority (SEMTA) and expressly included the counties of Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair, Washtenaw, and Wayne. PA 204 provided counties the ability to opt out and all counties except Oakland, Macomb and Wayne did opt out. The Act also allowed the City of Detroit to opt out, which it did. SEMTA later changed its name to SMART.

    One must wonder whether transit had broader support in 1967, allowing the act to gather the 2/3 majority vote in the legislature.

    PA 204 was later amended to create a regional transit coordinating council (RTCC) for the purpose of acting as the recipient of state and federal funds and also to coordinate services of Detroit DOT and SMART. The RTCC has been a complete failure. Only time will tell whether this new RTA will have any better luck coordinating transit services.

  17. December 11, 2012 at 6:39 pm | permalink

    So the story could be summarized as “sic transit gloria”?