Archive for June, 2013

Column: Rules, Parking, Transportation

At its July 1, 2013 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council will consider and likely adopt a new set of rules affecting meeting mechanics.

Flags flying over Pittsfield Township Hall on June 27, 2013: Political winds were also blowing – but indoors.

Flags flying over Pittsfield Township Hall on June 27, 2013. Political winds were also blowing (indoors, and not quite as hard) at a meeting also attended by representatives of Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor, Saline and Ypsilanti Township – on “urban core” transportation.

Easiest to quantify are rule changes affecting speaking time limits. For the public, the time per speaking turn will drop across the board – from three minutes to two minutes. For each councilmember, the total speaking time per item of debate will drop from eight minutes to five minutes.

Whether those quantitative changes will have a qualitative impact on the city council’s meetings is an open question. More likely to have a positive qualitative effect, I think, is a rules change that adds an opportunity for public commentary at the council’s work sessions.

The exchange of viewpoints among councilmembers during those work sessions is currently tentative and spare, often in the guise of merely asking a question. That’s because Michigan’s Open Meetings Act does not allow a gathering of councilmembers to include deliberations, unless an opportunity is provided for the public to address the council. By giving the public an opportunity to comment during those sessions, councilmembers will be free to engage in unfettered exchanges of viewpoint. And that will be a benefit to the public and to the city staff.

However, in this column I’d like to focus on a different proposed amendment to the rules – one that could potentially improve local governance, not just change what happens at city council meetings.

Among the rules changes is one that would move the mayor’s communications from a slot on the meeting agenda after all regular business to one that precedes all regular business. That’s important because the mayor’s communications include nominations to boards and commissions. That agenda slot also includes the council’s vote to confirm those appointments – typically at the following council meeting. This rule change will ensure that interested residents will not need to stay up until midnight or 3 a.m. – or whenever the council finishes its voting business – to find out who the mayor has nominated.

And that bit of extra spotlight on the nominations could lead to an interest on the part of the mayor – whoever might hold that position – in offering a better explanation of each nomination. It’s reasonable, I think, to get a better explanation than the kind we typically hear – generally a brief comment at the end of a meeting, when everyone is barely awake.

For example: What is it about the nominee’s philosophical orientation to the board’s subject matter that makes this person a good fit for the position? How was it that this person came to be chosen? Who is this person? To the extent that residents are given a clearer idea of how and why nominations are made to boards and commissions, that might increase the inclination of other qualified residents to offer their service.

In the near future, nominations to two significant boards will be made by mayor John Hieftje. One nomination is needed due to the expansion of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority’s board – from seven to nine members. Of the two additional seats, the city of Ypsilanti will make one appointment. For that seat, Ypsilanti mayor Paul Schreiber will be nominating Gillian Ream at the Ypsilanti council’s July 2 meeting. Hieftje will be making the nomination for the other new AAATA seat. He will also need to make nominations to replace two departing members from the board of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority – Leah Gunn and Newcombe Clark.

The public policy areas of the two boards overlap – not just because transportation is related to land use and development. The overlap also stems from the fact that the DDA manages the city’s public parking system, and the availability of parking is integral to the area’s transportation system.

So in this column, I’d like to sketch out some current policy issues to be faced by new appointees to the boards of these organizations. For the AAATA board, a pressing question will be: Should we ask voters to approve an additional transportation millage in November 2013? For the DDA board, an ongoing question will be: What’s an appropriate balance among users of the parking system – downtown residents, retail customers, and employees of downtown businesses?

But first, a little history. [Full Story]

Public Art Group Weighs Revamping Awards

Ann Arbor public art commission meeting (June 26, 2013): Much of the discussion at AAPAC’s most recent meeting focused on the themes of outreach and public engagement.

John Kotarski, Ashlee Arder, Ann Arbor public art commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Ann Arbor public art commissioners John Kotarski and Ashlee Arder at AAPAC’s June 26, 2013 meeting. Arder was shooting B-roll for a video she’s making about the commission. (Photos by the writer.)

As part of that, a proposal to overhaul the Golden Paintbrush awards – the city’s annual recognition of individuals and organizations who support public art in Ann Arbor – received the most attention. Commissioners John Kotarski and Connie Brown had recommended four categories of public recognition to replace the Golden Paintbrush, including a lifetime achievement award, a “Random Acts of Art” award, and public art awards to be presented at a formal social event that was described as an “Academy Awards-type” ceremony.

Although there was general consensus that the Golden Paintbrush needs to be improved, some commissioners felt that the proposed public recognition program was overreaching at this point. Malverne Winborne worried about “scope creep” – going too far afield of AAPAC’s role. Marsha Chamberlin thought that making some changes to the Golden Paintbrush, including a new name, could serve the same purpose. Ultimately, commissioners decided to give the proposal more thought before acting on it.

Also related to public engagement, Kotarski and AAPAC chair Bob Miller reported on efforts to get input on proposals by four finalists for artwork at the East Stadium bridges. The two men have been making presentations to a variety of groups, and are seeking feedback via two online surveys – one on Survey Monkey, another on A2 Open City Hall. Commissioners also talked about having a regular table at the Sunday artisan market and increasing their use of social media, including the commission’s Facebook page and Twitter account – @AAPublicArt. AAPAC also will have a table at the July 15 Townie Street Party.

In other action, commissioners voted to create exploratory task forces for possible projects at Arbor Oaks Park in southeast Ann Arbor, and at the wastewater treatment plant on Dixboro Road in Ann Arbor Township. Craig Hupy, the city’s public services area administrator, had approached AAPAC about the possibility of incorporating public art into the wastewater treatment project. He noted that of the remaining amount in the Percent for Art funds, much of it came from wastewater-related projects, and must be spent on public art with a “nexus” to wastewater. [Full Story]

Liberty & Virginia

Sprinkler spotted running in the rain. It wasn’t the automatic kind. An hour later I passed by again and it was turned off but still visible in the yard. Puzzling since we are having record rain and floods.

Main & Washington

Two Men and Truck men hoist a couch up above The Ravens Club to the third story balcony the hard way. [photo 1] [photo 2] Also awesome Vine video from Dr. Honey [video]

Semi-Finalists Picked for AAPS Superintendent

The Ann Arbor Public Schools board has released a list of six semi-finalists in its superintendent search, to replace outgoing superintendent Patricia Green. [.pdf of AAPS press release]

Semi-finalists are:

  • Benjamin Edmondson, current AAPS principal of Roberto Clemente High School [.pdf Edmonson bio];
  • Richard Faidley, superintendent for the Derry Township School District in Hershey, Pennsylvania [.pdf Faidley bio];
  • Sandra Harris, retired superintendent of the Oak Park School District in Oak Park, Mich. and former AAPS director of personnel [.pdf of Harris bio];
  • Henry Hastings, full-time lecturer at Eastern Michigan University [.pdf of Hastings bio];
  • Brian Osborne, superintendent for the South Orange-Maplewood School District in New Jersey [.pdf of Osborne bio]; and
  • Jeanice Kerr Swift, assistant superintendent of instruction, curriculum and student … [Full Story]
  • A2: Marriage Equality

    The Detroit Free Press reports on U.S. District Judge David S. Lawson’s decision to block Michigan from enforcing a law that bans public employers – like school systems or local governments – from offering benefits to same-sex couples. The article quotes Peter Ways, an Ann Arbor Public Schools teacher who was affected by the law: “We’re breathing a sigh of relief right now. This law was clearly meant to target families like ours and to make us feel as though we didn’t count.” [Source]

    Column: For the Love of Stupid Games

    John U. Bacon

    John U. Bacon

    Summer time, and the livin’ is easy.

    But not if you have children. Nowadays, you have to drive your kid to soccer camp and band camp, to this lesson and that clinic, to make sure they never have a single unprogrammed minute of summer to themselves.

    Yes, something is gained from all this – like structure and safety – but something is lost, too. You see a basket in every driveway, but no one playing. Without their own games, kids never learn how to settle their own arguments. Does any 10-year-old know what a “do-over” is?

    They’re forced way too young to specialize in one sport – a sport they are not likely to earn a scholarship for, no matter what their parents or coaches think, let alone a professional contract. What they’re almost certain to gain, however, is tremendous burn out, and knee joints on 20-year-old women that are as worn out as a 50-year-old man’s.

    Yeah, sure, they’ll be busy and safe and supervised – but what fun is that? They miss out on the simple excitement of making up their own games – no matter how stupid or dangerous. [Full Story]

    7th & Madison

    Heavy rain on 7th at Madison. Very wet bike rider stops and cleans street drain. Doesn’t notice admiring watchers. Thanks, H. D.

    Ashley & Felch

    A look at some of the fun at Ashley & Felch in earlier today. Observe UPS van. [link] (61 MB file)

    A2: Bus to East Lansing

    The Lansing State Journal reports that Michigan Flyer will be adding four daily trips between Ann Arbor and East Lansing, following approval this week by the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission. The bus service will be funded through a federal grant. It will increase the number of daily trips between the two cities from 8 to 12 starting this fall. The service continues on to Detroit Metro Airport, branded as AirRide. [Source]

    Planning Group Highlights Pedestrian Issues

    Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (June 18, 2013): The desire to make a proposed Hampton Inn more accessible to pedestrians and bicycles resulted in a unanimous vote by planning commissioners  to postpone the project, located on Jackson Avenue near Weber’s Inn.

    Tony Derezinski, Eric Mahler, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

    From left: Tony Derezinski and Eric Mahler attended their last meeting as planning commissioners on June 18. Mahler has been appointed to the board of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. Derezinski was not re-appointed to the commission, and is expected to be replaced by Jeremy Peters. Mahler’s replacement is Paras Parekh. (Photos by the writer.)

    Commissioners had been asked to recommend approval of a “planned project” site plan, amended development agreement and modifications to the city’s landscaping requirements. This kind of project requires a public benefit, and commissioner Bonnie Bona argued strongly that the benefit should be a site that’s pedestrian- and bicycle-oriented. It’s especially important given Ann Arbor’s standing as one of the top 10 cities in the country for bicycle use, she said, and given that demand for pedestrian amenities will only increase. But as designed, sidewalks are an afterthought and their configuration within the site doesn’t make sense, Bona said. “There has got to be a better way.”

    Bona said she couldn’t support this project unless the site plan addressed that design deficit. She proposed postponing it so that modifications could be explored, and other commissioners agreed – despite urging from the design team to recommend approval.

    The meeting’s other main agenda item entailed adopting a master plan resolution and list of resource documents used to support the master plan. This is part of an annual evaluation of the master plan that’s required by the commission’s bylaws. Commissioners had held a public hearing on suggestions related to the master plan at their May 21, 2013.

    Bona again brought forward a pedestrian-oriented issue, proposing to amend the list of resource documents to include the Allen Creek Greenway task force report from 2007. Commissioners unanimously approved that addition, along with two others: (1) the Downtown Vision and Policy Framework (known as the Calthorpe study), adopted in 2006; and (2) the Huron River Impoundment Management Plan (HRIMP), as adopted in 2009. [.pdf of resource document list]

    In other action, commissioners approved a work plan for the fiscal year starting July 1, identifying short-term as well as long-range projects. [.pdf of FY 2013-14 work plan] One high-priority project is the review of A2D2 zoning as directed by the city council, with a deadline of Oct. 1 to deliver recommendations to the council. The primary focus of that directive is the downtown D1-D2 zoning – especially in light of the controversial 413 E. Huron development, which the council recently approved. The plan is to bring in a consultant to manage that zoning review.

    June 18 was the last meeting for planning commissioners Tony Derezinski and Eric Mahler. Mahler has been appointed to the board of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, and attended his first board meeting for that group on June 20, 2013. Commissioners praised the two attorneys, citing their combination of practicality and forward thinking. “I feel like our ballast is leaving,” Bona said.

    Mahler will be replaced by Paras Parekh, who was confirmed by the city council at its May 20, 2013 meeting. Parekh attended the planning commission’s June 18 meeting as an observer, and will be joining the group after July 1. Jeremy Peters has been nominated to replace Derezinski, and is expected to be confirmed by the council on July 1. Peters works in creative licensing and business affairs with Ghostly Songs. [Full Story]

    A2: Venture Capital

    In a guest commentary for The Bridge, Chris Rizik – CEO of Renaissance Venture Capital Fund in Ann Arbor – describes the entrepreneurial and venture funding landscape in Michigan, giving an optimistic outlook. He writes: “Of course, Michigan hasn’t completely turned the corner; it will take years to establish sustained, diversified growth. But it is important to take stock of where we are in the process, and a look at the last five years shows Michigan has come a long way. Young people are flocking to downtown Detroit, Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor. Entrepreneurship is no longer a rarity but something for which hundreds of thousands of us are striving.” [Source]

    Depot & Main

    Depot is closed between Main and Fifth. It’s flooded … not sure what happened.  Fourth is closed at Summit as well I’m completely trapped.

    Braun Court

    Celebration on Braun court. Speakers, cheering, hugging and kissing. Lots of politicians but mostly happy people sharing great news. [photo 1] [photo 2]

    Braun Court

    The verdict at Braun Court today is by a far greater majority than the 5-4 SCOTUS decision on DOMA. Gathering at Jim Toy Center to celebrate ruling and to push forward for further change, in Michigan. Group includes a roster of local luminaries.

    Friction Emerges Between Council, Court

    Ann Arbor city council meeting (June 17, 2013): Budget items for the 15th District Court drew more attention than any other single topic, taking up more than an hour of the council’s deliberations. The council also devoted more than a half hour to an item related to a Department of Energy grant that could lead to the installation of a wind generator on the property of Pioneer High School.

    From left: judge Christopher Easthope and 15th District Court administrator Keith Zeisloft.

    From left: 15th District Court judge Christopher Easthope – a former Ann Arbor city councilmember – and 15th District Court administrator Keith Zeisloft at the council’s June 17 meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

    The main court-related item was part of an annual adjustment to the current fiscal year’s budget (FY 2013), which ends on June 30. The adjustment is made on a routine basis in order to bring the budget in line with actual expenditures. The general fund budget adjustment that was eventually approved by the council increased it by $567,000.

    And of that amount, a significant part was attributable to the 15th District Court – including $112,000 in salary increases based on an interest in retaining employees, $203,000 due to a “catch up” payment to the law firm that provides indigent representation, and a back-bill for security from Washtenaw County for two fiscal years for $110,000. None of the salary increases went to judges, whose compensation is set through state statute.

    The council was essentially being asked to approve the accounting adjustment for money that had already been spent this year.

    The city’s budget for the next fiscal year – approved by the council last month, on May 20, 2013 – already incorporated the court workers’ salary increases going forward, and councilmembers had been apprised of the raises before their budget deliberations in May. The council’s deliberations on May 20 had not focused on those raises, but rather on the possibility of reducing the court’s budget in order to fund additional police officers for the city.

    At the June 17 meeting, all three judges of the court plus the court administrator were on hand – as some councilmembers drew out a disagreement regarding how the wage increases should have been approached. At least some councilmembers felt the court should have asked the council before awarding wage increases to its workers.

    Tom Crawford, the city’s chief financial officer, indicated at the meeting that if the council had not approved the budget adjustment for the court, it would likely have generated a note in next year’s audit.

    Other court-related items on the council’s agenda included a new $240,000 annual flat-fee contract with Nassif and Reiser – the firm that provides indigent representation for the court. The council also approved a $160,000 contract with the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office for weapons screening at the Justice Center, the building next to city hall that houses the 15th District Court.

    The council approved two items related to the court’s special Sobriety Court, one of which was a $65,000 grant program contract with the nonprofit Dawn Farm to provide in-patient and out-patient drug abuse counseling to 15th District Court defendants. It was approved over the dissent of Sabra Briere (Ward 1), who objected to the accompanying provision that waived a requirement that Dawn Farm adhere to the city’s living wage ordinance.

    The wind generator item was originally on the consent agenda, but was pulled out for separate consideration. The council had previously voted unanimously at its Jan. 7, 2013 meeting to accept a roughly $950,000 U.S. Department of Energy grant for installation of the wind generator. The council was asked on June 17 to spend about $50,000 of the grant proceeds on an initial environmental assessment, required before the project can move forward. Three councilmembers balked at the request, but the resolution was ultimately approved.

    In business related to revisions of local laws, the council gave final approval to an ordinance change that limits use of fireworks to between the hours of 8 a.m. and midnight. And the council gave final approval to the city’s outdoor sign ordinance that limits the incorporation of digital technology into outdoor signs – in a way that prohibits such use for billboards. However, the council again delayed taking an initial vote on an ordinance that would regulate how local law enforcement officials can use public surveillance cameras. The council did give initial approval to adopt the new fire code into the city’s ordinances.

    In land use and development business, the council approved a revised development agreement for The Varsity. The agreement now incorporates a total of seven monthly parking permits that will be purchased at a premium cost under the city’s contribution in lieu (CIL) program. The council also gave approval to site plans for two projects: the State Street Center and 544 Detroit St. The 544 Detroit St. project included a brownfield plan, which was also approved. Another brownfield plan was on the council’s agenda – related to the Packard Square development on the site of the former Georgetown Mall. That plan had previously been approved, but an additional council vote was needed to change the set of activities that are eligible for reimbursement.

    In connection with government-controlled land, the council approved $382,000 in additional operating support for the Ann Arbor Housing Commission. The council also passed a resolution committing up to $750,000 in general fund money to convert city-owned property at 721 N. Main to a greenway park. However, if the grants that the city expects to be awarded are actually received, none of that $750,000 would need to be spent on the project.

    The council again heard public commentary about a homelessness outreach ministry in one of the city’s established parks – Liberty Plaza in downtown Ann Arbor, at Division and Liberty streets.

    The council also approved revisions to collective bargaining agreements with the six unions in the police department, which gave members a 2% wage increase.

    In a symbolic effort, the council voted to oppose expansion of I-94 in Detroit and I-75 in Oakland County – a proposal that’s part of SEMCOG’s 2040 Regional Transportation Plan with an estimated cost of $4 billion. SEMCOG subsequently adopted the plan.

    The council put off voting on proposed changes to its internal rules, which could result in adding public commentary time at the council’s work sessions, but reducing the time allowed per turn from three minutes to two minutes. The council is expected to vote on the full set of rule changes at its July 1 meeting.

    The proposed changes to the rules would move nominations and confirmation of appointments to a slot near the start of the meeting, instead of its current position near the end. For the June 17 meeting, the council’s confirmations came after midnight – and included reappointment of Bonnie Bona to the planning commission, and LuAnne Bullington to the taxicab board. [Full Story]

    UM: Affirmative Action

    In an op-ed piece published in the New York Times, former University of Michigan president Lee Bollinger weighs in on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling on affirmative action. Bollinger writes: “As a law professor, and as the named defendant in the last two major affirmative action cases decided by the Supreme Court (in my capacity as president of the University of Michigan at the time), in 2003, I breathed a slight sigh of relief on Monday. But I worry that the new ruling will empower lower courts and, no doubt, litigants to challenge benign considerations of race — those that seek to advance legitimate goals of diversity in education — more easily than ever.” [Source]

    First & Washington

    At the railroad underpass, the Neutral Zone mural project is underway. [photo] This was described to the board of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority at its May 1, 2013 meeting by Mary Thiefels, who’s visual arts coordinator at the Neutral Zone.

    A2: Huron River

    Chris Engle, the outdoor columnist for the Gaylord Herald Times, writes about his experiences fishing on the Huron River while in Ann Arbor for his 1-year-old daughter’s heart surgery at Mott Children’s Hospital. In the river he found the bowl of a manmade clay tobacco pipe. Engle writes: “Ann Arbor was founded in 1824, so my pipe may have belonged to one of the area’s first settlers, a clumsy fisherman who probably cursed when he accidentally snuffed his pipe in the river.” [Source]

    A2: Restaurants

    Writing on The Celebrity Cafe, Francis Vachon reviews restaurants in Ann Arbor, Detroit and Hamtramck after a recent trip to Michigan. Ann Arbor eateries included in the report are Seva, the Blue Nile, Amadeus, Frita Batidos, Mark’s Carts, Café Zola and Zingerman’s Deli. Vachon writes: “Walking downtown, I did not see any ‘big chain’ fast food restaurants and only one Starbucks. This is usually a good thing when you are a foodie.” [Source]

    Skatepark, Liberty Plaza Waiver Go to Council

    Ann Arbor park advisory commission meeting (June 18, 2013): Commissioners took action on two major projects in the city’s park system: A new skatepark at Veterans Memorial Park, and efforts to improve downtown’s Liberty Plaza.

    Jen Geer, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

    Jen Geer is the newest member of the Ann Arbor park advisory commission. (Photos by the writer.)

    PAC unanimously recommended approval of a $1,224,311 budget for the Ann Arbor skatepark, including a construction contract of $1,031,592 with Krull Construction of Ann Arbor. Also approved was an operating agreement between the city and the nonprofit Friends of the Ann Arbor Skatepark. [.pdf of operating agreement] The project, which has been years in the works, will move to the city council for final approval, possibly at its July 15 meeting.

    Parks staff and commissioners praised the project, specifically citing the work of the Friends for their tenacity and ability to overcome challenges as the skatepark was developed. Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, noted that people talk a lot about collaboration, but “you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of it than this.”

    If the council approves the contract, construction could start in early August, with completion of the concrete portion of the skatepark by this November – weather permitting.

    Also getting a recommendation of approval from PAC was a proposal to waive park rental fees for Liberty Plaza, a downtown park at the corner of Liberty and Division. The waiver, which requires city council approval, would be enacted on a one-year trial basis through July 1, 2014. It’s intended to help encourage more activity in what’s been described as a problem park. Several supporters of Camp Take Notice and Pizza in the Park – a weekly outreach effort to the homeless – attended the meeting, and advocated for broader fee waivers in other city parks, tied to humanitarian aid.

    Commissioners also heard two presentations during the June 18 meeting. Jenna Bacolor, the director of Ann Arbor Rec & Ed, gave an update on that program, including collaborations with the city parks system. One of those collaborations is tied to the decision by the Ann Arbor Public Schools board to close middle school swimming pools, as part of broad budget cuts. Tim Berla, who serves on PAC as a liaison from the Rec & Ed recreational advisory commission, reported on discussions to explore the possibility of a new recreation millage or an enhancement millage – something that AAPS might consider putting on the ballot.

    A second presentation was from two members of the city’s public art commission, seeking input on proposals for artwork at the East Stadium bridges. John Kotarski and Bob Miller highlighted proposals from four finalists: Rebar Group of San Francisco; Sheila Klein of Bow, Washington; Volkan Alkanoglu, based in Atlanta, Georgia; and Catherine Widgery of Cambridge, Mass. The project has a $400,000 budget and includes the possibility of artwork at Rose White Park, located east of the bridges.

    In items of communication, PAC chair Julie Grand noted that parks and recreation manager Colin Smith had been named Do-Gooder of the Year in Current magazine’s 2013 Readers Choice Awards. He received a round of applause from commissioners.

    It was the first meeting for PAC’s newest commissioner Jen Geer, whose appointment was confirmed by the city council on May 20, 2013 to replace Tim Doyle. Geer, a Burns Park resident, is the daughter of Kirk Profit, a lobbyist for the city with the Lansing firm Governmental Consultant Services Inc. (GCSI). She is married to Christopher Geer, who serves on the Ann Arbor housing commission board. [Full Story]

    Main & Liberty

    Three musicians playing bluegrass and gospel, giving an amazing performance and working up a sweat on this sultry night. [photo]

    Main & Washington

    Southeast corner “art” bicycle rack has zip-tied sign: “Scheduled for removal.” [photo] A short poem in honor of this metal ring’s relatively brief service to our cycling community:  Removal leaves us broken-hearted; in the end t’was over-arted.