Six candidates for Ann Arbor City Council and two candidates for mayor participated in a forum Thursday afternoon at the Ford School of Public Policy to discuss issues relevant to the primary election in August. More than 50 students and community members attended the forum, hosted by the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy and moderated by members of a Public Policy class on local government taught by former Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje.
Among other things, the candidates discussed mental health resources, transit, protections for undocumented immigrants and policing. The controversy over the city's possible repurchase of the Y Lot made its way into the conversation more than once, with candidates calling into question each other’s' motives and the degree to which they were influenced by campaign contributions.
The mayoral candidates present were Councilmember Jack Eaton, D-Ward 4, and incumbent Mayor Chris Taylor. Other present incumbent councilmembers included Kirk Westphal, D-Ward 2; Julie Grand, D-Ward 3; Graydon Krapohl, D-Ward 4; and Chuck Warpehoski, D-Ward 5. Joseph Hood, who is running for Council in Ward 4, and Ali Ramlawi, who is running for Council in Ward 5, also attended.
When asked about the influence of campaign contributions on decision making, the conversation quickly turned to the issue of the Y Lot. In 2013, the city sold the former site of the YMCA on Fifth Avenue to real estate developer Dennis Dahlmann. Stipulations in the contract stated if Dahlmann had not adequately developed the property for use within five years, the city had the option of repurchasing the property. Now five years later, the property has undergone no development while appreciating significantly in value, and several councilmembers have moved to repurchase it.
After failing to amass the eight votes required for repurchase in their April 2 meeting, the council will vote again on the issue Monday. Several councilmembers in favor of the repurchase have accused Eaton of being influenced by Dahlmann’s campaign contributions after Easton voted against the repurchase. At the forum, Eaton said he had been criticized for accepting contributions from Dahlmann before, though the nature of the criticism was inconsistent.
“I would point out that when Dennis Dahlmann submitted the highest bid to purchase this property and some of us voted to accept the high bid, we were criticized for that vote because we had received contributions in the past from him,” he said. “So apparently anything that we do with regard to Mr. Dahlmann is subject to criticism, even if it makes complete rational sense.”
Eaton went on to point out the city had made previous attempts to develop the property with a separate developer, and when that deal fell through the developer sued the city, restricting any development on the property for the five-year duration of the lawsuit. Eaton said he voted against the repurchase to avoid lengthy litigation and instead come to a settlement with Dahlmann.
“We prevailed without any qualification, but it still took this property out of development for five years,” Eaton said. “Here we are again facing litigation that's likely to take multiple years, and nothing will happen during that litigation, so I believe that we should be trying to work with that developer to come to a reasonable settlement rather than tying up this property and making it inactive for another two or more years.”
Grand, who voted for the repurchase, said Eaton was making the issue more complicated than it really was.
“In the past few weeks, there have been those who brought up history and they're trying to make it seem more complicated than it is, and we have talked about a lot of complicated issues today. Transit, affordable housing — those are complicated issues,” she said. “This is a contract. This is a very simple contract that says, ’If you don't do what you said you were going to do, we get to buy it back.’ And that's what we're trying to do.”
Ramlawi said the focus on Eaton was unfair, pointing out campaign contributions from people whose business dealings were affected by council decisions were relatively common.
“I think it's unfair right now to be leveling that question at people who oppose the repurchase of the Y Lot right now because people have taken money from all sorts of people, and I think if you look at all these votes and look at who voted and who paid and contributed, I think it's going to be really ugly and I don't think it's good for our body to be slinging mud,” he said.
Taylor said donations “are a necessary part of a campaign,” but “they don't form the basis of the decisions that we make or the positions that we take.”
“We each, I think, come to the council table with our own inherent views of how the city should be, our own desire to listen to our constituents and have that inform how we move forward,” he said.
The topic of police reform — the city recently approved a task force to provide recommendations to the council on the formation of a police review board — was also discussed by the mayoral candidates. Taylor said the process was “a place for members of the community and members of the police department to work together to understand what sort of policing we want in the city of Ann Arbor.”
“I expect them (the policing commission), importantly, to communicate to the chief, to communicate to (the) council and the public their assessment,” Taylor said. "Has the police department done a good job in reviewing our complaints?”
Eaton was more insistent on the process being independent of AAPD influence. The city’s hiring of an outside firm to audit the AAPD last summer frustrated many residents, who argued the review did not adequately seek input from marginalized community members. The firm's controversial final recommendation suggested the police review board should not be able to conduct its own investigations.
“You cannot have police officers reviewing their own conduct. A review process has to be fully empowered — you can't hobble the process by not giving full access, information, witnesses and videotape, whatever it be, to this group,” Eaton said. "I think that the basic distinction between camps on this particular issue is just how fully authorized and independent the final review board will be. My work with Transforming Justice Washtenaw has led me to believe that anything less than full authorization is just an action for appearances and not for actual change.”
Mayoral primaries will take place in August, with elections set for this November.