The Ann Arbor City Council met for the first time in 2020 on Monday night to discuss a federal lawsuit filed over anti-Israel protests at Beth Israel Congregation and increasing regulations for short-term rental properties.
Anti-Israel protester Henry Herskovitz spoke during public comment about the political demonstrations. Herskovitz, who leads the groups Deir Yassin Remembered and Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends, is listed as a defendant on a recent lawsuit filed by a member of Beth Israel Congregation. The lawsuit claims the protest group led by Herskovitz use hateful, anti-Semitic speech.
The lawsuit also lists the city as a defendant for letting the protests continue over the past 16 years.
Herskovitz explained why his group chose to protest in front of Beth Israel Congregation, citing it as both a house of worship and a political institution.
“We noted that Beth Israel flies a foreign flag in its sanctuary, that the congregation recites a prayer for the state of Israel every week, that many congregants wave Israeli flags as they drive into the parking lot and that some even sport Jewish-Israeli license plates,” Herskovitz said.
Councilmember Zachary Ackerman, D-Ward 3, responded to Herskovitz’s comments, calling him racist and anti-Semitic. Ackerman said he grew up as a member of Beth Israel Congregation and later said Ackerman’s comments were of his own opinion.
“Anti-Semitism in modern America looks exactly like Mr. Herskovitz,” Ackerman said. “Anti-Semitism in modern America looks like embedding distrust in your neighbors. I’m accusing Mr. Herskovitz of being an anti-Semite and using his platform of protesting a house of worship for the last 16 years as racist and anti-Semitic, and I think it’s important to call out.”
Later in the meeting, councilmembers discussed implementing a revised solid waste management plan. The outlined plan advised the City on how to keep its solid waste, recycling and compost/organics management programs financially responsible and sustainable. Councilmember Jack Eaton, D-Ward 4, said he would like to refer the plan back to city staff and table the resolution.
“Rather than being a planning document, it’s really just a list of to-do items that we can do without a plan,” Eaton said. “This really falls short in a variety of ways.”
Councilmember Jeff Hayner, D-Ward 1, agreed with Eaton, saying the revised plan did not support Ann Arbor’s goals for combating climate change.
“Zero waste is you don’t generate any waste, or you generate as little waste as possible and what waste has to be generated is then dealt with in an ecologically appropriate manner,” Hayner said. “I really want the best deal for the community and the environment, with our climate action goals, so I will happily support tabling this.”
Councilmember Jane Lumm, I-Ward 2, disagreed with Eaton and Hayner and said the plan was comprehensive and logical, adding that it would generate savings for taxpayers.
“In all my years I can say, unequivocally, this is the most thorough, well-researched, documented, data-driven report I have ever seen the city produce,” Lumm said. “It is exceptional.”
The council voted in favor of tabling the resolution, moving on to discuss a resolution that would implement more restrictions on short-term rental properties in Ann Arbor.
Councilmember Kathy Griswold, D-Ward 2, said she thought the city had waited too long to address the regulation of short-term rentals.
“We need to balance the needs of the neighborhoods, but I still think that there needs to be some type of grandfathering in of the existing short-term rentals,” Griswold said.
While Councilmember Ali Ramlawi, D-Ward 5, said he hopes City Council can find common ground on this issue so companies such as Airbnb can still operate in Ann Arbor, he said having short-term rentals often negatively impacts the community.
“I have an issue when you set up a business in an area that’s not zoned for business,” Ramlawi said. “We can extrapolate for quite some time what that means, but these single-family zoning areas of our community were not intended for this type of new phenomenon.”
Councilmember Julie Grand, D-Ward 3, said she saw both sides of the issue but supports moving forward with regulating short-term rentals.
“I do think there are providers of short-term rentals that provide services that are of value to people who are visiting our community,” Grand said. “I’m just not sure when I weigh the pros and cons that the value to those individuals overrides the value of a family being able to live in a house or someone not living next to a commercial enterprise.”
Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor said he supported the resolution, noting neighborhoods with homes used for short-term rentals often lose their sense of community.
“There’s incomplete data as to safety, there are incomplete data as to the effect on pricing, but I think that the absence of community is unanswerable and for me is of particular importance.”
The council voted to approve the resolution. Additionally, councilmembers voted to add a full-time lieutenant position to the Ann Arbor Police Department to audit and review reports and video footage. They also approved annexing parcels of Ann Arbor Township and Pittsfield Township.
Local environmental toxicologist Mozhgan Savabieasfahani spoke during public comment. At the last City Council meeting, Savabieasfahani announced her candidacy for the Ward 4 seat in 2020, where she will be running against Eaton and Ann Arbor resident Jen Eyer, a former journalist for MLive and the Ann Arbor News. Last week, Savabieasfahani said her platform would be focused on advocating for the immediate cleanup of the Gelman Dioxane plume and PFAS contamination in Ann Arbor.
Savabieasfahani said she did not support putting the site of the Gelman Dioxane plume on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list as a Superfund site.
“It takes up to 30 years for sites that are already on the EPA list to be cleaned up,” Savabieasfahani said. “If we want to go that route it’s basically just being forced to wait for a really long time if it comes to be clean.”