Editor’s Note: The print edition of this article referred innacurately referred to Leeser and Warpehoski as residing in Ward 3. The two candidates are Ward 5 residents.
Kevin Leeser, a nurse at the University of Michigan Health System, hopes his bid to unseat incumbent City Councilmember Chuck Warpehoski (D–Ward 5) can shift the state of affairs in city government to be more receptive to the needs of constituents.
As a new father, Leeser says he saw the traffic layout around his neighborhood to be a hazard to his children, as did many of his neighbors. However, when he pushed to lower the speed limit of his residential streets to 25 mph several years ago — among other improvements to pedestrian safety — Leeser said city government was too slow to address the issue.
“Being a nurse, I see the actual ramifications of these accidents that were happening,” Leeser said, noting there were three deaths in Ann Arbor from pedestrian accidents in 2015. “If (the public) could see how serious some of these accidents are … it’s head injuries, lifelong injuries. To me, it’s a public health issue.”
Leeser says this is a broader reflection of citizen disengagement from City Council, which drove him to unsuccessfully mount a write-in challenge against Warpehoski’s Ward 3 colleague Chip Smith (D) in 2015.
“You can sit there and go to City Council meetings and pour your heart out, and City Council can just go, ‘yup, thank you,’ and then vote against you,” Leeser said, referring specifically to how the council brushed aside vocal opposition to the Ann Arbor deer cull from residents, though city surveys have indicated the majority of the city continues to support lethal culls.
The incumbent Warpehoski — who is the director of the local Interfaith Council for Peace & Justice — held his City Council seat since 2012 and disagrees with Leeser’s assessment of city affairs. While he acknowledges Leeser holds positions aligned with many locals, Warpehoski argues he pragmatically accounts for both his constituents’ needs and the opinions of experts.
“The role of elected officials is to listen to everybody, the constituents as well as the subject matter experts — the traffic engineers, the attorney — taking all of that in and making the best decision for the good of the community,” Warpehoski said. “It’s not always governing by the poll numbers. It’s not about doing whatever the experts say; it’s about bringing that all together into a holistic approach to public service.”
While Leeser has been outspoken in arguing the Ann Arbor deer cull has been a waste of city resources, Warpehoski maintains the opinion of expert ecologists in his support for a continued lethal cull. Leeser supports immediate action to petition for EPA intervention on the Gelman dioxane plume — a widely debated city issue — while Warpehoski insists city and county authorities pursue the federal option only if it can be better handled by federal authorities than by Michigan’s environmental regulators.
Furthermore, Warpehoski argues that although Leeser’s complaints about pedestrian safety — by far his signature issue — are valid, many of his suggestions have already been deemed infeasible by the city’s engineers. Nonetheless, Warpehoski also acknowledges the importance of commuter safety for pedestrians and bicyclists.
“My opponent has a very legitimate concern about traffic speeds in his neighborhood,” Warpehoski said. “But when the traffic engineers have said … what he’s asking for isn’t something they can comply with, he hasn’t accepted that answer.”
“There’s not a press release that goes out every time we expand a bike lane or every time we change the crosswalk signals so pedestrians get the priority over cars or whenever we put in an enhanced crosswalk to make it safer for people to cross the street,” Warpehoski said, emphasizing he has pushed for improved constituent service during his tenure on the council. “That stuff happens every day and it’s just what our staff does. They don’t draw attention to it … the good work they’re doing isn’t celebrated, but when something goes wrong, they’re held out to dry for it.”
Further illustrating the divide between Leeser’s populism and Warpehoski’s pragmatism is the issue of downtown development. Leeser maintains that the construction of high-rise student housing has degraded downtown Ann Arbor, is economically unsustainable and is opposed by the majority of Ann Arborites.
“There’s this sort of underhanded disdain for U-M because they sort of run the show,” Leeser said. “People are graduating with six figure loans … there’s going to be a bubble with that and then we’re going to be stuck with buildings that are quickly built with crappy finishes on them. We need to have affordable housing for workforce, but we don’t have to do it in the next year; let’s just build some stuff that has some class to it, that we’re not going to be embarrassed by in 20 years.”
Warpehoski, however, argues Leeser is not speaking for the majority of city residents who support expanded downtown development.
“If you listen to the voices that have been the loudest you’ll get the impression that everybody’s against new development,” Warpehoski said. “But we did … a scientifically sound statistical survey of our residents a year ago and the majority of respondents supported the new development. There’s this dynamic where some people who already agree with them — or just the loudest voices — and you get a distorted view of reality.”
While less outspoken than Leeser, Warpehoski is not without issues that are personally close to him. Noting he originally chose to enter city government four years ago to advocate for the issues he works on in his day job, Warpehoski has long been an advocate on the expansion of affordable housing and police oversight.
“I’ve been involved in these issues from the outside … so when the vacancy emerged on City Council (in 2012) it was a chance to get a more hands-on way to address those,” Warpehoski said, emphasizing that he believes developers should be pushed to expand the local housing supply to help lower-income workers and that low-income housing subsidies may also be necessary.
Nonetheless, as the third Ward’s voters head to the polls next Tuesday, Leeser said he senses an underlying discontent in local voters that he hopes to tap into and address from Warpehoski’s council seat.
“When I talk to people door-to-door, there’s just this general disdain for what’s happening with City Council,” Leeser said. “One guy was going off, ‘Whoa! City Council’s screwed man!’ … That’s exactly why I want to be in city government; I want to change the culture.”
Profile of Ward 1 race can be found here.
Profile of Ward 4 race can be found here.