After 14 years, Hieftje leaves lasting legacy on city policies

By Emma Kerr, Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 16, 2014

Today will mark the first Ann Arbor City Council meeting in 14 years to be presided over by someone other than John Hieftje. As the final term of Ann Arbor’s longest-standing mayor came to an end last week, a new chapter begins for the city with the succession of Mayor Christopher Taylor.

Taylor, who ran on a platform of continuing in the direction Hieftje established during his time as mayor, garnered 84 percent of the vote in the general election earlier this month. His ties to Hieftje have been strong over the years, and during the past three years, Hieftje and Taylor were in agreement on approximately 84 percent of votes taken since 2012. It is likely Taylor’s stances on key issues such as University-city relations, development and infrastructure will echo those of Hieftje.

Some of the more controversial topics from 2014 include Hieftje and Taylor’s support of SPARK, a city-funded organization that aims to increase economic development in Ann Arbor; their decision to support the building plan of 413 E. Huron, a controversial development decision made this year; and their decision to vote against amending the city’s crosswalk ordinance, another key issue that will return to the Council under the sponsorship of Councilmember Steve Kunselman (D–Ward 3).

Despite the shift in leadership and the addition of three new faces to the Council, Hieftje said he believes Taylor’s transition to the mayoral office will be a smooth one, adding that he is very optimistic about the direction the city is headed in.

“I think the city is in very good shape,” Hieftje said. “I wouldn’t want to trade budgets with any other city.”

“Our pension funds and our retirement funds have both gotten high grades from our auditors, and the city has very good job growth, which we found out during the recession,” he added. “We had the lowest unemployment in the state so the city appears to me to be in pretty good shape.”

Hieftje said though the University and city have had their disagreements, their relationship has continued to improve over the years and city officials have been able to communicate and work well with University officials about issues as they arise.

“We don’t like it when the University takes property off of the tax rolls, we don’t like it when they put up a giant electronic billboard outside of the stadium, the city doesn’t allow those to be built in the city limits but the University, of course, is above that,” Hieftje said. “But what people don’t understand is that there are many, many more areas where the city and the University really do cooperate.”

When Hieftje ran for mayor in 2000, he was serving in his first term as a councilmember. Relatively new to Council, Hieftje held his seat as mayor for seven terms — longer than any mayor has served in Ann Arbor’s history. He said his decision to continue running for re-election stemmed from his desire to see the initiatives he began through to completion, particularly in light of the 2008 recession.

“I turned out to be the longest-serving mayor and I hadn’t planned on that at all, but I think my time as mayor was lengthened by the recession,” Hieftje said. “I wanted to make sure the city got through the recession, and I also wanted to be there to make sure our new city administrator Steve Powers got off to a good solid start.”

Hieftje said though he ran for mayor with significant environmental goals, he was met with unexpected realities during his time serving as mayor. And although his hopes for the city’s future are high, he cautions councilmembers and Taylor to make adequate preparations for the worst.

“I learned that you’ve got to follow through with the environmental stuff, and I have and the city has, but you also need to be prepared for hard times economically, and I think that was the lesson of the 2000s,” Hieftje said. “The city has to remain prepared for hard times economically.”

Early in his time as mayor, Hieftje focused on reducing the size of the city’s bureaucracy — a decision he said he has been grateful for in recent years. Hieftje said following the recession, Ann Arbor lost its largest single taxpayer when the University took over what was once the Pfizer property near North Campus. He added that with the rising costs of health care, looking for ways to save money and have a balanced budget is key for the success of the city.

Hieftje said he will be seeking environmental projects in the coming year, doing consulting work and teaching a course on local governments at the Ford School of Public Policy.

“Students who are interested in getting into politics at any level should recognize the fact that a lot of people who are in politics got their start in local government,” Hieftje said. “I believe people can influence the government much more at the local level.”