For City Hall and the Ann Arbor City Council, the past year has been one of major changes — from an influx of new faces on city staff to an unprecedented decision to hire sharpshooters to reduce Ann Arbor’s deer population. As the year wraps up, The Michigan Daily is reviewing City Council’s major challenges and successes throughout 2015, and what the year’s progress, or lack thereof, will mean for the year ahead.
City staffing changes
In 2015, the city of Ann Arbor lost upward of five key city leaders. Among these were the police chief, the city administrator, the city fire chief, the city community services area administrator and the city planning manager.
A challenge for the city in the coming months will be finding the resources and staff to accommodate council’s needs. According to Councilmember Zach Ackerman (D–Ward 3), an LSA senior, council will need to slow down with policy change in the beginning of 2016.
“We have a leadership vacuum in City Hall, five of them are senior positions that all left the city within a year,” Ackerman said. “The responsible thing is to slow down policy wise and make sure that we have the key players we need to make sure that what we want to implement can be implemented.”
Chuck Warpehoski (D–Ward 5) also said the openings will slow down Ann Arbor for a while.
“There’s a lot of vacancies at the top of the organization and the organization is tight on staff to begin with, so managing all of that is going to be difficult,” he said. “We all have to reel in our expectations a bit about what we can do as a staff and what we have the resources for.”
The search for a new city administrator is an extensive process that could take up to three months. The administration committee, with the help of a search firm, will narrow down the potential applicants for the post. After finalists are selected, a series of public interviews and forums will be held before a recommendation is made to City Council.
Tom Crawford, Ann Arbor’s chief financial officer, is serving as interim city administrator.
Ackerman said it will be crucial in the coming months to find suitable replacements for these key positions.
“We will need to hire a terrific city administrator who can oversee the whole operation, hire a strong community service administrator who can improve those customer service aspects of City Hall,” Ackerman said. “Then, make sure we have a good building manager and planning manager to make sure that any development that does go forward is attractive and safe.”
In November, council unanimously approved City Administrator Steve Powers’ recommendation to appoint James White as Ann Arbor police chief. Currently an assistant police chief with the Detroit Police Department, White begin his new position in Ann Arbor on Jan. 11, 2016.
The year started with continued protest against police brutality in light of the death of Ann Arbor resident Aura Rosser, who was shot by an Ann Arbor police officer last November.
In late January, the Washtenaw Prosecutor’s Office concluded Ann Arbor Police Officer David Ried would not face criminal charges for the fatal shooting.
Following the ruling, protesters gathered outside City Hall to protest the decision. Protesters filled downtown streets, disrupting traffic and shouted chants including “Black Lives Matter.”
Late December 2014, council voted to appropriate $173,760 to upgrade the police in-car cameras and body cameras. However, in 2015, discussion continued surrounding the use of cameras, as many activists say that policy does not go far enough. Austin McCoy, a Rackham student with the grassroots activist organization Ann Arbor to Ferguson, said he has seen no evidence of progress from the police.
“We don’t know if the police are using them yet, we don’t know if the police is undergoing diversity training,” McCoy said. “We just know that it was announced a long time ago.”
Ann Arbor to Ferguson was created after Rosser’s death, aiming to fight for justice of Rosser’s death in the spirit of the protests in Ferguson, Mo., where a Black man was shot by police in 2014.
City Council’s Human Rights Commission announced in January it would explore the creation of a Civilian Police Oversight Board to review police conduct. In September, Council unanimously approved a proposal to grant the Human Rights Commission the authority to review individual discrimination complaints brought forth by residents. As of now, there is no explicit Civilian Oversight Board.
A question for many, like McCoy, is how City Council will address police-community interaction in the coming year, especially with the new Police Chief James White. McCoy said it’s been difficult for the Ann Arbor to Ferguson group to hold conversations in Ann Arbor about these issues.
“In terms of Aura Rosser’s killing specifically, folks have been able to rationalize it,” McCoy said. “They say there’s only been one shooting in the last 30 years, this was a mistake. Ann Arbor is typically seen as a progressive, small city. Then it’s like, with all these sorts of discourses around the city circulating, raising the issue becomes a little tough. There are people who just believe that this is an anomaly and that there’s not really a problem.”
McCoy said he hopes that White will enter his role with context of the Rosser shooting in mind.
“We would hope from any new police chief here would first be an acknowledgement of what happened last year with Aura Rosser and the shooting,” McCoy said. “We also want to see that the police chief has done some studies on police-community relations, especially as it pertains to people of color in this city.”
Among questions from those like McCoy, several council members said they believe White is well positioned for the job.
“Chief White has experience working with a civilian review board in Detroit, so I think he’ll be very useful to help us navigate that process,” Warpehoski said.
“Moving forward, we need to work so that we have a very comprehensive look at race and policing, and really incorporating a commitment to that into our training and processes and programs,” Warpehoski said.
Councilmember Chip Smith (D–Ward 5) said he is confident in White’s ability to take on the role of police chief.
“The new chief was selected largely because he’s been a leader in the police community interactions in Detroit,” Smith said. “They were fraught with a lot more issues than we were. I’m really excited to see the new ideas he brings in and I do think there will be a considerable push to have the police be more a part of our community.”
Pedestrian safety and transportation
In early 2014, City Council designated a citizen-led task force, dubbed the Pedestrian Safety and Access Task Force, to research and produce recommendations to City Council in regard to pedestrian and cyclist safety in the city.
In August 2015, the task force released a 59-page report, detailing the causes of accidents involving pedestrians in Ann Arbor. The report also provided dozens of recommendations and suggestions regarding crosswalks, sidewalks and roads.
In September, the task force presented the report and its findings to the council in a work session. They unveiled Vision Zero — an initiative that strives to eliminate fatalities or serious injuries to pedestrians.
The study found that crashes involving pedestrians only represented about 16 percent of all crashes in Ann Arbor. However, pedestrians account for one-third of the fatalities and one-fourth of all serious crash-related injuries. It also noted a 22-percent increase of pedestrian crashes per year over the five-year period 2010-2014.
In an October meeting, the council voted to adopt the Vision Zero initiative and made it an official city goal to have zero traffic-related fatalities by 2025.
Despite the adoption of Vision Zero, Smith said there is a long way to go before he will be satisfied with pedestrian safety in the city. He said City Council needs to reevaluate how they are budgeting for pedestrian safety.
“We allocated $115,000 to implement the recommendations of the Pedestrian Safety Task Force,” Smith said. “That’s the cost of one rectangular flashing beacon. This doesn’t reflect what people want here.”
Smith said he hopes that council will continue to work on improving these issues through 2016.
“We’ve had two cyclist deaths in the last month,” Smith said. “You never want tragedy to define policy solutions that your city develops. However, what these two tragedies say to me is that we have a need in Ann Arbor for non-motorized infrastructure. As we look forward to how do we create better conditions for walkers and bikers, we have to be able to fund those infrastructure ordinances.”
Winter is looking dreary for the deer population of Ann Arbor. Council voted in September to implement a deer management program. Then, in November, the council agreed to hire sharpshooters to carry out a deer cull. The cull — or selective reduction of wild animals — was implemented in hopes of controlling the deer population in Ann Arbor. The cull is set to begin in January 2016. Whether deer will be killed on campus property remains unclear.
Surprisingly to many council members, the cull received significant uproar in the community. At an early November council meeting, roughly 200 people filled the council chambers to provide input on the cull.
Ann Arbor resident Sabra Sanzotta also decided to take matters into her own hands. Last Monday, she filed a petition to recall Councilmember Kirk Westphal (D–Ward 2) due to his vote in support of the plan.
If the petition receives 1,791 signatures from registered 2nd Ward voters, this would force a special May runoff election ahead of the August primary.
Westphal is not the only council member to have faced protests. Warpehoski expressed concerns about the protests at an October council meeting, citing that a Facebook friend of his had threatened to hold an open-carry protest outside council members’ houses.
“I’m still trying to decide if I have to have that conversation with my 5 year old about what to do if the people with guns come to our house,” Warpehoski said at the time.
He said the deer cull has been a significant challenge for the council in the past year.
“The deer cull has been the most controversial issue we have faced this year,” Warpehoski told the Daily.
Many community members felt that the cull was a violent solution or that the deer population did not pose a threat to the community. However, not everyone was against the cull; some residents attended the November council meeting to express their support.
Council will continue to see the effects of the cull into the coming year and re-evaluate how to further address the influx deer population in Ann Arbor.
Smith said he hopes Ann Arbor will begin to address different issues in 2016 and move on from the deer cull.
“It disappoints me as a resident of this community, that if you were to ask me what the biggest story of 2015 was, it would be the deer cull,” Smith said. “We have so many other issues: pedestrian and bicycle safety, the ongoing discussion of police community relationships, several high level city people at the city leaving. People are going to look back at 2015 as the year that the deer debate dominated everything.”
Housing affordability in Ann Arbor has also been a hot topict this year. Throughout the year, several different housing plans have come forward for debate..
In January, council began discussing accessory dwelling units. Accessory dwelling units are located within a home’s interior or serve as a new addition to a home. The council began to discuss loosening the city restrictions on accessory dwelling units to allow for more of them.
In February, council approved a new set of affordable housing goals, committing the city to work with other partners in creating nearly 2,800 affordable housing units by 2035.
In August, council voted to amend the 2015-16 budget to provide additional funds for affordable housing in Ann Arbor. They allocated an additional $450,000 toward improving and expanding the supply of affordable housing in the city. This gave the Ann Arbor Housing Commission money to use toward the demolition and redevelopment for 64 new apartments.
In other development-related decisions, council considered several other housing projects and re-zoning ordinances. Among the largely discussed were the properties on State Street south of the Stadium Boulevard bridges, which received final approval at a September meeting. The new apartments will offer affordable rates to households earning 60 percent or less of the area median income. Tenants will pay rents equal to 30 percent of their income.
In 2016, council will continue working toward the goal of making rent in Ann Arbor cheaper. Smith said he hopes affordable housing will be a top priority for council in the coming year.
“Our budgeting process needs to be improved and it needs to be reflective of what our priorities are,” he said. “It’s a wants versus needs; we need affordable housing in order to be a sustainable community.”
Warpehoski said though council has made some large steps in 2015, there’s more work to come to ensure housing affordability in the city.
“We are in the process of moving forward on some things that will be very positive, but we’re not quite there yet,” he said. “We’re trying to move forward this effort on accessory dwelling to address some affordability issues. When that gets through, which we set up in this last year, I think that will be a very big deal helping people find affordable housing in the city.”
Smith said that finding the resources and allocations to achieve the 20-year goal will be difficult.
“For us, nearly 3,000 units doesn’t sound like that much, but when we’re barely doing 20 units a year, it’s a big deal,” he said. “We need to find interested partners and put our money where our mouth is.”
Timeliness of council meetings
Council meetings are known for running late into the night, keeping city staff and council members in council chambers into early Tuesday morning. Though no significant changes will be made to the agenda format in the coming year, a few changes are under consideration.
Warpehoski and Councilmember Julie Grand (D–Ward 3) proposed a change to the council’s set of rules. A section of the agenda, new business, usually consists of a non-contested itinerary of resolutions proposed by city staff. Typically, items of new business concerning staff are voted 11-0 with little discussion. Grand and Warpehoski said they wanted to move the section to the beginning in sake of the city staff’s time.
“By putting them at the end of the meeting, staff or people that have something to do with that resolution are sometimes there until 11 p.m., midnight, 1 a.m. in the morning to be ready to answer questions about an agenda item that we don’t even talk about at the end,” Warpehoski said.
The council approved the new set of rules on Monday in a unanimous vote. New business will now come before consent agenda and ordinance readings. City staff involved in the ordinances would then be able to leave after their responsibilities were fulfilled.
“We weren’t running meetings in a way that is optimal to staff,” Grand said. “We almost uniformly vote on (staff-related proposals) unanimously, with little or no discussion. Staff has been staying until the end of our meetings, which often go until very late into the night, instead of being home with their families, or doing just about anything else.”
Some City Council members feel that council meetings could improve in efficiency. Ackerman, who started as a council member in November, said he felt that council had not been working efficiently as a team in the past year.
“As a body, they weren’t working collaboratively enough,” Ackerman said. “There has to be a basic understanding that we all want to see a healthy and vibrant Ann Arbor. The approaches might be different, but at the end of the day we should be operating in mutual respect and collaboration.”
He said council could improve its efficiency by thinking of the common interest, as well as fully developing ideas before announcing them.
“A lot of council members, while I appreciate that they are bringing ideas to the table because that’s exactly what they were elected to do, bring ideas to the table that aren’t fully developed,” Ackerman said. “It prolongs council meetings and takes away from issues that are more developed and would improve the quality of life of residents.”
Smith expressed similar sentiments, noting that council should do a better job following the rules in the coming year. He added that postponement shouldn’t just be a way of dealing with difficult issues.
“We can’t look at council meetings as a way to delay things that we don’t like, and I think that that’s become a strategy over time,” Smith said.
To fix these problems of efficiency and timeliness, both Smith and Ackerman said they believe the council needs to work together on these issues.
“Accountability starts with trusting one another,” Smith said. “It’s really important to have good relationships with each other and trust each other. I don’t know that we’ve been able to build those relationships yet, and I think that we need to spend a lot of time and effort and energy doing that over the next month. As we work over the next year and two years, we can trust each other and know that it’s OK to disagree.”