City Councilmember Sumi Kailasapathy (D–Ward 1) faces two different challengers — Jason Frenzel and Will Leaf — in next week’s Democratic primary for City Council elections.
Incumbent Kailasapathy is a fiscally conservative pragmatist who has held her City Council seat since 2012. A child of Sri Lankan academics, Kailasapathy came to the United States to attend college and is currently an accountant at Edwards, Ellis, Armstrong & Company, P.C., an accounting firm based in downtown Ann Arbor.
As a candidate with a financial background, Kailasapathy said there are low-hanging fruits when it comes to increasing revenue and cutting costs in city government. She named revisiting the tax capture policies of the Downtown Development Authority and the Local Development Funding Authority to make their revenue cap $4 million instead of the current $6 million as one way to increase revenue.
In a July 12 televised candidate forum, she pointed out that revenue for these entities increased by 50 percent over the last four years, advocating and redirecting that income to city funds. She says there are challenges, however.
“I think a lot of council members feel indebted to the DDA members because a lot of them support the candidates who are running for City Council and they really don’t want to step on their toes,” Kailasapathy said in an interview with the Daily. “Anything to do with the DDA, council members are very hesitant to take action even though there was all this extra money this year that was beyond projection.”
This commitment to fighting existing structures was showcased in the televised forum when the candidates were discussing the portions of emails regarding the construction of a planned Amtrak station redacted by city staff members in June.
City Council candidate Jason Frenzel said that, though he supported maximum transparency, he felt there was a justified reason for city staff in withholding information.
“I think in (the e-mail) conversation we need to realize what’s the situation,” Frenzel said. “We don’t as a public understand what that conversation is and what it was, why it was redacted. In my honest opinion, I know our staff to be strong, professional leaders in their industry … and I think challenging our staff in a public forum isn’t necessarily a valid way for an organization to behave.”
Kailasapathy quickly pounced on Frenzel’s ambiguity, stating that she supports a Freedom of Information Act request concerning the redacted portions, especially because the documents in question do not reveal the location of highly classified government nuclear plants.
“This is not national security issues we’re talking about, spies or spying on other countries,” Kailasapathy said in an interview with the Daily. “This is about that train station, and if you want the train station to serve best for our people’s needs, at every stage it should be transparent.”
Kailasapathy also suggested Frenzel cannot make the necessary reforms for transparency because of his financial and family ties.
“DDA reforms, having oversight, term limits … I doubt Jason Frenzel will be able to do that because I think his backing comes from the DDA and his stepmother (Sandi Smith) was the head of the DDA.”
But Frenzel thinks Kailasapathy is not without fault either. The Volunteer and Stewardship Coordinator of the Huron River Watershed Council said that he has more of an ability to bring people together on issues than Kailasapathy, citing his experience working with many residents through the Homegrown Festival and Local Food Summit, which he co-founded.
“I am a strong collaborator, and my version of reality makes a bigger tent for everyone to be in (than Kailasapathy’s),” Frenzel said in an interview with the Daily. “I strongly believe that, by making a larger pie, we all have more … and leadership needs to foster the ethic of the organization that you want to have.”
Frenzel firmly advocated for getting residents of all backgrounds to join the democratic process and participate in community projects, saying that his collaborative leadership approach will be a valuable asset in such a setting.
This way, he said, Ann Arbor can both increase citizen engagement and save city staff’s time by relegating minor duties to citizens — spending cuts Kailasapathy argues are not necessary —to increase efficiency.
“It is a very simplified version of reality to say: I need a thing, therefore I need someone to do it, therefore I need to pay the person,” Frenzel said. “There’s a series of assumptions that are there that aren’t necessarily true.”
Frenzel’s entire career has been dedicated to the environment, beginning with his degree in Environmental Studies and Sustainability from Michigan State University.
During the televised forum held July 13, Frenzel took a strong stand against the state and the Department of Environmental Quality in dealing with the Gelman dioxane plume. He stated that the only way to solve this crisis is to mobilize citizens against moneyed interests.
“The dioxane plume has been a known issue for 35-plus years. It’s basically a status quo and that’s extremely unfortunate,” Frenzel said. “As an environmentalist, we know that the DEQ has been understaffed and beholden to corporations for a long time. I think we really need to fight hard to ensure that is no longer the case.”
In the same forum, Frenzel urged Ann Arborites to once again embrace their identity of environmental ethics.
“As we see our tax base increasing at this point, we need to honor the ethic of Ann Arborites, the true understanding of who we believe we are,” Frenzel said. “And to me, that means reinstating and promoting our green organizations to make sure we’re pushing forward our environmental ethic, which has in many metrics stagnated.”
Will Leaf, the election’s third candidate, is the co-founder of Neutral Skin and Hair — an online sunscreen company. He is also a native Ann Arborite and has been active in local politics since he was a student at the University of Michigan.
Leaf often takes his own path on issues. While other candidates generally praised the University, Leaf said the city and the University’s relationship should be respectful and cooperative, but the University needs to pay its fair share.
He envisions shifting from a tax-based model to a fee-based model to charge the University so it cannot use its tax-exempt status and the city’s public goods at high volumes for free. He hinted that this may result in an eventual parking fee or a vehicle-access fee.
“There are ways to try to get the University to pay fees for services,” Leaf said. “Because the University is using the city’s roads, they’re putting stress on the city’s roads; they should be paying for some of the costs associated with repairs.”
Leaf’s main platform is his zoning policy, which comes from years of self-education in urban planning. He sees expensive rent prices in the city center as unfair to low and middle-income residents as this pushes them toward the fringes of the city. He therefore advocates for mixed-use zoning.
In this system, the city would rezone strictly commercial and industrial districts into an “internally buffered zone,” where tall commercial buildings will be allowed in the center of a joint commercial-residential area. However, height limits get more stringent near low-rise residential zones.
Leaf argues mixed-use zones can make efficient use of land downtown. He claims they will not only lower rent but also increase the tax base and allow for thriving walkable neighborhoods, thereby reducing traffic and pollution.
“One of the most common requests I hear going door-to-door is that people generally dislike the idea of a 15-story building being next to a single-family home,” Leaf said in an interview with the Daily. “At the same time, you get the benefits of increased density away from residential neighborhoods, and the benefits are more space for people to live and work, which is going to lower rent. And with lower commercial rents, you can have small businesses, you can have more space for middle-class people.”
Other candidates, however, are not too quick to embrace what they consider to be a radical idea. Frenzel said that, though diversifying industry and creating walkable neighborhoods through re-zoning are important, there are ways to achieve the things Leaf wants without a zoning overhaul.
“I like the idea of having walkable neighborhoods, (but) it’s rather hard to change zoning, especially here in Ann Arbor, where we’ve gone through a decades-long process of trying to change zoning,” Frenzel said. “Having a lot of mixed-use … I believe it’s an overstatement.”
However, Kailasapathy shares some common ground with Leaf. She wholly embraces his plan to privatize public parking in Ann Arbor. The two candidates argue the city’s current monopoly on parking results in a loss of $2 million that could be spent elsewhere.
In addition, both Kailasapathy and Leaf favor nonpartisan November elections and maintaining two-year terms, while Frenzel said he wants four years so that council members can mature throughout their time in office.
Kailasapathy said she hopes residents will take note of her work during her term, including the creation of the oversight committee, which she cites as one of their greatest achievements. She says that, though she is a big supporter of the Ann Arbor Police Department, she wants to strengthen democracy in the city and hold police more accountable.
“As I always repeated at City Council, ‘police cannot police themselves,’ she said. “That’s the basic tenet of democracy: It’s that we have checks and balances. You can’t do your exam and tell your teacher, ‘I will review my exam and give myself a grade.’ … That’s what checks and balances is all about.”
She said that fighting through the Amtrak e-mail controversy, regulating the DDA and pushing for the police oversight committee made her more keenly aware of the importance of accountability and that she hopes to continue being an effective council member for the people of the first Ward.
“I think that’s my takeaway from this to make the city more receptive to people’s concerns and also be more transparent to people’s needs,” Kailasapathy said.
Profile of Ward 4 race can be found here.
Profile of Ward 5 race can be found here.