City Council candidates for Wards 4 and 5 participate in virtual forum

Tuesday, April 14, 2020 - 5:17pm

Candidates for Wards 4 and 5 of the Ann Arbor City Council participated in an online forum via BlueJeans Tuesday afternoon.

Candidates for Wards 4 and 5 of the Ann Arbor City Council participated in an online forum via BlueJeans Tuesday afternoon. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Barbara Collins and Allison Engkvist

Candidates for Wards 4 and 5 of the Ann Arbor City Council participated in an online forum via BlueJeans Tuesday afternoon. During the event, students enrolled in Public Policy 456/756 at the University of Michigan asked candidates questions about affordable housing, carbon neutrality and the coronavirus pandemic.

Jack Eaton, D-Ward 4, is running for re-election. Challengers to Eaton include Jen Eyer, a former journalist for MLive and the Ann Arbor News, and Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an environmental toxicologist. Erica Briggs and Dan Michniewicz are running for the Ward 5 seat, which is currently occupied by Chip Smith, D-Ward 5. All candidates participated in the forum.

Jack Eaton, Democrat for Ward 4 

Eaton, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Ann Arbor in 2018, was first elected to the council in 2013 and then re-elected in 2015 and 2017. 

Eaton said he has been working with various local Ann Arbor groups such as the Huron Valley Area Labor Federation and local civil rights groups to further his campaign.

“I believe that residents and voters in Ann Arbor deserve to be listened to and that the duty of an elected official is to weigh all of the diverse opinions that people have and to do the best to address the concerns of everyone, not just their supporters,” Eaton said. “My core issues have always been the environment, labor and employment issues and civil rights.”

Eaton said he supports addressing affordability issues in Ann Arbor. To do so, he said the city must focus on only constructing buildings that are needed and should not support unnecessary housing proposals.

“When we removed all the barriers to development in our downtown area without making any requirements of the developers, what we ended up with was high priced luxury apartments,” Eaton said. “We have since revisited the zoning in those areas and required that tall buildings and dense buildings include some affordable units and some other considerations.”

Jen Eyer, Democrat for Ward 4

Eyer said she has worked with the Michigan Municipal League Foundation for the past year on their SaveMICity campaign. She said the campaign highlights Michigan’s broken system of municipal finance. 

Eyer also said the SaveMICity campaign shines a light on how Proposal A, which addresses how public schools in Michigan are funded, and the Headlee Amendment, which placed limitations on the collection of local taxes among other provisions, have played off of each other.

“Frankly, the state’s lack of sharing revenue with cities, to the extent that they’re supposed to — those things have all combined with Michigan cities being chronically underfunded,” Eyer said. “ … That’s going to get worse in the next year because of the COVID pandemic.”

During the coronavirus pandemic, Eyer said she is connecting with citizens, listening to issues they are facing and trying to find a solution to their problems.

“I was a journalist for many years,” Eyer said. “In that role, it was my job to use technology to reach out to various people’s organizations, different segments of the community and engage them with our reporting and also figure out what the issues were in their lives that we may want to report on.”

Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, Democrat for Ward 4

Savabieasfahani, a contestant speaking at City Council meetings and a participant in anti-Israel protests, said she has heard the council talk about affordable housing for as long as she has lived in Ann Arbor. Despite this ongoing discussion, Savabieasfahani said she does not believe affordable housing exists in the city and supports the implementation of public housing.

“I know public housing to the ear of Americans will sort of bring in mind dilapidated homes with crimes, et cetera, et cetera,” Savabieasfahani said. “But that is basically because the real estate industry has been pushing against public housing and has been very much against it, and that’s the result that you see here. However, public housing is the best way that we can make sure that people have a roof over their heads.”

During the forum, Savabieasfahani placed a large focus on the importance of establishing a minimum wage of $15 per hour. Savabieasfahani said this will help make Ann Arbor a more livable city for its residents.

“I am basically saying we must provide a much better living environment for our low-income population. Otherwise, COVID-19 and many more epidemics that are on the way are going to break our back as they are breaking our backs now,” Savabieasfahani said. “We need to make sure that people who work in this town can get $15 an hour.”

Savabieasfahani also mentioned her platform focuses on making sure Ann Arbor has enough money in its budget to run smoothly.

Erica Briggs, Democrat for Ward 5

Briggs, a walking and cycling advocate in the city, said she supports increased density in places like Ann Arbor. She said more density offers multiple benefits, such as better options for transportation and more housing.

“When you have more people grouped together, you have more services,” Briggs said. “I like the idea of neighborhoods where you can go to the corner grocery, you can go to that, go to a bakery, go to a department store. That’s only enabled by density.”

Throughout her career, Briggs said she has worked almost entirely in transportation. She said investing in alternate modes of transportation will help achieve the city’s goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2030 through the A2Zero plan, which was launched March 30.

Briggs also talked about the coronavirus. She said citizens will be facing financial distress due to the pandemic long after the outbreak dies down.

“Evictions have been put off for now, but I’m really worried for when this stay-at-home order gets lifted. We’ll see hundreds and hundreds of folks evicted across our community,” Briggs said. “I think that’s something that our city council needs to be working on.”

Dan Michniewicz, Democrat for Ward 5

Michniewicz, who is a baker at Zingerman’s Bakehouse, said he is currently furloughed from his job baking bread. He said he has made a living working in restaurants, delis and kitchens since living in Ann Arbor. 

“There’s 84,000 people who commute to Ann Arbor every day, and don’t you think some of them would like to live in Ann Arbor?” Michniewicz said. “And I say to that, well, I work with these people. I organize politically with people of this economic stature. And we can do a better job of advocating for our own interests and advancing our own causes than our current political leadership can.”

Michniewicz said his platform focuses on ecological action and economic inequality. Michniewicz also placed an emphasis on housing in Ann Arbor and making sure that all of the land is used to its full potential.

“I’m going to prioritize the creation of social housing like we see through the Ann Arbor Housing Commission,” Michniewicz said. “I’m somewhat pleased with the route that the current city council is taking by looking at things like surface-level parking lot property that we already own, and figuring out how we can maximize the amount of affordable housing that we put on those lots.”

A forum for candidates from Wards 1, 2 and 3 will be held at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday and will be broadcast on the CTN Network. Elections for city council candidates will be held Aug. 4 along with other statewide races. 

Daily News Editor Barbara Collins can be reached at bcolli@umich.edu. Reporter Brayden Hirsch can be reached at braydenh@umich.edu