City Council candidates debate transparency, water safety and taxes

Wednesday, July 13, 2016 - 10:10pm

Ann Arbor City Council candidates appeared Tuesday evening on a televised forum on pressing local policy issues on the Community Television Network. The forum featured candidates from Wards 1, 4 and 5 on different time slots. Wards 2 and 3 are uncontested this year.

Ward 1

Ward 1 featured incumbent Sumi Kailasapathy (D), Jason Frenzel (D) and Will Leaf (D). Kailasapathy is a certified public accountant at Edwards, Ellis, Armstrong & Co., a downtown accounting firm. Frenzel is the volunteer and stewardship coordinator for the Huron River Watershed Council. Leaf is the co-founder of online sunscreen company Natural Skin and Hair.

During the 45-minute program, the candidates traded opinions on a range of issues including traffic congestion, election reform and balancing the city budget.

A particular topic of contention was a redacted portion of e-mails regarding the construction of a planned Amtrak station.  Frenzel said that, though he supported maximum transparency, he also felt that there was a justified reason for city staff to withhold 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.”

On the contrary, Kailasapathy said she is for greater transparency, especially since the documents in question will not jeopardize national security.  

“We are elected officials; I am not going to put this on the staff,” Kailasapathy said. “As elected officials, we have a duty to our residents to be transparent. And this, we need to remind ourselves, is regarding the location of a train station.”

When asked about how to balance the budget, all three agreed that restructuring current city spending can increase revenue.

Kailasapathy said the city can increase revenue by revisiting the tax capture policies of the Downtown Development Authority and the Local Development Funding Authority. She pointed out that the revenue for these entities increased by 50 percent over the last four years and advocated redirecting that income to city funds.

Leaf argued that rezoning residential areas and allowing for more commercial enterprise can create more urban neighborhoods and increase tax revenues. He also strongly supported privatizing public parking, arguing that the city's current monopoly on parking leads to an unneccessary loss of revenue. 

In a question pertaining to the city's dioxane plume issue, Frenzel strongly criticized the state’s Department of Environmental Quality for its failure to control the spread of the plume. 

“The dioxane plume has been a known issue for 35 plus years,” Frenzel said. “It’s basically a status quo, and that’s extremely unfortunate. 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.”

All agreed that Ann Arbor should look for other funding options when it comes to combating the pollution.

When asked whether he would like nonpartisan elections and increased term limits for City Council, Leaf said he favors nonpartisan November elections because two elections — the primary in August and the general in November — puts an unnecessary burden on voters, citing the 6 percent turnout for Ward 1 in the last election. He also said that maintaining the two-year term limit allows for more pools of candidates.

“Often we have incumbents unopposed right now, and I think we want to have a broad enough base of candidates that we have options,” Leaf said. “And if you make the requirements up to four years, I think you’re going to cut the number of people who are perfectly competent but aren’t ready for a four-year term.”

Frenzel agreed on implementing nonpartisan elections, adding that it can increase student voter turnout. However, he said he prefers four-year terms because it allows councilmembers to mature throughout their terms.

In his closing statement, Frenzel touted environmental ethics for Ann Arbor residents.

“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.”

Leaf continued optimistically, saying that there is a solution for everything in Ann Arbor and that only strong leadership in City Council as a whole can allow for that.

“Whether your problem is that people are speeding in front of your house, or you worry more about much bigger timescale problems … whatever your problem is, there’s a very good chance we can fix it,” Leaf said. “We can get it done.”

Kailasapathy closed by listing her many accomplishments as an incumbent and her plans for the future.

“I have worked with multiple groups dealing with cut-through commuter traffic, excessive street parking and such issues,” Kailasapathy said. “And I will continue to support these types of efforts where residents’ safety and quality of life are being affected.”

Ward 4

Ward 4 candidates Eric Lipson (D), Diane Giannola (D) and incumbent Graydon Krapohl (D) fielded questions on Tuesday in a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters concerning issues including balancing the budget, proposals that would change City Council elections from partisan to nonpartisan voting as well as change terms from two to four years in length, the dioxane plume and council transparency.

The three candidates expressed polar views on certain topics, especially on the issue of a proposed train station project. The primary points of concern were the issue of City Council transparency and the simpler question of station building location. 

Lipson voiced objections to the redaction of information regarding communications between the Federal Railway Administration and city staff about station location. Lipson brought with him to the forum a document that showed near total redaction, using it as an example to describe the current state of City Council transparency as deeply flawed. 

“It is deeply disturbing to myself and many other citizens,” he said, holding the document up on display. “I would like to believe that a more open and inclusive government is the way that the city of Ann Arbor would like to see its government go. I am very concerned — there is a culture of secrecy which is being fostered and encouraged by the current council.”

Giannola voiced a more neutral position on the issue, saying that she would opt to ask more questions rather than insist on release of information.

Krapohl took the opposite stance of Lipson and was also one of the six council members who had voted against releasing the information to the public, saying there is still information from the federal agency for which the city government is waiting.  

“I didn’t support at this time releasing the information because I don’t feel that there is enough there for the public to make an informed decision,” he said. 

The topic of transparency was intertwined with the issue of train station location. The two proposed locations are the Fuller Road parking lot at the base of the hospital campus hill and the same spot as the existing station on Depot Street. 

Giannola said she felt strongly that the station should be located on Fuller, arguing that a commuter rail station on Depot Street would be too inconvenient, especially for hospital employees who would have to add an extra 20 to 30 minutes to their daily commute.

“The Fuller Road station is the ideal spot because most of the commuters who come into the city actually work at the University and the medical center, so if you moved it down there you have a whole set of commuters who are not used to taking train transportation” she said. “Trying to convince people to take commuter rail instead of taking their car, you need it to be convenient. Going to Depot Street will add 20 to 30 minutes.”

Lipson believes that the new station should remain at the Depot Street location because the location is convenient, there is space for parking across the street and it would not increase congestion around the hospital.

“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it” he said.

Krapohl didn’t offer an opinion about which location would be preferable and instead referred to the ongoing Federal Railway Administration survey of the sites and lack of official recommendations. 

The three candidates also discussed their ideas about approaching the issue of balancing the city budget. 

Krapohl noted that new programs cannot be implemented without establishing new sources of revenue that are sustainable. He suggested the idea of bringing forth another public vote on the implementation on an Ann Arbor income tax. 

Lipson did not say whether he believed an income tax would be a good idea, though he agreed that it would be a good idea to put it to a vote by Ann Arbor residents. 

Lipson also said he wants to pursue a more cooperative relationship with the University of Michigan, particularly on the proposed repavement of the section of Stadium Boulevard between Main Street and Packard Road. 

Giannola came out as a strong supporter of supplementing the city budget through the sale of the vacant downtown library lot for development. She argued that a development deal would both bring in approximately $10 million to the city, and that $5 million could be dedicated to the development of the Allen Creek Greenway park, rather than a park on the library plot. She argued that passing on this development opportunity would be the same as wasting revenue. 

“The library lot is the best of both worlds: It gives you a building with a public plaza, it gives you revenue, it gives you future tax revenue and that is the ideal example of why, when people say we are short of revenue, we are throwing that money away,” she said. 

When asked about the long-term issue of the dioxane plume and contamination of Ann Arbor ground water, Lipson took an opposing stance to Krapohl and Giannola, who support continuing the council’s decision to not trigger an EPA superfund site. 

Both Krapohl and Giannola think that a superfund site would have a negative impact on property values. Giannola also noted that it would be an act of panic for the city to spend its own money on cleanup efforts. 

Lipson argued that the city has taken a position of inaction for too long and that it makes sense to start taking steps immediately rather than waiting any longer. 

“The problem is that it has been a prolonged process of doing nothing for 25 years,” he said. “Why should we wait any longer? If it takes two years to get on that list, there is no reason not to do that,” he said, referring to the national EPA environmental priority list. 

To end the forum, the candidates were asked what they viewed as their constituents’ most pressing concerns. 

Krapohl opted to discuss citywide, rather than ward-specific, issues. He mentioned congestion, the need to meet citizen needs for basic services and infrastructure.

Giannola stated that the Ward 4 residents whom she has spoken to are not decisive on issues at the moment and tend to talk about road conditions and repairs, a condition familiar to many people throughout the state.

Lipson highlighted several concerns of citizens whom he has talked to while walking through neighborhoods. Many topics were returns to issues that he had discussed throughout the duration of the forum, including over development, transparency and the dioxane plume. 

Ward 5

Two-term incumbent Chuck Warpehoski (D) — director of the Ann Arbor-based Interfaith Council for Peace & Justice — is defending his Ward 5 council seat from Kevin Leeser (D), a nurse at the University Medical Center.

Featured prominently Wednesday in the two contenders’ relatively brief 25-minute forum were issues regarding downtown development, election reform, transit and the city’s annual deer cull. 

One particular point of contention between the two was the development of larger high-rise residential structures in the downtown area. Leeser argued that the demand for University housing was the sole driver for demand, and this lack of diversification threatens the city’s long-term economy. 

“We’re looking at one driving force (behind downtown development) … U-M housing, and it’s built to fail,” Leeser said, comparing a potential decline in demand for student housing could harm housing values in the same manner the departure of pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfizer from Ann Arbor did. “We can’t keep building there saying they’ll keep renting them.” 

Warpehoski countered Leeser, arguing that downtown residential development is also actively sought by professionals and that his fears were unfounded. While saying that further housing development is necessary, Warpehoski emphasized the need for a ready supply of affordable housing. 

When asked if he would’ve supported proposals to make municipal elections non-partisan and extend terms to four years — which were debated as measures to boost turnout to local elections last week in City Council — Leeser said he could not give a definite answer but acknowledged that changes to the local election system could be necessary.

“I’ve never been able to sit on Council for two years to see what I could accomplish in that time,” Leeser said, referring to the suggestion that four-year terms, as opposed to two, could allow councilmembers to govern more efficiently. 

“The city’s different now — there’s this thing called the Internet, but City Council is unchanged,” Leeser joked, before suggesting he would explore using online platforms to attain greater constituent outreach.

Warpehoski, who helped sponsor both the resolutions in the council, spoke favorably of the need for local election reform in Ann Arbor to improve citizen engagement and turnout.

“I believe where democracy works best is when many people are engaged,” Warpehoski said, arguing that four-year City Council and mayoral terms would put elections on even-numbered years where high profile national and statewide races would drive voter turnout, as opposed to odd-numbered years. 

Though the resolution calling for non-partisan elections failed in the council last week, voters in November will be able to vote on a ballot proposal to extend mayoral and City Council terms of office from two to four years.

The two were also split over the controversial Ann Arbor deer cull, which recently concluded its first iteration despite the ire of local animal rights groups. Leeser said he thought the deer cull was a misplaced priority by the council and criticized their failure to reach their goal of 100 deer despite the public resources spent — only 63 were killed from January 2015 to March 2016. 

“(City Council) has bigger fish to fry than deer eating people’s vegetables,” Leeser said, adding that non-lethal alternatives should actively be considered.

Warpehoski disagreed, arguing non-lethal deer population control has no scientific basis and that the cull is necessary to preserve ecological balance in Ann Arbor.