Council member could face recall petition over deer cull

Thursday, December 3, 2015 - 6:19pm

Councilmember Kirk Westphal (D–Ward 2) is facing a recall effort from the local group Save the Deer Ann Arbor over his vote in support of the city’s forthcoming deer cull.

A 8-1 majority of council members voted in favor of a four-year deer management plan in August and subsequently voted 10-1 in November to hire sharpshooters to kill 100 area deer this winter in an effort to control their population. Westphal voted alongside the majority both times.

Sabra Sanzotta, spokesperson for Save the Deer, filed the recall paperwork Monday, citing concerns with the scientific basis underlying the cull and potentially negative ramifications. Her group has previously asked the city to gather more data before taking action.

“There is an unjust, unidentifiable risk to public safety,” Sanzotta said. “And the cull that Kirk Westphal voted in favor of doesn’t have the benefit of scientific evidence to prove that it’s even effective.”

Sanzotta said she chose to file a petition against Westphal specifically because she is a Ward 2 resident.

In a Thursday interview with The Michigan Daily, Westphal said he stands by his decision to vote in favor of the cull.

“It goes without saying that the recall process is a critical part of democracy,” he said. “That being said, in my limited experience of recalls, they usually seem to involve some kind of extreme behavior problem of an elected official, not votes on small-budget items like we have here. I struggle with the concept of using a recall in this instance. I suppose the inference is that 10 out of 11 council members are unfit to serve in this person’s view.”

The deer management program City Council approved is designed in hopes of reducing the deer population and in turn decreasing nuisance to the community and supporting biological diversity. The council allocated up to $90,000 for deer population management efforts over the next four years. However, only approximately $35,000 will be put toward the cull. The city also has plans to investigate alternative methods for population regulation and the September approved resolution also provides for further exploration and research of deer fertility control.

During the cull, sharpshooters will take out deer at night on public property, a move which has proven contentious.

At the November meeting in which City Council approved the cull, approximately 50 speakers, spoke in support of or against the resolution.

“I live in Ann Arbor near public land,” Sanzotta said during the meeting. “I am seriously concerned about public safety. Who knows what high powered rifles are being fired on these animals? I don’t think that is something that residents should want to allow, for public safety reasons.”

Westphal said he understood why the decision was controversial, but added that he ultimately felt the cull was the only proven way to manage the deer overpopulation issue.

“There was a very expensive public outreach and research process that apparently Council felt comfortable with,” he said. “It's clear that nobody loves the idea of a deer cull. However I get the overwhelming feeling from my constituents that most understand this is the only proven way to manage the deer and the ecosystem.”

For the Save the Deer group’s petition to prevail, it will need to be approved by the Washtenaw County Election Commission, which next meets Dec. 17.

If approved, the group will need to collect signatures from 1,791 registered Ward 2 voters by the end of January. A successful petition would force a May runoff election ahead of the August City Council primary, in which Westphal will already be up for re-election.

The special election would determine a new candidate to fill the seat before the election.

Sanzotta said the group’s next step, after filing the petition, would be identifying a candidate interested in running for Westphal’s seat.

This is not Sanzotta’s first attempt at ousting a council member because of his or her sentiments toward the cull.

The Save the Deer group worked to defeat council member Jane Lumm (I–Ward 2) for approving the cull when Lumm was up for re-election in November. However, despite Save the Deer’s efforts, Lumm was re-elected last month.