With the August primary election just a few months in the future, Ann Arbor City Council members and their challengers gathered Saturday morning at the Ann Arbor Community Center to participate in a forum on local issues.
The event was one of the Ann Arbor City Democratic Party’s first campaign events leading up to the primary, and featured eight City Council hopefuls — four incumbents and four newcomers — who took part in the roundtable discussion moderated by Democratic Party Co-Chairman Mike Henry.
Among issues discussed at the forum were the fate of the disputed Library Lot — a city-owned plot located on 319 South Fifth Avenue where a $50 million underground parking lot is currently under construction, the relationship between the city and the University and budget cuts that recently slashed jobs from both the fire and police departments.
With the future of the Library Lot still undecided, participants at Saturday’s forum exchanged ideas for use of the land. Ingrid Ault, executive editor of Think Local First — a business that promotes local companies in Washtenaw County — and a challenger of Stephen Kunselman (D–Ward 3), said the lot is “arguably the most valuable piece of land in Washtenaw County” and recommended that the city instead use the land for mixed-use development.
However, Kunselman said the land should be transferred to the private sector, as did newcomer Marwan Issa, technology director at Global Education Excellence — a company that works toward developing quality education in Michigan — who will be contesting Kunselman. Issa said the land could become “a hub for startup companies.”
Both Issa and Tim Hull, a University alum who will be vying for Stephen Rapundalo’s seat (D–Ward 2), said they hope to see expanded partnerships between the city and the University in the future. Issa said it is crucial that the two strengthen their relationship, adding that the city has not been fully utilizing the resources of the University.
Hull said this is partially because the connection between the University and the community is hindered by students who feel “alienated” by the city because often times their main contact occurs when receiving citations from police for engaging in acts like underage drinking.
In an interview after the forum, Hull said he hopes University students can build a rapport with the city through civic engagement, and in doing so encourage them to stay in Ann Arbor after graduating in an effort to prevent brain drain — the exodus of students from the state following graduation.
“I want the city to more engage the student body such that we can get more of them to stay in Ann Arbor,” Hull said. “We have a lot of educated people coming out of the University of Michigan and I think it’s important to kind of encourage them to stay here. I think there’s a lot of opportunity here.”
Sean Walser, LSA junior and External Relations Committee Chair for the Michigan Student Assembly, was one of few students in attendance and said in an interview after the event that he came to the forum to hear from the candidates, adding that he hopes the city will forge a stronger relationship with the University in the future.
“Obviously the University is a huge part of this community, and I want to make sure that Ann Arbor residents are aware of the facilities that we offer,” Walser said.
Michael Benson, president of Rackham Student Government, said in an interview that the inattention of students to city government policies such as housing and parking rates discourages civic participation.
“A lot of the graduate students in particular don’t realize city government (creates) many of the policies and priorities that affect them in their daily lives,” Benson said.
Benson added he hopes to draw attention to the August primary by sending e-mails to the graduate student body reminding them to vote. He said he is also in the process of scheduling a similar forum this summer hosted by Rackham Student Government.