The Ford School of Public Policy hosted a debate Wednesday between seven Democratic candidates running for City Council, addressing topics from affordable housing, police, traffic congestion and the electoral system in Ann Arbor.
The debate featured Ward 1 candidates Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1) and William Leaf; LSA senior Zachary Ackerman running for Ward 3; Jack Eaton (D–Ward 4) and Jamie Magiera running for Ward 4; and Mike Anglin (D–Ward 5) and Chip Smith for the Ward 5.
No Republicans are currently running for seats on the council, meaning that August’s Democratic primary will largely decide who takes office in November, unless candidates from other parties enter the race.
Public Policy Lecturer John Hieftje, former Ann Arbor mayor, organized and moderated the discussion with students from a class he teaches at the Ford School of Public Policy on local government.
Not all the candidates currently running for office participated in Wednesday’s debate. Councilmember Stephen Kunselman (D–Ward 3), up for reelection this year, was not present. Sally Hart Petersen, who is running in the August Democratic primary for the Ward 2, was present in the audience, but did not participate in the debate.
In an interview after the event, Hieftje said an additional independent candidate running in the Ward 1, Jeff Hayner, also did not participate because the debate focused on the August primary and not the November elections.
Councilmembers Kirk Westphal (D–Ward 2) and Julie Grand (D–Ward 3), who are not up for election this coming year, were also present in the audience.
Many questions asked candidates to address the creation of more affordable housing in Ann Arbor. The issue has been discussed in various City Council meetings throughout the year — most recently, citizens spoke before council in favor of accessory dwelling units.
Accessory dwelling units are built within a property and can take the form of either a separate unit within one’s own home or a new unit attached to the house. The unit can then be rented out.
Anglin said he believes reconsidering zoning regulations present a useful tool, as the problem must be dealt with on the neighborhood level.
Briere also favored zoning reconsideration to facilitate accessory dwelling units and denser neighborhoods. She added that all these schemes, however, would not solve the underlying factors that lead to expensive housing in Ann Arbor.
“We are not going to get anywhere if we don’t also tackle the income disparity that’s in our community,” she said “And that’s a bigger issue than just talking about housing affordability.”
Leaf also noted that restriction of housing supplies due to current zoning restrictions is a fundamental cause of expensive housing in the city.
Magiera pointed out that changes to zoning regulations should be preceded by data collection to ensure the proposed changes don’t abruptly interfere with citizens’ lives.
Discussion also focused on the police department and the death of Ann Arbor citizen Aura Rosser, who was shot by a police officer in November.
Multiple candidates expressed concerns about the level of engagement between community and police.
Ackerman noted that police training on topics such as race and mental illness is important, and added that hiring police officers specifically tasked with promoting community engagement is not enough.
“Every officer should be charged with community engagement,” he said. “Having your police force be truly a member of your neighborhood a member of the community is how things actually get solved.”
Smith also said new training procedures could be implemented to decentivize the use of physical force during confrontations and to encourage stronger ties between community and police.
“I think that there is no question that (Rosser’s death) is a tremendous tragedy and if we don’t take the opportunity to learn from this and to improve the way that we treat everybody, how we treat with folks with mental illness or substance abuse problems, then it is on us as a community,” he said.
The candidates also discussed ideas for easing traffic congestion in Ann Arbor.
Magiera, whose campaign platform stresses improving transportation, said in order for the city to decrease traffic congestion, people must challenge their basic assumptions about urban planning.
“We need, as I mentioned earlier, to focus on the way in which we zone things and the way in which we build out our infrastructure to improve density so that people and have better use of mass transit,” he said. “And we need to have clearly delineated bike lines that are well maintained.”
Anglin said there are multiple solutions to this issue and is in favor of increasing bus service, but noted that such efforts will require investment and collective efforts.
“People have to buy in,” he said. “Ann Arbor can’t afford to pay for people who are in the area who like bus service in Ann Arbor. We love to have bus service, but you have to help us. So that’s where the regional cooperation in transportation is a major factor.”
Wards and election dates
Candidates also discussed the possibility of moving to non-partisan elections and reshaping the wards to increase student voting.
Advocates of non-partisan elections believe the system would give students the chance to have a bigger impact in elections because currently the decisive election is the primary, which is in August, when many students are not on campus. A non-partisan election system would remove the primary and make the November elections the decisive ones.
Eaton noted that though he is uncertain about having a student ward, he saw low student turnout as a problem that needs to be addressed.
“Although I am a hardened partisan, I am a life-long democrat and don’t want to see non-partisan elections, student participation is probably the only reason that I would support non-partisan elections because you are not here in August, you are here in November,” he said.
Leaf said there are structural restrictions that prevent students from voting, namely a state law that forbids individuals voting for the first time from submitting an absentee ballot, which, he said, further blocks students from participating in elections like the August primary.
“It shouldn’t be the burden of students to the change the state of law so that they can vote absentee,” he said. “We should move to a system of non-partisan November elections where everybody can vote at the most convenient time, when they are already going to vote on other things.”
On the other hand, Briere said she is not in favor of moving to non-partisan election or realigning ward boundaries to allow for the creation of a student district.
“The problem we should be trying to solve, really, is how to get more people engaged in to government,” she said. “Not how to make laws to change but how to re-engage.”
Overall, students in the Public Policy class said the concept of the event stemmed a need for more debate during city elections.
Public Policy graduate student Rasheed Malik said he found that they were still very civil, in spite of the fact that that some of the debaters were competing. Malik said he was especially impressed with Ackerman.
“He really, really studied up on the issues that came up today,” he said. “He had a really great introduction and showed real maturity for someone as young as (Ackerman).”
Public Policy graduate student Erica Sivertson said she appreciated how the candidates addressed the issues at hand.
“When people had questions they actually had a well thought out response,” she said.” It didn’t seem like they were trying to pivot or turn away from answering questions, so I was really impressed.”