It’s become almost commonplace for city officials to hold a second job at the University — Ann Arbor’s largest employer.
Still, at a recent Ann Arbor City Council meeting, city resident and former mayoral candidate Tom Wall said Mayor John Hieftje was serving “two masters at once” by holding a job with the University.
Hieftje, who has taught at the University since 2006, is currently a part-time lecturer in the University’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. He earns $15,000 from the University for teaching an annual class — a 400-level course titled “Local Government, Opportunity for Activism.”
At the City Council meeting, Wall, who lost to Hieftje in this summer’s Democratic mayoral primaries, called Hieftje’s involvement “a clear conflict of interest” that might influence his city votes on University-related motions.
Hieftje defended his University appointment during the meeting by citing other past mayors who also held positions with the University, including Political Science Prof. Samuel Eldersveld, who taught full-time during his mayoral term, and State Sen. Liz Brater (D–Ann Arbor), who taught part-time.
“If (Wall) wants to impugn the record of all these past mayors, he’s free to do that,” Hieftje said in an interview. “But I’m happy to be included in that category.”
The most recent Ann Arbor mayor to hold a University position was Gerald Jernigan, who served as a University investment officer during his term from 1987 to 1991.
Because the state constitution grants the University autonomy, it doesn’t fall within the jurisdiction of the Ann Arbor city government, meaning Hieftje doesn’t have authority over University decisions as mayor.
Councilmember Stephen Kunselman (D-Ward 3), who works full-time at the University as an energy liaison with Plant Operations, said Wall’s comments were no more than “political posturing.”
“The city has no jurisdiction whatsoever over any land that the University owns,” he said. “The University is like its own city — we don’t have any control over them.”
John Mulcrone, counsel for the Michigan Senate Democrats, said a teaching job at the University wouldn’t violate state conflict of interest statutes because it doesn’t include administrative duties. The statutes only prohibit public positions from being filled by the same person when one position requires the “subordination, supervision or breach of duty of the other.”
“A mere connection with an institution doesn’t implicate a conflict of interest,” Mulcrone said. “Everybody’s got a connection.”
The University accounts for about 10 percent of the city’s workforce.
Jim Kosteva, the University’s director of community relations, said he couldn’t recall any University positions having an adverse effect on city appointments.
“I think the mayor and the council, irrespective of their employment, have consistently affected decisions that are in the best interest of their constituents,” he said.
Kunselman added that the city usually does not enter into official agreements with the University, except for sewer and utility contracts that typically have non-negotiable rates.
Other college towns around the country have similar patterns of city officials working for the nearby universities, but different ways of avoiding conflicts of interest.
In Berkeley, Calif., city attorneys monitor potential violations individually by reviewing statements of affiliation that are kept on file for each city official.
Mark Numainville, the assistant city clerk of the city of Berkeley, said at least two city commissioners in the past 20 years have been employed at the University of California at Berkeley, which, like the University of Michigan, is the city’s largest employer.
“I would say it’s a fairly delicate situation and the elected official just has to be very aware of their role and conflicts of interest and things like that,” Numainville said. “As long as they’re diligent in that regard, there shouldn’t be anything that precludes them from being councilmembers or commissioners.”
In Madison, Wisconsin, Eli Judge — both a University of Wisconsin student and a Madison City Councilmember — works with a group that focuses on both the school and the city.
The city has an internal ethics board and also files city officials’ affiliations outside of the city, such as “student”.
“Typically what (the elected officials) do, is they will abstain from voting on anything that deals directly with their position,” said Lisa Veldran, administrative assistant to Madison’s city council. “Typically, it’s a case-by-case kind of thing.”