With less than a week to go before classes end, Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje’s students tackled an unusual project — hosting a forum for the Ann Arbor mayoral candidates Wednesday afternoon.
Hieftje’s Public Policy class hosted, organized and moderated the forum held in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy’s Annenberg Auditorium. The event was open to the public; attendees were encouraged to submit questions for the candidates who used the opportunity to introduce themselves and their platforms to the voters. Councilmembers Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1), Stephen Kunselman (D–Ward 3), Sally Hart Petersen (D–Ward 2) and Christopher Taylor (D–Ward 3) are currently the only candidates declared in the race, meaning the Democratic primary in August will likely decide the race.
The policy students’ questions were varied, giving the candidates a chance to discuss their opinions on an array of concerns for the city such as downtown development, shelter services, public transit and “town-gown” relations. Each of the four worked to distinguish themselves in their answers, often returning to the same themes for each question.
Petersen framed most of her answers within a business and economic context — her strongest area of experience. She said the city’s revenue problem is one of her main concerns, hoping to work from several perspectives to bolster economic growth.
Briere focused on increasing inclusivity and accessibility of the city officials, wanting to enhance communication with residents to help enact change. She also discussed her vision of Ann Arbor’s downtown as a more social center, drawing tourism and shopping.
Kunselman and Taylor had less consistency of theme with their responses, having more distinct visions for different projects. Kunselman often returned to his hope to reduce the city’s focus on downtown development and work more closely with neighborhoods. Kunselman did stress his extensive campaign experience and thorough knowledge of city code.
Taylor also emphasized the importance of community outreach. He and Briere both spoke in favor of expanding public transportation infrastructure to the county, with only Taylor explicitly giving his support for the May 6 millage to expand the Ann Arbor Transit Authority bus lines.
The candidates also addressed the city’s engagement with students. Taylor and Petersen left more of the burden on the city to reach out to students while Briere and Kunselman said it was the responsibility of students to be proactive in getting involved.
The moderators noted that primaries will take place over the summer — a time when there are far fewer students on campus. The council members said this was inevitable if the city wants to hold elections on the same day as the rest of the country in November.
Hieftje said it was a two-way street of responsibility for involving young voters, falling both on the accessibility of the elected officials and the dedication of the students.
“The city does make a lot of efforts to reach out to student voters,” he said. “I make available the boards and commissions that I make appointments to — we have students serving on the taxi cab board, we have students serving on other boards. One of the problem for students who may not be here year-round is the city functions year-round.”
In an interview after the event, Petersen said she has had discussions with Business senior Michael Proppe, outgoing Central Student Government president, as well as other students, about encouraging students to register for absentee ballots.
“My network really is from local high school graduates who are at U of M right now and convincing them to get out the vote,” she said.
Still, issues of low participation are compounded by the high volume of students returning home for the summer, along with the fact that many are registered to vote in their hometowns rather than in Ann Arbor. Moreover, candidates will likely turn their campaign efforts to the town’s permanent residents if they want to secure the nomination in August.