The Politics of the DDA: An Interview With Rene Greff
Arbor Brewing Company co-owner Rene Greff served two terms (9 years) on the Board of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. The Board expects to control an approximately $22 million dollar budget during 2009-2010. About $18 million dollars of that money will come from parking fees, and the rest will come from tax revenue captured by the DDA under the auspices of a tax increment financing (TIF) scheme written into the City’s Charter. Rene Greff was replaced on the DDA by Concentrate Publisher, and real estate developer, Newcombe Clark.
A2Politico enjoys a pint of micro-brewed beer every now and again, and does frequent ABC, but caught up with Rene Greff via email.
Question 1. Let’s dive right in, shall we? You served on the Board of Downtown Development Authority (DDA) for two terms. Here you are, a woman who bikes to work (or so I read), who won a Washtenaw County Environmental Excellence Award in 2000, who has described herself as “committed to environmental protection and the preservation of greenfields and environmentally sensitive areas.” The DDA does not concern itself, primarily, with what you describe as your core interests. PAC seems more where you ought to have ended up. Why did you agree to sit on the DDA Board in the first place? What did you hope to accomplish on the Board?
RG: I am committed to those causes, but I am also committed to many other things, as well, such as homeless and housing issues, alternative transportation, good government, access to education and healthcare, the importance of arts and culture to a community, international diplomacy, and the polar ice caps to name a few—and I also believe strongly in the important role downtowns play in the overall health and vitality of a city.
I first became acquainted with the DDA in 1996 when, a year after opening our doors at ABC, I learned that the city had condemned the 4th and Washington parking structure, and that it was going to be demolished. At the time, we were struggling mightily to keep our doors open and the last thing we needed was to lose 245 parking spaces that we specifically cited in our business plan, and where we knew the majority of our customers parked.
Then I heard that the city was not planning to replace the parking so I started lobbying Council and DDA. What I discovered was shocking. There were some members of Council who literally said, “Let the parking structures crumble to the ground and it will force people to take the bus.” and “If businesses need parking so badly, then they should pay for it —they’re the ones making all the money downtown.” At the time we were paying way more in taxes to the city than we were taking home, and I spent many hours in open-book meetings with Council members trying to educate them about the daily struggles small businesses face in our downtown just to pay the bills. Worse yet, there were also DDA members who didn’t want to replace the parking (or who wanted to build it elsewhere). After months of debate DDA and the City finally decided to replace the deck, and I was asked to sit on a citizens advisory design board.
At the beginning of 2000 I became president of the Main Street Area Association. Some of the issues on my agenda were:
A. getting the DDA to assume responsibility for the parking meters to make sure that money from the parking meters was reinvested in the parking system or in the downtown;
B. changing the fee and licensing structure for outdoor seating (the city was and had been for many years breaking the law by overcharging businesses to rent their sidewalks for outdoor seating. Since the property is owned by the property owner with a right or way easement to the municipality, the municipality may not make a profit on license fees for the space – so the city should only have been charging enough to cover enforcement but they were charging several times that);
C. coming up with a better way to deal with downtown snow removal than plowing it all onto the curb which blocks the meters, hinders pedestrian access, and is surely in violation of the ADA;
D. making sure the community policing program was a priority in the downtown and had a sustainable funding source;
E. reviewing downtown storm water retention (the city required developers to provide on-site retention but exempted it’s own projects);
Then in July there was a vacancy on DDA and Mayor Ingrid Sheldon asked me if I would be willing to serve on the Board. I was already quite involved with a lot of efforts that overlapped the work of the DDA so it seemed like a good way to work toward some of the goals we had set out for the MSAA. Plus, I was interested in pushing more of a green agenda on DDA with things like supporting business recycling and composting, building DDA projects to LEED standards, and assisting businesses (and the city) in transitioning to more green and sustainable goals and practices. I also wanted to make sure that small independent businesses had a strong voice at the table.
I think that when I first joined the Board, I wasn’t sure what could be accomplished because I didn’t yet understand the full scope of their work. But during my time on the Board, I developed interests that included:
A. Promoting honesty and transparency in government (I could write a novel about that one!)
B. Responsible expenditure of tax dollars (I fought against things like lavish give-backs to big developers, using tax dollars to sweep sidewalks in front of individual businesses, and funding board-member feel-good pet projects that are certainly worthy projects to support as individuals, but not the role of the DDA.
C. Creating programs to help retain the small independent businesses that give downtown Ann Arbor its unique character
D. Making sure we have a responsible plan for ensuring a sustainable and adequate parking system by re-investing parking dollars back into the parking system
E. Maintaining infrastructure like alleys and sidewalks
F. City should hold itself to its highest standard—not exempt itself from rules and goals it imposes on businesses and residents—for example if the City is really committed to alternative transportation, it should stop providing its staff with free parking.
G. Supporting alternative transportation in everything from working with AATA (we created the getDowntown program and helped with the funding of the Link) to installing bike lanes and improving bike parking, to improving the safety and comfort of the pedestrian experience
H. Encouraging green building and energy in the downtown (we funded the solar panels at the farmers market, helped to pay for the LED lights downtown, created the energy audit and green energy grant programs, made green building a requirement for funding requests, etc)
I. And I fought hard and will continue to fight for a Board that is autonomous and mission-driven though it feels like a losing battle at this point
Question 2. You said you earned Leigh Greden’s enmity when you backed Rebekah Warren in the 2006 53rd District Michigan House race. You said Council and “Greden’s caucus” stopped coming in to ABC. You must have known this would happen. In our small town, people take the political way too personally. However, in 2007 and 2008 you still opened the doors of ABC for political fundraisers and events for candidates (Carsten Hohnke and Sandi Smith) backed by Council’s majority. You donated money, as well. You got snubbed, yet you kept on giving. How come?
RG: Believe it or not, I am an eternal optimist and really don’t hold a grudge. I still believe that Sandi is going to be a great Council member. During our time together on DDA, I found her to be thoughtful, honest, courageous, and independent. I think she is still feeling her way forward on Council, but as she gains experience I think she will be a strong leader and an advocate for everything from smart well-planned development of city land and for a greater focus on environmental sustainability. And she is committed to a lot of the same goals as I am.
Carsten came recommended by a mutual friend, and I was led to believe that he was a new urbanist and understood and respected the work of the DDA. I have been disappointed in his lack of partnership with DDA (things like moving to turn the 1st and William surface parking into a park without even mentioning the idea to DDA even though that parking is in the contract we have with the City. A responsible leader would want an analysis of the possible ramifications of a proposal like that before charging forward.) Though he did reach out recently to discuss Council’s blockage of DDA-recommended changes to our bylaws.
But to your question, I continue to host events and support people, because I want good leadership and I feel like citizens in a democracy have a responsibility to be engaged in the political process. I don’t give for political patronage and never feel like I am personally owed anything but someone’s best effort to be an honest, informed and effective public servant. And frankly I don’t care where Council-members choose to go on election night. We’re packed with progressives regardless of where the Mayor and Council decide to go.
And I mis-spoke. I actually earned Greden’s enmity before his primary with Rebekah—when he introduced the 2-site plan, and I began publically challenging him every chance I got for reneging on our deal. But backing Rebekah is what caused Council’s election-night exodus from the brewpub since we hosted Rebekah’s election-night event. But many Council members, as well as the Mayor also chose to stop by the pub that night to check in—though not Mr Greden to be sure. And while the caucus no longer has post-meeting beers at the brewpub, I get along quite well with almost everyone on Council and see just about everyone at the pub from time to time.
And as for knowing what would happen—primaries are often difficult but it has been my experience that people generally come back together after the primary behind shared goals. And my support of a given candidate is always about who I think would be good in office and not some political calculation about what’s in it for me or my business in the future. Plus I have to say that council was actually very supportive this year in allowing us to block off the street for Oktoberfest on a football Saturday (which is normally not permitted) since there were home games every week in September this year. So I think it’s fair to say that those who supported Leigh Greden in the past and even those who disagree with me about a lot of city/DDA issues were able to put those differences aside when considering my request.
Question 3. You said “I have been the one consistent voice on DDA willing to publically challenge the Greden-Teall-Higgins-Hieftje cabal.” Can you give a couple of examples that stand out to you as how, exactly, you challenged them?
RG: I should note that just a few years ago I was one voice among many. The DDA was pretty united, and had a very clear sense of our mission. I should also say that there are others on DDA who respect the DDA’s mission and autonomy and are consistently on what I would call the “right side” of the issues I care about—Jennifer [Santi Hall], Gary [Boren], and usually Joan [Lowenstein] and Sandi [Smith]. Jennifer has really gotten her footing over the past year is an intelligent and thoughtful voice of opposition. I know she’ll fight the good fight until she gets the boot next July when her term is up. And there are a couple of others whom I think share my philosophy, either because they are new to DDA and don’t have the same institutional knowledge, or because their personalities are confrontation averse, they can’t always be counted on. But I think since I had the longest DDA tenure among “our caucus” and because I am, by nature, outspoken, I tended to be the one to mount challenges—though I rarely stood alone. Sadly though, in my opinion, the Mayor has removed many very smart, qualified, and hard-working voices from the DDA over the years, and is effectively working toward creating a rubber stamp board more interested in winning the approval of Council than fighting for the issues facing the downtown.
But to your question—it’s difficult to lay out nine years of history in an email so I’ll try to give you a demonstrative example:
In anticipation of our Board retreat, I created a powerpoint presentation to document the development of the parking agreement between the City and DDA and to try and persuade my fellow DDA members and the public that it would go against core DDA principles to funnel $2 million a year from the parking system to the General Fund, and would be unfair to the other taxing authorities, and perhaps contrary to the DDA enabling statute to transfer TIF funds to the City (especially since the amount they want is more than we capture from City taxes).
Leigh Greden promised that if the DDA increased our rent amount to the City in order to generate $10 million over ten years, that would ensure the beat cops for ten years, and the City would approve our three site plan which would have created enough additional revenue in the parking system to cover the increase in the DDA’s payment to the City. We approved the contract revision—which I bitterly regret. I don’t regret helping the City, but I do regret not specifying where the money would come from and how it would be spent. It was a huge mistake for so many reasons. Unfortunately I, like so many others after me, believed Leigh when he said: ”This is the best way to accomplish these goals and trust me, I have the votes if we do it my way, but your way will never work.” Needless to say, as soon as we approved the $10 million, Chris Easthope and Greden proposed a ridiculous two site plan….It wasn’t a plan at all, the financials didn’t work, and it didn’t accomplish the goals of the three site plan.
So anyway, I took my show on the road and made presentations to the Downtown Marketing Task Force and the Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce to try and raise awareness about what was happening. When I presented my slideshow to the Downtown Marketing Task Force, Greden, [Margie] Teall, and Hieftje showed up to the meeting to challenge me. They knew what was in the presentation, because I made the same presentation to the DDA at our Board retreat, and supplied Council with a copy of it. After I presented the facts at the meeting, they tried to correct me by saying there was no quid pro quo. I said: “You know perfectly well that there was no official quid pro quo, because you specifically said that the Council couldn’t be on record agreeing to a quid pro quo–as it turns out because you needed to maintain plausible deniability. But what you did say is that even if we don’t publically link the three site plan with the $10 million, you said Council was going to approve it.”
When delivering the same presentation to the Chamber, I challenged Tom Crawford, who is on their Board, when he said the City understands that the DDA is an autonomous Board with control of its own budget. I asked why he thought it appropriate to include DDA money in the city budget without discussing it with our Board.
I challenged the legality of Greden showing up at a DDA board meeting to vote in place of the Mayor in an effort to influence our officer elections—I think this exchange is on the video from our first or second televised board meeting.
I drafted a DDA resolution requesting that all funding requests that come from Council come as a Council resolution so that DDA could clearly differentiate between requests from individual Council members or staff members, and official requests from the City, and also so that all funding requests would be part of the public record. And I vigorously debated Leah Gunn and Roger Hewitt who opposed it because, I felt, they wanted to be able to continue to cut backroom deals with a certain segment of Council.
At our annual Board retreat, I pressed the Mayor until he finally admitted publically what I had been saying for months, that the reason they were stalling on putting together their committee was that “some members of Council” didn’t want to negotiate with Jennifer and me. Leigh calculated correctly that if Council waited until July, when I was gone and John Splitt was the new Chair, they would have a better chance of getting a DDA committee that would roll over and give the city its $2 million a year with no strings attached.
At a Board/council dinner, I called on the Mayor to admit that he had replaced [Shaman Drum owner] Karl Pohrt because he had challenged the Mayor. Until then, he [Hieftje] had been saying that he didn’t want anyone serving more than two terms—even though he’d re-appointed Dave DeVarti and Leah Gunn to third terms (before giving Dave the boot last year). He did admit it at the dinner. Karl was a great DDA board member who fought for progressive values and the interests of small independent locally-owned businesses. His voice and thoughtfulness were sorely missed. I always thought that if the Mayor was unhappy with someone’s performance, he should come out and admit it so I always pressured him to do so over the years.
I’ve actually worked quite collaboratively with Margie [Teall] on a few issues. But I thought that she, like a lot of Council members, was negatively impacted by Leigh’s election because he is such a behind-the-scenes deal-maker. Since he only works half-time, he has lots of time to devote and effectively set himself up as gatekeeper for Council’s agenda among other things. He did the homework so they wouldn’t have to, which meant that he could spin things the way he wanted and most members of Council would blindly follow without doing their own homework. I think he really changed the way Council did business. But I also debated Margie plenty too in committee meetings when we were discussing the $8 million for the City Municipal building. When Margie said that Greden wanted to get the $8 million question off the table, I said that after the 3 site plan, I didn’t trust them to follow through. I said that the DDA needed to be clear in the public record about our expectations whenever we negotiated with Council.
But since Leigh tends to be the spokesman as well as the strategist for the group, most of the confrontation has been with him.
Question 4. You also said, “When I serve on a board I am committed to the mission of that Board. I am perfectly comfortable standing up to and outing Council members, as well as other Board members for what I see as lies and hypocrisy.” In March 2009, you had a bit of a dust-up with the Mayor over “transparency” concerning the City’s desire to draw down DDA funds into the General Fund. So, which times in your mind stand out as significant episodes of you having to out Council members, and to call DDA Board members for things you saw as “lies and hypocrisy?”
RG: Again, long stories, but here is the bullet list:
- Roger Hewitt when he was trying to exert undue influence by concentrating the power of the chair;
- Roger Hewitt when he tried to use an incident that happened in a parking deck to further one of his agenda items that had already been dismissed by the Board;
- Roger Hewitt and Tom Heywood for having a goal of undermining and discrediting the DDA director so she could be replaced with someone more amenable to good old boy negotiations;
- Leigh Greden when he stood in the way of DDA bylaw changes that would prevent the kind of shenanigans his pal Hewitt was attempting and did it by misrepresenting to the Council the nature and implications of said changes;
- Leigh Greden whenever he lies about the deal he and Chris Easthope struck with the DDA for the $10 million;
- Leah Gunn for saying we might as well give the $2 million to the City because the work of the DDA will be complete after they build the new underground deck—that may be all she had on her agenda but mine was far from complete;
- The Mayor for not being honest about his reasons for giving very hard-working board members the boot;
- The Mayor for not being honest about stonewalling the Council/DDA negotiation process;
- The Mayor for taking credit for DDA initiatives that he opposed.
Question 5. The Mayor sucker punched you at the DDA retreat when he told the rest of the DDA Board (and the Press present) that, in essence, you were perceived by “some” Council members as having a “chip on your shoulder.” In essence, he said in public Council members didn’t want to work with you, and he wasn’t inclined to force the group to put the good of the City ahead of their personal grudges. You knew this was a result of your conflict with Leigh Greden. However, the press recorded no response from you at that meeting. Did you try to resolve the issue with the Mayor at some later date?
RG: As I alluded to above, it was not a sucker punch at all, but something I had been trying to get him to admit for months. And I was shocked and pleased that he finally fessed up especially in such a public forum. Greden had been publically lying about it for months.
In fact when I pressed him at that Downtown Marketing Task Force Meeting about why the committee hadn’t been formed he said, “I’m too busy to deal with it right now.”
I said, “Really, I didn’t know you were in charge of Council’s agenda.” – though I did know he was, actually.
So anyway, I thought it was great that the Mayor said it out loud and in front of local media, and I even called Dave Askins [editor of AnnArborChronicle.com] to make sure he got it on his tape recorder. The Press didn’t record, but I stated that I knew exactly which Council member didn’t want to work with me and why. We battled it out at DDA meetings, and I publically challenged the Mayor at every meeting to seat the committee, and not to include DDA dollars in their budget before the committee met and had worked out a deal.
I think what needs to happen (but never will) is that the DDA Partnerships committee needs to take this on rather than a hand-selected subcommittee. And the Council can send whomever they want to weigh in, discuss, debate and try and influence the committee. That is the most fair and transparent way to handle this important negotiation. But in the end, the DDA needs to work out the details of a proposal that they can justify to their downtown constituents and taxpayers.
Question 6. You got a rather public heave-ho from the Board of Ann Arbor DDA, yet you expressed interest in, perhaps, volunteering to serve on the AATA Board. Why would you think you would be treated any differently, and why do you think the Mayor would appoint you? He doesn’t need anyone on AATA who is going to challenge the wisdom of the unfunded WALLY, moving the Blake Transit Center out of downtown, or the FITS project—a birthday present of 900 parking spaces to the University of Michigan, built on city parkland.
RG: I actually didn’t express an interest in serving on AATA though a couple of people floated my name (one of whom earned your derision because you evidently perceive me as “more of the same”), and not because I wouldn’t love to, but just because I don’t have time to take on anymore board work right now. I am on the Washtenaw Community College Foundation Board, the Growing Hope Capital Campaign Committee, the Ypsilanti DDA, and the ATHENA committee, in addition to running two breweries, teaching a series of beer tasting classes through Washtenaw Communtiy College Lifelong Learning Program, and consulting on a brewpub franchise project in India.
But I would definitely serve on an Ann Arbor board again if my time were freed up in the future and I were asked to do so. My heave-ho was public because I wanted it to be. The way it usually happens is that after months of speculation the person being replaced reads about it in the paper after the replacement has been named. So, I was actually quite appreciative of the fact that the Mayor asked me to lunch to let me know that he was committed to replacing me with another voice from the Main Street Area, and getting my feedback on the skills needed. (Though he did it after I told Dave Askins that I was not going to be reappointed which prompted him to pose the question to the Mayor.) I will continue to be outspoken in the fight for the mission-focus and integrity of the DDA because I think their work is more important to the health of the downtown and the city than a lot of people understand. But I am not at all bitter. I got to serve nine years, feel like we accomplished a lot in that time, and thoroughly enjoyed most of it. It is a huge time commitment and I was, quite honestly, ready to move on. I didn’t fight to stay on DDA, I just fought to make my removal public in the hopes of calling attention to the appointment process.
Question 7. I know you’re supporting Sabra Briere in the First Ward Council race. Whom are you supporting in the Fourth Ward race? Coming out against Marcia Higgins, whom you referred to as a member of a “Council cabal,” means coming out against Leah Gunn, your DDA colleague and a local political power broker. Will you do it, or will Rene Greff, self-descibed boat-rocker, sit this one out?
Again, I want to reiterate that while I am willing to rock the boat, it is not my goal in life. It is not my goal to be contrarian and confrontational. I much prefer working collaboratively and have no problem reaching compromise. But when I feel strongly about something, or when I think someone is being disingenuous, I have to speak up. My goal is to help bring about positive change in my community and sometimes to do that you have to rock the boat. But I hate the stone-throwers who just sit on the sidelines and criticize everything that the people who are actually willing to volunteer their time and efforts are doing. That is definitely not my intention.
I think the cabal has already started to break up with Greden’s defeat. He was the power-broker and deal-maker. As I mentioned above, a few days after his loss I was contacted by Carsten to get together and talk about that bylaws issue I had brought up before.
I have to admit I don’t know much about [Marcia Higgins's challenger] Hatim Elhady. But I would definitely not endorse Marcia Higgins. In my last meeting with her, she said she didn’t support the Fifth and Division improvements because of the bike lanes—she said she hates bikes downtown! I also don’t think she has shown a lot of respect for the work of citizen boards and commissions. Sometimes just getting a fresh independent voice on Council can help to shake things up and fight against group-think. But in the end, it’s not like my “endorsement” of anyone means anything. I’m not an elected official with a large constituency. And I can’t even vote in Ann Arbor. As for coming out against a power-broker —Leah [Gunn] and I have increasingly been on opposing sides on DDA. I don’t think that any endorsement on my part would alter the nature of our relationship one way or the other. Fortunately since I never plan to run for office, I don’t need to be in the good graces of power-brokers.
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