The Politics of Captain Renault: Sabra Briere Is “Shocked” About Secret Backroom Dealing (With A Poll)

This dialogue is from the movie “Casablanca,” 1942

Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds? 
Captain Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here! 
[a croupier hands Renault a pile of money
Croupier: Your winnings, sir. 
Captain Renault: [sotto voce] Oh, thank you very much. 
Captain Renault: Everybody out at once! 

First Ward Council member Sabra Briere recently sent around an email titled “clarifying information” to a group of her constituents and others whom (one imagines) she considers important disseminators of  such emails. On the surface, it looks as though Briere is providing the public with insider details concerning the Library Lot RFP process, and the Mayor’s potential collusion with the Valiant Group. One could argue that based on Briere’s email that Mayor Hieftje, Roger Fraser and Jesse Bernstein planned to help the Valiant Group get their project built, and Mayor Hieftje stayed silent as a sham RFP process was initiated to mask the back-room deal struck by the men and the developers.

One does wonder why Briere stayed silent concerning plans she knew were in the works for a conference center when she cast her vote in favor of floating $45 million dollars in bonds to build the Library Lot underground parking garage. 

Is Briere’s email breaking news? Nope. Not even close. 

On April 19, 2008, Ann Arbor News reporter Judy McGovern published a piece in which she writes:

“The notion that Ann Arbor needs a large conference center comes up every now and then – and most recently, it happened on New Year’s Eve at Cafe Verde. Early that day, Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce President Jesse Bernstein and Washtenaw County Administrator Bob Guenzel were chatting over coffee. Guenzel said he’d like to see plans for an Ann Arbor conference center take shape. Bernstein agreed. And that got the ball – at a public standstill since 1989 – rolling again.”

The email is remarkable in the fact that Briere is hanging out to dry any number of local politicos, beginning with Mayor Hieftje, former Chamber of Commerce leader, Jesse Bernstein, City Administrator Roger Fraser, and Briere’s First Ward Council colleague, Sandi Smith.

Here’s is Briere’s January 18, 2010 email in its entirety:

Dear neighbors,

I know the RFP for the Library Lot isn’t the most important issue for everyone.  In the past day, I’ve met twice with citizens to discuss the budget and learn from them more about the quality of information I should be receiving and the best ways to get the answers to my questions.

In government, transparency is important.  Today’s coverage in the [Ann Arbor] Chronicle about last night’s Caucus and the Library Lot RFP once again makes that clear — but it’s hard to know when to tell something that isn’t your secret.  Some of the things I’ve learned along the way as a member of Council haven’t been mine to share, but I’m happy to discuss everything I know about the proposals for the Library Lot.

Here’s some clarifying data for you, in case timelines help:

At our City Council retreat on January 10, 2009, Roger Fraser showed us some ‘preliminary’ drawings for a conference center.  We were not provided copies of these drawings.  Later requests for copies or any further information was denied — their very existence was denied — by the FOIA officer at the City.

On Sunday, June 14, 2009, at the end of Caucus, Mayor Hieftje asked me to come to his office so he could show me something.  At that time, he loaned me a copy of a proposal titled “Ann Arbor Town Center” from Valiant Partners LLD, dated May, 2009.  On its cover was a green and white sticky note stating “Thanks, John.  This is pretty interesting.  Sandi”.

I returned the original document to him the next day.

This is the same proposal that was later publicized as the “secret plan” for the conference center by Vivienne Armentrout on her blog, Local in Ann Arbor, in August, 2009.

The RFP for the Library Lot was issued in August [2009].

I heard nothing more about the cenference center until December 3rd, 2009.  At the Holiday Breakfast of the Main Street Merchants’ Association, Jesse Bernstein, the former president of the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce, expressed his displeasure at the Library Lot RFP process and Council’s inability to ‘make up its mind’.  He said there he, the Mayor and Roger Fraser had worked hard to get the deal for the conference center proposal, and now we were sending mixed signals to the developers. He said that everyone agreed that this was what downtown needed.  I said I didn’t.  We agreed to meet for breakfast.

On December 11, 2009, at 7:30 am, we met at the Northside Grill.  Among other discussed items, Bernstein said he, Fraser and Hieftje had met with people from Valiant.  The Valiant people had asked what they could do for the City.  The ‘vision’ that had emerged from this meeting was that the City wanted a conference center.  I do not know the date of that meeting, except that it had to have been prior to December, 2008.  I also do not know if there was more than one meeting.

At our meeting, Bernstein said he felt betrayed.  He said that Valiant’s proposal for a conference center was a consensus project, and that it was not fair that Valiant should have to jump through all of these hoops.

On Saturday, January 9, 2010, I spoke with Council member Stephen Rapundalo, who is the chair of the RFP advisory committee.  I reported on all of the above.

I also said that, as part of the mandatory RFP process, Valiant had signed a proposal statement which said, in part: “The undersigned acknowledges that it has not received or relied upon any representations or warrants of any nature whatsoever from the City of Ann Arbor, its agents or employees, and that this Proposal is based solely upon the undersigned’s own independent business judgement.”

I said to Rapundalo that I questioned the validity of this acknowledgment since Fraser had participated in the design of the plan.

On Thursday, January 14, 2010, I met with Chuck Skelton, president of Hospitality Advisors Consulting Group, a firm that performs site analysis, feasibility and valuation of hotels all over the country. Peter Allen was also at our meeting. He had set up the meeting at my request. 

Skelton said that he had met with Valiant principals in January, 2009 to discuss a hotel/conference center larger than the one currently before the RFP committee. 

Skelton said that in a small market like Ann Arbor building a hotel/conference center would be impact on existing businesses. Typically, if the prospects were economically sound the City would not have to provide financing assistance.

Near the end of the meeting, Peter Allen asked, “ You mean there is no way a hotel can be successful? How about a boutique hotel?” Chuck responded by saying, “It is doubtful at this time given these market conditions.”


[polldaddy poll=2571437] 

Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=2689

24 Comments for “The Politics of Captain Renault: Sabra Briere Is “Shocked” About Secret Backroom Dealing (With A Poll)”

  1. […] This was done before the underground parking garage construction had even begun.  Emails released in response to 2009 and 2010 Freedom of Information Act requests revealed that not only had DDA Executive Director been in contact with a particular developer with respect to the Library Lot parcel, but Mayor Hieftje had circulated the developer’s proposed conference center plans to Sandi Smith and S…. […]

  2. Jaclyn Vresics, an independent affiliated with the “Mixed Use Party” has pulled petitions to run against Sabra Briere this fall.

  3. I have to agree that the first comment in the thread by Lou Glorie says it all. The only secrets are those from closed sessions, not behind closed door cozy conversations between Mayor H. and Sabra Briere. Good God! It’s like middle school confidential. These are the people who handle the bazillion dollars in tax money we give them every year? It’s time to make some changes, obviously, in who’s running the asylum cause right now it appears to be the inmates. Sheesh.

  4. This is the wrong moment to worry about Ms. Briere (unless you are Mr. Cahill…). Now is the time to focus on the secret plans, secret meeting, the denials that they exist, and RFP in front of us.

    Those who feel angry with Sabra now, might feel differently when all the dust settles. If not, there will be plenty of time to address your concerns about her when the RFP is resolved. We need to focus on the proposals and process in front of us in this moment.

  5. In a February 11, 2009 email to Susan Pollay, Fritz Seyferth (one of the Valiant partners) says:

    “Please call with any feedback you got on the meeting re what may go above the parking structure. We have received a more positive feedback from our concept from some on Council, so that is good.”

    Each council member should be asked if they were one of the “some” who gave positive or any other kind of feedback to the Valiant proposal. Since this email is about a month after Fraser brought the conference center plans to the council retreat, it’s hard to believe that no one on council looked at the retreat plans.

    My recollection from the retreat is that there were blueprint plans, which Fraser laid on the table in front of Mike and Sabra. Sabra asked some good questions that made it clear the plan was to move the buses to fourth Ave. The plans got rolled up when members of the public were rubbernecking trying to see what was there. There was also a separate manila envelope. I think the contents of this envelope turned up in the Chronicle photo of Fraser showing the plans to Taylor. I don’t remember anything being passed around the table.

    At the January 2009 retreat, the mayor seemed quite familiar with the conference center concept. AATA board member Jesse Bernstein was also there. Bernstein was obviously familiar with the proposal since he was included on an April 9, 2008 email with Pollay and Valiant discussing the project.

  6. What? Do you mean some people don’t know that?! 😎

  7. I find it completely absurd that anyone is trying to make Sabra the bad guy in this soap opera. Talk about shooting the messenger! Hieftje? Fraser? Rapundalo? Bernstein? Teall? All have been on major ego trips assuming they can decide better than the (stupid?) residents of this (two bit?) town. And that we were too dim to figure out this smelly backroom (coffee shop?) deal. They have been fine tuning the Valiant proposal for at least two years, killing the William Street project so that instead their friends could pad their bank accounts on the backs of Ann Arbor taxpayers. Rapundalo gives Briere the opening to set a few things straight and you attack her for not doing it sooner? Well that makes a lot of sense. Not.

  8. For those that are not regular followers of this blog or local politics, it should be noted that David Cahill is Sabra Briere’s husband.

  9. There is more damaging material coming out on the behind-the-scenes maneuvering. Earlier today I sent A2P an e-mail that Councilmember Rapundalo sent out in response to a citizen inquiry. It is now publicly available, thanks to an AnnArbor.com link to a2docs.org. Ryan Stanton himself posted it on a2docs.org. Here it is:

    Ms. Kahn,
    I’ve looked into these allegations in the last few days as on the face of them such actions seem suspect. However, as it turns out the Mayor and Mr. Fraser met only on a few occasions to share their perspectives on what the community’s expectations were for the site. Valiant and other respondents sought that kind of input not only from Mr. Hieftje and Mr. Fraser but from many other stakeholders including but not limited to the Library Director, DDA Director, U-M officials, community leaders, Chamber President, and many others. Some respondents sought more input than others and over longer periods of time (in the case of Valiant). As best as I can tell, at no time has any City official pushed one proposal over another. Any deliberations over who should be recommended to the City Council for development of the site rest solely with the Library Lot RFP Advisory Committee (which I Chair). Furthermore, the proposals submitted are not the same concept clearly indicating that despite sitting down with the same individuals around town, the respondents came up with different ideas for the site. I hope that provides greater assurance that the process has not been biased. Moreover, we have allowed for a public input from the outset of the RFP review process and one which we intend to carry forward for as long as is appropriate prior to the Committee reaching consensus on a recommendation.
    Stephen Rapundalo
    City Council – 2nd Ward
    City of Ann Arbor
    Email: srapundalo@a2gov.org
    Tel: (734) 476-0648
    It has come to my attention that, beginning in 2008, discussions took place between Valiant Partners, LLD, Mayor Hieftje and Roger Fraser regarding a conference center on the Library Lot. I object that, while leading the citizens of Ann Arbor to believe they have a voice in the decision of what to do with the Library Lot, the mayor and others are trying to push through
    something that is not in the best interest of the city of Ann Arbor and its citizens.
    -Kitty B. Kahn, 515 Krause Street, Ann Arbor 48103

    So. Hieftje and Fraser did not just meet with Valiant, but with at least one other respondent as well. Plus, there was more than one meeting with Valiant.

    Sometimes I feel like I’m in the middle of a “Spy vs. Spy” drama.

  10. Re #12, I did read the January 4 article, (which also seemed too concerned with CM Briere’s failure to be perfect). I wrote comment #20 under that article. That, however, was January 4, this is January 22. What have you done for us lately ;>)

    I just expect the WWE of local political journalism to deliver a body slam more often. Just to keep us all entertained. It’s not like the Council isn’t providing you with plenty to slam.

  11. #11 “As an AAPS trustee for four years, I had access to controversial and damaging information, but the average citizen was not interested in hearing it and my friends told me I was becoming a bore.”

    From the poll here, people are obviously not “bored” and are very interested in understanding whether those who represent us on Council are honest and working openly. Sabra may deserve your thanks, but not mine. She has spent many a vote currying favor with the Council majority (as the blogger points out with the underground parking garage vote). Sabra is not one of “our” sacred cows. A2GOP I fear has it correct in saying that Sabra Briere has been playing ball with the Hieftje crowd for quite some time.

    She attempted to undermine Anglin when he ran for re-election. She earned my contempt and the contempt of other Fifth Warders for her duplicity.

  12. I agree with Jack Eaton. Why divert attention away from the real culprits here instead of going after Briere? I find Cahill’s explanation for the delay credible, but the fact is the most interesting revelations are about her very recent conversations with Bernstein and Skelton, not the stuff from six months ago.

    Everyone knew that Valiant’s plans were in the City’s hands for over a year–Fraser showed them to Council at the retreat in January 2009. Knowing there was still a set in the Mayor’s hands in June is not surprising, but it does call into question the City’s response to FOIA requests.

    When coupled with the dates of Karen Sydney’s FOIA requests, Briere’s information reveals a disturbing timeline that points to not only a secret plan to push through Valiant’s proposal, but what would seem to be deliberate attempts by Fraser and Hieftje to avoid the FOIA requests. How is it that Fraser had the Valiant plans on January 10,2009, but not January 12, 2009? Clever enough to toss them out the next day to avoid a FOIA? How is it that Hieftje had them in mid-June (and sharing them with multiple council members), but not in early August when Sydney’s second FOIA was submitted? And why the “miscommunication” about the rejection of the first FOIA request? (First the City claimed the documents were preliminary and advisory so not subject to FOIA, then changed that to, “Whoops, we meant to say those plans you saw Fraser holding at the retreat don’t actually exist. Yeah. That’s it! They don’t exist!”)

    The other very important element Briere adds is Bernstein’s assumption and anger over he felt should have been a done deal for Valiant a long time ago. This new information implies that, at least in Bernstein’s mind, assurances were made to Valiant by someone at the City. Not only would this make the RFP process a sham, but look up “promissory estoppel” in your law dictionary. Who will sue first? Proposers who were put at a disadvantage by what appears to be inside dealing and information-sharing with Valiant or the Valiant boys themselves, for breach of promise?

    A few more FOIA’d emails or other leaked information and I have a hunch the rats will start jumping off this sinking ship. The water is definitely rising.

  13. @8 Gotcha covered with that suggestion to write about the other guys, too. Maybe you missed the post. It’s titled: The Ladies Doth Protest Too Much: “There is No ‘Predetermined’ Outcome,” Claim Rapunds and Margie T. (With Poll). I posted it on January 4th. http://www.a2politico.com/?p=2488 Have a gander.

  14. Sabra has my respect for sharing the information. The timing is a minor issue and much of the information was not relevant or newsworthy until recently.

    As an AAPS trustee for four years, I had access to controversial and damaging information, but the average citizen was not interested in hearing it and my friends told me I was becoming a bore. I reported to the district general counsel information that I considered “to be in conflict with standard business practices” and possibly illegal, but little action was taken other than spending school funds on consultants for damage control.

    The Ann Arbor News documented some of the issues, but there was tremendous pressure on the paper’s leadership to create a positive image for our community. Some old articles on AAPS’s difficulties are available on MLive.

    Thanks goodness we now have A2Politico, AnnArborChronicle, AnnArbor.com and various other blogs to investigate and report on local political activities.

    Sabra deserves our thanks – she will not be getting it from Council.

  15. So much for Sabra. What about the other nine members of council and the Mayor? Time for them to come clean. Or will take more lawsuits? I really don’t have any views on the Library parking lot project. But I hate lies and secret deals and dishonesty. And there’s been truckloads of that from our elected officials.

    And, most of the members of City Council have nothing to do with the core values of the Democratic Party.

  16. @5 To clarify, I meant that the local Democratic Party should lose credibility locally. As a local Democrat, you should be furious at the local party for supporting these officials, as they are discrediting the party that is supposed to represent your political values and beliefs.

    I agree with you about Sabra.

    Getting back to my original comment, I hoped to point out that local Republicans should not be discredited because of state and national politics. In the same vein, all Democrats should not be discredited because of the actions of those in government here.

    Local politics, especially at the city level, are a completely different game. In part, that is why I believe that local elections should be non-partisan. Candidates should be elected based upon their vision for the community, not their political affiliation.

  17. While I wish Council Member Briere had disclosed this information sooner, I believe the article focuses too much attention on that delay rather than on the content of her message. While it is perplexing why she might have held this information so long, it is wildly outrageous that others may have engaged in assisting one of the RFP developers over the last couple of years.

    While Council Members Teal and Rupundalo pretend that some of the proposals lack sufficient financial detail, we learn that there is simply no market (or source of financing) for the secret plan that will inevitably be selected. As I explain in a note after the most recent article on Local in Ann Arbor, this RFP will surely lead to more litigation by a developer against the City. http://localannarbor.wordpress.com/

    Please provide more coverage of the misdeeds of those who seem to have made up their minds on building a conference center before releasing the RFP. They seem intent on covering those misdeeds by conducting a dog and pony RFP show. That is the real story here.

  18. It should be obvious why Sabra didn’t go public until January 18: It would have only been her word against the word of others.

    Councilmember Rapundalo’s comments at the Council caucus on January 17 (see the Chronicle coverage) opened the door for her.

  19. I am at a loss for words. I voted for Sabra twice, and I wish I could find a reason to disagree with A2GOP and Lou Glorie, but I can’t. I think it’s important to point out that Sabra has been a responsive council member in my few dealings with her, but to have had this information and kept it private? Of course it was a secret that should have been brought out into the open. That is beyond argument, and why she did not do so is beyond my comprehension.

  20. @2 It is not the Democratic Party that should lose its credibility, it is the Democrats in Ann Arbor who have run rough shod over the principles of the Democratic Party and certainly the idea that any of them are progressive Democrats. It is Sabra Briere who has lost her credibility as a champion of the people and someone who can be counted on to be a straight shooter. Please don’t lump all Democrats in with the ones who are in government here. Some of us would have come forward and as A2GOP said realized we had “an ethical obligation to do so.” As a Dem I am shocked that Briere could think circulating such an email would absolve her sins.

  21. If anyone is surprised by this, well then, pay closer attention to the dynamics on Council. It has been quite clear from her votes that Sabra Briere had been playing ball with the Hieftje crowd for quite some time. A2Politico brings up that parking garage vote, and that is a good example of Briere playing nicely with the majority. She evidently sent this email out believing that her constituents are rather “dim,” to quote another council member. Of course she should have come forward earlier. She had an ethical obligation to do so, I think. If A2Dem is out there lurking, please chime in. I’m wondering if I’m just feeling like a crabby Republican at the moment who is sick to death of the Democrats in this town getting away with political murder.

  22. It’s providence that the first comment says what is does. That, in essence, says it all. What, on earth, made Ms. Briere think keeping such information secret was in the best interests of the people of Ann Arbor? It was, not to put to fine a point on it, in Briere’s best interests. Good heavens but she has proven little by this email but that she has a skewed sense of loyalties and can be easily led into temptation with something as simple as invitation from the Mayor into keeping private a backroom deal she oughtn’t to have have kept private at all.

  23. “In government, transparency is important…but it’s hard to know when to tell something that isn’t your secret. Some of the things I’ve learned along the way as a member of Council haven’t been mine to share…”

    Are you kidding me?!? Sabra was elected partially on the premise that she wasn’t part of the Hieftje gang. She then has the nerve to write the people who elected her, and state that she didn’t feel comfortable exposing their “secrets.” Lou is correct, beyond closed sessions, the only “secrets” that can exist are those that are kept by the enablers.

    As far as I’m concerned, this makes her worse than Hieftje’s crew. At least we know what to expect from them.

    In comments on another post, Mr. Cahill has stated that the Republican party has lost all credibility in Ann Arbor. (I assume this is based on state and national GOP politics, since there haven’t been any Republicans elected locally in years.) So, on local issues, I ask, why haven’t the Democrats lost their credibility as well?

  24. I would like clarification on what secrets are Sabra’s to share? It is my understanding that the only unsharables are those subjects discussed in closed session. The mayor’s shenanigans with developers, his agenda to extend the downtown all the way to East and West Stadium are really not protected by anything but the dynamics one sees between a junkie and an enabler.

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