The Politics of the DDA: Time to Clean House
Rene Greff and Jennifer Santi Hall are spilling the beans about the down and dirty inner-workings of the Downtown Development Authority to Ann Arborites, and anyone else who would care to know. At the most recent DDA meeting, at which Russ Collins, Leah Gunn, Roger Hewitt, Mayor John Hieftje, Joan Lowenstein, John Splitt, and City Council Member Sandi Smith supported siphoning off $2 million to prop up the city’s leaky bucket of a budget, Santi Hall alleged “secret” back room wheeling and dealing. She is quoted in a May 5, 2010 post to Ann Arbor.com as saying:
All are laudable goals, of course, but most involve influencing or changing the course of the city’s public policy. That’s the job of our elected officials. In other towns, including Royal Oak, the budgets of their DDA’s must be approved by elected officials. Ours is not. In fact, First Ward Council member Sandi Smith has argued that the City Council has no business sticking its collective nose in DDA parking policy, and members of the DDA Board have argued that the entity is autonomous. Jennifer Hall, in her interview with A2Politico said that: “I wish Council provided the kind of oversight, check and balance that an independent agency such as the DDA (or AATA or any other authority) should have. But they don’t always do that. They don’t really look into our bylaws and make sure that we aren’t abusing our power.”
The DDA Board is abusing its power. The Board recently voted to expand its own state-mandated boundary so as to be able to give a $500,000 tax dollar giveaway to the Near North project, located outside the long-established DDA boundary. Then there is the recent $2 million dollar giveaway to the city of Ann Arbor. County officials are investigating the legality of that transfer, because it involves tax capture money that would, otherwise, go into Washtenaw County coffers. The DDA Board recently cost the taxpayers $500,000 when the project manager it chose to oversee the construction of the underground parking garage awarded a $22 million dollar contract to its own subsidiary. The Christman subsidiary bid was $500,000 higher than the lowest bidder. This prompted an editorial in the AnnArbor.com titled “Concrete deal for DDA underground parking structure a bad deal for taxpayers.” In that editorial, Tony Dearing writes:
“It looks bad and raises serious questions when a company managing construction of a major public project rejects a lower bid from a competitor and awards the work to its subsidiary….We have spoken to many experts who find it hard to believe that a public entity would allow such an outcome, but this now appears to be a done deal. Because of the DDA’s autonomy on this project, we are not aware of any other entity that has the ability to step in after the fact and give this questionable bid award the level of review or scrutiny that the DDA failed to provide.”
But there is an entity that can step in: City Council. Just as the group recently dismissed the entire Housing Commission Board, the City Council could vote to dismiss the entire DDA Board, and direct the newly appointed replacements to suspend the Christman contract, and give the questionable bid award the scrutiny the previous DDA Board obviously failed to provide.
Though this is the obvious solution to the DDA’s failure to act in the best interests of the taxpayers whose money they have access to through the TIF capture, it won’t happen as long as the incumbent remains in office. Why? Because over the past half a dozen years, the DDA Board has been stacked with friends, donors and political pals. It’s tough to tell a group of people whose combined donations during your last campaign totaled close to 25 percent of the donations you took in, that their services are no longer needed because, well, they cost the taxpayers half a million dollars.
That’s why Mayoral appointments of friends, political pals and donors to city boards and commissions has to end. In addition, there are members of city boards and commissions who have overstayed their welcome.
For instance, County Commissioner Leah Gunn has served far too many terms on the DDA, having been appointed when George H.W. Bush was president. The quality of her recent work shows why she is no longer an asset, and a look at the Mayor’s 2008 campaign finance forms will make clear exactly why he will never replace her. She has donated thousands in in-kind goods, services and monetary donations to his campaigns over the past half a dozen years.
To justify the $2.28 million dollar purchase of additional parking kiosks, Gunn went before the DDA Board and gave the jolly explanation that they should pony up the money for the detestable and over-priced kiosks because, “We have found that everybody likes them.” How she knew that for a fact remains a mystery, as the DDA conducted no user study, and Gunn’s colleagues neglected to stop for a moment before writing the check to enquire just how she came to that blowsy conclusion. Then, on May 8, 2010, she was quoted in AnnArbor.com as saying that a proposal to use DDA money to return the Beat Cops to Main Street: “…needs…a lot of homework done. There’s a lot of data that needs to be collected and a great deal of discussion that needs to be held.”
Seriously? With six police officers patrolling all of Ann Arbor on any given morning she thinks returning the Beat Cops to Main Street needs lots of data collected and a great deal of discussion? As you can imagine, she found support from Mayor Hieftje. He called the proposal to fund beat cops on Main Street “premature,” and said “beat cops might not be the best way to police downtown.” I’m not sure what he thinks might be the best way to police downtown, but at the moment whatever it is it involves cutting more police to fund a parking garage on Fuller Road for his friends at the University of Michigan, and to pay for cost over-runs on the price-“guaranteed” Police-Court facilty. Those cost over-runs have cropped up in the 2010-2011 proposed budget. Suddenly, the “guaranteed” cost of that capital project is, well, is fungible, as they like to say on Council.
Every Main Street business owner whom I’ve spoken to wants that police protection back. In October of 2009, just three months after Council adopted a budget that cut Beat Cops from downtown, the Chief of Police went down to the Main Street Area Association and offered to return the Beat Cops in a pay-for-policing offer. I wrote about that here. Was Chief Barnett Jones just trying to up sell our Main Street Merchants police coverage like so many matching handbags, police protection they didn’t need? I doubt it. Here’s a better question: Should the appointed officials on the DDA Board be deciding whether Ann Arbor’s downtown needs police protection? Absolutely not.
City Administrator Roger Fraser suggested in December of 2009 that we dissolve the DDA in order to return some $2.4 million dollars per year to our city’s General Fund. If elected, I want to actively pursue Roger Fraser’s suggestion. Until then, I think it’s time for the DDA to immediately make as much of its financial information available online as possible. That information should include previous year’s budgets going back to 2000, parking data, monthly budget statements, quarterly budget statements, audits, and the DDA’s check register.
Appointed officials have no business dictating police coverage, wasting half a million dollars of taxpayers’ money through lack of oversight of a contractor, extending their own boundary as they see fit so as to facilitate tax giveaways to private developers partnered conveniently with local non-profits. Appointed officials and elected officials on the DDA Board have no business holding “work sessions” so that their decisions can be formulated out of the public eye, and away from the coverage of the local press. Our DDA’s appointed officials have no business setting transportation policy, housing policy, or spending parking/tax dollars on private developments. Subverting the Open Meetings Act simply makes the public more wary and mistrustful of whatever good deeds such an entity could (and does) accomplish.
Be that as it may, public money must be controlled by elected officials, not appointed ones. It’s time to clean house at the DDA through Mayoral appointments made not as recompense for political support, but rather for the good of the downtown and in support of our local merchants. I agree with Roger Fraser that we have to reassess whether the entity should exist in its current form, or dissolve the DDA and form an Advisory Commission with absolutely no access to public money. We’ll lose the TIF capture, but that money will go back to the city’s coffers, county’s coffers, schools and libraries, institutions that service the entire community.
Finally, and most importantly, the contract between the city and the DDA that established the DDA as the entity that oversees our parking program should be bid out competitively. Until we make parking revenue neutral, alternative/mass transportation programs and initiatives in Ann Arbor will remain political step-children dragged out every election season to be used as bullet points on political web sites.
Ann Arbor taxpayers deserve accountability, and in the case of the DDA, and every other board and commission in Ann Arbor, the City Charter provides City Council with the mechanism to make sure the members of boards and commissions are held accountable. Whether Mayor and Council will continue to appoint friends, donors and political pals to our city’s boards and commissions, or choose to give the taxpayers in the fifth largest city in Michigan the accountability they deserve is another matter that will be decided August 3rd.
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