The Politics of Power: Out-County Commishes Stage Board Take-Over
The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners race for the District 11 seat vacated by 53rd District State Representative-elect Jeff Irwin was, it turns out, more interesting and more instructional than even the two vote margin between the winning and losing candidates would indicate. University of Michigan student Yousef Rabhi beat a man 40 years his senior to take the seat. Both Democrats, the difference between Rabhi and Fried can be boiled down to one simple fact: Current Ann Arbor County Commish Barbara Levin Bergman had hand-picked Mike Fried and both Bergman and County Commissioner Leah Gunn backed his candidacy. After Fried lost (tip o’ the keyboard to Yousef Rabhi), Gunn endorsed Yousef Rabhi, but did not donate to his campaign. She wrote a check to Mike Fried’s campaign.
Times they are a’ changin’ my fellow politicos. The Grand Dems couldn’t get their candidate elected. Fried’s loss, particularly since it was such a close one, could seem like a fluke of luck more than anything. It was, however, another clear sign of the changing power dynamics on the County Board.
We’ll have to wait to see how Commissioner-elect Yousef Rabhi does holding his own in the face of what will surely be some serious pressure to go along with the tax-and-spend Ann Arbor Gang of Three (Conan Smith, Barbara Bergman and Leah Gunn), and it’s quite possible he will. However, the days of Ann Arbor’s Four Commissioners of the Apocalypse having absolute control over the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners is coming to a close thanks to an alliance among the so-called “out-county Commissioners.” That voting block/alliance is being spearheaded by Pittsfield Commissioner, Democrat Kristin Judge, and Augusta Township Commissioner Wes Prater, both of whom face opponents in the November election.
The over-throw has been brewing for months.
In January 2010, I wrote about the somewhat comical tussle between Commissioners Bergman and Judge:
Kristin Judge stood for re-election as co-Chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners Ways and Means Committee. Barbara Bergman voted against Judge’s candidacy. Then, Bergman proceeded to explain for the record he’d voted no on Judge’s candidacy. According to a January 8, 2010 piece posted to AnnArborChronicle.com, Bergman announced that “Judge had made a personal, unprovoked attack on her, and that it did not demonstrate leadership behavior.”
In November 2009, Kristin Judge and Wes Prater defied the Ann Arbor Gang of Four:
On November 3rd, tens of thousands of county residents told the trustees of 10 school boards in the County, as well as the trustees of the WISD, not to mention the celebrity line-up of local politicos who backed the $130,000,000 tax hike for “the kids,” to go fluff their auras. Voters told school officials and their political allies who endorsed the millage (including Ann Arbor County Commissioners Smith, Gunn and Irwin) that it was not the moment for a tax hike.
The very next day, the French aristocrats on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners got together for a rollicking ”Let Them Eat Cake” party and went right ahead and imposed a new property tax. County Administrator Robert Guenzel is busy printing up t-shirts: “Real Men Impose Their Property Taxes. Voter Approval is for Pantywaists.” The t-shirts may be purchased at many of the local Ann Arbor restaurants where Bobbie G. holds staff meetings, or at Ann Arbor SPARK’s headquarters.
Ann Arbor’s four monarchists on the Washtenaw County Commissioners Barbara Bergman, Leah Gunn, Jeff Irwin (currently in the hunt for the 53rd District House seat), and Conan Smith provided half of the eight votes cast in order to impose the new property tax—an Act 88 Millage—to fund economic development and agricultural activities. The tax is expected to raise $608,000 from Washtenaw County residents. It’s a small tax. Tiny. Hardly noticeable. It’s certainly not the $30 million per year the WISD would have raised. So what’s the problem? It’s the principle of the maneuver, or rather the lack of principles associated with the maneuver to which I object.
The new millage will provide $200,000 for Ann Arbor SPARK; $50,000 for SPARK East; $100,000 for the Eastern Leaders Group; $59,000 for 4-H activities; $27,000 for Horticulture Programming; $15,000 for Agricultural Innovation; $15,000 for the Food Systems Economic Partnership; and $137,000 for the county’s Department of Economic Development and Energy activities.
Commissioners Kristin Judge and Wesley Prater voted against the new tax.
A2Politico interviewed Kristin Judge here. I decided to do the interview after I’d read that Judge had been accused by the Ann Arbor Commissioners of “micro-managing” the County’s budget by asking to, well, have the line items explained to her. She got accused of “grandstanding” by Jeff Irwin and Conan Smith when she turned in her County-provided cell phone last September. I wrote:
Democratic Washtenaw County Commissioner Kristin Judge is my kinda girl. When the going gets tough, she gives up her cell phone. Evidently, Washtenaw County is spending $361,536.29 (tip o’ the keyboard to County Commissioner Kristin Judge) per year on cell phone service for Commissioners and employees. Commissioner Judge, elected in 2008, compared the County’s cell phone bill to the $35,000 allocation for Food Gatherers (tip o’ the keyboard to Eileen Spring, CEO, Food Gatherers), on the chopping block under County Administrator Bob Guenzel’s plan to balance the county budget. Too bad Bob Guenzel didn’t think to check out the cell phone line item in the budget himself.
What the dynamic duo of Judge and Prater is up to now will, surely, give their Ann Arbor colleagues on the County Board a bit of heartburn: the Transparency Initiative. Judge and Prater spearheaded the effort to put the checkbook for the County’s general fund online. Not bad. Not ground-breaking, but certainly worth a nod. The City of Ann Arbor recently took the same step. Then, Judge and Prater raised the ante. The credit card expenses of our County Commissioners will be put online, as well as the salaries of County employees.
In an October 2009 post, I wrote about Ann Arbor County Commissioner Conan’s Smith’s luxe trip to Mackinaw Island on the taxpayer’s dime. I’d received a tip from a county employee to FOIA the Commishes credit card statements:
The biggest spender of all was the Chair of the County’s Ways and Means Committee, the committee that oversees the county’s budget. That was Ann Arbor County Commissioner Conan Smith. In May of 2009, while attending the Detroit Regional Chamber Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island, taxpayers treated Smith to a $889.04 room at the Grand Hotel. He had the $11 breakfast, too. Did I miss the memo? When did Washtenaw County become a member of the Detroit “regional” Chamber of Commerce? Is Ann Arbor considered part of the “Detroit” region?
Of course, having the credit card statements on line won’t keep Commissioners from hiding their expenses by simply paying out-of-pocket, which is what a Commissioner complained to me Judge had done to hide her spending, and then being reimbursed for the expenses. Anyone curious about whether Conan Smith or any other County Commissioner is dropping $900 per night for hotel rooms thanks to the largesse of taxpayers, will still have to FOIA information about their spending and reimbursements from the County. In the meantime, hopefully, County Commissioners will be more careful about buying dog food, and paying for by-the-hour hotel rooms using their County-provided credit cards. Or not.
Over the next year, look for Ann Arbor Commissioners Bergman and Gunn to have that look on their faces. You know the one. The one they get when the initiatives, taxation and spending they want get voted down. Kristin Judge will, surely, replace Conan Smith as Chair of the Ways and Means Committee, where spending decisions are hammered out. Whether Yousef Rabhi will sense which way the wind is blowing and throw his lot in with the “out county” rebels or side with the Ann Arbor Commishes and spend his time spitting into the wind, will be a show for which one need not even buy a ticket.
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