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The Politics of Conflict: Not Just John Hieftje Has Conflict of Interest Problems With U of M

A2P Notes: I sent the following email to Ann Arbor’s City Council members (Fifth Council members Anglin and Hohnke, John Hieftje, and First Ward Council member Sandi Smith opened and read the email, according to the email program I use that provides receipts), as well as a list of about 400 people who are involved in city politics. I also sent this to Dr. Mary Sue Coleman and the University of Michigan Board of Regents. A slightly different version of this letter went to the local newspapers.  

Friends,

The Ann Arbor City Council is preparing to vote on resolutions related to the Fuller Road Parking Garage project. As you may know, the parcel of city land opposite Fuller Pool, just in front of the University of Michigan Hospital, was recently identified by City staff as the “only” spot available for a multi-story, several hundred car parking garage for the University of Michigan. The parcel is zoned parkland, and parkland may not be sold without voter approval. It may, however, be leased, an obvious loophole in the Charter Amendment that our local chapter of the Michigan Sierra Club believes should not be exploited.

Along with the several thousand members of the local Sierra Club, as well as members of the Parks Advisory Commission, I am very concerned about this circumventing of the Charter amendment that guarantees voters control over the disposal of parkland. More than that, I have been concerned for quite some time about the clear conflict of interest that is exists, presently, between several members of City Council and the University of Michigan.

In October 2008, the Ann Arbor News published an Op-Ed I wrote (http://www.mlive.com/opinion/ann-arbor/index.ssf/2008/10/whatever_the_reason_hiefjes_um.html) concerning Mayor Hieftje’s connection to the University of Michigan as one of the most highly paid lecturers in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. In that Op-Ed, I wrote that I was concerned that John Hieftje’s refusal to recuse himself from votes impacting the University presented a clear conflict of interest. I believe it still does. John Hieftje was hired by U of M after being elected to office, as was his wife, Kathryn Goodson. Third Ward Council member Stephen Kunselman and Fourth Ward Council member Marcia Higgins are both full-time employees of the University of Michigan. Second Ward Council member Tony Derezinski was also hired by the University after his election (though it appears while he had an appointment with the University he did not teach as a LEO Lecturer I during 2009). 

As you may know, despite campaign promises to pursue an ethics policy, Third Ward Council members Kunselman and Taylor have not been able to produce one in the two years since the email scandal which resulted in a lawsuit against the City alleging violations of the Open Meetings Act as a result of the use of email to comunicate privately during Open Meetings. Mr. Taylor, in fact, listed this as a “disappointment” in the recent self-evaluaiton he sent to members of the Ward. Though the email issue has, to a degree, been addressed, current Council rules (written by the members) require our elected officials to vote as a group on whether a conflict may be present. As one may easily judge from the lop-sided terms of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the University of Michigan and the City of Ann Arbor concerning the Fuller Road Parking Garage project, this mechanism is simply not working in the best interests of the city’s residents whom the Council represent. For instance, though it was reported by AnnArbor.com that the city will have access to a small percentage of the parking spaces in exchange for shouldering a percentage of the costs, this is contradicted by the terms of the MOU.

It is time for our Mayor and Council members Higgins, Kunselman and Derezinski to recuse themselves from votes on the Fuller Road Parking Garage project, and to recuse themselves from votes on all other resolutions that come before Council involving their employer, the University of Michigan. John Hieftje has said that in a town as small as Ann Arbor it would be difficult to have a City Council comprised of people who had no connection to the University. This may be true. However, it is equally true to ignore the conflicts of interest that arise when U of M employees sit on our City Council is clearly not in the best interests of the taxpayers.This is particuarly true of those, like Hieftje, who are hired by U of M after election, because they hold elected office.

I hope you will forward this email to those in your address books who may be concerned, as well. I urge you to contact the Mayor and Council members (JHieftje@a2gov.org;ssmith@a2gov.org; Sbriere@a2gov.org; SRapundalo@a2gov.org; TDerezinski@a2gov.org; CTaylor@a2gov.org; SKunselman@a2gov.org; MHiggins@a2gov.org; MTeall@a2gov.org; CHohnke@a2gov.org; MAnglin@a2gov.org) and encourage them to adopt a strict conflict of interest policy, and until such time as conflicts such as this one are spelled out in writing for our Mayor and Council members, to recuse themselves from upcoming votes related to the Fuller Road Parking Garage project.

Sincerely,

Patricia Lesko 

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