Interview: Second Ward Council Candidate Tim Hull Is Focused, Bright and Couldn’t Disagree More With Incumbent Stephen Rapundalo About, Well, Most Everything
In the Urban Dictionary, 149 is slang used to refer to someone who is very, very bright. Second Ward City Council candidate Tim Hull (pictured left) is definitely a 149.
He holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan in computer science and history, as well as a graduate degree from the U of M School of Information. He works as a programmer at U-M’s Center for Computational Medicine and Bioinformatics. According to a 2008 profile of Hull published in the Ann Arbor News, “By the time he was an eighth-grader, he had already written companies like Microsoft so persuasively that they let him beta-test versions of software, such as Windows 98, before the software was officially released.”
During his time as a U of M student, Tim worked in an internship position with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, working on development of the Motor Vehicle Emissions Simulator (MOVES) project. At NCIBI, Tim has contributed to Cytoscape plugin development, including the latest version of the MetScape metabolomics plugin and the MiMI (Michigan Molecular Interactions) plugin.
Computer programming is Tim Hull’s work. Government is his passion. Democrat Hull is running to unseat Second Ward incumbent Stephen Rapundalo, a former Republican who switched to the Democratic party to run for Council after he lost a mayoral race against John Hieftje. In 2010, Rapundalo supported Republican Rick Snyder with a generous donation.
Over the past two years on Council, Stephen Rapundalo’s most successful work has been in persuading Council to give tax dollars to Ann Arbor SPARK. In 2009, he led a failed effort to ban plastic bags. As head of the City Council Labor Committee, Rapundalo has been unable to supervise the successful negotiation of contracts with the city’s patrolman’s union, and his Committee has pushed city unions to arbitration hearings, each of which city officials lost—loses that cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. Over the past 12 months, Rapundalo led a failed money-saving effort to outsource the operations of Huron Hills Golf Course. It was a move against the city’s parkland that infuriated Second Ward residents and politicos, including popular former Council member Republican Jane Lumm.
In a January 2011 interview with A2Politico, Second Ward political heavy hitter Ted Annis promised that the Ward’s residents would find, finance and support a candidate to run against Stephen Rapundalo—a candidate who would support the public’s right to decide the fate of the city’s 2,000 acres of parkland.
Tim Hull’s political experience is somewhat limited. He was elected to the University of Michigan Student Assembly, where he focused on what he refers to “little things,” in a 2008 profile. They included resolutions aimed at making sure student government was open and representative of average U of M students. According to the 2008 profile, he also “crafted resolutions to make the student government’s compiled code – essentially its written rules – line up with the language of a different and superseding document, the all-campus constitution.”
Some colleagues on the student assembly responded by posting disparaging comments about Hull on a Facebook page. The behavior cost the President of the Michigan Student Assembly his seat, which he resigned.
The 2008 Michigan Student Assembly episode is an odd precursor to the 2009 Ann Arbor City Council email scandal. In June 2009 the Ann Arbor News revealed in a front page story that City Council members, including First Ward Council member Sandi Smith, Second Ward Council member Stephen Rapundalo, Third Ward Council members Leigh Greden and Christopher Taylor, Fourth Ward Council members Margie Teall and Marcia Higgins, as well as Fifth Ward Council member Carsten Hohnke, were rigging votes, possibly skirting the Open Meetings Act laws, and mocking Council colleagues and members of the public who spoke before Council, via emails exchanged during open Council meetings.
The so-called Council Majority comprised of the individuals above, exchanged dozens of emails during open meetings, many of the emails included disparaging comments about First Ward Council member Sabra Briere and Fifth Ward Council member Mike Anglin. His part in the scandal is thought to have cost Leigh Greden his seat, and it happened just months after the President of the Michigan Student Assembly was forced to resign for making disparaging comments in a public forum about Tim Hull, and Hull’s efforts to revise the student government rules.
Tim Hull currently serves on the city’s Taxicab Board and attended City Council meetings regularly long before he decided to challenge Stephen Rapundalo. His campaign is backed by some Second Ward political heavy hitters, including for AATA Board Treasurer Ted Annis. In this interview, Tim Hull talks about the need for Council to have an ethics policy, what he would do to deal with the quarter of a billion dollar unfunded pension and health care liability facing our city, and why blaming Ann Arbor’s unionized employees for the City’s financial troubles is disingenuous and costly to taxpayers.
A2Politico: Should Ann Arbor privatize its garbage collections? Do you favor privatization of citizen services as a way to save money?
I am very skeptical of the idea of privatizing city services to save money. First off, it simply doesn’t seem possible for a company to be able to do something for less money than the City and still provide the same level of services to residents, while also turning a profit. To that end, I am concerned about the City privatizing services as has been considered for garbage collection, which would see a single private hauler contract with the City. Without a competitive incentive and without the direct accountability that keeping operations in-house provides, I fear that savings would be limited and customer service would suffer.
A2Politico: You speak at length on the subject of the city’s finances and the Council Majority’s spending decisions your website. Specifically, you call for an end to the use of “buckets” of money by Council as an excuse for cutting services. The idea that money is stuck in buckets has repeatedly been called a financial ruse by local bank president Stephen Lange Ranzini. Which are the “buckets” (funds) that you would push to drain, if elected?
Overall, I think that any funds that are not restricted based on their funding sources and/or by the City Charter should be moved into the General Fund – and their expenses considered together with all other General Fund expenses. One example of something that could be moved into the General Fund in this manner would be the IT fund. Additionally, we should have an open discussion with the public regarding the restricted funds that come from City property taxes (which can be moved by a vote of the people). If there is demand for changes in these areas, it should be put to a public vote.
A2Politico: Where do you stand on the Fuller Road parking garage project?
I am a strong supporter of mass transit, and as such I think that a new transit hub and train station could prove to be a boon for the City. However, there are many questions that need to be answered before we proceed with this project, First and foremost, with the proposed site being part of Fuller Park I think that there needs to be a public vote before we consider building anything. Parkland belongs to the public, and should not be repurposed without their consent.
Furthermore, I am also concerned that not much seems to be set in stone yet beyond the parking structure – which I am concerned wouldn’t provide enough benefit to the City to be worthwhile on its own. I am likewise concerned that some of the funding and projected revenues may not materialize – leaving us to take out loans and/or use General Fund money to subsidize the project.
A2Politico: Ann Arbor currently faces a $250,000,000 unfunded pension/retiree health care liability. What changes in its pension ordinance would you propose, if elected, to get the out-of-control unfunded pension and retiree health care costs that have been allowed to proliferate under control?
With respect to the pension liability, I think there are a number of things that could be done. First and foremost, we should implement the recommendations found in the City’s 2005 Blue Ribbon report on pension reform – particularly changing the composition of the boards overseeing retirement health care and pensions such that a majority of their membership do not receive these benefits themselves. Eliminating this conflict of interest that we have on the current board will help make it easier to adopt needed reforms.
Secondly, we need to look at making changes to the pension system itself in order to get the liability under control both in the short and long term. One thing that could be done would be to increase the retirement age to 65. If necessary, we could also consider shifting from a defined-benefit plan to a defined-contribution plan (like a 401k) or have employees contribute more to the pension fund as necessary to keep it funded. Some of these changes may only be possible for future employees, though in any case it would be a good idea to consider them.
A2Politico: Information provided in response to FOIA requests recently revealed that while Council voted to cut police and fire services to close a $2.9 million budget gap, city managers and staffers were rewarded with over $1 million for cell phones, cell phone charges, texting packages, and cell phone allowances. Do you think perks for city managers should be cut before cutting police and fire fighters?
While some expenses may be necessary for staff to do their jobs (i.e. staff who work extensively off-site and need cell phones for business), there is certainly many perks that could be cut for city staff. These allowances should be limited to expenses necessary on the job, not for getting to and from work. As such, I would like to see many of the existing administrative perks go away and the money reallocated to more necessary expenses (such as public safety services).
A2Politico: Stephen Rapundalo is the CEO of MichBio, a local non-profit association. He was appointed by the Mayor to chair the LDFA that has dispersed millions in tax dollars to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) “job incubator” Ann Arbor SPARK. The MEDC recently donated $50,000 to MichBio. Third Ward Council member Christopher Taylor, who said he intended to create an ethics policy then failed to produce one, is employed by local law firm Butzel Long. The city has cut checks worth close to $50,000 over the past eight months to Butzel Long. Are these payments problematic in your opinion? One Council member recently told the press Council doesn’t need an ethics policy. What do you think?
I certainly have been a bit troubled by some of the apparent conflicts of interest that I’ve seen on the current City Council. In general, I do think it is problematic for councilmembers to financially benefit as a result of their actions on City Council. Given this, I think Council needs a clear ethics policy that deals with conflicts of interest and potential conflicts of interest such as these and sets clear standards on how councilmembers should handle such situations, with penalties for violations.
A2Politico: Your opponent chaired the committee to evaluate the RFP for the Library Lot. He also spearheaded the effort to outsource operations at Huron Hills Golf Course. In both instances, citizens formed ad hoc committees, and intensely criticized both of Rapundalo’s committees as having engaged in back room dealing, and having thwarted robust citizen participation. In other instances, citizen groups have engaged attorneys and alleged the city was ignoring its own ordinances, procedures and/or laws. Do you think Ann Arbor city government could engage citizens better? If so, what would you do to facilitate better citizen engagement?
I certainly think city government could engage citizens better than they have in the past – the failed Library Lot RFP are perfect illustrations of how this is currently lacking. I would work to do this in a number of ways. First of all, I would try to ensure that citizens are well informed as to what city government is doing by using the Internet, public forums, and other means to reach my constituents. To that end, I would also be accessible to my constituents – by phone, e-mail, and in person – and would actively work to address their concerns. Secondly, I would try to make sure that future RFP processes of this sort have adequate citizen participation from the start, and that citizen input is taken into account when making decisions. If a proposal comes for a vote that does not reflect the will of the community (as was the case with the conference center), I would vote against it.
A2Politico: Your opponent has said, ”In short, experience matters, as does leadership.” He has said that you would face a steep learning curve, and Council can’t afford to have anyone there who isn’t “experienced.” Both Fifth Ward Council member Carsten Hohnke and Third Ward Council member Christopher Taylor had no experience in office prior to their elections. Unlike you, neither served on a City Board or commission before running for Council. John Hieftje never served on a city board or commission before he ran for City Council, and served just six months on Council before running for Mayor. Rapundalo has repeatedly supported each of their candidacies. Why the double standard for you?
I don’t know that one can necessarily draw a perfect analogy between those races and mine – every election is different, and people support candidates for a wide variety of reasons. However, I will say this – while experience matters, it is hardly absolute in determining who the best person for the job is. Results matter as well, and from my time on the campaign I’ve realized that there are a large number of people who are dissatisfied with the status quo. I ran to help provide a voice for these voters, and ensure that their concerns are heard at the Council table.
A2Politico: Ann Arbor city managers habitually recommend to Council that the group award city contracts to members of the city’s boards and commissions without alerting Council to the fact that political appointees and/or their companies are receiving the city contracts. When your opponent Chaired the Golf Advisory Task Force, a member of the Task Force “floated his plan” for outsourcing the operations of Huron Hills Golf Course to city staff well before the public RFP was ever issued. When another member of the Task Force objected, Rapundalo said he did not see such behavior as problematic. What are your thoughts about the practice of awarding city contracts to board and commission members?
While there may be legitimate reason to award contracts to individuals who happen to be board or commission members, I can see why situations such as the ones you’ve mention could be seen as conflicts of interest. In any case, I think that board and commission members (as well as Council members) should not be involved in any situation that could be perceived as a conflict of interest, nor should they cast votes that they stand to benefit financially from. This should be a part of an ethics policy adopted by Council (which I alluded to in my previous statement).
A2Politico: Where do you stand on the need for a city income tax?
I don’t think we need a city income tax – taxpayers already pay enough as it is, and there are less essential areas of the budget that can be cut (such as administrative staff and some of the perks you alluded to in your previous question) to free up additional funds.
A2Politico: Your opponent has repeatedly blamed the city’s financial woes on stiff-necked unionized employees (whose negotiated contracts he repeatedly approved as a member of Council, and recommended for approval as a member of the Council Labor Committee) who won’t give concessions. Do you think the city’s unionized workers need to give concessions? If so, what kinds of concessions do they need to give?
Though the unions certainly need to give some concessions, I think my opponent has been unfair by pinning the recent cuts in safety services on the back of the unions. Also, I can understand why the unions may be hesitant to agree to concessions - in the past when City unions have given concessions (such as the firefighters’ union), they still have faced cutbacks. Overall, I think both sides need to give and take, and I think there should be sacrifice at all levels – from the City Administrator on down.
As for particular kinds of concessions, I think that pensions and healthcare are definitely two areas that should be looked at, particularly given the funding shortfall that currently exists for these. At the same time, administrators should also make sacrifices of their own – for instance, by sacrificing some of the perks they are currently entitled to. By doing this, the City can help establish a better relationship with the unions that will produce better results going forward.
Follow this link to Tim Hull’s campaign web site.
Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=9354