In Ward 3 Debate, Kunselman Goes After DDA & Alleges Political “Cronyism” A Problem in Ann Arbor Government
The Ann Arbor chapter of the League of Women Voters sponsors candidate debates each election cycle for City Council races. On October 5, 2011, the League gave Third Ward Democrat Stephen Kunselman the chance to strut his political stuff against Republican opponent David Parker. Parker and Kunselman tackled questions about the proposed street millage renewal, the Fuller Road parking garage project, and the Percent for Art Program. However, it was Kunselman’s opening statement that should give pause. Kunselman took the Downtown Development Authority to the cleaners. The DDA is a board of individuals who control an approximately $20,000,000 annual budget generated by tax revenues captured from downtown businesses, as well as parking revenues generated by publicly-owned parking garages and lots.
In his opening statement, Kunselman (left) called the DDA a hotbed of “political cronyism.” In contrast, Second Ward Council member Stephen Rapundalo, in his debate against former Second Ward Council member Jane Lumm, who is trying to retake the seat she last held in the late-90s, had nothing but praise for the members of the DDA Board.
This is not Kunselman’s first criticism of the DDA. Kunselman has also referred to the Board the DDA as a “shadow government,” seeking to take control of political decisions which have typically been made by elected officials on City Council, such as whether parking rates should be raised or not. In 2010, former DDA Chair Joan Lowenstein pushed to have City Council give up its responsibility to set parking rates. Lowenstein was quoted in the Press as saying:
All of you [City Council members] here have to run for office every couple of years. There is no reason why any of you should have to run for office on the question of whether parking is $1.50 an hour or $1.75 an hour. You are elected to make broad policy decisions and have a broad policy agenda, and what we’re suggesting here is that we [the DDA Board] take over what are some of the managerial parts of this whole process so that we can, in effect, shield you from having to do that.”
The idea of “shielding” elected officials didn’t sit well with some. Barbara C. Kramer posted a comment in response to the piece in which Lowenstein was quoted. Kramer says, “While understanding the Mayor’s desire that council members not be elected or not elected on one issue, one hopes the voters have more depth in their decision making. I believe we elect officials to make tough decisions based on the will of their constituents. The DDA does a fine job, but its members are not elected and should not have final say.”
Vivienne Armentrout, a former Washtenaw County Commissioner, writes in response, “Council should not be giving up their powers of decision on this or any other subject to an unelected body. What former CM Lowenstein is saying is that Council should be protected from any consequence of their actions. But it also will handicap them from setting the direction of our city. I don’t agree that Council is only a broad policy-setting body. Our Council and Mayor have traditionally been partners (with the administration) in management of matters that affect our citizens. I would hate to see current or future councilmembers prohibited from carrying out this role.”
Decisions such as this one to allow the DDA Board members to decide public policy—decisions made by people who are not elected officials, but rather are appointed by Mayor John Hieftje—has resulted in Kunselman’s vocal criticisms. The recent League of Women Voters debate, however, was the first time Steve Kunselman alleged that the DDA Board is populated by John Hieftje’s political cronies. It was also the first time Kunselman vowed to “keep on going after” the DDA.
Hieftje is notoriously touchy about such criticisms. In 2010, while running for re-election, after a debate at which he was criticized for cronyism and his administration called “corrupt,” he left enraged. He stopped at the homes of several supporters and yanked out his yard signs. He later told AnnArbor.com that he didn’t want his yard signs next to those of the Council candidate who had made the allegations. Hieftje’s actions may have surprised some, but certainly not those who are long-time political observers. He was, in fact, chided for being thin-skinned in response to criticism and retaliatory in the face of political disagreements in a 2004 editorial in the Ann Arbor News. The paper editorialized:
“Hieftje’s largest failure is not one of vision, but leadership. Few are willing to publicly criticize Hieftje because they expect quick retaliation and there is good reason for that conclusion. He sprints to accept praise. His reaction to disagreement is shrill. Hieftje could not identify one thing he would do differently in his current term as mayor. He was, however, ready to head down a path of identifying the missteps of city employees until he was reminded that the question pertained to his own actions.”
Stephen Kunselman has felt the wrath of Hieftje. Kunselman was knocked off of Council in 2009 by Christopher Taylor, recruited, some say, at the behest of Hieftje, who was irritated that Kunselman had consistently refused to fall into step and vote reliably with Hieftje and the so-called Council Majority on a variety of issues. During the Kunselman-Taylor race, someone at City Hall leaked confidential information to the Ann Arbor News about a union grievance filed by AFSCME officials against Kunselman. The paper used the grievance to write a scathing attack on Kunselman in its endorsement of Christopher Taylor. Kunselman lost in 2008, but came back in 2009, and knocked off former Third Ward Council member Leigh Greden.
This year, DDA member Joan Lowenstein very openly backed Ingrid Ault, one of Kunselman’s two opponents in the August Democratic primary. Lowenstein was not alone. Ault was backed by First Ward Council member Sandi Smith, as well. Smith sits on the Board of the DDA. A few weeks after Kunselman handily beat Ault, he cast the lone dissenting vote in Council’s reappointment of Joan Lowenstein to the Board of the DDA. After Hieftje heaped praise on Lowenstein in the midst of asking Council to approve her appointment, Kunselman voted against the re-appointment without comment.
Stephen Kunselman’s allegations concerning Hieftje’s penchant for stacking city Boards and Commissions with his political yes men and political cronies are not without merit. The mayor’s campaign finance forms reveal a pattern that comes very close to pay-to-play. For instance, it’s not uncommon to look back to an election prior to an individual’s Board or Commission appointment, and find a large donation was made to Hieftje’s campaign. From the members of DDA Board alone, Hieftje raised almost 15 percent of the money he needed to run his 2010 re-election campaign.
As for Republican David Parker, his performance at the League debate was lackluster. He was uniformed about the workings of city government, as well as on the major policy issues that will face City Council after the November election. At one point Mr. Parker admitted that he had not done his “research.” At another point, when answering a question about the long-time debate over whether Ann Arbor city government should create a Greenway through the city, Parker appeared clueless.
It’s clear Steve Kunselman is the better prepared and more experienced of the two candidates. It’s also clear that, if re-elected, Kunselman will intensify his efforts to reign in the DDA Board and its spending. It’s a message that resonates with voters angered at having to pay big city parking rates. It’s a message that resonates with downtown merchants who believe extending parking enforcement hours to increase DDA revenues to pay for projects such as the new police-court building, will hurt their businesses.
“I think Steve Kunselman is right on with his criticisms of the DDA Board. Those people don’t represent the downtown. They don’t care about the vitality of downtown. They care about sitting on some board. They’re on a power trip and it’s hurting the city,” fumed a downtown shop owner who has had a store on Main Street for many years.
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