by P.D. Lesko
When I taught college, one writing assignment I most enjoyed was having my students compose letters to their elected officials. One woman chose to write a letter to the President. A couple of weeks later, she found her husband at their kitchen table, staring at an envelope. Why, he wanted to know, was President Bill Clinton writing to her? She shared the Presidentâs reply with the class and eventually framed the letter. Constituents are supposed to communicate their wishes, needs and concerns to elected officials. In turn, elected officials are supposed to respond. In Ann Arbor, Ward 4 Council members Margie Teall and Marcia Higgins are notorious for ignoring constituent phone calls and emails. Teall, who won by only 18 votes in the August 2012 Democratic primary, faced an opponent whose campaign literature pointed out Teallâs shortcomings with respect to constituent communications. Other Council members are more responsive, several sending out regular e-newsletters full of fun, sun, and kilos of political spin.
On the other side of the coin are the cityâs citizensâsome of whom are more inquisitive about local politics than others.
What follows is a 2007 email exchange between Ward 5 resident Karen Sidney (pictured left) and then Ward 5 Council member Chris Easthope (now Judge Easthope) concerning the City Councilâs plans to spend tens of millions on a new municipal building. It has since been dubbed a building Ann Arbor could ill afford (as Sidney points out in her 2007 emails). The following exchange not only demonstrates Karenâs analytical skills and grasp of the facts, but provides a glimpse of Easthopeâs belligerence and bullying â behavior, according to 15th District Court insiders, he lets rip in his brand new courtroom. It was how he and many of his Council colleagues (think Easthope pal JoLo calling Ann Arbor voters with whom she was displeased âold, stingy and Republicanâ in an essay published by The Ann) stifled dissenting opinions.
The Easthope-Sidney exchange turned up in a batch of Council emails released by city officials in response to a 2009 Freedom of Information Act request. Karen Sidney wrote to Council members, including her own representative, Easthope, to express concerns about the financial impact of building a new $57 million dollar 100,000 square foot city hall building. She also had concerns about the lack of transparency on the part of Council. This was a spot-on observation confirmed by City Councilâs 2009 email scandal that triggered an Open Meetings Act violation lawsuit city officials were forced to settle. Sidney also expressed concerns about the cityâs $34 million dollar maintenance facility, built in Pittsfield Township, which was, like the proposed city hall, out-sized and much too expensive. In one 2007 email, Easthope claims city officials were in talks with county officials (then County Commish Jeff Irwin) to share the maintenance facility space and thus defray costs.Â Today, five years later, there is still no deal to share the space. As a result, the cityâs debt has quadrupled; Ann Arbor taxpayers are swimming in almost half a billion dollars in debt, including unfunded city employee retiree legacy costs and general obligation bonds used to build the maintenance facility and new city hall.
The new city hall, which Ann Arbor residents have not-so-kindly nicknamed the âtin can,â was sold to the public as needed to ease âover-crowdingâ of our police. The building has become a running joke in the comment sections of local news blogs thanks to the cuts made to the police force by John Hieftje and his Hive Mind Collective. The city has twice as much space as it did in the old building for half as many officers. The changing room for female officers that Easthope refers to in his email below, was flooded just before the new building opened, and allowed to sit damaged for 8 monthsâuntil A2Politico broke the story. The non-functioning $1 million dollar fountain in front of the new municipal building has been dubbed the âGerman urinalâ and âthe fingerâ (as in elected officials giving it to the public).
Easthope was a staunch supporter of a new police-court facility. The building is still not completed and the tab is fast approaching $55 million dollars. As these emails show, Easthope comes out swinging at Sidneyâs well-aimed and spot-on criticisms of the process and the project:
Easthopeâs response was to attack her personally, and to include Tom Gantert, then a reporter on the government beat of the Ann Arbor News:
Karen Sidney sent her reply to Easthope four days later. The opening of her letter ignores Easthopeâs personal attacks, and he ends up looking like an unprofessional buffoon. Instead, she points out the potential strain on the cityâs budget, strain which has, of course, resulted in cuts to emergency services among other citizen services.
In the video below, she explains about the Freedom of Information Act and how she uses it to gain access to important information about local government that would otherwise remain buried. Often, she shares the results of her FOIA requests with City Council members, some of whose requests to city staff for data and financial information are routinely ignored, or responded to slowlyâso that the information is made available only on the evening of the meeting at which elected officials are expected to vote:
Karen Sidneyâs behind-the-scenes efforts on behalf of the community have been roundly criticized by local big box media. In 2009, Ann Arbor News reporter Judy McGovern characterized Sidney as a âregular critic of the City Council.â Later in 2009, once the Ann Arbor News had folded, AnnArbor.com began referring to Sidney as a âlocal political activist.â She shared insights and information about city finances regularly with McGovernâs replacement, Ryan Stanton. By 2011, however, as Stantonâs reporting continued to disappoint those hoping for accountability journalism, Sidney stopped sharing insights and information ferreted out via her regular FOIA requests with him. In July 2011, AnnArbor.com government repeater Ryan Stanton referred to Karen Sidney as a âfrequent critic of city hall.â
Karen Sidney began her political activism in response to the Gelman/Pall 1,4 dioxaneÂ spill that now threatens to contaminate Barton Pond and 80 percent of the cityâs drinking water. Her experience as a CPA made her a natural to dig into the city finances. While City Council members, including Easthope and former Ward 3 Council member Leigh Greden, worked mightily to discredit her, Karen Sidneyâs analysis has proven prescient. After Karen circulated an email in which she analyzed the finances of the proposed Fifth Avenue underground parking garage that disproved claims parking fees would fund the bond payments, DDA Board member and Ward 1 Council member Sandi Smith begged her allies on Council â via email â to help her refute Sidneyâs analysis.
Beginning in 2009 through the end of 2010, members of City Council, as well as members of the Board of theÂ Downtown Development Authority, assured jittery taxpayers that Ann Arbor could absolutely afford the Fifth Avenue Parking Garage. No tax dollars would be used, officials chanted over and again, much like nervous Buddhists in search of a mantra. The parking garage, which was engineered at significant extra expense, to support at 20-story building atop it, cost close to $50 million dollars. The project, when brought to Council for a vote in 2009, was supported by every member, with the exception of Ward Five Council memberÂ Mike Anglin. It was revealed inÂ emails released to the public via Freedom of Information Requests, that the parking garage was built, primarily, because politicos wanted a hotel/conference center built atop it, not because there was a pressing need for more parking downtown. Financial experts have long predicted that parking revenues could never completely cover the cost of the bonds floated by the DDA to complete the project.
That didnât deter every incumbent who ran for re-election in 2010 from swearing on stacks of bibles that the bonds for the parking garage Â were going to be paidÂ completely with âparking revenues.â
First Ward Council memberÂ Sandi Smith told AnnArbor.com in July 2010 that:
In the case of the parking structure, Smith says, the project will pay for itself with revenue from users of the parking system.
On October 30, 2010,Â John Hieftje fibbed to AnnArbor.com that:
TheÂ parking structure is expected to pay for itself from parkingÂ revenues.
The DDAâs web site even has a handyÂ FAQ page that promulgates this whopper.
2. Are tax payer dollars being used to construct this new parking structure?
No. The parking structure portion of this project will be paid for entirely by the DDAâs parking revenues. No tax payer dollars will be used. The users of the public parking system are paying for the construction of this new parking facility.
The DDA Board finally came clean to the public at the January 2011 DDA Board Retreat.
Vivienne Armentrout, who blogs atÂ LocalInAnnArbor wrote about that meeting, and pointed out that the DDA Board is now planning to use tax money to pay for theÂ Fifth Avenue Underground Parking Garage.
Armentrout writes in herÂ blog entry:
The blockbuster news from my perspective today was that theÂ payments on the bonds to finance the 5th Avenue underground parking structure will be made for the next 5 fiscal years from TIF funds. Thatâs a total of $8,481,047 transferred from the TIF fund into the parking system.
Karen Sidneyâs financial analysis of the parking garage project, it turns out, had been right all along.
On August 16th, Karen Sidney will celebrate her 67th birthday. Ann Arbor residents owe Karen a huge debt of gratitude. A2Politico owes Karen a huge debt of gratitude. She has donated her time and professional expertise to the site since its launch in 2009. A forensic CPA and lawyer, Karen Sidney has worked tirelessly to keep city staffers and elected officials honest and to encourage transparency in city government. She has accomplished much on behalf of Ann Arborâs citizens by sending along polite, fact-laden, detailed emails to locally elected officials, and by using the Freedom of Information Act to ferret out information that officials would prefer to keep hidden.
Happy birthday, Karen, and thank you for every moment you have spent advocating for us all. Thank you for sharing your time, talent and expertise to make our city an even better place. A2Politico.com is proud to announce that our first Karen M. Sidney Citizen Activism Award goes to Karen M. Sidney, Esquire.
A2Politico will solicit nominations and in subsequent years the award will be given on August 16th to an Ann Arbor citizen activist who has worked tirelessly to make our city a better place.Â