Members of Feisty Ward 2 Crowd Pressure Tony D. To “Answer The Question!”
by P.D. Lesko
The meeting room at the Traverwood Library is modern, with plenty of light and clean lines. The room was full, with about 70 people in attendance to hear the candidates answer questions for 90 minutes. It was there that Ward 2 incumbent Tony Derezinski and Sally Hart Petersen answered many of the same questions they’re answered at candidate forums over the past several weeks. None of Derezinski’s Council colleagues showed up to support him, and his 2008 opponent, Stew Nelson, sat in the front, and with a smile chided Derezinski to stop skirting the issues, prompting Derezinski to refer to Nelson as “my previous opponent.”
The questions were predictable for the most part: Regional transportation? Tony D. is in because the decision was based on “the numbers.” Sally Petersen is very “hesitant” to support the so-called Four Party Agreement which establishes a regional transportation authority in the place of AATA and is financed, in part, with the perpetual millage paid by Ann Arbor taxpayers. Petersen can’t see expanding a transportation system that doesn’t serve the residents of Ann Arbor efficiently. She brought up the fact that the cost per mile to run AATA is significantly higher than the cost per mile to run the University of Michigan buses, a goal she referred to as “the gold standard.” Derezinski, on the other hand, reaffirmed that he is a “strong supporter” of regional transit, as evidenced by his vote in favor of moving Ann Arbor a step closer to being financially committed to a half a billion dollar transit expansion scheme dreamed up by John Hieftje and his stacked AATA Board of Directors, several of whom don’t live in Ann Arbor.
There was the requisite question about the city’s controversial Percent for Art program which Derezinski has been solidly behind for his entire time on Council, voting repeatedly against resolutions aimed at reducing the amount given over to art, and most recently against a resolution which would have stopped the usage of road repair money for art. Sally Petersen assured listeners that she “supports the Percent for Art program…with some changes.” She’s nowhere near Third Ward Council member Steve Kunselman’s insistent stance that the City Attorney needs to issue a written opinion on the legality of the program, or Second Ward Council member Jane Lumm’s concerns that funding art is an extra the city just can’t afford in the face of slashing citizen services. Petersen wants to see local artists have the inside track on projects funded with tax dollars.
Other questions were less generic. One Ward 2 resident wanted to know about putting in a flashing crosswalk on Green Road, in the Thurston Elementary School area. Derezinski, who had taken every opportunity to push his involvement with the Reimagine Washtenaw Development plan that would create a tax-increment finance zone to fund public-private development projects all along Washtenaw Avenue, appeared not to know where Green Road was, or where the resident was suggesting the flashing crosswalk be installed. It prompted a man in back to call out: “He doesn’t know where it is. It’s not on Washtneaw Avenue. He doesn’t even know where our neighborhood is.” Derezinski replied, having only heard a portion of the chide, “It’s on Washtenaw?” This drew laughter from the audience.
Petersen, who mentioned several times her desire to see Ann Arbor partner more closely with the Ann Arbor Public Schools, and the University of Michigan, zeroed in on that angle. She said, “There’s Thurston school over there,” and went on to reiterate the importance of pedestrian safety, particularly for school children, a note that resonated with women in the audience, several of whom nodded as Petersen spoke.
Twice, Derezinski smoothly tried to avoid answering a question asked, and twice feisty audience members spoke up and pointed out that he was avoiding the issue. In one instance, he refused to answer whether he supported his fellow Ward 2 Council member Jane Lumm’s proposed Charter amendment that would require a vote of the public before any parkland was sold or leased. It is a proposal that would force a vote before fragile riverfront parkland on Fuller Road could be used for a transit center. Instead, Derezinski pointed out that Ward 1 Council member Sabra Briere, who had asked Lumm to co-sponsor the resolution had moved to postpone a decision by Council on the proposal. It’s political gamesmanship that has local residents, who’ve been working to protect parkland, angry. They’re also infuriated at Briere’s obvious move to give Derezinski and Ward 4 Council member Margie Teall a convenient out on the issue. When Derezinski tried to use Briere as an excuse not to say where he stands on the Charter amendment, an audience member spoke up and pointed out that he hadn’t answered the question. Derezinski, startled, appealed to the moderator with a reminder that the candidates were answering only questions audience members had written on notecards.
In past candidate forums, Petersen has made it clear that she supports protecting parkland. At this event, she went down another avenue pointing out that while Derezinski mentioned the “potential for state and federal funding” to finance the parkland for parking and transit scheme Hieftje has been desperately trying to get built, “there is no state and federal funding available.” She would be unable to support a project without a financial plan in place to pay for it, she said. While she spoke, Derezinski stared on, tight-lipped, arms crossed.
Another question touched on a common thread in these debates: how will the candidate get along with John Hieftje. Derezinski pointed to all the awards won by Ann Arbor and told audience members: “These things don’t happen by chance.” He sang Hieftje’s praises, including a mention of Hieftje’s affability and openness. He explained that the two men, who have voted in virtual lockstep for four years, according to minutes from City Council meeting, “don’t always agree on everything, but we settle our differences in private.” Petersen dropped that while meeting with Hieftje recently, he’d offered her a seat on a city board or commission, as she’d come to him “highly rated.” While Petersen said she did not know Hieftje as well as Derezinski, she found him pleasant. Then she drop-kicked Hieftje through the goal-posts by pointing out that she found his leadership lacking. As evidence she offered up Hieftje’s repeated efforts to lead the city into development projects without having solid financial plans in place, including the city’s participation in the regional transit authority, as well as the Fuller Road transit scheme. “I’d disagree with anyone who tried to do that,” said Petersen.
The “transparency in government” issue came up, and Tony Derezinski talked up his regular breakfasts at a Ward 2 eatery, where constituents can seek him out, as well as meetings held at his house. Ann Arbor District Library Board member Nancy Kaplan, a Petersen supporter, was in the audience. Derezinski pointed out that Kaplan and her husband, Harvey, “have been to meetings I’ve had.” After the debate, audience members questioned Derezinski’s claims that he’s available and responsive. Dr. Donald Salberg, a Ward 2 resident is supporting Sally Petersen. He spoke of emails to Derezinski unanswered (a complaint raised about the incumbent in multiple comments posted to AnnArbor.com) and phone calls to Derezinski in which the incumbent encouraged Salberg to attend Derezinski’s breakfast meeting, where Salberg said he had no opportunity to speak one-on-one with Derezinski. Another Ward 2 resident fumed that Derezinski, while touting meetings at his home, had had only a handful, perhaps four, in the four years he’d been on Council.
In his closing statement, Derezinski admitted that City Council members do not get along well, and that he can offer “civility.” Like Chuck Warpehoski, who’s running with the support of Derezinski and John Hieftje in Ward Five, Derezinski then told audience members that he can “bridge the gaps” between the Council members who are at odds. The irony, of course, is that in 2009 emails released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Ann Arbor News caught Tony Derezinski making fun of constituents, as well as his fellow Council members, Ward 5 Council representative Mike Anglin and Ward 1 Council member Sabra Briere. Derezinski trying to sell himself as Mr. Civility is reminiscent of Representative John Dingell’s July 2012 interview with Dearborn Patch.com in which he called his opponents “ignorant.” Like Derezinski, whom Dingell is supporting, both men have called for more political civility. Dingell made his stand for political civility on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Derezinski has painted himself as bringing “civility” to Council.
Below are emails Derezinski sent and received shortly after taking office in 2009:
In his opening statement at the Traverwood candidate forum, Derezinski boasted to the audience that in the 70s, while a Michigan state senator, he helped pass the Michigan Open Meetings Act law, as well as the Michigan Freedom of Information Act law. What this means, then, is that after being elected to Ann Arbor City Council, Tony Derezinski participated in email exchanges that not only demonstrated incivility, he was caught with his electronic britches around his ankles thanks to the very same Freedom of Information Act law he’s helped pass as a state senator. It also means that the city was forced to settle an Open Meetings Act violation lawsuit on behalf of Derezinski (and others on Council), because he’d failed to adhere to the very same Open Meetings Act law he’d helped pass as a state senator, as well.
City Council may need more civility, but can it come from a guy who didn’t hesitate to ignore the very laws he now boasts he helped pass while in the Michigan Legislature— a politico who touts his own civility, but who never apologized publicly for his part in the 2009 email scandal? We’ll find out on August 7th.
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