Was Council Aware of the Successful Class Action Lawsuit Against Seattle’s Percent For Art Program Before Approving Ann Arbor’s Art Ordinance?

By P.D. Lesko

In 2007, Ann Arbor City Council passed the Public Art Ordinance that sets aside one percent of funds from all public construction budgets for art projects — to a maximum of $250,000 per project. On the City of Ann Arbor web site, it says that John Hieftje “championed the Percentage for Art Program to provide consistent funding for public art to beautify the city for decades to come.”

Prior to crafting the ordinance, it’s not clear whether sponsor Hieftje, or more to the point, Ann Arbor’s City Attorney Stephen Postema (pictured right) knew about the Seattle, Washington class-action lawsuit, OKESON VERSUS SEATTLE, that had, in 2005, forced significant changes to that city’s Percent for Art Program. The suit was the first time that any Percent for Art ordinance was legally challenged. A Washington State court found the use of money from city-owned utilities to fund public art illegal, and on appeal the judge’s decision was upheld. The issue was one of nexus – electric and utility funds cannot be used on projects that have no relationship to the mission and purpose of the utility services.

In 2005, several customers of the Seattle City Light utility filed a class-action suit and sued the city over its appropriation of money from the utility for the then 32-year-old Percent For the Art program. According to coverage of the suit published in the Seattle Post Intelligencer on 2005:

In this lawsuit, a lower court judge ruled that City Light could not be required to participate in the One Percent for Art program but could spend funds on art. The ruling stipulates, however, that any artwork must address only the needs of the utility’s employees and customers. Artwork may be purchased to provide a more attractive working environment that increases productivity, for instance, but not to improve the appearance of a power facility in the eyes of the greater community. In other words, the funds could be spent to enhance employee offices but not to mitigate the impact of a power plant on the surrounding neighborhood.

In August of 2005, Americans for the Arts filed an amicus brief in the Percent for the Art lawsuit in Seattle. According to a press release from the organization:

Seattle’s One Percent for Art ordinance is a national model and has been emulated by dozens of cities nationwide. While the lawsuit only addresses its application to Seattle City Light, it is significant, because Seattle is renowned for its public art and because this is the first time, to our knowledge, any Percent for Art ordinance has been challenged in a court anywhere in the nation.  The Washington State Court of Appeals has scheduled oral arguments for this case to take place on September 14, 2005.

Despite intense lobbying from the art community in support of the city’s legal position, as well as support from the local newspaper, the Seattle plantiffs won their case.

Seattle city lawyers had argued that two projects funded with money from the city’s electric utility promoted energy conservation, an important element of City Light’s mission, because they were illuminated by low-voltage lights, an important innovation in conservation. Seattle judge Sharon Armstrong wasn’t persuaded. She found that Seattle could not use the conservation rationale to tap into utility funds “merely because it (a piece of art) mentions salmon, or contains illuminated art work.”

In their lawsuit against the Seattle Percent for Art program, plaintiffs led by Rud Okeson argued that city officials used City Light (a city utility) as a “cash cow” and charged it for a variety of expenses that were illegitimate, including some art projects.

Shortly after Armstrong’s ruling, Will Patton, the utilities section chief for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, told The Seattle Times, “he believes Armstrong’s ruling on City Light’s art expenditures would also apply to the city’s water and waste-collection utilities, similarly restricting their spending on art.”

In Ann Arbor Utilities Fund Percent For Art Program

City records show that since 2007 Ann Arbor’s Percent for Art fund has siphoned $38,000 from the solid waste fund, $40,000 from the parks millage, $60,000 from the stormwater utility, $367,000 from the water utility, $539,000 from the city’s street millage, $907,000 from the city’s sewer utility, among other funds. To date, according to city officials, about $2.2 million dollars has been moved into the Percent for Art fund.

Thus, the $1.37 million taken from Ann Arbor’s various utility funds could prove to be the Ann Arbor Percent for Art program’s undoing, just as it was in Seattle in 2005, two years before Stephen Postema’s office reviewed the language and legality of Hieftje’s proposed ordinance.

It’s not a stretch to argue that like in Seattle prior to Okeson vs. Seattle, Ann Arbor’s utilities are being used as cash cows and charged for a variety of expenses, including expenses related to the city’s Percent for Art program.

Katherine Talcott, initially hired as a part-time, contract worker in March 2009 as Ann Arbor’s Administrator for the City of Ann Arbor’s Percent for Art Program, told AAPAC’s (Ann Arbor Public Art Commission) commissioners in Fall of 2009 that, in addition to the 20 hours per week that she was paid as the city’s part-time art administrator, she had been working between 10-20 additional hours specifically on the Dreiseitl project for the Police-Courts building, a $750,000 project that has elicited public derision and ire, not to mention negative national publicity when it was revealed that Ann Arbor was spending $750,000 on art at the same time elected officials voted to cut firefighters.

Talcott told AAPAC those extra hours were authorized by Sue McCormick, the city’s director of public services. Why? Because Talcott’s pay came from Ann Arbor’s water & sewer fund. The logic for use of the sewer and water fund money was that the Dreiseitl project promoted education about water and water conservation.

Ann Arbor officials told AnnArbor.com that, “The city’s administration stresses that all public art projects must serve a purpose somehow related to the source funds. For instance, $750,000 in utility funds is paying for a sculpture being installed outside of city hall that will recycle stormwater.”

It’s the same flawed reasoning that Seattle Judge Sharon Armstrong found against.

Stonewalling Council member Kunselman’s Repeated Calls For a Legal Review of the Percent For Art Program

Third Ward Council member Stephen Kunselman (pictured left) has repeatedly spoken out against the city’s Percent for Art Program and the potential illegality of siphoning money from capital projects, such as street reconstruction and resurfacing projects, paid for by dedicated millage funds. He’s waiting for the Ann Arbor City Attorney to issue a written legal opinion. Though the City Charter requires City Attorney Stephen Postema to file written legal opinions with the City Clerk for the public to peruse, Postema has never filed one addressing Kunselman’s concerns. When, recently, Kunselman again brought up the question of the legality of the city’s Percent for Art Program, Postema was quoted as saying “his office has reviewed the Percent For Art Program and he’s not aware of anything illegal about what the city is doing.”

Despite public concerns and vociferous criticism leveled in the comment sections of A2Politico and AnnArbor.com, the Percent for Art Program has been consistently protected by Hieftje and a majority on City Council.

On December 7, 2009, a few months after Council voted to further shrink the city’s police and fire departments, Council voted to approve a resolution which proposed a temporary three-year cut in funding for the Percent for the Art Program from one percent to one-half of one percent. The proposed resolution to cut the funding was sponsored by John Hieftje and First Ward Council member Sandi Smith. Ten days later, the same Council members who had voted in support of the temporary cut to the program’s funding reversed themselves. Fourth Ward Council member Margie Teall “compared the idea of reducing the percentage to taking back a tax abatement that had been granted,” according to coverage of the meeting by the AnnArborChronicle.com. Second Ward Council member Stephen Rapundalo argued more passionately to save funding for the Percent for the Art Program than he ever has to save the jobs of the city’s firefighters or police officers.

Hieftje also spoke against the resolution he had co-sponsored, and was quoted in the AnnArborChronicle.com as saying, incredibly, that “art might help us climb out of the economic downturn.”

It was classic knee-jerk politics.

In 2011, a resolution sponsored by four Council members to reduce or eliminate funding to the Percent for Art Program was defeated, as well.

Potential For Legal Embarrassment for Postema and a Political Quagmire for Hieftje

To be sure, should the Percent for Art program be challenged in court and, like Seattle’s program, be found to have illegally tapped into utility fund dollars to pay for public art, it will prompt a rash of embarrassing questions for the Ann Arbor City Attorney’s office. Like Seattle’s Mayor Schell, who had advocated for a Percent for Art Program in his city, and who had been deeply embarrassed by the judge’s finding that the program had been funded in large part through illegal means, there’s no doubt John Hieftje would be embarrassed, as well.

As for Stephen Postema, the first question that would be asked was whether his office had reviewed OKESON VERSUS SEATTLE during the course of approving the legality and language of Ann Arbor’s ordinance. It might appear a rather glaring professional error to have allowed Ann Arbor to use utility money to fund its Percent for Art Program when, just two years earlier, Seattle’s ability to do so had been found to be illegal by Judge Sharon Armstrong, a decision upheld on appeal to a higher court.

Hieftje and Postema would, perhaps, be even more deeply embarrassed than Schell. They would have to admit that Stephen Kunselman’s incessant questions over the past two years concerning the legality of the city Percent for Art Program had, in fact, been right on the money, so to speak. In response to Kunselman’s latest attack in which he was quoted in AnnArbor.com as calling the use of street millage money “illegal,” Postema told the news site he would “gladly issue a written opinion when the council as a whole directs him to do so.”

Council as a whole, of course, has never directed Postema to issue a written opinion about the legality of the Percent for Art Program, or anything else in the over 8 years he has served as the City Council’s attorney.

Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=10185

15 Comments for “Was Council Aware of the Successful Class Action Lawsuit Against Seattle’s Percent For Art Program Before Approving Ann Arbor’s Art Ordinance?”

  1. […] water, sewer and road projects. He modeled his ordinance after the one in place in Seattle—an ordinance that had been found to be illegally using money from utility projects for art. Two years before Hieftje sponsored his Percent for Art resolution, Seattle residents had sued […]

  2. […] water, sewer and road projects. He modeled his ordinance after the one in place in Seattle—an ordinance that had been found to be illegally using money from utility projects for art. In 2005 Seattle residents sued, and officials were forced to return millions to the utility […]

  3. […] water, sewer and road projects. He modeled his ordinance after the one in place in Seattle—an ordinance that had been found to be illegally using money from utility projects for art. Two years before Hieftje sponsored his Percent for Art resolution, Seattle residents had sued […]

  4. […] water, sewer and road projects. He modeled his ordinance after the one in place in Seattle—an ordinance that had been found to be illegally using money from utility projects for art. In 2005 Seattle residents sued, and officials were forced to return millions to the utility […]

  5. Is Tony D stupid enough to run for mayor?????maybe??????

    • @A2fu Tony D raised $8,000 for his Council race and spent $3,000 by the July campaign finance deadline. Either he was hoarding money for a mayoral run, or was incredibly arrogant in his belief that Sally P didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell, despite her cred, money and campaigning. Will he run for mayor? Let’s see if Hieftje puts Tony on some committees/boards and whether Tony actually shows up for the meetings.

  6. @John Dory:

    Postema has been taking some heat over questionable performance as City Attorney. Some on City Council believe that his conduct in bringing the Dream-Nite case before Liquor Committee hearing oficer Tony Derezinski may have played a role in Tony D’s unexpected primary loss to Sally Hart Petersen. Dream-Nite was patronized extensively by the black community in Ann Arbor. Derezinski was reportedly livid over his loss and paid a visit to City Hall the day after the primary election to vent. Tony D. and his wife left Heidelberg’s early after news of his defeat circulated.

    Tony wanted to succeed Hieftje as mayor, but his plans at the present time could be in limbo due to his landslide defeat.

    • @Kerry, Tony raised $8K for the campaign and spent $3K by the time campaign finance forms were due in July. This, more than anything else, contributed to his loss, I believe. He was out-spent 3:1 by a candidate who is a VERY savvy marketer and who worked extremely hard during the campaign, If Tony (who I’ve heard has a nasty temper) was angry after his loss, he has no one to blame but himself, his votes, and his decision not to spend the money he raised. His constituents tossed him out of office. He had a terrible attendance record on Council, was unresponsive, cast votes in lock-step with Hieftje despite what Ward 2 residents wanted him to do, according to AA.com comments, and couldn’t be bothered to update his campaign web site. He deserved to lose for many reasons. Like Marcia Higgins, he took his re-election for granted. Derezinski won’t run for mayor, I don’t think, do you?

  7. Postema should be the next, person to go, he is corrupt I have seen it with my own eyes!

  8. Steve Postema is reprtedly planning to run for the 2012 ballot in which the circiut court seats of Timothy Connors and Melinda Morris are up for grabs. The circuit court vacancies are at-large so that the top two vote-getters in November of 2012 will be sworn in the circuit court bench the following January. He has close ties to John Hieftje and Police Chief Barnett Jones.

    Melinda Morris is past the age of 70 and is barred for running for another term under Michigan law, but Engler-appointee Timothy Connors is expected to run to try to retain his seat.

    A number of local political activists have hailed the impending Postema candidacy since one more candiadte in the race means that the seat of Judge Timothy Connors will be contested. Connors has drawn fire in recent years and a website chronicling alleged questionable conduct has been set up at http://www.a2buzz.org

    This story regarding Postema may become campaign fodder by opponents in such a race.

    It should be noted that, as reported in http://www.annarbor.com ,there were questionable workings in the court-ordered closure of the Dream-Nite night club where Dream-Nite’s attorney, Mr. Shand, reported that Postema walked into the office of Judge Connors and walked out with an order shutting down the night club with no prior hearing. There was controversy about Postema’s magical procuring of this order without the opposing side being heard in open court.

    Postema’s name also surfaced in controvery regarding E-Mailgate. As City Attorney, issues were raised on whether he gave adequate warnings to City Council as to whether certain use of computers during City Council meetings might be running afoul of the Open Meetings Act. There is no public evidence that I am aware of that Postema or anyone in his office gave any prior warnings that such communications may be in contravention of that state statute. In fact, I seem to recall that Postema actually validated such e-mail communications after the fact – which many disagree with.

    Postema’s performance as a City Attorney has been questionable at best. Does he merit ascension to the circuit court bench, or will he be as large of an embarrassment as some that already sit on the circuit court bench. He is the highest-paid city attorney employee in the State of Michigan; has he been worth it?

  9. Portions of the Washington Appeals Court decision potentially
    most relevant to Dreiseitl specifically:

    “15 For this reason, the trial court properly allowed the City
    to use City Light funds for such projects as the renovation of
    City Light facilities and the acquisition of artwork for display
    in City Light offices.   Such projects beautify employee
    workspaces and customer service areas  and thereby helped
    increase the efficiency of workplace operations and acted to
    the benefit of City Light.   The trial court correctly
    prohibited the City from using City Light moneys to fund art
    for display in permanent or traveling public exhibitions or
    for the offices of other City departments, despite the
    occasional presence of City Light personnel in those offices.
    Such projects provide a general benefit to the public at large,
    not City Light.

    16 The trial court also correctly allowed the City to use City
    Light funds for art projects that furthered conservation
    education.   As the Taxpayers court stated, conservation
    furthers the ability of a utility to supply electricity to the
    municipality and its residents.   But the trial court correctly
    prohibited the City from relying on conservation education
    as a pretext for art projects whose purpose was to benefit
    the general public.”

  10. Your above link to the Okeson case does not go to the Percent
    for Art case. Mr. Okeson was apparently party to several
    taxpayer/ratepayer lawsuits around the same period of time.

    The Percent for Art appeals case summary can be found here:


  11. Over $500,000 being diverted from the Street’s Fund is particularly
    galling! It sounds like the city was aware of the ruling in
    Seattle since a city official was quoted in the article as saying
    the Drieseitl project was an appropriate expense for the water
    utility since the theme of the art is water conservation.

    It is really important for voters to not renew the Street’s Millage
    this November!

  12. There is a nexus between the art project and the monies dedicated for the underling capital improvement expenditure. Such a requirement is written into the Ann Arbor One Per Cent For Art ordinance.

    As far as the Drieseitl project, underlying capital improvemnt project was the regular maintence and upgrading of the city sewer system – so the theme of the approved art project was waste water – hence the retention of Herr Dreiseitl.

    I have previously stated that I would have preferred a 20-foot high statue of Ed Norton to honor the unsung heroes of the underground sewer system.

  13. I was walking down a trash littered, weed infested, broken and cracked sidewalk on East Liberty the other day and wondered what businesses might like to relocate to our town. Neglect doesn’t look welcoming. But, Hieftje and Co have it all worked out– art to the rescue. Like, for instance those tropical coat trees recently installed in the re-swampified West Park.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

Error, no group ID set! Check your syntax!

Recently Commented

  • Trish: Read my posts, be strong, dont expect to be treated nicely, and just pray that her common... %comment_rating
  • La Tecia: A month ago I let my 15 year old go live with his dad. Hardest thing ever! %comment_rating
  • Leslie: I googled “Should I let my kids live with their dad” and this story came up. I... %comment_rating
  • Trish: Unfortunately, I have to add to my own post. Things have went from bad to worse, I had been... %comment_rating