“Let Them Eat Art!” Why Refusing To Kill The Percent for Art Program Could Mean the Ouster of More Local Pols
by P.D. Lesko
We begin with a fairytale: Once Upon A Time there were five Ann Arbor City Council members named Sandi Smith, Carsten Hohnke, Leigh Greden, Stephen Rapundalo and Tony Derezinski. They all unquestioningly supported Ann Arbor’s Percent for Art program. They did this while funding a $1 million dollar brass sculpture, which their subjects referred to as a “phallus” or “urinal,” in front of the New Municipal Castle. These Council members voted to cut police and fire staffing, and to slash services.
When their subjects complained about funding priorities, these Council members sniffed, in unison: “Let them eat art!”
And then they were gone—politically decapitated in one election cycle after the other.
The moral of the story?
This November, posters, signs and postcards urged voters to “B For Art.” On November 6th, voters replied clearly with a Bronx Cheer for Art: “No. Public. Tax. Dollars. For. Art.”
Naturally, like the elderly, white, rich AADL Library Board members (and friends) who, after their own bond proposal was soundly defeated, went on to mewl and puke that the public would just have to “educated” about why the money was “necessary,” Ward 4 Council member Marcia Higgins, faculty emeritus at the Institute of Ignoring the Electorate, turned back Ward 2 Council member Jane Lumm’s voter-mandated effort to repeal the Percent for Art ordinance by explaining that Council had not “made its case” to the electorate and needed to form a “committee of Council members” to better craft the message of why the Percent for Art program should be funded with public money.
The Theater of the Absurd was in full swing with Council members scrambling to compete for the Tony Award for most ludicrous reasoning to vote against their own clearly-stated positions on whether the Percent for Art ordinance should be repealed.
Ward 3 Council member Stephen Kunselman stood on one foot and stuck the other foot into his ear as he explained how, as a long-time “critic” of the Percent for Art program, that he had nonetheless voted for it in 2007. In 2011, Kunselman, who would like to run for mayor, called the Percent for Art program funding mechanism “illegal.” At a September 2011 Council meeting, Kunselman said, “I’ve said it time and time again, transferring monies out of the street millage account to the art fund is illegal,” he said, “whether you did it by ordinance or any other means.” On November 19, 2012, fourteen months after slamming the program’s funding mechanism as “illegal,” Kunselman voted against the resolution to revoke the Percent for Art ordinance.
Sabra Briere, Ward 1 Council member, explained her vote against dissolving the Percent for Art program with twisted logic that AnnArbor.com readers found offensive. Briere told the local news blog, “When we represent our constituents, we don’t represent only those who agree with us. We represent those who disagree with us. We don’t just represent the majority. We represent all the minority voices as well. I would really like an opportunity to hear those minority voices.”
Briere was brutally mocked in the comments: “Beautiful. Ms. Briere, why don’t we put the Per Cent For Art up for a public vote? If the Councilwoman doesn’t think the recent millage failure was a direct result of the fiasco of the recent projects slipped through under this program (City Center Water Fountain, City Center Shiny Glass Project Behind A Metal Detector), both of which were championed by the Ann Arbor Public Arts Commission supporters like Margaret Parker and Marsha Chamberlin, then she needs to get out and talk to the voters of the 1st Ward. She’s beginning to sound like the Mayor.”
What inside baseball players know, however, is that Percent for Art has become the Poster Child of the “ignore-the-voter,” knee-jerk politics of the Hieftje Hive Mind. In 2007, Hieftje alone introduced the resolution to skim 1 percent for art from capital projects, including 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 funds. 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.
Sound familiar? A portion of the salary for the city’s first art program administrator was paid for out of the city’s water fund.
It would have been easy to amend Ann Arbor’s Percent for Art ordinance to end funding taken from road, sewer and water projects, but Hieftje is notoriously incapable of admitting his mistakes. 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.”
Exempting utility funds would also have significantly reduced Ann Arbor’s Percent for Art fund. 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. According to city officials, about $2.2 million dollars has been moved into the Percent for Art fund. This means $1.37 million has been skimmed from Ann Arbor’s various utility funds. In an October 2012 report, the Percent for Art program was sitting on a $1.668 million balance. Of that amount, $856,997 was earmarked for projects, including $400,000 for art to decorate the East Stadium bridges and $150,000 for Argo Cascades. But those projects are still under review by the City Attorney. That means there are $810,276 dollars unallocated—including revenues from sewer projects ($451,955) and street millage projects ($241,951).
Ward 1 Council member Sumi Kailasapthy ran for Council and told voters clearly that she was not in favor of using tax dollars for public art, particularly in light of the fact that the city was cutting emergency services. In July 2012 Kailasapathy told the media that, “The city needs to rethink how it uses public dollars for art. She called the $750,000 bronze sculpture in front of city hall a ‘fiasco’ and said she questions the program’s legality….”
Ward 2 Council member Jane Lumm, similarly, ran for Council and told voters she was not in favor of using tax dollars for public art. When she ran, Lumm was critical of the fact that Ann Arbor had diverted more than $2.2 million to public art from water and sewer utilities, the streets millage, parks and solid waste.
Her opponent, a long-time incumbent, called Lumm’s position on tax money for public art “short-sighted.” She went on to roundly defeat Stephen Rapundalo in the November election.
The election of Council members to replace long-time unquestioning supporters of Hieftje’s Percent for Art program sent Hieftje and his consigliere Ward 3 Council member Christopher Taylor into damage control mode. The result? A ballot proposal to raise taxes to fund art co-sponsored by Ward 1 Council member Sabra Briere, Taylor and Hieftje. To support the ballot proposal, The Citizens for Art in Public Places PAC was incorporated in August of 2012 by Hive Mind supporter Jeremy Peters.
Peters, as you may remember (or not), posted an October 2012 entry to Concentrate’s MEDC-supported blog in which Peters called political activists concerned with attacks on local transit by the Hieftje Hive Mind drones and their Borg colleagues on the AATA Board, “obstructionist.” Peters attacked activists supportive of the protection of parkland by the local Sierra Club and that group’s members, “obstructionist.” Peters attacked those who were concerned about raising taxes in support of public art while at the same time cutting emergency services, and planning to close fire stations as “obstructionist.” To drive home his argument, Peters invoked a Gospel straight from the Sainted Republican Bible of political screed by urging the “obstructionists” to just say YES! to county-wide transit no one wanted, to just say YES! to parkland for parking and to just say YES! to spending $110,000,000 for a new library—to make things better for “our children.” Peters, an openly gay man, alas, has no children. While Peters passed himself off as a reasonable-minded supporter of “our children,” art, county-wide transit, parkland for parking and public land for private development, he neglected to mention in his bio. was he was behind the The Citizens for Art in Public Places PAC.
This is because The Citizens for Art in Public Places was not about art in public places. It was about politics and saving political face for John Hieftje and other politicos who feared newly-elected Council members elected might vote to dissolve the 2007 Percent for Art ordinance.
The PACs donors included Ward 3 Council members Christopher Taylor and Stephen Kunselman, Ward 4 Council member Margie Teall, former Ward 1 Council member Sandi Smith and County Commish Conan Smith, who donated $250, but still hasn’t paid back county taxpayers for the taxpayer money he filched for per diems for which an outside audit revealed he should never have been paid. Hive Mind Grand Drone and DDA Board member and County Commish Leah Gunn, who was up to her neck in the library bond proposal, as well, donated to Peters’s PAC.
Downtown Development Authority Board member John Splitt was among the peck of pickled politicos who donated to Peters’s PAC. DDA staffer Susan Pollay donated, too. Notoriously tight-fisted Hieftje donated a whopping $650, more than he has donated to any of his Council pals. Ever. Debra Polich, spouse of DDA Board member Russ Collins donated, as did Collins. The Ann Arbor Arts Alliance, which Polich heads, donated $2,000 in cash, $1,132 in free office space and other services for a total of $6,388 in cash, goods and services. According to the group’s most recent 990 tax form, the Arts Alliance took in a total of $122,690 and lost $124,740.
DDA Board member Joan Lowenstein’s husband donated to the PAC as did Ward 5 Council member Chuck Wapehoski and Ward 2 Council member Sally Petersen. AADL Library Board member Jan Barney Newman cut The Citizens for Art in Public Places a generous check.
Hieftje, of course, was the lone-sponsor of the 2007 Percent for Art Ordinance, and the persistent attacks on the legality of the funding mechanism for the Percent for Art program have pushed him into a political corner. Hieftje went on the record saying that he was “confident” Proposal B would pass. Ann Arbor voters, however, find themselves once again thwarted by Council members who prefer to “study” the Percent for Art program and its funding mechanism after voters roundly rejected using public money to pay for public art. There is a bright side to this story, however. It begins like this:
We end with a fairytale: Once Upon A Time, on November 19, 2012 there were long-term Ann Arbor City Council members who refused to vote to dissolve Ann Arbor’s Percent for Art program after voters rejected a ballot proposal to raise taxes to pay for public art. While funding a $1 million dollar brass sculpture which residents now refer to as a “phallus” or “urinal” in front of the new city hall, these Council members voted to approve budgets which cut police and fire staffing and slash citizen services.
When taxpayers complained about funding priorities, these Council members called out in unison, “We support the formation of a committee of Council members to determine whether the public should be told to carry on and go eat art!”
Then, they were gone?
It was Karl Marx who said, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”
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