Library Tax Proposal Goes Down In Flames—And the Political Firmament Trembles
by P.D. Lesko
On November 6, 2012 the firmament trembled in Ann Arbor—the political landscape opened up and swallowed local politicos and their monied donors whole, casting the owner of Main Street Ventures, members of the Downtown Development Authority Board of Directors, and local political bigwigs down to Dante’s 4th Ring of Hell, where the avaricious suffer their punishment, as they roll weights back and forth against one another. They share eternal damnation with others who lived greedily and insatiably. The proposal to float a $65 million dollar bond to raze and rebuild the downtown library was defeated by a vote of 41,359 to 33,604.
The local political Hive Mind Collective, along with the monied drones who make the (modest four-figure) donations to fund the politicos’ ALEC-inspired public-private partnership schemes, took a brutal beating at the polls in Ann Arbor on November 6th. The Our New Library PAC pulled in almost $71,000 as of October 26, 2012. A2Politico is willing to bet the farm that when next we read campaign finance disclosure forms from the group they will have amassed and spent over $100,000 on an effort to milk taxpayers out of $100-$130 million dollars for a library without a plan. The Our New Library PAC, formed in July 2012 to support a $65 million dollar bond proposal to raze and rebuild Ann Arbor’s downtown library, was funded with a potentially problematic (to the IRS) $25,000 from the Friends of the Ann Arbor Library, as well as $5,000 from Main Street Ventures doyenne Ellie Serras, $5,000 from narrowly re-elected AADL Trustee Prue Rosenthal, $5,000 from the AADL’s legal firm Dykema Gossett (which stood to benefit from the project in the form of legal work necessary to complete the proposed project), and even $5,000 from Zingerman’s Bakehouse. This was one of the more interesting donations, and one that offered up a fun game of connect-the-political-dots. Follow closely. In October 2010, Zingerman’s owners raked in $1.1 in publicly-funded brownfield tax credits from the Michigan Economic Development Authority to subsidize their expansion.
In July 2010, the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority $407,000 in support of Zingerman’s brownfield development plan, which would reimburse Zingerman’s $817,265 through the money generated from the tax-increment increase on the expanded deli’s higher property taxes. The brownfield money funded by taxpayers helped Zing’s recapture costs associated with the demolition, underground water retention and improvements to the existing facilities. Taxpayers also footed the bill for Zingerman’s $100,000 tab for LEED certification—which is purchased, not magically bestowed by the U.S. Green Building Council, as local politicos prefer to have taxpayers believe. The AADL project raked in thousands more from local developer Peter Allen, $2,500 from Edward Surovell Realtors, $1,000 from the library’s own Executive Director Josie Parker.
However, it is the PAC’s July 2012 Quarterly Statement, filed shortly after the Our New Library PAC was formed that tells the real story of who was behind the brilliant idea to tear down a perfectly good building, the majority of which was updated in 1991 with taxpayer funds, and provide the community with a 400-seat auditorium, and video production lab, a catering kitchen, and a cafe, among other “possibilities” listed on the Our New Library’s website, as well as the AADL’s own website. Never mind that the AADL’s own 2012 survey revealed the majority of patrons borrow books, DVDs and CDs and that visits to the downtown library remained static—600,000 per year—between 2008 and 2012. In July 2012, the Our New Library PAC was funded with a modest $7,500 donated by DDA Board member Leah Gunn, Maria Serras, and former Washtenaw County Drain Commish Janis Bobrin. Gunn, or so, a Board member from the Friends of the Ann Arbor Library explained, pushed the nonprofit’s Board to cough up $25,000 for the Our New Library PAC. It’s a donation equal to 16 percent of the group’s 2011 revenues, according to 990 tax forms filed with the IRS—an amount critics claim skirts awfully close to violating IRS rules governing what a non-profit may spent in support of a ballot proposal. The $25,000 donation was made without consulting the group’s membership, and without the benefit of a public hearing. It infuriated some local donors to the group, and it remains to be seen if the Friends of the Ann Arbor Library will see a backlash.
While the large donors are interesting, donors who contributed smaller amounts to the PAC contribute to the story of the continued political slide of the Hive Mind Collective. These are the political appointees, and political hangers-on—locals who can be counted on for $50-$100 donations to Borg Queen John Hieftje, as well as to the campaigns of the drones he supports for election to City Council, drones whose candidacies have been, for the most part, unsuccessful—beginning with the 2009 defeat of Ward 3 Council member Leigh Greden. Since his embarrassing defeat as a result of his own unprofessional conduct and misuse of Council email, that resulted in an Open Meetings Act lawsuit that taxpayers were forced to settle, Greden has been careful about keeping political contributions to his friends hidden. However, the Our New Library PAC scored a $100 donation from the former Council member who was caught crowing to colleagues via email during an open meeting that all he cared about was “money and buildings.” Trevor Staples, a Ward 5 drone on whom Hieftje has relied to vocally support challengers to Council incumbent Mike Anglin (with whom Hieftje has a strained relationship), donated to the PAC.
Joan Lowenstein, a former Ward 2 City Council member and current DDA Board member donated $100 to the Our New Library PAC. Lowenstein, in response to the ouster of former Council colleagues Stephen Rapundalo in 2011, published an essay in The Ann in which she called Ann Arbor voters “old, stingy, xenophobic and Republican.” In April of 2010 when JoLo spoke in support of a development project, she stepped forward to urge City Council members not to give in to the 5th Ward “sulkers.” In 2011, she endorsed Ward 5 City Council challenger Neil Elyakin against incumbent Mike Anglin. Elyakin, evidently, had no clue that the “sulkers” in his Ward might not take kindly to being insulted by his political supporter.
Ray Detter and Eunice Burns each donated $25 to the PAC. Detter is up to his neck in local politics, as a Hieftje appointee to the Downtown Citizens Advisory Council. The group, not surprisingly, has rarely met a downtown development project it couldn’t support. Well, until a huge development project was proposed for the corner of Division and Huron, in Detter’s own backyard. Former Ward 1 Council member Eunice Burns was appointed by Hieftje to a seat on the innocuous-sounding Local Officers Compensation Commission. It was Burns, in 2003, who helped more than double John Hieftje’s salary from $18,800 to $40,000. In 2009, Burns voted to raise Hieftje’s salary again to $42,436. Laura Rubin heads the Huron River Watershed Council, and she donated $50 to help the AADL sell its millage proposal to taxpayers.
Jeremy Peters came through with a modest $25 donation in September 2012. However, taking a page out of Joan Lowenstein’s book, Peters took to the Web with an October 3, 2012 blog post for Concentrate Media’s online magazine—a company funded, in part, by the MEDC—that purported to objectively examine the “real cost” of political obstructionism. In his piece Peters writes, “It would behoove those in local government inclined to nitpick and place barricades in front of progress to realize the effect of their actions ” The November 6th vote was, then, was a barricade to Peters’ thesis statement and his head, tossed by the “nitpickers” who, he whined, “come to the table hell-bent on the goal of preventing a certain thing (be it a train station, an apartment complex, a structure, a park, or an improvement) from happening.” Peters ended his blog post with this: “I don’t pretend to think that each representative isn’t doing what they think is in the best interests of all of their constituents (not just the vocal ones) but another head check would serve us all, and our futures (and those of our children) well.” Warm, fuzzy, almost, well, Republican in its understated appeal to “family” and “family values.” Peters, single, has no children.
DDA staffer Susan Pollay came through with $100, as did DDA Board member John Splitt. Public-Private Partnership Sugar Daddy former Ward 2 Council member Tony Derezinski, tossed out of office by his constituents in the August 2012 primary election, gave $100 to the Our New Library PAC, as well.
Together with the implosion of the multi-million dollar AATA county-wide transit debacle, and the ouster of Council members Leigh Greden in 2009, Stephen Rapundalo in 2011 and Tony Derezinski in 2012, the defeat of the AADL bond is yet another crippling blow to the battered local Demublican Cube and the drones who inhabit it. If you need more proof that the Hive Mind is rattled, A2Politico was told that long-time Ward 4 Council member Margie Teall, who escaped defeat at the hands of neighborhood activist Jack Eaton by only 18 votes in August 2012, has taken to attending neighborhood meetings. Alas, A2Politico was also told that her own constituents rarely recognize her or realize that their City Council member is in attendance.
So what does the defeat of the AADL bond proposal mean? It means that in August 2013 City Council members who have regularly voted with the Hive Mind in support of trains, new taxes, and against public services, parks, the environment and local transportation (Ward 1: Sabra Briere, Ward 4: Marcia Higgins) may well find themselves targeted by the same group of city-wide political activists who targeted Leigh Greden, Stephen Rapundalo and Tony Derezinski. For taxpayers this means more Council members committed to improving infrastructure, providing services, funding parks, improving local transit and protecting the environment, before funding corridor studies aimed at using local tax dollars to fund development and transportation schemes.
This is another huge win for determined neighborhood activists, people who care deeply about environmentalism, fiscal responsibility, education, and who are willing to put up their own money and weather the sloppy reporting of AnnArbor.com to inform voters about the issues. Ward 2 resident Kathy Griswold (left) spear-headed the effort to help Ann Arbor residents understand that there were viable options (renovation) to the AADL bond request. Griswold, who put up $7,000 of her own money charged to a credit card, along with a small group of volunteers, helped initiate and sustain a city-wide debate about whether the AADL Board and the AADL Executive Director were engaged in what can only be described as empire-building and “mission creep.” Does a public library provide reading materials or does a public library provide double shot espressos and iced lattes? It was a robust debate, and voters came down on the side of caution, despite a very slick six-figure marketing campaign disguised as a hipster grassroots movement in support of technology, LEED certification and more space for “the kids.”
One thing is clear, local politicos, including the DDA and developers, the AADL Board and Josie Parker wanted to get this $65 million dollar bond passed, and they were stopped short by a determined woman willing to weather intense criticism aimed at her by the local media, the opposition, and their monied supporters. Library supporter Kathy Griswold came to the table hell-bent on the goal of educating voters. This is just the kind of story about neighborhood activism one imagines the Chicago neighborhood activist Americans re-elected to the White House yesterday would be delighted to hear. It’s a story worth re-telling.
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