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So, How Much Did AATA Spend on Its Failed Regional Transit Scheme? It’ll Cost Ya $1,538 to Find Out.

by P.D. Lesko

Freedom of Information Act requests are governed by the notion that public government has the obligation to err on the side of transparency. It is also governed by the principle that if public records released would benefit the public, then those records should be released. In other words, when a FOIA request is refused and the argument goes to court, the government entity holding the requested public records must prove to the judge why it’s best for the records to remain, well, secret. That’s a tough sell, and FOIA appeals upheld in court include the requirement that court costs and attorneys fees be paid by the governmental entity that refused the initial request for public records.

The Ann Arbor Public School’s Superintendent Patricia Green suggested, incredibly, that anyone interested in getting public documents from the AAPS should just FOIA them. In case you’re wondering how much AAPS employees dropped on eating out in 2011, and you want to see the District’s credit card statements, that’ll cost you around $750, or so replied AAPS FOIA officer Liz Margolis when A2Politico filed a FOIA for the information. (Never fear, we got the information and are busy crunching the numbers for a future entry.) If you’re curious about how much money Ann Arbor Transportation Authority chief Michael Ford and John Hieftje’s hand-picked cronies on the AATA Board blew on the political bomb that was “county-wide” transit, that information will cost you over $1,500. Yep, it will cost as much as a month’s salary for an employee who earns about $30,000 per year to find out how much public money AATA officials frittered away trying to jam through a county-wide transit boondoggle in 24 county townships and municipalities whose elected officials and taxpayers, it turns out, had no interest.

Did AATA blow $1 million dollars? Did the AATA Board spend $10 million dollars on the county-wide transit plan practically no municipalities or townships in the county wanted?

One reason some business people are interested in finding out how much the AATA Board sunk into Hieftje’s county-wide  transit folly is because the former Chair of AATA’s Board and the Chair of the AATA committee charged with shaping the financial plan to pay for county-wide transit was Jesse Bernstein (left). He was appointed by Hieftje to the AATA Board in 2008, even as he led the Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce into a financial mess, or so say members of the Chamber who are still upset with Bernstein’s leadership of the organization. Anyone who has studied the tax returns of the Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce may wonder what exactly qualified Bernstein as AATA’s funding “expert.” According to tax documents filed with the IRS, in 2007, 2008 and 2009 (Bernstein resigned in late-June 2009), the Chamber of Commerce lost money and gross revenues fell from $1.2 million to $975,000. Incredibly, in 2008 under Bernstein’s leadership, the group spent 70 percent of  its $1.03 million in revenue on salaries, benefits, travel, and office space. Under Jesse Bernstein’s leadership, the money-losing local Chamber of Commerce was in the business of being in business to provide Bernstein with a job and a six-figure salary. When asked in August 2011 what level of millage it would take to fund the first five years of AATA’s transit master plan vision, Bernstein replied: “I don’t know and I don’t care.” Bernstein holds a bachelor of arts degree in psychology from State University College in New York and a masters in social work in casework and community practice.

When the AATA Board decided to pursue a $500,000,000 county-wide transit plan that would include converting AATA into an U196 entity—an organization whose Ann Arbor-paid $8 million dollars in annual funding could be skimmed for trains—the digital screaming on AnnArbor.com started. The screaming didn’t end even after Ann Arbor ignominiously opted out of Hieftje’s own county-wide transit scheme just this month. The reality is that Hieftje, Ann Arbor City Council members, AATA’s Michael Ford and his Board members knew in 2006 that county residents were decidedly unenthusiastic about the idea of county-wide transit or a county-wide millage to fund it. A 2006 AATA survey affirmed residents’ lack of support. A subsequent 2009 survey that asked the same questions produced similar results: only 17 percent of 940 county respondents said they would “definitely” support a county-wide millage to pay for county-wide transit. In response, Michael Ford explained that, perhaps, county residents were not in favor of county-wide transit because AATA officials needed to do a “better job of talking with residents about the future of transit in Washtenaw County.” In 2009, Ford told AnnArbor.com, “AATA is hiring a consultant to get the community involved in creating a vision for that plan and identifying service needs throughout the county.”

That one consultant cost $240,000.

After the recent Ann Arbor District Library bond proposal failed, AADL Board prez Margaret Leary explained, “It means we didn’t make our case to the voters….”

Answers such as these demonstrate why Michigan ended up among the top five states in a 2011 study by a pair of profs from Columbia U—a state-by-state study which ranked local and state politicos in how often they ignore public opinion. Two professors from Columbia University who study how well elected state and local officials translate public opinion into policy, determined that Michigan ranked fourth in the nation among states in which elected officials are most likely to shrug at what the people want, then make policy decisions to suit their personal, ideological and political agendas. Dr. Jeffrey R. Lax and Dr. Justin H. Phillips study “how well states translate public opinion into policy. Using national surveys and advances in subnational opinion estimation, we estimate state-level support for 39 policies across eight issue areas, including abortion, law enforcement, health care, and education. We show that policy is highly responsive to policy-specific opinion, even controlling for other influences,” according to their paper published in June 2011 and titled “The Democratic Deficit in the States.”

The AATA Board, Michael Ford and John Hieftje’s refusal to heed to the results of the 2006 AATA survey and the results of the 2009 AATA survey would be recognized by Professors Lax and Phillips as symptomatic of an ongoing and significant “democratic deficit” in Ann Arbor.

These are the public records A2Politico asked AATA to provide (a list suggested by a former member of the AATA Board of Directors):

1. Copies of all payments made by AATA to all vendors made during the years 2010, 2011 and 2012 related to the Countywide Transit Master Plan.

2. Copies of all payments made made by AATA to consultants during the years 2010, 2011 and 2012 related to the Countywide Transit Master Plan.

3. Copies of all payments made made by AATA to advertising firms during the years 2010, 2011 and 2012 related to the Countywide Transit Master Plan.

4. Copies of all payments made to by AATA legal firms during the years 2010, 2011 and 2012 related to the Countywide Transit Master Plan.

5. Copies of all payments made by AATA during the years 2010, 2011 and 2012 related to the Countywide Transit Master Plan for studies.

6. Copies of all payments made by AATA during the years 2010, 2011 and 2012 related to the Countywide Transit Master Plan for surveys.

7. Copies of all payments made by AATA during the years 2010, 2011 and 2012 related to the Countywide Transit Master Plan for literature.

8. Copies of all payments made by AATA during the years 2010, 2011 and 2012 related to the Countywide Transit Master Plan for AATA personnel overtime.

9. Copies of all payments made by AATA for travel, meals and lodging during the years 2010, 2011 and 2012 related to the Countywide Transit Master Plan.

Michael Ford sent along the following response to the FOIA:

Note the first sentence of Ford’s letter in which he claims that AATA needs an extension to “search files” to determine how many documents will have to be provided. Yet, in the third paragraph, Ford writes: “The anticipated cost of providing the information is $1,538.50,” including “50 hours of labor” needed to photocopy “500 pages” of materials. First, Michael Ford asks for more time by claiming he has no idea how many relevant files he has, and then asks to be compensated for 50 hours of labor and 500 pages of photocopying.

In response to a request that the materials be provided to A2Politico free of charge because A2Politico is a news gathering source, and doing so would greatly benefit the public understanding of AATA’s work relevant to transit, Ford offered to charge half of the original $1,538.50, still without explaining why it would take an AATA secretary over a week of 8 hour work days to locate electronic and paper files from 2012, 2011 and 2010, and then redact and copy the materials.

A2Politico responded with a letter which reads, in part: “Finally, I would appreciate an explanation of why my request for waiver of the search, review and copy costs was denied. Section 4  provides for waiver of costs if that ‘waiver or reduction of the fee is in the public interest because searching for or furnishing copies of the public record can be considered as primarily benefiting the general public.’ I hope that you agree that the public would benefit from knowing the full costs of planning the countywide transit system and that withholding this information from the public is at odds with your obligations to serve the public, especially the taxpayers who support AATA through the Ann Arbor transit millage.”

AATA officials have been giving similarly dodgy responses to Ann Arbor City Council members who’ve asked for detailed information about how much was spent by AATA staffers and the AATA Board in pursuit of the failed county-wide transit debacle. Even if county-wide transit is dead, it’s important to know just how much taxpayer money was poured into a plan that had been criticized as ill-conceived and poorly executed. In 2010, Michael Ford received no raise in his base pay, but rather a lump sum “bonus” equal to 4 percent of his $160,000 salary. In 2011, Ford’s contract was extended by one year, and the AATA Board members awarded him a 3 percent pay hike. This would seem to indicate that the AATA Board members thought their plans for a county-wide transit authority and AATA’s eventual participation in that authority (including turning over AATA’s assets to the new authority’s board), were progressing smoothly. Were they simply deluding themselves? Possibly.

However, given the intense political embarrassment the failure of the county-wide transit plan has caused AATA’s Board, as well as John Hieftje, who appointed all of the AATA Board members and gave them their marching orders, Ford should be prepared to be thrown under the wheels of the bus when next his contract comes up for renewal. He was hired in 2009 to finagle millage and taxpayer funding for Hieftje’s train fantasy under the guise of “expanding” county-wide bus transit. That scheme failed spectacularly and visibly. In the space of three weeks in October 2012, politicos county-wide opted out of participation in the transit scheme one after the other in what turned into a delectable bad news buffet for Hieftje’s many critics. Under the terms of his contract, Michael Ford gets a $10,000 car allowance. Local politicos predict that by as early as summer of 2013, Ford will be driving his taxpayer-provided car away from Ann Arbor on his way to another  job. Politicos and residents who have been vocal in their support of expanding AATA’s local transit service hope to see the AATA Board members responsible for the county-wide fiasco strapped to the roof of Michael Ford’s car as it speeds down the highway.

In the meantime, A2Politico awaits Michael Ford’s response to our FOIA letter. 

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Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=14669

8 Comments for “So, How Much Did AATA Spend on Its Failed Regional Transit Scheme? It’ll Cost Ya $1,538 to Find Out.”

  1. [...] to the total spent on its pursuit of the failed county-wide transit plan, AATA CEO Michael Ford responded to a Freedom of Information Act request with a bill for $1,538 for the agency to gather together the information and photocopy it. Ford eventually reduced the [...]

  2. Good and proper investigation. Thanks Pat! It’s our taxes. Why should it be difficult to have an accounting of how our resources are used?

  3. AATA’s Board of Directors called a special meeting for November 29, 2012 to deal with this agenda item:

    Consider Material Exempt from Discussion or Disclosure by State or Federal Statute; Michigan Open Meetings Act; Section 8(h)

  4. It is amusing to watch yet again another public figure try to avoid embarrassing release of information. When will they learn to just take their bumps as they come rather than dragging the process out over an extended period. They have the humiliating defeat of the countywide transit authority. They have the embarrassment of trying to avoid disclosure of the costs. Eventually, they will have the release of the information about the costs of this project which will just act to remind people of just how much of a debacle this whole thing was.

    Show us a full accounting of the costs. Fall on your sword as a means of accepting responsibility. Let us move on without you.

  5. @timjbd I’m sure it wouldn’t be legal to force the head of AATA to ride the bus rather than drive his car. However, it would be perfectly legal to pull his $10,000 car allowance. A2P wrote a piece about city staffers with desk jobs who are given car allowances: http://www.a2politico.com/2011/05/ann-arbor-pays-thousands-monthly-in-car-allowances-and-mileage-reimbursements-to-city-employees-with-desk-jobs/ It would appear that Hieftje, his allies on Council and appointees to the AATA Board of Directors have the idea that money grows on the trees the city no longer takes care of in any systematic way because of budget cuts to the city’s Forestry Department.

  6. The head of the Transportation Authority gets a car allowance? He’s not required to ride the bus?

  7. They’re all bozos on this bus. Ann Arbor long suffering stalwart taxpayers need a bus system that can get them from point A to B…Z. This has eluded us from the beginning because the people running the system have refused to make commonsensical changes such as a modified grid system. Somehow, we were told, we would dilute our resources by transferring them to a county wide entity, BUT, our service would magically improve. People just shook their heads, unless they had imbibed one too many sippies of the mayor’s special coocoo choochoo blend of koolaid

    • @Lulugee perhaps with new members of City Council who replaced big box transit Sugar Daddys and Sugar Momma Sandi Smith we’ll see AATA Board members called onto the carpet to explain this fiasco. As I wrote, based on the fact that Hieftje sponsored the resolution to withdraw Ann Arbor from his own transit scheme, effectively throwing the AATA Board and Michael Ford under the bus, we’ll see at least one head roll at AATA.

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