Fighting Entrenched Cronyism One Vote At A Time
by P.D. Lesko
At the moment, Ann Arbor City Council members are trying to assert their Charter-mandated authority over the Board of the Downtown Development Authority like a parent trying to discipline a hopelessly out-of-control toddler in the midst of an epic temper tantrum. John Hieftje stars in this drama as the ineffectual parent, the one who stands by and undermines all efforts to impose discipline—the parent at whom people in grocery stores stare, shake their heads and roll their eyes. Members of City Council want term limits for DDA Board members—one particularly troublesome member was appointed when Barbara Bush was First Lady—and want to slow down the DDA’s capture of tax dollars.
This effort to clean up the DDA Board comes on the heels of the “retirement” of two members of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority Board of Directors. Local politicos argue that David Nacht, who does not live in Ann Arbor, had no business serving on the Board of AATA and making decisions about the disposition of millage dollars. Likewise, Jesse Bernstein, so say disgruntled members of the now defunct Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce, had no business cross-dressing as the AATA’s “finance” guru during the group’s failed efforts to sell a $500 million dollar county-wide transit boondoggle to residents. Under Bernstein, the Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce lost revenues, members, and ultimately after Bernstein left his job there, was forced to merge with the Ypsilanti Chamber of Commerce.
At his last meeting, David Nacht was quoted by AnnArborChronicle.com as saying “I encourage all my fellow citizens to serve on a board.” The comment is somewhat pretentious coming from the township resident who soaked up a decade on the AATA Board. In addition, while Nacht’s encouragement of his “fellow citizens” in general may appear laudatory, it’s absurd in the face of John Hieftje’s determination to choose candidates for the city’s most powerful boards and commissions from among a gene pool the size of a thimble, primarily from among his political donors and cronies (Nacht included). Nacht’s “fellow citizens” have a snow ball’s chance in hell of being appointed to the AATA Board based on Hieftje’s track record of making such appointments.
However, the DDA Board battle, along with the “retirements” of Nacht and Bernstein, suggest John Hieftje’s ability to stack the city’s boards and commissions could be at an end thanks to a group of citizens and City Council members concerned with transparency and fiscal accountability in local government. These Council members include Ward 1 Council member Sumi Kailasapathy, Ward 2 Council members Jane Lumm and Sally Hart Petersen, Ward 3 Council member Stephen Kunselman and Ward 5 Council member Mike Anglin. All are inclined to question board appointments, and all have spoken in favor of making board and commission appointments more prudently. Several favor term limits on board and commission appointments, and several have concerns about city contracts that have been awarded to Hieftje’s board and commission appointees and their employers, including Environmental Commission member David Stead, whose company is up to its neck in city contracts awarded during the move to single-stream recycling.
Hieftje’s efforts to put long-time Planning Commission member Eric Mahler on the AATA Board to replace Nacht may prove to the a turning point in the battle against rampant and unchecked cronyism in local government.
In addition to appointing political donors to boards and commissions, Hieftje has repeatedly appointed to important boards and commissions as “citizen” members City Council members whose constituents have booted them from office. Leigh Greden was tossed from office in 2009 after the Ann Arbor News revealed Greden was playing on Facebook and sending rude and unprofessional emails during open City Council meetings. Hieftje subsequently appointed Greden to the city’s Housing Commission. In 2012, Ward 2 voters chose to vote Tony Derezinski out of office. Shortly thereafter, Hieftje appointed Derezinski to the the city’s Planning Commission. Likewise, Ward 2 voters tossed Stephen Rapundalo from office, and Hieftje appointed Rapundalo as a “citizen” member of the LDFA—a board on which Rapundalo sat as a Council member. The LDFA was used to funnel tax dollars to Ann Arbor SPARK.
Running for City Council and losing also has its perks. After Hive Mind candidate Ingrid Ault challenged Ward 3 Council member Stephen Kunselman in 2011, Hieftje appointed Ault to the Park Advisory Commission. Needless to say, a decade of fostering group think and appointing political yes men (and women) to boards and commissions has resulted in some spectacularly expensive mistakes and poor stewardship of the city’s resources, such as a Park Advisory Commission member who voted in support of developing parkland and using it for parking.
In an effort to better understand why a wider variety of the city’s residents are not participating in boards and commissions, A2Politico filed a FOIA seeking all of the applications submitted for the openings on city boards and commissions over the past four months. It’s not clear whether Mahler filled out an application to sit on the AATA Board, or whether he needed to do so in order to be considered for the opening.
Ann Arbor Transportation Authority Board member David Nacht’s departure marks not only the end of a decade of public service, but also marks a turning point. John Hieftje appointed Nacht to the Board for a 10 year term. Over the course of those ten years there has been sharp criticism leveled that AATA’s Board members have neglected bettering service within the city of Ann Arbor. Many of those criticisms came from former AATA Treasurer Ted Annis. Annis, in fact, is still an outspoken critic of AATA’s finances (Annis contends AATA is run inefficiently) and the bus provider’s inability to get a rider from one side of the city to the other in less than one hour.
That AATA Board members David Nacht and Jesse Bernstein are “retiring,” in the light of the county-wide transit debacle that cost taxpayers millions, is great news. That Hieftje wants to replace Nacht with Eric Mahler should come as no surprise. Mahler, it could be argued, has done enough for Ann Arbor having played his part in crafting the seriously flawed A2D2 Design Guidelines/Zoning against which the public is now railing. At the end of March 2013, in response to public backlash aimed at a parcel which Mahler (among others) voted to zone D1 (for dense development), City Council decided to conduct a review of the D1 zoning guidelines. Mahler and the Planning Commission, in essence, were asked to review their own work—work which they believed had been done correctly in the first place.
There are about 400 Ann Arbor citizens who serve on boards and commissions, according to city records. About one-fifth of those citizens serve on more than one board or commission. Below, you’ll find a list of several of Ann Arbor’s busiest citizens, each of whom have been appointed to serve on multiple city boards and commissions:
Bonnie Bona: City Panning Commission, Downtown Zoning Steering Committee, Ad Hoc, North Huron Vision Task Force, Street Art Fairs, Mayor’s Committee on
Roger Hewitt: Community Security & Public Space Task Force, Downtown Development Authority, Downtown Zoning Steering Committee, Ad Hoc, Local Officers’ Compensation Commission, Local Officers’ Compensation Commission
Anthony Ramirez: Building Authority, Cable Communications Commission, Housing and Human Services Advisory Board
Kirk Westphal: City Panning Commission, Design Guidelines Taskforce, Environmental Commission (Planning Commission Rep.)
Westphal, of course, has recently stepped up to challenge Ward 2 Council member Jane Lumm, who recently called out Hieftje for launching personal attacks and bullying those who, as Lumm put it, “may occasionally” disgaree with him. The question, of course, is whether there are six votes on Council to break John Hieftje of his nasty habit of appointing his cronies to the city’s most powerful boards and commissions. If there were six votes to put Mahler out to pasture, it would force Hieftje to appoint one of David Nacht’s “fellow citizens” to the AATA Board. That would be a huge step in the right direction.
Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=14971