Ward 4 Candidate Debate: A Tale of Two Cities—Will There Be A Revolution?
by P.D. Lesko
In August 2012, labor lawyer Jack Eaton came 18 votes from toppling Ward 4 Council member Margie Teall, a 10-year incumbent. In early 2013, Ward 4 City Council member Marcia Higgins started telling people that she wasn’t running, even as she pulled the necessary nominating petitions. Then, Higgins started cozying up to Eaton, chatting him up at Council meetings, soliciting his opinions, no doubt. By March 2013, Higgins was running for her City Council seat. In April 2013 Eaton pulled nominating petitions, and the May-December political romance was off.
Now Higgins, with help from John Hieftje, is going door-to-door in what political insiders have dubbed is a referendum on Hieftje.
“He’s going door-to-door with Marcia,” said a Council member referring to Hieftje, “but he’s got a terrible credibility problem now. I’m not sure going door-to-door with John would help any of his candidates at this point.”
If the August 2012 Democratic primary and the November 2012 general elections were any indication, Ann Arbor voters are in a surly mood. They tossed out Ward 2 incumbent Tony Derezinski and turned down both a millage for art and a bond proposal put forth by the Ann Arbor District Library’s Board of Trustees. Both the millage and the library bond were backed by many of Hieftje’s political appointees and his Council pals. It was a smart smack right across the political kissers of people wholly unaccustomed to the sting of rebuke, as well as politicos—such as Downtown Development Authority Board members Joan Lowenstein and Leah Gunn—who’ve been on a political losing streak.
If Higgins loses, she will be replaced by a candidate who has pledged to focus on “sensible priorities” such as roads, infrastructure and services.
At the debate, Marcia Higgins earnestly explained that her “priority” has been a “balanced budget.” Since the city’s Charter requires a balanced budget, Higgins would have to “fight” her fellow Council members for a balanced budget as hard as she would have to fight for a Whopper at Burger King.
At the Ann Arbor League of Women Voters debate on July 10th, Higgins sat ramrod straight, unsmiling, never once looking at Eaton at any time on camera during the 40 minute joint appearance. Ann Arbor’s Mayor Pro Tem looked annoyed, superior and smug. That she showed up at the candidate forum was a pleasant surprise, after snubbing the Ann Arbor Dems on June 8th, sending campaign supporter Leah Gunn the day of the event with the message that the candidate was sick. Incredibly, the League of Women Voters representatives who claimed the questions had been drawn from a pool of queries submitted by the general public, asked both Ward 3 and Ward 4 candidates many of the same convoluted, overly tedious queries. At one point, the candidate forum turned into Quiz Show when candidates were asked to explain what the Downtown Development Authority is and how it works. This same question was asked in 2009 of Ward 1 City Council member Sabra Briere and her challenger Mitchell Ozog. Briere, who at that point had been on Council two years, could not answer the query.
When asked to look ahead 10 to 20 years (one of the more interesting questions), Eaton said, “We really need to focus on the core functions of city government, our infrastructure. We need to take responsibility for the problems we have now so future generations can build on those accomplishments.”
Marcia Higgins replied, “We have focused on our infrastructure. The city has replaced five bridges, miles and miles of roads, sewers and pipes.” In her closing statement she claimed that “My focus has been building our infrastructure.”
She must need some new trifocals to help with her focus.
Michigan has the second worst roads in the nation, according to federal officials, and Ann Arbor has the third worst roads in the state. During her previous four years Higgins has been office, Ann Arbor has paved or reconstructed 30.5 lane miles of roads out of 300 miles of roads, approximately 70 percent of which has been identified by state officials as needing repaving and/or reconstruction. Marcia Higgins must have missed John Hieftje’s June 2013 “State of the City” address which he delivered to the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor. Hieftje told the audience, “We did get behind on roads, but…I think we’re catching up pretty fast.”
An unconvinced member of the audience shot back, “Maybe you’re on some different streets than I’m on.”
According to Hieftje’s June 2013 address, Ann Arbor repaved or reconstructed 3.6 lane miles in 2009, 5.3 lane miles in 2010, 4.7 lane miles in 2011 and 16.9 lane miles in 2012. Hieftje claimed his information came from city staffer Craig Hupy, and AnnArbor.com government repeater Ryan Stanton repeated it. Stanton must have forgotten that in February 2013 he wrote a piece in which city officials reported to City Council in 2012 that Ann Arbor had repaved 25 lane miles of roads and included a handy list of all of the streets which had been repaired.
Eaton and Higgins presented differing perspectives on everything from flooding to the city’s relationship and cooperation with the University of Michigan.
Eaton: “We need to work harder to have a good working relationship.”
Higgins: “I think the relationship is working well.”
When asked about stormwater management, the Mayor Pro tem unctuously explained: “Ann Arbor streets were designed a decade ago to hold the water. Most people don’t know that,” she said.
A2Politico contacted a city engineer in the office in charge of road repair and asked whether “Ann Arbor streets were designed a decade ago to hold the water.” The man chuckled and said, “Who told you that?” He explained that city streets flood when the storm water system is overwhelmed. “City streets are built to drain water, not to hold it.”
Eaton’s take on flooding focused on watershed management: “Our watersheds are beyond capacity. We need to use a variety of approaches. In 1997 the city did a study in the Lawton Neighborhood and simply failed to follow up on the study. We need to move expediently.”
Marcia Higgins disagreed on how flooding issues in her Ward, where homeowners routinely face sewage-filled basements, should be addressed: “To move forward quickly will exacerbate the problem.” It hard to image how having excrement floating in water in one’s basement could be made worse.
With respect to affordable housing, Eaton said, “I think we have really fallen short on the entire area of affordable housing. We need to do more. We need to be precise about who the affordable housing is for. Without more clearly defining that we are going to have a difficult time supporting it.”
Marcia Higgins avoided specifics but instead reached for a handy platitude: “I support affordable housing. We are working with our Housing Board as we are looking to increase housing.”
Ann Arbor has 355 units of affordable housing and 3,000 people on waiting lists for the units. Between 2005 and 2012 60 units of affordable housing were built in Ann Arbor, and 30 units were lost. During the same period over 1,500 units of student high rise housing has been built. Check out the most recent half a dozen projects that brought over 300 units of affordable housing to Berkeley’s homeless and low-income residents (seniors, included) over the past two years. In addition, that city has five times (250) the number of beds available for the homeless that Ann Arbor has. Unlike Ann Arbor, Boulder, Colorado, Madison, Wisconsin and Berkeley, California each have multi-million dollar affordable housing Trust Funds.
In her opening statement, Marcia Higgins said, “I want to work in collaboration with residents in moving our city forward.” As the evening wore on, she repeated the same theme more than half a dozen times. “It’s all up to the community.” “Our residents’ voices are very important.” Higgins’s sudden love affair with the Vox Popoli might be credible if not for the simple fact that she is lambasted by her own constituents for rarely returning phone calls or emails. On AnnArbor.com, in comments Marcia Higgins is frequently referred to as “The Invisible Woman.” Thus, her opponent promises on his website to “answer your emails and return your phone calls.”
In November 2012, after voters turned down a proposed tax hike to pay for the Percent for Art program, Marcia Higgins voted against a resolution put forward by Ward 2 Council member Jane Lumm which would have discontinued funding for the Percent for Art program. In 2008, Marcia Higgins was one of two Council members who voted against giving residents an opportunity to amend the Charter so that a public vote would be required before the sale of parkland. The amendment went on to be approved by 80 percent of the electorate. When residents circulated petitions and collected over 6,000 signatures from registered voters in Ann Arbor who wanted to vote before City Council borrowed money to build the new city hall, Marcia Higgins dismissed the 6,000 signatures as unimportant and voted, instead, to go ahead with the building project.
In 2011, The Michigan Daily endorsed her Republican opponent in a biting editorial: “While Higgins has the experience of having served many years on the City Council, her apparent apathy toward the election is troubling. She didn’t attend the League of Women Voters debate last month and was unavailable to meet with the Daily’s editorial board to discuss the election. It’s unclear if Higgins is truly dedicated to the position.” Twenty-something journos-on-the-fly complaining that the 60-year-old Mayor Pro Tem of one of the largest cities in Michigan is an apathetic flake isn’t something you read every day.
Will Eaton’s platform appeal to a cranky electorate who just wants the potholes filled already and the police to come when called? In his closing statement Eaton pointed out the obvious: “This election provides a clear choice. I will represent common sense priorities. More importantly I will work with residents.” Earlier in the evening, Eaton suggested that he and Marcia Higgins “do have competing visions.” Higgins urged voters to reject “candidates who only say no and fear change.”
Can Eaton and the coalition of neighborhood activists behind him unseat Marcia Higgins? Higgins, while getting help from Hieftje is, evidently, also getting help from Ward 2 Council member Sally Hart Petersen. When Petersen ran in 2012, Marcia Higgins endorsed Petersen’s opponent, and Jack Eaton supported Petersen’s candidacy. It’s 2013, however, and many of Petersen’s 2012 supporters are supporting Eaton, and several have expressed shock at what they perceive as a poorly conceived political choice by Sally Hart Petersen.
“This isn’t who Sally presented herself to be when she ran. I am very disappointed,” said a Ward 2 resident supporting Eaton who also supported Petersen in 2012. “Jack Eaton is a fantastic candidate and our city needs him. Marcia is who Sally thinks should sit on Council? If so, Sally isn’t who I want sitting on City Council.”
Shortly after her primary win in August 2012, Petersen jumped into the fray and, in a move that surprised many political insiders, backed the unpopular library bond proposal. Petersen’s pick went down in flames. It’s possible that Ward 2′s new Council member with her graduate degree from Harvard may be book smart but much less savvy about the political waters in which she’s treading water.
As for Marcia Higgins, she said she intends to “embrace the inevitable change” that’s coming to Ann Arbor. One wonders if that includes the possibility she’ll lose the City Council seat to which she was first elected as a Republican in 1999. After all, as Higgins took pains to point out at the July 10th candidate forum, “It’s all up to the community.” What she doesn’t seem to understand is that “the community” is feeling cranky about blight, high taxes, potholes, service cuts and safety among other things, and since 2009 voters have tossed four long-term City Council incumbents out on their political keisters.
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