Ypsilanti City Council candidates respond to questions about the Water Street millage, race and policing, and what they’d like to see in a new City Manager at tonight’s League of Women Voters debate

In Ypsilanti, because we generally vote Democrat, our City Council races are pretty much decided during the primary. And, in hopes of ensuring that voters are educated before placing their primary votes on August 2, The League of Women Voters hosted a forum this evening, during which the four individuals running for Ypsi City Council were given an opportunity to answer questions on everything from what they’d like to see in a new City Manager to how they intend to deal with the Water Street issue. Following are my admittedly rough and incomplete notes on what Beth Bashert and Jennifer Symanns, who are running against one another for the open Ward 2 seat, and Liz Dahl MacGregor and Pete Murdock, who are running against one another in Ward 3, had to say. If you were present, and have anything to add, please do. And, if you think that I got something wrong, please let me know. I tried to keep up as best that I could, but I know that some important things must have gotten by me.

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At the beginning, each of the four candidates was given 2 minutes to address the crowd, which I’d estimate at about 70… Jennifer Symanns introduced herself as a former U-M police officer with a law degree and experience in human relations. According to Symanns, as she currently works in HR, her experience could be beneficial as we look to hire a new City Manager. She also pointed out that she has experience working for the City, as Vice Chair of the Human Relations Commission, and that she’s a trained mediator. Liz Dahl MacGregor, when it’s her turn, tells us of her decision to return to Ypsilanti after completing law school in St. Louis. She stresses her experience on the Friends of the Freighthouse board, the board of the Ypsilanti Food Co-op, and the Ypsilanti Planning Commission. She says that it’s also important to note that she is the mother of two small children, something which gives her insight that no one on Council currently has. “No City Council members have school age children,” she tells us. She says that she’s running, at least in part, to bring “more housing to our city” and be a voice for the sustainable economy movement. [Dahl MacGregor, among other things, helped start the City’s Hour Exchange time bank, and consults with organizations interested in exploring shared ownership models.] Pete Murdock shared his story, starting at the beginning, when he arrived in Ypsilanti in the 1960s, and got to work organizing. He tells us that he helped start the Ypsi Co-op and the Tenants Union. He talks about the years he served both on Council, and as Mayor, in the ‘80s, and what made him run again in 2008, as the recession hit, and our local factories closed. He says that, on Council, he helped to stabilize the budgetary situation resulting from the recession and keep police and fire services at reasonable levels. And, he says, he’d like to see through what he’s started. And, finally, Beth Bashert, tells us of the work she did to pass the local non-discrimination ordinance, ensure public transit funding, and help elect Mayor Edmonds. She says that, now, she’s ready to stop just running campaigns and actually serve the community in a more direct capacity. She says she’s a “relentless, hard fighter” with a “dynamic work ethic”. And, picking up on Dahl MacGregor’s point about how no one else on Council has children, Bashert mentions that she’s motivated to serve because she wants to create a better Ypsilanti for her 3 year old grandson, who lives in her neighborhood. [Bashert, who sells cars for a living, also offered to sell cars to everyone in the audience, which got a laugh.]

Question: What motivated you to run? What do you see as the most important issues facing our City? Murdock tells of growing up in a politically-minded family in Boston, and how it motivated him to start organizing when he first came to town. Dahl MacGregor responds by telling the story of when she first moved here from Dexter in ’97, when she was a student at Washtenaw Community College, and why she decided to come back in 2004 and raise a family here. She’s the first of the candidates to express support for the Water Street debt reduction millage. (All of the other candidates echo her sentiment later in the event.) She says she wants more community policing and more affordable housing. Bashert, when it’s her turn, says that she’s interested in helping to solve the fiscal problems facing the City, and working to ensure that we continue to be a diverse community that “protects all people”. Symanns says that “priority number one” for her is making sure that we don’t go “off the financial cliff”. She also stresses her background in community policing and says that it’s taught her that we need to work together to ensure that this is a safe and thriving community.

Question: On the subject of Water Street, what would you be looking for in potential development, and what would cause you to reject a proposal? Murdock is the only one to say definitively what he wouldn’t support. “A toxic waste incinerator would be a ‘No’,” he says. Otherwise, he says we need to consider all proposals, as we don’t want to have an emergency manager installed in Ypsilanti. Everyone else says that we need to keep all of our options open. Dahl MacGregor says that she’d love to see co-op housing or a bigger Ypsi Food Coop on the site, but the reality is that we might need to “take what comes.” “I hope we don’t,” she says, “but we can’t face bankruptcy.” She goes on to say, “We might have to have another fast food restaurant or dollar store.” Symanns essentially agrees, saying that there are no “deal breakers”. Ideally, Symanns says, we’d develop the riverfront as an entertainment district, but, given the reality of the situation, we might not have a choice. Bashert says it’s a “trick question”, and instead talks about the kinds of things that she’d like to see (more offices and stores with regular hours). But she agrees with the others that we may not have a choice. “I was opposed to a fast food restaurant (on the site) in the past,” she said. She then went on to add that she could be amenable to it now, in the context of other things happening on the site, if it weren’t just a freestanding fast food restaurant by itself.

Question: It’s City Council’s job to hire and assess the Ypsilanti City Manager. What would you be looking for in a new City Manager? Dahl MacGregor stressed communications and coordination. She says we need someone who can translate the vision put forward by City Council to City staff. She says that, under Ralph Lange, the vision wasn’t consistent across departments. Bashert, saying that she didn’t think it was appropriate to talk about Lange’s performance, declared, “the next person better be able to sell.” We need to be able to sell Water Street, she said. (She did say that Lange did a good job of refinancing the Water Street debt and putting things in motion for the millage.) Symanns, who says that she’s hired and fired people for the last decade as an HR professional, suggests that the City Manager’s position may need to be restructured. She says, before we do the search, City Council should decide whether or not certain parts of the job can be given to others on City staff. (She suggests that someone could serve as CFO for the City, for instance, taking on the fiscal responsibility.) Murdock explains the Council’s role as enumerated in the City’s charter, and suggests that we not look for a new City Manager that’s just strong where we perceive our last City Manager to be weak. “Let’s not overact because of the last one,” He says. “We’ve done that before.”

Question: What should the City’s role be relative to events and parks, and how might we change the way things are currently handled? Everyone says they like events. Symanns points to a Michigan Municipal League study that says arts and events are critical for growth. Sometimes events are an inconvenience, she says, but, in the long term, they’re good for the community. Murdock says we don’t do much in the way of programming any more. The Rutherford Pool, the Senior Center, and everything else, he says, were handed off to non-profits when we started cutting the City’s budget. He says that all local events are organized privately, and that the City just facilitates. “We just need to get out of the way,” he says. He does, however, say that we should invest in our parks, which he says are a huge asset. He says the infrastructure in our parks hasn’t been upgraded in 20 years. Bashert, speaking from the perspective of someone who often hosts events, says that all the City should do is make sure that rented public spaces are “clean, safe and priced fairly.” That’s where our involvement should end, she says. She then goes on to say that she loves Beerfest, and that Elvisfest is “ridiculous.” (She later clarified, saying that she meant “ridiculous” as a term of endearment.) Dahl MacGregor says we should invest in playgrounds. She says they should be equally distributed and similarly maintained. (Right now, she says, they aren’t.) She also says that we should make sure that, in the future, our local police officers don’t treat unattended young black kids any differently from their white counterparts in public spaces.

Questions: What is your transportation vision, and how would you prioritize investments? Everyone loves mass transit, bike lanes, and all the rest of it. Bashert says hers is a one car household, and that she likes the fact that AAATA is increasing service, and that we’re investing in bike lanes and traffic calming initiatives. Murdock says it’s been a long process, but we’re moving in the right direction. Ypsilanti was built for cars, he reminds us, but that’s changing. (Someone notes that there’s going to be a Planning Department meeting this week to discuss bike lanes on Forest.) Symanns says that she has two step kids, ages 7 and 9, and she wants them to be safe and secure as they bike around town. Right now, Dahl MacGregor says, that’s not really possible. “People don’t know the rules of the road,” she says. “It’s tragic,” she adds. She says that she has “a vision of being able to exist without a car,” though, and would like to help us work in that direction. She says we have to “prioritize bike lanes over more (car) lanes” if we want to be a “green, sustainable” city. She also says that we need to prioritize walking over parking. Murdock tells the audience that he helped keep public transit funded by pushing for a public transit millage and using “Obama funds” to fill the gap when funding was tight a few years ago.

Question: Given the deaths of African Americans by police, and the killings of police officers, what policies and programs would you suggest? Murdock says members of City Council have been working on this for some time. He says that they set out to get body cameras on our officers, and increase diversity so that our officers better reflected our community, before these most recent events. He says that, 20 years ago, people tried unsuccessfully to create a Community Review Board that would oversee the police force. Now, he says, we’re trying again. Bashert says that, back in ’98, when she was working to pass the non-discrimination ordinance, the anti-gay side tried to win by driving a wedge between the black and gay communities. Because of that, she said, she spent more time in black neighborhoods, having “real dialogue” with people. And, she said, it worked. Now, she says, we need to do the same thing. We need to talk across the barriers that divide us. Dahl MacGregor says that, before we do anything else, we need to acknowledge that we live in a system where we’ve “benefited from the stolen labor of others”. We need to recognize that, she says. She then goes on to say that she doesn’t know how, as a member of City Council, this would manifest itself in policy, but she says that it’s something that she’ll “keep in (her) heart.” Symanns talks about her experience as an officer doing community policing, and says, “We’re safer when we work together.” She also references the work she’s done on the Human Rights Commission to set the ground work for a Community Review Board.

Question: What arts events have you enjoyed in the past year? Murdock, after saying, “I’m a spectator, not an artist”, mentions that he enjoys the Ypsi Symphony and local youth theater. He also mentions First Fridays, as does everyone else running for Council. Bashert says she loves the new African American history murals. Symanns mentions DIYpsi and the Shadow Art Fair as things that she’s enjoyed in the past. All but Murdock say that they haven’t had an opportunity to do much this past year, though, given the demands of the campaign.

Question: If the Water Street debt reduction millage fails, what’s next? Murdock says we’ll either need to cut another $700,000 from our annual budget, or find new revenue source. “We tried a special assessment for street lighting to cover some of it,” he said, implying that it might be something to revisit. Regardless, though, he says there would have to be cuts. “There isn’t $700,000 in the general fund budget,” he says, adding that, “it would come from personnel, and most of that is police and fire.” Bashert says she doesn’t want people to lose their jobs. “I don’t want people to lose their jobs because we don’t want to pay a bill that we owe,” she says. Dahl MacGregor says that, at this point, we’ve “squeezed all the blood from the stone.” If this millage doesn’t pass, she says, we can forget community policing and clean parks. If the millage doesn’t pass, she says, I don’t know why any of us are volunteering for this job, because it’s going to be a “huge headache”.

After this, a few questions were asked by members of the audience. As I can barely keep my eyes open, though, you’re going to have to watch the video for that… And, here, thanks to Jesse Miller, is that video.

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21 Comments

  1. Jcp2
    Posted July 19, 2016 at 5:33 am | Permalink

    I was under the impression that Democrat is a pejorative term used by Republicans. Your secret is safe with me.

  2. Eel
    Posted July 19, 2016 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Jcp2, Mark listens to too much Thayrone.

  3. Kat
    Posted July 19, 2016 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    I know that Mayor Edmonds has endorsed LDM in the race against Murdoch. Has she weighed in on the Ward 2 race?

  4. Dan Blakeney
    Posted July 19, 2016 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Thanks Mark. I really appreciate you attending these events and filing these reports.

  5. Joe M.
    Posted July 19, 2016 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Murdoch seems like the far better choice for Ward 3.

    Ward 2 is too close to call off these comments. It would take some more investigative work into their stances on issues to make an informed decision. Both seem fine, though part of me is almost weary of Bashert’s ties to Mayor Edmonds. Not my ward, though.

  6. Lynne
    Posted July 19, 2016 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    I am definitely voting for Murdoch because I think he has proven himself to be a pretty good council member. I know that I have felt that he’s open to my concerns. I see no good reason to replace him.

    I certainly am not sure we need to spend even more money on playgrounds at least not before we spend some money on something like a dog park. In other words, I agree with both candidates that parks improvements are a good idea but perhaps I disagree on the priorities of those improvements.

  7. anonymous
    Posted July 19, 2016 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    I heard that Amanda did not endorse Beth, which I find odd given that Beth helped get her elected.

  8. SST
    Posted July 19, 2016 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand why the Mayor would endorse anyone seeking a seat on Council. It doesn’t make good strategic sense. If her candidates lose, it puts her in an even more uncomfortable position with those who come in. Politics is supposed to be contentious, but our Ypsilanti City Council is dysfunctional to the point of being toxic, and this is only going to make it worse.

  9. Tim
    Posted July 19, 2016 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Beth was polished. You can tell that she’s run campaigns and you can see how she’d be good selling cars. She stayed on message. She was forceful. She came across as a hard worker who would fight for us. I liked Jennifer also though. Her experience in community policing, human resources and mediation could all come in useful on council. I’m going to have a difficult time choosing.

  10. Anony
    Posted July 19, 2016 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    Beth was Amanda’s campaign manager but Amanda has not endorsed her.

    I see that some others who have worked with Beth are not endorsing her. I see a few who I know what worked with her in the past openly endorsing Jennifer. Me thinks there is a story behind the story.

  11. karen
    Posted July 19, 2016 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    amanda totally stabbed beth in the back.

    if anyone didn’t realize amanda only cares about amanda, they should now.

  12. Citywatch
    Posted July 19, 2016 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps Beth is difficult to work with. Might be a good idea to find that out. Don’t need more of that on council.

  13. Joe M.
    Posted July 19, 2016 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    Maybe Mayor Edmonds’ support of Murdoch’s opponent is just a petty response to the FOIA fiasco.

    Either way, it is a bit interesting to see her not support Bashert. Perhaps she doesn’t want to support Bashert on the Council, which might lead to a mayoral competition one day.

  14. SB
    Posted July 19, 2016 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    Speak to people who have worked with Beth on campaigns, etc. and you’ll find out why most will never work with her again. We don’t need more of that on council. I’m guessing that is why the mayor is not endorsing her.

  15. JDM
    Posted July 20, 2016 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    If you were at the event it was abundantly clear that Murdock has no interest in serving the people of Ypsi. He showed up to the event start time 5 minutes late. He made zero eye contact with the audience. His answers were composed of some sort of gravelly, incomprehensible, drivel. He gave zero answers of substance to the questions posed. He used his speaking time to talk strictly about himself; not the accomplishments of council during his tenure. Lastly, he was completely unable to state his reasons for running for reelection. He was a man wholly uninterested in serving the people of Ypsi. The Murdock that appears in this article was not the person who was at this forum, with all due respect. I applaud Mark for being able to attribute any of these quotes to Murdock.

  16. Adam Gainsley
    Posted July 20, 2016 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    We’re lucky to have such great candidates in both races. I’m really impressed. Thank you Ypsi for having such awesome people!

    In ward 2 I’m happy to be supporting Beth Bashert. I’ve worked with her on several projects in my time in Ypsi. I know that she has the knowledge, drive, and competence to help lead our city through finalizing the approach we’ll take to handling the Water Street debt. Additionally her ability to absorb information and communicate it in an effective and easy to understand manner never ceases to amaze. Finally the depth of Beth’s knowledge of our city, community, and culture here in Ypsi is unparalleled. She will represent her ward and our best interests fantastically.

  17. LUMOS
    Posted July 20, 2016 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    I’ll be voting for Murdock. I think he’s one of the few people that knows the financial history of the city. I also think that it’s probably a good thing not to surround our Mayor with yes people. There should be conflicts on Council. It’s healthy.

  18. Joe M.
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    JDM,

    Interested in the negative jabs at Murdoch. I appreciate that he regularly posts updates to the local Ypsi neighborhood Facebook groups, even those not in “his” area. I don’t see other council members making the effort to reach constituents where they get their local news/updates. Often it’s a “come and find it” approach – and good luck with new the city of Ypsi website. Flashy, but not always functional.

    I guess I don’t know our local political figures enough to know if his mannerisms in the video are his natural disposition or not. Not sure if he’s reading notes or he just dislikes public speaking and minimizes his eye contact to focus on his answers, which often seemed more than adequate.

  19. Andrew Clock
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    Question for council:

    I’ve noticed that there are now curb side trash cans in downtown Ypsilanti. I’ve heard that there are now fees for businesses and residents to use the dumpsters, or they can opt out to curbside.

    Personally, as a downtown resident, I think this is a disaster waiting to happen and will mean a huge increase in litter.

    My question: this change has come since the city took over the YDDA. What has been done with the tax capture that was previously handling the dumpsters? Has dumpster cost gone up under the new trash contract, or has the funding been diverted to another purpose?

    Personally, I would suspect the latter. I’m also not surprised; a wing of council has wanted the DDA’s share of tax income for a while and when the city took over DDA management, I think its dissolution or great dilution became only a matter of time.

  20. gret
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    Now that Amanda’s candidate was beaten by Beth Bashert, what’s the dynamic going to be like on Council?

  21. re gret
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    And her other candidate was beat by Pete.

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