Gentle Readers, the Nov. 5th election is fast approaching. In an effort to help those of you who may still be undecided, Damn Arbor is publishing a series of interviews with City Council Candidates. Here is our interview with Ward 2 Democratic candidate, Kirk Westphal. If you are a City Council Candidate and would like to do an interview with us, please check your email inbox.
DA: Tell us a little about yourself. Who are you? Why are you running for city council?There you have it, gentle reader. Our interview with Democratic candidate for the Ward 2, Kirk Westphal.
KW: I'm 43 years old, and live with my wife, Cynthia, and two boys, August (7) and Harry (5) in the beautiful Glacier Area neighborhood. My wife and I moved here from New York City after having "short-listed" Ann Arbor as an exceptional mid-sized city. I did a mid-career switch out of the advertising and marketing research world in NYC into urban planning and received my Master of Urban Planning from UM in 2006. My wife comes from a Broadway music direction background and is now a faculty member of UM's Musical Theatre department. I run a small business, Westphal Associates LLC, on Main Street, which researches best practices in municipalities. Most of my volunteer hours are spent chairing the Ann Arbor Planning Commission (member since 2006) and serving on the Environmental Commission, as well as chairing my neighborhood association and serving on other civic committees.
Over these years, I've been so proud to see Ann Arbor attract awards, investment, and a reputation as an amazing place to live, work, and play. There's lot of credit to go around for those responsible for making our city special. I will do everything I can to keep this momentum going. There are many forces beyond our control that have conspired against us—statewide population loss, manufacturing job losses, Pfizer's departure, declining state support—but Ann Arbor as a city is running lean, with no new taxes, and levels of service better than the vast majority of Midwestern cities our size.
I'm running for city council because I'm extremely concerned about the imminent prospect of a city council majority that I believe will significantly harm the city in both the short and long term. My decision to run was made last year, when my opponent voted to turn down millions of dollars in federal grants to study Ann Arbor's opportunity for a new AMTRAK station. She has stated flat out that "We do not need a new train station."
Ann Arbor is the busiest AMTRAK stop in Michigan, with a 60% increase in rail ridership since the year 2000. Our station is over capacity and does not connect well with our successful bus system. The state is upgrading to higher-speed tracks to the tune of $400 million and has purchased rail cars for the purpose of starting commuter service in the near term. Cities that integrate well with their growing regional transportation network benefit financially many times over when it comes to economic development, not to mention the incredible environmental benefit of people being able to commute into Ann Arbor in anything but a single-occupancy automobile. Ann Arbor is projected to add thousands of jobs in the coming decade. We are not going to widen roads, and we are not building more parking structures. What is the solution? To say that we don't need a new station, and to vote against even studying the matter, runs afoul of every financial, environmental, and social equity calculus I can come up with.
Since that time, the situation on council has gotten even worse, with council nearly engaging in an incredibly expensive lawsuit (which could have stuck taxpayers with a judgement into the tens of millions of dollars) and an ill-advised development moratorium (which would have stifled our economy for years to come). These votes came within one vote of passing. Had this happened, it would have precipitated a financial crisis, and we'd likely have a recall election going on now. Our neighbors in Novi, MI had to sell off 75 acres of parkland to satisfy a legal judgement against them after their council "played chicken" with real estate developers (Google "Sandstone" and "Novi, MI"). I would not let that happen here.
KW: Ann Arbor is heading in a direction that is more attractive for this age range, and I wish to continue that trend. We are attracting and retaining technology companies that hire in this demographic. Ann Arbor's future lies in diversifying our talent portfolio to be much broader than "Eds & Meds." Our downtown population has doubled in the past 10 years, which means we are offering a more diverse mix of living options downtown—where young professionals overwhelmingly want to be. Expanding our in-town transit options is being studied as we speak, which young professionals are 40% more likely to use than their older counterparts. Our downtown entertainment scene is expanding, which is incredibly important to this demographic (as well as some of us slightly older folk!), as they strongly prefer living in or near a lively, urban place. Each of these positive developments rely on a city council that is open to making small, strategic investments in these areas, or at least not actively stifling them. I am running for this council seat because it is occupied by someone who has voted against each of these priorities for 25-34 year olds. It is a philosophy of "move here and close the door behind you," which does not bode well for our future.
DA: What are your 3 biggest goals for your next term if you are elected to City Council?
KW: 1) Long-term prosperity: A secure future must come from both economic development and higher property values. Investments and jobs coming to Ann Arbor translate to a healthier tax base, which translate to excellent services to residents. The costs for our services are increasing 50% faster than the city's revenues. Our service levels will go down if the city does not earn more money. We can achieve greater efficiencies in a couple of areas, but city staff has largely been trimmed to the bone. Despite the insinuations floating around to the contrary, the city does not have a spending problem—it has an earning problem.
2) Proactive neighborhood engagement: The city often contacts neighborhoods just when there is “bad news.” We have an opportunity to instead create an ongoing dialogue where residents feel empowered to ask for neighborhood enhancements as well as to troubleshoot problems early on. I would like to see something resembling a "citizens academy" emerge in Ann Arbor, or some other opportunity for productive dialogue that is not currently happening.
3) Budgeting for results: It’s easy for politicians to make campaign promises we can’t pay for. I do not do this. What does it mean when a politician says that we should "focus" on safety and infrastructure? Does that mean spend more on them? Since we have a balanced budget, where will you cut? And how do we measure how much of a service is enough? What are your benchmarks? I’ll take a disciplined, data-driven approach. I study cities, and we know what works and what doesn't. Fear-mongering does not move us forward—best practices and smart investments do.
DA: Here’s a reader submitted question: What's something that you'd like to do that might not be super popular right away, but would be good for the long term future of Ann Arbor?
KW: This is a great question. And in brief, my answer is, "Not stifle the healthy evolution of Ann Arbor." This has to do with change.
Change has always been a source of concern since the beginning of time but, as they say, change is the only constant. Speaking from the "front lines" of change from my seat on Planning Commission, there is rarely a form of change that is popular.
Overall, the citizens of Ann Arbor have spoken loud and clear that they recognize that the city must evolve. Think of a great city you know that has not changed in recent years. Cities remain successful and relevant to the next generation when they continue to evolve to meet changing demands for living arrangements, commerce and transportation. This means that what we see as we drive, bike or walk around the city should change over the years. In total, given the areas of the city that will not be changing any time soon—single-family neighborhoods, historic districts, thousands of acres of parks and UM land, commercial land with buildings on them—we may expect only about 5% of the city to realistically change in the next 20 years.
Overwhelmingly, residents love their quality of life here. We are not the typical Michigan city that is begging for any type of change. Therefore, change is justifiably viewed with some skepticism—a change could mean that it may be for the worse instead of for the better.
Change really becomes personal when it's near your neighborhood. It can be an emotional issue for many. I believe it is city council's role to effectively channel community vision and feedback to make sure these inevitable changes are not a surprise and can enhance the surrounding area.
It's not popular to defend the city's imperative to evolve. Every change carries with it legitimate concerns. As a responsible councilperson, you are tasked with defending the city's master plan—the document containing the community's shared vision for change. While we should do all we can to make change work for all stakeholders, it is a mistake to allow a small number of people to override the greater community vision. Unfortunately, many on the current council take this politically expedient path.
DA: What’s the best way for your constituents to engage with you? And another reader submitted question as a follow up: Do you tweet?
KW: I am open to many methods of engagement: phone, email, and especially, in-person meetings. While I appreciate the speed with which email can resolve simple requests, short written notes cannot communicate the nuance and complexity that a lot of city issues carry. I expect to set up regularly-occurring meetings so that people know where to find me, as well as informal coffees or drinks at neighborhood gatherings. Many of the people I've been speaking with have complained that they get no "depth" on city government topics, so I think this would be a particular strength of mine.
And nope, sorry, no Twitter account—yet! You can friend me on Facebook any time, though.
DA:What would you like to see in Ann Arbor in the next 5 years?
KW: More jobs in a diversity of industries, better traffic flow because there are more travel options, higher property values, an expanding downtown population including more young professionals and empty nesters, an aesthetically beautiful city, and a healthy and safe environment for the next generation. To me, all of these are desirable in themselves. But they will ensure our continued quality of life—great safety, infrastructure and recreation in our neighborhoods—because they will add to the tax base that pays for services. Ann Arbor seems to want to go in these directions. My opponent has a voting record that contradicts each of these outcomes (see kirkforcouncil.org/issues). It's up to the voters to decide: Do we anchor Ann Arbor in the past, or let her evolve into the future?