Ann Arbor candidates for Board of Commissioners share vision for the future
Editor's note: The story has been edited to reflect Wesley Prater's political affiliation. Three Democratic candidates running to represent Ann Arbor on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners shared their vision for the future of the county at an election forum Wednesday night.
Incumbents Conan Smith and Yousef Rabhi, running to represent the 9th and 8th districts respectively, were joined at the forum by Andy LaBarre, who is seeking the 7th District seat on the board.
The Republican candidates running against each of the three Democrats did not show up to the forum, hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area and broadcasted live from the CTN Studios in Ann Arbor.
Amy Biolchini | AnnArbor.com
Commissioners serve two-year terms and their base pay is $15,500. As the chairman of the board, Smith is paid $18,500 per year.
The dynamic on the Board of Commissioners is poised to change as the seats are shrinking from 11 to nine.
Additionally, Commissioners Barbara Levin Bergman and Leah Gunn who have each represented Ann Arbor on the board for more than a decade are not seeking re-election.
As a result of the redistricting, incumbent Commissioners Alicia Ping and Wesley Prater, a Republican and a Democrat, respectively, also will be running against each other.
LaBarre is running against David Parker, an Ann Arbor Republican, for the 7th District seat on the board.
The 7th District makes up much of the eastern half of Ann Arbor.
LaBarre won the primary election with 65 percent of the vote over Democratic opponent Christina Montague in August.
Amy Biolchini | AnnArbor.com
LaBarre said he’s running on a platform of improving the county’s already strong human service program, protecting natural areas and ensuring the budget reflects the county’s values.
“We do a great job here, and can do an even better job in the future,” LaBarre said.
The role of a county commissioner is to do the duties of the job and remember that they represent that commission district to the county, not the county to the district, LaBarre said.
LaBarre said the future of southeast Michigan will not be prosperous without Washtenaw County’s involvement.
“We have a lot to give,” LaBarre said, citing the Aerotropolis and the county’s forward-thinking approach to transit as examples.
Rabhi is facing Republican opponent Joe Baublis on the November ballot for the 8th District seat on the board.
At the end of his first term as a commissioner, Rabhi said he was looking forward to continue the work being done on a second term.
Rabhi has a degree in sustainability from the University of Michigan, and uses that approach in a broader way to promote sustainable government and a resilient community.
Rabhi said he was initially inspired to run for public office after watching the community come together to get through the tough economic times - a spirit of collaboration Rabhi said helped the commissioners balance the budget in the face of a shortfall.
The commissioners in Washtenaw County provide the basic mandate of services to the residents, but Rabhi said he believes the board has taken a different role than most to keep the people first.
The county relies on its professional staff to run smoothly, Rabhi said.
“People don’t go work for the county because of big paychecks; they go work there because they’re dedicated to public service,” he said.
Citing the consolidation of emergency dispatch services this year as a move that saved residents money, Rabhi said there was more that can be done to reduce the redundancy of services.
“It will always be a struggle to stand up for our values,” Rabhi said. “Alternative transit, green infrastructure — that’s what we’re doing well in Washtenaw County and that’s what we need to bring to the rest of the region.”
Investing in Act 88 funding and in sustainable energy improvements to county buildings to bring down the county’s $1 million energy bill are two key parts of Rabhi’s vision for the future.
Currently serving as the chairman of the board, Smith is seeking re-election for his fifth straight term. Running against Smith is John Floyd, a Republican from Ann Arbor.
Smith is the executive director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance.
Smith noted that although the county government may be an invisible layer of government, the values that drive the decisions are important.
Smith said he’s helped the county to maintain a keen focus on human services, protecting the environment and hopes to help the county rebuild its prosperity.
“We were the outliers in metro Detroit and now we sit center table,” Smith said.
Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County are the crucible of talent for metro Detroit, Smith said. The area needs to be more connected to the metro area to keep those young professionals here, he said.