Ann Arbor City Council e-mail scandal topic of 4th Ward race
A scandal over e-mails traded among Ann Arbor City Council members during meetings has already contributed to the ouster of one longtime council member.
Whether it will have any impact on another council member’s bid to keep her seat remains to be seen. Voters will decide Nov. 3 between Marcia Higgins, D-4th Ward, and independent challenger Hatim Elhady.
Higgins, who has served on council since 1999, is defending herself against charges by her opponent that she participated in backroom deals and snarky chatter with other council members during meetings.
Several of the e-mails that have surfaced involve messages traded between Higgins and Leigh Greden, D-3rd Ward. Greden often started the electronic deliberations that led to quiet discussions of issues before the council, vote scripting and sometimes rude remarks about other people at meetings.
Greden was voted out of office in the August Democratic primary by six votes. Many residents leaving the polls cited the e-mail scandal as a reason for voting against him.
Higgins, 59, said she couldn’t comment on the e-mails because they’re the subject of an ongoing lawsuit against the city. But she said she doesn’t think her opponent makes a valid complaint.
“This is really for the voters to decide,” Higgins said, speaking generally of the 4th Ward race. “I think all you can do is look at what I’ve done, how I’ve served them. I think this is a job you learn through experience and I’ve been a very active community member for a long time.”
Elhady, a University of Michigan student majoring in economics, called the e-mails immature.
“I’m 23 years old and I know that’s just unacceptable - inexcusable - for the incumbent and for any other council members involved in the e-mailing scandal,” he said. “I believe it is something they need to take responsibility for and apologize.”
The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center is suing Ann Arbor, claiming council members violated the Open Meetings Act by secretly trading e-mails with each other about a $50 million parking structure project.
AnnArbor.com has obtained records from a Feb. 17 meeting that show Higgins and Greden exchanging several e-mails discussing the project and determining how they planned to vote on the issue.
“Please don’t vote with the moron,” Greden wrote to Higgins, referring to another council member.
“I’m not voting against the site plan. I probably (will) vote against Sandi’s amendment,” Higgins responded, referring to Sandi Smith, D-1st Ward.
“This is why we have time limits for speaking,” Higgins wrote to Greden a few minutes later while someone unnamed was making comments.
Elhady says Higgins has communicated poorly with 4th Ward residents. He said his top priority is restoring transparency and trust in city government.
Higgins, an administrative assistant at the University of Michigan, lists her accomplishments as working with residents on the deteriorating Georgetown Mall, sponsoring legislation to create Dicken Woods, leading the downtown rezoning process and co-sponsoring legislation to create the Germantown historic district study committee. She has been chairwoman of the city’s A2D2 Steering Committee, which is working on new design guidelines for downtown.
Higgins said she is proud to have worked over the years on the reorganization of city government. She said top priorities now include updating the city’s zoning codes and addressing budget challenges.
“These are difficult times,” she said. “My No. 1 priority has been the budget for a long time and making sure we’re providing quality services for our residents, and that we have a reserve amount that keeps us solvent.”
Elhady, who will graduate in December with an economics degree, said he plans to lobby for better prioritization of city spending.
“That means choosing to fund necessities over luxuries,” he said. “A prime example of this is the Stadium bridge, our infrastructure, and the police-courts building. The police-courts building is a luxury. The Stadium bridge, our infrastructure, is a necessity.”
Higgins said said she’s working to get funding lined up for the East Stadium Boulevard bridge repairs, but funding from the federal government hasn’t been forthcoming.
Higgins and Elhady differ on their stance on a city income tax. Higgins has been among those who’ve pushed for putting it on the ballot; Elhady adamantly opposes the tax.
“I believe the answer is not more revenue. It is more efficiently allocating the dollars,” Elhady said.
“This isn’t a council decision,” Higgins said. “To me, that’s a very personal issue and putting it on the ballot is a way to decide what the voters want.”
Elhady, a political newcomer, has backing from a team of local political activists that includes Ann Arbor residents Karen Sidney, Patricia Lesko, LuAnne Bullington, Jack Eaton, Libby Hunter and Council Member Mike Angin, D-5th Ward. All of them have been working to dig up council e-mails through Freedom of Information Act requests. Lesko, who has been Elhady's campaign manager since late June, said today that though she has submitted FOIAs for e-mails, she is not part of the concerted effort that is in the works.
Ryan J. Stanton covers government for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at email@example.com or 734-623-2529.