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Posted on Mon, Jul 5, 2010 : 1:07 p.m.

Sierra Club backs challengers over incumbents in Ann Arbor mayoral and council races

By Ryan J. Stanton

The local and statewide chapters of the Sierra Club are backing an unofficial slate of candidates hoping to oust incumbent Ann Arbor City Council members in the Aug. 3 primary.

Both the Huron Valley Group and the Michigan Chapter of the Sierra Club announced they are supporting Patricia Lesko for mayor, Sumi Kailasapathy in the 1st Ward, Jack Eaton in the 4th Ward, and Lou Glorie in the 5th Ward.

All of them are Democrats, as are the incumbents.


In a joint statement announcing the endorsements, the four challengers suggested Ann Arbor's current leadership has strayed from making sound environmental policy decisions in recent years.

“Over the past decade, environmentalism in our city has become increasingly about development and money rather than the environment," Lesko said. "Our Environmental Commission is pushing urban density and brownfield subsidies. Our Parks Advisory Commission, in open defiance of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, is supporting construction of a parking garage for U of M on park land next to the Huron River."

The incumbents allege the Sierra Club's endorsements are motivated by petty grievances and personal differences and are not based on the actual environmental records of any of the candidates seeking office.

"Unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion that endorsements, or not, by the local chapter of the Sierra Club are not driven by a candidate's environmental record," said Council Member Carsten Hohnke, D-5th Ward. "Past and current endorsements by the chapter show, disappointingly and consistently, that some other agenda is at play."

Council Member Sandi Smith, D-1st Ward, reacted similarly to news of the endorsements in a posting on her website.

"The local Sierra Club has issued their endorsements," she wrote. "I didn't really think they would endorse me. I am too progressive for them. I believe in mass transit, single-stream recycling and green building."

According to the Sierra Club's endorsement list, Ann Arbor's mayoral and council contests are the only city-level races across the entire state in which the Michigan chapter is exercising its influence. The club has endorsed dozens of candidates, but mostly in state and federal races.

The local Sierra Club has a history of endorsing the incumbents' opponents in Ann Arbor city races in recent years. In most cases, the candidates who received the club's endorsements lost the elections.

James D’Amour, the local club's political chairman, said the allegation that it's personal couldn't be further from the truth.

"The way that the endorsement process works, it's seen many hands and it goes not just through us, but it goes up through the state," he said. "And then the chapter makes the final determination, so there are a lot of people involved in this process."

D'Amour, who serves on the local club's executive committee, has publicly spoken out in recent months against the city's push to build a parking garage and transit station on city park land on Fuller Road. City officials argue the land already has been a surface parking lot for many years, and encouraging mass transit is good environmental policy.

The Sierra Club sees it differently.

"It's a terrible precedent that's being set by the long-term transfer of the land without a public vote," D'Amour said, adding that continued threats to funding for parks were another reason not to support the incumbents.

"I don't have anything personal against any of the incumbents that are running. It's not a question of personal differences," he said. "It's policy."

Council Member Margie Teall, D-4th Ward, wrote in a letter to D'Amour last month that she would not be seeking his group's endorsement this year.

Teall, who has served on the city's Environmental Commission for eight years, said she has a clear record of working to make Ann Arbor a leader in environmental issues. But she said she had no confidence that the Sierra Club would consider her record over that of her opponent.

"It is unfortunate that the local Sierra Club chapter now has its own history of apparently choosing to disregard the work and the records of candidates who share the Sierra Club's interest in important environmental issues," Teall wrote.

Mayor John Hieftje also wrote D'Amour and declined to participate in the club's endorsement process. He said it's apparent "personal political considerations" are playing into the endorsements.

"As a member of the Sierra Club since 1984, I can only hope for a time when the local group will return to its roots as an organization that cares more about the environment than it does personal politics," he wrote.

Hiefjte said his leadership on environmental issues has been recognized by several other organizations, including the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, the Michigan Parks and Recreation Association, the Greater Detroit Audubon Society, and the Washtenaw Land Trust.

Hohnke argues he has made advancing the protection of the environment a priority during his time on council, including through his work on the Environmental Commission, the Greenbelt Advisory Commission and the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study Policy Committee.

He said he successfully sponsored legislation in support of single-stream recycling, implementing a Greenway along Allen Creek, expanding non-motorized transportation, proactively managing the Huron River, and increasing access to locally grown food.

"Compared to most other municipalities, they have probably fantastic environmental records," D'Amour agreed of the incumbents. "But we want better environmentalists."

Doug Cowherd, chairman of the Huron Valley Group, said he supported Hieftje when he first ran for office several years ago.

"After a few years, it was pretty clear that his actions were nothing like his words," he said. "Like many environmentalists, I was disappointed. However, on a personal level, there's never been any animosity between us. He's just one of many super-majority members who consistently oppose the Sierra Club's positions on environmental issues."

Cowherd said the underground parking structure that is being built on the Library Lot downtown is another reason to oppose the incumbents. He said it's going to encourage car commuting into Ann Arbor instead of mass transit.

As for the Fuller Road project, which city officials say could eventually encourage mass transit with the addition of new rail lines and other modes of transportation, Cowherd said he's not convinced funding is going to come through for a train system.

"What it is in reality is a massive parking structure on park property," he said, calling it a "de facto sale" of city park land that exploits a loophole in the city's charter, which states that city park land cannot be sold without a vote of the public.

"They're building a structure that will have a useful life of many, many decades," he said. "That's a de facto sale."

Cowherd agreed with the opinion of Kailasapathy, who argues the city must make changes to environmental policy that are not merely "window dressing."

“Our efforts to implement sound policy must include sustainable practices," she said. "It takes more than a few LED lights, a solar panel and some bike paths to truly incorporate best practices into the actions of the government. People are tired of the 'dig baby dig' policies of the incumbent and the council majority. We need to wean ourselves from this construction binge and seek a path of sustainable development."

Eaton said he wants to expand the scope of the city's environmental efforts to encompass policies that address flooding. He said he also has questions about the environmental value of demolishing existing structures in the city to make way for "huge new buildings."

Lesko said she considers the city's switch to single-stream recycling an environmentally regressive policy. She said if elected she would move forward with a recycling program that focuses on reducing consumption and expanding reuse programs.

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529.



Thu, Jul 8, 2010 : 10:30 a.m.

This discussion is supposed to be about a Democratic primary. Only registered Democrats are allowed to vote in that primary. To my mind, there is impropriety to members of the Republican Party or the Green Party meddling in it (as they have in this blog). In view of the past near-identity of the local Sierra Club and Green Party, I question the propriety of the Sierra Club seeking to play a role in the Democratic primary. The Sierra Club could explain itself on this point, but is apparently unwilling to do so.


Tue, Jul 6, 2010 : 10:21 p.m.

katie- this statement is very confusing, please elaborate- I do think that the current council does not consider the environment and environmental issues as they should. They are all for new construction, even if it's green construction, it's still new construction.


Tue, Jul 6, 2010 : 9:53 p.m.

It would be very helpful to see the positions of each candidate on key environmental issues, as has been mentioned. I'd like some facts about that rather than a bunch of back and forth about personality conflicts. seems to focus a lot on gossipy stuff rather than good information. It's kind of a Fox news approach if you ask me. Please, give us some good information instead of this drivel. I don't care if there are personality conflicts. I do care about the positions of the candidates on environmental issues. If you could just publish those, perhaps with a nice neat table of some sort, we could make up our own minds about whether the endorsements are warranted or whether they are personally motivate. Not to mention, it would help people make choices in the upcoming elections. I do think that the current council does not consider the environment and environmental issues as they should. They are all for new construction, even if it's green construction, it's still new construction.


Tue, Jul 6, 2010 : 9 p.m.

perfect match, both lesko and the sierra club are extremeist, should be a great partnership- something fishy about this election. this is the best ann arbor can bring forth to take on the mayor? what a waste of everyones time


Tue, Jul 6, 2010 : 4:47 p.m.

Putting parking underground is a sound land use decision. It gets the cars out of the way and frees up the surface for more productive and pedestrian-friendly uses, while supporting compact urban development. "Brownfield subsidies" simply level the playing field for developers and provides an incentive for them to look at older urban areas that already have water and sewer and roads, rather than developing "greenfields" that will need massive money spent on providing new infrastructure. I think, sadly, that the Sierra Club is clueless.


Tue, Jul 6, 2010 : 9:40 a.m.

I am sadden that any "Thinking" person cares what the Sierra Club does! They are one of the left's militia groups.


Tue, Jul 6, 2010 : 6:33 a.m.

Why are the challenger's environmental positions at the very end of the article? It seems like these positions are the important issues...unless the "personal politics" angle is where wants to spin the primary. Nothing about Allen Creek Greenway, Argo Dam, PROS plan, Zoning/Planning updates, HRIMP action plans??? Who needs an informed electorate?


Tue, Jul 6, 2010 : 1:11 a.m.

The Sierra Club sounds like a loony organization founded in the 70's.


Mon, Jul 5, 2010 : 10:57 p.m.

Cjenkins said, "Doug Cowherd turned on the Mayor NOT because of his environmental policies, but because the Council refused to appoint Doug to the Greenbelt Commission in 2004. Sure sounds like sour grapes." Sour grapes you say? No, never from you! Your man does not get the endorsement from former key allies and there is no sour grapes from your side; you're gushing sour grapes! Cjenkins, I have a theory of my own. Hieftje showed his true developer oriented roots when he refused to put to the voters the question of building the PD building, aka Raj Mahal, even though 5000 residents of Ann Arbor signed a petition in 45 days asking him and the council to do so. He further showed is penchant for dissing voters during the email scandal when one constituent asked if there were any plans to put a hotel/convention center downtown and Hieftje replied that there were no plans at the same time he was meeting with Sandy Smith to discuss such plans. Finally, Hieftje does not agree with voters when voters said you can't sell parkland without putting the question to the voters. Leasing parkland to UofM is not only in violation of the spirit of the City Charter, it is a moronic way of missing an opportunity to get a PILOT out of UofM. UofM has greatly expanded the medical facility without making proper provisions to park the vehicles of the new staff; they need park space to put the employee parking and the city is under no obligation to provide it. The city is missing a great opportunity to get a PILOT agreement by just giving away valuable land to UofM for a song.

Vivienne Armentrout

Mon, Jul 5, 2010 : 8:59 p.m.

I would like to commend CM Teall and Smith for voting to support Project Grow. As I stated, CM Hohnke and Mayor Hieftje did not. I did not mean to suggest that a vote to support community-based food production was in itself the determinant of a good environmental record. But CM Hohnke himself raised his supposed support for local food production as a factor in his own favor. "(Hohnke) said he successfully sponsored legislation in support of single-stream recycling, implementing a Greenway along Allen Creek, expanding non-motorized transportation, proactively managing the Huron River, and increasing access to locally grown food." I'm not sure what actions on his part he is referring to, other than voting for the single-stream recycling program. (There are serious differences of opinion whether the money spent on this will really pay off either in terms of future savings or better recycling behavior.) I'm guessing that his "Greenway" accomplishment has to do with declaring First and William a (future) park. But his claiming the local food issue is particularly ironic in view of his vote on Project Grow. I lobbied him extensively on this and he never presented a good explanation for his vote. Arguing budget responsibility as a reason not to award $7,000 to this well-established community program is also ironic, considering the many millions this council has spent on various ill-considered projects. (Too long a discussion for this thread.) Ann Arbor has a pitiful record on this issue compared to Ypsilanti, where Growing Hope has made a major effort towards bringing fresh food to its citizens. I am a volunteer for Edible Avalon, where we are helping tenants to plant food gardens. This is supported by grants from national organizations. But not all of Ann Arbor's residents (apart from Avalon tenants) have either a place or the money to grow food. The suggestion that "people will find a way to pay for their own gardening" shows an ignorance of this nationwide social, economic, and environmental movement. In an age where the First Lady is planting vegetables in the nation's front lawn, Ann Arbor's council, especially Mayor Hieftje and CM Hohnke, chose to turn their backs on this issue. For extensive discussion of the issue, see my blog posts


Mon, Jul 5, 2010 : 8:27 p.m.

Dig, baby, dig isn't always a bad thing. Nor is it necessarily a good thing. That depends.... Regarding downtown, it matters where and why you're digging. A proposal could entail yet another Gilded Cage upscale condos project, or it might call for a new community center with added retail, or maybe it creates workforce housing. The devil, or the angel, will be in the details for each development. The eternal question is why it's so hard for both the Sierra Club and the city council majority to understand this. Each side likes to present a cartoonish narrative wherein development is either nearly always supported or nearly always denounced. In telling simplistic moral tales of good and evil, both sides show much disregard for making situational distinctions or applying a nuanced outlook when determining a project's social value. Each side does share a heartfelt love of urban renewal in its own special, uncompromising way. City council will spends millions on a new city hall or on underground parking, while their majority votes to replace historic individual homes with "Heritage Row." Alongside this, Sierra Club allies regard a new workforce project, to be run by a housing nonprofit, as an inherently greedy, while in recent years they've pressured the city to spend untold millions on converting a long, wide stretch of downtown into parkland.


Mon, Jul 5, 2010 : 6:04 p.m.

Sierra Club, while certainly worthy largely remains an ineffectual organization with no real clout or influence in local, state, or national politics. However, they do make some nice calendars.


Mon, Jul 5, 2010 : 5:16 p.m.

"In the end, it's not about positions or policy, but about personality..." Maybe if you're voting for the homecoming king and queen - but for mayor? REALLY?


Mon, Jul 5, 2010 : 3:53 p.m.

The Sierra Club should have read the Ann Arbor Observer article about Ms. Lesko before making this endorsement. In the end, the residents of Ann Arbor will reject the negative and uninformed nature of her campaign, whether the Sierra Club endorses her or not.


Mon, Jul 5, 2010 : 3:03 p.m.

I'm sure that there are different perspectives on environmental issues in Ann Arbor, and there does seem to still be plenty of disagreement about the way some of city development plans are being handled. However--even though I agree with most of the agenda with the national Sierra Club--there is *no way* that this endorsement could bring me to vote for "the challenger" for mayor. In the end, it's not about positions or policy, but about personality. I'll wait until there is a reasonable alternative to vote Mayor John out of office.

Stephen Landes

Mon, Jul 5, 2010 : 1:28 p.m.

I am saddened that anyone would consider voting against a city government subsidy for people to grow their won food as an anti-environmental vote. We have a city budget that is in serious trouble and a council that generally doesn't seem to "get it" in terms of controlling their own spending. At least this once someone had the sense to vote against a special interest group subsidy. If there is any merit in "Project Grow" then people will find a way to pay for their own gardening. Previous subsidies helped get this project off the ground -- maybe it is time they stand on their own.


Mon, Jul 5, 2010 : 1:11 p.m.

To cjenkins: You may have a legitimate personal reason for attacking Doug Cowherd, but it seems as if you are the one with sour grapes. The statewide chapter of the Sierra Club has also endorsed the challengers. What dirt are you now going to try to dig up on the statewide chapter?

Vivienne Armentrout

Mon, Jul 5, 2010 : 1:09 p.m.

Carsten Hohnke claims to be supportive of local food issues, but he voted against Project Grow, our community gardening organization that had been supported by the City for over 30 years. He and John Hieftje both voted to discontinue a tiny $7,000 grant that would have made a real difference to the ability of our residents to grown their own food. The issue failed by one vote, so either one of them could have made the difference.


Mon, Jul 5, 2010 : 1:01 p.m.

It's now SO easy for those NOT being endorsed, to call into question the integrity and motivations of the Sierra Club. Both the local AND statewide chapters have given their endorsements, and their endorsements have NOT gone to the incumbents. Could the reason be - is that so many of the incumbents work for, or are a part of, the real estate development establishment? Contrary to what the incumbents have lead us to believe in the past, 'What's best for real estate developers may not be what's best the rest of us.'


Mon, Jul 5, 2010 : 12:57 p.m.

Yes I agree, the local Sierra Club has officially "jumped the shark.". What's been suspected for several years is now official, that the Sierra club is no longer relevant at all to local politics or policymaking. Ann Arbor voters haven't listened to any of their Council endorsements for years. It's too bad that dues-paying local members -- whose numbers have dwindled dramatically -- don't care anymore. If they did, they would overthrow the Executive Committee that has allowed Doug Cowherd to destroy what was once a great group. Doug Cowherd turned on the Mayor NOT because of his environmental policies, but because the Council refused to appoint Doug to the Greenbelt Commission in 2004. Sure sounds like sour grapes. The state and national Sierra Club's support new urbanism and mass transit, quite publicly. This local club therefore defies its own national chapter. The extreme reaction to the construction of a transportation center on top of a surface parking lot shows how out of touch they are. The area in question is not land, it is a paved parking lot! They actually believe that returning this parking lot to a strip of grass is better for the environment than providing mass transit for the entire community. Sounds ridiculous to me and goes against the goals of the national chapter IMO.