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Posted on Wed, Dec 26, 2012 : 5:30 p.m.

5 finalists competing to represent Washtenaw County on new Southeast Michigan regional transit board

By Ryan J. Stanton

Interviews are set to begin Thursday morning as Washtenaw County looks to make two appointments to a new Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority governing board.

County Board Chairman Conan Smith, D-Ann Arbor, gets to make the appointments, and he says five finalists have been selected for public interviews from a pool of 18 applicants.

"We have some really excellent candidates," Smith said on Wednesday, adding they all bring unique experiences to the table and all of them are strong transit advocates.

The first of five 30-minute interviews is expected to start at 8:45 a.m. at the Washtenaw County Learning Resource Center, Room A, 4135 Washtenaw Ave. Doors open at 8 a.m.

The five finalists are:

  • Elisabeth Gerber, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan's Ford School and former director of the school's Center for Local, State and Urban Policy. Her current research focuses in part on regionalism, intergovernmental cooperation and transportation policy.
  • Richard Murphy, a transit advocate who works with Smith as a programs director at the Michigan Suburbs Alliance. He is a former Ypsilanti city planner who worked with Smith on the RTA policy.
  • David Nacht, an Ann Arbor attorney and board member for the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, which falls under the umbrella of the new four-county RTA. He said he would fight to make sure the quality of service remains high for Washtenaw County residents.
  • John Waterman, a disability rights advocate who runs a nonprofit in Ypsilanti called Programs to Educate All Cyclists, or PEAC. He believes independent transportation is the greatest barrier faced by individuals with disabilities and a strong transit system is the solution.
  • Wendy Woods, a former Ann Arbor City Council member, Ann Arbor planning commissioner, and associate director and adjunct lecturer at U-M's Michigan Community Scholars Program. She believes improving transportation infrastructure is a fundamental issue for the region.

Three of the five interviewees will be joining via Skype. The interviews are expected to wrap up by noon followed by an open discussion.

The interviews are open to the public and will be conducted by an advisory committee Smith established this month. Smith said he plans to make the appointments with the committee's input by Dec. 31, which is when his term as chairman of the county board ends.

Transportation Riders United, a Detroit-based nonprofit group dedicated to improving transit in the greater Detroit area, both praised and criticized Smith on Wednesday for the public process set up to make the board appointments, which are called for under a new law signed by Gov. Rick Snyder.

According to the new RTA law, Washtenaw County's board chairman gets to make two appointments, while each county executive in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb gets to make two appointments. Additionally, the mayor of Detroit and the governor each get one appointment.


Conan Smith

Ryan J. Stanton |

"While the Washtenaw timeline is overly rushed, especially due to the holidays, the open application and public interview process poses a good model for Oakland, Macomb, Wayne, and Detroit executives to follow," TRU wrote in a statement shared with

TRU maintains the new Southeast Michigan RTA, which Snyder signed into law on Dec. 19, provides the region a huge opportunity to transform transit, yet that transformation is largely dependent on the people appointed to oversee and manage the new authority.

"The RTA represents an opportunity to make Detroit a more globally competitive region — if we do it right," TRU said in its statement. "County executives should appoint bold, regionally-focused transit advocates to the board. As a region, it's time to move beyond traditional divisions and politics, and work together for our shared success."

TRU called the process for Washtenaw County's appointments "rushed," noting Smith announced on Dec. 14 that applications were due by Dec. 21.

Smith said it's fair for TRU to criticize the timing.

"I wish the Legislature had passed this bill and the governor had signed it six months or a year ago and we would have had a longer process for sure," he said. "The politics of it just worked out that we had a short timeline. It would be better if we had more time."

Smith said he's moving swiftly to make appointments before his term ends and not leaving it up to the county board's next chairman because he feels personally invested in the issue.

"I worked on the RTA thing for more than a decade, and on this particular piece of legislation with my colleagues around the region — the county executives from the other counties and Mayor Bing," he said. "And I had a personal desire to see it through to the end to just sort of close the loop."

Smith said he doesn't think making the appointments to the RTA board now or later will have any impact on whether Washtenaw County stays in the RTA.

"We're required to seat appointees within 90 days of the signing of the bill, so the clock started ticking last week," he said. "We would have had to do this by March regardless."

By law, the appointees cannot be employees of the counties, city or transit agencies, nor can they be elected officials. They must be appointed within 90 days, or by mid-March.

The RTA board will be responsible for a new regional transit plan, a planned rolling rapid transit system, hiring a CEO, deciding whether to put a millage or vehicle registration fee on the ballot in the four counties, and more. Ann Arbor officials have said they want Washtenaw County removed from the RTA because they don't think the county stands to benefit under the law that was approved.

County Commissioner Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, who is expected to be appointed chairman of the county board in early January, said Smith made the decision to fast-track the RTA appointment process before stepping down as chairman. Rabhi, who is on the committee advising Smith, said he agreed with TRU's criticism that the process might be too rushed.

"My recommendation to Conan was that we needed a public process, and my recommendation was to wait and to have a more fulsome public process," Rabhi said. "That's what I did recommend — that we wait until next year to do it. Not because I want to make the appointments, but just because I believe we need an expansive public process."

Rabhi, who supports Washtenaw County's inclusion in the RTA, thinks it will be hard for anyone to convince state lawmakers to remove Washtenaw County from the RTA in the next session.

"At the end of the day, this is the right thing to do for our region and we are part of this region," he said. "Whether we like it or not, we're part of Southeast Michigan, and … there should be a way to get around our region without having a single-occupancy vehicle."

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's email newsletters.



Thu, Dec 27, 2012 : 3:01 p.m.

Pure politics nothing more, all are doomed because of this process defining their appointment where is Rebecca Warren with her outrage of rushing this through??


Thu, Dec 27, 2012 : 12:56 p.m.

A person with Elisabeth Gerber's credentials could be quite valuable in intelligent discussion of, and planning for regional transportation. Her foci of intergovernmental cooperation and regionalism are key elements in this discussion. These attributes are essential to our collective future success, and extend beyond the topic of transportation. Thank you, Mr. Smith, for leading this process for our county. Many appreciate the formation of the new regional transportation entity that includes Ann Arbor. I hope we move beyond our arrogant assumption that we are the center of our region, deserving federal, state, and local funding to move a small number of people, while large numbers of people in neighboring cities and counties are under served.

Sam S Smith

Thu, Dec 27, 2012 : 2:39 p.m.

I don't know of anyone from around here who thinks we are the "center of our region... while large numbers of people in neighboring cities and counties are under served." That's the type of thinking of people who have way too much time, money and control issues. Mr. Smith, please pay back what you owe and get a real life.


Thu, Dec 27, 2012 : 12:44 p.m.

Seems like a waste, Washtenaw will not be part of it for long. We are better off on our own.


Thu, Dec 27, 2012 : 11:29 a.m.

interesting. It looks as though Mr. Smith has confused "leading" with "not listening" and "not representing". Now how he got there or why he is there, I don't know. Has he given up on Washtenaw County because we have looked at the issues of regionalization as he has defined them and rightly figured out that we'll be screwed by linking up with the counties/suburbs he wants to make money off of? Does he just figure its over anyway so do the lame duck dance?

Basic Bob

Thu, Dec 27, 2012 : 3:35 a.m.

Thank you, Lame Duck Conan Smith.


Thu, Dec 27, 2012 : 2:16 a.m.

Rushed so that Mr. Smith can appoint his lackeys, I assume. Do the people of Ann Arbor want to foot the bill for regional transportation? Count on the funding mechanisms being voted down, even if it is hidden in an off cycle election, who wants to give a non-elected, quasi-private organization taxing authority? I would pay more for expanded local service, since my family uses the AATA buses, but I will not pay for developers tax breaks, buses in Detroit, and endless feasibility and engineering studies for light rail, etc. No thanks.

Vivienne Armentrout

Thu, Dec 27, 2012 : 3:23 p.m.

Actually, the vote will be across the 4-county region, including Detroit. Washtenaw residents will have very little to say about it. There is no separate vote-counting per county and no opportunity to opt out. The real question is whether the majority of voters in the 4-county region, especially the most populous Oakland and Wayne Counties, will support the license fee. Another question is how the RTA will function if the fee does not pass. It will not dissolve. I discussed some of these issues in my post


Thu, Dec 27, 2012 : 1:06 a.m.

The Governor and the state legislature have put the cart before the horse by creating a RTA without determining the need for services to be rendered. SEMCOG predicts very little growth over the next twenty years for Ann Arbor as well as Southeast Michigan. No one has provided a list of businesses that will expand or relocate to Southeast Michigan because of new transportation infrastructure. If demand for more public transportation between Detroit and Ann Arbor develops, the least expensive and quickest way to accommodate more commuters is by expanding bus transportation. Adding more buses or larger buses could be done without having an RTA to plan and operate the system. In practical terms, as the mayor noted, bus transportation from Detroit to Ann Arbor will require one-and-a-half hours of travel EACH WAY which will not be enticing for most travelers between the two cities. Any other mode of transportation such as trolley or light rail will be very expensive to create and not likely to significantly improve travel time. IMHO, if the RTA does become operative citizens of the involved counties will realize that improving transportation is a Trojan Horse designed really to reap benefits for developers of properties along transit routes. The RTA provides special conditions that may allow developers to accumulate properties at advantageous prices or even by condemnation. In addition, the law creating the RTA allows property development that does not have to adhere to local codes. Why should these land use stipulations be included in a transit law? One hurdle remains before the RTA can operate. Financing the RTA via taxation of the citizens of the four involved counties must be approved by electorate of those counties. So the proposed increase of the vehicle licensing fees to fund the RTA must be approved by vote later this next year. If all four counties vote against authorizing the additional vehicle licensing fees then the RTA will not be able to operate.

Lifelong A2

Thu, Dec 27, 2012 : 1 a.m.

"Overly rushed" is an understatement. Conan Smith began the process before the Governor signed the legislation, ignored the advice of his presumed successor (Rabhi), ignored the resolution passed by his own Board expressing concern about Washtenaw's inclusion in the RTA, and ignored the resolution passed unanimously by the City Council opposing Washtenaw's inclusion in the RTA. I am astonished by Smith's arrogance.

John S. Armbruster

Thu, Dec 27, 2012 : 1:47 p.m.

I'm not.

Ryan J. Stanton

Thu, Dec 27, 2012 : 12:41 a.m.

Here's the schedule for anyone thinking of going tomorrow morning (be sure to give yourself extra time to drive safe on these snowy roads if you do!) 8:45 - David Nacht (Skype) 9:20 - Richard Murphy 9:55 - John Waterman 10:30 - Liz Gerber (Skype) 11:05 - Wendy Woods (Skype)