by Patricia Lesko
The Ann Arbor Independent used FOIA to obtain emails, Tweets and text messages sent over several weeks prior to the April 17 City Council meeting between a trio of Council members and Caleb Poirier, founder of tent community Camp Take Notice and a member of the M.I.S.S.I.O.N. Board of Directors. In those electronic communications, Chuck Warpehoski (D-Ward 5), Chip Smith (D-Ward 5) and Zachary Ackerman (D-Ward 3) strategized with Poirier to bring “hundreds and hundreds” of individuals, including homeless individuals to whom M.I.S.S.I.O.N. provides services, to the Council meeting in a staged and scripted show of support for Council members’ votes in favor of the $10 million sale of the publicly-owned Library Lot to Chicago developer Core Spaces in order for the developer to build a luxury hotel/apartment building.
M.I.S.S.I.O.N. Board President Mr. Lynn McLaughlin stated that the non-profit Board meets twice monthly. McLaughlin said Executive Committee officers were unaware of Poirier’s communications with the three Council members. McLaughlin added that while the non-profit supports the creation of more low-income housing properties, Poirier’s actions violated internal policies in place to protect the non-profit’s credibility. The Ann Arbor Independent reported on April 15 that M.I.S.S.I.O.N. Board Vice President Peggy Lynch paid for the barbecue held at City Hall before the April 17 City Council meeting. It was after the barbecue Poirier planned with Council members and did in fact invite homeless individuals to hold up signs and deliver scripted public comments in favor of Council members’ votes to sell the Library Lot.
Poirier did not respond to repeated requests for a comment.
In communications sent over the course of four weeks prior to the April 17 vote, the trio of Council members and Poirier discussed efforts to turn out homeless individuals served by M.I.S.S.I.O.N., as well as low-income housing activists to support Council members in their controversial vote to sell the publicly-owned Library Lot parcel. Eight Council members voted in favor of the sale—including Warpehoski, Smith and Ackerman.
According to an April 17, 2017 piece published after the Council meeting by The Michigan Daily, “Public polling has shown majority support for a public space. A 2013 Park Advisory Commission survey showed that 76.2 percent of respondents thought Ann Arbor would benefit from more downtown open spaces, like a park or town square, and 41.5 percent of respondents chose the Library Lot as the best place to build such a space. Last year, the Ann Arbor Committee for the Community Commons delivered a petition to put the future of the lot to the November election ballot, but it fell just short of a few hundred signatures because of technical mistakes.”
Developer Core Spaces plans to build a luxury hotel, commercial retail and office space and so-called “workforce” housing, the rents for which are expected be set at $922-$1,276. The plans include a .28 acre open space area, the use of which will be “programmed” by Core Spaces. Half of the $10 million from the sale will be deposited into the Ann Arbor Housing Trust Fund. This fact was referred to by Warpehoski, Smith and Ackerman as justification for voting to sell the Library Lot in the face of ongoing public protest.
Ward 5 resident Ali Ramlawi owns Jerusalem Garden restaurant. The April 17 vote by Chip Smith prompted Ramlawi to run for City Council as an Independent candidate in the Nov. 2017 general election.
“Using that affordable housing argument to sell us down the river was so disingenuous that it really motivates me to take some action,” Ramlawi was quoted as saying after his announcement that he would run.
Prior to Council’s April 17 vote, Ann Arbor Housing Commission (AAHC) director Jennifer Hall told Council members in a Mar. 20, 2017 email, “There is currently $3,680 in the AAHTF [Ann Arbor Housing Trust Fund].”
Her email goes on to paint a damning picture of political ineptitude, and staff neglect: “In the case of public housing, a lack of maintenance and capital funding over the past 40+ years has led to the deterioration of this community asset. Twelve of the City’s 18 public housing properties would have needed to be demolished in the next 10 years if we were not investing millions of dollars now to preserve what can be preserved, and demolish and build new and additional apartments where density can be increased.”
Hall tells Council members that $2.2 million of the $5 million could fill budget gaps for Avalon Housing and the Ann Arbor Housing Commission to create 135 low-income housing units. “The development process can take 4-6 years from concept to full occupancy,” writes Hall.
The question becomes whether the $5 million given to the AAHTF from the sale of the Library Lot will be used to save from demolition the city’s present 12 crumbling low-income housing properties, or to build new low-income housing. Hall’s memo makes clear that without a steady stream of funding amounting to millions of dollars, the renovation and repair of existing units and the creation of new units can’t be funded simultaneously.
Former Ward 3 Council member and current Council candidate Stephen Kunselman (D) has pitched the idea of depositing a portion of the city’s parking revenue annually into the AAHTF. Zachary Ackerman, using Kunselman’s idea, recently suggested diverting $400,000 from parking revenue to the AAHTF. Jennifer Hall’s memo, however, makes clear that $400,000 annually will not fund the repair of the demolition-threatened city-owned properties or provide adequate funding for the construction of new properties.
Scripting Public Commentary and Staging Public Support
Public records show Warpehoski, Smith and Ackerman used email, text messages and phone calls to discuss the April 17 meeting and advise Poirier, including scripting public comments by individuals served by M.I.S.S.I.O.N. whom Poirier urged to attend the Council meeting and whom he told Council members he would help sign up for public commentary.
A Ward 3 Burns Park resident who, when told of Ackerman’s efforts to manipulate public perception, and Council members’ efforts to stage support for their votes and script public comments, expressed dismay: “Who uses homeless people like that? Zack’s turned into a total train wreck, an embarrassment. Ugh!”
In an April 15 email to Warpehoski and Smith, Poirier told them: “Although I am not often fond of using poster board signs, I have had a council member request that I do so – which I will do. There will be lots of them – tasteful, not brow beating. Folks in the front rows will hold medium to small size signs while folks in the very back row will hold larger signs.”
It’s not known who on Council asked Poirier to provide poster board signs for M.I.S.S.I.O.N.’s clients to hold up during the meeting.
David Silkworth is running in the August Democratic primary election to represent Ward 5 on City Council. He said, “The lack of affordable housing is a really important issue for our community. I think that it’s reprehensible that any city council member would exploit the homeless in an attempt to confuse the public into believing that the sale of our Library Lot was about affordable housing.”
Public records requested show that on March 17, Warpehoski sent an email from a personal email address to Poirier concerning the date of a Council meeting at which the Core Spaces deliberation would take place. Council Rules adopted by Council (including Warpehoski, Smith and Ackerman) in Dec. 2016 require elected officials to conduct business relating to the city using only their city-provided email addresses.
Poirier writes to Warpehoski’s personal email address: “What day will Core Spaces be returning to City Council for additional deliberation? Is it March 27th or April 3rd? Any other thoughts on Strategy?” Warpehoski responds from the same address that he would be “happy to chat in person or by phone about it.”
Public records recently revealed that Warpehoski, in addition to using personal email in violation of Council rules, has been accessing Facebook chat during public meetings. Depending on the contents of the chats, his actions could be a possible violation of the Michigan Open Meetings Act. Outgoing mail server records requested revealed that Warpehoski, Julie Grand (D-Ward 3) and Ackerman have also been sending emails during public meetings. Warpehoski has thus far refused to turn over the contents of the Facebook chat messages accessed during the public meetings.
Julie Grand said in response to a question about the emails she has sent began by saying, “I never send emails during public meetings.” When told that the city’s outgoing mail server records indicated that she had, indeed, sent emails during Council meetings, Grand said, “I know the rules and I follow the rules. During breaks I might send an email to my husband. I read emails during Council meetings, but I don’t send them.”
The newspaper has filed a FOIA request for the Council members’ email messages sent during the public meetings.
On Mar. 25, 2017, three weeks before the Council vote, Poirier sent an email to Chip Smith in which Poirier writes, “I am attempting to do robust brainstorming around the messages that I should encourage future speakers to use when talking before Council about the library lot tower. I would be very grateful to hear from you about what you believe will work best. Please call anytime of the day or night, workday or weekend.”
Tipped Off and Ticked Off
Prior to the April 17 Council meeting, The Ann Arbor Independent received a tip: Council members were planning to “use” the homeless as political cover for their votes to sell the publicly-owned Library Lot.
On April 15, The Ann Arbor Independent published “Let Them Eat Barbecue: Council Members Plan to Use Homeless at Upcoming Meeting to Show ‘Strong Support’ for Library Lot Sale.” In that piece, the paper reported, based on an interview with a M.I.S.S.I.O.N. Board member, that local nonprofit M.I.S.S.I.O.N. at the April 17, 2017 City Council meeting “would turn out homeless individuals to stage a show of support for the sale of the publicly-owned Library Lot parcel for $10 million to the Core Spaces group, and the construction of a ‘workforce’ housing development project on the site.”
On April 18, The Ann Arbor Independent published “Amid Claquers, Boos, Cheers and Political Theater Council Votes 8-3 to Sell Library Lot to Core Spaces.”
Greg Pratt is Avalon’s Support Coordinator at Miller Manner, a low-income housing community. Pratt sent @A2Indy a series of Tweets after the April 15 and April 18 pieces were published in which he expressed anger and frustration. He referred to the city’s mayor and his seven allies on Council as the “Gang of Eight,” a reference to China’s Gang of Four, individuals who came to power during the Cultural Revolution and who were later charged with treasonous crimes.
Pratt Tweeted that he was angry at the vote to sell the Library Lot: “Something that could have/ should have happened was a ballot vote on this. I signed a petition.” He was angry at The Ann Arbor Independent’s reporting of M.I.S.S.I.O.N.’s involvement in allegedly using homeless individuals to manipulate a public hearing. He Tweeted: “But demonizing people for feeding others to participate in civic activity is a low blow. Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining.” After the April 18 article, Pratt repeatedly accused The A2Indy of “demagoguery.”
Long-time Ward 1 resident Jeff Hayner plans to run for a City Council seat as an Independent candidate in the Nov. 2017 general election. In Twitter responses to Pratt, Hayner “cried foul on lack of legitimate public process” related to the sale of the Library Lot parcel. As for M.I.S.S.I.O.N’s involvement, Hayner Tweeted, “MISSION should have joined the voices saying ‘this is not enough, it’s a bad deal for the owners (us), it’s not going to benefit enough ppl.’ They could have rejected the scraps & withheld their political cover.”
In an April 15 text message and email sent to Council members Warpehoski and Smith with the subject line “Monday night preparations in progress,” Poirier begins, “Today I put my mom into a nursing home (for the next three days) to free up my time to exclusively focus on turning out hundreds and hundreds supporters for affordable housing and Core Spaces.”
Anne Bannister, former co-chair of the Ann Arbor Democratic Club, is running for the Ward 1 City Council seat in the August Democratic primary election. Bannister, who attended the April 17 meeting, said, “I’m watching the [May 1] City Council meeting on YouTube right now, and would like to publicly comment at the May 15 meeting about scripted commentary and staged support.”
The “Three Minute People”
In 2014, a member of City Council was captured on a live mic referring to members of the public commenting at a meeting as “three-minute people.” The insult has been embraced by some. Peter Honeyman, a researcher at U-M who follows Council meetings live on Twitter has Tweeted out at the end of public commentary, “And that’s it for the three minute people.” Public commentary at City Council meetings is a time for ten members of the public who sign up for three-minute speaking slots to share their opinions, views and concerns with their local elected officials.Those who wish to comment, must visit or call the City Clerk’s office to request one of the 10 slots and state a reason for addressing Council.
At the April 17 meeting, all of the public comments addressed the sale of the Fifth Ave. Library Lot parcel. As a part of the sale, Core Spaces was granted a 50-year lease to 360 parking spaces, including spaces in the Library Lot underground parking garage.
The vote was contentious and Council members who spoke in favor of the sale were subjected to booing and jeers from members of the public in attendance.
The large crowd became increasingly agitated.
According to The Michigan Daily, “The tension reached a tipping point when Council member Julie Grand (D–Ward 3) charged that anti-high rise advocates were ignoring the realities of compromise and resisting stubbornly against a democratically decided process.”
Grand went on to say, “We have residents that are telling us that they want to be able to have the desirable amenities in the downtown, that they can drive to with no traffic, that they can have lower taxes and have parking for free at 7 p.m. on a Saturday. I’m going to be the adult in the situation … Sometimes I feel like I’m getting asks from residents like I’m talking to my children.”
In a phone conversation, Grand said she had been taken to task by “individuals” whom she said had been offended by her comments and who’d contacted her.
“Those were private conversations,” said Grand, “why should I tell anyone about them?”
When asked if she’d exchanged emails with Caleb Poirier prior to her April 17 vote, Grand became irate.
“I’m not going to tell you that! I don’t have to answer that question. Why should I answer that question? I don’t have to answer that question. I’m not going to answer that question.”
She went on to allege her refusal to say whether she’d exchanged emails with Poirier stemmed from the fact that she’d been called a prostitute in a 2013 piece that examined her votes as Chair of the Parks Advisory Commission, such as her support of the use of parkland for parking, during her unsuccessful bid for City Council.
“I only answer to people with integrity,” said Grand.
The video, below, is of Council member Chip Smith at the April 17 meeting reading a prepared statement to the public in which he says he spent the previous weeks “listening to residents.”
When Council member Chip Smith (D-Ward 5) read his prepared statement explaining to an audience filled with angry residents his vote in favor of selling the Fifth Ave. public-owned Library Lot parcel, Smith said:
“I have focused my time over the last few weeks listening to residents, both within the Fifth Ward and outside it, to determine what would most benefit the entire City. I have made it a point to seek out input from those who generally disagree with my positions and to listen to their concerns about the project. Those concerns have not landed on deaf ears. I certainly understand that people are concerned about 17 stories. I hear the fear about how this project impacts parking. I get that many feel that, because this is a city-controlled property, we should be getting quite a bit in exchange for development rights.”
Similarly, Ward 5 Council member Chuck Warpehoski’s comments indicated that the decision to sell the Library Lot parcel for $10 million was one with which he’d struggled:
“As I wrestled with the vote on Monday, for me it came down to affordable housing. As I reviewed the list of projects in the pipeline that might need money from the affordable housing fund (which is currently unfunded), I asked myself, “If I say ‘no’ to this sale and the $5 million for affordable housing, am I willing to call the people on the housing waitlist and explain to them why I voted to turn down money that would have allowed us to house them?” The issue was more complex than that, but this single question more than anything led to my vote.”
In an email comment on May 2 about the April 17 Council meeting staged support and scripted public comments Hayner wrote, “What can I say? I called it. What a bunch of phonies. Citizens don’t have the luxury of writing 1,600 word apologies to potential voters ahead of time and reading them at length while fighting back tears … I think they all are taking acting lessons from our Mayor. What they should have done is used that $5 million to retire that much debt on the bonds (the amount of the footers) and pledged whatever interest we would save by doing so to the affordable housing fund.”
Warpehoski, Executive Director of the small local non-profit Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, was sharply criticized by one the organization’s Board members who made clear the reaction reflected a personal opinion: “I am absolutely saddened and stunned that Chuck would do something like this. It’s not the kind of treatment anyone, homeless or not deserves, and certainly not in the spirit of what I expect from him as a community leader who is supposed to stand up for social justice. To take advantage of the vulnerable for political reasons is wrong. I’m disappointed he’d do something like this.”
Ward 5 Democratic candidate David Silkworth said: “Our city council members should have valid reasons for the decisions that they make, and they should never attempt to confuse or mislead the public or manufacture excuses to support their votes.”
At the April 17 Council meeting, after having corresponded with Caleb Poirier for a month prior to the meeting, and working with Poirier and other Council members to stage political cover from M.I.S.S.I.O.N. and the homeless, Warpehoski addressed the members of the public present and said, choking up:
“Leading up to the vote I wrestled with these issues. I called up people from across the community to poll their perspective from labor leaders like Ian Robinson (head of the Huron Valley Area Federation of Labor), Bob King (Former head of the UAW), environmental leaders like Jeannine Palms, friends and neighbors at our neighborhood Easter Egg Hunt (April 16). I looked for a ‘plan B’ that credibly meets the affordable housing needs while addressing the concerns about the proposal. I prayed.”
This is a video of Warpehoski telling the public that he’d “wrestled” with the decision about whether or not to vote to sell the Library Lot:
At 8:57 a.m. April 20, in an email the subject of which is “re:thank you,” Poirier replies to Chip Smith: “Also, I’d like to post a link about how folks can donate to your campaign but I can’t find it. Let me know the details and I will post it promptly in the [MLive] comments section.”
Council members Warpehoski, Smith and Ackerman did not reply to an email requesting a comment. The Ann Arbor Independent filed an appeal of the FOIA response to the request that produced the electronic messages between Poirier, Warpehoski, Smith and Ackerman. Based on the contents of the emails and text messages provided by the three Council members, it appears emails and text message responses from the Council members may have been omitted or withheld.
Update: On May 5, The Ann Arbor Independent’s FOIA appeal to City Administrator Howard Lazarus for any additional emails which may have been inadvertently omitted or withheld relating to Council members’ communications with Caleb Poirier during the months of Feb.-April was denied.