opinion: Ann Arbor resident explores rejection of public art, library millages
Editor's note: The headline has been changed to better reflect the story.
Who would have imagined, a few years ago, that overwhelmingly liberal Democratic Ann Arbor would reject millage proposals for both a new public library and for public art?
I’d like to offer a couple of theories for these rejections.
Was this a reaction to the tax burden imposed on local property owners? Perhaps, but in the same election, Ann Arbor voters approved an extension of a 1.10 mill tax for park maintenance and capital improvements by a 68 percent to 32 percent margin, with every precinct and Absent Voter Count Board (AVCB) in the city voting “yes.” By contrast, the smaller, .56 mill library proposal lost by 53.6 percent to 46.4 percent in the city itself, carrying just 21 of 59 precincts and AVCBs. The minuscule .10 public art millage did even worse, carrying just 12 precincts and one AVCB, losing by 55 percent to 45 percent. I believe both of the defeated millages suffered from a lack of trust by an electorate that feels it isn’t being sufficiently considered or listened to by those in power. It isn’t a partisan question, since every city elected official, except independent Jane Lumm, is a Democrat, and all the key appointed positions have been filled by those elected officials. This mistrust has been shown in the last two city elections, which saw the ouster of two incumbent members of council, as well as election of a council majority somewhat hostile to the prevailing majority of recent years. Many voters are still unhappy about the $50 million-plus price tag for the city’s new courts and police building and another $50 million-plus for the underground parking structure. Community opposition helped to kill to a proposed city-supported conference center adjacent to the existing library.
But what does this have to do with a proposal put forth by the independently-elected library board? I think Ellie Serras, who headed the “Our New Downtown Library” committee, hit the nail on the head when she said, “I think there were implications that the library was involved with the city and the DDA (Downtown Development Authority) in some way and the community responded.” It’s not hard to see how the community might get this idea. For 15 years, Serras headed the Main Street Area Association, a downtown business development group. She is married to Dennis Serras, an owner of Mainstreet Ventures, which owns several downtown restaurants. Other prominent supporters of the proposal were DDA Chairwoman Leah Gunn and DDA Board Member John Splitt. On Election Day, Ann Arbor District Library Board President Margaret Leary appeared on WUOM radio, arguing that a new library would help downtown businesses.
When the conference center was being considered, Library Director Josie Parker expressed some support for the idea, suggesting that the facility’s meeting spaces might be used to supplement the library’s own. A proposed 400-seat auditorium for the new library drew a lot of criticism. During the time the campaign was ongoing, the suggestion arose that the vacant lot across Fifth Avenue from the library might be a good site for a hotel. Some suspicious minds saw a possible back-door route to a conference facility, combining such a hotel and the library’s enlarged meeting facilities. The DDA has become one of the most controversial public bodies in the city, and to some, the new library began to look like a DDA project, and that didn’t help its chances. The public art millage had a different problem. It certainly suffered from the negative feelings about the expensive City Hall sculpture, but there was no organized or visible opposition to it. What may have done in this proposal was poor ballot language. The parks and library proposals were stated in the positive: “Shall the Charter be amended to authorize 1.10 mills for park maintenance and capital improvements?” and “Shall the District Library borrow for the purpose of constructing a new main library ?” By contrast, the art ballot language began: “Shall the Charter be amended to limit sources of funding for art in public places ?” This language was, apparently, designed to communicate that the current “percent-for-art” funding would be suspended if the new millage passed, but it made the proposal sound, to some, like an anti-public art proposal. The effect was vivid in the city’s student precincts, which routinely support every millage proposal. Every predominantly student precinct supported the library proposal by 55 percent or more. They all opposed the art millage by equal or greater margins. A similar pattern was repeated around the city. In more “establishment,” “well-connected” precincts, such as Burns Park and the near west side of the city, voters seemed to look past the negative language and voted for public art. In precincts which are more renter, transient and less likely to be as informed about city issues, the proposal did markedly worse. Would the proposal have passed with more positive wording? Hard to say, but it would have had a better chance.
Tom Wieder is a 44-year resident of Ann Arbor and retired attorney who has been active in Democratic Party organizations and campaigns for most of that time. He has History, Public Policy and Law Degrees from The University of Michigan.