John Roberts

John Roberts
Ann Arbor City Council Member, 1st Ward; wholesale mortgage manager

Tottered on: 29 June 2006
Temperature: 73 F
Ceiling: mostly sunny
Ground: freshly cut grass
Wind: WNW at 12 mph

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TT with HD: John Roberts

HD: Ready to mount?

JR: Ready to mount. Haven't done this in a long time.

HD: Yeah, most people who get on and ride with me don't say, Yeah, I was just on a teeter totter yesterday.

JR: Yeah? I cannot say that!

HD: So do you have any interesting plans for the 4th of July?

JR: You know, I'm actually taking the family to Chicago. We take off Saturday morning and we're going to go stay downtown. We're going to try to get to a Cubs game, although I'm having troubles getting some tickets because it's a cross-town rivalry, so it's the Cubs and the White Sox are playing.

HD: Well, good luck with that.

JR: Every connection I thought I had, they haven't come through for me. So much for them. Then every place I've looked for tickets has just been astronomical.

HD: So when you say, 'take off' do you mean literally in a plane?

JR: No, I'm driving. I was actually going to do the train, because I thought it would be fun to take the kids on the train and it'd be relaxing, and not have to put the miles or the gas in the car. Then I looked and it was way too expensive.

HD: Really?! By train?

JR: It was unbelievable.

HD: Huh.

JR: I know. I used to take the train all the time to Chicago. And as a matter of fact, I was just in Chicago about a month and a half ago and I took it one-way back to Ann Arbor. It was only $36. But for four of us to go it was 400 bucks.

HD: Round-trip.

JR: Yeah.

HD: We actually just took a trip to Chicago by train. I don't remember how much it cost. A car would not have been an option for us, because we don't navigate large cities in cars all that well. But yeah, we saw a White Sox game, saw them play the Tigers.

JR: It's a good trip to go. Actually I used to live in Chicago, so I navigate the city very very well. So I'm very comfortable with the inner-city driving and the navigation. I can get off anywhere even close to the vicinity of downtown Chicago and go north to south.

HD: So you didn't grow up in Chicago, though, did you?

JR: I did not. Grew up in Ann Arbor.

HD: So did you grow up in the First Ward, where you live now?

JR: No, originally, I was living on Woodlawn, which is right off Packard. Then my parents built a house up off of Independence and Camelot. I was on Woodlawn through 5th grade, and then I moved over where my parents still live and finished out my school years over there. I think that's, let's see, Woodlawn is Fourth Ward? Yeah, I think Woodlawn is Fourth Ward.

HD: I don't know the boundaries all that well.

JR: Woodlawn's Fourth Ward and Camelot is Third Ward.

HD: So where did you end up going to school?

JR: I went to Burns Park, Tappan, and Huron. I'm a River Rat.

HD: You know, Leigh Greden, I found a quote from him from when you were appointed to Council that said you were the consummate 'team player'. So did you play team sports for Huron High?

JR: I did. Yeah, I grew up on sports, played baseball, basketball, football. And I actually played football in college for two years.

HD: For the [WMU] Broncos?

JR: For the Broncos.

HD: Wow. What position did you play?

JR: I was a wide receiver and then defensive back. So I was quite the athlete, if I may say so, which I like to. [laugh]

HD: Yeah? So did you go down in the record books of either Huron or Western?

JR: Only in my mind! No, unfortunately, my career was kind of cut short due to knee injuries, both in high school and college. I had four knee surgeries.

HD: Do you have videotape archival footage of all your great plays?

JR: You know what, I don't. Back then, when I was going through junior high and high school, video cameras were not a real big thing, particularly for my family. So we always just had still photos. So no, there's hardly anything and it's regretful. That's the one thing that I will definitely make sure, if my kids are involved in things to make sure to have more moving picture stuff.

HD: Would you describe yourself as nostalgic by nature?

JR: I think at some levels for certain things I am, absolutely.

HD: How about for the city of Ann Arbor? Are there things about Ann Arbor today where you look around and you remember, and you say, Man, it's too bad that we don't have that now?

JR: You know what, I would say that when I look around the city now, I absolutely remember the days living here and being around the city with my parents and how it has totally changed. Particularly the Main Street area. I remember days on the weekends that I used to go downtown with my mom and she'd go shopping down at Kline's and we'd go to the Quality Bakery for bread and I'd get donuts and whatever down there. It's just so interesting to see how that dynamic of Main Street has changed. To me, it seems, and again it's years ago, but Mainstreet to me seems much busier, but in the evening because of the restaurant crowd, not because people are necessarily really down there working and shopping as much. So yeah, am I nostalgic for Ann Arbor? Yeah, absolutely. I love this town and everywhere I go, when people ask, I make sure they know where I'm from. Because I think this is a great community.

HD: So in thinking about the Ann Arbor of twenty years ago, and where we're headed in the next twenty years, how do you stand on things like the Lower Town development? I guess that's generated a bit more of the online chatter recently, because of this group called CARD, but The Gallery is also another a project that's in the pipeline. So just first a question about The Gallery, where does that stand now?

JR: It has gone through the first reading, so it's coming up for the second reading. I think it's coming up in the second meeting in July, if I remember correctly. Second reading will include a public hearing. At this point, from my perspective, I'm evaluating the building, and the location of it, and who's it going to benefit, and what are the potential pitfalls of the building, and what are the pros of the building. And trying to make that determination. But it's coming up for second reading sometime in July.

HD: So you haven't really made up your mind yet?

JR: No.

HD: So do you see it fundamentally in terms of a building height issue?

JR: You know I know a lot has been made about the height of the building. And more particularly the height of the building because of the location of the building. Some people do feel that it's not a building that belongs, because it's on the outside of the core of the downtown area. That's one of the reasons why the height issue has been made such a big concern for people. I think you could argue it both ways. I think that you could say, Well, the perimeter of the core area can contain certain buildings, as long as it's the right building, and brings the right things and amenities and supports the areas around it and doesn't detract from that area. I think it can be a benefit to that area. My philosophy on it is that you need to take every project on a case-by-case. I don't think you can have a mindset of saying: This building goes here, this building doesn't go there. I think you can have an idea of what you think can go there, but I think if you've pigeon-holed yourself into a certain mindset, that you may miss a very good opportunity. I think every project brings pros, and it brings cons, and you have to evaluate it.

HD: So if you had to evaluate what your sense of the rest of Council's attitude is, would you say that people are tending to think unfavorably or favorable about it?

JR: Wow. I'm not going to sit here and put words in my other fellow Councilmembers' mouths, because I really don't know where they stand. But I would have to say that you know, the sense that I get, is that it's probably split down the middle. I think it's pretty split.

HD: So it could go either way.

JR: I think that people have good feedback and thoughts on both sides of it. I think what it really gets down to for that project is that you want to make sure that it's not detracting from the neighborhood. Whenever you put something new up, you want to make sure that you're not losing the character of what was already there, and that you're not hurting the people or the properties that are surrounding it. And I think that with Kerrytown being right behind it, I think that's a big one. If something is going to go there, you want to make sure that it's going to benefit that area, particularly the retailers and the shops that are there.

HD: From what I understand of what I've read, the Kerrytown merchants actually generally speaking are supportive of the project.

JR: You know I've heard that sentiment, too. But then I've also heard other individuals who've said, Ehhh, you know, it's just not the right building there. It's still information gathering and talking to the people and making sure that it is something that is going to benefit them. I think it's a wonderful project, I think that it definitely would bring a lot to the city and I probably do agree that if it were in that core area, people would probably have less of an issue with it. But that still doesn't mean that it can't be a benefit for where it's proposed to be.

HD: So Lower Town. That one is a little bit different because that is being financed through, what is it, a Tax Incremented Funding ...

JR: ...there's some bonds ...

HD: ... yeah, 40 million dollars worth of bonds. And you're a mortgage guy, right? You know something about the lending industry because that's what you do.

JR: Yeah! Right.

HD: So would it be possible for you to explain to me, as if I were just a really bright four-year-old, how that generally works?

JR: Well, I think, unfortunately for me, I have not had an opportunity to really look in complete detail at how that's being set up from a financial perspective, to be able to give you great detail on it. But at a very high level, there are certain things that the developer was looking to do. And they needed some financing in order to make that happen. By us providing bonds, it would allow them to get the project going and get it done. But then they are paying back those bonds over the years through the taxes that will be built off the parking structure there. And the city will own the parking structure. The question becomes whether the revenues that are being generated are enough to pay back the bonds. And ...

HD: ... so is that the only source of revenue that the bonds can be paid back out of, or can the City say to the developer, Look, the ...

JR: ... well, it's also based off the taxes. The taxes from the property will help pay back those bonds also.

HD: So taxes, and then the parking structure revenues, and are there other sources? I mean can the City of Ann Arbor say to the developer, Look, it turns out that the property taxes and the parking revenues, they are falling short of what the bond payments are, and we don't really want to dip into the General Fund, or whatever fund has to be dipped into, so we need you to throw in some more?

JR: This is something that's new for the City. And that's why the financial group, Tom Crawford [CFO] and his group, are being very diligent to make sure that the City is not exposed in any way on this deal. Before we move forward and say that this is a Go on this deal, we're going to make sure that all the loopholes are closed and that the money is going to be there to pay back these bonds.

HD: So the City hasn't made a decision to issue the bonds yet?

JR: Correct.

HD: It's still possible to say, You know what, we're just going to walk away right now?

JR: Correct. Right. And I think that that's the whole misnomer of this whole thing with the bonds is that we as Council approved the intent to issue those bonds. We needed to do that because of the lag time that it takes from issuing that intent. There's a 45-day window there. But in no way shape or form are we obligated to issue those bonds. Up to this point and currently, Tom Crawford and his group, and there are City sub-committees that are working with the developer, to make sure that they're meeting certain performance standards. As they hit those performance standards, it's minimizing the risk that the City's at. So that's where things are there. And as far as Lower Town goes, I will say this, that Lower Town was a project that from a site plan perspective was approved before I was ever on Council. I'm not going to sit here and say that I agree with the project or disagree with the project, because that's a moot point. That would be arguing that horse has already left the barn there. There were certain stipulations and contingencies the developer has to meet and it's my job at City Council, and for staff, to make sure that they are meeting those and that the City's not exposed.

HD: Karl Pohrt, he ran for a First Ward council seat, I don't know exactly what year that was, four years ago maybe? I think he ran for the seat the same year that Kim Groome was actually elected the last time. And he said that one of the things that he found surprising was the amount of anger that surfaces in politics around the country but also here in Ann Arbor. I was wondering, have you, as you've started the campaign so far, encountered a lot of anger?

JR: Maybe clarify for me, what do you mean by 'anger'?

HD: Well, I'm not certain what Karl would say. But let me just describe something I saw at the last public information meeting for the parks millages, I think it was last week, I forget what day [Ed. note: it was 26 June, i.e., Monday this week] But there were speakers essentially on both sides of the issue, who, in one case I guess would say was actually angry, and said flat out, Jayne [Miller], we don't trust you anymore! And in another case I would say he was maybe more 'animated' than angry. But it was about parks. So I don't know, 'passionate' may be a better word than 'angry'. Have you encountered 'passion'?

JR: Well, as soon as you asked the question, the first thing that popped into my head that I've probably experienced more so than is 'passion'. The residents of Ann Arbor, they love their city. They're very educated people. And they're very passionate people. I think when those things come together, when they believe in certain things, or when they believe that certain things need to happen a certain way, they're not just going to sit around and not voice their opinion about it. And so I would describe what I've encountered more as 'passion' than 'anger'. Yeah, I wouldn't say that I've encountered anger at that level. But I think it's been very passionate. But you can see the things that people talk about, the things that they bring forward, it's things that they believe in their hearts are right and what should be done.

HD: I spent part of the morning today watching the replay of the last City Council meeting. I missed the regularly scheduled replays that CTN has, so I called them up and asked if there was any way I could get a look at it. It turns out that they have a standard procedure: you just request that it be shown again and then they tell you when it's scheduled. So Lucy Ann, I forget ...

JR: ... Visovatti?

HD: Oh that's her real name?

JR: Lance?

HD: Yeah, Lucy Ann Lance, she actually called me up and said, Hey, we're going to be showing it again, we scheduled it just for you, at 10:00am today.

JR: Special treatment?

HD: No, I think they do it for anybody, which is a cool thing ...

JR: ... absolutely ...

HD: ... that you can call up the local cable access and say, I need to see that City Council meeting again and they just do it. And maybe it's a sad commentary on my life that I'm spending three hours of my morning re-watching a City Council meeting. But the reason I wanted to see it was, I didn't see the entire discussion at that meeting of the human services committee allocation, it was 1.7 million dollars, so I wanted to re-watch it to see the whole thing. And the discussion on that item alone ran like 45 minutes. And I thought it was fascinating, because the word 'transparency' was used, I didn't actually count, but the word 'transparency' came up on all sides. And I found myself frustrated, because the key question, I thought, never got asked by either Wendy Woods or anybody else on Council, and that was: What specific performance standard did Youth Empowerment Project fail to meet? Was it a fatal omission, you know, like, You missed this one standard and so you're not fundable because you don't meet this key standard? Or was it a matter of looking at the range of total scores that all the groups achieved, and using the same process that a teacher assigning grades on a curve uses? You know, if there's a clear break in the distribution, between the kids who did like 30, 40, 50 percent and then everybody else got above 90%, it's very easy to say, Okay, you guys in the bottom group actually failed. So it seemed like the discussion sort of skated around the actual question, that would, for me, have made me feel more comfortable that the right decision got made. What was your impression of that 45-minute long discussion? I mean, I thought Wendy Woods was actually quite tenacious and, in places, quite rhetorically skilled, taking the actual words and phrases of people critical to her approach and turning them to her rhetorical advantage. So just from the point of view of whether it was interesting politically and rhetorically, I thought it was. And I thought she did the best that she could on the behalf of the groups that she was trying to support.

JR: Yeah, I think that you're right, that discussion did go on for about 45-minutes. But I think that those are the types of discussions that need to occur. I don't remember the all the exact questions that were thrown out there, but I think those are good discussions that need to occur, because people have opinions and they have thoughts and they need to express that. You do that in that environment, because people are always going to have different sides and you have to evaluate it. So I think the conversation itself was a good conversation ...

HD: ... yeah, don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining about the fact that it was 45-minutes long. But it seemed to me that only towards the very end, did I, as a citizen of Ann Arbor, start to get any inkling of what actually was the substance of the discussion. And that was when Stephen Rapundalo said we're talking about failure to meet milestones, failure to adequately describe who your target constituency is, failure to document in a measurable way the benefit to your target constituents. That, at least, was the beginning, I thought. That would have been useful to have at the beginning with the follow-up question, For these groups that didn't get funded, was it a matter of only writing a paragraph when a page was required, or was it something else? And maybe that would have still been insulting to the committee, because it's asking them to essentially recapitulate their thought process. But in a way, isn't that what transparency is about? I mean you have a process, and if somebody asks you, Okay, specifically, this one organization, can you take us specifically through how the process was applied in that case, so we can see? That makes it transparent. And that question didn't ever get asked or answered.

JR: You can probably look at it two ways. The conversation itself, I think we agree that it was a good conversation. The only thing that I questioned about it was that there was more than one group that didn't receive funding. So I think from a fairness perspective, I think we were talking about one group in that discussion. The discussion ultimately turned that way, it should have been a more global question, as to what didn't these people do or what were the criteria that they didn't meet that they didn't the year before? If I remember correctly, I think that that question in some form was asked and I remember Leigh Greden responding saying that the criteria had changed at one point. But then Stephen [Rapundalo] came back and said that really it didn't change all that much, that there was just different scoring or something along those lines ...

HD: ... yeah, what Leigh Greden said I found a bit confusing, it seemed like he was corrected by someone who said that the criteria were the same, but the information packets were different? So the mechanism by which information was collected may have changed, that's what I got from it.

JR: So I think that we started to hit on that question and we started to go that way, like what was that criterion, and what didn't they meet? In listening to the discussion, I kind of agreed with Wendy initially, that, What didn't this group do this year that they did the year before to get their funding? But then once the broader question was asked, were there other organizations that didn't get funding, I think I ended up re-evaluating my opinion on it. If we really want to be fair to everybody here, then really we need to evaluate the process. And I think at the end of the day, I put my faith in the committee that the criteria were done, it was posted, everything was published, the organizations knew what they needed to do and the decisions were made. They are difficult decisions. For me, being a business person, I step back from it and say, you can make a decision here that maybe is a good decision. But ultimately, what is it going to yield you next year or the year after? Because you're going down a slippery slope, saying, Well we understand that there's criteria, but at the end of the day, we hold the discretion to do whatever we want to do.

HD: I forget who made this point, I think maybe it was Stephen Rapundalo that it wasn't that criteria that changed, but what can change from year to year is a group's actual ...

JR: ... performance ...

HD: ... right, performance. And to me that should have been a launching point for a discussion of the actual performance of these groups. And I can understand why you might not want to do that, because it had already been made clear that there would be written follow-up and feedback given to the those groups. That they just weren't going to be told, Um, you've not been allocated any funds for this year. But rather there was, you know, an expression of commitment on the part of the City to convey in writing, Here's why and here's what you need to do to have a shot next year.

JR: Exactly. And the thing is that you want to be careful about it, too, in saying, Okay, what were the performances of these specific places? I think you want to be careful, because all these places do good work, and I don't think you want to put them in a position where you feel like you're saying that they're really not doing a good job, because you're saying that their performance is at a certain level. We're talking from a funding perspective. It doesn't mean that they're not doing good, quality work. I think you want to be careful that they're giving off the public perception that they're not ...

HD: ... and it could be that's one reason why people around the table maybe were not inclined to get into the nuts and bolts, because it's not fair to the organization to have them flayed open in that public a setting, although probably for those reports, if someone really wanted to have a look at them, I assume that they would be available.

JR: For people who want to know that stuff, I think that's good, but I think you have to be careful of what you're publicly presenting and I think you have to be fair to them. And I think at the end of the day, there was a committee that was put in place, there were criteria, and the decisions were made and they were tough decisions. I think everybody agreed with that.

HD: On a more lighthearted note, did you hear the ice cream truck go by?

JR: I absolutely did!

HD: You have ice cream trucks in your neighborhood in the summertime?

JR: Yes, we do, my kids chase it down the road.

HD: Do they really? Is that safe?

JR: On the sidewalk, they chase it.

HD: How old are your kids?

JR: Eight and six.

HD: So they go to, let's see, First Ward, what are the elementary schools up there?

JR: Wines.

HD: Here's another neighborhood thing, you probably noticed the big blue bin out at the end of my driveway, the trash bin?

JR: Oh, yeah.

HD: You have those in your neighborhood, right?

JR: Yes!

HD: Have they been a success?

JR: Absolutely

HD: I'm the city's biggest fan of the blue bins.

JR: Oh?

HD: It's too late for this year, I wish I'd had this organized in time, because I could have said, You're going to Chicago for the 4th of July, you should stay here and see the parade instead! Because I think a great parade entry would be, I'd call it the Blue Bin Buddy Brigade, where you'd have like 10 people pushing these blue bins and doing a precision routine along the lines of the Shriners on their scooters. So next year for the 4th of July parade, if I were to organize such a thing, could I recruit you to push one of the blue bins?

JR: Sure, Dave, I'd love to.

HD: Well, now see, you've said that on the totter and that means I can hold you to that.

JR: Absolutely.

HD: Well, listen, thank you very much for coming over and riding the teeter totter in my backyard.

JR: Well, thanks for having me, Dave.