Steve Bean

Steve Bean
independent candidate for mayor
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tottered on: 1 October 2010
Temperature: 53 F
Ceiling: sunny
Ground: porch deck
Wind: N at 10 mph

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TT with HD: Steve Bean

[Ed. note: SB is former member of the city of Ann Arbor's energy commission and currently the chair of the environmental commission. He's running for mayor as an independent candidate. The incumbent, Democrat John Hieftje, took his turn on the totter four years ago. A report on the League of Women's Voters forum mentioned in the conversation below, can be found on The Ann Arbor Chronicle. A review of Pat Murphy's book, "Plan C" can be found on Sustainablog. More information on the city of Ann Arbor's environmental indicators can be found on the city's website.]

HD: Okay let's climb aboard, here. And let's get the photography out of the way.

SB: Okay, you want me to sit?

HD: Yeah, that's how we do that. But no tottering, I don't want it blurred.

SB: Gotcha. [photography ensues]

HD: Alright, shall we? So, I spent a lot of yesterday, and a good chunk of the morning writing up the League of Women Voters candidate forum that you participated in. And what I notice was--I counted four occasions on which you said something like, I agree with John, and one occasion on which he says, I think Steve put that really well. And I know that you carpooled with John to and from the event.

So, I guess I need some convincing that you are actually running for his job.

SB: Well, I don't think it's his job.

HD: Well, the job that he currently has. I mean, you understand what I'm saying?

SB: Yeah. A lot of people ask about, you know, Are you a serious candidate? And are you really running? And, Where's Steve? That kind of thing.

That's a tricky question, because the way I see it is: I'm offering myself to the community to serve in that position. I think I'm very qualified to do it. I think I would do a great job. I would love to be in that position, I would really enjoy it. And, at the same time, my life is great. And I don't need it and I don't feel like the going door-to-door and having yard signs and the whole shebang that we are used to in terms of campaigns and political races ...

HD: ... we are absolutely used to that, I would concede that point.

SB: We're very used to that. I don't see that as helping us select the best person for the position.

Now I'm sliding forward, so I need to scoot back.

HD: Yeah, there's no handles--a feature of the teeter totter that many people have commented on.

But, alright, so. There must be some sense in which you feel like you are better qualified than John, ...

SB: ... I don't see why that is necessarily the case. I made the decision to run for office before I even knew that John was planning to run again. So it wasn't about running against him. It was more about, Am I ready for this? When I started having thoughts about public office several years ago--whether that would be the city council or the mayor's position--I decided that I wasn't ready and I wouldn't do it until I was ready. It was this year that I felt like, Yeah, I've got enough of my own stuff together that I can do this now. And it was independent of what John was doing. And I think that the way I look at it. I would rather have someone not base it on running against a particular person or because they are not good enough, but that they are ready themselves to do the job. That's the way I look at it.

HD: So was it any particular event, or some skill set that you finally mastered, that made you feel like you were now in a position to be ready? I mean, you said you got your "stuff together." Do you mean you finally got your life organized? Or do you mean your thoughts about issues, you had got together, and your thoughts about how the community should work? Could you be more specific about what you mean by you got your "stuff together"?

SB: I can try to be more specific, but it is all of those things. So it is difficult to be specific. I got divorced two years ago and started a new relationship about a year and half ago, so that was going on. I've got a job. I've got a son. I've got a life.

I spent a lot of time studying issues, trying to look at the global situation and bring it down to the local level, and figure out what we do here to address those kinds of things.

HD: So if there's one thing that's kind of emerged as a difference during the candidate forum--the one thing that I was able to discern--if there is a distinguishing policy point between you and John, it would be the idea that peak oil and climate change needs to be more a part of our local thinking. I mean, is that a fair assessment?

SB: Yeah. And I would add to that a financial crisis. And actually, what I'm learning in recent months is that that's most likely to be the first situation that we have to deal with, the most immediate crisis to address.

HD: So when you look at the next decade, you are not optimistic, like Tony Derezinski, for example--I don't know if you were there for his remarks during the league debate for council candidates ...

SB: ... no, I was not ...

HD: Well, he expressed a certain amount of optimism, saying, you know--now, wait what exactly did he say, I don't want to misrepresent Tony Derezinski's remarks here on the teeter totter--but the general sentiment was that he's optimistic that the times will get better, and that we need to plan for that. And, he didn't use this phraseology, but the sense I got from him was that we didn't want to go into a shell and adopt a bunker mentality, but we need to prepare for the better times are surely to come. I sense that you see the next decade as possibly, and probably, even worse?

SB: Yeah. And in terms of preparing--I can't predict the future any better than anyone else can--but in terms of preparing for the future I would say it's more important to prepare for the worst case, or worst cases, than for an optimistic case. I understand what Tony is saying, and at the same time, what about if things don't get better? Or if they get worse? My concern is that that's kind of typical thinking--there's an optimism without a balanced consideration of the possible downside. And I think that's a disservice to the community to not consider that and talk about it and explore it and discuss it.

HD: But take peak oil and all the accompanying complications and crises that would be a function of that as we start to see an impact of peak oil. Isn't it the case that--I'm trying to think of how to put this in language that is not playground talk--everybody's screwed anyway, right? It's almost the equivalent of, What if an asteroid hits Earth? What will it matter? We're not preparing for an asteroid hit the Earth, right? We're just not, because there is nothing we can do about that. And my sense is ...

SB: ... but that's a false analogy, because it's not that bad.

HD: But psychologically I think that a lot of folks want to put it into that category.

SB: And that's part of what we need to help them prepare for--the psychological impact. And I don't think that being optimistic is helping us prepare for that. If we can start to talk about it now, people can get used to the idea that maybe that's a possibility. And if you have that sense before it happens and when it happens you can deal with it better than if it's a surprise and no one told you.

Certainly if our government didn't tell us, we're more likely to be angry about it, we're going to be angry about a lot of other things--investments that went south, things we can't afford any more, a lot of people could be homeless or hungry. We're not going to be able to help each other, if we are also upset and frustrated. So the better prepared we are, the better we will deal with it as a community. It's not about us dealing with it as individuals.

HD: So what is it that you think that we are not doing to prepare in this community that we could be doing? I mean, there's just a laundry list of things that anybody could point to that we are doing. There's 20% alternative energy use in municipal facilities ...

SB: ... let's take that as an example. I would say the first thing that we are not doing is talking about the possibility of things getting worse. And on the flip side of what we are talking about is something like approaching this 20% renewable energy use. Part of where that comes from is the landfill gas.

HD: You're talking about for the calculation?

SB: That's calculated into this what we are calling renewable energy sources.

HD: So your point is that I guess it'll eventually--in fact I think is and it's starting to--taper off?

SB: I don't know, but I wouldn't be surprised. It's a fairly old landfill and a lot of the methane escaped before it was capped and captured and put into that system. So I would not be surprised if it is already declining. The second part of it is electricity from the dams. Those have been there, that's not something that we added through this effort when we set the goal. So while we can point to that and say that we have achieved this, we haven't done anything in the last 20 years to achieve it other than the landfill system, which is going to go away, so feeling good about ...

HD: ... "going to go away" in that the amount of gas being generated naturally is going to ...

SB: ... diminish over time...

HD: ... not that we are going to dismantle the facility.

SB: Yes, correct. So I think that's thinking positively about something that has been in place, and doesn't really convince us to change something in order to go beyond that. And I think that's a huge challenge.

Right now my partner and I are renovating our house and over the course of the summer we have learned--and just had a discussion this morning about it--how challenging it is to work with construction workers who don't have a sense of what we are trying to accomplish. And even we don't have a sense of what it really takes to accomplish what we had envisioned. When we are thinking about this and are very immersed in it and even we are struggling with it, it's really obvious how much of a challenge it is. And as a whole community of 100,000+ people, we are all going to go through this process.

HD: So what are some of the things that you're doing with your house? These are energy improvements?

SB: Yes, primarily. We are also redoing the bathroom and kitchen and basically flip-flopping the living room and the kitchen and the great room area. It's about 1000 sq. ft. ranch with a finished basement.

HD: So you're adding insulation, or?

SB: We're adding insulation, we're putting glazing on the windows on the south side, a large room, for passive solar gain. We got special windows, and it was a challenge in itself to get the right kind of window that doesn't let out too much heat but also lets in the maximum amount of solar gain.

HD: So back to the 20%. One issue you seem to have with using that as a feather in our cap is the actual basis of of the calculation. Do you think that's the right thing to measure, though? I mean, are you in agreement that that's the statistic we want to use?

SB: That's one of them, yeah.

HD: Okay.

SB: We've got our state of the environment report website, we have a whole bunch of indicators, and that is one of them. And that is one of the more important ones. It's not just about increasing our renewable use, but reducing our overall energy use to help increase that percentage.

HD: Okay, I don't have the indicators well in mind, but I don't think that there is an indicator that measures that--that would need to be a per capita measure, right? Energy use per capita? And that's missing, I think.

SB: That might be, yes.

HD: Well, you are chair of the environmental commission, you could do something about that. [laugh]

SB: Yeah, [laugh] We'll add that one, I'll talk to Matt Naud and we'll add it. We have a committee that discusses and determines which of those indicators ...

HD: ... and this is a subcommittee of the environmental commission ...

SB: ... right ...

HD: ... that is specifically dedicated to studying and updating indicators on an ongoing basis. So you guys have some kind of a regular schedule for reviewing various indicators?

SB: It's an ongoing basis. We meet monthly and we either review what we've got or we look at a new area and start thinking about new ones to add. We bring in information that we found outside the meeting and talk about what we might do with that. Or we look at what other communities have done.

HD: My main complaint--it's not a complaint, well I guess it is a complaint--sure, let's call it a complaint. My complaint about the indicators is that they are not focused heavily enough on per capita measurements. That was one of the takeaways I had from the Patrick Murphy talk--does he go by Patrick or Pat?

SB: Pat.

HD: It seemed to me that one of his main points was we've got to think in terms of per capita energy use in evaluating everything. In terms of nations, for example, China is generating more CO2 than everybody else, but on a per capita basis, not as much. We are still, I guess, the absolute "champions" here in the U.S., when it comes to CO2 production per capita. Our own indicators, though, you sometimes don't get things drilled down to a per capita basis. That was one of my frustrations with the single stream recycling deliberations and discussion-- that nobody wanted to talk about our per capita landfill numbers. And this is data that still has not been generated. And so as we try to figure out whether this recycling effort has been successful in helping us reduce our per capita landfill numbers.

SB: Or on an individual basis did it provide incentives that helped us to do that? Did that result in something else happening? Is this a community where less packaging is being used?

HD: Back to the environmental commission. The last meeting you guys had, there was a proposal--it was not even to create a task force, it was a recommendation to be passed along to the city council that they create a task force. As I understand it was simply a task force to educate people about peak oil and climate change.

SB: Yeah. And to develop a report that would go to the council on what to do beyond that.

HD: And it was a six-month time frame, is that right?

SB: Right.

HD: That only got three votes. Yours, Westphal's, and ...

SB: ... Anya Dale's.

HD: How do you account for the fact that it only got three votes?

SB: I go back, because I don't want to overlook what you're saying about the complaint about indicators. I want you and everybody else who reads this to know that if you feel that way, please send me an e-mail, because we've got two or three people working on this, and we want the whole community to look at those things and give us feedback and give us ideas. So certainly do that. To myself or Matt Naud, and we will consider it and when we can we will add something. So the peak oil task force recommendation ...

HD: ... yeah, I mean, this is the environmental commission, it's eminently plausible that it's an appropriate kind of initiative for the environmental commission to contemplate. I mean it's within your purview, certainly.

SB: Yeah.

HD: As best I understand it, it was not going to tap any city resources ...

SB: ... I think there was an assumption that it would. There were comments, there were concerns about it taking staff time.

HD: That's a matter of who's on the task force, though, right?

SB: Like I say, I think that's an assumption. I don't think that a staff person needs to support the task force.

HD: So it could have been a task force drawn from the broader community?

SB: Sure. And in the broader community we've got plenty of capable people who can do research and write up a report and make some recommendations without staff support. It might help to have staff support and could be that Matt Naud would have some time to assist with that or some other staff person. So I thought that was a fairly minor objection that turned into potentially a reason not to support the idea.

HD: So I didn't follow the deliberations, I basically know the outcome, and I know what the original proposal looks like, so based on your assessment, then, the idea that it would cost the city money to put this task force together and to have it do its work, that was essentially the reason that was cited for saying, Okay, we don't want to support this?

SB: That was part of it. And the other part of it, I think, was: We are doing great! We are doing all the things we need to do and other communities have produced similar reports, and why don't we just look at what their reports say? And to a certain extent that's valid. If that's what you're suggesting, then read the full report beyond the executive summary and start talking with people in the community about what were going to do that we aren't currently doing.

HD: You're talking about reading reports from other communities--what are some of the other communities that have produced such reports?

SB: I think the one that's being referenced is Portland. I know there are several others. I think Oakland has done it. Kirk Westphal is the person who really brought this forward, and he had done some research--I'm not remembering all the names of some of the other cities that have done this.

HD: I'm thinking that Portland and Oakland are different from Ann Arbor with respect to population, geographic context, climate, ...

SB: ... yeah, there are differences. And if you look at those reports it will probably become obvious there are differences and we might need to do something different. So that's why I think it's worthwhile for us to go through the process ourselves. Even more so it is the educational component of it. And I think that was Kirk's thinking when he drafted the resolution--it was yes, we could form a committee--and another commissioner suggested that we have the power to create a subcommittee and just do it ourselves, we don't need to put this on the council for them to appoint the group. And that's true. But as Kirk pointed out in the deliberations, Who pays attention to what a subcommittee of the environmental commission does? As opposed to the city council saying, Hey, community, this is an important issue, we're concerned about it and now are going to appoint a group and have them report back to us, and we want this to be a public process for people to learn from.

HD: If I had been sitting at the table and if it had been my job to advocate for this recommendation to have the city council appoint a task force, I would've argue along these lines: Yes, there is a potential cost that might be perceived or actual--but we, as the environmental commission, don't have the same fiduciary responsibility that the city council does. So we need to make our recommendations not necessarily based on what it costs, but in some sense offer our pure policy review, without attention to how much it costs. And that is the responsibility of the city council to assess, in their wisdom, whether or not staff resources are warranted or even required. They might well say, Precisely because we don't want it cost the city any money, we are not going to allocate staff time, but we'll appoint a task force just from the broader community. That's how I would've argued it.

So I'm just curious, did anybody make that kind of argument--the idea that ours is not the fiduciary, ours is the environmental?

SB: No one did make that case. I think that's a valid case. We were, I think, responding to the objections at the time. I find myself--you know with 20/20 hindsight--looking back at discussions like that thinking, Oh, I could have said such and such. That's part of the challenge of these kinds of meetings. We're hoping to make a decision, sometimes that's not the best attitude or approach to take going into it. Because wanting something often gets you the opposite. If we were more open about, Okay, questions have been raised so let's take some time to consider those, and have a little more discussion, rather than trying to move this through tonight in the meeting time we have.

So I continue to learn about those kinds of things that don't turn out the way I would think is in our overall best interest.

HD: So back to the issue of--before we mounted the teeter totter, I asked you how much time you were spending campaigning, and it's a relatively small amount time. If you are elected, you're going to have to spend more than a half an hour a day ...

SB: ... [laugh] ...

HD: ... even if you took a minimalist approach to the mayorship. John, at the forum talked about that--based on the charter there's a lot of latitude to take either a more active or a quieter role as mayor. But even if you chose to take the quietest role possible, it would amount to more than half an hour a day. So what are you going to have to shuffle around in your life to make room for your service as the mayor?

SB: Well, the first thing is that our house renovation will be done in another month or so--a month and a half.

HD: So you are actually putting time into that in terms of wielding a hammer?

SB: No, but we are the general contractor. Actually my partner's intention was for her to be the general contractor and when you're partners with the general contractor you are also the general contractor. [laugh] So that takes time. And we are living out of basically two rooms and a basement bathroom at this point in time. So it eats up a little extra time because of that. One of my clients creates ballots for elections, and this is their busy time of the year. So I am on call 20 hours a day, almost. I was working at midnight last night responding to their needs and again this morning because they are in their crunch time to get things out ...

HD: ... so they are in the business of actually printing ballots onto pieces of paper?

SB: Right.

HD: And I'm guessing they use a database to do that--so that is your business, you make databases sing and dance?

SB: Basically.

HD: Can you give me any sense of what kind of crises come up on your end? Is it: Oh my god, the database is only in Microsoft Access format and it needs to be in SQL?

SB: No it's not at that level. It's more like: Here's a feature we didn't use in the last election and now were running into a problem because other changes affected it. And it needs to be debugged, basically. Or, the county that we are doing this for might request to have certain data exported in a certain format--Steve, can you set that up for us?

HD: So you're working 20 hours a day on this, or did you say a week?

SB: I didn't say either! [laugh] I'm not working that much but I'm on call.

HD: So you have to be constantly available.

SB: They could call me at 8 in the morning or they could call me at midnight or e-mail me at midnight. That's not for this whole time, but that was the case yesterday. I'm overstating it somewhat, but that is just another piece of the puzzle right now.

HD: But what you're describing, though, is a scenario where every time around election season your work life gets especially busy.

SB: Well, right now, because I'm not mayor. If I were mayor, my job would change considerably.

HD: So if you became mayor, then this particular client would fall by the wayside or you would assign them to a different person within your company, is that the deal?

SB: We would work out one arrangement or another. We could hire another programmer to support them. I would probably be supporting the bare minimum needs of some clients.

HD: But in any case--this one client notwithstanding--after the election that would be less of an impingement on your time. It would free up time for you to do mayoral stuff.

Listen, is there anything else you absolutely wanted to get off your chest and onto the teeter totter? Topics that we have not explored that you think it would be a shame to miss out on the opportunity to discuss?

SB: Well, to follow up that question a little bit, one of the things I'm doing is setting up appointments to meet with people in the community and talk up with them about what they think it would be good for me to learn in terms of serving as mayor--folks at the county level, and the city level, that deal with the issues ...

HD: ... so you've got a list?

SB: I've got a list. I met with Michael Ford of the AATA. I've got an e-mail out to Jim Kosteva at the University of Michigan, the community relations person. I'm waiting to hear back from him. The county person that I was referring to is Mary Jo Callan ...

HD: ... the office of community development ...

SB: ... Michael Appel of Avalon Housing, I want to get together with. And the list goes on. And it's a matter of time, and that's a learning process and that's something I want to put the time into. Whether I get elected or not, it'll all help me understand better and I'll do what I can in the community better because of what I learned. So that's going on.

HD: So Stew Nelson, when he ran for city council in Ward 2 had a list of 100 people.

SB: I don't have a list of 100, but there are a number of people that I think it at least makes sense for me to have a conversation with. Otherwise, what else to talk about. A lot of the focus has been on me being an environmentalist. Ryan Stanton's article took that kind of angle on the debate, and it's understandable why people see me that way ...

HD: ... because you're the chair of the environmental commission.

SB: My focus now is more on the financial crisis, and I've been reading daily to learn about that and to learn more about what we might be in store for that ...

HD: ... but this is a financial crisis as it relates to the consequences of peak oil and climate change, right?

SB: No, not necessarily. Because we are in a credit crunch, we are increasing our debt right now. Although a lot of individuals are starting to pay off debt, as a country we are more tapped than we have ever been, probably. So it's not necessarily tied to peak oil. And that could be more of a reason for concern that it's not [tied to peak oil]. It's going to be bad enough when oil prices rise or we don't get the net energy out of extracting oil from the ground--but in addition to that we're in a cycle of 30 or 40 years where currency starts to have problems and that's something I'm learning about now.

So it could be like a combined--like I said in a comment that I wrote on The Chronicle the other day--it's like a depression with a twist. The depression is coming potentially because of the financial situation, the twist is peak oil. We have been through the Great Depression and we have been through other depressions--sometimes inflationary sometimes deflationary. And this situation, some people who have studied that history say it'll be like this one or it will be like that one. And there are disagreements--I'm reading about both sides inflationary and deflationary. But we have not been through a situation where we have started to lose this cheap abundant fuel at the same time.

HD: So the label "environmentalist," if that is too simplistic, I'm trying to think of a different label ...

SB: ... I used to go with Green but then Green got co-opted into meaning just environmentalists. As a member of the Green movement, we talk about social equity, and community based economics. I mean what do you call yourself? I started thinking of myself as an advocate for sustainability, because that tries to cover those areas as well.

HD: I was going to suggest "student."

SB: Student?

HD: Yeah.

SB: I'm okay with that.

HD: I mean based on the fact that--the way you've described it--your interest in the financial crisis and other topics--you talk about, I've been reading about this, I've been studying that--the one common thread about stretch word across all your interests is you're willing to study and read. So I'm going to tag you with the label "student."

SB: I can live with that. [laugh]

HD: Thanks for coming over to totter!