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Great Lakes Article:

Environmentalists are snubbed
Activists shut out of greenbelt committee criticize Ann Arbor council

By Tom Gantert
The Ann Arbor News
Published June 8, 2004


Two of the area's most prominent environmentalists were snubbed by the Ann Arbor City Council as it appointed the advisory board that will play a key role in deciding how millions of dollars in greenbelt tax money is spent to preserve open spaces in and around the city.

Doug Cowherd, co-chairman of the Sierra Club-Huron Valley group, and Bill Hanson, executive director of the Washtenaw Land Trust, were both originally nominated to serve on the nine-member Greenbelt Advisory Commission. Their names were left off the list of nominees approved Monday night by the council, with almost no public comment.

Both men are recognized as playing a big role in helping win approval from city voters in November for the 30-year, half-mill property tax. Cowherd loaned the pro-greenbelt campaign $60,000 of his own money.

The advisory commission will have considerable power in shaping the landscape of the increasingly development-pressured suburbs of Ann Arbor. Though the city council retains final approval of land and development-rights purchases, the commission will recommend how a projected $84 million in revenues raised by the greenbelt tax will be spent.

The commission approved Monday includes Mike Garfield, director of the Ecology Center; Albert Berriz, CEO of real estate investment company McKinley; Jennifer Hall, a conservation scientist with The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota; Dale Lesser, a farmer from Dexter; Victoria Pebbles, a senior project manager at Great Lakes Commission; Laura Rubin, director of the Huron River Watershed Council; Dan Ezekiel, an Ann Arbor middle school science teacher; and Sylvia Taylor, a biologist who is retired state member of the Department of Natural Resources. Bob Johnson, D-1st Ward, was picked to be the city council representative. The length of terms vary from one to three years.

Council members said they held most of their discussions during their Sunday night caucus, which is not televised, rarely draws many residents and gets little news media coverage.

The council voted 8-1 to approve a resolution brought forth Monday by seven council members. Council Member Kim Groome, D-1st Ward, arrived late and missed that vote. Council Member Chris Easthope, D-5th Ward, was at a wedding.

The only public comment before the vote was from Johnson, who briefly protested the omission of Cowherd and Hanson and announced he would not support the resolution.

Johnson had forwarded the resolution at the last meeting, which had upset some on the council who wanted an opportunity for discussion before having to vote. Everyone on Johnson's original list made the commission save Cowherd and Hanson. Ezekiel and Rubin were added in their place.

After the meeting, many on the council refused to give specific reasons for omitting Cowherd and Hanson, saying it wasn't fair to single out individuals.

"There are a lot of very good environmentalists in the community," said Council Member Jean Carlberg, D-3rd Ward. "The two people we nominated (instead of Cowherd and Hanson) are excellent environmentalists. It was a case of too many good people to choose from."

Cowherd and Hanson didn't attend Monday's meeting. But when contacted at home, both were critical of the council for how it handled the vote.

Cowherd said he, Hanson and Garfield have led three land preservation initiatives in the last five years that were strongly supported by city residents.

"Most of the council members did nothing to make those campaigns successful," Cowherd said. "Now, those same council members have voted to reject representatives of two organizations that have led all the land preservation ballot initiatives over the last five years."

Cowherd said Hanson is the only person who applied for the commission who has experience in land preservation deals. Hanson's Washtenaw Land Trust is a private nonprofit corporation that works with area land owners to buy land and development rights.

Hanson said he came home Monday, turned on the TV at 8:45 p.m. and was surprised the meeting was already over. He said he first thought the council had postponed the issue until its next meeting.

He said he was disappointed the discussions about nominations were Sunday night and that most residents were given no explanation on why certain people were picked for the commission. He said most people expect council business to be debated on Monday nights.

"I'm puzzled," Hanson said. "In a community like Ann Arbor, one would expect there to be more public comment and public debate about the makeup of such an important commission."

Hanson said it was "appalling" that Cowherd was left off.

"There would not be a greenbelt program today were it not for his leadership and tireless work on this proposal," he said. "It is discouraging that Sierra Club and Washtenaw Land Trust are shut out, especially since the people slamming the door were never really on board with the greenbelt to begin with."

Mayor John Hieftje defended the council's actions.

"It was a collaborative effort," the mayor said. "You need to make compromises."

When asked why Cowherd was left off, Hieftje said, "I don't know."

Council Member Leigh Greden, D-3rd Ward, also said he wouldn't comment on individuals.

"This is an outstanding group ... with experience and drive," Greden said. "I'm confident they are the best team for the job."

 

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