Exit Interview Part One: Mayor John Hieftje

Ann Arbor mayor John Hieftje's October announcement that he would not seek re-election marked the beginning of the end of a remarkably long mayoral career. Originally elected in 2000 after just one year on the Ann Arbor City Council, Hieftje has since been re-elected to seven consecutive terms.

Presiding over the city through the Great Recession, Hieftje has seen major victories, like the 2003 passage of a millage funding Ann Arbor's Greenbelt. More recently he's faced increasing opposition from city council on issues like pedestrian crosswalk rules.

In part one of our exit interview with Hieftje, we asked the mayor to reflect on his time in office and share his plans for his remaining months on the job. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
What are you hoping to accomplish in your last year in office? 
I think there's probably going to be a little room now to add a few people to the city. At one time the city had 1,004 employees, back when I got there around 2000. And we're down to 680 now, doing the same work. The city has become incredibly efficient, but I think during the recession we went down maybe a little lower than we needed to. So that's going to be a careful process in the next year.
Can you offer any specifics on which positions the city could use to add back?
Crime in Ann Arbor is at an all-time low, so I think the area we've been focusing on for quite a long time is the nuisance crimes in the downtown area, and how to better police that -- aggressive panhandling, for instance. The DDA is working on a plan to have what are called Downtown Ambassadors. Whether or not there's a few police officers needed will be something I'll be looking to the police chief and the city administrator for their recommendation on that.
What will you be disappointed about if you do not accomplish it in these final months?
I would say there's more work to be done in transit, but I think there's progress. One of the big issues that I see facing the community in years ahead is gridlock from traffic. Are we going to continue to grow jobs and welcome people to Ann Arbor? If we're going to do that, then we have to admit that there's going to be increasing traffic and congestion. By about 2020, 2023, 2024, according to the computer models, we really begin to face some serious gridlock where you're waiting through four or five light cycles to get through intersections. I think we need to invest more in transit, and that'll include improvements in the bus system. It'll also include rail. And I think the table has been set by the federal money for rail.
What are you proudest of looking back over your time as mayor? 
I would have to say that it's the efficiency we've achieved with government. [When I came into office] I went to the council and I said, ‘We need to downsize. The government is fat and we need to slim the bureaucracy.' I thought we probably could afford to make a 20 percent reduction, and it turned out it was 30. That last 10 percent, I think, was the Great Recession, and the need to do that. But moving forward early on to make those changes really was what saved us in the recession.
What do you think was your lowest point as mayor?
I think there were some things in the midst of the recession, and one of those things was public art. We had some activists that I worked with to try to elevate public art and give it some funding. We had a lot of other things going on at about the same time that we provided a funding stream for art. We kind of left it hanging out there for the citizens on the commission and they did their best, but they didn't have the proper staff support. So I would say that's one that I regret not paying more attention to.
Although you've remained popular with voters over your time in office, folks have increasingly voted in city council members who are hostile to some of your policies. What do you make of that?
Things change, and frankly, I think some people went out of their way to create some myths that some people have bought into. One of those was that, somehow, we didn't have good public safety. Well, all the numbers, all the data points exactly in the opposite direction. Ann Arbor's one of the safest communities -- college communities, particularly -- that you can be in. I don't think there was ever any cabal of councilmembers, which was another myth. It was just people who saw that they needed to make some strong decisions to get the city through some tough times, and they did that. Overall I think council will continue to work things out for the better, and I don't feel any diminishment because we've had some changes on council. 
Why do you think the myths you mentioned took hold enough to shift people's perceptions so significantly?
I think that the ability to disseminate information was greatly affected when the Ann Arbor News stopped their daily delivery. I had a lot of disagreements with the Ann Arbor News. I didn't think it was a great paper. I think there were better decades than the last one they had, so I think there was a diminished amount of fact out on the street. But I still think that most people recognize, for instance, what a safe community we have. The primary system is susceptible when you have 12 percent of the people voting. I can remember in the primary of 2006, I was fortunate that the voters backed me strongly. But had someone been able to get 5,001 votes, they would have been the mayor of Ann Arbor because there were only 10,000 votes that year. So with the primary setup we have and so few people voting, I think that allows a candidate who sells a message and gets a few people excited to get elected.
What lessons do you hope the next mayor will draw from your 14 years in office?
I think it would be a huge mistake if they let the bureaucracy balloon again. We've proven that you didn't need 1,000-some employees and I hope they keep watch on that, because you never know when the next downturn's going to come. As the economy improves, our CFO's predicting we're going to have an extra $450,000 to spend in the next year. But I would hope that, again, they keep an eye on that and don't let it get out of hand, because that'll be a temptation as revenues come back. 
Next week in part two of our exit interview, John Hieftje discusses the long-term outlook for some of his political endeavors and for Ann Arbor in general.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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