Sabra Briere interview, 7/27/07 (updated)

Sabra with flyer, interviewer

I had the privilege of interviewing Ann Arbor City Council 1st Ward candidate Sabra Briere interview around 9-ish in the evening, at Sweetwaters in downtown Ann Arbor, on 7/27/07. The interview is more-or-less verbatim, barring repetition or such.

(Correction: I initially put below, “S: Oh the Sudan genocide is of great matter to you.”, but it should, of course, be “S: Oh, the Sudan genocide is of great matter to me.”, so I have corrected it below, along with some spelling-type issues.)

DB: Nice to meet you! It’s SAY-bra, not SAH-bra, right?

SB: That’s right! I’m named after my father’s great-grandmother… Sabra is the princess saved by St. George from the dragon, and also Sabra Holt.

D: Who’s Sabra Holt, I’m sorry?

S: That’s my father’s great-grandmother.

D: Is that similar to the term of the same spelling for native-born Israelis or just coincidental?

S: It predates it but it’s from the same part of the world. St. George was busy fighting dragons in the Middle East, and that’s where he rescued the princess.

D: So what made you decide to run for the 1st Ward of Ann Arbor City Council?

S: Bob Johnson decided not to run for re-election.

D: Now, what problems or issues might the 1st Ward have that other wards don’t?

S: Hmmm…well. …There’s a good chunk of downtown in the 1st Ward, and a good chunk of North Campus. So, things that affect both town and gown affect the 1st Ward. A lot of people who worked at Pfizer live in the 1st Ward, and that’s going to be a big impact, too.

D: Have you gotten Bob Johnson’s endorsement yet?

S: I never asked for Bob’s endorsement, but Bob did wish me good luck.

D: Has he endorsed anybody?

S: No.

D: How are you more in the tradition of “Mr. Quality of Life”, Bob Johnson, than the other candidates are?

S: Mmm…(laughs). That’s a great question. Nobody’s ever asked me that. I’ve never thought of myself that way. …I guess I’m very committed to thinking about how the changes that we will make in Ann Arbor will affect how we live. So while I support change, I think change often has unintended consequences, and I want to think about those consequences before I make changes. …If that makes me more concerned about quality of life than others, so be it.

D: What is a strong point of your rival, and former 1st Ward councilman, John Roberts?

S: He’s a team player.

D: How about a strong point of Richard Wickboldt?

S: He has good instincts for issues.

D: How about of you yourself?

S: Good point for me? It’s harder to talk about myself. I’m very straightforward and I’m very loyal. Though I don’t know if loyalty is a good point or not, it’s just true.

D: Can we talk about your husband, influential local citizen David Cahill, or is that off limits?

S: Oh, you can talk about David.

D: He seems to get a rough time from some of the local pro-developer urban-planning blogs, as if he’s the Geico Caveman or Ann Arbor’s Official Enemy of Change or something. Is that fair?

S: He seems to not let that bother him, although I don’t really read blogs, so I’m not certain what all gets said. …He’s not a Luddite, although sometimes I think he delights in taking an oppositional point of view for the fun of it. He acknowledges that he loves the new libraries, and that he sees himself as a developer when those library branches get built. He doesn’t like change for the sake of change, but he thinks buildings have to have a greater purpose. He really believes that they have to serve a social good, and that they have to be beautiful.

D: Your website at says you want more groceries and such downtown. How would you accomplish this?

S: One of the things that we do wrong is assuming that we need a big everything. We don’t need a big grocery downtown, we can have smaller groceries. They don’t have to be a Kroger, just a decent small market or two in the downtown area as we begin to have more housing, we could handle a few small markets.

D: Okay, and what would you do on AACC to bring those small markets?

S: That’s probably a bit more problematic, because that’s the type of thing where you actually have to fight prevailing downtown rents. Prevailing downtown rents are very high. We have to look at where we have successful alternatives. We have a market at South Main Market. We have Kerrytown Market. We would have to find a way to encourage the creation of a market district in some sustainable location in the downtown area. People forget about those two market areas, on both sides of downtown. They’re not grocery stores, but they’re market areas. But the biggest issues is prevailing rents.

D: Enough about urban planning. I think it gets overemphasized in local blogs and discussions, compared to issues like getting more police and reducing crime. To that effect: there were, I was checking the Ann Arbor city website for police statistics, and saw something like 6 rapes, 126 assaults (in various categories), and 75 burglaries in January and February of this year…that’s respectively, 6, 126, and 75 more than we need in this city. What will you do to put more police on the streets here, or is our crime rate acceptable?

S: No crime rate is acceptable (laughs), but we’ve got a real problem with issues of the police, because our city council is so focused on the facilities problem that we haven’t fixed the facilities, and I find that really shocking. I’ve heard how the juveniles are in detention with hardened criminals, I’ve heard how domestic violence suspects and victims are paraded near each other. These are serious issues, but they’re being used as justification for building the new court and jail facility. We may need a new court and jail facility, but we need to fix the facilities the police are working in now. We also need to think about the conditions the police are working under, so they feel better about their jobs. We’ve just told the police we value their time so much we’re going to have them patrol the parks looking for dogs off leash.

D: On that note: should the AACC have spent all that money on the new courthouse recently, when that money could have been used to retain police positions? Why do they do things like this? Who can stop them?

S: The council has been advised that they really need to spend this money, and so as a group, not as individuals, they have agreed to do things this way. I sound skeptical because I am. I feel that we’re in tight economic times and that we need to be very frugal, and spending money on the design and the consultants for the building, that could have been spent on repairing the court we have, seems unwise. The county has excess court space, and although we’ve all been told we all must make our own court space by 2008, there’s no way we’re going to that with this construction schedule. So I’m just not certain quite what we’re gaining in the short term, and in the long term we’re spending a lot of money on something I don‘t think we need. But then I’m not on council.

D: Not yet! (Briere laughs)

D: Sudan: the Michigan state House has just approved a Sudan divestment bill re the genocide and other criminality there, in Darfur and elsewhere.

S: How wonderful.

D: However, it’s not binding on Michigan colleges, cities, corporations, or citizens, I think, just the state pension fund. As you may know, I myself have long been trying to get Ann Arbor to pass a divestment/non-investment pledge, just like Providence, Rhode Island (home of Brown University) and other cities have passed. But our city has refused to do anything about the Sudan holocaust at all. Would you draft or co-sponsor such a measure if you were on City Council, or is the Sudan genocide of no matter to you?

S: Oh, the Sudan genocide is of great matter to me. I’m shocked to learn that we invest…

D: I’m not sure we invest, but as has been noted by Sudan activists: even if we’re “clean”, there should be no problem in passing a pledge not to invest in Sudan in the future. So, regardless of whether the Ann Arbor government turns up Sudan investments currently or not, a divestment/non-investment pledge is still necessary, I think. Does that make sense, or not really?

S: It makes sense…lots of people don’t think Ann Arbor has any business having a foreign policy. We had a foreign policy when we took a trash truck to Juigualpa in Nicaragua. We certainly had a foreign policy over South Africa, when we divested. And I remember how long it took to divest from South Africa. Dave, I would seriously consider it. I will make no commitments, because I’m not on Council, and I won’t make a commitment for what I can’t follow through on. Talk to me after I’m elected.

D: You recognize, of course, that this has nothing to do with divestment from Israel–despite some people‘s paranoid reflexes at the word “divestment“–, and that Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League are now supporting divestment from Sudan?

S: I recognize that. We’re talking about a certain specific situation.

D: Coalitions. –Have you thought of running on a joint reform slate with Mike Anglin and LuAnne Bullington, who are challenging incumbents in other wards, or is that not something that appeals to you?

S: It was not something I considered. Mike was running long before I considered running. I’m not certain when LuAnne started her campaign. I think each of us came to the election cycle from different angles. We’ve certainly gotten to know each other since the campaigns started.

D: How are Ron Suarez and Steve Kunselman doing? Are they fomenting worthy change or not?

S: I think Steve Kunselman is; I think Ron Suarez is trying. Certainly, both of them are voting their hearts and their minds, not voting somebody else’s party line. They’re voting as individuals.

D: Is John Hieftje doing a good or bad job, and why?

S: John’s a rule onto himself. He’s very charismatic. He has led Ann Arbor into an environmental consciousness that I can’t imagine anyone else doing. He is not, perhaps, as clear a leader in other areas.

D: Elsewhere in our region: is John Dingell doing right by discouraging Nancy Pelosi’s efforts at having Detroit make more fuel-efficient cars, or not?

S: Ah…well! The tension about fuel-efficient cars and Detroit will last a long time. I’m afraid as long as it lasts, many of us will be buying cars that aren’t made by the Big Three. This will hurt the Big Three, but if that’s what it takes for them to listen, that’s what it takes. I drive a Honda! (laughs) It gets 40 miles to the gallon.

D: And as for Washtenaw County: any comment on what you would like to see change, if anything, re the sheriff’s department, or prisons?

S: Boy…the good news is that it’s become less dangerous to drive while black. That’s really good news. A few years ago, you could be arrested while in the county and driving down the street. The bad news is that you can still be arrested for being black and young. And that disparity is very difficult to tackle, though the sheriff’s department is more aware than it used to be.

D: How do you feel you could promote development as a council member, without over-development or ruining the pleasant quality of Ann Arbor?

S: With good planning. With sticking to a proper master plan. And with considering the organic nature of development, rather than each development as if it were isolated.

D: I have also been urging the AACC to consider having a live webcast of their meeting, like various Michigan cities,…

S: I’ve seen you there!

D: …and maybe even Washtenaw County, have now. Yet they have resisted, for no reason I can discern. What does this say about them?

S: They don’t understand the technology, I think that’s probably really up there. They figure that AA community television is sufficient, that’s probably also part of it. They’re Luddites (laughs).

D: Would you commit to having AACC install such a thing, or not?

S: I think Ron Suarez would be thrilled, and I’d work right with him to do it.

D: On a similar note: what does the “people’s revolt” of public commenters re the Avery project say about AACC?

S: When people in the neighborhood are very good about organizing themselves, with pictures, and posters, and presenters, and decent arguments, it appears the council listens. But in truth, Council was persuaded ahead of time. Council knew that development was wrong for that location. But the perception that council is swayed by that type of presentation makes it look that council is subject to whim and emotion. That appearance is unfair.

D: So you don’t favor mass public demonstration like that?

S: Absolutely, I do. I just know Council’s made up its mind ahead of time..

D: Emotion is not always a bad thing though…

S: Not at all. Council responds to knowing it’s coming.

D: Stormwater. There is some controversy about how the city should handle stormwater. How would you handle it?

S: Umbrellas don’t count? (laughs) Every new construction has to keep the storm water on site, whether that’s a single building, or a sub development. This eases our aging stormwater system. But it’s not enough. We’re now asking homeowners to help more with new stormwater rates, where homeowners are charged based on their impervious surface, so we offer incentives to them to reduce their impervious surface or to add rain barrels, rain gardens, or retention ponds. These things will also ease the burden on our aging stormwater system. The next thing we should do here in downtown Ann Arbor is to build the Greenway and to make those 3 pocket parks, so that when we get the heavy rains, they can be the overflow areas for the Allen Creek, and begin to balance out the flow for that drainage system. But our entire stormwater drainage system is aging, and at some point we need to replace it; and that’s something our budget is not prepared to handle. That’s our next challenge.

D: Ypsilanti. What could they do better there, or, conversely, what could we learn from them?

S: Ypsilanti was too dependent on the auto industry. When the auto industry fell apart, their jobs disappeared. They’ve been unable to attract an alternative employer. Michigan Avenue is empty of anything but cars. Depot Town is a destination, but there’s nothing to do other than Depot Town. I work in Ypsilanti, so I speak from knowledge here. So Ypsilanti needs what AA knows it needs, and that’s diversification.

D: The University of Michigan is dealing with a scandal now re the selection of public commenters at a UM Regents’ meeting about the luxury box plans. Any thoughts, or does it matter how badly UM acts in Ann Arbor, since it is an autonomous entity by law?

S: (laughs) I’ve been a public commenter at Regents’ meetings–I think it always matters that UM should be an example. But then again, I don’t go to football games.

D: Since we’re Ann Arbor, should we have a big Arbor Day celebration which could draw visitors and income (as I‘ve mentioned at AACC meetings), or should we refuse to take advantage of our city name and “Tree Town” image?

S: When I was a little girl, I wanted to go to Holland, Michigan for the tulip festival. I’m not a little girl any more, but I’d really like to go to Holland, Michigan for the tulip festival. Ypsilanti has lots of car festivals, I don’t know how we could do it but a tree festival makes perfect sense to me if we could do it.

D: Speaking of trees: should we plant more? Or not?

S: Yes. We’re way behind in our tree planting. We lost a lot of ashes.

D: That’s about it. Anything you would like to add?

S: It was lovely meeting you.

D: Same to you! Thank you so much Sabra! Best of luck in your campaign!

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