This (Ar)blogger was delighted to have an e-mail interview with about-to-be Washtenaw County Commissioner, recent UM graduate Yousef Rabhi.
One asked him 10 questions plus a bonus question, and he graciously answered. (Though it took a little while, since he was busy campaigning and all) The 11 questions are below, each followed by the corresponding answer from the Commissioner-in-waiting.
One can check previous Arblogger posts about some of Yousef’s previous “adventures”, e.g., the 4/8/07 post “Mary Sue’s Death Proof Planet of Sweatshop Grindhouse Terror; or, ‘Pharaoh Coleman, let my people go!’”
There has been some small editing of Rabhi’s responses by the present author, for minor matters like spelling, punctuation, or spacing. Also, the question 4 answer contains the material from several attempted answers, minus a clarification question extraneous to the answer.
1) There is perpetual controversy about whether the Ann Arbor City Council is being overly submissive to the University of Michigan or not, whether on giving up land to UM or what-have-you. Is there anything you can do on the WashCoComm board to promote balance and fairness between the “town” and “gown” (city and school), or is that exclusively the province of the AACC instead?
YR: City council has certainly not flexed its muscle on this issue. As the University continues to take property off of the tax rolls, both the City and County are losing valuable tax dollars that could go towards funding vital services. It is important to note that the city is attempting to find ways to address the fact that the U of M and its associated activities present a burden on city services (roads, fire, police). I have heard proposals to increase city wide water rates. Though this would affect all residents, the University is the largest water customer in the city. Ultimately, I believe that there needs to be a more visible collaborative effort between the University officials and the City and County. The University has many resources that could be useful to the effort of local government (i.e., research). On the other hand, the City and County provide services to the University. I hope to begin meeting with University officials to get a sense of what their goals are and to notify them of mine.
2) “Arbor Update” died, perhaps killed by A2Politico and the energy of the dialogue (sometimes monologue) there. And the mighty Ann Arbor Is Overrated is over, too. (RIP) So do you think there will be viable blogging and/or electronic debate about local AA/Washtenaw issues in the future, and where and how so? (Partially answering my own question: I’ve noticed the recent arrival “arborblahg.com“, a name which sounds very suspiciously like the name of this older blog we’re writing on right now…)
YR: I sure hope so! We need a public forum where folks that come from ALL different sides of the issue can come together and debate! There is no such a place these days, which is rather sad… democracy thrives when people talk, get riled up and make change! I must say though, that I am firm believer in face to face contact. I love the internet/blogging/Facebook but I want to sponsor some forums irl too! As a matter of fact, one of my campaign goals is to have fairly regular community forums to let people know how their taxes are being spent and to see what folks feel about how their government is being run. In my mind it is impossible to solve our many issues at the County, or in any government for that matter, without the serious input and expertise of the citizenry!
3) “Wow! It must be a rush to be a student and be poised to actually win real-life political office, huh?” –Also, any comment on other students running for office, say, for UM Regent, etc.?
YR: Being a student official-elect is quite a rush indeed! It is not every day that young folks have this opportunity. My biggest piece of advice is to get involved. Too many students come to Ann Arbor and view it as a temporary layover before they get a job elsewhere. The more involved you are with local processes and people, the more support you can get when election time comes! I will also say this: if you feel strongly that public service is something that you want to do, do it. Don’t hold back. But make sure that your inspiration to serve is not selfish. Don’t do it for the fame and glory. Do it because you think that you can contribute.
4) Are you going to avoid “”"borrowing”" campaign signs from yards like His Honor, John “no middle name (cf. https://secure.ewashtenaw.org/campaignfinance/userViewFile.do;jsessionid=89C6BD066CFFB000CEB879885B321E3E?filename=%2FPDF%2FC-2000-0510027.pdf ) Hieftje did? “Dude freaks me out!!”
YR: My focus throughout the campaign was on engaging voters. Signs are a necessary part of winning local races, but at the end of the day it’s about how you engage and empower the people in your district. At no point did I feel that having my sign near my opponent’s sign was bad. I had and still do, have a great relationship with my former challengers! I even had a sign up in the same yard as an opponent (the house had split support). During the general election in particular, I took great pride when I could put my sign in a yard with Republican signs.
I purchased 500 yard signs and 350 wickets. By the end I ran out (!). That’s a lot of signs! I re-used some of the wickets from yard signs that I had from 2008.
5) Are you concerned that politicians, and others, may try to take advantage of your “youth and inexperience” when you’re seated on the board, or do you think you’re on top of that?
YR: That is definitely a concern of mine, and quite a complex issue. I intend to be my own person at all times on the Board of Commissioners and moreover a representative of the people of my district. I will never forget that, at the end of the day, the public voted for me and I have no reason at all to be subservient to any other force or interest other than that of the people of my district and the county. But, I believe that cooperation is important for any governing body. There will be times when I need to compromise and make sacrifices, and times when I stand firm on my beliefs. The trouble for me is whether or not I will be able to see the line in the sand. It seems like it could be tough to know when I am cooperating and when I am being led like a sheep. That’s where the public comes in. A loud and active citizenry is the most tireless and true watchdog that anyone could ask for. I will listen not just because it is the right thing to do, but because I want to make sure that I am not going against my own beliefs.
6) I forget if WashCoComm meetings are televised/streamed live. If not, can you make it happen?
YR: The meetings are actually televised! I am not sure that anyone watches. Maybe we should have jugglers come before the meeting to attract viewers…The meetings are also on the County website!
7) Back to “A2Politico”: that online sheet has been bashing a lot of WCC members and practices lately. What do you think you can do to preserve peace and civility on the board (and one applauds your own public call for civility (cf. http://www.voterabhi.com/issues ), but also promote transparency and keeping commissioners’ perks in line (or even wiping some perks right out of existence like Kristin Judge has judged is wise?)?
(And on a separate note: a comment on the A2P post “The Politics of Power: Out-County Commishes Stage Board Take-Over” claims your “Fu Manchu m[ou]stache” provided your world-famous 2-vote winning margin. True? Or just another slanderous allegation in the devil’s den of brutalitarian Ann Arbor politics?)
YR: a) Civility is not the norm on the BoC. There are many conflicts over issues and personalities. I believe that personal attacks have no place in politics. From both sides, I have heard countless attacks and complaints. These issues need to be addressed. I hope to be somewhat of a peacemaker on the Board. Personally, I can’t stand having enemies, it makes me nervous. I want be on everyone’s good side, whether they are weak or powerful. As long as I can be myself and try to maintain civility with everyone, I believe that some of this bickering can be transcended.
b) As a Commissioner, I intend on promoting a transparent County. I will begin on a very local level. Within my district I want to have citizen planning meetings to map out what my constituents want out of the next two years. On an ongoing basis, I intend on having neighborhood meetings where I can update my constituents on what I am doing and gain feedback from them. In addition, I want to have district wide informational meetings where I share information about the structure of the county and try to relate how County government and services work for my constituents. I want folks to learn as much as I am! Finally, I am considering holding citizen caucuses prior to the BoC meetings.
c) I am confident that my mustache got me at least two votes. It is quite incredible to me that someone with such out-of-the-ordinary facial hair won an election. I thought that that alone disqualified me. Back in the old days, facial hair was a pre-requisite for being a public official. I get facial hair tips from the old men in the pictures at Old Town.
8) What’s your major, anyway? Any interesting ideas for life after college? –I think both Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson were student body president at their respective colleges, but you’ll have a REAL political office while still in school [or just after graduating, one has learned after sending Rabhi this question], so maybe you’ll get elected Pope or something?
YR: I am graduating with a Bachelor’s of Science in Environmental Studies, with a specialization in Urban Planning and Ecosystem Management. In addition to a heavy curriculum in ecosystem, biologic and geologic science, many of my classes focused on land use law and planning issues. Additionally, I took many classes on social issues associated with urbanization. My specialization deals in part with the re-incorporation of native ecosystems into city-scapes in order to alleviate various urban issues. Among the potential advantages of effective ecosystem management in the planning process are reduced storm water issues, increased air quality and decreased heat island effect. Essentially, this specialization deals with recognizing the importance of ecosystem services and incorporating them into cities.
I did run for the Michigan Student Assembly twice during my first year at UM. I lost both times, but that didn’t stop me!
9) Here you can ask your own question, and answer it. (Sort of a “mini self-interview”)
YR: As a continuation of your question 7, what is my stance on the cutting of Commission’s perks?
First I will say that it is my firm belief that democracy only works if any individual, no matter how rich or poor, can choose to serve. People often attack the salaries of elected officials, but forget that the less we pay our elected officials, the more restricted public service will be. If County commissioners were not paid, only the rich could afford to serve. No one is getting rich off of Commissioner salaries (~$15,000 a year), but it allows for a diversity of citizens to serve, not just those who can afford it.
However, in addition to the salary, commissioners have access to a $ 3,000 flex-account. From this account Commissioners can claim per-diems (may be claimed for attendance at BOARD APPROVED meetings, including the Working Session, the Ways and Means meeting and the Board meeting), and can reimburse travel expenses for attending conferences. Though it is still unclear to me how these benefits work, certain commissioners may receive health insurance from the county as well. Finally, all mileage to BOARD APPROVED meetings can be reimbursed.
On this note, Commissioner Judge put forth a proposal to cut health care which would have saved a few thousand dollars a year (not sure of the exact figure, maybe around $6,000) for the county. Her proposal died for lack of a second. A few weeks later, Commissioner Gunn proposed to eliminate all per-diems, travel and millage expenses saving, potentially, over $30,000. Voting with the majority, Judge opposed this plan. At the next meeting, Commissioner Smith proposed (but did not bring to the floor) a halving of the flex account. Personally, I believe that since we are entering a budget cutting year, the BoC needs to show its willingness to make sacrifices. Considering my beliefs on commissioner compensation expressed above, I do not believe that either Commissioners Judge or Gunn’s proposals was good. But given the state of our budget cutting our benefits is necessary. I am in favor of eliminating per-diems to the BoC meetings, the BoC Working Session and the BoC Ways and Means meeting. Attendance at these meetings is part of the job and should be covered by the regular salary. I am in favor of cutting the flex account accordingly. I applaud both Commissioner Judge and Gunn for bringing forth this issue.
10) So whaddaya think of Mary Sue Coleman? There’s scuttlebutt that you, ahem, spent a while in her office at one point…
Is it really the best idea for the Regents to give her a 3% raise while the university has now fallen out of the top 25 in the U.S. News rankings–and as the football team ain’t doing so hot lately, just as in the last three years? And any other comment about the way that UM is going under the leadership of “I’m So Not Lee Bollinger” Coleman?
YR: On that note [perhaps referring to the budget-cutting stuff in answer 9--ed.], President Coleman should not have received a raise from the Board of Regents. There are plenty of good programs starved for money that could have used those funds.
Despite my past experiences with President Coleman, I am confident that I can build a positive relationship with her. I knocked on her door during the campaign (she lives in the district!), but she was not home. I intend on setting up a meeting with her soon. If she won’t “take demands from students”, perhaps I can talk to her as an elected official.
I hope to work with the U and President Coleman on a variety of issues (green energy, homelessness etc.). For too long, the university has just been an island in this town. I want there to be more communication, more dissemination of information, more collaboration. Coleman can be a part of that.
11) And now the million-dollar question (drum roll): with all this campaign stuff, you’re just getting ready to take Dingell’s seat one day, aren’tcha? Admit it! Confess!!
YR: Dingell is great! But when/if he decides to retire (in case you were wondering, he is immortal), I would like to see Lynn Rivers run for the spot. My aspirations for now are in Local government, because the local level is where the voice of the citizens is heard the loudest!
Loud and proud indeed!
Well, that was an interview all right! Best of luck Commissioner Yousef Rabhi!! And a transparent and sustainable New Year to all!!!