An Interview with Steve Bean

Like so many Ann Arbor voters, I’ve been wondering this season, “Who is Steve Bean and why is he running for Mayor”?  Actually I’ve known of him for years and read his comments online, so had some ideas about his interests.  But it was a surprise to see him run for Mayor, since he has seldom been involved in elective politics and seemed, frankly, to be a “mayor’s man”.  (This may be what caused Leslie Morris to comment early on that he was running as a sort of back-up for Hieftje, should he lose the primary against Pat Lesko.)

Bean has continued to be somewhat elusive, to an ongoing chorus of complaints.  He was barely mentioned in’s endorsement of Hiefje for Mayor. Perhaps the best explication of his thinking to date has been the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s report of the League of Women Voters’ mayoral debate. His campaign website is, to put it delicately, minimalist.  So I decided to invite him to answer some interview questions.  I am presenting them unedited except for a couple of comments.  They are not aimed at getting a comprehensive position statement, but rather at understanding the original question.

1. What made you decide to run for Mayor? Was it a particular issue or a broad sense of new directions needed?

My decision came about more with regard to ways of thinking and focus than a question of direction. Ann Arbor is where I choose to live because of what we have here, including each other, and what we’re doing to make it a better place to live. While I see some issues that I think we might benefit from taking more time to address and others that we would benefit from a greater focus and accelerated action on, on the whole I think we’re a community that’s willing to move ahead with open minds and general agreement on what we’d like to improve, if not always on how to go about it. As I learned years ago, our values are mostly the same–it’s our perceptions that lead us to believe that we’re more different than we truly are. That understanding, along with many other thoughts about how to strengthen our community led to my decision to run.

As for issues and direction, I had identified several areas in recent years that I’ve come to think I could contribute a unique and useful perspective on.

First, I realized that I could bring the broader context of the financial crisis, peak oil, and climate change to decisions about community investment in infrastructure and systems as well as other public policy. More on that below.

Second, the concepts of sustainability and community resilience are gaining attention within our community, and I’ve been working to keep city government connected to those efforts. Concurrent and balanced consideration of environmental quality and social equity along with economic vitality is something I can offer so that we develop comprehensive approaches to issues. Developing resilience, meanwhile, will likely require a different way of thinking than most of us are used to.

Third, over time I’ve seen an erosion of the public trust due to several actions by city council that weren’t addressed in an adequately open way. I’d like to rebuild that trust. Also, with regard to community resilience, diversity (and an appreciation of diversity) is an important component of that quality. I’d like to make the effort to include all thoughtful perspectives and constructively challenge those that are divisive.

Finally, having served as a commissioner for many years and gotten increasingly familiar with city operations through that work and other community involvement, I felt ready to offer my skills, knowledge, and experience to the community in another role. If Ann Arborites would like for me to serve as their mayor, I’m ready, willing, and able. I love Ann Arbor and I love working on public policy, and this is what I can do to express that in a meaningful way.

2. You are currently chair of the Environmental Commission. How long have you served on the EC? The city website lists your appointment as expiring in August 2010. Have you been reappointed?

I’ve served on the Environmental Commission since its inception in 2001. My appointment has been renewed by city council (it’s not a mayoral commission) every three years since. As of our regular monthly meeting on September 23, it hadn’t been done. At that meeting I was nominated to again serve as chair, but the election of officers was postponed.

In addition to serving as commission chair or vice-chair for much of that time, I serve as chair of two standing committees (Sustainable Communities and State of Our Environment Report) and as a member of four others (Transportation, Natural Features, Solid Waste, and Water), all of which meet monthly, though the Solid Waste committee has been on hiatus for most of the past year.

3. Describe the one or two most important accomplishments that you can claim as a result of your tenure with the EC.

I’m most pleased with the outcome of my efforts in leading the State of Our Environment Report committee to develop and recommend to city council a comprehensive set of guiding principles and ten environmental goals for the city, which council subsequently adopted. Since that time, the committee has also developed a web site of environmental indicators with the assistance and work of city staff and interns, primarily Environmental Coordinator Matt Naud. The site is informative and educational, and it can serve as a tool for policy-making and setting priorities. I was pleased to learn recently that staff have put the goals to use in the Capital Improvements Plan (CIP) process of evaluating and prioritizing projects. I’ve also subsequently suggested that we explore expanding the range of the goals to address social equity and economic vitality in order to cover those aspects of sustainable community.

A second effort, which I initiated, was a recommendation that city council establish a property tax abatement policy–in particular, one which included criteria requiring that applicants be businesses that somehow move our community toward sustainability, however we might set them. To that end, part of the recommendation was to enlist experts in sustainability to assist with designing the criteria. In the year or so just prior to that time city council had granted two property tax abatements (the first one for Pfizer) in the absence of an established policy. My thinking was that if we’re going to grant them, let’s have a policy in place first, and let’s also use them wisely to attract businesses that would make a lasting, broad, positive contribution to the community. While council did create a policy, no one outside council was consulted (to my knowledge), and it fell somewhat short of my vision. Council has since granted several (three at most, I believe) abatements, and it hasn’t been obvious to me that the sustainability criteria were considered. (You might have seen my recent comment on the annarborchronicle article about the latest one.) If elected I would ensure that they are fully addressed and perhaps bring the ordinance back for review in order to improve it.

4. You are also on the board of Think Local First. Would you please describe any of your activities and/or accomplishments related to that position?

I’ve been a fairly active board member in the first year and a half of my two-year term. (Members are limited to three such terms.) In addition to actively participating in our monthly meetings, where I think I successfully offer leadership and creative input, I’ve participated in many events either organized or sponsored by TLF. Examples include tabling at outreach events, greeting guests at our membership appreciation meetings and local currency public forum, calling members for renewal reminders, and simply attending speaker and film presentations. I also have provided proofreading of our electronic newsletter and input on our web site.

If you happen to know any of our board members, or our executive director, Ingrid Ault, I imagine that they would be happy to share their thoughts on my involvement. I invite all members of the community, whether or not they own or are employed by a local business, to consider becoming an individual member of TLF as I am.

5. Please list any other memberships or appointments that are relevant to your campaign for Mayor.

The only other “membership” that I consider relevant is that I’m a resident of Ann Arbor. As an independent candidate, I don’t have any political affiliations or ideologies. My intention is to represent all members of our community and consider all reasoned suggestions for improving our community and moving forward into a challenging future together.

While you didn’t ask, I think it’s relevant that in the past I have worked for AATA, Recycle Ann Arbor, the Ecology Center, and the University of Michigan, as well as having attended the University. In addition, my volunteer contributions span many organizations over many years. I’ve been an engaged citizen since my student days at U-M in the mid 1980’s. My web site lists my involvement on the “Experience” page.

6. You have often commented in public (most recently on the Ann Arbor Chronicle) on an approach called The Work. Could you explain what that is about, why it is important to you, and how it would influence your approach to governing?

The Work, also simply referred to as inquiry, is a concept developed by a woman named Byron Katie Mitchell (who is known as Byron Katie and goes by her middle name, Katie.) It’s a means of questioning stressful thoughts against reality and finding new perspectives. It’s composed of four questions that are applied to a stressful thought:

1. Is it true?

2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?

3. How do you react when you believe that thought?

4. Who would you be without the thought?

The questions are followed by what Katie calls a turnaround in which the judgment that triggered the thought is turned back to the person making the judgment (you), which often will expose the reality that you are the one most able and empowered to do what you expect of others (to oversimplify it a bit.) Katie’s mnemonic is, “Judge your neighbor, write it down, ask four questions, then turn it around.” (Katie does The Work with prisoners, holocaust survivors, and just plain unhappy, angry, scared, or otherwise confused people, all over the world. Information and online videos are available at her web site:

I came across Katie’s work in an article in Ode magazine in February of 2008. It referenced her first book, Loving What Is, which I immediately picked up from the Ann Arbor library. When I got it, I read it almost straight through in a day, finishing it the next. It was exactly what I had been looking for for years: something that explained why people behaved the way they do that’s not loving (because they’re confused) and how I could learn to see that (confusion) in myself and find freedom, happiness, and humility through a simple mental process. I’ve since learned that inquiry is a form of cognitive therapy, which is a very successful form relative to many others. It made complete sense from the outset (with one minor exception that I’ve since come to understand) and has only become more true for me with experience.

The list of things I’ve learned–primarily about myself–from Katie’s books on The Work is long. I’ll share just a few:

– Everything happens for me, not to me.
– People judge each other, it’s just what we do. (So I take things much less personally than I used to.)
– Everyone has stories, many are stressful, and some aren’t.
– Your business is your business. (I still sometimes forget that.)
– My most important business is my thinking.
– Stress is a signal (of confusion) and a welcome one, because it leads me to freedom from it in the future.
– I love reality. (Except when I don’t, and then I do The Work.)

I see The Work as a potentially valuable tool for helping us to mentally prepare as a community for what we might otherwise consider to be hard times. I see it as having potential for policy making for its ability to bring clarity to any thought process. In my experience, questioning thoughts helps to identify false assumptions and similar pitfalls. It’s a useful tool, and like all tools it has its place and use, which I would intend to keep in mind as mayor. So I imagine that I’ll continue to use and practice inquiry regularly (it’s become quite automatic for me) for myself and also reference it in discussions of community issues. I’ll also gladly share what I’ve learned with anyone who’s interested.

7. Again, based on your public comments in the past, you seem to be concerned about the effects of a near-term drop in the availability of oil. Please expound on how you perceive that issue and how you see it affecting the future of Ann Arbor.

I’ve been studying the concept of peak oil for about seven years, including attendance at three multi-day peak oil conferences in Ohio and Michigan. During that time I’ve continued to seek out thoughtful, objective, comprehensive, data-based analyses of the phenomenon of peak oil and the related economic and technological implications and interconnections with it. I’ll be adding some links to some useful peak oil resources to my web site.

In brief, the term peak oil refers to the one-time maximum amount of oil produced (extracted, actually) in the world. The United States had its own peak oil moment in 1970. All other oil-producing countries will experience a similar peak. After the peak, oil production begins to decline, never again to reach that level, though it might temporarily increase somewhat.

Peak oil has several key implications:

– When the peak is reached, approximately half the oil that once existed is still in the earth. However, because the largest, most easily accessed fields are the first ones found, and most others include the highest quality oil, what’s left is the hard-to-get, low-quality oil, such as that under the oceans and in arctic regions, oil sands, tar sands, and so-called oil shale. So while oil production might initially decline at a rate of 2 to 4% per year, the net energy obtained will decline faster than that.

– The net energy returned by oil, while once more than 100 times that needed to extract it, now has dropped to 10 or less. When (or likely before) it reaches 1, the effort will no longer result in useful energy. Much of what’s in the ground will remain there simply because extracting it would require too much energy.

– Oil exporting countries often subsidize domestic oil use, for example, by artificially keeping gasoline prices low. This gives them an incentive to use more than they otherwise would. Also, at some point, their production will no longer exceed their domestic demand, so they will likely stop exporting and simply begin to increase the domestic price. So while there may still be oil production occurring in various countries, oil importing countries will be shut off before the obtainable reserves are used up.

– No matter the price of oil, the supply cannot ever again reach the peak level after the peak has passed. (Yes, that’s a tautology, but the premise is important and makes it more than just a statement of the obvious.) Peak oil is a geological and physical phenomenon, not an economic one. (By the way, I studied physics before switching to environmental policy at U-M. I’ve read statements by others that economists and engineers don’t always ‘get’ peak oil right away. From what I’ve seen, and my own experience, physicists do.)

In terms of the timeline, the peak for conventional oil may already have occurred. Why the “conventional” qualifier? Because unconventional sources like the Alberta tar sands are producing increasing quantities. However, keeping in mind all the implications above, the net energy of that effort, because it relies on conventional oil to fuel the extraction activities, may be less than if we just used the conventional oil directly for other tasks.

I won’t go into the economic implications of peak oil other than to say that we will likely experience one or two more price spikes before supplies go into a more steady decline. Whether prices will fall or rise after that will be determined largely by the state of the economy and the extent to which deflation outweighs the price impact of the supply/demand differential.

At the city government level, the most relevant issues are those related to our investment in infrastructure for cars, since by far the largest use of oil in this region is for transportation. (While our food system is heavily reliant on oil, city government has limited control over that area.) My involvement began with downtown parking and mass transit when I was a member of the city’s energy commission. (My interest began earlier, as a U-M student and part-time employee of AATA.) Now, as a member of the environmental commission’s transportation committee, I’m participating in the examination of the design and sustainability of our street system. I think that’s a subject for later and will focus instead on the parking issue as a more relevant starting point.

As I’ve said in past public comments, peak oil equals peak parking. There might be somewhat of a delay, but I think ample information indicates that the latter will closely follow the former. That’s the main reason I questioned the wisdom of the city’s investment in the underground parking structure next to the downtown library. (Other reasons included greenhouse gas emissions implications.) If oil exports could cease within the next 25 years (for just one, possible data point), what sense does it make to build something of such capacity that will have an intended lifetime of 50 years or more? For all we know, the demand for parking might not have exceeded the anticipated rate of loss of other downtown parking spaces (if indeed the economics of developing the surface lots ever becomes favorable.) If the large investment had instead been directed towards demonstrated effective incentives, like the go!pass and park-and-ride system of the getDowntown program and AATA, might we have continued to meet the parking demand even as the supply declined? The reality is that we can’t know, so we’ll make the best of whatever the future brings.

Editor’s note: Bean’s statement doesn’t quite make clear his role in opposing the underground parking structure under the South Fifth (Library) parking lot.  Here is his statement from February, 2009.

During the discussion of this matter, several city council and DDA board members raised the straw man of “people are going to keep driving and parking downtown”. Of course they are. A decline doesn’t imply an immediate end. Likewise, some suggested that we’ll just switch to electric cars in the future. Again, true to an extent. However, the combination of peak oil implications is such that economic activity (i.e., jobs, shopping, etc.) and vehicle miles traveled can’t be maintained at past levels while simultaneously transitioning the private vehicle fleet (i.e., our cars) to run on a different source of energy that is far less energy dense than oil.

The city’s agreement with the university, in the form of a memorandum of understanding (MOU), to develop phase I of the Fuller Road Station, which is primarily comprised of a large parking structure, raises similar questions. Interestingly, the mayor apparently thinks that the fact that the city would own the structure is a good thing, given that he signed the MOU.

To varying degrees peak oil will have implications for all city operations, service provision, and infrastructure maintenance. If we don’t understand those implications we’re not likely to make sound, long-term decisions regarding those functions and how to allocate our limited resources to address the challenges they pose.

8. Are you familiar with the concept of localization? What is your response to it?

I’m familiar with the concept, and my response is to welcome it wholeheartedly. I see it as an intelligent strategy (or practice) that’s within our power as individuals and a community to implement in order to address the instability and negative impacts of and on the larger systems—economic, energy, food, political, ecological, etc.—of our state, our country, and the world.

That’s a long-winded way of saying that localization makes sense and will benefit us. In some ways it might also benefit people around the world whom we have inadvertently exploited or whose cultures and local economies have been disrupted or reshaped by globalization. Of course, as is suggested by the name of Think Local First, localization isn’t an exercise in self-deprivation. Think local first and then make your choice. We’ll still enjoy many things that aren’t available from local sources. And we’ll know that they’re not available from local sources because we’ll have asked and looked and encouraged their development before looking outside the community.

Localization is a sound approach to food production, energy capture, water protection, job creation, recreation, health care, and much more.

Editor’s note: This concept has been much discussed in recent years as a response to the loss of inexpensive energy, i.e. the peak oil problem. Here’s what Thomas Princen said about it at a conference:  “Localization may be a logical outcome of the disappearance of a one-time, historically minor period—i.e., the age of abundant, highly available energy…the central question of our time will not be how to enact global management schemes for global change, but how to ensure a process of localization that is peaceful, just, democratic and ecologically sustainable, and do so at all levels, from the local to the global.” Princen is a professor at the University of Michigan who teaches a seminar on localization.  A good introduction to his thinking is his 2005 book, The Logic of Sufficiency.  Many of us are looking forward to the forthcoming book, Localization: Adaptations for the Coming Downshift.

9. Toward what decisions and directions would you attempt to lead the City Council if elected, based on your answer to #7 and #8?

In general, if elected mayor, I would attempt to lead the city council toward well considered, fully explored decisions based on the best available information and adequate community input. I’ll always do my best to be objective and open minded, and I’ll question any statement that I perceive to be otherwise. I’ll invite council and the community to explore possibilities and options before we decide, so that we all are comfortable that no reasonable alternative has been overlooked or avoided and we’re moving forward together.

I would ask that city council members learn about the complex implications of peak oil for our community and consider them in our deliberations, when appropriate, giving attention to any assumptions that might be exposed as faulty when looked at within that context. While we can’t know the future, we can make choices informed by the likelihood of various possible outcomes.

For one example, I would work with the council, the DDA board, and AATA to further enhance the benefits to our community from our extensive investment in our bus service. Some of us might not realize that the $3.00 round-trip bus fare is a marginal cost that’s in addition to what we’ve already paid through our property taxes (via a designated millage for AATA.) The parking cost vs. bus fare comparison becomes more interesting in that light. As with other millage-based programs, we have the ability to structure the funding request (millage rate) to the community in creative ways that help give us all clear economic signals that reflect the environmental and social impacts–both positive and negative–of the service.

On the other hand, Lao-tzu had this to say:

For governing a country well
there is nothing better than moderation.

The mark of a moderate man
is freedom from his own ideas.
Tolerant like the sky,
all-pervading like sunlight,
firm like a mountain,
supple like a tree in the wind,
he has no destination in view
and makes use of anything
life happens to bring his way.

Nothing is impossible for him.
Because he has let go,
he can care for the people’s welfare
as a mother cares for her child.

From chapter 59 of Tao Te Ching, A New English Version, translated by Stephen Mitchell (coincidentally, the husband of Byron Katie Mitchell.)

10. Please mention with brief discussion any recent or near-term decisions by the City Council where you would seek to change direction if elected Mayor (if this was not already answered in question #9).

On a different note than the above responses, as you know from previous discussions, I question the value and legality of the city’s Percent for Art program (for art in public places.) Beyond the legality question, is art tied thematically to the source of funds what we want? Is it limiting? Is it even art? (I think it can be.) Is one percent of city capital projects the amount we want to set aside for this purpose? Will it be every year? These and other questions are, I think, worth exploring as a community. Then we can vote on whether and to what extent we favor investing in public art as we have in public parks, for example.

As mayor I don’t believe I would have the ability to prevent the consideration of a resolution along the lines of the recent one regarding the Arizona immigration policy. A motion and a second are in the hands of city council members.

11. You have acknowledged that you are “not a politician”. Nevertheless, some have pointed to the lack of a visible campaign as evidence that your candidacy is not a serious attempt to be elected. Some have even speculated that you ran as a backup candidate in case Mayor Hieftje was defeated in his primary. What is your answer to these statements?

Before getting to your question, I’ll say a bit about what I mean when I say that I’m not a politician, because I think it’s not obvious. The only thing I’m attempting is to inform Ann Arbor residents of the way I think about things. I have less of an agenda than simply an approach. My integrity is more important than my occupation. To the extent that I ever want anything from anyone, I’m confused. I learned that. Sometimes I forget that and I suffer. Sound like a politician?

The reason people think that I ran as a backup candidate is that they didn’t think to question that thought—or ask me. It’s an understandable thought, and it’s not true. If they didn’t believe that answer when I shared it, it probably reflected that they have trouble trusting people who run for office, and it’s no wonder. The truth is that John and I have known each other since before he was first elected to city council, not as close friends, but as people with common interests that crossed paths occasionally. My candidacy has next to nothing to do with John. He has served the city well as mayor, and I look forward to doing likewise, only differently.

Others have asked why I chose to “run” as an independent candidate. I’m an independent thinker and I don’t belong to a party, so it seemed obvious and right for me. As I’ve told those people who’ve asked, it wouldn’t be within my integrity to join a party in order to run for office.

What constitutes a serious campaign? Asking for votes? Planting yard signs? Planting more yard signs than the other candidate(s)? Taking down yard signs? Criticizing the other candidate(s)? Misrepresenting the other candidate(s)? Asking for money? By the way, I’ve received $0 and will close my campaign bank account and post office box for lack of need. Not that people don’t want to donate, I just didn’t ask. I have no doubt that I could have raised several thousands of dollars if I had asked. To what end, though? To print brief phrases and nice photos on paper to mail or leave on doorsteps? I’m confident that the residents of Ann Arbor are capable of finding the information they need to make their decision, should they choose to vote. What I’ve devoted my attention to is preparing to serve the community in a new capacity, and it’s a serious effort.

12. Make a concluding or summary statement here if you wish.

If my life were less full these past eight months (in part with making those preparations), I would have liked to have met more people and talked with them. I enjoyed (for the most part—early July was hot!) collecting the 300+ signatures in order to get on the ballot. The best conversations were often the longest ones…and sometimes the shortest ones–and especially the ones that were about what we could do differently that could make a positive difference. If elected, my intention would be to have many meaningful conversations with you good people. If it turns out that my life is still so full that I’m not able to fulfill that intention, I imagine that you’ll let me know when it’s important by making an appointment to see me.

(Bean completed the statement with an invitation to all to contact him through his website or at

UPDATE: See the recent news story about Bean on  It includes pictures of Bean riding a bus.

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One Comment on “An Interview with Steve Bean”

  1. Thanks again, Vivienne, for giving me a venue to share at length.

    Coincidentally, I’ve been re-reading The Logic of Sufficiency in recent weeks (though I set it aside in order to finish some other books.)

    For those readers interested in the reference regarding the assessment of The Work’s value, you can read about it here:

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