Tom Ziarko, husband of Sterling Heights councilperson Barbara Ziarko, passed away June 12 after battling lung cancer.
I met Mr. Ziarko in the parking lot of Hatherly Elementary school this past November on Election Day. He was there in support of his wife’s re-election bid; I was there in support of Mayor Pro-Tem Michael Taylor’s effort. As the day wore on, we engaged in a lengthy conversation, and probably spent the better part of five or six hours talking over the course of the day.
As acquaintances go, Mr. Ziarko’s and mine was a short one, but even in a few short hours I knew he was someone I enjoyed being with. A longtime Chrysler employee, Mr. Ziarko shared in my passion for all things Mopar, and a good chunk of our time together was spent discussing that company’s recent history of being acquired and merged twice over the past couple of decades. We talked about the products, our ownership experiences, and people we both knew who were associated with the company. It was good conversation.
As people who read my writings here might recall, prior to the 2011 election I opined that Mrs. Ziarko might be replaced by better candidates, a recommendation I have later come to regret. As Mr. Ziarko was a reader of this blog, this came up in our conversation. It was a remarkable point in our talk for the grace and equanimity with which he treated the subject. Had I been in his position meeting someone who had written something like that concerning my own wife, I could scarcely hope to later handle it with such poise or kindness. I looked at Tom in that moment and told him he was a better man than I, and I sincerely meant it. It is rare for me to meet a person who so impresses me. It was perhaps the most gentle lesson in humility and respect I have ever had and one I will not soon forget.
I did not know Tom for years and I cannot claim we were friends, but I am saddened by his premature death; he is someone I surely would like to have had the opportunity to know better. I believe he was a good man, and I extend my heartfelt condolences to the entire Ziarko family on their loss.
Point blank: if you’re truly for freedom, liberty and equality, you’re for freedom, liberty and equality for anyone and everyone, no questions asked. Anything else is authoritarianism disguised as morality.
As regular readers of this blog probably know, it has been months since I have published a post. I’ve had some big changes in my everyday work that have made big demands on my time.*
I remain plugged in to events in and around the city, however, and when the issue of this ordinance came up, I made the effort to attend the meeting and have my say. I feel it’s incumbent upon me to comment here as well. The issue is too important to ignore.
As I said last Tuesday, homosexuals have been part of humanity since antiquity. Their reception by the heterosexual majority depends on the culture they find themselves in and the vagaries of history, but nonetheless they have always been with us. We happen to be at a turning point in our history as a nation here where it has become permissible for homosexuals to identify themselves as such and agitate for fair treatment by the rest of us. Personally, I think this is a good thing.
My reasoning is simply that oppression is abhorrent. We wouldn’t tolerate discrimination against racial groups, religious groups, or national groups in matters of employment, housing, or public access, much less open discrimination. Such discrimination is clearly immoral, it creates the conditions for hostility and violence, and it is patently un-American in my view.
Why then would it still be okay in 2014 to discriminate against homosexuals? And why then were there so many folks claiming to be Christian turning out at last week’s meeting to protest and say that was exactly what they wanted the “freedom” to do? Are these people not aware that their God, Jesus Christ, embraced the lepers, the prostitutes, the poor and the disaffected? Do they not know that the Golden Rule applies to the least among us as well as the mighty? The hypocrisy and tone deafness astounds me.
Several others attempted to make the argument “there’s no discrimination of this sort going on in Sterling Heights!” Since when have the omniscient among us felt the need to come to City Council meetings? I should think that the all-knowing who can be so certain that no discrimination against LGBTs is taking place here would be spending their time stopping traffic accidents before they happened, winning big in Las Vegas, or perhaps making a killing in the stock market. I am saddened and amazed by the “logic” that these folks employ.
Discrimination is subtle. Discrimination is pervasive. Discrimination is part of the human condition, and if an especially pernicious form of it arises, good people everywhere need to stand together to stamp it out.
I stated at the meeting and will repeat here that I am acquainted with several folks in the gay community. I have a few observations: first, not a single one of them would have chosen to be gay, lesbian or transgendered considering the reaction society has toward them. Of course there are some who have come to terms with their homosexuality and have moved beyond acceptance of their plight to advocacy for their rights, but this is not the norm. These folks want to be left alone to lead their lives as they see fit, just like any of us do.
LGBTs would not be asking for or publicly supporting ordinances and laws such as this if it wasn’t necessary. I reject the idea that this is some sort of attempt to throw their increasing political weight around. If you looked at the people at the meeting the other night and saw what I did, you would understand this was not something these folks were doing for fun. In a very real sense, it was obvious these people were fighting a grave injustice against perceived long odds: you could hear it in the quavering of their voices and see it in the fear in their eyes. For most of us, taking on City Hall is a trial, not a hobby, and these folks are no exception.
I can’t claim to understand the motivations of the people who spoke against this ordinance the other night. I have my doubts that anything they dared to say in public represents their real feelings, but that’s idle speculation on my part. What I do know is this: the freedom that I enjoy in being able to buy a house, get a job, rent a car, eat at a restaurant, or hail a cab is not mine because I’m white, conservative, heterosexual and somehow special. It is mine because I am an American, and freedom is my birthright. I would be just as American if I was black, wore a dress, or had a sex change, and my claim to our collective birthright to freedom would be just as valid. The people who don’t understand that freedom’s availability to all is the bargain we’ve struck in our society as a firewall against the evils of oppression deserve to live without it.
* I’m an experienced software developer who works in Perl, SQL, .NET and several other popular technologies. I am still comfortably employed, but I’m looking for a new job, preferably in Sterling Heights or very close by. If you have a need for a skilled programmer, see my resume here.
In a copywritten news article from the Thursday, December 5th edition of The Macomb Daily, I learned today that Mark Vanderpool has recently withdrawn his name from consideration for the city manager position in his previous hometown of Skokie, IL, deciding instead to remain in Sterling Heights.
Mayor Notte is quoted as saying “We will begin (contract) negotiations with Mr. Vanderpool to keep him here. He pulled us through some real tough times especially when the morale of employees was beat up.”
In the same article, unattributed sources were cited as follows: “Those close to Vanderpool said he previously stated he would consider the Skokie job if he could get the same wages, $240,000, as the retiring village manager in the Illinois city has been paid.”
According to the article, Mr. Vanderpool’s current base salary is $137,217.
Mr. Vanderpool has told me personally a year or so ago that he is planning on staying in Sterling Heights, so the story that he might change jobs came as somewhat of a surprise to me. On the other hand, if I was presented with the possibility of making $100,000+ more per year than I am in my current job, I’d very likely pursue the opportunity and at least see if an offer would be made. Who wouldn’t? $100,000 is a lot of money, and it would make a very significant change in my personal financial situation. I am certain Mr. Vanderpool is no different in this respect.
However, this does raise an important question: is Mark Vanderpool underpaid by a hundred grand? Does Sterling Heights really need to step up the base salary by that much in order to retain him and pay him fairly?
In searching for the answer to this question, I encountered the 2012 edition of the ICMA’s Municipal Year Book 2012, Chapter 6, entitled CAO Salary and Compensation: The Big Picture. The International City/County Management Association (ICMA) conducts annual salary surveys of city managers and publishes those results for communities to use as a guideline in determining how to pay unelected public officials.
There are several ways to view the data presented in this publication, and it goes on at some length explaining why it is presented the way it is, so I won’t repeat that discussion here. Essentially, the response to the salary survey by state is somewhat limited, but there is enough data on a national basis to make reasonable comparisons. State-by-state or regional comparisons, according to the article, are probably meaningless, but a useful comparison can be made by looking across the nation and grouping by municipality size.
The relevant information in the article can be found in Table 6-3, Salaries by Population Size, which I’ve reproduced below:
|Population||No. reporting||Mean ($)||Minimum ($)||Median ($)||Maximum ($)||Maximum minus minimum ($)|
The City of Sterling Heights, with a population of 130,000 residents is considered comparable with other cities with populations ranging from 100,000 to 249,999 residents.
Out of 102 data points nationwide concerning cities with populations of roughly the same size as Sterling Heights, the median salary for the City Manager or his local equivalent is $164,586 per year. Recall that the median point in a set of data is not affected as the mean is by high or low values at the extremes: it simply means that 50% of the population is larger than that figure, and 50% is lower than that figure.
According to this data, Mr. Vanderpool’s salary is smaller than 50+% of the salaries of his fellow city managers who run cities of roughly comparable populations.
How Compensation Should Be Set
The article goes on to outline the ICMA’s guidelines on setting salaries, which I will quote here:
Conclusions regarding Base Salaries
Because base pay is a factor of multiple variables, the ICMA survey can never be definitive in determining what a professional manager should make in a specific local government. Nonetheless, the survey collected data on several variables in addition to population size, including form of government and scope of services provided, and the results provide a range that can serve as a starting point. Given the number of variables involved, ICMA’s guidelines recommend that the governing body engage experts as necessary, whether contracted or in-house, “to provide the information required to establish fair and reasonable compensation levels.”
Such information should be obtained by applying the following steps:
1. Determine the requirements of the job and the experience needed to successfully perform the job duties.
2. Examine market conditions to learn what comparable public sector executives earn. A best practice would be to gather information using predetermined comparable benchmark local governments or public sector agencies.
3. Understand the services provided by the local government along with the nature of the current issues in the organization and in the community, and then compare these with the individual’s expertise and proven ability to resolve those issues.
4. Identify the local government’s current financial position, its ability to pay, and the existing policies toward compensation relative to market conditions.
I won’t pretend to be one of the experts on the salaries of public officials that the ICMA recommends that Sterling Heights engages, but I do have some thoughts regarding this.
First, Mr. Vanderpool was motivated to explore an out-of-state opportunity that might have rewarded him with a very significant salary increase. I find it difficult to find fault with him for that, as I have done the same thing myself many, many times. However, this should be used as an indication of his level of satisfaction with his current salary, which I will assume he doesn’t find completely sufficient.
I recall that Mr. Vanderpool has voluntarily taken cuts in his own pay and benefits during the recent downturn. I also recall that he does get paid more than his base salary would suggest, or at least has in the past.
When I look at the range of the salaries of public officials in comparable cities nationally, I find the fact that our city manager’s pay is significantly below the median — by $27,000 — is interesting and significant. If I were in his shoes, I would find this at least mildly distressing, especially considering the fact that he is currently navigating our city through some very troubling times, and by most accounts is working day and night to do so.
However, I also bear in mind that the ICMA recommends that we examine the city’s ability to pay and existing policy towards compensation relative to market conditions. I recall that Sterling Height’s longstanding policy is to pay more than the average city does, in the hopes of attracting and retaining the best available talent.
We have to balance the fact that Mr. Vanderpool is significantly below median pay for his position with the fact that the city is not out of the woods yet with regard to its financial health. We have just enacted a tax increase to alleviate the pressure on the city’s finances, and it was done with the promise that the police and firefighters would not see large increases as a result. However, the police and firefighters were already considerably above median pay levels before that promise was made, and that is something to bear in mind as well.
I will not earn any “thank you” cards from area Republicans by suggesting that we increase Mr. Vanderpool’s pay, but at the same time I’m not sure the Democrats would be terribly happy about it either, given that anecdotally they see him as “top management” and therefore not worth half his pay just by definition.
As a conservative — defined in this case as being someone who takes careful measure of the circumstances and attempts to match outcomes with principles and goals without incurring large amounts of risk — I have to say that retaining Mark Vanderpool at this point in our city’s history is probably the wise thing to do. I do not believe that he should be compensated in the top 10% of respondents to the salary survey, but I sure don’t believe he should be in the bottom 50% either.
If it was up to me — which it clearly is not — I would suggest that the city adjust his benefits and compensation to a more competitive level, such as $175,000 per year. This would put him firmly in the top 50% without giving away the farm, hopefully provide him with a significant enough salary increase to retain him, and at the same time reward him for the successes he has had over the past several years in navigating the city through some very difficult times.
I spent the day yesterday working in the parking lot at a polling place, handing out literature in support of Mike Taylor and talking with voters as well as cops, firefighters, a union attorney, a union leader, a politician’s husband, and many other folks. I am always happy yet pleasantly surprised to be reminded that people with sometimes different political views still have the same goals in mind, just different approaches and ideas on how to get there. I think this is something that we as conservative-minded folk are afraid to do: learn that the “left” is just like “us” in many important regards.
I believe firmly that if you are an ideologue, a polemicist, or a self-styled “freedom fighter” you’re going to miss important things about the debate you so desperately want to frame on your own terms. You will acquire nothing by preaching to the choir. You will learn nothing by talking to people who “know” all the same things you do. You will achieve nothing towards changing peoples’ hearts and minds by being an angry, vitriolic, hateful person unwilling to respectfully engage people who think differently than you do. I have personally made all of these mistakes in the past. I have been that angry, divisive conservative, the guy who knew it all and was convinced that everyone on the other side was wrong. I didn’t feel like the people on the other side deserved my respect or merited my time to listen to their point of view. I learned this was wrong. Fortunately, I did not have to learn this the hard way.
As far as my own personal principles, there are many I will never compromise on. I maintain that the U.S. Constitution is, and should forever be, the law of this land, and that the freedoms expressed in the Bill of Rights are paramount. I believe in a small, open government that operates as efficiently as possible for the minimum amount of tax revenue it can survive on. I feel strongly that government should yield to private enterprise whenever and wherever possible, and that the most efficient use of capital can only be achieved through a judicious application of the profit motive. I think that laws, ordinances and regulations ought to be minimal, and that they are best applied at the local level instead of the state or federal levels. I remain frankly unconvinced that labor unions still serve the purpose in our society that they were originally intended to serve, and I feel the common man would be far better off in his employment without collective bargaining. I could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the picture.
Despite that, I continue to learn and gain in my appreciation for the fact that human beings are not adequately described by labels such as “liberal” or “conservative”. “Ideological purity” is for ideologues and charlatans. I am always impressed by people with the courage to tell me “I’m a Democrat, and I definitely don’t agree with you on everything, but I read your blog and I have a hard time disagreeing with most of what you have to say.” The ability to recognize that people who are different from you are capable of intelligent thought and a reasoned perspective is something I will no doubt have to work to achieve for the rest of my life. It takes courage. It takes confidence in one’s own convictions. And it takes having the ability to see outside of oneself. I am humbled by the people who do this better than I.
As far as Election 2013 goes, I could hardly be more pleased with the results, even though it comes at a certain, personal expense in the form of higher taxes. Let me be clear: I hate taxes. I hate paying more for the same service I’ve always gotten. I believe that every additional dollar handed over to government goes with the risk of being abused, mis-spent or wasted, and I lament the loss of each one I’ve surrendered that I know has been wasted. I am still going to go ballistic over $86,000 playscapes. I’m going to continue to be skeptical of labor contracts with generous terms. But I am also going to give credit where credit is due: the city has tightened its belt tremendously. The men and women working for the city have gone through a terribly lean time in their employment, and have been forced to do their very important jobs with a decided lack of adequate resources. As an employee myself, they have every last scintilla of my sympathy. It was definitely time to turn things around. The millage needed to pass, and I for one am glad it did.
As for the candidates for City Council, well I am very pleased to see Mr. Taylor retain his position as Mayor Pro-Tem, even if it is largely symbolic. I am even more pleased to see Mr. Smith return to retirement as a private citizen. I will be very interested in seeing Mr. Skrzyniarz’s development as a new member of council. And as long as the other incumbents remain dedicated to moving the city forward and in a positive direction, I say ‘welcome back.’
In regards to Mayor Notte: you have to accord a certain amount of respect to a man who has so thoroughly dominated past races as to be able to run unopposed in an election with a millage issue. Although I have not agreed with him on a number of things in the past and have found some of the things he has done while presiding over the meetings to be questionable, I have also learned that at heart he is very devoted to this city, is willing to extend a hand across the proverbial aisle, and has proven to be a very astute politician. I wish him well in this term. I will be very interested in learning of his plans for the future — both the city’s and his own — and will try to chronicle them here as best I can.
I am rather disappointed by the low turn-out in this election. I think this is something that we as a city need to work together to change. Personally, I think a move to even-numbered-year elections is in order, and although it may be politically difficult to do so, the challenge can and must be overcome. As a blogger, pundit and observer — not a politician — an idea such as this would be difficult at best for me to pursue without the backing of the administration and the politicians, so I may be relegated to just advocating for it, but advocate for it I will. It is worthy of our consideration.
Finally, thank you for your readership. My blog’s page count numbers on election day nearly doubled the previous record set in 2011. I am gratified to know that my efforts are being seen, that my thoughts and research are proving relevant, and my little niche in local politics is that much more firmly established. As you know, I don’t financially benefit from this blog. I don’t know how I could, otherwise I would probably try to do so, being a confirmed capitalist and devotee of private enterprise. So my reward is counted in page views and referrals by readers to their friends, neighbors and associates, and I appreciate every single one. If you find the blog at least useful enough to not print it out and use it as a liner for your bird cage, please pass the website along. Thanks.
Because people are coming to my blog seeking the results of the election, I will republish here the numbers which can be found on the city’s website.
City of Sterling Heights General Election
November 5, 2013
32 out of 32 precincts reporting – plus all AVs reporting.
MAYOR (One 2-yr term)
|Richard J. Notte||16,130|
CITY COUNCIL (Six 2-yr terms)
|Joseph V. Romano||11,646|
|Maria G. Schmidt||12,226|
|Paul M. Smith||8,468|
|Michael C. Taylor||13,172|
|Barbara A. Ziarko||12,211|
Editor’s Note: these results restated in vote number order are as follows:
Michael C. Taylor: 13,172 (retains Mayor Pro-Tem title)
Doug Skrzyniarz: 12,968
Deanna Koski: 12,284
Maria G. Schmidt: 12,226
Barbara A. Ziarko: 12,211
Joseph V. Romano: 11,646
The following candidates did not make the cut:
Nate Shannon: 10,351
Paul M. Smith: 8.468
Congratulations to all of the candidates who were elected yesterday!
CITY OF STERLING HEIGHTS MILLAGE FOR
POLICE AND FIRE PROTECTION,
AND LOCAL STREET IMPROVEMENTS
Shall the Sterling Heights Charter be amended to authorize the levy of an additional ad valorem millage of not more than 2.5 mills for 6 years, from July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2020, for the purpose of providing revenue for police and fire protection, and local street improvements? This 2.5 additional millage authorization shall be specifically dedicated as follows:
- 1.7 mills for police and fire protection
- 0.8 mills for local street improvements
This increased millage authorization will raise an estimated $10,400,000 in the first year if fully levied.
Congratulations to all of the Police and Firefighters who will not lose their jobs next summer!
Due to the demands on my time after having taken a vacation day yesterday to campaign for Mr. Taylor, I will reserve further comment for later in the weeks to come. Suffice it for now to say that I am pleased with the election results, and I am very happy that the residents of Sterling Heights made the decisions they did.
I met a great number of people working at the polling place yesterday and enjoyed nearly every encounter, but I must give a tip of my hat to a few people who educated and informed me and generally made a long day outside more tolerable. In no particular order, I’d like to thank Tom Ziarko, Rob Kovalcik and Jennifer Miller for interesting and stimulating conversation on Sterling Heights politics. I must also say thank you to Mayor Richard Notte and Bob Haase for their generosity in giving someone from the conservative side of the house coffee, donuts and chips. Most of all, I need to extend a huge, public THANK YOU to my wife Angela and my kids for not only putting up with my political obsession but being willing to let me spend a precious vacation day in a parking lot doing political stuff instead of doing stuff with them. Angela, you’re the best! Josh, you’re a heck of a sandwich maker, son! Savannah, you went well out of your comfort zone for your dad, and I love you and appreciate it greatly!
I spoke with Mayor Pro-Tem Michael C. Taylor on Wednesday, October 23rd, and conducted the same interview with him that I have done with Barbara Ziarko, Deanna Koski, Maria Schmidt, and Joseph Romano.
As was the case with the other interviews, we started out with a prepared list of four questions designed for this discussion. Mr. Taylor was then free to choose any questions he cared to answer from a separate list prepared for the Meet the Candidates event. I recorded our conversation, and have transcribed the relevant portions below.
Geoff Gariepy’s written questions indicated with Q:
Geoff Gariepy’s verbal questions or comments indicated with G:
Mr. Taylor’s responses indicated with T:
Q: As a member of council, your role is partially ceremonial and partially deliberative. Which of the two do you enjoy more, and which takes up the most of your time away from council meetings?
T: The one I enjoy more is also the one that takes up more of my time and that’s the deliberative responsibilities we have. I enjoy the ceremonial parts and going to city events and being introduced and meeting people and talking with them and that’s great. I would kind of separate the talking with people from the ceremonial part, but the deliberative portion is really what the job is all about. It’s about, in my opinion, providing oversight to the administration, developing new policies and initiatives that benefit the residents, and providing some value-added to the city. Anyone can go to a ribbon cutting. Anyone can stand on stage and smile and wave. The part I enjoy is the hard part, which is providing value to the residents and that’s the deliberative portion.
G: I get to ask questions in between the questions! Developing policies: do you have many opportunities to do that?
T: Well, you have…it’s kind of like I’ve heard comedians say that every moment of their life is an opportunity to develop their routine. Every moment that you’re awake, you can think “how could this policy be different” or “what are the problems affecting residents, what is a problem affecting me right now, that local government might be able to help fix?” There’s an opportunity at every waking moment to come up with an idea or think. The biggest breakthroughs are just simple little things that you never would have thought of. They strike you one way or the other. Who knows where it comes from, but that opportunity always exists. Where I wish there was more opportunity was with my colleagues, with administration, with other residents, to sit down and try to figure out a better way to do things?
G: So does the open meetings act get in the way?
T: No. The open meetings act is not a hindrance to that, it facilitates it in that it helps bring it out to light. What I’m talking about is taking a meeting with a resident who says “there’s a problem with code enforcement…here’s my issue.” Then at an open meeting saying “I met with a resident, there’s this particular code enforcement issue that should be addressed. Here are some ways we could do it better, what do you guys think?” Can administration offer anything? I’m not talking about doing it behind closed doors or trying to change things without the public knowing, it’s having discussions away from the council table as long as you’re bringing it to the full council and debating and discussing it there, there’s nothing wrong with that.
G: When you talk about value-add to the city, you’re talking about the deliberative skill that you bring to the table?
T: Yeah, it’s a skill, it’s not something that just comes naturally. It’s something you have to work on. It’s something you have to study, you have to see the way other cities do things. You have to keep your eyes and ears open at all times. You have to talk extensively with residents to see what their concerns are. Then you have to take all that information and figure out a way to change city policies to improve upon them. Or, to introduce new policies that we never had before that improve the lives of our residents. It’s a skill that unfortunately I think most politicians just ignore, because it’s not necessarily a skill set that you need to get elected, but it’s a skill set that you need in order to be successful.
G: Can I put you on the spot and ask you about a policy that came about this way? That you put this sort of an effort into and had some results?
T: Well, sure. There’s been nothing really ground breaking, but I would say that the big policy or initiative that I’ve championed in the last couple of years was the boards and commission process. The boards and commissions were chosen in a way I didn’t quite understand. When I was first elected, I showed up to a council meeting and there were fifteen choices to be made, and each choice had seven or eight candidates, and we breezed through the 15 choices in a matter of minutes, and I wasn’t sure where the nominations were coming from. It appeared that somebody had spoken with these candidates before the meeting, and it was just a rubber stamp once they were up for approval. So I spent a lot of time looking at the way other cities do things, talking with residents to see if they felt that was the proper way to do it, talking with administration to overcome the challenges, just the practical concerns of changing it, and then I brought up some alternatives to my colleagues on council. It took a long time, but eventually we hammered out a new process that I think works better than the process we had before. I think it provides more transparency to the residents.
G: Is it more formal?
T: Yeah, it’s more formal. The process now is that for what I would call our most important boards and commissions, the planning commission, the ZBA, the ordinance board of appeals, the board of review and the pension boards, there is a nomination process where a candidate is nominated and then two weeks later that candidate is either approved or disapproved. It gives more opportunity to question the applicant. We also changed the application process, the written application itself. These are the things that I think that when the residents see that their leaders are doing things to improve transparency, to make things more open, and shine light on these very important boards and commissions, I think that’s something that the residents look at as an improvement.
G: Was it basically in the past that you had to know somebody or somebody had to recommend you for a board position?
T: Honestly, I have no idea! And that’s part of the problem! When a council member doesn’t even know what’s going on, how can a resident know? You’d have to ask a majority of the voting bloc on council. I think what they would say is, I think what I’ve gleaned off of them is ‘you know, so-and-so will say hey, I know this lady who’s applying for Board of Review, she’s a friend of mine, I think she’d be good for that position.’ And the the council would typically go along with that. That’s not a bad thing, and by and large that hasn’t really changed. What it’s done, though, is the residents have the opportunity to see who these nominees are, and if there are any questions about them at the appointment meeting two weeks later, there’s a chance for council and residents to come up and voice their concerns.
Q: When you have to make a hard decision about a matter that has come before council, what do you rely upon to make sure you make the right choice?
T: You rely on number one, your intellect, your ability to research the information, take a lot of information, cull it down to what’s most important, and then really try to figure out which way, which decision is going to be best for the residents of Sterling Heights at large. There’s no exact science to it. The process for deciding whether or not to grant a liquor license is completely different than the process of whether to appoint this person to be the Chief of Police. So you have to draw on a number of skills. Your ability to research, your ability to read, and your ability to get it down to what’s most important.
G: Let’s talk about hard decisions in general. What was a hard decision for you to make?
T: Well a recent hard decision for me to make was the millage. The council voted to put the millage on the ballot. In my mind the decision to put the question on the ballot wasn’t a hard decision. Without additional revenue, the city will have to lay off 45 police officers and 20 firefighters. As much as I’m opposed to tax increases, I think the residents deserve to give that mandate to council before council lays off 65 police and fire. So the decision to put it on the ballot wasn’t difficult. The difficult decision for me was whether to split it up into two or three different parts or to leave it as one part. I’ve gone back and forth on this still to this day. I changed my mind on it two weeks ago; I changed my mind on it a week later. I’m comfortable with the decision to keep it as one question with three different components, but that was a difficult decision for me to make.
G: Obviously there are people who would say “we’ll support the road millage, we won’t support the cops” or “we’ll support the firemen, but the police have everything they need, they can afford a 40 person layoff”. Were you getting pushed and pulled an awful lot by people on that?
T: Yes. Not a ton, but it’s a fair criticism. Somebody says to me “I want to pay for the roads, but I don’t support the police and fire.” Somebody else would say “I want our police, but I don’t want our fire department.” You rarely have anybody come up and say “I wanted all three, so I’m glad you put all three together.” Well, that person who wanted all three even if they were split up could vote for all three. I guess what it came down to was that I didn’t want there to be any more divisions among the residents, amongst the police and fire departments, and amongst the city as a whole. I didn’t want it to turn into residents bashing the police and saying support the fire and vice versa. I felt like they all kind of three go hand in hand and I felt comfortable putting them together. If I had it to do all over again, I’d still put them together right now, although two weeks ago I thought maybe I wouldn’t. What I will say though is that of the three components, two of them are very similar, police and fire, and the roads component is not as closely related as the police and fire are. And, if the millage fails, I’ve said it before, I’ll try to bring back the road millage again at the next possible time, whether it would be August of 2014 or whether November would make more sense, I’m not sure. But I would support that.
G: So here’s the question that I’ve asked everyone. Bringing it back on the ballot is one thing. But you’ve got some room under the Headlee cap. You could unilaterally raise taxes without a vote of the people. And if we were facing a decision between either laying off 65 public safety people or raising taxes, would you consider raising the tax.
T: And this is based on the assumption that the millage fails?
T: Well, look it’s an interesting question because on November 5th, I’m going to go into the ballot box as one of 88,000 registered voters in Sterling Heights, and I’m gonna vote yes. I’m going to vote yes because although I think they’re both really bad options, I think one is worse than the other, the layoffs and the no additional road funding I think is worse than the increased taxes. Now what you’re saying is that we’ve got this space under our Headlee limit that if it fails the council could raise it itself. Now fast-forward…hopefully I’m re-elected on November 5th, and fast forward a week or two, and I say, “well now I’m no longer one of the 88,000 people who gets to vote on this, I’m one of seven, and my vote carries a lot more weight!”
G: Yes, it does.
T: In order to do that, though, you’d have to be going against the direct will of the residents. The same reason I won’t lay off 65 people without a mandate is the reason I won’t raise taxes without a mandate. Without spending an hour talking about it, this kind of takes me back to Political Science Class in college. What is the role of the representative? Is it the role of the representative to just do whatever the 51% of the people want, or is the representative elected because the constituents want that person to use his own intellect to make the decisions as they come up? I think it’s a blend of the two, particularly when you have a referendum on a specific issue, I think the representative is beholden to the interest of the constituents. When you have a clear referendum on an issue and it comes out one way, I think it would be going against the will of the residents of Sterling Heights to then raise taxes in another way. I don’t think it would be fair, and although I don’t believe that laying off would be a better option, I think I would go with what the residents said.
G: Okay, let me ratchet it up a little more. (Say) it was like 50.1%. It was really close, in fact, there was maybe a recount done. Does that change it in your mind?
T: Wow. It’s really close, it just barely fails?
T: You know, I think if that were the case it would be easier to make the argument that there isn’t a clear mandate from the residents, it was a split, half want and half don’t.
G: Then it’s kind of on you guys.
T: In that instance, I might pare back the layoffs and increase the taxes a little bit — not to go all the way up to what we possibly could, but I might entertain something like that. I’d have to see, and it would have to be very close.
G: I guess the reason why I’m asking this–you know with the 1.9 (mil increase in 2010), you guys couldn’t put that to a vote, because it was within council’s purview to make that decision. Apparently the legality is such you couldn’t shirk the duty of making the decision.
T: No. Not true. I don’t know of any reason why we couldn’t have done what we’re doing now back in 2010.
T: Nobody has given me — now, what the administration kept saying was, and what the council kept repeating is that this amount that we’re under our Headlee cap, you can’t ask the residents whether we should raise that millage rate. And I said I completely agree. But I don’t understand any reason why we couldn’t have done the same thing, we couldn’t have said ‘Look, we need 1.9 additional mils to stave of 120 layoffs’ (as) they said at the time. There’s space under our Headlee cap now. There was more space under our Headlee cap then. Why didn’t we just in, say, 2009, put that on the ballot?
G: And do like a public safety millage back then?
T: And do a public safety millage back then. And say “we need 1.9 mils”. The 1.9, the way it’s working now is that while there’s no specific millage dedicated to the police or fire. You could look at what the overall millage is and say this portion goes to the police and fire. But we could have asked the residents back then and we didn’t, and I don’t know why.
G: I think that was probably my single biggest problem with the millage increase. It wasn’t the dollar amount, because the (taxes) were going down every year.
G: But you know, they did a sales job, and that kind of bothered me. The council willingly went along with it to a certain extent.
T: It was not only that, it was …. well, you’re right, the sales job was “look, we’re cut to the bone and we can’t do any more.” Well, look what we’ve done since. Whether you like it or not, we’ve consolidated dispatch into the county. We’ve privatized the jail. We’ve eliminated positions through attrition. We’ve made big gains in terms of retiree health care costs. We’ve eliminated the DROP plan. We’ve eliminated minimum manning in the fire contracts. We’ve gone from four man rigs to three man rigs without a degradation in public safety. All of these things have happened since 2010. And I said, “well, you guys were talking about, well, we already asked for the police and fire to give up their 3% raise for this year and we got them to do that.” Well, back then, getting a union to reduce their rate of increase was a big reform. Now, since then, we’ve done a lot of important reforms, and look, we’re up against this (Public Act) 312 and there’s nothing more we can do right now. I don’t like the tax increase, I hate it. But at least the residents are deciding. At least we’ve made progress. At least we’ve done pretty much all that we can.
Q: Some people would look at a job such as this (being a member of council) as something they enjoy. Some might look at the job as being something they do because they feel they’re the best person for the job, and they do it because it is important, not enjoyable. Do either one of these describe how you feel about being a member of council, or is there a third option that describes your attitude more precisely?
T: I ran for council because I thought I could add something and I thought I would enjoy it. I do enjoy it. I love being on council, and I enjoy campaigning and meeting new people. Standing on their doorstep and hearing their story and their issues and trying to figure out ways to help them is enjoyable to me. Serving people in that way is fun. You know, some people might say (I’m) crazy, but it’s exciting to be on a council like this to be at council meetings, to deliberate on things. That’s a fun and exciting job for me and I certainly enjoy it. You have to have a little bit of an ego to run for political office because you’re basically saying ‘I’m better than everyone else for this job.” What I say is that out of 130,000 residents, I don’t know that I’m one of the six best people for the job, but I’m pretty darn sure I’m one of the six best out of the eight that are running! I want the job, I think I deserve another two years based on what I’ve been doing for the residents. So do I feel like I’m the best person for the job? The voters get to decide that, but I certainly wouldn’t be running if I thought I was a slouch. I wouldn’t be running if I thought the residents could do better. I think I’m one of the better qualified candidates out of the pool that’s running, and I hope they’ll reward me with another two years.
G: You mentioned standing on people’s porches. This is campaign number three for you. Have you done as much door knocking as you have done in the previous two?
T: Honestly, I have not. I don’t know if its a function of feeling more secure about my position now or, you know I could make a number of excuses. But I haven’t gotten out as much I have in the past.
G: Have you fund-raised as much as you did the last time?
T: You know I fund raised more this time just because more people…fund raising is a funny thing. Nobody’s willing to give you much when you’re an unknown unless you’re Doug Skrzyniarz!
G: (Laughing) Can I print that?
T: Sure! (Laughing)
T: Nobody’s willing to give you a lot, and when you do make a name, people are more apt to come throw money at you. It makes it a little bit..you need to stay true to your principles when people are giving you money presumably…some of them give you money because some of them think you’re the best man for the job, and some of them give you money because, hey, they want you to remember they gave you money. That’s just the bottom line and that’s how politics is played. You have to have a strong constitution to make sure that when you’re up at that council you’re not letting anything affect your decision except for doing what’s best for the residents. I feel like when I ran in 2009 I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I won. So in 2011, I just kind of did everything the exact same way that I did in 2009. For the most part in 2013, I’m doing it the same way except for I’ve probably been to 50% of the doors that I did the last two (elections.) So I haven’t gotten out as much as I should, but every time I do it’s one of the more enjoyable aspects of my job.
G: Talk about campaign money. Mr. Skrzyniarz said to me today that probably greater than 50% of his money came from out of town. Are you in the same position?
T: I would have to look. I would say the majority of my money comes from family and friends.
G: And full disclosure, I gave you some money, not very much. You’re the only one I’ve given money to.
T: And I appreciate that. Every bit helps. I spent hours today, literally hours, trying to get a list of people to send my mailer to next week, and you know I’m trying to whittle it down as much as I can. Ten bucks might result in an extra 25 or 30 people getting a piece of mail. So every bit does help. I get a lot from family and friends, they’ve been very supportive and very helpful to me. I couldn’t do it without my close family, my parents, my aunts and uncles. My mom and dad have a friend group that has been very supportive of me as well. So a lot of my money has come from that. More money this year than the other two years has come from people who do business in the City of Sterling Heights, but not a whole lot has come from what you would call “non-related outside interests.” Outside of Sterling Heights….unless you knew me through family or you were a resident of Sterling Heights or a business in Sterling Heights, I would say outside of those sources I got very little money.
Q: What is the most important thing you have learned in your time as a member of city council?
T: Aw, man, what is the MOST important?
G: We’ll settle for a top five list…
T: I think that certainly in the last two years I’ve realized the value of kindness and treating people with respect and having an open and honest relationship with people. If you treat people kindly, and you treat people with respect, there’s a great opportunity for good things to come out of that relationship. Politics is all about making relationships with people, making relationships with constituents, making relationships with your colleagues, making relationships with the administration, making relationships with the employees. Creating policies and creating ordinances and creating initiatives that benefit the residents, you really need to focus on those relationships in order to get things accomplished. If it sounds like I’m talking about Paul Smith, I am. He’s a guy who has a number of good ideas, but his inter-personal skills are so bad that all of the good ideas fall by the wayside. It might not be fair that that happens, but that’s the reality.
G: An obvious question, though, is, it’s not like you were spitting on the floor and flipping off your political opponents before. What are you talking about exactly?
T: I’m not necessarily saying I’ve self-reflected and changed my behavior. I’m saying that…
G: …you’ve seen a bad example and you seek to go away from that?
T: I’m saying that I felt like a lot of that negative energy was directed at me. And I might have made some mistakes along the way, but there was a break-down in the relationship between me and the rest of the members on council for pretty much most of my first term. When you just kind of step away from the personal stuff and say, alright, I’m not going to go around bashing you guys, you guys treat me with a little bit more respect up here, you know, maybe acknowledge that I came in the room, things are gonna work out better here! I think they have. So, what I would say is that I’ve learned a valuable lesson. You really have to treat people with respect in order to get things accomplished in this business.
G: Do you think that your relationship with the members of council that had given you the cold shoulder before is completely repaired?
T: Um, it’s hard to say. I’m not social friends with anybody on council, but I’m friendly with them when we see each other at council meetings or at city events. I harbor no ill will towards anyone on council, and you know, I’m willing to work with anyone to get things accomplished.
G: Fair enough. If we see a couple of new faces on council, do you think that those guys are people that you can get along with?
T: Certainly! I think that they are and I welcome it. Although I respect my colleagues on council now and I wish them all well, I think changing things up is good. I’m not going to tell you who I want them to replace, but I think it’s a good thing for there to be new blood on council every so often. I would have to say outside of me and Paul Smith, the longest tenured council member is really Mayor Notte at around 30 years, and the lowest is probably Maria Schmidt, I think she just had 10 or 11 years. So you’ve got five members on council who have been serving from 11 to 30 years. Joe is probably around 18 or 20 years, Deanna is 22 or 24 years. Things get stale when you don’t have a lot of turn-over. I’m hoping there is some new blood on council. I think these two guys, both of them will be good to work with. Now I said that about Paul Smith two years ago, but I have a good feeling about these guys. I’m not going to publicly endorse one or the other, or put on my campaign literature that you should vote for this one or that one, but I hope that everyone gives a good hard look at these guys.
G: So if Mike Taylor gets stale someday because he’s perennially re-elected…how long will that be?
T: I hope to say I’d never get stale, but it certainly is going to happen. It’s going to happen. When I got into this, I promised myself I wouldn’t get to that point. I wouldn’t get to the point where I’m just going along to get along, or I just became a rubber stamp, or that I wasn’t a policy-driven council member. I don’t know when that would be. You see members of Congress who are in for 30 years…
G: John Dingell.
T: Sure. I was going to go the other way. You see members of Congress who are in for 30 years and they’re still coming up with new ideas, they’re still relevant. And you see members of Congress who’ve been in for 30 years and they’re doing nothing, they’re just holding down a place. I don’t want to become that. I don’t think I’m in any danger this term or the next term. I think once you get to around 10 years on council, you’ve gotta take a hard look in the mirror and say, “am I on council right now for the same reasons I decided to run for council the first time?” I think you owe it to the residents to say “look, here’s why I ran ten years ago, or here’s why I ran eight years ago. Here’s why I’m running now. Here’s what I’ve accomplished in that ten year time. When I leave office, people are going to say ‘here are all the things that Taylor accomplished.’ And after ten years I can say “you know I really haven’t done anything in the last six or seven years” it’s time to step down and let somebody else have a go.
Q: As a member of city council, you either are or would be one of the most visible citizens in our city, and a representative of the public trust. Please comment on how you feel this should guide your public behavior and what responsibilities it imposes upon you.
T: Well, believe it or not, I don’t get stopped very often as a representative of the city or as someone people recognize. They might recognize me and not stop me yet, I don’t know. Regardless, you have to understand that while you retain your rights as a private citizen, a lot is expected of you, and you have to carry yourself a particular way. You shouldn’t get in shouting matches with people. You probably shouldn’t do that anyway. You should maintain a respectful attitude for members of the community and…
G: People with divergent opinions?
T: Yeah, I think you should just be respectful of people, but I’ll tell you what. When somebody has a different opinion than me I’m not going to just…I’m not one of these council members who (when) somebody sends me a nasty e-mail…I’m not going to just give a canned response. I’ll address each point, and if I feel they’re out of line I’ll tell them they’re out of line. But it’s about carrying yourself a specific way, being respectful towards people, having disagreements, yeah you can do that but do it in a respectful way. I guess behaving the way everyone should behave anyways, but being more aware of it.
Q: There is a millage proposal on this November’s ballot that would increase taxes on residents by 2.5 mils. Should it fail, the administration says that there would be significant lay-offs for both Police and Firefighters, with a corresponding reduction in services. What ideas would you bring to the table to mitigate the failure of the tax proposal at the polls, were that to happen?
G: It’s a little different question from what I asked before.
T: I see the distinction. Not to punt on the question, but I think what I would do is I would sit down with our Police Chief and our Fire Chief, and I would say ‘Look, I understand you’re frustrated that this didn’t pass. I know we put a lot of effort, you put a lot of effort into getting this passed and it didn’t happen. We need to put that aside, we need to put hard feelings for the residents who voted this down aside, and we need to come up with a plan that protects these residents, that keeps them safe despite these layoffs.’ You know, we can say we will try to do more economic development to to increase our tax base. We can try to find other ways to raise revenues without it being a tax increase or raising fines and fees. But the city is doing all those things anyway. I think it would have to be through collaboration, prioritizing services, it might result in degrading services that are not public safety driven in order to prop those up more. And look, it might be getting away from the model we’re at now and going more towards a…I don’t want to say volunteer model, but more towards a model that our Fire Department responds to fires, and we contract out medical runs. That might be something that we have to do. We might have to look into having a blended public safety department.
G: I think Fraser does that, doesn’t it?
T: I think they do. I also believe Kalamazoo does it. Kalamazoo might be a better comparison, although I’d say they’re 60-70% our size, but they do have college campuses and they have big buildings there and a downtown, so they have different things to…I guess what I’m trying to say is they’re faced with challenges which demand a proactive public safety network. So we might be able to look to their model to see if it would save money. I think they’re “public safety.” I haven’t looked into it as much as I could. But that’s something that we would have to explore. Maybe like I’ve said that if the Police/Fire/Road millage fails, I’m going to push to bring back a Road Millage. Maybe some of the other members on council…I’m not in favor of it right now, I haven’t given it much thought, but maybe other members on council would say, well let’s bring it back as a Police Millage, a Fire Millage, and a Road Millage next time. At least then, if one of these departments was dragging the other two down, well at least we could get some of that. I think that those would be some options right there.
Q: The city has been following a financial plan since the real estate crash of 2008. We have now spent most of our fund balance, and Michigan’s economy has not yet completely recovered. What will you do if elected to ensure the city’s continued financial health?
T: It kind of depends on what happens with the millage. If the millage passes then there’s going to be more revenue to help make that easier. If the millage fails, it’s not an idle threat and its not a scare tactic. I will vote to lay off the police and fire positions needed in order to get down to where we need to be. What’s happening here is there is a structural imbalance. I’ve been saying it since I was elected. We have more going out than coming in. And although we have a balanced budget, we’re propping it up with this rainy day fund spending. We’re ignoring the fact that we’re probably going to be losing personal property tax revenue. We’re ignoring the fact that there are large legacy costs that need to be addressed. So we’re kicking those things down the road, and we can’t do it anymore. So that’s what this millage is. It’s an admission that we have this structural imbalance in our budget and it needs to be addressed, it needs to be corrected, and there’s only really two ways left to do it, a tax increase or layoffs. So I’m going to, if the millage fails, I’m going to address it the way it has to be done, which is we have to correct that imbalance and we have to do it through layoffs, that’s the only option left.
G: Does that come to a vote in council were that situation to happen? Would they seriously bring that to you as something for council to vote on? Isn’t that something the administration could just do?
T: Yes. You know Mark Vanderpool as the City Manager has the ability to hire and fire people. But the way it would practically work is that in February of 2014, we would have a strategic planning session, and at the strategic planning session the administration would say “in preparation for the upcoming budget, we’re only going to budget X number of positions in Fire, and X number of positions in Police.” And then the city can say, “now you’re reducing too many positions in police, and I know we just had a millage about this but you know we can’t afford to do that. Fund the police and fire and keep depleting the rainy day fund and we’ll find a way to pay for it later.” The council could do that. The administration could recommend doing that. You see the City of Detroit, there’s a reason why they’re in such bad shape, because they kept making bad financial decisions.
G: Because they kept borrowing money.
T: Yeah. I’m not going to borrow money to pay for recurring services and recurring bills. I’m not going to borrow money to pay for that. We need to have a plan and we need to stick to it. And so, I will vote to reduce those positions if I’m re-elected and the millage fails. Part of it is kind of simple. Part of it is you just pay for what you can afford. This is when the rubber’s meeting the road. If the millage fails, then we’re going to have a pretty…one way or the other we’re going to have a clear indication of what we can afford and we just have to stick to it. People on council need to have the political will to do what’s right for our long term financial stability.
Q: The residential roads in Sterling Heights are forecast to be in poor shape by 2020 if spending on replacement and repairs is not increased substantially. What is your view on the priority of this type of expenditure and if necessary would you be willing to cut spending elsewhere to fund it?
T: This is vaguely familiar, I think I already heard eight people answer it. I already answered this, but like I said I would bring the millage question back on the roads. It’s too important not to. Roads is an area where you’re not saving money really by…
G: …foregoing it?
T: Right. You look at the amount of money that’s spent on problems with your car. If you just took all that money — you know, not problems with your car, problems with your tires, problems with your wheels. If you just took all of that money and used it to improve the roads instead, you wouldn’t have problems with your car and your roads would be nice! So we need to do more on that.
Q: Lansing has decided to phase out the personal property tax over a period of ten years beginning this year. What is the best way for Sterling Heights to replace this revenue?
T: Well, first of all, we need to lock down what the actual story is on this. You hear different explanations depending on who you talk to. I think what the city is doing is…you know Paul Smith has said the city is overestimating how much money is going to be lost in this personal property tax. Well, if anything I would say, then they’re taking a very conservative position that they’re going to lose a lot, so we better prepare for it. Which is a conservative position. I’m surprised Mr. Smith would be opposed to that….or am I? (laughs). So you take the conservative position and what’s going to happen is part of the planning for this millage is the city’s anticipating it’s going to lose some money. It’s likely that it will lose that money, so we have a plan for it there. But as I said, we have tremendous infrastructure in Sterling Heights, and obviously we have excess capacity here to attract new businesses. The point of reducing the PPT or eliminating it is to bring in new businesses. So it would seem that Sterling Heights is at least as well positioned as any other community, certainly in Metro Detroit or the State of Michigan to attract those businesses.
Q: Over the course of the past year, council changed the rules so that members of the public are limited to speaking for seven minutes. Has this reduction in resident freedom to speak before council had a positive impact on council proceedings, and was it justified?
T: Yes, I think it had a positive impact. It’s funny because the people who have been most outspoken in opposition to it are the people who I would classify as ‘not particularly politically aligned with Mayor Notte’. And Mayor Notte as the chairman of the meeting wields a lot of power and discretion to stop people from talking when they’re up there talking. What I was noticing was that when somebody came up saying something that you knew Mayor Notte was opposed to, he’d gavel them down quickly and would frustrate their ability to talk. Whereas somebody who was speaking in a position Mayor Notte was in favor of could go on and on and on for as long as they wanted. So the chairman has too much discretion. And if the chairman isn’t going to exercise discretion based on the political position of the speaker, then you need a rule to do that. So that’s one thing that gets lost in this is that everybody has seven minutes per topic. It’s not just people who are in favor of one position or against a position, everyone has an equal amount of time. I also think that when one or two or three people spend more than seven minutes…eight, ten, fifteen minutes talking about a subject, they monopolize the meeting. It discourages other residents from coming up and participating because they know that they’re going to have to wait for a long period of time just to get up there and talk. So this puts fairness into it, everybody has the same amount of time to speak, it’s not up to the discretion of the chair. I think based on what other communities have done, seven minutes is a lot of time to talk. You get seven minutes to talk about every topic too. And if you’re creative, you can come up there and say “you know, you’re granting this liquor license to this person, and I just don’t know that this is the right business to be having at this corner because I think another business could generate more revenue, and we know how much we need revenue…I’ll tell you how much we need revenue, you’ve got a tax increase on the ballot!” (Laughs) You can imagine people can become very creative if they wanted to. That might be abusing it in that analogy. I think we give a lot of opportunity for resident participation, and really if you don’t…I’ll give you my phone number, I’ll tell you my phone number at a council meeting. I’ll give you my e-mail address. Any question you have, e-mail me, call me, I’ll sit down with you for coffee…I’m in favor of as much resident participation as possible, and I think the rule actually enhances resident participation, it doesn’t detract from it.
G: You’ve even managed to convince me! (Laughs)
Q: If there was one new ordinance you could introduce and pursue to its successful adoption, what would it be and why?
T: As I try to think of a better one, I’ll say that one of my pet projects that I just haven’t been able to get through is the sign ordinance. I got changes to the sign ordinance, but not as many as I would like. I could give you a cynical one, or a creative one like an ordinance that allows us to circumvent state law or something like that…I’d have to think more. Because if I knew one right now, I’d be working on it. Like I said, I’ve always got my eyes and ears open. I’ll just go with my sign ordinance one for now.
G: Tell me a little more about that because I don’t remember what that was all about right now.
T: That kind of dovetails into number 11 (from the Meet the Candidate questions): (reading)
Q: If you could highlight one recently enacted ordinance which you felt fell short of achieving its intended purpose, what would it be and why?
T: So, the city, I mean in the grand scheme of things a political sign ordinance is not…
G: It’s small potatoes?
T: I’d say it’s small potatoes, but really what it’s addressing is the First Amendment. The First Amendment right to freedom of political expression is pretty much the bedrock that the country was founded on. And so it’s hard to say, “well, you know Taylor wants a bigger sign with his name on it up at the party store” is hard to compare that to patriots 200 years ago throwing tea off the side of a ship. But, I think it’s important when you see a violation of the First Amendment, or what you think is a violation of the First Amendment to stand up for it! I thought the city’s sign ordinance violated the First Amendment. It’s too restrictive in the placement of signs, the size of political signs, and what you need to do just to put one up. And my big bugaboo is that commercial property owners have to sign a consent form and put it on file with City Hall in order to place a political sign on their property. Now, if you’re a non-incumbent running against, let’s just say, a very popular and powerful mayor, it’s very…it’s a leap for you as a business owner in Sterling Heights, or any city, to put a sign up for that incumbent’s challenger. It’s nearly impossible to get that business owner to sign a piece of paper that they’re going to put on file at the City Clerk’s office saying ‘I support this mayor’s challenger.’ It’s impractical. It seems to me it serves no purpose.
G: It’s a chilling effect?
T: Yeah, it’s a chilling effect on speech, and we need to be looking at anything that has a chilling effect on speech. If the government is going to restrict speech, particularly political speech, it has to be a rule that is narrowly tailored to accomplish a specific goal, and that specific goal…there has to be a compelling governmental interest in accomplishing that goal. So what I would say about this consent form that you have to put on file if you’re a commercial property owner is that it serves no interest. None. And the justification I heard from the other council members was ‘well, commercial properties are unlike residential properties. You know, if a sign is just popped into the front yard of your house, if the homeowner doesn’t consent to that, he can just go out and rip it up. But in a commercial office building, it’s not so clear. There might be multiple tenants, there might be an absentee owner, a landlord situation.’
So I said, ‘you’re full of it, but I’ll go along with you. We’ll restrict my ordinance suggestion to just free-standing, single-tenant or owner-occupied commercial buildings.’
G: Like a gas station?
T: Like a gas station. Like my dad owns an accounting firm and he has a building. He owns the building, he occupies the building. If a sign comes up in front of his building, he drives there every day, he’s gonna see it, and if he doesn’t want it, he’s gonna take it down. Putting a form on file with the City Clerk’s (office) doesn’t do anything. And not only does it not do anything, another thing they said was ‘well, what if it’s a landlord/tenant situation. Who can give consent?’ I don’t know who can give consent! But making them file a consent form doesn’t solve that problem! I said, think of a situation where you’ve got a McDonald’s. McDonald’s is corporately owned. Then there’s the franchisee. Let’s say the franchisee is a corporation owned by two people who are 50/50 partners in the corporation. One of them lives in California, the other one lives here in Michigan. That corporation then has a management agreement with a manager. The manager then has a number of sub-managers. Who can give consent? Can a manager? Can a shareholder? Can McDonald’s Corporation? Nobody knows! And you know what? We shouldn’t be trying to figure it out. The city should have absolutely no role in that discussion whatsoever. They were using this as a justification: ‘well, there’s confusion, so there needs to be a consent form.’ Well, the consent form only adds more confusion. What if I get a consent form signed by the landlord, and you get a consent form signed by the tenant? ‘Well, whoever’s comes first is good.’ Why? Who made up that rule? What if the tenant gives one and revokes it from the landlord and it goes back and forth? You know what, this is a private dispute that these folks have to resolve on their own. The city has no business getting involved in it.
I think I’ve adequately shown that there’s no governmental interest here. None. And the rule in the ordinance isn’t narrowly tailored at all. It’s just arbitrary!
(So they said) “no, I’m sorry Taylor!” (laughs) And even though it seems small potatoes, I guess when something that’s like common sense, like a no brainer, when it doesn’t get through it’s just so frustrating! And I mean I was working hard on that one!
G: I guess I should have paid more attention to this, it is more interesting that I would have thought.
T: Well, a lot of it was like making sausage. There’s a lot of things going on that you don’t want to know about. I’m talking with (city attorney) Bahorski, I’m gonna bring this back…and I had a way of doing it…I had three changes I wanted to make to this sign ordinance. Number one was get rid of this consent form. It’s awful. It’s just an abomination. It was so wrong. I don’t know if I’m just standing on a mountain screaming and nobody’s listening, but I just can’t imagine any justification to give, except for ‘this protects people in power.’ And the people in power are the ones who have to change it. The people in power said no, and they gave no explanation why. So I had three different things I wanted, but the main one was that one. And so I tried to push it all through at once and they said no. So I broke it into three constituent parts, and two of them went through, and the one that was most important didn’t. I remember trying to do something to get it back on the agenda and it just didn’t happen. God willing, (if) there’s a new council, it’s going to be back on the agenda! It’s gonna be back! I’m not gonna stop bringing it up!
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As was the case with the other interviews, we started out with a prepared list of four questions designed for this discussion. Mrs. Koski was then free to choose any questions she cared to answer from a separate list prepared for the Meet the Candidates event. I recorded our conversation, and have transcribed the relevant portions below.
Geoff Gariepy’s written questions indicated with Q:
Geoff Gariepy’s verbal questions or comments indicated with G:
Mrs. Koski’s responses indicated with K:
Q: As a member of council, your role is partially ceremonial and partially deliberative. Which of the two do you enjoy more, and which takes up the most of your time away from council meetings?
K: The ceremonial part I’ve always looked at as being something that would be the Mayor’s duty. He’s the one that represents Council, so that I have always left more to him. I attend things that pertain to the city that I feel are expected of a council member to attend. So what do I enjoy the most? I would say probably the deliberative. What takes up the most time? The same thing. The issues that we’re given, sometimes we have to take a good look at (them), do our own research, make sure that (we) understand the issue, so that you can make a proper decision. I enjoy learning, I enjoy understanding what I’m doing, and I enjoy talking to people. That’s the part that I enjoy the most, that’s the part that takes up the most time because I do want to know what I’m dealing with in making a decision.
G: You said something to the effect that you attend the functions that you feel a council member would be expected to. That’s probably up to your own discretion. Can you describe to me what you think you would be expected to (attend)?
K: As an example, a business in the community that has made a tremendous investment in their building and their location, something that is going to trickle down benefits to the residents of the city; if they have a ribbon cutting (or) an introduction, a presentation, (then) yes, things like that I always attend, I do my very best to attend. For example, investments that Ford Motor Company would make, or Chrysler would make, auto dealers that have expanded their buildings, ribbon cuttings of that type. As another example, the little park at Utica and Van Dyke: that was a piece of property that was deteriorating and looked very bad. We were trying to improve the Van Dyke corridor there and we had the opportunity to use grant monies…to purchase that. The clean-up was done, the property was cleared, grass planted, the little planter put on the corner, (creating) a whole different view for the entrance to that northern corridor there. That I attended. It’s things that really benefit the residents of the city that I feel that my presence is something…I should be there.
Q: When you have to make a hard decision about a matter that has come before council, what do you rely upon to make sure you make the right choice?
K: I always look at the issues (asking) ‘OK, what am I missing?’ What are they not telling me? What else is there that I need to know so that I can make the right decision. And that decision always is the decision that is going to benefit the majority of the residents in the city. It’s not how I personally feel about something, because what I personally feel — maybe three quarters of the city is not going to feel the same way. I could give you a couple of examples where I voted one way and everyone else voted another way and they were right and I was wrong, but that was where I let my own feelings enter in, and that’s something I try not to ever do.
G: Well since we’re not out to try to hang you for decisions you regret, we’ll skip that part!
K: Do your research, talk to people, get the feeling, make sure that you understand your issue.
G: You said something interesting when you said you might not be getting all of the information. I don’t know that you were trying to imply that they would be deliberately withholding something from you. Were you trying to imply that?
K: No, absolutely not. You’ve got to remember that your administrative staff is a highly educated, excellent staff. We have gone out there to search for the very best that we can possibly get. And yes, we do pay them well. That’s a given, you’re only going to get what you’re willing to pay for. We’ve lost some people because we were not able to pay what they could get someplace else. So when you’re dealing with someone that knows his subject extremely well, when they present it to you, they present it to you the way they see it. Now, you as a lay person may not know everything about this particular issue. If it’s not there, you’re still not gonna know it. But if you ask the question and say ‘well, now what if?’ and they say “Oh! Well, didn’t you know? This is why.”
G: So it’s more of an exercise in reading in between the lines to fill in your personal knowledge than it is something they’re just not saying?
K: Exactly! We cannot know everything. If we did, then we’d be the administrator and someone else would be on the council.
G: What was your particular area of expertise?
K: I worked for 13 years for Standard Federal Savings and Loan. I started out as a teller, worked as a savings supervisor, became a mortgage counselor and closer, and I closed, I would say, a good majority of the mortgages for the new homes in the southwest quadrant of the city. I then became a real estate broker and worked for a number of different brokerages. (After I was elected to council) I worked for several title companies.
Q: Some people would look at a job such as this (being a member of council) as something they enjoy. Some might look at the job as being something they do because they feel they’re the best person for the job, and they do it because it is important, not enjoyable. Do either one of these describe how you feel about being a member of council, or is there a third option that describes your attitude more precisely?
K: When I was first elected to council, I said, “Oh, my Lord, I’ve been elected, what am I going to do now?”
G: What year was that?
K: (Laughs) 1989. I said “well, I better learn what I’m supposed to do. I was fortunate enough to be able to take some classes through the (Michigan Municipal League) and learn what the responsibilities are for being on council. Bottom line: it’s a great responsibility because you’re responsible, in our case, for 130,000 people. You need to understand what you’re doing, and do it to the best of your ability. I look at myself as having the opportunity to take issues and put them together to come up with a compromise, because that’s what happens a lot of times with the issues that we deal with. There sometimes is not a right side/wrong side, but a meeting of the minds. Something that the residents need, something that administration says this is the way it needs to be. Sometimes if you look at the issues and put them together you can come up with something that will satisfy both.
That’s what I enjoy, that’s what I think I do well at, because of my background in real estate and title work. It’s problem solving. Listening to both sides. You look at the whole picture.
I was fortunate enough to be on council when the city was growing. To be able to look at the big picture. (If) you have a rezoning issue, or if you rezone this parcel of property, how is it going to affect the property around it? (You have to) make sure that you understand the parcels around it. Are you land-locking something? Is there a parcel next door or two doors down that because you rezoned this is not going to be able to be developed? Are you putting a hardship on people because of what you’re doing?
So again, I say, understand what you’re doing, do your research, look at the big picture, talk to the people, and come out with something that is going to satisfy, hopefully, 99%. That would be the goal. That’s what I see as being on council’s responsibility, their duty. That’s what gives me satisfaction, to have someone come up to me and say, ‘You know, Deanna, you’re doing a good job, keep up the good work.’
G: One question that popped into my mind was, you’ve been on council since 1989, do you recall why exactly you decided to run in the first place the first time?
K: (Laughs) I started on the board of review because of my real estate background. I was invited to serve on the board, they were having difficulty getting people. I was told, gee, it’s only a couple nights a week for the month of March, you can do this without a problem. Well it just so happened that was a really bad, bad year. I can’t remember how many days we worked, but I want to say it was like every single day of the month, and there were a couple of nights. It was just horrible listening to people, I just sat there and said, I can’t believe this. I didn’t know that this existed. Because of my background, in my head I’m qualifying people for mortgages: this is what your income is, this is what your expenses are. I’m going, “how are these people living?” Women were coming in that were living strictly on social security payments of $400. I could go on and on and tell you all of the stories that I heard. And I thought to myself, wow, we’ve got to make sure that these taxes stay at a minimum. Quality services for the lowest amount necessary. So, yes, that was my motivation. I was invited to run, and I said ‘Yeah, I would like to give it a try.’
G: You know, the tax question is, of course, very current even today. We’ve gone through the 1.9mil increase and now we’re talking about another 2.5mils. I agree with you insomuch as that we need to keep the taxes as low as possible. How do you feel about the Fire and Police and Roads millage? Do you think it’s essential?
K: Yes I do, because like I said I have a great deal of faith in our administrative staff. We know how council feels. Council has always said “you only get what you absolutely need, we want the best quality service for the least dollar.” With that said, we have sometimes not collected monies that we were entitled to because we had enough money coming in. We had a millage awhile back, and we had enough money coming in that we didn’t have to levy that millage. So we didn’t because we didn’t need it. We had enough money to cover all our expenses. So, bottom line is the residents benefit from the lower millage. That has been the mind set of all the council members that I have served with over the years. I never have had the opportunity of serving with someone who says “oh, collect it, collect it.” We only collect what’s absolutely necessary. We cut whatever it is possible to cut. We use up savings, we use up insurance fund monies. Well, when you continue to use up the extra money that you’re supposed to have set aside in case you have a real catastrophe that you have enough money to operate for one, two, three months, whatever the case may be, whatever is required by the CPAs today, what are you gonna do? And we’re at that point, where if we continue on this road, we’re going to deplete everything. Then what happens? That’s not a situation that we want to be in, because what happens to your bond rating? What happens to your ability to borrow money? Everybody knows if you can get it at the lower interest rate you’re going to save a whole lot of money at the end. How many bonds have we gone out and refinanced for lower rates when lower rates were available? We do this because we have a person in place in our finance department that knows what’s going on and when they see the ability to refinance at a lower rate to save money for taxpayers, they bring it to council and say ‘This is what we need to do.’
So, back to Police and Fire. If you don’t replace your police cars, all of a sudden you’re not going to have any police cars. If you don’t replace your fire trucks, you’re not going to have any fire trucks. You need your first responders. What does a municipality have to offer their residents? It’s called ‘service’. If you don’t have the people to give this service, how are you going to provide it?
They say ‘go to a volunteer Fire Department.’ Sterling Heights is too large of a city. We could not under any circumstances survive under a volunteer fire department. I said this before, and I’ll say it again: if I’m going to have a heart attack, and I call 911, I want somebody here to help me. Because if they show up in ten minutes, I don’t need them anymore!
G: Like you said, the city has some emergency funds set aside. We have some reserves with the idea that we can use that money for some sort of catastrophe. Under what sort of circumstances would we need to use money for something like that? Can you imagine a scenario where something like that might come up?
K: Well, I can tell you where we depleted the road fund. How about the Emerald Ash Borer? We had to go in and we had to eradicate all those trees. You don’t do that for free, do you? Where do you get the money from? What if we had another sinkhole? Maybe that’s a bad example, but…what if we had a sinkhole in one of our roads, or a bridge collapsed or something and we had to fix it? Where are we going to get the money from?
G: This (next question) may be only because I have a relative lack of understanding about the funding of a large city. The city as I understand it can borrow money. It probably already has an arrangement with banking to issue bonds if something like that were to arise. Could they do that as an option?
K: Sure. What interest rate do you want to pay?
G: Ok. Fair enough.
K: You know, if you don’t have a good credit rating…You want to borrow money from me? I’m going to want to know a little bit about you before I’m going to lend you any money. Do you pay back your bills? Do you have any kind of a savings set aside?
G: Wow, I guess the federal government is in tough shape right now! (laughs)
K: Yeah! (laughs)…you know, we’re laughing, but it’s the same thing! It’s exactly the same thing that you’ve been seeing on TV.
G: Now, Deanna, one of the questions I’ve asked everybody else … if this millage fails to pass, as you know, there is still some room under the Headlee cap, and council could choose to raise the tax rate unilaterally without a vote of the public. Now, given that the consequences of the millage failing to pass would be pretty significant, closure of a fire station, part time shuttering of another one, layoff of forty cops, layoff of — I dunno, I think it’s 25 fire fighters, would you consider raising taxes the other way?
K: I think one thing that would influence my decision there is how badly did it fail? Was it an overwhelming resident response? 90% say ‘no’, 10% say ‘yes’? I wouldn’t touch that millage for anything. I would say, if that’s what you want, God bless you. If it were like 49-51, then, yeah, I probably would consider it. Whether it would do any good or not, I’m not sure.
G: Well, three other people and the City Manager have all said they wouldn’t raise taxes. Now I’ve just asked you, you’re the fourth one, and we know that Mr. Smith would be a ‘no’ vote. So I think that it would probably be a dead issue, but I don’t know. It certainly raises an interesting question.
K: It does because you can’t just say ‘No, I’m not going to do it.’ You already know I have said ‘hold down that millage (rate)’, that’s one of the big reasons I am here because I believe that way, but then again you have to look again at the residents’ response. And if you’re at a 51-49 (result in the election) you’ve got half your residents saying ‘Yes, I do want this (tax increase). That’s the type of city I want’ And if the majority of Council says absolutely not, don’t touch it, the final vote is the final vote, I say bring it back next year and let them make another choice.
G: So if it fails, the very least that you would do is try to bring it back onto the ballot again.
K: Yep. Let them have a second chance, the option to reconsider. As a council person we get the option to reconsider.
G: One of the questions that I’d like to know the answer to that isn’t on my prepared list, if you have said a couple of times that one of your goals is to keep the millage as low as possible and that’s typically a political standpoint that’s associated with people on the right. Do you care to comment on where you find your own particular political leanings?
K: I’ve been non-partisan for so many years that I can’t say that I vote one party straight, although there have been occasions where I have voted all one way in a particular election because I happened to respect the people that were running and I felt they would do the best job. So what am I? I can’t say I’m a Democrat, I can’t say I’m a staunch Republican. I can say I am a conservative. I can say that I believe you should pay union dues if you receive the benefits of a union. I have a couple of sons that are “right”, and I have another son that is “left”..(laughs).
Q: What is the most important thing you have learned in your time as a member of city council?
K: Can I give you a little humor?
K: Never go out of your house unless your hair is combed, your make-up is on, you clothes are clean and you don’t have any rips in your jeans! Because if you do not pay mind to that, I can assure you you’re going to run into somebody who’s going to recognize you and have a camera with them!
G: Ok, another question not from the list, but it’s a question I had on the meet-the-candidates thing, (reading) “As a member of city council, you either are or would be one of the most visible citizens in our city, and a representative of the public trust. Please comment on how you feel this should guide your public behavior and what responsibilities it imposes upon you.”
K: That kind of links to the last question you asked me. As a member of council, you represent the city. You are the liaison between 130,000 residents and the administration. You have a duty to those people to conduct yourself in a very professional manner at all times: in public, in your neighborhood, in the grocery stores, no matter where you are…
G: Car dealerships?
K: In the car dealership! (laughs) You are a representative of the city. So your responsibility is to, and I repeat myself, professional manner. Your appearance. How you speak. How you treat people. That is extremely important, and that’s a duty that you have. That is your responsibility to the people. Because again, responsibility is caring for the people that you serve. You want to make them proud. So therefore your mannerisms, your speech, just how you represent the city should always be impeccable.
G: I have not heard any report of you doing otherwise.
Note: This interview was conducted over the phone for scheduling reasons. Mrs. Koski was therefore disadvantaged by not being able to read from my separate list of questions prepared for the ‘Meet the Candidates’ event as the other candidates could. At this point in the phone call, I read the list of questions to her and gave her the opportunity to choose which ones she would like to reply to.
K: There’s three of them I could touch lightly upon. In regard to ‘creating the budget’…
(Question that was read: Please comment on what you perceive as the proper role for city council with regard to the creation of the
annual budget and the oversight of the city administration as a whole.)
K: …we have our strategic planning meeting where we give direction. When I say direction, what is it that we want to accomplish this year? When we have a down economy like this, it’s pretty hard to present any kind of growth, which is what I have had the opportunity to experience in the past. So it’s more like maintaining and stabilizing and setting priorities. Giving direction to the City Manager and he then oversees what goes into the budget. In other words, his directors then take their departments and everybody presents their budget and he makes the final decision as a combined effort of (the) administration. Council used to have the opportunity at the strategic planning to give their input, to give their thoughts and their ideas for growth. We are at 90, 97% development at this point, so we’re kind of at a redevelopment, bringing in new business, economic development. So as far as Council is concerned we can say ‘continue on with the plan, what we have talked about, what is going to keep Sterling Heights a viable city.’ We need to continue with our economic development, we need to bring in new business, we need to continue to market the city, we need to tell everybody in the world what a great place it is to live, work, play, raise a family. We need to maintain our infrastructure. We need to encourage and support our school system. We need to keep our neighborhoods looking good. We need to keep our roads good. These are the things that we used to be able to do, and now it’s becoming very, very difficult choice-wise, dollar-wise. Where do we spend the dollars? But we still need to continue on in this path to bring in new investments to the community. Because the new businesses will create jobs, jobs will then enable families to reside here and survive and grow. So it becomes a trickle-down effect there.
As far as ordinances are concerned…
(Questions that were read: If there was one new ordinance you could introduce and pursue to its successful adoption, what would it be and why? If you could highlight one recently enacted ordinance which you felt fell short of achieving its intended purpose, what would it be and why?)
K: I think I have to agree with the others (meaning earlier interviewees), the fireworks ordinance is something that we tried to work on and then Lansing said ‘well, no, but you can’t do this and you can’t do that, it’s gonna be like this.’ That kind of left us very, very helpless.
G: Frustrated? Is frustrated a good word?
K: Frustrated is an excellent word.
K: As far as the transport….
(Question that was read: The Fire Department has proposed to begin handling ambulance runs to the hospital instead of the private company that is currently
performing this service. How do you feel about this proposal and what do you think the financial impact would be on the city if it was adopted?)
K: …when I was first elected to council and they said this at the Meet the Candidates, we had already started to work towards transport. In fact, two trucks, I think, had been purchased at the time. And…what can we do now? The only thing we can do now is maybe take another look at it if we’re looking for revenue replacement. I think that’s our duty as a council; we know that the personal property tax right now is on its way out. It’s going to be gone unless that vote changes next August. The possibility of it changing and being reinstated, I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think it has already been made very, very clear that it is gone. So, with that said, replacement. I don’t know if that’s going to happen or not. Anyway, we have to look at revenue replacement.
G: So transport is going to be a fairly significant investment just to get started.
K: There are ways that this can be done because we were presented, what, two years ago with a packet that showed how this could happen. And if I remember correctly it was like within the first two years we would break even, and then the third year is a profit year. It was not ‘purchase the trucks’ it was ‘lease the trucks’. With the program that they had available was (that) we would lease for a certain period of time and then purchase them at of course a depreciated price. And the money that would be raised with the collection received would cover all of this expense. To just implement the program today, it’s impossible because we don’t have enough fire fighters anymore. So the answer to the question is yes, it’s something we need to look at, yes it’s something that we need to do the numbers again and find out what the cost would be. Whether the revenue generated would cover the cost if the leasing program is still available and how long would it take to break even and how long would it take to generate that profit. Two years ago they were talking about — I’m trying to remember if it was one year or two years, I want to lean towards two years (to) just cover costs, and then it was three million.
G: So you raise an interesting point. We’ve laid off fire fighters, and we’ve allowed attrition to reduce their count as well. So in addition to the equipment capital costs we’d have additional labor costs. So that really throws the study that was done a couple of years ago out the window. It would have to be completely reconsidered. Do I understand that right?
K: Correct. Yep. You’d have to redo it, and the question is, you’ve got to remember, (in) Sterling Heights age is growing. Each year those runs increase. Have the runs increase enough to generate the additional income that would be necessary to cover the cost of reemployment?
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Barbara Ziarko is currently serving in her 12th year on Sterling Heights’ City Council.
The following video was taken from the 2013 Meet the Candidates event held in Council Chambers and put on by the Sterling Heights Chamber of Commerce on October 3, 2013. It is the final, two-minute summation of her reasons for asking the voters to re-elect her.
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Paul Smith is a first-term incumbent on City Council.
The following video was taken from the 2013 Meet the Candidates event held in Council Chambers and put on by the Sterling Heights Chamber of Commerce on October 3, 2013. It is the final, two-minute summation of his reasons for asking the voters to re-elect him.
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Doug Skrzyniarz, an employee of the Wayne State University School of Medicine, is seeking his first term in office on City Council. He is one of only two new challengers to arise this year in a contest that did not attract enough candidates to require an August primary.
The following video was taken from the 2013 Meet the Candidates event held in Council Chambers and put on by the Sterling Heights Chamber of Commerce on October 3, 2013. It is the final, two-minute summation of his reasons for asking the voters to elect him.
Do you think Doug should replace one of the incumbents? Head on over to our poll and cast your vote!