My nomination to the Planning Commission


It became public last night that Mayor Taylor has decided to nominate me for the post on the Sterling Heights City Planning Commission that has been vacated by Al Kollmorgan.  Predictably, it didn’t take too long for people to question what my qualifications for the job are, or what impact, if any, will this have on my writings in this space.  Here’s what happened.

Mayor Taylor approached me about a month ago and asked me if I would be interested in the seat that had become vacant on the planning commision.  I’m paraphrasing, but, his actual words were to the effect of “there’s an opening on the Planning Commission, and I want you to fill it.”

The reader is asked to keep in mind that the dust-up over the mosque issue late last summer has not yet receded from anyone’s memory.   During that debacle, members of the Planning Commission felt intense pressure to make the right decision, especially with people like myself stating publicly what they thought should be done.  So I approached this decision knowing that there could be some real work involved, and that it might not all be pleasant.  So I gave this the same sort of thought one might have when considering a large purchase, say of an automobile, or in deciding whether or not to leave a job for a new one.  I asked questions.  I talked to people.  I thought long and hard.  Perhaps most importantly, I discussed it at length with my wife, Angela, who is my life’s witness, best friend and partner.

When he asked me to consider accepting a nomination, I asked to meet with the Mayor in person to discuss the reasons he had for nominating me.  We met for a couple of hours one Sunday not long ago, and had a long discussion about his vision of how I would approach the job and why he thought I should seriously consider doing it.

The net result of that discussion and discussions with other people about the subject can be summarized as follows: being a Planning Commissioner requires learning how the city’s Master Plan document is put together.  It requires learning about the zoning ordinance, and it relies upon the commissioner to then be able to interpret what is in the law and meld that with the recommendations of the city’s Planning Department to come up with decisions that represent the best interests of the city’s residents, both commercial and private, as a whole.  It requires gaining insight into the planning process, developing an understanding of the sometimes competing interests of developers, real estate professionals, residents, and people who make use of a given area.  It requires the capacity for abstract thought, and a strong ethical sense to guide the commissioner toward doing what is right.  I have the ability to accomplish these tasks successfully, and I believe my thinking skills and ethics will on balance help me to make the best possible decisions.  Those, in a nutshell, are my qualifications for the position.  The fact that I am capable of telling people of my reasoning in a clear fashion will lend even more transparency to the planning process than there already is, which is considerable.

As informed readers know, the Planning Commission represents an oversight process within the city to help ensure that the interests of everyone who might propose or be affected by new development are carefully balanced, and that the decisions taken do not place too high of a premium on one group’s interests over the other while remaining in compliance with the law.  The Commission acts as a check and balance against all of the parties involved.  It is a responsibility you want the city to give to people who you can trust to be fair and reasonable, and the mayor and other members of council have assured me that they think I have those qualities.  I am honored and humbled by their trust.

In addition, the city seeks to appoint people to its boards and commissions who have a track record of wanting what’s best for the city.  It tries to match the prospective board members with the organization that they are interested in and willing to serve upon for little or no monetary compensation.  This means that you have to want to do this type of job for the sake of doing it, and hopefully doing it well, for its own satisfaction, because it doesn’t pay much, the effort required to do it well is considerable, and the task is not to be taken lightly.  I have developed a strong interest in the way local government works in my time of involvement with city politics.  I am a technically-oriented man, and yes, I really am interested in and want to know what is happening at a level of government function that many people take for granted.  It is unusual, I admit, but I play the cards I’ve been dealt.

So in light of the requirements and my fit within them, I gave myself time to think about this.  I, too, am a busy man with the full complement of wife, family, demanding job, home maintenance responsibilities, hobbies and interests.  I already have a couple of things with regard to the City of Sterling Heights that I would like to accomplish: continual improvement and nurturing of the CERT team, and a drastic improvement in the safety of the stretch of 15 Mile Road near my home.  I also wish to remain one of our city’s voices on the various issues that we publicly consider, both via this blog and by speaking before council.

I could very easily, and in clear conscience, have told the Mayor that no, I am too busy with what I’ve already got on my plate, I’m already visible enough, I’m concerned about issues like the mosque, etc.

But I didn’t.  Instead, I chose to accept the position, but with one important condition: this blog must be allowed to continue as I see fit.  The mayor has assured me this will be the case.

Now, my understanding is that I can write about the matters that come before the Planning Commission, and if I find something to be interesting, relevant, and something I want to express myself about, I will do so.  Whether or not I actually will do so is up to me.  If something has to remain confidential before a decision can be made in a public meeting, I will follow the advice and counsel of the city’s attorney, but if there is something that needs to be said after the fact, I will say it.

As far as my status as a city watchdog is concerned, I daresay that will not change much, although my effort in this regard may well become better informed and more nuanced.  We shall see.  This is a growth opportunity for me, and I will doubtless learn many things.

I’m accepting this nomination for a few reasons: one, to have the opportunity to do good for the residents of our city; two, because it will be an interesting learning experience for me; and three, because Mayor Taylor asked me to do it.  I’m not about to promise anyone a future decision about anything will go a certain way, and I am highly unlikely to be influenced by people who seek to convince me to do something I would otherwise not do.  I am a contrarian and an independent thinker, and I can only promise to use my best judgement with every matter that comes before me, and to make the best informed decisions I am capable of.

I am excited about this opportunity, and I look forward to making the acquaintance of the other people who sit on this particular commission.  I know a couple of them already, and I feel like I will work well with all of them.

As I said last night, if I am appointed I will be proud to serve.  I look forward to the council’s decision on June 7.

 

Yet another car crash on 15 Mile


I was sitting here in the house about twenty minutes after eleven this morning, when by now the familiar sound of two vehicles colliding jolted me away from work.  Once again, another neighbor, this one an elderly man who lives just around the corner from me, was struck broadside as he attempted to turn left onto Cavant Drive from 15 Mile Road.  With a new driver in my own house, this small little intersection terrifies me.

I’ve complained endlessly about this topic, and frequent readers must be getting bored with it by now, but the stretch of 15 Mile between Ryan and Mound, and more specifically the western half of that stretch, is a very dangerous piece of road.  The design of the road, for whatever reason, combined with the traffic it gets and the high-density residential areas along the southern side produce a situation where I witness at least one serious accident about every month.  I didn’t take pictures this time, but today’s accident featured a Chevy Equinox vs. a Dodge Dakota.  The Equinox’s front end was pretty well demolished, although curiously the woman’s air bags did not deploy.  The elderly neighbor’s Dakota was damaged significantly but not as severely as one might have thought after looking at the damage to the vehicle which struck it.  Fortunately there were no serious injuries.

It is heart wrenching to see accident scenes so frequently.  The injuries, the loss of property, the shock and distress of the vehicle occupants, and the potential for secondary collisions due to the accident scenes are hard to witness.  I always feel compelled to go and check to see if people are okay, and while waiting for the first responders to arrive, I sometimes find myself, like today, trying to direct oncoming traffic away from the affected lane.   I stay clear of traffic, and always leave myself a way out if someone oncoming doesn’t appear to notice that they need to take evasive action.  It is surprising how many close calls there were today in the aftermath.

I have been told that the roadway is scheduled for resurfacing this summer.  It does need it, it’s in terrible shape, but that won’t do anything to solve the problem of the danger.  It needs some type of redesign rather than just a resurfacing job.  I’m sure that redesigns are an order of magnitude more expensive than resurfacing, but residents are probably going to see the same amount expended in insurance claims, if not the loss of life.

Our Next Police Chief Redux


Since my last blog post concerning the selection process of our next police chief and my endorsement of one of the candidates, I have continued to talk with and learn from people who are involved in the process.  What I have learned concerns me, not so much for which of these two men will be selected, but rather for how the council and the city administration are interacting, and how the roles between those two groups are becoming blurred.

Astute readers already know that our council does not directly participate in the day-to-day running of the city like some of the councils in other cities in the region.  Although dedicated and hard working, our council members are only part-time representatives of the public, acting in an oversight role.  According to the design of the council/manager form of government, Sterling Heights has a professional management team that oversees the day-to-day operation of the city,  from purchasing to fleet operations, budget preparation to tax policy creation, legal affairs, promotion of the city to prospective residents, and yes, personnel decisions.  The guy who makes all of the big decisions, with the approval of council, is largely autonomous, and he has proven himself to be capable and competent to handle the monumental task of running this city for many years now.  His name is Mark Vanderpool, and he is the City Manager.

When a director-level vacancy, such as the current one for police chief, becomes open, here is the administration’s role:  The administration advertises the vacancy  in accordance with the law and best practices.  The administration again uses industry best practices to determine the criteria for hiring someone to fill the role.  The administration vets the candidates who arise, and once they have an acceptable group of candidates, the process of testing and interviewing those candidates begins.  After this process takes place, the results are studied and discussed by the City Manager and his trusted staff.  The city attorney is involved — there are a bevy of legal considerations to be taken — as well as several top-level directors.   All of this is done with the knowledge that the entire process has to be legally and ethically defensible.

Once the process is complete, the City Manager decides who he wants to hire for the job, and he passes his recommendation along to council for final approval.

The council’s role is to act as the representatives of the people who are ultimately in charge of the way the city gets run: you and me, the registered voters.  We entrust them to provide oversight to ensure that the City Manager conducted a thorough vetting and interview process.  Council acts as a check to ensure that no impropriety enters into the City Manager’s decision.  They determine, essentially, whether or not they have confidence that the City Manager is doing his job.  Their vote of final approval on a candidate is just exactly that: the culmination of the City Manager’s task, the final seal of approval and the vote of confidence that he has done his job well.

You will notice that the council members are not directly involved in the publicizing of the vacancy, the selection of the candidates, nor devising the criteria, nor testing the candidates, nor the evaluation of the results.  They are not consulted on the legalities in the process, nor are they relied upon to know the industry best practices for hiring a police chief.

This is for a reason: it isn’t their job to know or do these things.  They just make sure the guy we hired to know and do those things actually does and has.  This is the essence of the council/manager form of government, and there are clearly delineated roles.  There are different specialties involved.  There are things the council does, and things the city manager does.  Although they work closely together and exchange ideas, and although the city manager ultimately serves at the pleasure of council, he is allowed to do his job and make the vast majority of the decisions in how the city is run.

Except when he’s not.  Like in this case.

In this case, Mr. Vanderpool went through the process explained above.  He vetted his candidates, tested them, interviewed them, determined their sufficiency, ensured the process was legal, ethical and defensible, and then made his selection of one of the top candidates: Captain John Berg.

That’s his selection, and it is his job to make that selection.  It is not council’s.

Unfortunately, Mr. Vanderpool apparently made a statement in one of his memoranda to council that said something to the effect of “both of these men would make an excellent police chief.”  And this is where the trouble started.

-=-=-=-

I said at the beginning that I’m not so much concerned about which of these two men are selected.

Why am I not concerned about which man becomes police chief?  It’s simple: they’re both highly qualified.  Sterling Heights’ Police Department is a high-performing department, known as being a department new officers from across Michigan aspire to work for one day.  The people who rise to the top of such an organization don’t get there by accident.  The process of going from a regular patrol officer to a sergeant is rigorous, and it just keeps getting tougher from there.  You can be confident that regardless of whether Captain Berg or Captain Dwojakowski gets the nod for the top post, the department will be in good hands.  These guys are both professionals, they are both very capable, and they would both serve us well.  That is my opinion of them.

I can afford to have an opinion about these men, and which one I like better for the job: I’m not responsible for hiring one of them, or making sure it is done properly.  I am a blogger, not a City Manager or a City Council Member.  I have that latitude.

The credit for the fact that either one would serve us well, of course, goes largely to Captain Berg and Captain Dwojakowski.  They have both worked very hard to develop themselves into the kind of people you would seriously consider to become the police chief of the third largest city in the state.  That is no small thing.  It’s the sort of thing that keeps men up at night,  studying on their own time, pursuing a path of continuous self-improvement.

But the credit for that also goes to Mark Vanderpool.  He has established the expectation of high performance in our police department, and he has cultivated that department’s organizational structure to enable it to produce high quality people, through appropriate training, judicious promotions, proper budgeting, and careful management of the concerns that occasionally arise, such as the police time card scandal of several years ago.  This also is no small thing.  It requires serious thought, a great deal of effort, finesse, experience, patience and discretion.  There are nights that the lights burn very late in Mark Vanderpool’s office.  I’ve seen it for myself.

-=-=-=-

So when Mark Vanderpool makes a decision about who should become the next police chief, it isn’t a decision that is made lightly.  There is a very formal process.  There is input from highly trained and heavily experienced professionals.  There are test scores, and there are weights applied to those test scores.  There are considerations made of past experiences with the candidates.  There are considerations made about where the candidates are in their careers.  Personalities are evaluated, and competence is judged. And finally, to put the icing on the cake, there is a final vote by the elected representatives of the people that certifies that this decision was not only made, it was made well, for defensible reasons, by a competent team that has the right manager in charge.

Notice I said “certifies the decision” — not decides.

You would think that council would acknowledge everything that has gone into this process, but unfortunately, a majority of them at this time have decided instead that they will overrule Mr. Vanderpool’s carefully considered, months-long decision process.

They’ve decided to do so because they feel that they have a clearer idea of which of these two men will perform better in the job than Mr. Vanderpool does.  They’ve decided to do so because they have, in my view, unwisely allowed politics to enter into what should remain an unpolitically charged hiring process.  And by doing so, they are undermining Mark Vanderpool.  They are saying, in not so many words, that they are the decision makers, and that while Mr. Vanderpool’s process seemed, well, fairly rigorous and thorough, they just don’t agree with his decision, and since he said the two top candidates were both good guys, well, then that means we get to pick whoever we like, right?

Except that, no, that’s not right.  That’s not right at all.

If we’re going to turn the process of hiring the police chief into a popularity contest, then whoever gets the most votes gets the job.  Kind of like a politician, except, well, not.

The integrity of the process depends in no small part on there in fact actually being a process that is followed, rigorously, every time.  If you take a hiring process and turn it into a popularity contest, it no longer matches the description of a rigorous, repeatable process.

The process is there for a reason that goes beyond who will become the Chief of Police.  The process is designed to help foster employee competence and encourage men and women working for the city to work hard and become good candidates for promotion at all levels.  Police departments, perhaps more than any other kind of department, are hierarchical.  The people at the bottom of the organization look up to the people at the top.  It is necessary when you give men and women guns, badges and fast cars and tell them to go out and use their discretion yet still apply the law to protect the city that they can look up to the top of the organization and know that those people got there for a damn good reason.  Those people at the top must command the respect of the rank and file.  Otherwise, the rank and file is operating in a vacuum.  You don’t want people with guns and badges operating in a vacuum.

This is tough stuff to grasp.  It is not necessarily intuitive.  It requires insight into how to motivate groups of people.  It requires truly understanding why things are done a certain way.  In order for it to work, it takes a recognition of the different roles involved, and why there are different roles.  It requires a certain respect for our form of government, and in particular the council/manager form of government, and why it is different than other forms.

Members of council, all of them pretty good people in my estimation, are human and subject to losing sight of these things from time to time.  I believe that is what has happened in this case.

If I was Mark Vanderpool and my candidate was rejected, I would take that as a vote of no confidence, and I would go find another city to run.  It wouldn’t take me long to do so, either.  I would not allow myself to settle for only being deemed competent enough when the politicians didn’t feel like doing my job for me.  Why?  Because if I’m Mark Vanderpool, I’m pretty good at what I do, and there are a lot of cities that would pay me very well to move there and run their organization.

If I was a police sergeant hoping to move up in the ranks and Mark Vanderpool’s candidate was rejected for political reasons, I would stop studying and start schmoozing council members, for that would obviously be the fastest way to advance my career.  All I would need would be to get four council members to back me, and it wouldn’t matter how much work the other guy did to make himself a good choice for the role.  And the rank and file — you know, the men and women with the guns, badges, fast cars, and the expectation placed upon them that they use their discretion in applying the law and protecting the city — would see that the people at the top got there by schmoozing, instead of by being excellent cops at the very top of their field.

And if I was a voter — and whatd’yaknow, I am — and I found out that we were paying Mark Vanderpool and his team big bucks to make tough personnel decisions only to have those decisions overridden by people who think they know better based on their casual assessment of the candidates personalities, well, I would be pretty upset by that.  Nix that, will be pretty upset by it.  I would start wondering why our carefully constructed culture of excellence that has produced such high-performing people in the past was so disposable.  And I would start wondering if the council really had the best interest of the residents at heart.

City Counselors, please think carefully.  This is important.  You can’t afford to not get this right.  And if you think this is about how one or the other candidates makes you feel, you have missed the point.  You are charged with certifying that Mark Vanderpool has done his job, not second-guessing him.  It is no exaggeration that a hell of a lot more than who becomes the next police chief is hanging in the balance here.  This truly is a crossroads moment.  This determines the direction of a city.

Please get it right.

Our Next Police Chief


The city is very close to naming someone to officially replace former Police Chief Michael Reese since his retirement this past winter.  My understanding is that there are four people in contention for the post, one of them being the acting Interim Chief, Captain John Berg.

I don’t know any of the candidates well, but I have been privileged to meet a couple of them through my involvement with the city and especially with the city’s CERT team.  I want to tell you the story of when I met Mr. Berg.

On the evening of August 11, 2014, the city was hit by a massive series of rainstorms and flooding ensued.  My own street resembled a river, with a surging, foaming current going past my house onto 15 Mile Road.  Our CERT team was activated, and asked to stage at the Sterling Heights Police Department.  When I arrived there, the Lieutenant at the desk had me step around behind the main counter to wait for instruction.

Shortly afterward, I encountered a man wearing a t-shirt, a pair of shorts, and holding a mop in his hands.  Somehow, he did not look like a janitor, and I could tell by the way the Lieutenant spoke to him that the man was not the Lieutenant’s subordinate.  That man turned out to be Captain John Berg, and that evening, instead of tasking one of his many subordinates with mopping up the water that had come in under the doorway of the Police station’s lower floor, he changed into work clothes and did it himself.

There is leadership by fiat, and then there is leadership by example.  Generally, people with the best work ethic are the ones who can lead by example.   In my opinion, they make the best leaders.

Now one brief interaction that I’m sure Mr. Berg doesn’t even remember is hardly enough to justify putting him in the department’s top post, but the confidence of the city administration in naming him interim chief tends to bolster the argument.  Like two of the other candidates, Mr. Berg is a professional with years on the force in what is a very highly regarded department that has been relatively free of scandal.  My understanding is that his record is absolutely impeccable, and I certainly was able to take the measure of the man in the brief encounter I had with him two years ago.

I have been told that the counter-argument to his candidacy is the fact that he is possibly scheduled to retire within the next few years.  It seems to me that this is the normal course of things for the most senior leaders in our city government: as soon as they accumulate all of the organizational knowledge, they age out and take their pension.   There are work-arounds to this problem however, and they have been employed multiple times to keep valued senior-level personnel on staff past their retirement dates, even when the DROP program is involved.  The current Fire Chief, Christopher Martin, is one such example: he is an excellent leader who rose to the position after he had already taken the DROP option.  The city, in its wisdom, found a way to accommodate this situation in a way that benefited both the residents and Mr. Martin.  Surely more of the same could happen with Mr. Berg.

I hasten to add that I mean no disrespect to any of the other candidates in my advocacy for Mr. Berg.  I have met one of them a couple of times and he has shown me that he takes a resident’s concerns seriously and handles them professionally.  I am certain that were he to be named chief, he would make a good one, and in my limited interaction with the department as part of the CERT team, I would be proud to work with him.

Sometimes, though, a person stands out just by doing something as humble as mopping a floor, and when that’s your first impression and you see that they’re also capable of being entrusted to run the entire department, you know you’ve found your guy.

In my opinion, John Berg deserves to have the interim title made permanent: he should be our next Chief of Police.

Is Four Minutes Enough?


There have been rumblings of discontent heard around town regarding a proposed rule change at City Council to shorten the  time afforded to speakers from  seven minutes down to four.  Council should proceed and reduce the time limit anyway.

As frequent viewers and attendees of city council meetings are aware, residents are allowed to speak before council at a podium once for each order of business on the agenda, plus one additional time during the “Communications from Citizens” segment of the meeting.  Over the past several years we’ve seen people inveigh against council for as long as twenty-five or thirty minutes, while others kept it short and, if not sweet, at least brief and to the point.

During the Notte administration, council meetings began to extend until midnight.  Considering that the standard start time for a council meeting is 7:30PM, that works out to four and a half hours, much of which was spent giving everyone the opportunity to have their say on the issues of the day.  To address the lengthy meetings, the speaking time was reduced to six minutes, with an additional minute of time to wrap up, for a total of seven minutes.  Meetings were shortened to a still-long but greatly improved 3 hours or so.

As much as I hate to admit it, I was wrong about this rule change back when it was first enacted.  I felt at the time like it infringed upon the freedom of speech, and I opposed the change.  What I didn’t consider was the signal-to-noise ratio, which was unfavorable when residents were allowed to speak as long as they wished.

The signal-to-noise ratio is still out of balance, even with a seven minute limit.  There are quite a few regular participants who wouldn’t know the meaning of brevity if it hit them upside the head in pamphlet form.  People have used “their” seven minutes to campaign, to insult members of council, to insult other residents, make unfounded accusations, slander people, give “newsreel” monologues, and to frankly waste everyone else’s time.

The people most upset about shortening the amount of time seem to think the opportunity to speak equates to being “their” time.  It isn’t.  It’s a public meeting.  It’s everyone’s time.   As a meeting participant, you should have to use our time wisely.  The only way to achieve this is to set a limit that hopefully causes as many people as possible to get to the point sooner, rather than later.

We’re not going to reach the point where Council has complete control over the subject material discussed at meetings.  Even with a four minute limit, I hazard that some participants are going to deliver 30 seconds of useful material and three and a half minutes of stuff nobody needs to hear.   And I worry a bit about a slippery slope here: will we eventually get to the point where we have two minute limits?  Thirty-five second limits?

I am a proponent of the written word, as evidenced by this blog.  If you have something you wish to discuss in a public forum that has details requiring explanation, you should put it in writing.  That gives me, the reader, the opportunity to read your text, then go back and answer my own questions about exactly what you said.  It enhances clarity.  Plus, I can read your words a heck of a lot faster than you can speak them.  It is a more efficient use of everyone’s time.

Many of the worst offenders who have wasted seven minutes of everyone’s time have done so while reading from a prepared text.   I’d be willing to bet that I could accurately figure out what it was they were trying to say in approximately a minute or less if I just had that text before me.   Blogs like this one are free.  The level of computer skill required to put one up is not prohibitively high for most people: if you can use Facebook, you can blog.  You’ve already written down what you have to say.  So why are you reading something to me when I could read it for myself?

My opinion is that seven minutes is too much, and four minutes sounds better.  I expect that often it will still result in wasted time, but reducing the amount of time wasted is a good thing.  And if it shortens the meetings back down to a more reasonable amount of time, I might be persuaded to take in more of them in person, rather than skimming through the highlights on TV.

Shorten the meetings, Mr. Mayor and  Council.    The new limits will be fine.

Trash Talk about Trash Pickup


Last night there were some hard feelings at the council bench over a majority decision to put the city’s trash hauling contract out for bid while Waste Management’s current contract is still in effect. In his statements explaining why he would vote against the measure, Councilman Joe Romano stated “something stinks here, and it’s not the garbage!”  He then went on to imply that campaign contributions from a competitive trash hauler might explain what he viewed as the majority’s haste in sending the contract out to bid.

Positions of Proponents and Opponents

The council members holding the minority position, Maria Schmidt, Barbara Ziarko, and Joseph Romano, argued that sending the contract out for bids was premature, that they didn’t have adequate time to review the bid specification due to the election, and that the city could simply exercise its option to extend the current contract for a one- or two-year term. They didn’t see a need to send the contract out for bids at this time, and at least one of them expressed concern over the potential for a lawsuit by Waste Management, which currently has an exclusive license for curbside recyclables collection.

On the other hand, Council Members Skrzyniarz, Koski, Shannon and Mayor Taylor argued that sending the contract out for bids would likely result in a substantial savings to the city, and it could introduce the possibility of new services, i.e. mechanized trash collection via 64- or 96-gallon wheeled containers, plus curbside single-stream recycling at no extra charge to the residents.  Citing the potential for a half million dollar savings to the city on the single largest outsourced service the city contracts, the majority view was that the worst that would happen would be the extension of the current contract with Waste Management under the terms already in place.

Mr. Romano’s Charge

Mr. Romano was the last opposing council member to speak on the issue, and in his talk he described the matter in a way that suggested back room politicking and tit-for-tat accommodations for campaign contributors.  He cited Rizzo Services’ contributions to all of the incumbents as somehow being an improper attempt to influence council to send the contract out to bid while their competitor and long time contract holder Waste Management still has time left to go on its current contract, two possible extensions, and an exclusive license for curbside recycling in the city until 2018.

Mayor Taylor’s Rebuttal

Mayor Taylor stated that he “resented” Mr. Romano’s charge, and that nobody from Rizzo had ever suggested their contribution was made in anything more than the spirit of seeking good government for the city.  He then went on at some length to explain his reasons for bringing the matter to the fore, including the facts that the bid specification had been in the works for months, and that a substantially unchanged version was made available to the council over one month before last night’s vote.

Was this really necessary?

Mr. Romano’s statements regarding campaign contributions were out of line.  His speculation that the Mayor and council members who sided with the majority vote were somehow acting improperly and hastily were just that: idle speculation.  In the process of making his accusation, not only did he accuse fellow members of council of wrongdoing, he also accused a local Sterling Heights business of bribery.  Mr. Romano, in your statement you said you wanted to avoid lawsuits.  Can you explain how making a slanderous accusation such as this aligns with trying to keep the city out of court?

When someone make accusations that attack peoples’ integrity, there should be proof.  Conjecture and speculation amounts to little more than gossip.  Mr. Romano may well be upset to find himself on the losing side of the vote on this issue, but that doesn’t justify the statements he made that impugn the integrity of the majority side and Rizzo Services.

Positive Signs

Yet, even with all of the discord, something very positive happened during the discussion.  After Mayor Taylor gave his opinion on the issue at some length, Councilwoman Ziarko made a rebuttal to some of his statements.  Suddenly, we had an actual debate!  It was short-lived, but it represented a baby step towards something I’ve wanted to see at the council bench for some time: actual deliberations, a back-and-forth discussion of the issues, and real consideration of both sides. I give Mayor Taylor credit for allowing and perhaps even encouraging this sort of exchange, and to Councilwoman Ziarko for speaking her mind even after her turn was over.  We need more of this.  With the Open Meetings Act preventing deliberations outside of a public meeting, it has to happen somewhere.

In the end, City Council will get past this.  Mr. Romano would do well to remember that making accusations of this nature against people you’ve just been re-elected to serve with for two more years is counter-productive.  As for the opposition by Councilwomen Schmidt and Ziarko, I think their points were well made, but sometimes that isn’t enough to win the day.

Finally, nobody really can claim that this council is a “rubber stamp” on much of anything after witnessing this exchange.  These people really are all trying to do what’s best for the city, and they don’t always agree.  It’s somewhat rare that you’ll see it to this extent, but it does happen.

The Lessons of the 2015 Election


Last night, the election returns confirmed what many had suspected would happen all along: Michael C. Taylor and the incumbent city council handily beat Paul Smith and his slate of challenger candidates.  The victory is meaningful, and several lessons can be drawn from what took place.

Among other things, Smith’s success in organizing the petition drive against the Anti-LGBT discrimination ordinance compelled him and several of the challenger candidates to run for office.  Convinced that receiving over 8,000 petition signatures represented true victory, they thought they had found support which would sweep them into office.  Fortunately for the city, there is a much different threshold one must cross to get somebody to vote for you than there is to get somebody to sign a petition.  If you are not honest in the way you go about convincing people to sign a petition, it is easy to mistake a successful petition drive for a barometer on the will of the people.  The resulting, deeply flawed indication from the petitions sparked a political campaign that proved to only have a fraction of the support the petition garnered.  Petitions are petitions, and elections are elections.  Mistake one for the other and you may wind up as disappointed as Mr. Smith and the challengers.

Smart Meter activism informed the campaigns of two of the candidates.  At some point, those candidates should have realized that the difficulty they were having gaining traction on the Smart Meter issue in council chambers meant they would face an even more uphill battle trying to win an election on the issue.  Smart Meter activism is crackpot activism, and it led to a crackpot campaign.  It is little surprise that it wasn’t possible to win election based on pseudo-scientific hearsay and conjecture, even to those candidates, so rather than reconsider their bids, they decided to double-down on bad ideas and attack immigration in a city with a large immigrant population.  The immigrant voters stayed away in droves.  Bigotry does not win in 2015’s Sterling Heights, nor do crackpots.  The city is more sophisticated than that.

The debate over a proposed mosque in the city, even though it gathered a great deal of attention in the media and exposed the xenophobic biases of several of the candidates, ultimately failed to impact the vote the way the challengers hoped.  Perhaps more accurately, the Smith camp failed in its attempt to hang the mosque proposal around the necks of the incumbents.  The voters could not be convinced that a sitting council which remained neutral on the issue was doing anything other than following the law and remaining within the bounds of its purview on land use decisions.  The charges that council was either pro-mosque or anti-mosque were without merit, and the voters ultimately ignored them.

Incumbency is powerful.  Nate Shannon, a perfectly reasonable man who has proven to be a perfectly satisfactory city council member, could not get elected in his original bid for office.  Yet, after being appointed and serving in the position for nine months, he won the election handily.  The difference?  The depth and strength of his support, combined with the fact that a city’s voters can be convinced more easily to maintain the status quo than they can be convinced to take the risk of electing someone new.  Mr. Shannon, although technically the weakest candidate on the incumbent slate due to the nature of how he got into office, has demonstrated that the campaign dollars flow to the candidates who people can trust to keep the city on an even keel.  This made all of the difference in the world.

The difference in the percentage of the votes between the new Mayor Pro-Tem, Joseph V. Romano, and the candidate who was re-elected with the least number of votes, Maria Schmidt, is 1.26%.  If you look at the vote counts, the council candidates were all within a few hundred votes of each other in an election that counted over 88,000 votes.  My conclusion?  The difference between the Mayor Pro-Tem’s support and any of the other re-elected council members is statistically insignificant.  There is no council member significantly stronger or weaker than the rest of the pack.   On the other hand, the difference between the candidates who were re-elected and the challenger candidates was vast: at minimum, over 5,000 votes.  My contention from the very beginning of this campaign was that the challengers would be extremely lucky to elect one candidate, and that Mr. Smith had no chance of being elected at all, and although I’m a little surprised about the order the challengers finished in, my basic premise proved to be right.

In the end, a very poor-quality group of challenger candidates took on a well-established group of incumbents, and predictably, the challengers lost.  Much will be made by the losing side in the coming weeks about how voter apathy is to blame for the election results, but I maintain that the voters who came to the polls were the ones who made the right choice; in other words, only the best qualified voters were the ones who showed up.  This morning, Mr. Smith posted to one of his Facebook pages that his campaign signs will be collected beginning today in preparation for another election bid in 2017.  He should save his time and money and just throw them away instead: a repeat of this election in 2017 will have no different results.  His political career in Sterling Heights is finished.

Finally, a personal note to my readers: this blog has been running for about five years now, and it had its best week ever over the last seven days in terms of page views.  Thank you for your readership, it is very gratifying to see people coming to the site to see what I have to say.  I appreciate your support, feedback, and referrals of the site to your friends and neighbors.  I feel very fortunate to have an audience, and I will continue to work to make your time spent reading here worthwhile.

If you don’t know who the candidates are, please don’t vote


Today I am going to tell you that everything you think you know about the importance of participating in an election is wrong: I am going to attempt to convince you to not vote next Tuesday if you don’t know exactly who you are voting for and why.

You, dear reader, have doubtless had impressed upon you that the most important thing in any election is participation and a high voter turn-out.  The idea that somebody would stay home on election day has been widely disparaged.  You almost certainly have been told that voting is a civic duty, and that every able-bodied, registered voter has the obligation to turn up at the voting site on election day and cast their ballot.

Unfortunately, this is incorrect.  The most important thing in any election is who wins and who loses.  The entire direction of the city’s government could change for the worse if the wrong people are elected.

As voters, we are charged with being the stewards of our government. The responsibility of choosing the people who will lead us is an important one, and it should not be taken lightly.  At stake is a budget of over $160 million dollars, the value of our homes should we decide to sell them, the type of Fire and Police protection our city will have, and the rapidity with which our city’s infrastructure will be maintained and/or replaced.  These are extremely important issues that directly affect all of us.

Therefore, there is no excuse for showing up at the polls and not knowing exactly who you will vote for.  Moreover, if asked, you should be able to articulate why the people you are voting for represent your interests better than the other candidates.  You should know exactly where the candidates all stand on our city’s budget, Fire, Police, and other issues, and use this knowledge to make an informed choice about who will represent you.

My friend Michael Lombardini has made an industry out of showing the interested potential voter who the local candidates are, challenger and incumbent via his Sterling Heights Local Politics Facebook group. Do visit if you have any questions about this election.  They will be swiftly and expertly answered there.

The uninformed voter cannot perform his or her civic duty with the care and caution the founders of this great nation envisioned.  The direction our government takes pivots on how well informed the electorate is.  When the voters are poorly informed, we get bad government.  We see the results of this at the national level every time we turn on the news.

If you find yourself in the voting booth and cannot recognize one or more of the names of the people who are running, do your city a favor: don’t vote.  If you are not certain exactly who you are voting for before you receive your ballot, again, please don’t vote.

Verna Babula on local control over immigration


During the Communications from Citizens segment of the 20-OCT-2015 City Council meeting, Candidate Verna Babula got up to speak about the Syrian Refugee Crisis, and her perceived need for local control over which of those immigrants are allowed to come to Sterling Heights.  Here is the two and a half minute video of what she had to say:

In her speech, Verna Babula touches upon an issue that has great currency in Sterling Heights, which is a sizable town in the process of absorbing a large number of immigrants from a different culture.  Mrs. Babula is seeking  to arouse the passions of those who feel annoyed by the influx of immigrants.  This is nothing other than an attempt to appeal to one of the darkest parts of human nature: fear of the unknown.

Without a doubt, in any given area where large groups of immigrants coalesce, there are problems brought about by the difference in culture, the need for services, and the language barrier.  As has been proven time and again, these problems are temporary.   As time goes on, the immigrants assimilate into the surrounding community.  But it does not happen quickly or easily.   Sterling Heights has been experiencing a case of this as large numbers of refugees from Iraq, the Chaldeans, have settled here in significant numbers over the past decade.

Often, as was the case with the Italian immigration of the early 20th Century, it takes a couple of generations before the group of former immigrants becomes largely indistinguishable from the surrounding population aside from minor cultural differences.  In the meantime, there is usually tension between the group of immigrants and the people who were present before they came, and a certain provincial attitude on the part of the long-timers frequently arises.    People have for time immemorial worried about immigration and what effect it would have on our society.  They worry about the different religions, the different customs, and the difficulty in communicating.  They find these things frustrating.  I’m not immune to these frustrations.  Few people are.  Yet, somehow, it has always worked out.  The American Melting Pot is real, and it is open to all comers.  History proves that our society always becomes stronger for it.  An educated people works through these frustrations and remembers this.

Verna Babula’s proposed solution to this  problem?  A board under local control which would vet the immigrants and decide who does (and who does not) get to come to Sterling Heights.

Put quite bluntly, this “solution” is as un-American as they get.

As I have stated in another post, one of the things about living in an urban setting is that you don’t get to choose who your neighbors are going to be.  This is for a good reason: it invites discrimination.  It also elevates the people doing the choosing to a status above the rest of the mere residents and proposed residents as the deciders of who gets to come here.  This dismisses and rejects the whole of American history and the reasons for our nation’s rise to prominence.

America is a nation of immigrants which prides itself on the notion of “Liberty and Justice For All.”  One of the key strengths we have historically possessed as a nation is the freedom of immigrants to settle where they please and to make the best of their new surroundings.  This in no small part has lead to the famous “American ingenuity” which enabled our society to prevail over the great evils represented by the Axis powers of World War II.    The freedoms accorded to even the newest among us have made our society the economic powerhouse that remains the envy of the world.  Although diversity simply for diversity’s sake is not an unalloyed good, it has been demonstrated that it is far more beneficial to our society than it is detrimental.  American Exceptionalism derives directly from the even-handed treatment our immigrants, and really all of our compatriots, have always enjoyed.

My question: If people like Verna Babula were in control at the time our ancestors came here, would they have made the cut?

Personally, my very existence owes to the fact that a 9-year old Dutch girl crossed the Atlantic in 1911, passed through Ellis Island, and then settled in the Detroit area, later becoming my maternal grandmother.

I wonder if Mrs. Babula would have approved of my grandmother?  And I wonder how many other people like me in the future might not get the same opportunities I did because Mrs. Babula, and her Tea Party brethren, decided they weren’t OK?

Mrs. Babula’s call for local control over immigration is dangerous.   I highly doubt it would be limited to just these Syrian refugees.  Such a group, if given the ability to decide who will or will not be allowed to move into Sterling Heights in matters of immigration, would be likely to try to seize control over which non-immigrant groups get to move into Sterling Heights.  With the legal precedent set that we can control who immigrates here, what would stop whoever is in this group from enacting limits forbidding any other group to move here?

What would stop this group from deciding that the only people who can come here are people just like them?

Verna Babula wants to expand the power of government enormously.  She wants to take control over the direction of the lives of thousands of people.  And she, of all people, who are (ridiculously, in my opinion) concerned about state-sponsored surveillance via Smart Meters, ought to know that the solution to a problem is not more government.

Her plans must not come to pass.

Election Recommendations


I took some time today and cooked up a Youtube Video summarizing some of the reasons why I personally feel that Paul Smith and the Challenger Candidates are not a good choice for Sterling Heights.

I am currently working on full coverage of the election and the candidates, to be released very soon.

In the meantime, enjoy the video!

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