As I write this it is roughly 12 hours after City Council approved a settlement agreement with the American Islamic Community Center (AICC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) in dual lawsuits brought over a 2015 Planning Commission decision to deny the building of a mosque on 15 Mile Road. I find myself uneasy with some of the things that go with that settlement. I think it’s important to look at all of this in the light of day.
First and foremost, the Good: approving the settlement was absolutely, completely, and without reservation the right thing to do. Legally the city didn’t have a leg to stand on considering the very high bar the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) law sets forth with regard to whether or not a municipality can place “burdens” on a religious group’s use of land. To quote the law directly, there must be a “compelling government interest” in placing these restrictions on a proposal. Whether or not the city’s interest in enforcing its setback requirements is “compelling” is an interesting question, and I fully expect that as a Planning Commissioner I am about to receive some (settlement-mandated) training on what that term means under the RLUIPA law. In the DOJ Press Conference this morning, there were several mentions of how city officials were “educated” as to their responsibilities under the law. I expect this education will soon be passed onto me in excruciating clarity.
Moreover, approving the settlement was the only decent thing to do: denying our fellow Americans their right to practice their religion is both immoral and hypocritical for a government that makes claim to respecting diversity and equality as ours does. Rectifying the wrong that denied the AICC group one of its basic rights under the Constitution (and, I believe, a basic human right) is paramount. That task casts a long shadow over virtually every other consideration, and perhaps that alone should be enough to assuage my concerns over the settlement taken in its entirety. That it was possible to achieve the goal of relief for the AICC without a protracted legal battle in court is an unalloyed good in my view.
However, there are a few things that trouble me about the settlement, and I will set them forth here, hopefully in a way that will be taken as respectful by our friends at the AICC and the DOJ, and with a mind towards the idea that when you settle, you don’t get everything that you want. Here is the Bad:
I am unclear on the RLUIPA treatment of the setback requirements and building height requirements in the zoning ordinance. A DOJ-published “Q & A” document states that:
So long as a municipality applies its codes uniformly and does not impose an unjustified substantial burden on religious exercise, it may apply traditional zoning concerns – such as regulations addressing traffic, hours of use, parking, maximum capacity, intensity of use, setbacks, frontage – to religious uses just as they are applied to any other land uses.
Now the same document also states,
When there is a conflict between RLUIPA and the zoning code or how it is applied, RLUIPA, as a federal civil rights law, takes precedence and the zoning law must give way.
It seems to me that the quotes translate to “the zoning law applies until RLUIPA says it doesn’t,” which as a practical matter leaves someone like me in a quandary. As a layman with regard to the application of civil rights law, I’m going to have to defer to the city attorney’s interpretation of this and hope that they manage to keep me out of trouble with the DOJ as I go about my business in my role as a Planning Commissioner.
Another thing that troubles me about the settlement is the implication that the action the Planning Commission took in the Fall of 2015 was intended to cause harm to the AICC.
I don’t believe that the Planning Commissioners intended to cause harm to anyone or any group by voting 9-0 against the mosque proposal. Whether or not they actually did cause harm is a separate matter; I think it’s fair to say that the AICC was, in fact, harmed by the decision. My issue is the lack of intent.
I suppose the lack of mens rea on the part of the city and the Planning Commission made the difference between a DOJ lawsuit and a DOJ prosecution, but as a layman with regard to the law I am purely speculating. Some attorney, somewhere, will probably set me straight on this, and I’m hoping it will be soon. What I do know, and something I keep in mind as a Planning Commissioner, is when we vote to turn a proposal down, we’re causing some form of harm to the applicant, usually financial. As a man of conscience this troubles me, but on the other hand I took an oath to uphold the law to the best of my ability, and in so doing I implicitly agreed to make decisions that would not always have all parties leave satisfied.
So if we accept the idea that sometimes in the course of doing business a Planning Commission inadvertently causes harm to those applicants whose proposals do not pass muster, is it fair to say that the harm caused to the AICC was not particularly exceptional in this regard? Is it simply the intersection of religious rights with ordinary land use that makes the difference between this being exceptional or not?
This may seem like a minor point to most, but as a Planning Commissioner this is a question I gotta know the answer to, and fast, before any other religious land use proposals arise on the docket. If we begin to treat all religious land use proposals with kid gloves then we may well find ourselves in dereliction of our duty to uphold the zoning law. On the other hand, if we uphold the zoning law without giving regard to religious land use rights, we’re going to proceed as we did in 2015 and get our hands smacked with another lawsuit. You can see the conundrum.
Another qualm I have with the settlement is that not all of the terms are public. I understand occasionally a government may enter into an agreement, in the form of a settlement or otherwise, in which a certain confidentiality may be required to protect the interests of the person or persons involved. For example, there is no need to put the proverbial finger on any individual as the proximate cause of this particular conflict when a group of commissioners decided unanimously, with the tacit approval of city attorneys and planning officials, to vote something down. In fact, it makes me uncomfortable that statements made by a planning commissioner have been highlighted as a reason why the DOJ decided to pursue this case in the manner it did, although I find those particular statements reprehensible, ill conceived, and ill advised. So perhaps you can understand why I say, yes, I can see why some of this settlement needs to remain confidential as long as the public doesn’t have some overriding need to know.
On the other side of the coin, it would be best for us as Planning Commissioners to know, understand and appreciate all of the naked, dangly bits of this settlement deal so that we don’t stupidly make the same mistake(s) again the next time somebody wants to build a house of worship. Surely that is a compelling interest. Again, where do we draw the line?
And now for The Ugly promised to you in the title of this tome: the matter of how nothing has really been resolved between the AICC and the residents opposed to the building of a mosque for religious reasons.
I can’t tell you how disappointed I am that there are people in 2017 who are willing to stand up before God and country, and on television tell you that they hate all members of a particular religion, or that they consider them to be “terrorists.” This has to be one of the most perversely annoying, yet, on a certain level, understandable problems of our time.
In a day and age where we are making huge inroads in the form of tolerance and acceptance toward those who do not meet a certain, rigidly defined social norm, it is hard to comprehend this attitude towards members of a (slightly different) religion with roots in the same god of Abraham. On the other hand, we have unfortunately been witness to the politicization of Islam in the United States over the past 16 years since 9/11. It is not hard to understand how it might be beyond a lot of people’s ability to separate radical Islam from the garden variety practice of that religion by a group like the AICC: in short, critical thinking skills are frequently at a premium among the general public, and with the contentious nature of our national politics, many among us tend to see things in terms of black and white.
All this is to say that we’re not out of the woods yet on this mosque thing, not by a long shot. With the legal hurdles of getting the thing approved by the city now cleared, it would seem that the AICC will move forward with getting engineering diagrams drawn up and materials selected, and eventually will select a contractor and break ground. And that is as it should be.
But the folks that stood in that parking lot two summers ago cheering and pulling on hijabs and who then waved signs last night emblazoned with the slogan “We will REMBER in November” are hardly convinced that this is all over with. Also, the very real (and I sincerely believe, evil) forces that will attempt to capitalize on this conflict during an election year are not about to pack up and go away without another word.
We’re gonna hear from Sanaa Elias and Jazmine Early again. Bet money on it. And they’re going to do their best to stir the pot and capitalize on any discontent they bring to the surface. Will there be angry demonstrations? I’d imagine so. Will there be acts of aggression inspired at least tangentially by their activities? Not hard to imagine. Are the police going to have to keep a close watch on the site of this mosque as it gets built to protect the AICC from its neighbors? Gee, I sure hope not, but I fear this will be the case.
I don’t know what to tell you to do about religious intolerance. As Councilman Skrzyniarz said last night, religious intolerance is a problem as old as civilization itself. It even predates traffic! What do you do when you have a large, angry group of people determined to oppress a religious group so they cannot practice their religion?
I am not a religious man myself, but if there is something to pray for in this situation, it is peace. It is tolerance. It is harmony. It is for the good of all of our fellow human beings and neighbors. And it is certainly worth praying for someone or something to lead us to a resolution of this conflict before anything really bad happens. Here’s hoping that whoever or whatever will lead us to this goal turns up fast.
This evening, City Council will decide whether or not to accept the terms of a ‘global’ settlement agreement in the lawsuits filed against it by the Department of Justice and the American Islamic Community Center (AICC) over the issue of the proposed mosque on 15 Mile Road between Mound and Ryan Roads. As always, Council should consider the terms of the settlement agreement carefully, and then approve it if it is in the best interest of the City of Sterling Heights.
I am distressed to learn that even though the terms of the settlement have not been publicly released, an opposition movement has already been launched. People are circulating fliers calling for a large turn-out to the meeting, arguing that council should not be “rushing” to approve the settlement, and demanding that the city reject the proposal.
The people who have circulated this flier opposing the proposal have not read it. It has not been released to the public. They’ve taken the incredible, nonsensical leap from knowing nothing about what is being proposed to being opposed to it.
Look, folks, I am a Planning Commissioner. I am also a long-time political activist who knows quite a few people in the administration as well as everyone sitting on council. It is not a stretch to say that if there was anyone not on council or the city’s legal team who knew what was in this proposal it would be me! And I am relieved to tell you that I don’t know a darn thing. Nothing. Neither do the people circulating these petitions. The city’s attorneys have done their job of keeping the terms of any potential legal settlement private, so they do not damage that settlement’s chances of moving forward. I applaud them for doing so.
But this means that I couldn’t tell you if the deal is good or bad. I wouldn’t even hazard to guess what’s in that proposal. It could be almost anything, from expressly permitting the AICC to build a 70-story super-mosque without regard to the zoning law to simply paying the AICC’s legal fees and bidding them adieu. Until tonight’s meeting, there isn’t anything to be for or against. I assume that the city’s attorneys have negotiated in the city’s best interest, and we will find out what the outcome of those negotiations are tonight.
Ordinarily, I encourage people to be involved in the political process, both when important decisions are being made and when routine business is being conducted. An informed, active populace is the soul of a healthy republic, and engagement rather than apathy is the preferred condition.
At the same time, if you plan to show up to a meeting to oppose something that you know nothing about, based on hearsay spoken by people who cannot know what is being proposed, perhaps you might want to reconsider. Maybe before you become opposed to something you might want to wait a bit for the facts to come out so you can find out what you’re opposed to. Maybe you might want to think about the motivations of the people who are encouraging you to show up for a meeting to oppose something that hasn’t yet been revealed. You might want to ponder whether or not you and your fear of the unknown is being taken advantage of.
In general, I would say this: the AICC more or less has a right to build a mosque on property they own or have a contract to own as long as the plans for that mosque are in compliance with the city’s zoning ordinance and the plans pass muster with the Planning Commission. Alternatively, they can have the right granted to them as part of a consent agreement or legal judgement. In 2015, the Planning Commission rejected the AICC’s plans because of technical reasons: the mosque was too large for the plot of land the group proposed to build it upon. As I’ve noted before, in an urban area we don’t get to choose our neighbors. I find the idea that we would reject any development because of the religion of the developer to be horrifying and contrary to the principles that America was founded upon.
However, if you happen to be running for council this year in opposition to the current council and you align yourself with a certain group of challenger candidates that ran in 2015 (those being Paul Smith, Jazmine Early, Verna Babula, Jackie Ryan, Sanaa Elias and Joe Judnick), you’re not terribly concerned with the principles that America was founded upon. You’re not above using people’s fear of Muslims for your own personal gain. Your only concern is to get yourself elected to City Council. And if you can do that, in part, by playing upon people’s fears and getting them to show up to oppose something about which you haven’t got any verifiable facts, well, that’s exactly the sort of voters you’re looking for: people who don’t really understand the issues all that well and who are likely to vote based on emotions like fear. If you can leverage this mosque issue into a coalition that will help get you elected, who cares about freedom of religion, the right to pursue happiness, or the rest? It’s about getting votes!
So I will be watching this evening’s proceedings with interest. I will be fascinated to learn, like the rest of you, what the terms of the proposed settlement actually are. Thus enlightened, I will hopefully then be able to make an intelligent decision as to whether or not I agree that the settlement should move forward. (And I will trust the city council to make that decision in my absence, because I feel like they represent me and my interests pretty well, on balance.)
Godspeed to our City Council at tonight’s meeting. I sincerely hope that facing the forces of ignorance and fear is not too daunting of a task, and I feel confident that I will be able to support any decision you make.
Seven minutes. That’s how long you’ll get to talk on camera before City Council on every consideration item on the agenda, plus an additional seven minutes for ‘Communications from Citizens’, and another seven for the Consent Agenda if you choose to take advantage of it. During a typical Council meeting with two consideration items, that means that anyone so inclined can tie up 28 minutes of the meeting with just their commentary.
New Business is a regular agenda item
Of late there have been multiple complaints about items brought forth during the New Business portion of the regular Council agenda. These particular items have not set well with some people, and so they’ve used as part of their arguments against them that they were “brought up in the middle of the night.”
The reason why this regular agenda item sometimes doesn’t come up until 11:30PM is because we’re forced to sit through seven minutes for everyone who cares to speak during Communications from Citizens, the agenda item that precedes New Business. The importance of this is hard to overstate.
New Business is the portion of the meeting where our elected representatives can bring up issues not on the agenda which they consider important and in need of discussion and action. It is when they are supposed to carry out their job of improving the city!
Residents who want to remain informed about the goings on in their local government deserve to see the New Business portion of the meeting before O’dark-thirty, when usually the only people who are still up are unemployed teenagers playing video games: Residents should have the right to expect that the meetings will be conducted expeditiously so they can stay up late enough to watch the entire meeting.
But why do we need shorter time limits, or perhaps flexible time limits? In order to understand that, first we must understand the motivations of the people who speak at council meetings.
Motivations of Speakers
In the years I’ve been active in city politics, I’ve spoken before council perhaps several dozen times. I’ve watched countless others speak before council as well. In my experience, there are only a few motivations a speaker might have to go before council. I list these here in order of importance:
- An attempt to persuade: the speaker tries to persuade council members who are undecided on the issue at hand to vote his way.
- An attempt to convince: the speaker tries to enhance the conviction of those council members who are leaning his way already that their assessment of the issue is correct, thus solidifying their vote.
- An attempt to inform: the speaker tries to inform council about something germane to city business that they have somehow not learned in their own voluminous research and reading of backup material.
- Taking the opportunity to say what they feel about an issue: the speaker weighs in with his own personal viewpoint, and purports that to represent the viewpoint of the silent majority.
- An attempt to put their own personal brand on an issue: the speaker uses the meeting as a way to get his face on television to achieve name recognition, to recruit supporters for an upcoming election, or to annoy those members of the sitting council who they perceive as their competition. The issue itself is just a vehicle used to deliver themselves before the camera.
As I’ve said, I listed these in order of importance. Attempting to persuade or convince council is the highest form of citizen participation in local government. Norman Rockwell’s famous 1943 “Freedom of Speech” painting evokes this highest use of our right to speak. The ability to do this is a big part of what the speech clause of the First Amendment was designed to protect, and it does so admirably. When someone is doing this, and doing it well, he is truly serving all of us.
Attempting to inform council is a little bit more questionable, but I have seen it work out well on occasion. Usually the residents don’t know as much as council does about an issue. I would hazard this to be true about 95% of the time, actually. That 5% of the time can be important, however, and if a true subject matter expert speaks before council sometimes minds are changed for the better. Also, this can be successful during the Communications from Citizens segment: sometimes the residents raise issues that have escaped council and the administration. I’ve seen issues with flooding, sewage overflows, broken streets, and dangerous city trees brought to light during Communications from Citizens. It is a worthy use of the time.
Taking the opportunity to say what you feel about an issue is certainly respectable…up to a point. I trade here in opinion and commentary, but coming here to read what I think about something is optional. You don’t have to suffer through me blathering on for seven minutes to get my opinion of something if I write it down here. I like to think of writing here as a more polite way to express myself on the issues than confiscating the public’s time by standing at the microphone. Most of the time what I personally think about an issue isn’t, and shouldn’t be, all that important to the city as a whole. The meeting is not about me, it’s about the business of the city. If you want my opinion, come here and read it. Otherwise, for the most part, I am satisfied to keep my thoughts to myself.
When people use the podium to promote their own personal brand, they’re abusing the city council meetings. The chronic, worst offenders, the ones who speak the most often and for the longest time, are ALL guilty of this. No purpose is served when we see you at the podium, congratulating the DPW on the fine job they did the other day plowing the snow. Nobody should have to suffer through watching you on TV talking about “Making Sterling Heights Great Again” as you launch your 2017 campaign for office. The city’s historical legacy will not be improved by hearing out your whack-job theories on things like “Smart Meters” being the newest instruments of government surveillance. Nobody should have to listen to you carrying out your personal vendetta against Mayor Taylor and/or his wife. Nobody needs to see you coming in from another city to spend time at our city’s meeting to tell us what you think about how something went elsewhere. This stuff is maddening, it happens all too frequently, and it is destructive to the democratic process. It needs to stop. Although we cannot completely stop these abuses, we can, and we should, limit them so they do not take up any more of the public’s time than necessary.
Relax, the First Amendment is safe
If I really want to bend the collective body politic’s ear on a subject, I’ve got no shortage of places to do it. Aside from this blog that you’re currently reading, which by the way costs me nothing other than my time to maintain it, there is also the Sterling Heights Local Politics group on Facebook. Plus, I’ve got endless opportunities with Twitter, YouTube, and other social media to make my point. Also at my disposal are the tried and true options of writing letters to Council, to the local newspapers, and making phone calls.
Our First Amendment rights will be safe regardless of the length of the speaking time limit at Council meetings, contrary to what some people will try to tell you. No, you may not get seven minutes on television, but if you need seven full minutes of the whole city’s attention to make a point, you’re probably doing it wrong. You’re probably unprepared. You probably don’t know what you’re talking about, or you’re not expressing your ideas particularly well. You might, maybe should practice a bit and hone it down to a more reasonable length of time. Regardless, we don’t need to watch you ramble and stumble for that length of time just so we can see all of the agenda items.
So how long is long enough?
That’s a really good question. As I’ve said, three or four minutes are all I’ve needed to make my point. In many cases, a well prepared speaker can clearly make a point in a minute. It’s done in the U.S. Congress all the time, with 300-word ‘One Minute Speeches’.
I would be in favor of a flexible limit: longer for agenda items, shorter for Communications from Citizens. Remember, the mayor has the discretionary power to ignore the time limit if he so chooses: if you are so compelling, and council is hanging breathless on your every word, you’re going to get a few extra seconds to finish your thought.
On balance, I think four minutes is more than fair. It’s certainly long enough, on the one hand, and it will trim the abuses back to a more manageable level on the other hand. Three minutes might be pushing it, but I could live with that. Five minutes, in my opinion, is just too long. Two minutes is probably way too short.
Who will fight against this the hardest?
The people who are going to fight this tooth and nail are the ones who abuse their right to speak the most egregiously. They are the wanna-be politicians, the gadflies, and the people who probably should get a different hobby. Mrs. Taylor has cheerfully termed these folks “the bobbleheads” because you see them speaking at almost every meeting, wagging their heads at the camera. I thought it was such an apt description that I made a video about it:
Often you can decide the merits of an issue by who takes sides against it. I have a feeling this will be true in this case. The people who fight hardest against this will be the same, chronic abusers of their free speech rights that we see twice each month. They will be the folks who will distort the truth and tell you that this represents an attack on the First Amendment, and that “our right to speak is being taken away.”
Don’t believe them. They are far more interested in their ‘right’ to be on camera than your right to free speech.
Tonight, City Council is going to revisit the issue of whether or not the Fire Department should take over responsibility for ambulance transport from the current provider, Universal Ambulance. There are a lot of moving parts to this issue. Although some things are a matter of opinion, there are some facts which are not in dispute. Let’s take a look at those facts first.
Facts Not In Dispute
First and foremost, this is an ideological issue, and it has the distinction of being perhaps the most polarizing local political ideological issue in town. There are two factions involved: a “conservative side” and a “firefighter/labor side”, and the battle lines are familiar to anyone who follows state or national politics. More on this later, but in short the conservatives are against this, and the firefighter/labor side is for it.
Another fact: the Sterling Heights Fire Department currently responds to every emergency medical call in the city, and has done so for many years. Out of the tens of thousands of runs annually, only a few hundred are for structure fires; most of the department’s runs are medical in nature. The costs for these runs are being paid for directly by the taxpayers.
Also not in dispute is the matter of Universal Ambulance. As the current provider, Universal Ambulance has been providing the service for decades. They are headquartered in Sterling Heights, and are contracted to have a certain minimum number of ambulances available within the city at all times. They are a good corporate citizen, and their competent, if somewhat unremarkable service has been very reliable for all of this time.
Now that we have gotten the basic facts out of the way, let’s take a quick look at the factions on each side of the issue and their main concerns.
How Conservatives Stand
The typical Sterling Heights conservative, when confronted with this issue, will recite for you the dogma that local governments should not intrude into the private sector. Outside of their concerns about the potential government takeover in this space, which some will term “socialist”, they typically will state concerns that:
- The expense of acquiring ambulances and additional personnel will not be recouped by collecting from patient insurance companies
- Adding to the payroll, in this case in hiring fifteen additional firefighters, is unwise considering the uncertain state of the economy
- The voters were once called upon to decide this issue in the past and they rejected it
- The union firefighters will do the job at several times the cost per hour that it is currently being done for by the employees of Universal Ambulance
It bears mention that some on the conservative side of this issue are proponents of transforming the Sterling Heights Fire Department into a volunteer service, similar to that of Troy. They see the potential expansion into medical transport as a roadblock to that goal, and as a way for the professional union firefighters to further cement their hold on the fire service overall.
The Firefighter Perspective
Firefighters will point out to you the fact that they are currently doing everything there is to be done in terms of emergency medical response in town except driving the ambulance. Besides the fact that they are at every medical run in the city, they will tell you that:
- They provide the most highly trained, professional advanced life support in the city
- They are currently watching Universal Ambulance collect all of the insurance revenues even as the Fire Department does most of the work
- In addition to being Emergency Medical Technicians, every firefighter assigned to a new transport service will, in fact, be a firefighter, and thus capable of doing extinguishment, rescue, and other duties that Universal Ambulance personnel cannot
The Lens of Ideology
As I said before, no matter how it is spun, this is first and foremost an ideological issue. Your political party preference typically informs your standpoint on the issue, and if you are a political moderate you might be amazed tonight at the level of vitriol that will be on display on both sides of the issue. Expect a large turn out of residents, especially conservative activists. Also expect a large turn-out of firefighters and labor supporters. There will be clapping after everyone on one side or another speaks, and people on either side will probably feel like the other side is crazy.
And a few short years ago, I would have been clapping right along with my conservative brothers and sisters, but today I’ve got a different viewpoint.
First of all, there is nothing to be gained by being an ideologue. If the only way you can approach this issue is by viewing it through the “conservative” lens or through the “firefighter” lens, you’re not adding anything to the discussion that hasn’t already been said many times over as this issue has resurfaced over the years. You are not contributing anything new, and you are not considering how the situation may have changed.
So instead of asking the same old questions and giving the same old answers, which I have basically outlined for you above, I have a few new questions for you to consider.
- First, is delivering emergency services, in this case emergency medical transport, a legitimate function of local government?
- Second, if the goal is to provide a high level of service and costs are secondary — and that does seem to be the pattern in this country with regard to medical expenses — are no revenues for the sake of ideological purity better than some revenues?
- Third, how important is the mission of saving lives and minimizing property damage to the Fire Department and the city at large?
How I Answer These Questions
In my opinion, emergency services are the main reason why we have local government in the first place. When I pick up the phone and dial 911, I want a cop car, fire truck or ambulance to show up at my door in the least amount of time, and have the people riding in them ready to go to work as soon as their wheels stop turning. You can take all of the other services that local government provides — recreation, trash collection, road maintenance, snow removal, the library, etc. — and all put together they aren’t close to being as important as what happens when someone dials 911. The citizens feel the same way about this. They’ve voted for the recent public safety millage, and they voted some time ago to borrow the money required to reconstruct the city’s fire stations. Sterling Heights voters value emergency services.
So, is a local municipality providing emergency medical transport a legitimate function? You had better believe it is. It is cut from the same stock that firefighting and policing are, and it frequently goes hand-in-hand with those activities. Many towns have had their fire department transporting patients from the very beginning, and although it is certainly not a profitable endeavor, it is a necessary function that fits in quite well with the emergency services infrastructure that we already have. Typically, the firefighters are there immediately after the injuries that require an emergency response happen, and in cases of sudden illness, they are the first to arrive.
As to the second question: the main concerns about taking transport in-house seem to be ideological and financial. Ideologues don’t want a “socialist government takeover” and the fiscal conservatives worry about not recovering the cost associated with operating a medical transport service. But right now we’re shipping one and sometimes two fire trucks to every medical emergency. SHFD personnel are working on every heart attack victim. And none of this is being paid for by the patient’s insurance company. Do we want ideological purity, or do we want fiscal responsibility? If you want fiscal responsibility, you don’t want to exclude the insurance company revenue source. The only other choice is a much lower level of emergency medical service in Sterling Heights by mandating that the firefighters stick to putting out fires and cutting people out of wrecks, and given the support of the voters for public safety issues, that seems to be a non-starter.
It seems to me that if we’re already paying for a high level of service out of the tax revenues, we ought to make the investment in the vehicles and additional personnel and do it right, and possibly get to a point where it is revenue neutral.
The biggest difference, however, between this time and all of the other times this issue has come up, lies within the answer to question number three: how important is saving lives and minimizing property damage via the Fire Department?
You may recall that not long ago the Fire Department had to shrink its shifts down to the point that now we have three firefighters per truck instead of four. This was done for financial reasons: the industry trend is towards three-firefighter trucks, and the pressure of tax revenues still not fully recovered from the downturn of 2008 demanded some cost control.
One thing that didn’t change with the shift to three-firefighter trucks, however, are the OSHA rules concerning how many firefighters must be at the scene of a structure fire before that structure can be entered. Under the current rules, a three-firefighter crew cannot advance into a structure unless there is the potential that someone inside needs to be rescued. For all other situations, they must wait until the second truck arrives, thus reaching the mandated level of four firefighters before the structure can be entered.
Waiting a few additional minutes to enter a burning structure increases the property damage literally exponentially. Fires typically double in size every ten seconds, and at about the four minute mark they reach the flashover point where the temperature of the combustion gases trapped in the building reaches the kindling point of common building materials. Once that happens, survivability is reduced to near zero, even for a fully suited firefighter with SCBA equipment.
But, you see, if the firefighters are also operating the medical transport service, 66% of the time there will be a two-man ambulance crew on hand right at the start of every structural firefighting effort. And that two man crew? Yep. Certified firefighters. An advance into the building can thus be made as soon as they arrive, 66% of the time.
If you want to get to the bottom of why bringing transport in-house is a good idea this time, where it might not have been as convincing in the past, it is here: by doing this, we’re augmenting the staff of firefighters who can respond to a critical firefighting event. This will produce better outcomes with lower property damage losses. And that is the difference that makes the idea of bringing transport in-house a winner.
Will bringing transport in-house make the Fire Department a profit center for the city? I am told under no uncertain terms that it will not. At best it will be self sustaining, with some years very slightly profitable and some other years very slightly unprofitable. In the case that the projections are way off and it turns into a financial boondoggle for the city, there is an “out clause” in the Memorandum of Understanding that will allow the city to back away from the service if need be. With the conservative nature of the current Budget Director, I trust that the recommendation would not be made to take on this new venture unless the “out clause” was very unlikely to actually be needed.
On the other hand, sending a fire truck to every medical run is most assuredly NOT financially sensible. We do it because it is what is best for patient outcomes, not because it makes financial sense. Getting the insurance revenue will make this approach more sustainable, and that is something that conservatives can at least agree makes sense.
In the end, I don’t think there is any question: we are going to bring transport in-house. It has the support of the administration, it has the support of the firefighters, and I believe it has the support of the majority on council. It mostly makes financial sense, and it makes more financial sense than what we are doing today.
Council should vote yes on this issue. They can reverse it later if it turns out to be an unforeseen financial problem.
Readers of this blog know that I rarely diverge away from Sterling Heights topics in this space. But since our city’s very own Paul M. Smith is running against incumbent Democrat Anthony Wickersham for Macomb County Sheriff, it is worth a few words here.
Paul Smith is unfit to serve as Sheriff in a multitude of ways. First of all, he has absolutely no experience with the police except having them called about his frequent, and often seemingly insane rants. Sometimes, the people who are called to deal with Mr. Smith’s behavior include the Federal Secret Service and the Fire Department.
I won’t recount all of Mr. Smith’s bizarre actions during his tenure as a member of the Sterling Heights City Council, a position that he was formally asked to resign by a 6-1 vote of that body. If you are interested, visit the archive of Paul Smith stories here. In them you will read about his megalomaniacal five-year romp here in the city. I daresay that Mr. Smith is truly unfit to serve in any elected office.
For people who are considering voting for Mr. Smith due to the fact that he is running as a Republican: be advised that Mr. Smith is not a conservative. His political views run to the extreme and are certainly right-leaning, but he is apparently uneducated in conservative principles and does not share much in common with, say, the conservatism of someone like Ronald Reagan.
Paul Smith is the absolute last man on earth who should be entrusted with a badge and a gun. He would be a true danger to himself and to our community, and the prospect of him with law enforcement powers is truly frightening.
In my many years of voting, I have only once before voted for someone running as a Democrat, that being Carl Marlinga back in the early 1990s. Mr. Marlinga got my vote because he was the first politician in Metro Detroit to recognize that we as citizens should enjoy the full scope of our Second Amendment rights and effectively made Macomb County a “shall issue” county for concealed pistol licenses, a practice that has now swept across the state and in fact the country.
For me as a conservative, it pains me to vote for a Democrat, but in this case I must make an exception. On Tuesday, November 8th, I will be voting for Smith’s opponent, Sheriff Anthony Wickersham.
One problem that I want to make sure gets the attention it deserves is the potential fallout from the ongoing changing of the guard at SHPD.
As frequent readers and followers of city politics will know, there is a sea change underway in the city’s public safety departments. Many new recruits are being brought in, and many current people are retiring. The pace at which new people are coming in is frantic, and the ones who are retiring are steadily trickling out.
The city formerly offered something called the Deferred Retirement Option Program, or DROP for short. DROP is not unique to Sterling Heights; it is an employee benefit that is frequently offered by municipalities in many states to public safety workers as a way to enhance their retirement benefits. The way it works is somewhat complex, but the idea is that the worker will elect to participate in the DROP, and will technically “retire” while continuing to work for a defined length of time while their pension remains undisbursed. Supposedly it was a revenue neutral way for the city to get a few more years of work from their most experienced employees, while at the same time allowing those folks to enhance their retirement savings. You’ll need an actuary, a lawyer and an accountant to explain it further; that’s the best I understand it.
The bad thing, in my view, about the DROP is that it forces participants to select a date certain by which they must stop working. That date then somehow becomes cast in stone for all but a very few of the top employees. In Fire Chief Chris Martin’s case, for example, some innovative thinking on the part of the city’s human resources department, enabled him to stay on past his DROP date after being elevated to the Chief’s position.
Well, Chief Martin is a smart guy, and we need him around. But the smart guys in our public safety departments don’t all have “Chief” in their titles. Most of the Police command officers are in their late 40s, and they find themselves elevated to positions of responsibility with only a few short years left before they have to leave. Many of these men and women enjoy police work. No, they are not immune to the aging process; they might not run as fast or for as long as a 22 year old new recruit, but we still need them for their experience, accumulated knowledge, and ability to guide the department through a period of tumultuous change. As a worker in my late 40s myself, I have well over 25 years of accumulated experience to draw upon in doing my job developing software. The police and firefighters are no different. There is a physical component to their jobs that a keyboard warrior like myself doesn’t have, but there is a very important leadership component that we share in common.
For example — and he’s probably going to put me in cuffs for mentioning his name, but so be it — is the commander of the Training Bureau, Sgt. Mark Schmidt. The Training Bureau is the part of the department to which the CERT team, which I am a part of, answers to.
Mr. Schmidt has been with the force for a long time, and like many good officers, he has worked hard and risen to the rank of Sergeant. This is not a simple or easy accomplishment, as any officer who has taken the test and gone through the interview process can tell you. Sgt. Schmidt is in his late 40s, and due to his election to participate in the DROP for financial reasons, will be forced out of the department by next summer.
Schmidt’s been an important part of the Training Bureau, and by extension, the CERT. Under his leadership, the CERT has made big strides towards improving our operational readiness, and I can speak for the CERT in saying that we’d like to keep him around. In fact, we would have liked to keep every officer that has lead us in the past and then gone on to retirement, but Sgt. Schmidt has been a special case. He has an understanding of what the team is about and how to manage it that is unusual in my experience. In addition, he has also recently taken the lead on the Active Assailant Training offered to community leaders that I was privileged to attend.
With new officers coming in in big batches, the Training Bureau is a critical function of SHPD. The performance of that bureau is in no small part responsible for the future of the department.
It’s a shame that as Sgt. Schmidt retires, Training and CERT will move on to another officer, who will have to work for months just to pick up where he left off. That new commander will just be starting to resume Schmidt’s progress and then will retire.
The lack of continuity is a problem for CERT, and it is a much bigger problem for the SHPD as a whole.
As I understand it, the DROP has been in the process of being phased out. But there are still a number of senior-level officers who are in the program, and as a result, they are progressing toward a retirement date that they cannot change. Although it may have made financial sense for them to take the option, the result is that they find themselves out of a job with potentially 10 or 20 more good working years left, and they don’t get the opportunity to stay in a place where they have spent the majority of their careers and could potentially do the most good.
To put a really fine point on this, take a look at the newspaper. In the past weeks, we’ve had a high school student arrested for making terrorist threats, we’ve had an armed robbery that turned into a kidnapping/carjacking that took place near enough to our schools that they went into lockdown mode, and a raid on businesses in the strip mall just north of 15 Mile Road and Van Dyke. We’ve also just seen a murderer who preyed on the elderly last year convicted of his crime. It takes experienced police commanders to respond properly to these sorts of events, and from what we’ve seen in the national news, more bad things are certain to come.
Yes, the city is pretty safe for its size, but that is partly due to the experience of the command officers managing the Police Department. I think we need to keep these guys around for as long as possible, and to do that I think the city needs to explore ways to change up the DROP for the remaining people who are on it to make it possible for them to stay if they’re valuable. Don’t you think so?
This evening I was given the opportunity to attend the Sterling Heights Police Department’s Active Assailant Training for Civilians program at St. Blasé Catholic Church on 15 Mile Road via my involvement in the city’s CERT program. It was three hours of high quality information that your community or church group, fellow employees, and child’s teachers need to see in these uncertain times.
Hosted by the department’s internal training bureau consisting of Sergeant Mark Schmidt, Officer Andy Pawlik and Officer Jassin Hakim, the presentation went into gritty detail about the realities of suddenly being faced by a violent, gun wielding criminal bent on killing as many people as possible. The veteran police officers making the presentation gave solid, actionable strategies for how you should react to that situation. Using recent news events — including things that happened this very week — as the backdrop, the officers making the presentation drove home the idea that if you encounter such a scenario, your very life depends on what you do next. And they made the point that what most people naturally do next — freezing up — gets them killed. Their goal in giving the presentation? Getting the attendees to change their mindset, quickly recognize the situation for what it is, and then take positive action to either escape, hold off or stop the killer until the police can arrive. They also included some very important cautionary information for concealed pistol license holders that I think should be printed on the back of every CPL card about what will happen if they are observed at an active crime scene with a weapon visible.
I was impressed by what I saw tonight, as were the roughly 100 other people in attendance. In the past I was forced to take some pretty substandard training on active shooter events by a previous employer, and I can tell you that this presentation was by far and away better. It was more realistic, it gave more likely sounding advice, and it better put the emphasis on where it really needs to be: you have to save yourself!
In the decade that I have been acquainted with and have worked with Sterling Heights’ public safety departments I have always been more than satisfied by the level of professionalism and skill that our police and fire fighters bring to the job. So I went into this presentation this evening with high hopes and expectations for what I would see. All of my expectations were exceeded. We truly have some talented police officers working in that training department, and it really showed. I have to give special kudos to Officer Pawlik, who gave the bulk of the presentation: he brought an enormous amount of passion, knowledge and energy to this event, and in the future I will not be the least bit surprised to find out that the information he gave tonight has wound up saving the life of someone who attended.
If Sterling Heights church leaders, business owners and business managers demonstrate an interest in having more opportunities to receive this training, I believe the department will endeavor to deliver it. It is intended for groups, rather than individuals, and it may be offered again sometime over the winter of 2016/17. Follow the link above to the City of Sterling Heights website for more information on when the program might be offered again.
Are you a resident of Sterling Heights who is not a member of a group like this but wants these sort of training opportunities? May I suggest that you strongly consider joining the Sterling Heights CERT? We are looking for able bodied men and women willing to invest their time and effort in training to help their fellow residents during natural disasters or large scale events. You must be an adult over 18 years of age and be able to pass a criminal background check. Contact me at email@example.com if you are interested.
With the resurfacing and landscaping of Van Dyke finally nearing its completion, the much ballyhooed and debated “mile marker” sign pillars have been installed in the past few days. Predictably, people on Facebook don’t seem to think they’re worth the several-hundred-kilobuck cost to taxpayers. I find myself taking a different view: I think the city was right to spend the money.
Longtime readers will recall me arguing in this space some years ago against the installation of an $85,000 playscape in Dodge Park while the city was in the throes of the economic downturn. The expenditure seemed especially irresponsible at the time, a position I don’t find myself having moderated on much since then. So I think I’ve got some bona fides with those who feel the city should minimize expenditures wherever possible.
I feel much the same way about the proposed Recreation Center: for the $40 mil we’re going to drop, it seems awfully shortsighted to not at least get a pool out of the deal. It seems to me that we’ve packaged up a bunch of improvements that might not have all stood on their own merits. It would have been better to treat each one separately in my view.
But these signs are a different story. Van Dyke Avenue in Sterling Heights is arguably the most economically important stretch of road in Macomb County. It, with Mound Road to the west, forms a north-south corridor that represents the manufacturing and retailing backbone of Sterling Heights. It is the economic powerhouse that keeps Macomb County one of the sole remaining shining gems of a Great Lakes manufacturing region that has mostly fallen on hard times.
It is hard to overestimate the importance of Van Dyke Avenue to Sterling Heights. It is the home to major manufacturing, major defense industry installations, and significant retail. I daresay that without that stretch of road, Sterling Heights and Macomb County overall would have become slums after the last downturn.
Now many of my friends and associates in the political sphere are minimal government activists. They argue for austerity in government expenditures. To sum up, the attitude is basically “they shoulda put down some new concrete and installed traffic lights and called it good!”
I understand where they’re coming from. Austerity, frugality, and penny pinching should be the general rule in public expenditures. Ever had a look inside the Police Department? That is not a fancy building by any means. It’s more function than form for sure. Similarly, City Hall, especially Council Chambers, is rather lacking in adornments and polish. The appointments behind the dias in that room are not executive suite material. Still, they do the job just fine, and there isn’t any need to put in the gold handled faucets.
I am reminded of the government-built barracks buildings on the site of Fort Grayling up north. You will hardly be able to find more austere accommodations than that. They work fine. A National Guardsman doesn’t need luxury accommodations, he needs a place to rest his head inside, out of the rain, while he’s performing his two weeks of service per year. Those wooden shacks with tile floors do the job.
But when you have the crown jewel of a county’s manufacturing infrastructure under your care, and you need to endlessly promote it to keep it viable, well, a few baubles and bits are in order. You want the place to be attractive. You want the companies that put their names on the signs that line the street to be able to take pictures of the place to use in their annual stockholder report brochures. You need BAE and General Dynamics to be able to show transferring employees that a reassignment to Detroit doesn’t necessarily come with boarded up windows and burnt-out landscaping. You want to keep the factories humming, and the retail buildings full. These things are important. They pay the freight for the bulk of the city budget.
There is a place for austerity. The stuff that doesn’t show gets a coat of white paint every few years and a plain Ford squad car parked out back.
The stuff that the world sees?
It needs a few fancy mile marker signs.
1: the quality or state of being free: as
a : the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action
b : liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another : independence
c : the quality or state of being exempt or released usually from something onerous <freedom from care>
d : ease, facility <spoke the language with freedom>
e : the quality of being frank, open, or outspoken <answered with freedom>
f : improper familiarity
g : boldness of conception or execution
h : unrestricted use <gave him the freedom of their home
a : a political right
b : franchise, privilege
“Freedom.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 22 Aug. 2016.
One day not too long ago I found myself being asked to take on the ownership role for the Sterling Heights Local Politics Facebook group. My friend Mike Lombardini, owner and originator of the group, found himself being forced to move to another municipality because of family obligations, and he didn’t feel like the group should be owned by someone who didn’t live in Sterling Heights. Knowing that I share his strong feelings about the sanctity of the First Amendment, he felt he could entrust the site to me.
I willingly agreed to do so. I also made him the standing offer that I would be more than willing to transfer the ownership back to him, no questions asked, should he so desire.
Needless to say, this news was met with consternation on the part of a few council meeting regulars here in town. You see, I represent a particular viewpoint on the issues. My views are strongly held, and equally strongly stated. I promote my viewpoint and attempt to spread my thoughts and ideas both here, on Facebook, and in person because I believe in them.
Not everyone else does.
And that’s okay. People of conscience and good will sometimes differ on the right course to take, especially when it concerns the direction of an important city. Sterling Heights is perhaps the most important city in Macomb County, and it certainly numbers itself among the ten most important cities in the state. There will be differing opinions on things. It goes with the territory.
Unfortunately, there are those among us who do not take this view about dissenting opinions. Some of them were and are candidates for office. Some are people who I term “public citizens:” people who regularly, and publicly, comment on issues in the city at council meetings. I find it somewhat distasteful that not everyone in that group of folks shares the same equanimity and devotion to Constitutional principle on the matter of political speech that most Americans do, but that’s the way it goes.
Curiously, such folks are more than willing to use their own free speech rights to complain about those same rights when held by others of opposing points of view, but hypocrisy is part of the human condition.
At any rate, there has been a call for the city to come up with a policy governing what can and cannot be discussed on the Sterling Heights Local Politics group, as if the city somehow had something to say about that. They couch it in terms of the city’s potential liability for utterances made therein; as though the city would somehow get a black eye should somebody on Facebook say something untoward. Baloney!
I attribute this to the leftist, collectivist impulses of the people calling for it. Under this way of thinking, one is not allowed to have an opinion that is not government approved.
Let me be perfectly clear: I am not a leftist. I reject collectivism in all of its forms. I revere the freedoms that have been enshrined in the Bill of Rights as being basic human rights, articulated in that precious document as the law of the land. I will tolerate dissenting views on freedom, but I will not yield to them.
Further, neither this site, nor the Sterling Heights Local Politics Facebook Group will yield to calls for what amounts to censorship, either self-imposed or otherwise. It will not happen. Ever.
Now as you probably know, I happen to be a sitting member of the city’s Planning Commission. Apparently, some feel that translates into my statements on non-planning related issues somehow becoming the official position of the city. Nothing could be further from the truth! As a member of a city commission, I do not set official policy. I am not vested with executive powers. The sum total of my official duties as a Planning Commissioner consists of asking questions, making statements, and voting on the issues that come before the Planning Commission during the monthly meetings.
The views expressed here and on Facebook, et. al., are my own. My continued membership on that commission is predicated upon that being the case: the minute I have to censor myself on an issue unrelated to my official duties will be the minute I tender my resignation. This has been made clear to all involved; it’s not news to anyone who has been following my nomination and appointment.
Finally, this: politics is a strange game. Those who are on top today may well find themselves on the losing side tomorrow. Paraphrasing the words of former Vice President Dick Cheney, political types like myself tend to wear out their welcomes as time goes by. I am cognizant of this. The ephemeral nature of my relevance and participation in the political process is not lost on me; it’s part of the way it is. When faced with this, the only choice is to just do the best you can, and that means sticking to principles while remaining open to learning new information. With some luck, I’ll leave the place in better shape than I found it in. That’s the best I can hope for. Would that be the impulse of everyone involved…
There are significant changes coming to the commercial landscaping ordinance that you should be paying attention to if you own a business or business property in Sterling Heights.
The Planning Commission reviewed the changes at tonight’s meeting, and the matter is scheduled to come up for a vote at the September 8 meeting. Some of the changes are simple common sense, and they align with what has been practiced for the past year. Some changes, however, are going to be controversial, involving new landscaping requirements, and the potential for these new requirements to become effective on businesses which have not maintained their landscaping according to their original approved site plans, even going back as far as the 1970s.
There will be a grace period before the requirement to bring things up to current standards goes into effect. Before that date, July 1, 2017, a business property can be brought into compliance with the standards in place when their original site plan was approved. After that date, however, a non-complying business property would have to be brought up to 2016 standards. There will be provisions within the ordinance allowing the city to work with business and business property owners on a flexible time schedule to make the required improvements.
The City Planner and attorney stressed at the meeting that the law is going to be applied sensibly, and I take them at their word. However, several of my fellow commissioners and I felt there will be some folks caught unaware by the new ordinance, and there may be some backlash against the somewhat retroactive nature of part of the law.
I personally want the word about this new law to get out well in advance of the meeting next month so the community has a chance to examine what has been proposed and let the city administration and the Planning Commission know how it feels about the changes. I would not describe myself as being against this new ordinance, however I do believe that public officials do their best work when a well-informed populace can give them feedback. There is time for what ultimately goes to City Council to be revised and tweaked if residents feel it is necessary and can convince the Planning Commission to go in that direction.
I give the city administration credit, they and the city’s legal team has obviously spent a lot of time and thought on crafting this proposal, and they’re doing it for sound reasons. The move forward towards realizing the Vision 2030 plan is ongoing. The devil may be in the details, however, and if you do business in Sterling Heights, you will want to be informed about this new law.