The Stylish Versus the Austere


15MileWith 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.

 

The Enemies of Free Speech Don’t Get a Say Here


Freedom:

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

2
     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…

 

Sterling Heights to consider new Commercial Landscaping Ordinance


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.

Fifteen and Ryan Meeting


Yesterday, at the City Manager’s invitation, I attended a meeting at City Hall about the traffic hazards at 15 Mile and Ryan . The police, county road and traffic engineers, as well as Mark Vanderpool and members of his team were all represented there.

As readers of this blog will know, I have complained frequently in this space and on Facebook about the number of accidents in this area.  After the meeting yesterday, I can tell you that they’ve heard the complaints and they’re serious about doing something about them, but at this point they’re not quite sure what that something will be.

In the words of the county engineers, this is a hard problem, and it likely isn’t going to have an easy solution. They have already done two traffic studies that mainly concern the traffic signal at the intersection, they are now going to do further research on access control. I think I have persuaded them to expand the area they are examining from the immediate area of the intersection (current studies concern only a 150′ radius from the center) eastward to include the stretch of road along 15 Mile towards Cavant and the condominium complexes.  I was given plenty of opportunity to add to the discussion yesterday, and I am more than satisfied that the meeting was successful in getting everyone on the same page as to what is going on along this dangerous stretch of road.

In the meantime, the city is beginning the engineering job required to repave that section of road in 2017, and they intend to “design in” any fixes that come out of these studies. So they’re going to start moving on the research with all due haste, since the clock is already ticking down to the planned repavement.

The police are intimately familiar with all of the accidents, and they knew the details of several that I have posted about here including the most recent one.   Chief John Berg, Captain Dale Dwojakowski, and Lt. Aaron Burgess were at the meeting, and they each related personal experiences with studying and patrolling this roadway and making recommendations for possible solutions.

It’s not time to declare victory yet; the results of the new studies will take a while, and what gets proposed and actually implemented remains to be seen.  However, I feel like my concerns and the concerns of people who’ve posted about this roadway on Facebook have been heard loud and clear, and the wheels have been set in motion to make a significant attempt at fixing the problem.

I will continue monitoring this closely, and I hope to be involved in any further meetings about proposed solutions.

What is it like to be a public official?


In my first official outing as a Sterling Heights Planning Commissioner last night, I got to have an interesting look from behind the table at what it is like to serve as a public official.

In terms of local politics, meetings, and such, I am a relative newcomer.  My interest didn’t really begin until the 2009/10 time frame, back when the city was grappling with a 1.9 mil tax increase.  I went to a meeting to see a presentation about it, and by chance I found myself speaking against it.  This was not planned.  It was little more than happenstance.

In the little more than six years since that first meeting, I have learned a lot about how the city operates: who the players are, what the processes look like, how decisions are made. My decision to take a stand on things and write this blog afforded me the opportunity to learn a great deal.   As a techno-geek, it is the “how things work” aspect to this that drives a large part of my interest.  This is an onion with many layers, and I’m of the sort that likes to peel each one back and see what lays underneath.  It stimulates my intellectual curiosity.

So now I find myself an appointee to one of the city’s most important commissions.  I am still very much a newcomer in many ways.  I had never even walked behind that table in the council chambers before last night.  I didn’t really know what was there!

More importantly, though, I didn’t quite grasp what it would be like looking out over the audience from my perch behind the counter until I actually did it.  It was fascinating.

The Planning Commission’s charge is to oversee the use of land in Sterling Heights.  There are many aspects to that, but in a nutshell we’re there to administrate and make decisions on what is best for the city as a whole in terms of land use.  You will read that in any description you might find on the web about the commission.

What you won’t read is the fact that we’re also there, in no small part, deciding on whether people’s hopes and dreams can proceed to become reality.  This smacked me in the face last night; it was something that I should have realized much, much sooner.  And being a person of conscience and reflection, this is a really important realization for me.

We heard two cases last night out of an agenda that originally had four.  Two had been tabled, one at the request of the petitioner, one at the request of the city’s Planner.

The first case was a request to use M1 industrial-zoned property as an indoor gym.  The petitioner and his father approached the podium and told us their story about how the son had built up a clientele for his work with special needs children and had encountered someone who owned the property who offered them a place to hang out his own shingle and start doing it on his own.  The land use?  Really not much of an issue; bringing it before the commission was really little more than a formality.  A few questions directed towards the petitioners set the commissioners’ minds at ease and it passed 7/0.

The second case was a request to set up a video gaming business in Lakeside Mall.  This engendered a lot of questions, many from myself, about the petitioner’s business plan and his ability to be in compliance with the city’s regulations about businesses with amusement devices.

As the discussion wore on, it became evident that the petitioner was making a huge gamble on his business plan: he was about to be out of work, with no income, because he was losing his job.  His wife was disabled and could not work.  And because he couldn’t move through the necessary planning process without a signed lease, he had been forced to sign a lease and start paying the very considerable amount of rent to Lakeside with no revenue from the business coming in before he could even be sure we would allow him to continue.

Technically, the land use issue was more or less a no-brainer.  Shopping malls have hosted video arcades for decades, and although this business poses a slightly different, and innovative, twist on that otherwise familiar theme, there wasn’t really any reason where the commission should have done other than it did, which was to pass it unanimously.  The petitioner was largely able to answer our questions satisfactorily, although you could see that he had a lot riding on this decision.  It must have been a frightening moment for him as we deliberated and finally passed his request, with one commissioner even offering to table it until the next month to give him more time to think about some of the issues raised.  The city attorney even cautioned him that he needed to be fully familiar with all of the aspects of the city’s laws regarding businesses with gaming devices.  To say that a lot of red flags must have been raised for the petitioner during that deliberation would be an understatement.

There was always the chance that we wouldn’t pass it.  It came down to a vote of seven individuals, and as anyone who has ever sat on a jury knows, anything can and sometimes does happen.  This guy staked his financial future on the outcome of the vote of seven people on one given night in the middle of July, and he had to more or less resign himself live with whatever we decided.

Should a government body be so empowered to have this sort of effect on someone’s future?  And how do we balance that responsibility to treat a petitioner fairly with the equally awesome responsibility of looking out for the best interest of an entire city of 130,000 people, each with their own future that will be affected?

This is going to be fascinating for me.  It is also going to be heart-wrenching when we have to deny something in the cases where the personal stakes of the petitioners are this high.

Regular, non-business owning people probably do not realize the level of risk that somebody must accept in order to have ownership over their own source of income.   This guy appears to be betting all he’s got.

As an aside: wow, nice move, Mayor Taylor and members of council: what a way to show a self-appointed pundit and purveyor of opinion like myself what it’s like to actually have to make decisions like this.  I am humbled.  There is more to this than what meets the eye.

Veiled Threats from Former Candidates


I am in receipt this morning of an apparent email threat forwarded to me stating “Gariepy is next.  He’s in a lot of trouble.”  The writer of the threat is a former candidate for City Council.

The threat directed at me is probably related to a discussion thread on Michael Lombardini’s Sterling Heights Local Politics Facebook group in which another former candidate for City Council chose to take issue with a complaint lodged there about  positions on immigration, specifically Muslim immigration.  The candidate or the candidate’s surrogates apparently successfully petitioned Facebook to remove Mr. Lombardini from the site temporarily.

It’s unclear if the writer who referenced my name directly was talking about having my Facebook access removed, or something more sinister.

I am not, and will not be intimidated by threats, direct or indirect, by people who wish to silence my opposition to their candidacy for public office or ideas espoused publicly in a government forum.

If you cannot successfully challenge my ideas with facts, logic and reason, you will surely fail to silence them by threats and attempts at intimidation.

I welcome an open exchange of ideas, both here and on Facebook, by thoughtful people who are engaged in the practice of civilized discussion.  I have routinely found myself deleting blog comments by the threatening writer over the past few years, however, because of their abusive nature.  Apparently this individual has fixated himself on this blog as the reason for his failure to be elected to council after several attempts.  Of course, I am only form my own opinions, and I only get one vote at the polling place, so his fixation is misdirected.

Politics, even local politics, can be a grim business sometimes.  If you want to advance your ideas and be involved in your community, you sometimes encounter people who are opposed to those ideas and that involvement.  It is not the first time I have encountered this, and if I keep doing things right, it won’t be the last, either.  The opposition, paradoxically, is a sign that you’re being effective.  Veiled threats are not acceptable behavior, however, and will be directed to the appropriate channels.

 

 

My appointment to the Planning Commission


If you want to watch the 30 minutes from last night’s City Council Meeting concerning my appointment to the Planning Commission, which passed unanimously, the video is linked above.  I present it here unedited, including the comments from several residents who spoke in opposition to my appointment.  Transparency dictates taking the good with the bad, in my view, and if I am to be fortunate enough to have an entire agenda item devoted to myself and my own part in the city’s political process, it is only fair to note that my appointment was not without its detractors.

Regardless, I am honored and gratified to have been successfully appointed, and I look forward to going to work at the upcoming July meeting.  I have been reviewing the zoning ordinance, and I have taken in some of the recent meetings on video in preparation for my new role.  I hope to fully live up to council’s expectations for my performance on this important commission.

In regard to the comments made at the meeting itself, I have some thoughts and reflection on that as well.  If you are interested, head on over to my other blog.

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.