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.

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Posted on July 15, 2016, in Issues and views. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on What is it like to be a public official?.

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