Author Archives: Geoff
A prominent former resident of the City of Sterling Heights, Michael Lombardini, has taken to Facebook to accuse members of City Council of “creating and enshrining a permanent culture of corruption” with their anticipated vote to confirm Dale Dwojakowski as the Police Chief tomorrow night. To bolster his argument, Mr. Lombardini has linked to a blog post of mine from when the story first broke more than five years ago claiming that it represents my “thoughts at the time.”
Mr. Lombardini is only one man who is not even in the city, and if this was just him talking about this, it wouldn’t be worth the lengthy response I’m offering here. I would just tell him, privately, that I think he’s wrong, and leave it at that.
The fact is, this is an election year. The confirmation of the police chief is therefore an election issue. There is a considerable amount of mistruth circulating about this confirmation, and it is important because Mr. Lombardini is just echoing what is being whispered in back rooms and barrooms across the city. In an election year, it’s important we get the facts straight before we vote, and so I’m going to sit down with you here and tell you what’s really going on.
A warning in advance: this is a long read. It’s a story five years in the making, and unwinding it takes me a couple thousand words-plus. Please don’t let that dissuade you. Read on if you really want to know what happened.
If you are just tuning in, you need some background information on the political process here in town concerning the nomination of police chiefs in general, the time card scandal, and what it all means with regards to tomorrow night’s city council meeting.
The process of nominating someone to the Police Chief job in Sterling Heights is politically dramatic. The SHPD is a very highly regarded police department statewide, and it attracts career-minded cops from all over the region. These people are high performers. The depth of talent we have on the City Administration’s team in general, and in the police department in particular, goes far beyond the ordinary. I daresay that the caliber of individual I have seen working for the city generally tends to be much higher than what I have observed in my personal career, and I work in a field — software development — that has its fair share of smart individuals. For crying out loud, the guy driving the sewer truck is an intellectual who was recently invited to give a presentation on the labor movement in a college classroom. There are a LOT of high caliber, sharp people working in this city, from top to bottom.
One of the things you get when you have a group of smart professionals is… people who are highly competitive and ambitious who aspire to the top jobs. The Chief of Police job is a highly coveted prize that is sought by many.
When many people want the same thing, politics inevitably enters into the picture. It’s simply human nature at work: people are willing to compete for the grand prize of being at the top of the org chart, and they will fight for the job as hard as they can. And, of course, the politics that ensue are messy. Here in Sterling Heights, the fur really starts to fly when it comes to the Police Chief job.
In my years of watching this process, I have observed Police Chief candidates lobbying members of council and people who are influential in town in order to better their chances of being selected. Rifts appear between members of council. Opposing factions form in the police department, for and against different candidates. Sometimes people who are loyal to one candidate sometimes spread unsubstantiated rumors about the other guy as fact. People choose sides based on who they like vs. who is the most capable. Politically astute candidates who play the game well get tagged as being <spit> politicians (which is worse than being a lawyer in many circles). Phone calls are made from residents to members of council (I’m guilty as charged on this) lobbying for one candidate or another. It’s pretty intense.
Ultimately, well, it all works out, but that doesn’t mean everyone goes away happy.
The Last Competition for Chief
As it happens, the last time Sterling Heights got around to appointing a Chief of Police, the drama described above was in full swing. John Berg, the man who ultimately won the competition, got the nod, while Dale Dwojakowski didn’t.
I supported John Berg at the time because Mr. Berg had made an excellent first impression on me, and it spoke volumes about his character and fitness for the job. In addition, people I knew at the time actually lobbied me in favor of Berg, as though I would have a hand in deciding it. (Hot tip: I don’t.)
In fact, I am fairly sure that people are also lobbying Mr. Lombardini, both then and now, but he has not said so to me. (Note: He claims this morning that this is not the case.)
I had nothing against Mr. Dwojakowski at the time other than that Berg was my guy and Dwojakowski wasn’t — mostly because I didn’t know him. The impression I got upon meeting then-Captain Berg was a powerful one, and I was assured by quite a number of people that he would serve us well, which, of course, he did.
The night the vote was taken, I was enormously impressed by Dwojakowski’s statement before council: he graciously conceded that Mr. Berg would make an excellent Chief of Police, and he further pledged to support him and work with him in a shared vision to the continued success of the department. Character counts heavily for me, and this showed me a man of good character. Thus was the genesis of my current support for Dwojakowski.
The Recent Departure of Chief Berg
One must understand that John Berg was only supposed to occupy the Chief’s post for a certain amount of time: that time being what remained before his pre-determined retirement date. You see, he was enrolled in the DROP program, and there are hard and fast rules about retirement dates involved with that. That retirement date was in early June of this year, but as the time approached, Chief Berg apparently decided he would like to stay on.
Legally, this is difficult to do, if not nigh on to impossible. The rules of the DROP program are convoluted and complex to say the least. As I understand it, a loophole was found in the case of Fire Chief Christopher Martin, but for reasons that are unclear to me, that loophole wasn’t available in the case of John Berg. Mr. Berg had to retire according to the rules of the program, on time, as originally scheduled. I hear he was disappointed by this, and if that’s true, I can’t blame him for that. For most people who rise to the top, the time there is fleeting. Generally, they’re within a few years of retirement. When you’ve worked hard all of your life to achieve a goal and you reach it, you would like to enjoy being there for more than a year or two. Alas, that was not to be the case for Mr. Berg.
As I’ve said, these things are political, and the factions that form are significant both in their size and durability. The faction that supported Berg’s original candidacy in the run-up to being named Chief still exists, and it was upset that he could not have his time in the top job extended.
A lot of what you’re seeing going on today is happening because that faction still exists. This is responsible for some of the political tension that is playing out at this moment as Mr. Dwojakowski prepares to be confirmed in his role of Acting Police Chief to being named the permanent Police Chief. And ultimately, this is why the time card scandal is being rehashed.
The recent departure of former Chief of Police John Berg turns out to be far more complex than the writing crossed out above. At this point, I cannot say that I fully comprehend all of the new information that has come in to me this morning, however I now know the following things:
- The Command Officers Association took a vote of confidence in John Berg as Police Chief some time after he became chief. The vote tally was 24 in favor, 3 not in favor. Mr. Berg had the support of his union — who are the other command officers — and they wanted his time as Chief extended significantly.
- Mr. Berg was promised the position for two years, unless he “wowed council.”
- City Manager Mark Vanderpool entered into an agreement with the Police Command Officers Association dated March 27, 2017 which provided for a way for John Berg to continue his employment with the city beyond the end date for his participation in the DROP program. (Berg Letter of Understanding) Curiously, the city then opted to not pursue that course of action.
As I have stated in the past, I am a supporter of John Berg. Although I believe there are most certainly factions of support for Mr. Berg and Mr. Dwojakowski, both men speak highly of each other and are personal friends. Sometimes understanding this stuff is like taking on a plumbing project at home. What at first looks quick and easy winds up being an exercise in tearing out walls and digging holes in the ground. There is always more to know and understand than what first appears. The above information doesn’t change my support for Dale Dwojakowski one iota, but it does shed some light on a political process that has many moving parts.
What do the Residents Know?
If you are an ordinary resident who doesn’t spend much time around the SHPD, you tend to believe whatever it is you happen to hear from whichever faction you happen to hear it from, and there is a danger you will form your opinions based on rumor and hearsay. The Berg faction was and is highly popular with people of a conservative bent — yours truly included — but that is not to say that the Dwojakowski faction was or is liberal — it’s not. It’s just a different faction that didn’t capture the imagination of the more vocal conservatives in town.
Oh, and by the way, cops tend to be conservative. Some of them very conservative.
Chances are, if you are a conservative in Sterling Heights who is paying a normal amount of attention to city politics — which is to say, you’re not obsessed with it nor consumed by it, involved in it, or writing twenty-seven hundred word essays about it — you’re on the Berg side, even though Mr. Berg is technically eliminated from any further consideration for the job as Chief of Police. And you might even be nursing some sour grapes over the fact that Berg is out, and apparently Dwojakowski is on his way in, water over the bridge notwithstanding. Loyalty is a funny thing: it tends to outlast the circumstances under which it forms.
The Time Card Scandal and its Relevance to Today
If you’re still with me after I’ve taken over a thousand words just to set the stage, then you will understand that bringing up the time card scandal some five and a half years and (almost) two chiefs of police later is police chief faction politics at work. The time card scandal was not widely understood by people outside the police department at the time, and as it recedes further into the past, that circumstance is not improving with age.
Mr. Lombardini, in his effort to use my writings here as a device to oppose Mr. Dwojakowski’s appointment to the position of Police Chief, has apparently forgotten that I wrote quite a bit more about the scandal.
What Really Happened
In a post entitled “Time Card Scandal: What the Official Version of the Story Is Missing,” I explained how the official story was, er, a bit light on the facts. I believe that the information contained in that post, written some time after the blog post of mine which Mr. Lombardini linked to, is largely exculpatory in nature and explains the difference between people who were out to defraud the city and people like Dale Dwojakowski, who clearly were not.
Let’s face it: the time card scandal was a black mark on a police department which is otherwise regarded very highly statewide. A very small number of individuals — cops, all of them — conspired to steal money from the city — mostly for spite because of a contract issue that was going on at the time.
Unfortunately a bunch of good cops (indeed, the entire department) got dragged through the mud right along with the crooks by the city’s response. The local press failed to get the complete story, and it was up to yours truly, a software developer, political activist and hobbyist writer — not a trained news reporter — to discover the truth about what happened well after the local news media had moved on and the impressions of the residents at large had already been formed.
Now be that as it may, as you read further I want you to ask yourself about how groups of highly competent, intelligent and competitive individuals behave when rotten apples are found in the group.
The Mishandling of the Scandal
The police chief at the time of the scandal, Michael Reese, gave an official version of the story before council that didn’t shed much light; in fact, it was designed to try to make the whole thing go away as quietly as possible, while assuring residents that those dirty cops who were responsible would be severely punished. I believe this did a terrible disservice to a lot of good cops. In fact, I’m certain of it.
Actually, you don’t need to know much about what happened to see that Reese was trying to put a fire out, rather than shine the light of truth on all of the circumstances and make the guilty pay. All you had to do was listen carefully to what he said in his statement before council. Here’s the most important quote: “If the command officer participated, or had knowledge that this was occurring without participating, then that individual is also in violation. Likewise, the degree of participation does not lessen the violation.”
Reading just those two sentences alone, anyone can tell Reese sought to spread the blame around as widely as possible. In other words, what he said was that every command officer who even knew something might have been awry was deemed just as guilty as people who were actively stealing from the city.
Every regular cop that might have slid out the door a few minutes early was just as criminal as the few command officers involved in the criminal conspiracy to steal from the city.
It didn’t matter what those cops actually did, what they knew, or when they knew it. They got stamped with the same rubber stamp — GUILTY — regardless.
I’m a guy originally from Roseville who has deep blue-collar roots. Over on that side of town, we called that sort of guilt-by-association thing bullshit.
A Fundamental Smear Job
For a department that prides itself on high standards, Chief Reese’s standard of guilt was pretty freaking low. The reality was there were three or four people who deserved criminal prosecution. There were 17 or 18 good cops whose names were dragged through the mud, who lost their vacations, and were hung out to dry by a police department that didn’t want to name names or create the potential for a hugely damaging lawsuit. Dale Dwojakowski was among those good cops.
Even worse, there was an entire department that was tarnished — needlessly and wrongfully — by a police chief who was trying to spread around the blame for this incident as widely as possible. I can’t tell you how this makes me feel. I’ve already used up my one swear word for this blog post.
Therefore, residents have been given the false impressions that a.) a large number of dirty cops in command positions were stealing from the city, b.) those cops were given a slap on the wrist by a city that just wanted to make the whole thing go away, c.) that those dirty cops are still on the force and d.) one of those dirty cops is about to become chief.
Nice, huh? More bovine, um, you know.
Why the Scandal Should Be Laid To Rest
I would be willing to bet you that the people who want to talk about the time card scandal in relationship to Dale Dwojakowski being appointed Chief of Police either don’t know or conveniently forgot the foregoing. Further, I would bet you that people who want to bring this up couldn’t tell you which of the Police Command Officers who were named in the newspaper as being part of the scandal still even work for the department.
Remember how I asked you to think about how groups of highly competent, intelligent and competitive individuals behave when rotten apples are found in the group?
Here’s the answer: they push them out. They disassociate themselves from them. They refuse to tolerate their presence, because they understand that they will be tarnished via the guilt by association thing.
The fact is that the criminal conspirators are gone. They have been for years. The worst among them left in March, 2012. The only ones named in that newspaper article who are still left on the force are the ones who got needlessly dragged through the mud. That is a fact.
Five years later, this tired, old story is only relevant to people who either a.) didn’t know what actually happened, or b.) are part of a political faction that is using the story as the basis for an argument they cannot make with actual facts or logic. It’s exactly like the whole Obama Birther scandal, or the 9/11 Truther scandal, or <insert –gate here>, except on a city-wide, rather than nation-wide scale.
It’s political garbage that has taken on a life of its own that has little to do with the actual facts.
That’s why it should be laid to rest. It doesn’t illuminate, it obfuscates. It’s being used as a political football long after the original game ended and the participants left. It’s being repeated endlessly by people who either have an agenda or who don’t know what happened in the first place.
All of which is to say that we’ll still be talking about it ten years from now.
Editor’s Note: Tonight I had a Facebook exchange with a man over on the Sterling Heights Local Politics group wherein he advocated for the “Broken Windows” approach to policing the community: cracking down on minor violations in an attempt to establish an atmosphere of law and order in the hope this will reduce or eliminate crime.
I made several attempts to craft a Facebook response to him which encapsulated my thinking on the subject, but I just couldn’t do it justice in Facebook’s limited format. Instead, I deleted that response, and decided to write my thoughts here. In part this was because Facebook doesn’t allow you to hyperlink to more than one article in a post, but also it was because there is a much larger issue here that needs to be addressed.
While everyone wants to live in a safe place, there are differing opinions on how that is best achieved. Demographics plays an important role in the perception of how the police should try to keep the community safe.
In particular, I am responding to a recent Facebook assertion that “cracking down on minor infractions” would reduce the instance of quality of life crimes in Sterling Heights such as drag racing, and aggressive driving. Instead, this approach would very likely backfire with the people it was attempting to protect.
Today In History
As it happens, today, July 28, 2017, is the 50th anniversary of the end of the 1967 Detroit riots.
The ’67 riots resulted in 43 deaths, 1,187 injuries, and the looting or burning of 2,509 stores, but perhaps more importantly, they resulted in a sharp decline of the city’s economic fortunes from which it has not fully recovered and perhaps never will. I have vivid memories of riding around the city of Detroit as a child, fully ten years after the riots, seeing all of the burnt-out buildings and decay that remained all those years later. Seeing that decay at such a young, impressionable age left me with a certain pessimism that arises every time someone touts the idea of Detroit “coming back.”
And what caused those riots? Why, nothing other than Detroit Police’s use of the “broken windows” approach some 15-odd years before the term was coined. These riots were completely avoidable, and I believe that the people who advocate for “broken windows” approaches today are none other than the ideological descendents of the people who created the conditions that sparked the riots of half a century ago.
If you happen to be white, conservative, middle aged or older, and also authoritarian in your thinking, (WCMAOA), you might yearn for the years when the traditional law enforcement approach was taken and the cops aggressively went after every minor infraction of the law, i.e. the “broken windows” approach. If you answer to that description, then you are without question one of the ideological descendents of which I speak.
The truth is that making the “police presence known” in this way never worked for anyone. Instead it resulted in people feeling harassed and oppressed, didn’t really increase compliance with the law, tied up the cops and the courts with minor infractions and petty complaints, resulted in lawsuits against municipalities for police abuse, and generally resulted in an “us vs. them” sentiment between the police and the community they were supposed to be serving.
In the heyday of Detroit’s use of “broken windows” practices, elite teams of cops were isolated in their cars, driving instead of walking through neighborhoods that feared and distrusted them. I’m speaking in particular of the “Big Four” policing programs in Detroit of the 1960s, which is a perfect example of the “broken window” approach, and the one that led directly to the 1967 riots because of a violent police raid of a blind pig on what is now known as Rosa Parks Boulevard.
Today these bad ideas are still used in places like New York City, where the practice of “stop and frisk” routinely targets people of color and violates their Fourth Amendment rights. Crime in the Big Apple and other large cities like Chicago continues nearly unabated.
Still, you can’t tell these authoritarian conservatives that their approach is wrong and has never worked. Choosing instead to ignore the lessons of history, they advocate for even more “cracking down” — an approach that has been disproven.
What Broken Windows Approaches Really Do
The non-WCMAOA majority certainly does share a respect for law and order with the WCMAOA people, but what they don’t share is any desire to get a ticket for going three over the limit, or to otherwise be harassed by law enforcement. And nor do I, for that matter. Although I certainly am white, middle aged and politically conservative, I’m not an authoritarian. I am a small-L libertarian when it comes to our Constitutional rights, and I am a big believer in the Fourth Amendment. I don’t think harassing people engenders compliance with the law; rather, it creates the conditions necessary for violent uprisings. In short, Broken Windows approaches cause riots. Direct your attention south of Eight Mile Road if you want to see the ultimate result of “broken windows.”
Partnering with the People instead of Harassing Them
Non-WCMAOAs want to feel they are in a partnership with their police officers, to get to know them, to work with them, and to not be afraid their rights are going to be violated by them. Rather than being slapped for every minor infraction of the law, they would rather see police attention turned toward the more serious problems in their community, such as the ongoing opioid drug epidemic, property crimes, drunk driving, human trafficking and other such issues. Rather than being viewed by police as potential criminals, non-WCMAOAs want to be viewed as part of the solution to crime. The key is for the police to engage them in such a way that they can become part of the solution and let their concerns be heard.
The community-oriented model that more modern police departments are starting to implement, such as the Sterling Heights CORE initiative, recognizes the failures of “broken windows” policing approaches and tries to come up with something more in line with the “protect and serve” motto. The result is hoped to be far more effective for everyone. It puts police officers into the community in a unique way by humanizing them, making them part of the fabric of the community, and partnering them with residents in a shared approach to reducing and eliminating crime.
Although it may no longer be financially possible for a large contingent of cops to “walk a beat” through every city, by making them available to the community in this way the hope is to strike a balance between fiscal prudence and the need for the police to fully integrate with the neighborhoods they serve.
Broken Windows is Broken Policing
The desire to control quality-of-life issues via fear and intimidation and “cracking down,” the traditional “broken windows” approach, is exactly the wrong answer. It has been proven to be an abject failure every time it has been tried. In the past, it has resulted in death, injury, and the permanent destruction of important American cities. It represents a failure to learn the lessons of history and apply them to the problems of today.
Nothing is perfect, and not every law enforcement problem can be easily and satisfactorily resolved. Not every quality of life issue has a simple solution. The CORE program may not reduce drag racing on the streets, littering, or people failing to signal when changing lanes. Hopefully, though, it represents a solid attempt to learn the lessons of history and avoid the pitfalls of bad practices like “broken windows” policing.
Sterling Heights deserves better than the broken policy of “Broken Windows.”
Today, while I was on my way to an appointment, I found myself sitting in the left turn lane on southbound Ryan where it intersects with 14 Mile Road at the Sterling Heights/Warren border.
Further south of me, in the southbound lanes, I heard the screech of brakes , drawing my attention over to my right. I observed a young boy, perhaps 9 or 10 years of age, wearing nothing below the waist, barefoot, running across five lanes of Ryan’s traffic from west to east.
I was in a position to head the boy off by quickly turning into the parking lot of the BP gas station on the southeast corner of the intersection. I jumped out of my truck to run toward the child just as another passer-by coming from the other direction was doing the same thing. The two of us grabbed the boy, and after each of us realizing the other was not the boy’s father, commenced to deciding what to do next.
The boy was entirely non-verbal. I’m not an expert, but his behavior matched with what I’ve seen before in severe cases of autism. At any rate, he was clearly a special needs child. As I mentioned, he was naked except for a short t-shirt, extremely agitated, and did not appreciate being restrained. It was plain to see that he would have run back out into traffic had we let him go, so the other guy restrained him while I called 911.
You probably realize that calling 911 in this area from a cellphone results in the call being routed first through the Macomb County Emergency Operations Center. At that point, when I stated I was in Warren, they transferred the call to the Warren Police Dispatch.
Warren Police Dispatch seemed far more concerned about establishing whether or not I was in Warren then they were in dealing with the actual emergency. I was asked several times where I was, and was I sure I was in Warren? In the meantime, the extremely agitated boy was struggling with the man who was restraining him, shrieking and trying to get away while I made my phone call. After they had to repeat the question to me three times as to whether the boy was black or white, I was finally able to answer what few questions they had, and then, supposedly the police were on their way, so I disconnected the call.
Next up was trying to get the boy covered. I keep a small plastic tarp in my truck, so we wrapped it around the boy, who was still struggling, but calmed a bit when someone handed him a bottle of water. We tried to speak soothingly to the boy, me in English, the other man in Arabic, as it seemed the boy was likely of Middle Eastern descent. The boy wasn’t too fond of the tarp, but this incident was drawing a crowd and it seemed to be the right thing to do.
Ten minutes went by with no police car. It wasn’t a long period of time, but it seemed like an eternity while we were trying to keep this poor kid from getting himself killed in traffic.
Then, a black GMC Terrain pulled into the gas station, and a man in his 40s jumped out speaking rapidly in Arabic. The other man helping me restrain the boy translated for me that he was the boy’s father, and the man led the boy into the back seat of the SUV.
I was terribly conflicted by this. The police still hadn’t shown up and things were happening just a bit too quickly. Who knows who this man claiming to be the father really was? The boy was agitated, the ‘father’ upset, the other man helping me restrain the boy was willing to turn the boy over seemingly without question, and I didn’t want to make a chaotic situation worse by demanding that everyone just stay put until the police arrived. Mind you, I was going to be late for my appointment, but that seemed to be pretty far down on my list of concerns.
So I wrote down the vehicle’s license plate and description, and called 911 back. The county routed me to Warren PD; the dispatcher answered the call and I gave them the update that the boy was being taken away.
The dispatcher said “So, did the boy’s father arrive? He called us and said he was coming to get his son.” Evidently, the police were not on their way. They somewhat reluctantly took down the information I had for them, seeming a bit skeptical that anything could be amiss, but willing to do so just to get me off the phone.
I may be making some unfair assumptions here, but it seems like the Warren PD was willing to accept, sight unseen, that the man in the SUV was indeed the boy’s father, just on the strength of a phone call. Again, I’m sure a few 911 calls all transpired at the same time because of this, and I have no idea what all was said, but from my point of view it didn’t look like there was any way to be sure what was going on.
When it was all said and done, the boy was gone. The Warren Police were done with the case without having even sent out a squad car. The other bystanders concluded that everything was fine and went on their way. I remained behind, the only one, apparently, wondering if what had just happened was the right thing, calling 911 just to be sure.
I don’t know what the police protocol is for cases such as this, so I don’t actually know if this is what they would normally do. I don’t know if all the underlying assumptions apparently made here by Warren PD were made safely. What I do know is that I had hoped for and expected more than what the Warren PD did in handling this. It just seems like there were a lot of cracks in the process this boy could have fallen through. I sincerely hope that it would have been handled a bit differently if it had happened in Sterling Heights instead of where it did.
Maybe I’m a bit paranoid. Perhaps there was no other reasonable explanation for the man who showed up other than that he was actually the father. I am reminded of the dictum that when you are involved in a defensive gun use, you had better make sure that you’re the first one on the phone to 911, because they assume the first caller is, in fact the victim. Is that a safe assumption? I don’t know, but I am skeptical.
Is it a safe assumption that the boy has been reunited with his father and all is well? I certainly hope so, but I’ll probably never know.
Mayor Michael C. Taylor, in response to news stories about the round-up of Chaldean immigrants by Immigration and Customs Enforcement this past weekend, posted this to his personal Facebook page:
I’m going to disagree with the mayor here. Although I too find the notion of families being separated, perhaps due in some cases to decades-old minor criminal offenses, heart-wrenching, it is important to get beyond the emotions the videos invoke and think clearly about what is going on here.
When you are an immigrant to this country, you are responsible to maintain your legal immigration status. You are responsible for your behavior. Therefore, you are responsible for making sure that your behavior does not do harm to your immigration status. Personal responsibility is the bedrock of American law, and it is paramount this informs your conduct when you are not legally entitled to remain here.
It is important to realize that the folks being deported knew what they were in for, or at the very least SHOULD have known. This is not happening at random: due process has been exercised in each and every individual deportation case. All of these folks have had their day in court before a judge. Every single one remained here on borrowed time until a deportation agreement could be worked out with the Iraqi government. Although some of the crimes people are being deported for are minor, some are very much not: rape and murder are in the list of offenses according to the news reports. I have no sadness in my heart for people who have committed rape or murder and are being deported as a result.
Everyone who lives in the United States is responsible for knowing the law, and in the special case of immigrants, how the laws of immigration apply specifically to them. Ignorance is no excuse. Neither is any language barrier: plenty of people are bilingual between immigrant tongues and English who could serve as translators. Knowing that you came here under a status that could be revoked should make you want to know what the rules are. That should be simple common sense. And knowing the rules is just as simple as asking the question.
I am not against giving immigrants with only minor criminal offenses a second chance if they go through a process and demonstrate they deserve one. It is my understanding, however, that in these cases we’ve gone way beyond that point. Again, we must understand that every deportee had their day in court, and the judge concluded that deportation was the only path that could be followed for them under the law. We have had due process. It should be respected.
Know that the law is being applied equally here, not only to Chaldeans and Assyrians, but also to Mexicans, Albanians, Muslims of various nationalities, and people from other nations. Americans sent the message rather convincingly in the last national election that they want their laws enforced, and immigration laws in particular, and so that is happening. People have been bemoaning Trump’s immigration policy, but the law is not new, and the enforcement of this part of it is not different. That there is a renewed emphasis on following it after nearly a decade of neglect is the only real change.
In the end, if you do not have a green card or citizenship status, you face deportation for committing a crime while here essentially as a guest of the United States. That may seem draconian given the circumstances Christian immigrants from Iraq are under, but the circumstances of fleeing a dangerous country are not unique. These immigrants should have known that being sent back to Iraq was a fate too terrible to allow to happen to themselves.
I am not at all convinced that shipping these few dozen people back to their native country is a bad thing. First, it gets some truly bad people off our streets. Second, it should help the ones who remain to understand the idea that if you come here you need to follow our laws, and that if you screw up, there may be no undoing it. As an immigrant without green card or citizen status, you are not entitled to remain here.
In the end, everyone should know this: being allowed to immigrate to the United States of America is a gift of freedom given to you by the descendents of past immigrants. Living here is not a right until you either obtain a green card or go through the process of becoming a citizen. Do not take the gift of freedom for granted: If you choose to behave criminally, the gift can be revoked. Unfortunately for those who were rounded up this past weekend, they now know this firsthand.
With the impending retirement of Police Chief John Berg, the city finds itself once again going through the process of selecting a new police chief. The best choice for the job has already been vetted and is ready to go to work: Captain Dale Dwojakowski.
I do not recommend anyone for anything, be it for city business or in my own personal life, unless I know the person and have spent time working with them. In my role as a coordinator for the Sterling Heights CERT, I have been fortunate to get to know Mr. Dwojakowski over the past several months, and my impression of him has been a very good one. Dwojakowski is a skilled leader who has a good relationship with the people who he works with. He is personable, articulate and a capable navigator around City Hall. He is a tech aficionado, holds a Masters Degree in Criminal Justice, and teaches University-level courses in the discipline. He’s also a booster of community programs like COPS and CERT, and a pretty nice guy.
Avid followers of city politics will recall that last year a professional testing firm was brought in by the city to evaluate the two candidates who were vying for the Chief’s job. A considerable amount of money — about $7,000 — was spent testing the two men and having them evaluated by three different Chiefs of Police with whom they weren’t acquainted. Although last year I recommended John Berg for the post based on my personal knowledge of him, the man who scored highest in the evaluation was Dale Dwojakowski. He is fully capable and ready to do the job.
Around town I have heard a couple of objections to Dwojakowski’s candidacy: one, he was named in the Police time card scandal from 2012, and two, he suffered a serious injury years ago which left him with greatly reduced grip strength in his right hand. People allege that Dwojakowski is somehow a dirty cop for his so-called “involvement” in the scandal, and they also say he doesn’t have the strength to do police work.
In a word, these objections are nonsense. I thoroughly investigated and documented my findings on the 2012 time card scandal back when memories were still fresh and the stories were still in the news every night. The time card scandal was more of a political exercise in damage control and spreading the blame around to protect friends of the chief than it was an uncovering of widespread fraud in the department. Of the 21 command officers who ultimately shouldered the blame for that situation, only three or four actually committed fraud against the city. As you know, in political damage control the truth gets distorted and reputations can be smeared undeservingly. I have clear recollections of what took place back in 2012, and although I will forever keep them confidential, I know names of the bad actors who defrauded the city. Mr. Dwojakowski wasn’t one of them. Dale Dwojakowski paid the same high price that all of the command officers who were named were forced to, and that should be the end of it.
As to the Captain’s grip strength in his right hand: yeah, he’s got a minor disability there. I wouldn’t want to be standing down range from him when he’s got his service pistol in his left hand, however: he regularly qualifies with nice, tight groups shooting southpaw. And if he needs to push or shove with that right arm he is completely uninhibited; the only inability he has is in curling his fingers. A criminal perp betting against Dale Dwojakowski is going to end up on the ground in cuffs.
At age 46, Dwojakowski never entered the DROP program, and has as many as seven years to go before retirement. His elevation to the Chief’s post will do several things for the city. One, it will provide continuity of leadership that is sorely needed during a time of a massive turnover in the department due to retirements. Two, it will place into the job somebody who not only has the right personality and skills to do it, but also someone who has been professionally vetted and evaluated for the job and passed with flying colors. Finally, it puts someone at the top of the department who has the respect of both his subordinates as well as City Council, and who demonstrates that the residents come first via his support for civilian programs like the aforementioned COPS, CERT, and the forthcoming return of the Civilian Police Academy program.
I support Dale Dwojakowski for Chief of Police.
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.