Community organizers have failed for decades to change Grand Rapids’ governing structure. A new effort hopes to change that.
For more than a century, Grand Rapids’ governance has basically remained unchanged.
The city manager acts as a CEO overseeing day-to-day operations. The mayor is largely a figurehead and a seventh vote on a six-person city commission. The commission is divided into three wards with two representatives each.
The problem, however, is not just that this system was designed with the nefarious intentions of furniture barons to keep political power over thousands of ethnic voters and workers.
Critics say it’s also unrepresentative of the city.
Consider the First Ward. It stretches from Walker to the corner of Eastern and 28th Street, yet the commission has completely lacked representation from the Latino community on the southwest side. In the Second Ward, do Eastown residents really share the same neighborhood concerns and priorities as those north of I-96?
Most people who follow local politics agree on this point: Three sprawling wards across a population of 200,000 people doesn’t accurately reflect the city’s diversity and, therefore, neither does its legislative body.
That’s why a nascent, grassroots effort is underway by community organizers to double the number of wards from three to six. Sounds easy enough, right? Maybe not.
The group’s broader plan tackling multiple voting issues may require revising the city charter, a sort of citywide constitution that delegates roles and responsibilities of city officials.
Triggering a charter revision is like opening Pandora’s box, even if the goal is common-sense reforms like creating more representative districts. Any vote on charter reform risks becoming highly politicized as interest groups insert their own influence into the process. Representation needs improvement, but at what cost, according to observers.
“The current ward system places communities of color, particularly the Latino community on the southwest side, at a tremendous disadvantage in terms of representation,” the Latino Community Coalition said in a statement to Revue after discussion among its steering committee. “Latinos do not currently see themselves in the city commission at all. However, opening the charter has the potential to further disenfranchise people of color depending on whose voices are at that decision-making table, and we caution against a process that might ultimately create more inequity.”
A Little History
Jeffrey Kleiman’s 2006 book, “Strike! How the furniture workers strike of 1911 changed Grand Rapids,” lays bare the history of the city’s current governing system.
The furniture strike of 1911 was a turning point in the city’s economic and political history. The four-month standoff between thousands of workers seeking to unionize and their bosses left a lasting mark on City Hall. Then-Mayor George Ellis sided with workers during the strike. After most workers voted to go back to work, industrialists sought greater control through the political process.
Following the strike, furniture manufacturers “mounted a municipal reform movement aimed at creating government that effectively concentrated power in the hands of business leaders while diluting the influence of the ordinary voter,” Kleiman writes. “Taking aim at the city’s unruly west side and influence exercised by a popular mayor, they proposed a new city charter that would remake the city in the image of a privately held corporation where a small board of directors governed affairs by setting policy and hiring professional management.”
The city charter adopted in 1916 thus eliminated the strong-mayor form of government, transitioning to a council-manager structure we know today. Additionally, the new charter slashed the number of wards from 12 to three. Working class voters who supported the charter change at the time ironically “contributed to their own political exclusion,” Kleiman writes.
“The plan was designed to create a government less responsive to direct citizen participation and the interest groups that dominated specific areas of the city,” according to Kleiman.
“The consolidation of the wards was a major step toward the concentration of power in the hands of a proposed new seven-member city commission dominated by the East Side’s Second and Third wards, where business and industry leaders exercised greater control,” he adds.
Kleiman concludes that the effort by “businessmen and bankers of Grand Rapids transformed municipal government into a vehicle subject to their influence.”
After minor charter revisions in the following years, another reform movement emerged in the late 1960s that considered going back to a strong-mayor system.
In a case study published in 2010, Eric Zeemering writes that reformers in the early 1970s argued “professional managers in city hall were out of touch, unresponsive, and unaccountable to the public.” In 1970, voters approved a commission to revise the charter. “Interest in charter reform was so high,” Zeemering writes, that 97 candidates ran for the nine-member board. It’s easy to imagine the set of interests seeking a hand in the city’s governing document.
Ultimately, the Charter Revision Commission required under the Michigan Home Rule City Act put forward three separate charters that would have expanded mayoral powers. Voters rejected all three.
In 2002, former Mayor John Logie sought to expand mayoral powers without fully adopting a strong-mayor system.
“As in the early 1970s, a coalition emerged to defend the council-manager system from any enhancement of mayoral power,” Zeemering writes. Logie’s charter amendment was also rejected by voters. Zeemering calls the current structure a “vestige” of the 1916 charter.
Still, the historical battles around governance largely focused on mayoral power and executive leadership, which divided the public. Expanding the number of wards poses a different question.
GR Democracy Initiative
Since informal and formal attempts to revise or amend the city charter have endured since 1916 but never materially changed the way the city is governed, the question remains: Why should this latest effort be any different?
Don Lee, executive director of the Eastown Community Association, started a Facebook group this year called GR Democracy Initiative (though he’s apprehensive about being seen as the leader of the plan). While not yet a formal campaign, it lays out five goals: six city wards with 12 commissioners; paper ballots; eliminating term limits; automatic recounts for a margin of 1 percent or less in elections; and special elections for vacated commission seats rather than appointments.
Lee says voters are increasingly dissatisfied with representative politics at the national and state level. He points to the statewide Voters Not Politicians ballot initiative — which also started with a Facebook post — that passed 61 to 39 percent in November to end gerrymandering.
“It’s acknowledging what we would call the under-representation of various areas of the city,” Lee said, adding that citywide term limits passed by voters in 2014 arbitrarily limit effective local officials.
On appointments to vacant commission seats, Lee says: “It’s not to say people are doing a good or bad job, but it’s a less democratic process when a commissioner is appointed and then able to maintain that seat because of the advantage of incumbency without being elected in the first place.
“There’s definitely some weak spots and room for improvement in our local democracy.”
Lee says he’s been in discussions to develop a “package of initiatives that could be placed on the ballot.” Next is forming an advisory committee to see how exactly the process would play out and whether some issues can be separated to avoid a full charter revision, he said. The aim is for the 2020 election.
“To me, it makes perfect sense to look at the ward configuration,” said former Mayor George Heartwell, who served 12 years in office before being forced out due to term limits. “Ours is an old, outmoded system.”
Revision or Amendment?
Ed Kettle has managed political campaigns for Kent County Democrats for decades. He ran an unsuccessful six-ward effort that voters rejected in the early 1980s. Kettle maintains that reconfiguring the wards could be done every 10 years based on new Census data when new boundaries are drawn anyway. Additionally, six wards could be drawn without increasing the number of commissioners.
“For the last 30 years, no one has tried to do anything about it, but it’s plain now people want more personal representation instead of two people from one ward,” he said.
Kettle, 68, says city candidates historically were elected by outer parts of wards: “It’s where people voted the most and had more money. People in the inner city didn’t have much of a chance.”
Additionally, Grand Rapids used to have many more — and politically powerful — neighborhood associations.
“When we had more neighborhood associations, the six-ward thing wasn’t as important. Everyone had strong representation,” he said.
Kettle also maintains — as evidenced by the failed attempt in the early ’80s — that wards can be added by a charter amendment and approval by a majority of city voters. That’s a much easier lift than doing so in a charter revision.
Heartwell disagrees, based on advice he said he received from the city attorney while in office.
“The only thing I had to go on was legal counsel when we looked at it early in my tenure,” said Heartwell, who was first elected mayor in 2003 and served on the city commission through most of the 1990s. “They shut it down, said it’s impossible without a charter revision commission.”
“Nah, he’s wrong,” Kettle said.
Meanwhile, the city’s office of communications said that the current city attorney, Anita Hitchcock, “has not opined or researched this topic.”
An amendment versus a revision is a distinction with a major difference — and one that Lee says is currently being worked through.
Ed Kettle. Photo By Katy Batdorff
While a charter amendment would still be up for a citywide vote (and campaign), the prospect of a charter revision is much more daunting. Based on state law, voters elect whether to revise the charter. If they approve, then they elect a nine-member charter revision commission to deliberate over changes. The commission can take up to three years to put forth multiple charter options.
Heartwell maintains that adding wards, though good in theory, would be a heavy lift.
“You don’t simply say, ‘Let’s look at the ward system.’ It means everything in the charter is fair game for the charter revision commission,” he said. “There’s some risks associated with it, there’s going to be politics played. There’s no end to the mischief that could be done.”
Revising a city charter is, simply put, politically fraught. City Manager Mark Washington came to Grand Rapids earlier this year from Austin, Texas, where voters in 2012 chose to revise the charter to better represent diverse groups on the city council. The Austin effort changed the council from a seven-member, at-large body to an 11-member council from 10 districts.
The Austin Chronicle wrote in 2013 that the vote “kicked off a lengthy, raucous, and sometimes frustrating struggle over district lines for the new shape of City Hall.”
Questions over equity and diversity persist during what can be multi-year processes, Washington said.
“It’s something you don’t do overnight. You want to make sure it’s carefully structured and gives the voice of various residents,” he said.
Washington emphasized that he has no position on a charter change in Grand Rapids, nor has he been part of discussions about it.
In Michigan, Detroit voters approved a new city charter in 2012. In this year’s August primary election, voters narrowly chose to revisit the charter and elect a new nine-member charter commission. Media reports leading up to the November vote appear to confirm fears about how that system — electing members to oversee the amendment process — is subject to influence from power brokers.
Detroit Metro Times reported a week before the election that several candidates were backed by mega-developer Dan Gilbert, Mayor Mike Duggan and other “Republican-leaning” and corporate interests.
This is the concern from the Latino Community Coalition and others in Grand Rapids.
“Once you open (the city charter), anything can happen,” said Jeremy DeRoo, executive director of LINC UP, a nonprofit community development organization. “There’s definitely that threat that instead of expanding it, it could be reduced in some other way.”
But that’s not to say LINC UP or the Latino Community Coalition are against the plan. Both groups say they’re open to the idea. If it does go forward, it’s understood that it will be a grassroots-led effort and not initiated by city officials.
“If there was any change to the ward system, it would have to be driven by the community,” said Mayor Rosalynn Bliss.
While Bliss agrees smaller districts could “potentially create greater diversity” on the commission, she also sees value in two commissioners “working together” to represent a ward while commissioner terms are staggered.
“I think there’s pros and cons — people need to be part of the conversation,” Bliss said.
Asked about the potential for expanded mayoral power and full-time pay, Bliss added: “I’m happy with the system as it is today. I don’t feel strongly there needs to be a push for change.”
First Ward Commissioner Kurt Reppart agrees “there’s merit to having a smaller constituent base” under more wards.
“It allows an entry point for more people to run, and it certainly allows for more representation on a more local level,” he said. “It’s easy to see the pros, I’d have to look at the cons.”
Heartwell agrees on the pros.
“It would probably provide for better representation by race as well as by socioeconomics,” he said.
Consider this the next chapter in Grand Rapids’ century-long debate over how its government functions. This effort, however, comes amid strong growth in the city while debates over equity, race and class persist.
“This is an evolution,” Lee said. “It’s the recognition that we’re growing as a city and that it’s not a one-size-fits-all. It’s time for people to participate in democracy, and it’s certainly fair to ensure people have elected leaders who represent their needs.”