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Media Coverage of the 2nd Ward Candidate Interviews

March 3, 2010

Yesterday, five candidates for the Grand Rapids Second Ward City Commission seat, which was vacated by David LaGrand, had interviews with the Mayor and the other 5 City Commissioners.

Two TV stations were present for the two and one-half hour interview process where each candidate was given 30 minutes to respond to pre-determined questions that the City Commission provided for each of the candidates ahead of time.

WZZM 13 only stated that there were interviews and gave the names of each candidate, but no information about how the interviews went or how candidates responded. WXMI 17 only included the names of the candidates and a comment from Third Ward Commissioner Elias Lumpkins on what he thought about the process. The local Fox affiliate also told viewers that there were other dates set for public hearings on the next step in the process to chose another candidate for the 2nd Ward.

The Grand Rapids Press had the longest story of any local media, with reporter Jim Harger at least providing a short summary of each other five candidate’s interview, but as with the other news agencies you wouldn’t know from reading the Press what kinds of questions were asked of the candidates.

This writer was present for the whole interview process and some of the questions asked of candidates were as follows: What are some of the strengths you would bring to the Commission; What Leadership Style do you possess; What do you consider to be the priorities of the City of Grand Rapids; What would you do to encourage more regional cooperation; How would you deal with the budget deficit; What activity or event have you been involved in that promotes diversity; What would you consider to be a recent success story in Grand Rapids; What assets does the 2nd Ward have; How would you deal with Labor Disputes involving City staff; How would you retain young professionals in the City of Grand Rapids; and how would you resolve a conflict between the city and neighborhood residents over a proposed street widening project?

It seemed to this writer that the questions were pretty typical and framed within the boundaries of the status quo. Therefore, most of the answers were limited and what one might expect with such questions. There were a few exceptions, however.

When asked about priorities for the City, Michael Booker said he would make it a priority to end homelessness in the City, a concern that no one else even addressed in the interview process.

The only other response by a candidate that fell outside of the status quo was when candidate Eric Foster suggested that the City involve residents in the budget process at a deeper level. Foster suggested that the City encourage people to engage in what is called participatory budgeting, a process where citizens take an active role in determining how their community tax dollars are spent. Foster seemed to be quite familiar with this process and cited example of where it is being used across the country right now.

The Mayor and the Commissioners will narrow the field down to three candidates and then hold pubic hearings to get input from residents before hosting a second interview process, wherein they will chose one of the candidates on April 13.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Frank Lynn permalink
    March 3, 2010 10:03 pm

    Nice job Jeff. I’d like even more detail. What separated the candidates from each other and some information on how they responded to even the standard questions. As one who does not choose to spend for cable TV its hard to find out what is really going on at City Hall unless you are able to attend.

  2. March 4, 2010 4:16 pm

    Frank I didn’t give any other details, because everyone had similar responses to the questions, except for the comments I identified. There was a consensus amongst candidates on the matter of the city budget deficit, support for tax breaks and abatements, the need to retain young professionals and support neighbors and neighborhood businesses. There wasn’t much that differentiates the candidates in my opinion other than there backgrounds and styles.

  3. Frank Lynn permalink
    March 4, 2010 4:31 pm

    Thanks Jeff. That’s kind of boring. One would hope for more imagination. Maybe everyone is taking the safe route.

  4. Kate Wheeler permalink
    March 6, 2010 3:58 am

    What I find most troubling about the process is the way that the Commission is shepherding and steering this. Why is it the Commission that gets to vote on and choose the three candidates who will run? They’ve even already declared a “favorite”–Ruth Kelly–who got the most commissioner votes.

    Weirdly, there are apparently no by-laws that govern how a commissioner who resigns will be replaced. In this go-around, there was no public input in the choosing of the three run-off candidates; no initial announcements about them; no venue for citizens to comment before the Commission vote.

    And now, it appears, the Commission even decided what questions the candidates could discuss in their first public forum. This is democracy?

    I’m curious–how exactly were the candidates presented? Was the fact that they were selected by the Commission without citizen input even mentioned?

  5. Jeff Smith permalink*
    March 6, 2010 1:53 pm

    Kate, to answer the last question, it is my understanding that when David LaGrand resigned from his position as City Commissioner that the City invited anyone to submit their candidacy to replace. People had roughly 30 days to apply and the 5 that went through the first interview were the ones to submit applications.

    The process does seem arbitrary and it would have been nice to know on what criterion that City Commissioners chose the four finalists before there is a Public Hearing. However, it will be interesting to see whether or not the public hearing has any real bearing on the outcome since the public does not get to vote. I don’t know why they don’t just put the candidates on the ballot since there is an election on May 4.

  6. Kate Wheeler permalink
    March 6, 2010 5:42 pm

    Jeff–Sorry, “three” was a typo. I knew there were four candidates–and one has been eliminated already.

    What I hadn’t realized is that the final decision is up to the Commission also! I’m actually trying to follow this and I made the touchingly trusting assumption that the remaining candidates would be put on the ballot in May. The commission position is an elected office, after all–not an appointed one. There’s still almost two years left in David LaGrand’s term–it’s not as if it’s a matter of a few months.

    I understand that the initial candidacy application was open to everyone. My concern lies more with the fact that the people who voted for David LaGrand have absolutely no say in helping to choose his replacement. And it makes the fact that commissioners have already given quotes to the media about Ruth Kelly as the “front runner” problematic as well. Why put on a dog-and-pony show if they’ve already made their decision–and since the rest of us are apparently powerless to intervene?

    I suppose that citizens can write to the Commission and express their views directly that way. But there’s so little information about this process in the media that I doubt most people are even aware of it except in a vague way. And as you point out in your article, the lack of media coverage doesn’t help with that.

    I do want to ask you–was the selection process explained as an introduction to the inteviews you attended, or did they just introduce the “candidates” and launch into the canned questions and responses? I’m trying to get a bead on the level of transparency at the group interview meeting, and what the media was given to work with.

    Thanks so much for covering this, Jeff.

  7. March 6, 2010 6:08 pm

    Kate, the Mayor began the interview process by saying that after the interview process that they would choose the top three candidates and then hold a few public meetings for public input before the Commissioners made the final decision. However, the Commissioners did not say what criterion they would use in determining who they will ultimately chose to fill LaGrand’s seat, which suggests to me that the process is not very transparent or very democratic.

  8. Kate Wheeler permalink
    March 6, 2010 6:19 pm

    So–really no more was said than you reported in your article. I just wanted to be sure about that.

    You’re right–whatever this process is, it definitely does not look like democracy.

    I hope that GRIID will continue to cover this story, because with our mainstream media, you’re our only hope for full reporting. Thanks again, Jeff.

  9. May 20, 2011 6:20 pm

    Fell out of bed feeling down. This has birhgented my day!


  1. Getting Your Voice Heard: Choosing the New City Commissioner « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

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