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Getting Your Voice Heard: Choosing the New City Commissioner

March 22, 2010

Recently, GRIID posted a report on the selection process by the City Commissioners of a replacement for David LaGrand. I found it disturbing that there appeared to be minimal participation allowed by Grand Rapids citizens, even though LaGrand’s term runs for nearly another two years. I was also concerned that commissioners, having selected the field of candidates, had already announced to the media who they felt the “front-runner” was, before they’d even gotten citizen input on their choices. Lastly, it was puzzling why the Commission didn’t simply vet a group of candidates and then place them on the ballot in early May. After all, LaGrand had been selected by the people of Grand Rapids. Why not his successor?

For answers, I turned to Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss. I chose to write to Bliss partly because I knew she had voiced her own concerns that the selection process was not inclusive enough or open enough to the public. I wrote her an e-mail outlining my questions. She answered, in part, “The current appointment process is what is required under the City Charter, which we are bound to comply with as a commission. I recognize that it is different than an election and have attempted to create a process that allows for as much community input as possible. The first round interviews we held were just that, first round and yes the candidates were given copies of the questions but it was because they had 30 minutes before the commission. There was a public hearing last Tuesday night where community members could come forward to provide input.”

I then pointed out to her that in the Grand Rapids Press, (January 13, 2010) it stated that the Commission and Mayor Heartwell had chosen the process they were currently following, because “City Attorney Catherine Mish said the charter does not spell out a process to replace a commissioner who resigns.” I told her that that seemed to imply that the Commission had authority to do anything it wished, including a ballot vote by the public, so I asked her to explain she and the other Commissioners had settled on this particular process.

In her second e-mail, Bliss was more explicit. She replied, “Kate, I apologize if there was confusion in my response. Let me try to clarify. The charter specifically says that a commission vacancy ‘shall be filled by a majority vote of the City Commission at any regular meeting.’

“What is/was at the discretion of the commission is the appointment process such as: how long we would accept applications, what we would ask for on the application, how many interviews we wished to complete, if we would have a public forum, how would be determine final candidates, and how we would make a final decision. The appointment process is what the Mayor worked on, had flexibility with and brought back to the Commission to discuss and determine. And this is when I offered and recommended having a community forum and ample time for public comment at public hearings.”

Concerning the “front-runner” announcement, Bliss did not speak to the inappropriateness of some Commissioners announcing their preferences to the media (and she wasn’t one who did so), but she did say, “In regards to rating the candidates, we also discussed this and the various options we had to determine the final round of candidates. It was difficult because we had to in some way identify our final candidates, particularly since we didn’t know how many people would apply. Ranking candidates and then weighing the various ranking to come up with the final three was our decision. It then turned out that we had a tie so now there are 4 final candidates.”

So it appears that the Commission was limited by the city charter to select a replacement for David LaGrand itself, regardless of the length of his remaining term. Bliss appears to have been the one who insisted on adding public forums to gather views from citizens prior to a final vote. As for the “front-runner” comments, it’s difficult to tell whether these were mis-reported or played up by theGrand Rapids Press or whether it was, as Bliss has stated, simply that identifying rankings became a necessary part of the process in order to determine the final candidate pool. In fact, it appears that the Press has been guilty of sloppy and patchy reporting throughout this process.

Here’s the bottom line: Grand Rapids citizens who desire any input in this process have only two more chances: First, on Monday, March 22, 7PM, Rosalynn Bliss will be moderating a candidate forum at the Wealthy Street Theater where voters can listen to candidates and also fill in written forms that will go to the Commission. Second, on Tuesday, March 23 at 7PM, there will be an opportunity at the Commission hearing when people can voice their views directly to Commissioners.

Since the Commission could have chosen a completely closed process, it’s important for people to share their opinions. If you can’t make either of the meetings, you can write an e-mail to the Commissioners or to Mayor George Heartwell with your views. Tell them which candidate you feel is best qualified. You could also voice your opinions about this current replacement process and how it could have been improved.

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