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Local government consolidation study group still at odds with One Kent Coalition proposal

June 30, 2011

Two weeks ago we reported that the lack of transparency on the part of the One Kent Coalition was making it nearly impossible for a study group to move forward on making recommendations about whether or not there should be local government consolidation that would involve the City of Grand Rapids and the County of Kent.

Since then the Kent County Commissioners passed a resolution to withdraw from the study group and about two-thirds of the area townships have followed suit. Yesterday’s meeting by local leaders was designed to have the three people who set up the study group – Mayor Heartwell (Grand Rapids), Sandi Frost Parish (Kent County) and Nyal Deems of the One Kent Coalition – address the concerns from the June 14 meeting.

Heartwell began by acknowledging that the County Government and other area townships have all formally expressed their displeasure and lack of trust in the process and the timeline. Heartwell also believes that the September deadline is also unrealistic. For Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell there are two fundamental questions that need to be addressed: 1) Is it the consolidation of government that should be given serious consideration, and 2) Is the One Kent proposal a legitimate proposal?

Heartwell said that clarifying the charge of the group was not enough and according to the people he had appointed they were willing to end their participation after the meeting if more information is not given and changes in the process takes place.

Heartwell then presents a document clarifying his and the City’s position. One of the main points is to acknowledge that consolidation of area services has worked well so far. He then says that transparency has not been part of the One Kent proposal like the Green Grand Rapids process. Heartwell suggests that this group divorces the idea of local government consolidation from the One Kent Proposal. This process deserves more time and investigation. He proposes that a new planning committee be appointed to begin a serious process.

Heartwell then asks those involves in the One Kent Coalition if they are willing to go along with this proposal and adopt a timeline that would allow for adequate public involvement and conversation. None of the One Kent Coalition members present responded to Heartwell’s invitation.

The main spokesperson for the One Kent Coalition, Nyal Deems, then addressed the group. The former Mayor of East Grand Rapids seemed surprised by the direction of the meeting and thinks that the charge of this group was clear from the beginning. Deems takes the position that the county and city government is now backing out of participating in the process, without acknowledging the reasons why.

Deems says that the One Kent Coalition had sent out information and sought input to maybe a dozen people, with little response back. He thinks the idea that they didn’t seek input “was silly.” He also dismisses the claims that the right people were not involved and invited to be involved in this process. Deems says that several formers GR mayors and county commissioners have said this issue should be looked into and that maybe the private sector should get involved. So the One Kent Coalition came into being to make the idea of local government consolidation a reality.

Deems also said the group feels that the vote should happen in 2012 during the Presidential Election. This would allow people plenty of time to have a “dialogue” about the issue.

As we looked at the issue of local consolidation we looked at four areas of similar size, such as Indianapolis, which did consolidate.  This could be a good decision and it would be a tremendous benefit to improve the global economic growth of our region,” said Deems.

Deems then rather sarcastically states that Michigan is the only state that had a decrease in population in the last 10 years and that the economic situation will get worse unless action happens now, which is why the One Kent Coalition has moved forward. Deems then said, “there is no one in the group who will stand to make a dime off of this proposal.”

The One Kent Coalition spokesperson was clearly on the defensive, but he really never addressed any of the concerns that people raised at the last meeting, such as a lack of transparency, where the group’s money was coming from and whether or not they had already hired a lobbyist to push forward with their proposed legislation.

The Mayor of Kentwood, Richard Root, then defends the One Kent Coalition proposal and says that the proposal from Heartwell should not divorce itself from the One Kent Proposal. He says that the area “philanthropists” need to be acknowledged and that “we owe them the effort they put forward,” which is reflected in “the names of the people on the buildings” in this area. “To not pay attention to it when some of the most successful business people in the country are involved in this process,” would be a mistake according to Root.

Nyal Deems then says that in recent discussion the One Kent Coalition members said they don’t have a “hard deadline.” They thought September so that the “state legislature can do what they need to do, so that it can it get on the November, 2012 ballot.” Of course they were thinking this way because they want to make this happen as quickly as possible.

Another study group member, Mary Alice Williams, said that the proposed legislation has already acknowledged that local government consolidation is the way to go, so this study group only would be used in helping to tweak that proposal. She said that the question of whether or not to consolidate is not even on the table, but it seems to be an either or proposition. When people haven’t been involved in drafting the legislation then she has “serious reservations in being involved in this process.”

Heartwell then said that maybe the use of the word “divorce” was too strong. However, he wants it to be inclusive, with neighborhood organizers and One Kent Coalition members. “The problem is that there is a timeline and a framework for a vote in 2012,” said Heartwell. He also thinks this would be an open-ended process that would involve not a few dozen, but hundreds of people.

Deems then uses a line that the One Kent members have been using all along in that this process “would ultimately be decided by the voters,” as if that group has demonstrated any real interest in the democratic process. Deems insists that the legislation needs to be done in the next few months, but this “doesn’t preclude more public dialogue between now and the 2012 election. If the state legislative process is delayed until May of 2012, then it would not give the public enough time to have dialogue about this issue.” Deems was hoping that maybe there would be recommendations this group could come up with that would help the process and push forward the legislative process. However, Deems failed to see that people were questioning the process since it did not even allow for them to have a serious question about whether or not local government consolidation should occur.

Several participants, including Wyoming Mayor Curtis Holt propose that a group should continue and seriously have the discussion about local government consolidation. He and others say they should operate autonomously of the One Kent Group and operate on a different timeline that would allow serious investigation and public input into this issue.

Holt then asks Deems if they would be supportive of this proposal. The Wyoming Mayor then asked him if he was the chairmen, the spokesperson, or the President of the One Kent Coalition. Deems, in an almost comical fashion said, “we are not hierarchical. I am the spokesperson for this coalition and we are just people who get together to meet.” Does Mr. Deems really expect the public to believe that members of the One Kent Coalition, which includes the likes of Dick and Betsy DeVos, that they just meet like any common neighborhood group?

The absurdity of this meeting was further underscored when the study group facilitator Steve Crandall says he was hired by the three groups (One Kent, Grand Rapids and Kent County) to move this discussion forward. Several members quickly pointed out that the City and the County had offered up no money to Mr. Crandall, thus exposing the lack of transparency and honesty in this process.

After two hours and 15 minutes the group finally agreed to move forward as an autonomous entity and to devote the entire next meeting to laying out the goals of the group and the process in which they will operate. These meetings are open to the public, so anyone can attend the next meting, which will be held on Wednesday, July 13at 4:00PM in room 202E of the downtown campus at GVSU.


One Comment leave one →
  1. winterinthehinterland permalink
    July 1, 2011 1:17 am

    Funny how all these consolidation efforts across the state are being led by private groups sponsored by the same folks – not local grass-roots efforts. The lack of transparency is a serious issue that should be questioned by the public.

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