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An Alternative view of what has happened in Grand Rapids during the 8 years that Greg Sundstrom has been City Manager

January 30, 2018

Last week, MLive ran a story that sort of summarized the 8 and a half years that Greg Sundstrom served as the City Manager of Grand Rapids. 

The article, in many ways is an overview of his tenure as City Manager, but it’s also sort of a puff piece, considering the accolades that Sundstrom is given from other city officials. In fact, city officials are the only sources cited in the article, meaning that no one from the community was asked what they thought about Sundstrom’s tenure as City Manager.

The article does acknowledge some “difficulties” that Sundstrom has faced, including the budget, race relations and police violence, but those issues are glossed over.

In many ways, the headline sets the tone for the story, From millions in deficit to cash in the bank: Greg Sundstrom’s Grand Rapids turnaround. This headline, is misleading, since it doesn’t acknowledge what the city had to do in order to be “fiscally sound.” The MLive piece does state about half way through the article that some 500 city employees were laid off and that contracts with the police, fire and other city staff were re-negotiated to cut benefits and restructure retirement plans. In other words, Sundstrom was responsible for applying deep austerity measures to the City of Grand Rapids, as part of the larger Neoliberal economic measures imposed by local and state governments that has been happening for several decades now. However, how would this article have read had their been comments from some of the 500 city employees that were laid off?

Part of the reason why Grand Rapids, like many municipalities, was facing a deficit, was the unjust way in which the State of Michigan dealt with revenue sharing. Grand Rapids was not getting back from the state what it should have received in revenue sharing. Instead, when Rick Snyder became Governor, there was a further shift to adopting austerity measures and Snyder made it a point to come to Grand Rapids in March of 2011, to use the City as a model for how to downsize local government. 

Towards the entire of the MLive article, Sundstrom acknowledges the issue of poverty in Grand Rapids, but then quickly is quoted as saying that Grand Rapids is, “exploding’ with prosperity.” At the very end the of the article, Sundstrom then says, “I just think 10 years from now whoever’s going to be sitting in this chair is going to be sitting as the city manager of the coolest city in the country.”

As a counter to the MLive puff piece, we’d like to list some of the major shifts that have occurred in the past 8 and a half years, while Greg Sundstrom has been the City Manager of Grand Rapids.

  • Sundstrom oversaw the massive Neoliberal Economic plan for Grand Rapids, with the layoffs of hundreds of City employees, cuts to health benefits and retirement plans.
  • Sundstrom was City Manager during a period where the number of people living in poverty grew in Grand Rapids, with roughly one quarter of the population living in poverty and more than 30% of the Black and Latinix communities living in poverty.
  • During Sundstrom’t tenure as City Manager, the city has undergone gentrification in many neighborhoods, displacing hundreds of families, while giving developers millions in tax breaks
  • Sundstrom ignored the struggles of union workers who lost wages and benefits over the past eight years, including the Rapid Bus Drivers Union, the local ATU.
  • Activists supporting the bus drivers union were harassed and intimidated by the GRPD because they stood in solidarity with the ATU. 
  • With Sundstrom’s approval, the City of Grand Rapids has given at least $725,000 of taxpayers money to a DeVos entity to manage Smart Zones in the city.
  • Sundstrom would not support Grand Rapids becoming a Sanctuary City and was silent when City Commissioners voted to NOT include the GRPD in the City’s policy of never asking residents about their immigration status.
  • After the Ferguson uprising, the City of Grand Rapids adopted mild reformist policies for the GRPD, but has continued to defend the police abuse of and the targeting of communities of color in Grand Rapids – including the treatment of African American youth.
  • Sundstrom has continued to maintain a full third of the City’s budget to be allocated for the GRPD, despite calls from the community for greater transparency, more accountability and a shift to other forms of community safety practices.
  • Another traffic study was conducted in Grand Rapids, a study which concluded that black residents are disproportionately targeted and profile by the GRPD – even though the black community had been saying for years that this was their lived experience.

City Manager and the Future of Grand Rapids Politics

Next week, there will be a community forum held at the Wealthy Theater to allow residents to give input on who will be the next City Manager. The event is billed as a community engagement effort.

I’m all in favor of community engagement, but the problem with how it is often done in Grand Rapids, is that the public is often only asked to give input on decisions that those in power have already made or public input is limited to a framework that is too narrow.

For example, we are not asking the question of why we even need a City Manager. The City Manager position in Grand Rapids is a non-elected position, yet this person has more power than anyone else in the City. If the City really wanted community engagement, they would really look at other forms of governance, where all residents had a say, where neighborhoods had more autonomy and where the city budget was determined by the public and not the City Managers office.

There are all kinds of possibilities for the future of how City politics could happen in Grand Rapids. Unfortunately, city leaders seemed to be content for maintaining a business as usual approach that leaves decision-making power in the hands of a small group of people.

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