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We don’t have to have a City Manager form of government in Grand Rapids, we didn’t before

February 1, 2018

On Tuesday, we posted an article that provided an alternative view of the 8 years that Greg Sundstrom has served as City Manager of Grand Rapids. At the end of that article, we wrote:

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.

One thing that we did not mention in the Tuesday article, is that Grand Rapids used to have a different form of government. In the early part of the 20th century, Grand Rapids did not have a City Manager, instead the city was led by a strong Mayor, with a 12 ward system.

What this 12 ward system provided, was greater representation from both the working class residents of Grand Rapids and more ethnic diversity, at least diversity in terms of the various Euro-Americans that lived in the City – German, Polish, Dutch, Italian and Lithuanian.

This 12 ward system changed in 1916, when a new City Charter was proposed to reduced the 12 ward system with a 3 ward system and a strong Mayor form of government to a City Manager form of government.

This charter change was an effort put forth by the business community as a direct response to the 1911 furniture workers strike. The furniture workers strike demonstrated to the business community that working people had too much say in local electoral politics.

In August of 1916, voters went to the polls to determine the future political structure of Grand Rapids. The new Charter won by a small margin of 7,693 votes in favor to 6,012 votes in opposition. According to Jeffrey Kleiman’s book, Strike: How the Furniture Workers Strike of 1911 Changed Grand Rapids, the wards that voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Charter change were made up of the city’s elite.

The Second, Third and Tenth wards provided enthusiastic support for the proposed changes. Here lived the industrialists, lawyers, and bankers who formed the leadership of the Furniture Manufacturers Association, and the Association of Commerce. These men shared social and business connections through Kent Country Club and the Peninsular Club, and many were members of Fountain Street Baptist Church.

During another period of turmoil in Grand Rapids, there were attempts to change the City Charter back to a larger ward system and eliminate the City Manager for of government. In the later 1960s, just after the July 1967 race riot in Grand Rapids, there were both internal and external efforts to change the form of government.

In October, 1967, just a little over two months after the riot, there was a call for an investigation by Mayor Sonneveldt to look into the possibility of eliminating the City Manager form of government.

The question of shifting to a new form of government, by eliminating the City Manager position, was again debated in the Grand Rapids Press in November of 1967 and again in 1969, with the research commission that Sonneveldt requested 2 years earlier, but this time they were calling for a return to a 12 ward system and limiting the powers of the City Manager.

There have been other times in Grand Rapids history where efforts were put forth to restructure the number of wards the city would have or to eliminate the City Manager form of government.

Therefore, it is not unreasonable to consider such a change right now, especially considering how much power the City Manager has in a non-elected position. And, like in 1967, Grand Rapids is again faced with serious racial and economic disparities. A new form of governance, especially one that truly gave all residents a say what form of government or governance they want. We can certainly learn from the past about what to do in the present that might effect our collective futures.

To view the GR Press articles on the various local governance proposals between 1967 – 1970, click here

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