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The Devil is in the Details: Committees, Policies and Power in Grand Rapids – Week of January 11

January 10, 2021

(Editor’s note: this is the first installment of a new series that will dissect some of the inner-workings of Grand Rapids City government and the various committees that exist to serve the interests of those with power and privilege.)

The activity of local government is constant. There are decisions that get made on a daily basis, often without public knowledge or consent. 

If one looks at the schedule of all the various meetings becoming out of the City of Grand Rapids, it can be a bit overwhelming. There are numerous committees, from the Planning Commission to the Economic Development Committee and the Fiscal Committee to Public Safety. While there are elected officials who are part of these committees, most of those who serve are by appointment. Those appointed are generally recommended by those elected or those who have regular and ongoing access to Grand Rapids City officials.

For example, based on the City Commission Agenda packet for January 12, there is a list of newly appointed members to the numerous committees that operate within the City Government, listed on pages 7 – 12 of the City Commission Agenda packet. A couple examples of those appointed illustrates that more often than not, those who are appointed are those with direct access to City officials and people with lots of privilege. The City Planning Commission appointees serve for 3 year terms and Kyle Van Strien was appointed again. Van Strien is the co-owner of Long Road Distillery on the westside. Van Strien’s business partner at Long Road Distillery, is 1st Ward Commissioner John O’Connor, demonstrating how committee appointees are so connected to local centers of power.

A second example, is the new appointment of Ed Kettle to the Public Safety Committee. For those who are not familiar with Kettle, he has been a longtime supporter of the GRPD and created the group Friends of GR Cops several years ago, just after Black Lives Matter came on the scene to challenge the legitimacy of policing in the US. Kettle states on the Friends of GR Cops website, I am presently working with the Grand Rapids Police Officers Association to build their community and political profile. I formed Friends of GRCops, essentially a social media effort, to help solidify public support for our police officers and to create opportunities for public dialogue.”Having a police apologist on the Public Safety Committee should tell you something about how these committees are stacked in favor of those who power, access and privilege.

Another aspect of these Grand Rapids City Committees is that they tend to operate under the radar. Sure, you can read about what is on their agendas from meeting to meeting, but who has the time to read all of these documents, make sense of them and then try to organize against whatever is being proposed? People who are struggling to make ends meet, to take care of their families, people who do not make a living wage and have unstable housing, food and healthcare needs, are often not in a position to sift through the minutia of these Committee meeting minutes. This reality, is not merely an unfortunate one, it is by design. John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States was fond of saying, “those who own the country, ought to govern it.” Using that sentiment on a local level here in Grand Rapids, we could say, those that have privilege and access to power, ought to make the decisions about what happens in Grand Rapids.

Cannabis Rules

There are more and more companies that are proposing recreational cannabis licenses in Grand Rapids, most of which are not local and will not benefit those most impacted by the historical war on drugs. 

According to the most recent Agenda Packet from the City Planning Commission, the following companies have requested approval for being a recreational cannabis retailer:

  • SB VB Grand Rapids, LLC
  • FPAW Michigan, LLC
  • AEY Capital LLC

Question: Why is it so hard to get concrete information about these companies? Also, by design.

Still No Transparency

In early December, it was reported that the DeVos-created AmplifyGR project was lobbying for $2.2 million in tax breaks for the re-development of 1601 Madison SE. The name of the future business at 1601 Madison SE was not revealed last month, but the Direct of AmplifyGR was quoted in MLive, saying, “Were hoping that by the end of the year we can be a little bit more public with that. So hopefully its a matter of weeks and not months.No names have been revealed as of yet, but no matter, as the City of Grand Rapids is hosting a Public Hearing on the issue of a $2.2 million tax break, despite the lack of transparency. See page 324 of the City Commission Agenda packet, which says:

The Developer, an entity affiliated with Amplify GR and Rockford Construction, is proposing to demolish the existing 250,000 square foot industrial building to begin a first phase of development on the 10-acre site.

More tax breaks for AmplifyGR projects

The Fiscal Committee is set to approve tax exemption for part of the 9 acres AmplifyGR project that was approved by the City of Grand Rapids last fall. The Boston Square Together project is the first phase of a larger development project, with the first phase consisting of condominium construction. From the Fiscal Committee packet, “The developer is a joint venture between Brinshore Development, LLC and Amplify GR. The ownership entity will be the BSQ Together I Limited Dividend Housing Association, LLC (BSQ Together I LDHA LLC).”

The Fiscal Committee document says of the Condos: “Unit 1 will be owned by an affiliate of Amplify GR and Units 2 and 3 will be owned by BSQ Together I LDHA LLC.” There are no details on who the AmplifyGR affiliate is……but who needs transparency, especially when public funds are involved.

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