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Will the upcoming public forums be highly managed or will the public have a real impact on issues of housing and public safety in Grand Rapids

March 12, 2023

Last Tuesday, the City of Grand Rapids posted an announcement about two upcoming forums that will focus on “public health and safety initiatives.” The two forums will be held on March 20th and 22nd, with details on time and location at this link.

The only local news that picked up this announcement, was MLive, which posted a story on March 9. 

The MLive article included the headline, Grand Rapids holding community meetings around homelessness, nuisance behavior downtown. The headline reflects a certain bias or at least it frames the issue in a certain direction, making “homelessness” and “nuisance behavior” central to the forums.

In addition, there was no evidence from the City of Grand Rapids announcement that these forums were specific to downtown Grand Rapids, but the MLive article makes it clear that this is the case, since the article states: 

City officials clarified to MLive/The Grand Rapids Press the concerns are related to ongoing discussions around homelessness and issues of aggressive panhandling, public defecation, harassment, people sleeping in doorways and more that downtown business leaders last December petitioned the Grand Rapids City Commission to resolve. 

The MLive article goes on to discuss the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce role in proposing their own ordinance, which also received a letter of support signed by 130 people, many of whom make up the Grand Rapids Power Structure. The article also only cites City Manager Mark Washington, Deputy City Manager Kate Berens, and Police Chief Eric Winstrom, which completely ignores the fact that numerous people came to city Commission meetings to voice their opposition to the Chamber’s proposed ordinance, along with the fact that there was a protest at the GR Chamber of Commerce office in December and a call by groups to boycott downtown Grand Rapids. 

The fact that MLive didn’t talk to community members, people who are impacted by the City policies or those who are organizing around these issues, should tell us something about how the local news crafts their own, often, pre-conceived narratives. 

Other issues are also relevant on this matter. First, these forums are being facilitated by  the “National Civic League, in collaboration with the City’s Public Safety Committee.” We were these organizations not cited in the MLive article? In addition, besides the City Commissioners that make up the Public Safety Committee, several of those who sit on the committee have a bias in support of the GRPD, like Ed Kettle.

Then there is the issue of why the National Civic League is being brought in to co-facilitate these two forums. Public tax money will no doubt be used to pay members of the National Civil League, money that could go to people who live in Grand Rapids and who actually know the community. 

Then there is the issue of how managed these forums will be. Will people be split up in to smaller groups to discuss the issues, which always means that everyone else won’t be able to hear concerns, questions, observations and ideas about to address these issues. I have witnessed first hand how these meetings can often being highly managed, like the forum 2021 when the City was in the process of hiring a new Chief of Police, or the so-called “listening tour” that took place in 2017 around what was framed as “Community-Police relations.”

Even if these forums are not heavily managed, what will happen with the ideas and input from the public? There is no stated process or clear outcomes regarding these two forums, which certainly contributes to a very real level of frustration and refusal to even participate, since certain voices and certain ideas are ignored by those who get to make the decisions. 

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