Below are nine questions posed to the candidates for City Commission at last Thursday’s League of Women Voters forum. These were compiled by the LWV-GTA Voter Service Committee and each candidate had 90 seconds to answer one question drawn from a hat. I tried to keep the following answers under 100-words each. If you would like to discuss any of the following further, or an issue that isn’t addressed here, please send a message via the form below. Previously, I posted my opening statement from this event and answered more human profile questions.
1. The city has invested for years in the training and education of our city fire fighters and city police. How do you see this level of excellence continuing if there is a consolidation with the Metro Fire Department or other public safety mergers?
This question is part of the answer as any consideration of a merger, consolidation, or hybrid approach needs to have at its core the protection of the substantial assets already invested in by the City, and that includes the investment in training and education of a professional crew. In addition, when discussing TCFD, the professional culture that only comes from a tradition a century in the making is not to be taking lightly. Although regionalization in general is appealing, in situations where there is a core area already subsidizing the surrounding rural region with a strong tax base and associated services, the threshold to where it makes sense to merge TCFD with Metro is extremely high. I’d prefer to see the discussion going in reverse as adjacent townships become more integrated into the City proper while growing our revenue stream and improving regional coordination.
Like all the candidates, I’m interested to see what the current consolidation report being conducted by metro recommends, but I’m not confident it will find substantial savings or improved public service for City residents. Ultimately, the bottom-line is how do we ensure that we maintain a nimble, safe, and effective emergency response system that is sustainable in the long-term.
(I’ve received more direct requests about this subject than any other question. Each Time I meet with someone, I learn something new. If you’d like to meet and discuss TCFD, please do not hesitate to contact me. In the end, this needs to be a community decision weighing far more than can be neatly presented here.)
2. Would you increase revenues to improve local roads, streets, and sidewalks? Why or why not?
I’m not outright opposed or supportive of increasing spending on our streets, because that isn’t the primary question we need to be asking. My primary objective is to insure that whatever the amount we are spending we are creating high-productive value that increases access for everyone, improves quality of life in the neighborhoods, and encourages the types of private investments that bring the most efficient economic benefit to the City of Traverse City. For certain projects, like the Corridor Improvement Plan, that will likely mean finding additional funding. The bottom-line though is that we can do a lot more than we are doing with the money already being spent.
(I’ve written extensively over the last four years about livable streets and great public spaces at MyWheelsareTurning.com)
3. In the past two years we have had problems in the Marina, Clinch Park, and the Water Treatment Plant among others. What is the role of the Mayor and the City Commissioners in assuring that you and the City Departments meet their responsibilities to the residents of Traverse City?
The City Commission sets policy, passes an annual budget, and hires and fires the head of the executive branch, the City Manager – it’s role isn’t to manage staff of each department. Each of the problems addressed in the question have unique circumstances and a City Commissioner needs to not only hold the City Manager accountable, but also work with him or her to 1) have open dialogue to find potential problems and address them proactively, 2) ensure a clear expectation of excellence and 3) work to clearly communicate and engage with the public when a problem does arise. The latter is often overlooked and underfunded, and yet critical in maintaining trust of our local government. Too often when problems arise, leadership tends to get defensive when the only proper response to a problem is, “Yes, we recognize the problem and we will get it fixed.”
4. The Open Space has recently become a closed space in that some groups that use it charge entrance fees, and some groups have caused complaints about noise. What should be the balance between free public use of the Open Space and the use of it for larger events?
Festivals are important to the economy and there are opportunities for the City to be a stronger partner with events to ensure that negative impacts are avoided or mitigated. I’m not as concerned about the absolute number of events as I am about the ability of the City to manage them. That said, some additional time and place restrictions may be warranted and need to be explored.
I don’t believe there is universal agreement on the best use of the Open Space. Many City residents only visit the Open Space when there is an event and I’ve met people who have moved here in large part because we have such a rich programming schedule. It would be interesting to explore some sort of town hall type meeting to get the opposing views in the same room to discuss the proper use of that space. Too often we get stuck talking within our own circles and concentrate on amplifying our own perspective. This is public space and the discussion of its use needs to be as inclusive as possible.
5. What are the roadblocks to having more affordable housing within the City and how would you help to overcome the obstacles?
This City needs to not be passive on the issue of affordable or accessible housing, because we can’t afford to have a City of only affluent retirees and a scattering of well-paid professionals while the service industry employees are pushed further and further out – the drive until you can buy (or rent) model is a failed model. We need mixed use, mixed-income housing in all of our neighborhoods and we do that through clear policy and partnering with the private sector in true public-private collaborations where all parties invest real resources to making it happen.
A critical piece of affordability that gets overlooked is the devalued land we have committed to surface parking lots across the city. These have multiple negative impacts, but one is the very low, or negative contribution, they provide to the tax base, including lowering the value of surrounding properties. We need to make haste to put those spaces into more productive use, like denser, mixed use housing. I’m confident that when we do that we will see an increase in access to housing, an increase in taxable developments, and a decrease in transportation costs. The latter can be equal to putting an extra $10,000 annually in the pockets of homeowners not dependent on driving everywhere for work or basic needs.
6. What would you do to foster economic development that would provide good year- round jobs at a living wage? Could the arts be a major economic driver in this area and what might be done to help that happen?
Downtown is a great model and has achieved a tremendous amount in the last 25-years. We need to build on that success and spread the opportunity to others parts of the City. I’ve written about this more fully in two articles about placemaking published on this website. Both are based off of the same idea that talent is seeking a lively, safe, and healthy place and in order to attract and connect that talent we need to up our game across the City.
For starters, the City needs to actually have an economic development vision and plan. Currently, I’d argue City government outsources it by default to other entities and backs away from the responsibility. Who at the City is in charge of economic development? I’m not aware of anyone. Do we have a strategic vision and brand for the path forward? If we do, I haven’t seen it. I believe the planning department needs to be expanded to have the resources available to promote more productivity out of current businesses and help plan for the growth that we know is more economically productive for the City.
7. Traverse City is a popular destination. This brings increased road activity in our area. How can we manage the traffic yet make roads safer for pedestrians and cyclists? What resources would you need to accomplish this?
I’ve spent the last four-years advocating here and statewide for policies and practices associated with Complete Streets. Complete Streets is a process and design principle aimed to ensure that our streets are designed as places that add economic, social, and environmental value to our community and ensure that transportation choices are built into the system by design. Too often, our streets are designed to forgive our worse behaviors as drivers and true safety measures and access for people are considered as an afterthought.
People want choices to get around that are safe, comfortable, and convenient. The City has made progress in this regard and yet has considerable room for improvement to ensure that no matter how we are getting around people are treated like they are valued and that they belong. As a commissioner, I would steadily work to ensure that our policies and budget reflect our values and needs when it comes to our public rights of way.
8. What is your vision for this community ten years out, in 2023?
In 2023, we have a strong downtown that is the heart of the City and we also have increasingly strong mixed-use corridors that attract people and serve the different neighborhoods. Children are encouraged to walk to school and parks because our streets are safe and there are plenty of ‘eyes on the street’. The majority of our daily needs can be met without driving and very rarely does anyone drive 1/4 mile to buy a gallon of milk. We continue to attract not only retirees, but increasingly young, mobile professionals who not only contribute to the economic productivity of the City, but are also engaged in the civic process, contributing fresh ideas and energy to the public process. Traverse City of 2023 uses a triple bottom line approach to planning, measuring our return on investment of time and money in terms of an economic, social, and environmental benefit. We are a community that values recreation and ecological protection as a way of life.
9. Do you support asking voters to approve the use of Brown Bridge Trust Fund annual earnings for certain projects such as roads, city parks, or an environmentally sound storm sewer system? Why or why not?
Strategic investment in City assets is critical and the City is fortunate to have the Brown Bridge Trust Fund as a resource. I’m supportive of effectively using it to move the City forward on any number of projects, obviously with the voters approval.
I’ve thought about this mostly in terms of investments in our parks and would be supportive of a proposal that leverages other funds and investments, is aimed at implementing a long-term plan for a thriving, well-maintained park’s system, and targets the projects with the biggest impact.
The discussion over the Brown Bridge Trust Fund as applied to public space is a great opportunity to create and strengthen genuine community engagement and partnerships. We have a lot of talent and a lot of great ideas in the community that we need to engage and connect better.