Service, willingness to work across wards should be vital to whoever is on next City Council

The following is a Flintside opinion piece by Flintside editor Patrick Hayes. Have an idea for an essay or opinion piece you'd like to write for Flintside about life in Flint? Email [email protected].

FLINT, Michigan -- As the editor of a niche publication that is focused mainly on covering arts and culture, neighborhoods, entrepreneurs, and the everyday people who make Flint great, I have the luxury of not having to spend ridiculous hours in front of a computer screen trying to make sense of Flint City Council meetings like other journalists in the city do. 

But I’m also a resident of the city. So I don’t get to shut off what our elected leaders are doing (or not doing) in those meetings.

I’ve regularly written about and discussed how in awe I am of the abundant talented and hardworking people who live in Flint, love the city, and create things every day that honor and add to the rich legacy here. But what is often left unsaid is the fact that those same people who do their best to thrive every day sometimes do so with the elected officials in the city indirectly hindering  those efforts or even working against them, doing precious little to support that ethos, creativity, and community spirit that has developed here organically over generations.

The Flint City Council failed to pass a budget this week, despite meeting for nine hours to attempt to do so. It’s the latest in a long line of marathon meetings and failures by the council as an elected body. And failures isn’t actually accurate enough of a descriptor -- the behavior of the council often crosses over into absurd and embarrassing territory. 

You don’t need to take my word for it, though. A member of the Council recently described it that way himself. Councilman Santino Guerra, who is not seeking re-election, called a similarly dysfunctional council meeting in May “heartbreaking” and, according to Ron Fonger’s reporting for the Flint Journal, said, “I’m ashamed ... I literally am at a loss for words.”

Brandon Jamison, an on-air personality for Club 93.7 in Flint, was even more blunt in his assessment of the Council’s inability to do even basic work, saying on the air Thursday morning, “I’m tired of y’all.”

I recently talked with a young neighbor who works in public service in the city. Out of curiosity, he attended a council meeting on Zoom. His assessment? “I’ll never go again.”

That, to me, was more damning than any of the other legitimate complaints about the body. Sure, gridlock and sniping and unprofessionalism and unfamiliarity with Council procedure are all frustrating as most residents don’t want behavior like that representing them. But creating an environment so toxic that residents just simply won’t get involved is precisely what prevents the dynamic of the council from changing much. The behavior turns people off, which breeds cynicism about government, which helps keep voter turnout low, which makes it easier for people (especially incumbents) to win elections over and over and keep power. 

It’s fair to say that if any resident behaved in their workplace the way members of the council regularly do, if we missed deadlines, if we were difficult to reach, if we insulted colleagues, if we didn’t actually accomplish much other than grandstanding, we probably wouldn’t be employed for long. So that’s the nice thing about elections -- it is possible to just go out, vote, and replace everyone on the council in the next election.

I don’t want to suggest that’s the solution, though. As tempting as it is to hold the entire council accountable for their collective inability to get much accomplished, that’s probably not the reality. Anyone who has had coworkers, played sports, or otherwise been in a team environment has no doubt learned that the actions of even one or two  people with bad intentions can completely derail what would otherwise be a decently functioning team. 

It’s also not prudent to endorse change for the sake of change. Governing, when done effectively, is actually complex, especially in a city with as many challenges as Flint. Getting rid of experienced leaders simply for the sake of change doesn’t always work out if the people being voted in to replace them are worse.

I’m writing this not to endorse any specific candidates. But I certainly will endorse the behavior that I want in any elected official I support. Recently, five people running for council seats in different wards came together to work on a service project together at Kearsley Park. Joe Schipani, executive director of the Flint Public Art Project, is running for council in the fifth ward. Flint Public Art Project is bringing in artists this summer to liven up the beautiful, historic pavilion at Kearsley Park. The muralists wouldn’t be painting the floor, though, and it was in need of a refresh. So Schipani recruited Tanya Rison (first ward), Ladel Lewis (second ward), Allie Herkenroder (seventh ward), and Steven Barber (ninth ward) to help prep and paint the pavilion floor in May. Rison and Barber are running as write-in candidates in their respective wards, Lewis, Schipani, and Herkenroder are all on the ballot. A primary election on August 3 will narrow each race down to two candidates, who will face each other in the November election.

It isn’t the first time candidates have collaborated, either. Schipani teamed up with Lewis to do a service project in Sarvis Park on the northside earlier this spring. 

“Joe lent us such a great hand over in Sarvis Park, I would’ve been remiss if I didn’t come over here and help with this,” Lewis said. “This is a great demonstration of how City Council members, or potential City Council members, can help and work together to get the city’s business done.”

Schipani said the motivation was simple. “If the city council got out once a month in the summer together and did some work like this, maybe they’d get along better,” he said. “If we’re not going to work together to help the community, how are we going to get anything done? There’s too much stuff to be done in Flint (to not help each other).”

My ward, like all wards in the city, has its own unique strengths and challenges. I wouldn’t ever try to tell people in other wards what candidate is best-equipped to serve those needs. But I do fully support the idea that service should be an integral part of city government, and working across wards is a fundamental need in the city. The city is too small for wards to operate like islands. We should all be demanding those things from anyone we elect. So I felt it was important to share the motivations of each of the five candidates who participated in the project in Kearsley Park to amplify and platform behavior that I hope is adopted by whoever ends up filling the council seats in November.

“A lot of things in Flint, it seems like people don’t want to work together,” said Lewis, who is a community activist, writer, has a PhD, and recently was recognized as a Parent of the Year by Flint Community Schools. “If you are truly for Flint, then you should be willing to work with anyone for the betterment of Flint.”

Herkenroder has also organized other cleanups as a way to get to know voters during her campaign. She’s an AmeriCorps member who has partnered with several Flint organizations in the past.

“You have to be the change that you want to see in the world,” Herkenroder said. “I’m a firm believer in bringing the community together as much as possible to work toward the greater good.”

Rison, a home healthcare nurse, is a longtime volunteer in the community even before running for office, and believes that service should be a foundation for anyone in an elected office.

“I wouldn’t fight to do the work if I didn’t plan on doing the work (on the Council),” Rison said. “Due to what we’ve all been through (during the pandemic), if all of us kind of get re-engaged in something, that will help take away the bad. Let’s build that into something better and more positive and be a part of the change.”

Barber teaches at International Academy of Flint and has long been involved in the community through different organizations as a volunteer, board member, or supporter. 

“The most important aspect of community is those last five letters -- unity, and bringing people together for a common goal,” Barber said. “A lack of collaboration and working together really spreads and hinders the progress we could be having. When you have leadership that works together and shows that you can come together to accomplish a goal, the city can be cleaned up, there can be more pride, more can get done.”

During the 2020 presidential election, Flint was full of volunteers who mobilized to help register voters, submit absentee ballots, work at polls, and promote the importance of voting. My hope is that we see that same level of energy around this year’s City Council election. Not that national elections aren’t important, but far fewer voters typically participate in choosing local leaders who have a much more prominent role in making day-to-day decisions in our community than the higher turnout elections for President of the United States or the U.S. Congress or Senate.

Local elections also require work on the part of voters. Spend some time online -- all candidates have web or Facebook presences with information about them. The list of people running is online. Look for write-in candidates like Rison and Barber, too. Local candidates are also typically far easier to reach out and talk to than state or national candidates. If you have questions, find out who is running in your ward and simply reach out to them. Find out if their values and vision for how to run the city align with yours. Talk to neighbors about the City Council election and its impact. Make incumbents re-earn your vote, even if you’ve voted for them before. Have they lived up to your expectations? If not, reach out to them and ask questions. 

Residents here deserve leadership that reflects how hardworking, proud, and talented people from this community are. Don’t pass up the opportunity to evaluate who best fits that lofty criteria in August and November.
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