GVSU seeks to join GVMC

February 14, 2010
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While one member has left and at least a few others are wondering whether the dues they are paying are worth the benefits they’re receiving, a very prominent and powerful public organization has asked to be admitted to the Grand Valley Metro Council.

That request from Grand Valley State University has raised a few eyebrows and a lot of questions among the public officials that comprise the GVMC board.

“As GVSU has grown into the Allendale campus, we have become fully conscious of the impact of our students and the educational complex on the infrastructure relating to transportation, land use, water and sewer services, and the need for sustainable development of our real estate,” explained GVSU President Thomas Haas in a letter to GVMC Executive Director Don Stypula to show that both groups are concerned about the same issues.

“Those issues are even clearer as GVSU’s footprint in Grand Rapids has grown from a single building to several buildings and locations. We want to be aware of and help shape policies which impact our plans and how our plans affect the role of governments in both Kent and Ottawa counties. GVSU has an impact and interests comparable to existing members of the council,” he added.

Stypula acknowledged that GVSU has had a strong relationship with the council over its 20-year existence by assisting the organization on a number of important projects. He also said that the university has offered to pay dues and be a non-voting member.

“They have significant resources, even in a down economy, that they could bring to the table,” said Stypula.

At the same time, though, Stypula pointed out that allowing GVSU to join might set a precedent for membership that goes beyond the traditional field of municipal governments within its boundary, which would change the very nature of the organization.

“This could open up membership to other organizations,” said Stypula, who cited chambers of commerce, economic development groups and other universities and colleges as examples.

But Stypula added that he didn’t see any ulterior motives in the university’s request and felt that GVSU just wants to participate in the regional issues with which the council wrestles. Haas said the university’s counsel, Thomas Butcher, would be its representative to the board.

“If they bring others in, it could be good for us. What harm can they do?” asked Doyle Hayes, an at-large board member, while noting that the school wouldn’t vote on issues.

John Helmholdt, who represents Grand Rapids on the board, said GVSU could assist the council with its continuing efforts to consolidate services among its members.

“This is something the Metro Council has been at the forefront of and needs to continue to be. That theirs would be a different point-of-view is not a negative to me,” he said of the university’s perspective.

But Jim LaPeer of Cannon Township said GVMC needs to be respected as a council of local governments, as most of its board members are voted into office by the people they represent and are responsible to their wishes, unlike non-governmental units like GVSU. LaPeer said adding the university to the roll would change the council’s nature and possibly its direction.

Much of the discussion centered on whether GVSU could become an at-large member, which the council’s charter allows. But those members vote and don’t pay dues, and most have been individuals rather than organizations. Tom Fehsenfeld, Mick McGraw and Hayes are at-large members.

“We recognize that the current statutes relating to the Metro Council do not include an educational institution as a ‘local government unit’ but we understand that other relationships are envisioned under which GVSU can be an active participant. We are prepared to pay a fair amount for that participation. … We are ready to discuss what role that should be so we can implement a mutually beneficial relationship,” wrote Hass.

The board is expected to continue discussing the university’s admission for at least another month.

“Grand Valley wants to be a neighbor, and they’ve done that with Allendale,” said Jerry Alkema, the township’s representative to the board. “They’ve been great and we should take advantage of what they have to offer.”

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