City reveals concerns over One Kent legislation

September 30, 2011
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They called it a review they hoped would lead to a more constructive dialogue. But a legal analysis done by the city of Grand Rapids of One Kent Coalition’s proposed legislation to merge the city with Kent County raised questions, concerns and critiques in 58 areas, including comments that it doesn’t clearly define the governmental and economic goals of a consolidation or a lucid budgeting process for a new government.

At the same time, the coalition was credited with “outside-of-the-box thinking” in how it arrived at its consolidation plan.

“It is a working document for constructive dialogue,” said Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong before city commissioners last week. “The review is intended to be constructive.”

Attorneys Richard Wendt of Dickinson Wright and Clark Hill’s Scott Smith joined DeLong in looking at the legal parameters of One Kent’s draft legislation. Wendt and Smith highlighted for commissioners some of the issues they considered the legislation’s major weaknesses.

Wendt pointed out that the functions and duties of the new metropolitan government are to be developed after it is in place, and if those missions aren’t accomplished within 180 days, the state Attorney General’s office can fill those areas.

Wendt also said the makeup of the election districts and the government’s 25-member commission, which would be headed by a chief executive with veto power, would relegate more authority to the suburban and rural portions of the county at the expense of its urban areas.

Wendt said shifting the respective debts of the city and the county to the new metro government, which the legislation would do, could violate existing contracts both already have with bondholders, and potentially lower the credit ratings of both.

“As currently written, this legislation doesn’t address these issues,” said Wendt, who counsels the city and its agencies, such as the Downtown Development Authority, on bond proposals.

Smith told commissioners that while the coalition’s proposal for electing a chief executive officer may be more accountable to voters instead of having an appointed manager as the city and county have, he cautioned that an elected official may not have the professional qualifications needed to run such a large government. And Smith added that if a chief executive has to be replaced, it’s possible the entire management team also would have to be changed, which could result in delays of important decisions.

Smith also said the legislation leaves the city charter in place, which could lead to a variety of lawsuits later. He explained that the proposal doesn’t remove the charter so the new government can levy the city’s income and property taxes, which raises the potential troubling issues of double taxation and city tax revenue being spent in other jurisdictions such as townships.

Commissioners are expected to have a full report on the review’s findings soon.

“I’m looking forward to reading the report and getting back to you,” said Commissioner Elias Lumpkins to DeLong. “I think there are larger concerns in the community.”

In the meantime, most board members made comments on the idea of consolidation, in general, or the One Kent legislation, in particular. 

“I think it’s very important that we don’t copy anybody, as we have a chance to create something that hasn’t been done,” said Commissioner James White of other mergers that have taken place.

“I think we’re in a reaction mode; that we’re getting feedback on legislation that has already been drafted,” said Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss.

“It feels more like an arranged marriage rather than ‘do you want to say I do?’” said Commissioner Dave Schaffer.

“In a democracy, I believe we ask the question: Does consolidation make sense? That’s what I think we’ve heard from our constituents. We need to do this in the open. There is enough distrust out there,” said Commissioner Ruth Kelly.

“What One Kent proposes to do is change the government that has been here for 95 years. One Kent has proposed a model. There are other models,” said Mayor George Heartwell. “I urge One Kent to take a breath — take a step back — and work with us, the county and the townships. It’s OK if this doesn’t happen overnight.”

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