Delaying could cost One Kent

October 17, 2011
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The One Kent Coalition fully realizes that its decision to delay submitting its legislation to Lansing to merge the city and county governments into a metropolitan unit comes with a big consequence.

The coalition's choice to give Kent County and Grand Rapids officials enough time to get their answers to the consolidation proposal means One Kent could miss getting the issue before voters for the November 2012 ballot, the election it has targeted since at least last February.

It will be next February if One Kent waits until the county gets its report from the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research on how a merger of the two would affect economic development in the county. But that report won't answer all 36 questions the county has about the legislation. A second Upjohn report may do that, but it's not due until late March.

At the same time, the city said it needs answers to 58 questions, many of which are similar to those the county has raised, and Grand Rapids officials haven't issued a deadline to get their answers.

A couple of deadlines, however, are known. Susan deSteiguer, Kent County director of elections, told the Business Journal that the final day the coalition could submit a petition to be on the November 2012 ballot is Aug. 14. Then the county clerk's office would have to certify the petition, a process that usually takes two weeks. The final step is the county commission would have to approve the proposal for the ballot on Aug. 28.

Waiting until the county has its reports to submit its legislation to the state may make it tough for One Kent to meet the August ballot deadline, especially if lawmakers are tied up with other issues. The legislature and the governor have to sign off on the coalition's bill before One Kent can file its petition.

"We are realistic in that if we delay for very long we're not going to have an opportunity to put this on the 2012 ballot," said Nyal Deems, an attorney and spokesman for One Kent. "If you think through those things and you expect for this to be an issue for the community, the next question is what ballot is going to be your target? Well, we haven't suggested that there be a new one, yet, and we haven't tried to declare a new one, yet. So that would be a question that could come up later," he said.

Deems also said the coalition would need some time to lay out its campaign to convince voters that a "yes" vote is the right choice. In addition, he noted next year's ballot will be full and voters will be inundated with political ads.

"So that's why we're realistic that, as we undertake a delay like this, we could well be costing ourselves any opportunity to put it on that ballot, which is a very, very difficult decision for us to make because that's really the right time that it should be before the populous. But we're doing that in a sense of collaboration," he said.

"And maybe the city and the county and their study committees will come to the result that they're not interested in this proposal at all. I mean some people already will suggest that this is just skepticism and delay and they're happy to have study committees to say consolidation is a bad idea and we should never try it."

Deems pointed out that from One Kent's perspective almost all of what the county and city has said of its proposal has been about the process the coalition has followed, rather than the substance of what the group proposes to accomplish.

"That's fine, but where's the discussion about the substance?" he asked.

"One reason we're backing off, or taking a delay, or parking but keeping the engine running, is to say, 'OK, can you quit pretending that process is a problem and let's discuss the substance.' We think when you sort out the substance of this issue, you discover it produces a very beneficial result, just like it did in Indianapolis, Louisville, Nashville, Jacksonville, and in Lexington, Kentucky. We're trying to hopefully turn the conversation to that direction," he said.

Deems admitted that One Kent could have handled the public relations aspect of its proposal in a more politically efficient manner and could have created a website that helped get its message across better. "That's our fault. But I think the substance is well focused and we think it has a clear result, and we'd like to get the discussion on the substance."

There are four ways in Michigan to get a proposal on a ballot. One Kent has chosen what the state calls the legislative referendum as found in Section 34 of Article 4 of the state's Constitution. It requires the state legislature to pass and the governor to approve a bill. But the bill doesn't become law until a majority of voters, who would be directly affected by it, approve it.

The coalition sent letters to Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell and to County Commission Chairwoman Sandi Frost Parrish informing them it would delay getting its legislation to Lansing. Deems summed up the contents of its correspondence: "You insisted that we were pushing too fast and you wanted time to look at this, so we won't try to take our legislation to Lansing at this time," he said.

"We have never given anything to the Legislature. We probably would have liked to earlier, but we were trying a few more things, hoping that would resolve some issues that people were complaining about. But it didn't seem to remove any of that consternation. Quit running to Lansing lobbying against this 'evil thing' that hasn't even shown up there yet. Just finish your studies, do it properly and earnestly, and then you'll know what you're really upset with instead of just declaring we're going too fast," he added.

Deems also said that if county and city officials properly study the issues, they may not find anything to be upset with, but they could uncover a few more details that need to be hashed out. "The details don't go into the legislation anyway. We will wait and see what response those letters get from the county and the city," he said.

Even though One Kent has decided to ease off the legislative pedal, Deems said One Kent isn't throwing in the towel.

"We still hope to keep the idea in front of the community. We still hope to keep a little pressure on the county and the city so they don't let this just become a study committee that studies and never gets anywhere. We don't want to see it put on a five-year plan."

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