Advisory Panels Merit More Respect

February 18, 2008
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The city of Grand Rapids annually makes a call to residents to sign up and serve on its various boards and commissions, but recent action leaves one to wonder whether all those advisory groups are necessary. The city commission is more apt to advise its advisory groups, laying waste to the time, money and effort of those appointed to serve.

In the past month the city commission saw fit to approve a development assistance financial package for a project by Two West Fulton known as The Gallery. The proposal had yet to be discussed for a vote by the Downtown Development Authority, which last week met and approved the city’s approval.

The Business Journal is not assessing the merits of the project, but the merit of the work of the advisory board, in this case the Downtown Development Authority. The city approval prior to the DDA public meeting effectively quashed pro and con discussion. The DDA is a deliberative body of especially talented individuals and community leaders. One among them, Fifth Third President and CEO Michelle VanDyke, had expressed concern during a DDA meeting prior to the city’s approval that the city was in effect making a loan to itself on the Two West Fulton project.

The city’s Parking Services owns the property, half of which is being purchased by Two West Fulton for The Gallery project. The city had approved, and then the DDA last week approved a $1.5 million assistance package to the developer (see the story on page 1). VanDyke questioned how the project was secured if the city owns the property.

The Parking Commission has been similarly tackled. Parking Commissioner Daniel Barcheski, CEO of Axios Inc., in his resignation letter from the advisory group almost exactly two years ago wrote: “The dilemma I referred to earlier is the complete lack of respect we have received from city leadership and the questionable need to have an Auto Parking Commission.”

Barcheski noted the city had bypassed the commission when it entered into months-long negotiations with Split Rock Development V LLC for an underground parking ramp in the Monroe North Business District. “That we weren’t approached absolutely blows my mind,” he wrote. He also noted that the city commission had completely ignored the parking commission’s stipulation that the Gilmore Collection pay for a new appraisal of the 50 Monroe Place property before the city sold it to Gilmore for an expansion of The BOB.

The city commissioners followed up by pulling $359,000 of the parking system revenue into the general fund, even as the parking commission expressed unease about having the city dip into its funds. Three years earlier, the city took $1 million from the parking fund over two years and deposited it into the general fund. Parking commissioners wrote in a letter to the city: “The ability of the parking system to provide public parking requires a predictable revenue stream. Payments to the general fund activities interfere with that revenue stream. We are concerned that expanding those payments beyond what now exist will impede the ability of the parking system to meet its mission statement.” And as the letter was drafted, the city commission raised the monthly parking rates by 3 percent. The Parking Services Department is an enterprise fund receiving no tax dollars from the city and operating on the revenue it raises.

The public deliberations of city advisory groups are too important to put asunder, and so too is the dedication of community residents who serve. The impression left is that the deliberations are in back-room deals that sustain the “who you know” theory of doing business with the city. That seems in opposition to the rhetoric of city leaders who say they seek to be inclusive, and it portends political favor.

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