Public officials arent the only ones with questions

July 6, 2011
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County, city and township officials aren’t the only ones with questions for the One Kent Coalition about their plan to consolidate the city of Grand Rapids with Kent County. Scott Smith, a municipal attorney in the local office of Clark Hill, is certain the area’s businesses have questions regarding the legislation and what the future holds for local commerce.

Smith said business owners have told him over the years that their efforts can be affected by how user-friendly local government is: The more confusing and political it is, the more the business climate will lack the predictability they need. Right now, he felt most municipalities have streamlined the way those units do business, and a city manager or township supervisor has the ability to adjust how friendly and open a government is to business owners and their requests. Most, he said, were business friendly.

But Smith felt that One Kent’s suggested form of municipal government will likely be more political than the current system, and possibly tougher for business owners to work with.

“Now, if everything works well, that’s fine. But if everything doesn’t work well and you get the kinds of squabbles we see with an elected county executive on the east side of the state, it can be a lot more cumbersome for business,” said Smith, who has counseled municipalities on consolidation issues and serves as a city attorney for seven West Michigan governments.

The legislation One Kent has drafted calls for a municipal commission comprised of 25 commissioners, including a chief executive, who would have veto power. That form of government, of course, is similar to Oakland County’s, where L. Brooks Patterson currently is serving his fifth four-year term as chief executive.

“My question would be: How is business going to view this entity that gets created? Will it be a better working situation, or not as workable of a working situation?” asked Smith.

Another uncertainty is how efficient and tax saving a consolidated government would be, especially in light of the fact that the county and the city don’t perform exactly the same services. Smith said it could be more efficient, depending on how a new governing body is set up.

“However, this doesn’t look like it’s being established with efficiency and cost savings because you’re going to have multiple elected officials, each with their own domain and trying to protect their own turf. One wonders how efficient that can really be on a countywide basis and how nimble government will be,” said Smith.

“Now, I’m not saying it won’t be, but governmental efficiency normally comes from streamlined processes and good communication among the various departments and so forth. County government, overall in the state, is not among the more efficient kinds of government. It’s not nimble. It’s not responsive. It has a hard time with members of its departments working well with members in other departments,” he added.

“I’m not indicting Kent County because I think, overall, the people at Kent County are much more cost-conscious and customer-service oriented than in many other areas of the state.”

Smith said his remarks shouldn’t be taken as criticism of current county officials, but he emphasized that everyone has to take a long-term view of what a new metropolitan government would mean for the county and the city in terms of its structure and what it might or might not do. He also said there are other questions about the structure: What will it mean for the eight other cities and 21 townships in the county? One Kent has said they can join or not, according to their wishes.

Smith said it’s not only an identity issue for those cities and townships — something some mayors and supervisors have brought up — but also an issue of how responsive those governments can be to their citizens and electorate with a municipal body in place, and whether they will become diluted in the impact they can make. Right now, he said, those units wouldn’t have separate representation on the commission.

“So the question is: How will that commission and then that government look after interests in Cedar Springs or Rockford or Sparta — or wherever else it might be?” asked Smith.

One Kent plans to have its legislation in Lansing after Labor Day. If the Legislature approves it, the merger question will go on the November 2012 general election ballot.

“They have to have a (legislative) sponsor in place,” said County Commissioner Tom Antor. The coalition reportedly has hired a public relations firm and a lobbying firm, both in Lansing, to assist with the legislation.

County commissioners recently decided to withdraw from a study group formed by the county, city and One Kent to discuss the issue. The county withdrew primarily because commissioners felt the meetings were an exercise in futility because they believe the coalition has already decided to go ahead with its plan regardless of the group’s efforts, and because One Kent hasn’t been discussing the issue openly.

“I don’t really understand why the proposal is so secretive and so thin on details. Ballot proposals are difficult to pass, even with significant community support,” said County Commissioner Jim Talen. “I can probably count on my fingers the number of elected officials who aren’t asking tough questions with raised eyebrows. The proponents are not winning many people over with their support.”

Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell clearly felt One Kent was moving too fast. “This is entirely too rushed. From the first announcement of their proposal by One Kent members, I have privately implored them to proceed thoughtfully with full citizen involvement,” he said in a recent public statement.

“One Kent has within its power to submit legislation for consideration by the state Legislature and governor with or without the support of the county Board of Commissioners or the Grand Rapids City Commission,” added Heartwell. “This extraordinary power makes it all the more important that One Kent honor a thorough, comprehensive citizen engagement process to ensure that the bill ultimately submitted is the best one for our communities.”

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