Is it legal to market GR as being larger

July 8, 2011
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A key economic aspect of One Kent Coalition’s plan to merge Kent County and the city of Grand Rapids into a new metropolitan government is to market the city as having a population that includes all 602,622 county residents. The thought is that selling the city at that size would help the hospitality industry by drawing more meetings here and also would bring more jobs by attracting more companies.

Promoting Grand Rapids as having 600,000 residents would put the city in the same population group as Boston, Milwaukee, Memphis, Baltimore, Austin, Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas, which range in population from 601,000 to 687,000. Most have major sports franchises and some are convention destinations.

“There are a number of communities nationwide that are surprisingly just over 600,000. I would have thought that Vegas and Baltimore and some of the others were much bigger than that, but they aren’t. So this may be an effort to put our convention-marketing effort on a par with some communities that I think most people would assume are a bit larger in terms of their greater metropolitan areas,” said Scott Smith, a municipal attorney in the local office of Clark Hill.

Whether it would be disingenuous to market Grand Rapids as being in the same league with, say, Boston — a city with an official population of 617,000 — is debatable. But is it legal to do that when the city’s official population is 188,040?

The Business Journal tried to find an answer to that question by first contacting the U.S. Census Bureau to learn if there was a federal regulation that defined what constituted an “official address” for counting and then assigning a population to a city, and whether a city had to restrict itself to that figure. A spokesman said there wasn’t, and he added that the states normally define what makes up an official address or residence for population purposes.

The Michigan Attorney General’s office was contacted next and asked if there was a state law that defined an official address. But a spokeswoman said the office couldn’t respond to the inquiry because doing so could be seen as providing free legal advice, which it doesn’t do. She said an official request would have to be made by a state lawmaker to have that question answered. State Rep. Brandon Dillon, D-Grand Rapids, said it would take six months to receive an answer to an informal request and about a year for a reply to a formal one.

An online search of state law turned up a few definitions that might answer the question. The most valid one, perhaps, is in the Michigan Election Law, Act 116 of 1954. It defines residence as a place where someone “habitually” sleeps, keeps his or her personal effects, and regularly lodges for voter-registration and voting purposes.

Under that definition, it could be argued that because residents vote in the city or township where they live and not at a county polling place, their official residences aren’t assigned to the county, as their addresses are in the respective cities and townships in which they vote.

An argument can also be made that no one has a county address — not even county government, which has a Grand Rapids address. The county doesn’t have a zip code for address purposes. Its “population” is a total of the residents that live in the 30 municipalities located within the county.

So if Kent County doesn’t have official residences as defined by the state election law, then One Kent wouldn’t be assigning the county’s population to Grand Rapids in order to exceed the 600,000 mark. Instead, it would be assigning the populations of the other 29 cities and townships in the county. Those municipalities aren’t included in the merger plan and would remain as is, if consolidation goes forward.

“I’d say the most common for what’s been used to determine a person’s residence in the state of Michigan is the definition under election law,” said Christopher Trebilcock, a principal with Miller Canfield, from his office in Detroit. “Your county of residence will be determined by what county your city or municipality is within.”

Trebilcock said if only the county and the city are consolidated into a new metropolitan government and the rest of the cities and townships in the county remain as they now are, which is what One Kent has proposed, then the city’s population should stay at 188,000 and not grow to 600,000.

“My opinion is, I don’t think that changes the number of residents that you have in the city of Grand Rapids because the city of Grand Rapids is defined by its boundaries. All this (consolidation) is talking about is the governing body has more control over more people,” said Trebilcock.

“If I’m in the city of Grand Rapids, I think this dilutes my power over my boundary. And if I’m a minority living in the city of Grand Rapids, which is where the base of the minority population is, I’m seeing this as an attempt to dilute the control of minority voters,” he added.

But Smith felt there wasn’t anything in state law that would prevent One Kent from marketing the city as having a population of 600,000, if One Kent’s plan to merge the city and the county gets an OK from state lawmakers and then voters in the countywide election.

“If this legislation was passed and the area this government encompassed had 600,000, then they could certainly market it that way. What they’re looking at doing is forming a metropolitan type of government. Essentially, what they’re saying is, Grand Rapids is governed by the county government, and Grand Rapids and the county become the same,” said Smith.

“The question is how the convention-site selectors might look at it if it were marketed that way, and it wasn’t as characteristic of the overall population of Baltimore or Las Vegas or other places that market that way, as well.”

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