Is One Kent doing irreparable harm

July 8, 2011
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Walker Mayor Rob VerHeulen told the Grand Valley Metro Council last week that the aura surrounding One Kent Coalition’s plan to merge Kent County and the city of Grand Rapids into a new metropolitan government has given birth to an enormous level of distrust about the proposal, which hasn’t had much of a public airing as key coalition members have remained largely silent.

“We instinctively say, ‘What are they up to and what’s coming next?’” said VerHeulen. “I suspect that the concept of consolidation has been hurt by them.”

Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell said he has urged One Kent to delay its plan to introduce merger legislation in September until cities, townships and the county can fully discuss the issue. He plans to launch a new discussion group that would include township officials and would, hopefully, mark a return of the county to the table. Heartwell thought it would take from a year to 18 months to complete those talks. “I think it’s, perhaps, one of the most important conversations we can have,” he said.

Heartwell said he wants the discussion to begin with whether consolidation should be considered and, if so, then decide which merger model to follow. Discussing whether consolidation should or shouldn’t occur wasn’t allowed last month at a meeting of a study group established by the city, county and One Kent; the stipulation that the group was only formed to select a merger model led the county to withdraw from the talks.

“The process has been crippled with the loss of the county,” said Heartwell.

Heartwell said his biggest fear is, if One Kent goes ahead with its legislation as planned, that action could possibly freeze governmental units from going forward to consolidate some services.

“I would hope they stop, but they don’t have to,” he said of One Kent’s push.

“I would hope the discussion of governance consolidation doesn’t hurt the discussion of service consolidation,” said Milt Rohwer, president of the Frey Foundation and GVMC board member.

Metro Council Executive Director Don Stypula said he felt the board’s role was to closely watch the effort and not get directly involved in the consolidation process. But last week he offered the council’s staff, its services and venue for an ongoing discussion. “We can talk things out and be respectful,” he said.

“Collaboration has been synonymous with West Michigan,” said Grandville Mayor Jim Buck, also GVMC chairman.

Gaines Township Supervisor Don Hilton said at least 15 of the county’s 21 townships have approved a resolution that calls for One Kent to “step back” from introducing its “far-reaching legislation” and to seek more input from residents and elected officials before going forward. The document also reads that the townships are “not aware of any reports, studies or other objective evidence suggesting the need for such a radical transformation of government in the county” or “of any continuing benefits for the people of the city and the county.”

Hilton said the remaining townships were likely to adopt the same resolution soon. “This is not good for us township governments,” he said. “There has been very little participation from townships.”

County Commission Chairwoman Sandi Frost Parrish selected Cannon Township Trustee Jim Lapeer and Cascade Township Manager Bill Cousins as part of Kent’s six participants in the group before county commissioners decided to pull out of the talks. The county’s Executive Committee will meet this week and reportedly consider putting together a new panel that would have township officials on it.

Kentwood Mayor Richard Root, who chairs the council’s Legislative Committee and was appointed by Heartwell to serve on the study group as a representative of Grand Rapids, said he felt the county made a mistake by withdrawing from the talks and exceeded its power by telling its representatives not to attend the meetings. He said commissioners don’t represent the county; they represent the people in their districts.

“I am still very confused about (One Kent’s plan), but I am more upset with the decision that one governing body made,” said Root. “I will continue on that committee. To step away from the dialogue is egregious.”

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