Term-limited out in GR City Hall

The city charter change was opposed by both business and labor groups.

November 7, 2014
| By Pete Daly |
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Key organizations representing both business and labor in Grand Rapids were disappointed by the passage of term limits on members of the Grand Rapids City Commission.

The final tally in favor of the proposal was 23,355 for, and 22,251 against. The latest amendment to the city charter now limits an individual to two four-year terms as a commissioner, and two four-year terms as mayor.

The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and the Kent-Ionia Labor Council joined in opposition to the proposal. In a joint announcement prior to the election, GRACC President and CEO Rick Baker said it “would restrict voters from being able to elect the representative of their choosing, simply because they have too much experience.”

Sean Egan, president of the Kent-Ionia Labor Council, said term limits “erode local control and take away our right to choose.”

Chamber spokesperson Andy Johnston said after the election that “the only thing term limits do well is remove people from office.”

He said the chamber will work to ensure that term limits do not “derail the momentum that’s happening in Grand Rapids” in terms of downtown vitality and development.

Johnston said there are “a lot of complex issues the city is facing, and we feel that experienced leaders are a key to advancing that. That being said, we are going to work within the new system to make sure we continue the great things that are happening in Grand Rapids, despite this.”

He added, “Some of the citizens may have been surprised to learn that five out of seven people on the city commission are going to be lame ducks.”

Most conspicuous of them is Mayor George Heartwell, who will not be eligible for re-election when his current term expires at the end of 2015. He will then have served as mayor for the previous 12 years, plus eight years as a regular member of the City Commission — a total of 20 years in City Hall.

First Ward Commissioner Walt Gutowski and Third Ward Commissioner Elias Lumpkins Jr. will also be term-limited off the commission at the end of 2015. Other commissioners who will be term-limited out at the end of 2017 are Second Ward Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss and First Ward Commissioner Dave Shaffer.

“It’s clear to those who are watching Lansing politics that term limits don’t work,” said Heartwell. “We’ve had an ineffective — and some would even describe it as a dysfunctional — Legislature for a number of years now. And at least in part, that is attributable to term limits.”

Heartwell said that under term limits, individuals who have been elected for the first time “have to prove themselves very quickly, and so they do rash and inappropriate things. Or, the learning curve takes so long that just about the time they are beginning to reach their effective years, they’ve got to leave.”

He said that situation tends to “turn over power from the peoples’ elected officials to the bureaucratic structures of the state of Michigan. I fear for the same thing happening at the local level.”

“There is something about people working together over time, consistency … learning each others’ strengths and foibles, and being able to trust and respect each other instead of constantly bickering. So I fear for Grand Rapids as a result of this.”

Heartwell said “people think term limits are a good idea; it brings in fresh ideas, fresh blood, gives opportunity for more people to run and serve in office. All those are valid reasons to support term limits. I think there is an equally valid set of reasons not to support it. But — the people cast their vote, so that’s the way it is.”

Heartwell said last week he had 420 days left as mayor of Grand Rapids.

“I intend to get a lot done in those 420 days,” he added.

The proposal was put on the ballot through the petition signatures of about 10,000 Grand Rapids residents, and was organized by Rina Baker and Bonnie Burke. Baker had previously run for city commission twice and was defeated both times.

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