The 2007 Saginaw City Council Candidate Forum

Posted In: Politics, Local, Candidates, Interviews,   From Issue 647   By: The Review Editorial Staff

18th October, 2007     0

In the 2005 Saginaw City Council election, the lingering issue was the 2004 dismissal of Deborah Kimble as city manager. A number of candidates called for change, and voters indeed overhauled the council with five new members.

Candidates again are calling for change in the November 6 election, with five seats again up for grabs. Some of the challengers this time are pointing to legal troubles facing two of the members. Willie Haynes has pled guilty to a federal misdemeanor charge of falsifying financial records, and Wilmer Jones Ham McZee is pleading innocent to charges of arson and insurance fraud.

Neither McZee nor Mayor Carol Cottrell is seeking re-election, which means a degree of change is sure to happen in the council's membership.

Some issues on the horizon for the next two years are 'old hat'. Council members still will strive to balance the budget, evaluate the manager, maintain public safety, pursue economic development and fight neighborhood blight.

Other topics are fresh. Members of the new council at some point will receive a report from an appointed City Charter Advisory Panel that Mayor Cottrell has created. The panel is stacked with members who have indicated interest only in minor changes, but the council may hear from other voices as well, especially considering they hope to accomplish all these many changes and improvements when saddled with the reality that the approximate cost of one management position for two retirement cycles in the City of Saginaw is approximately $13 million dollars for 58 years.

Seven of 14 candidates responded to Review Magazine's survey.

  • Ernie Ahmad, 38, is a vehicle operator for the Saginaw County Community Mental Health Authority.     
  • Brad Eichstaedt, 46, is a full-time student at Saginaw Valley State University.
  • Dan Fitzpatrick, 55, is a retired AT&T manager.
  • Bill Scharffe, 65, is a former longtime Saginaw city schools executive who now is director of bylaw and policy services for the Michigan Association of School Boards.
  • Joyce Seals, 58, is a retired Michigan Department of Education specialist who now is president of the Ezekiel Project.
  • Alfonzie Smith, 58, is a retired employee of the Saginaw County CAC, Community Action Committee.
  • Paul Virciglio, 69, is retired vice president and general manager for WNEM TV5.
  • Candidates who did not respond are incumbents Willie Haynes, Amos O'Neal, as well as challengers Rick Jekel, Greg McDonald, Mario Pignatelli and Dennis Woods II.
  • Amanda Kitterman Miller did respond, but after our deadline.

Review:  Please rate the City Council’s performance for the past two years, 1 for lowest and 10 for highest.

Ahmad: I would give a 6.  The council members who have been elected just conformed to the same traditions that were passed on from prior members. That is not what we need. We need new minds to bring a new beginning.

Eichstaedt:  I'd say about a 4.  Their performance has been not terribly bad but not terribly good either. There are a lot of issues with public safety and blight. For example, they had talked about a curfew for the youth, but there are still all kinds of kids running around the street at 10:30 or 11 o’clock and nothing's being done about it. There have been a lot of things the council members say they want to do, but then they don't follow through. Plus there are a couple council members, and I'm not the only one who feels this, who shouldn't even be on the council due to legal issues. The council already has a bad reputation and this has made it worse. They should have done the noble thing and stepped down.

Fitzpatrick: My grade is a 3 or 4.  This represents the number of council folks that usually are focused on the city and actually try to get something done. The rest are a 0, as they are only interested in their own political careers and pet projects, staying out of jail and grandstanding for the public.  The current mayor and pro-tem are a pair of bad actors.  There are one or two members who are likely tired of watching the circus and appear disinterested.  I don't blame them.  Whatever happened to the City Manager's review?  Who's hiding that?

Scharffe: My rating would be a 4 - middle of the road, D+ to C- at best. Why? The turmoil caused by some council members' personal problems with the law has detracted from the council's primary function of making more and more jobs, families are leaving, the gangster criminal element has expanded to where 75 to 80% of all shootings and homicides are related directly to gang activity (as per the chief of police), arson is rampant, and blight is expanding. Saginaw is in trouble. A new direction is needed.

Seals: I would give this council a 7 or an 8.  They have done a good job of restoring some order after our situation with our city mangers a few years ago. Beyond that, we can see improvement in the city. There have been many vacant houses and buildings torn down, and it is reaching a point where people are starting to see a difference. When I was on the council, it seemed that we would make a start toward these goals, but then something would hold us back. The members of this council may not always agree with one another, but they speak publicly to one another with respect and they are professional as a group.

Smith: I would rate the council's performance at about a 6 for the past two years. While the council has made advances relating to the sharing of water with the townships, and the with the aggressive approach that our police have taken toward solving violent crimes, I do not feel that the council has taken a proactive approach to the right against crime.

Virciglio: As we all know, Saginaw city government went through some troubling times with the dismissals of two city managers. Mr. Earley and the council have been a stabilizing force and city government is running smoother. I would rate the performance a strong 6.

Review: Now that voters have defeated the City Charter Commission's proposal, are there any changes you would support in our form of government. An elected mayor? A district ward system?  

Ahmad: Yes
. I feel that just as people vote for the Council they should vote for the Mayor as well.

Eichstaedt: Yes, I'm for an elected mayor with a district ward system. I feel the mayor of the City of Saginaw does not only serve the other eight members of the council, he or she serves the entire city. Voters should have the say in an elected mayor. For district wards, I’m in favor. For example this year you have 14 candidates running. Myself, in the area where I live, with two or three other people, it gives the little guy at least a fighting chance. When you have an open ballot, it's not really a fair contest.

Fitzpatrick: The top item ought to be making the city manager, department heads and the council more accountable to a higher standard of ethics. The charter can be changed to allow for a removal from council for such things as felony indictments. This type of event is a gross distraction from council business. Have some integrity. How can the city trust the council when we have such personal and legal issues with some members? This is the type of charter change that will be positive for future leadership.

Scharffe: The City Charter deserves review. We need to look at 'lighthouse' cities with a strong mayor form of government. FIRST, compare them with Saginaw, and suggest data driven revisions that have proven successful. Detroit and Flint, to me, are not 'lighthouse' cities! Lansing might be. Lansing's strong mayor form of government has paid real dividends. Former Mayor David C. Hollister worked hand-in-hand with General Motors and communities surrounding the City resulting in construction, in Lansing, of the first new GM assembling plant built in America in over 20 years! Was Saginaw ever considered? I doubt it. We must ask 'why'?

Seals: Yes, the City Charter definitely needs changes. I believe that I was misrepresented as an 'anti-change' person on the commission. My reason for opposing the proposal was that many of the proposed changes were quite sweeping, and I did not feel the ramifications had been fully examined, but there also were positive elements in the proposal. To have a guaranteed source of funds for recreation, I am all for that. In the preamble statements pointing to a need for 'transparency' in city government, I believe that was an excellent statement. As for electing the mayor and having a ward system, the new charter advisory group will look closely at those questions. (Editor's Note: Joyce Seals was among nine members on the elected Charter Commission. After voters defeated a ballot proposal in August, Mayor Cottrell appointed Seals and eight others to a non-elected review group. All nine members have indicated that they opposed the elected commission’s proposed reforms.)

Smith: As a native of Saginaw who has traveled across America, I've seen the same problems from one city to the next, no matter what system of government is in place. It has not been proven to me that electing a major through a general election process would serve the City of Saginaw any better than the system we have in place. I guess I’m saying 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' And Flint is a good example of why I hold this position. They elect their mayor directly, but their crime rate is higher even than Saginaw’s.

Virciglio: The present charter is a 71-year-old document that has served the city well. However, a disciplined study of the charter to evaluate its structure as it pertains to a 21st century city is in order. I prefer a 'tweaking' of the charter, if needed, rather than a complete revision.

Review: With a portion of federal block grant money, many Councils have split the funds between community police and social youth programs. Would you give police more, about the same, or less? Please explain.
Ahmad: I would split the money evenly between each entity, not to exclude one or the other. If we budget the money that the city receives we should have more than enough to go around.

Eichstaedt: I said it right from 2001 when I ran for the first time, unless we give Saginaw residents police protection and make them feel safe, they're going to continue to leave. If I knew they would put more police officers on the streets, I would be in favor of giving police a little bit more than half; I'd say 55 percent for the police and 45 percent for the social youth programs. Our youth are the leaders of the future and as an education major at SVSU, I've been doing a lot of work with young people. We need to get youth crime off of the streets, but we also need to provide something positive for young people to do.

Fitzpatrick: I think that the priority is demolition of condemned and blighted housing; 700 of these structures are a bad advertisement. They breed fear and crime feeds on fear. 50% of block grant money should be for this major effort. Another 30% for policing and the rest for parks and recreation (which includes youth and adult programs).  These funds should benefit all city residents, not just a few 'pet' programs to give a friend or family member a paycheck.

Scharffe: I look at this question as a physician might look at a seriously ill patient. The question is whether immediate surgery is needed or if the patient's condition can be treated with preventive medicine? A greater amount of funds to the police equals surgery. A greater amount to youth programs equals preventative medicine. Saginaw needs emergency surgery. Until the surgery is successful (more dollars to police), and a rehabilitation program can be applied (youth programs), Saginaw, the very ill patient, will not survive. Some dollars should still go to youth programs, but police must come first right now.

Seals: The main point to remember is that the only reason that Saginaw receives federal block grants is because Saginaw has distressed neighborhoods. Therefore, when we have community police officers, we have to make sure that those officers remain in the distressed areas where they are assigned. Distressed neighborhoods need police, but they also need activities for young people. As the saying goes, 'An idle mind is the devil's workshop' Many of the crimes are committed by younger people, and when we give them something to do, this is prevention. Public safety must combine police action with prevention.

Smith: I could support both community police and social youth programs, and would advocate forming a partnership between the two. I believe that more funds should be allocated toward organizing volunteers, who would be trained to staff the social programs, and thus leave more funds for the police budget.

Virciglio: I have served on the Countywide Crime Prevention Council and realize that the city crime problem is unacceptable. An aggressive approach to reduce crime is a high priority with me and I would target more funds to address crime prevention.


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