The Year in Politics 2006

Posted In: Politics, National, State, Local,   From Issue 628   By: Mike Thompson

21st December, 2006     0

When it comes to covering 'The Year in Politics' in any meaningful detail over the expanse of a couple pages, the task is daunting; but in many ways the year 2006 can be summed up as the year people became fed up with the status quo.

On a national level, the fact that Democrats broke the Republican stronghold in the House & Senate hinged largely on mounting dissatisfaction with the War in Iraq. Back in 2003 when President Bush landed on an aircraft carrier with a sign that read 'Mission Accomplished', 139 Americans had died in the war. Today the death toll now stands at over 2,600 and is rising every day. The national has spent more than $400 billion on the conflict - money that could go for health care, re-building our infrastructure, or investing in energy alternatives - and before all is said and done, the war could end up costing this country a trillion dollars at least, according to many experts.

As U.S Congressman John Dingell summed it up during a September campaign stop, "The president doesn't have the vaguest idea how to get out of this mess and the White House has done everything wrong. They've not heeded the advice of the military. They went in with too few people. They tolerated complete lawlessness and looting and disorder, so the criminal elements have been able to merge with the Baathists and Sunnis, insurgents, or al Qaeda. The only folks not shooting us are the Kurds. Now we're bogged down in this terrible mess, which is much more dangerous than Vietnam because Vietnam produced no oil."

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As the issue of Global Warming makes itself more evident with mild temperatures this December, oral arguments are being heard in the case of Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency. The suit is considered one of the most important environmental cases ever and is the first on global warming to reach the United States Supreme Court.

The plaintiffs - a group that includes eleven states, three cities, and 13 environmental groups - hope to compel the Bush Administration to impose limits on greenhouse gas emissions. If they are successful, the operation of every power plant and factory as well as the design of every new car in the country could potentially be affected.

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On the local environmental front, last month marks the fifth anniversary of the discovery of dioxin the floodplain of the Tittabawassee River and 28 years since the state first warned about dioxin saturated fish and 25 years since dioxin contaminated sediments in the City of Midland were first identified. Sadly, we continue to be inundated with the need for more studies and very few interim activities as part of the response to public health protection.

The issue was augmented this year by a controversial move by the Saginaw Board of Commissioners to move forward with a dredge project on the Saginaw River, despite concerns that the project is proceeding without adequate safeguards such as a lining on the pit to eliminate the potential of leeching sediments.

On December 5th, a Committee of the Whole meeting was held to solicit public comment on the Dredging project, yet only those in support of the plan were invited to address the Board.  Citizens are impacted residents were not on the agenda or part of the Q&A.

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In terms of local politics, Public Safety was a huge issue in 2006. Saginaw city residents agreed to pay higher costs but countywide voters declined to do the same.

City voters in May backed 6 mills, or up to $3 for each $1,000 of a home's sale value.

The main result was avoiding more cuts, rather than adding personnel. City leaders added five police positions, while avoiding cuts that would have slashed 20 cops and six firefighters.

Countywide, voters in August rejected a 1.6-mill "no boundaries" plan that would have added more than 60 officers. Proposals in November were an 0.3994-mill renewal and an 0.2-mill increase. Residents backed only the renewal, and Sheriff Charles Brown says he gradually will have to make cuts because of rising costs.

In their first full year, members of a City Council dominated by the One Saginaw reform slate concentrated on toning down some of the stormy disputes of the past. They placed stricter time limits not only on public speakers, but also on themselves. Manager Darnell Earley, hired permanently with scant competition, described it as a "more businesslike" approach.

Virtually the only theatrics came in November. A police officer tasered a Saginaw Valley University Student from Detroit, attending as part of a class assignment, who resisted a council rule for men to remove their hats. He was wearing an L.A. Dodgers cap.

Neighborhood blight gains less attention than in the past because so much emphasis is on public safety. However, members took a quiet but major step when they decided to target a single neighborhood  - the Cathedral District surrounding St. Mary's of Michigan hospital  - rather than spreading urban aid to various areas. They say a smaller zone will allow them to show stronger results.

Major lawsuits continue at a snail's pace. Cecil Collins Jr. is suing the City Council for firing him as manager in October 2005, and Karen Lawrence-Webster is suing the city because Collins fired her as finance manager in August 2004.

On the political front, the top story was the battle to replace term-limited Republican Mike Goschka in the Michigan Senate 32nd District. A pair of state reps, the GOP's Dr. Roger Kahn and Democrat Carl Williams, engaged in massive spending that mostly financed nasty TV ads. Kahn first prevailed by 432 votes from among more than 91,000 cast in Saginaw and Gratiot counties, and his margin rose to 450 after Williams pursued a recount.

Williams now is demanding a state police and attorney general probe, pointing to snafus in Thomas Township. Ironically, Williams was on the other end in the 2000 state rep race when he prevailed by 16 votes over Del Schrems, who lost a protest concerning uncounted ballots and broken seals in several key West Side city precincts.

Two County Commission vets squared off for the Michigan House 94th District seat. Republican Ken Horn defeated Democrat Bob Blaine and will replace Kahn. Democrat Andy Coulouris bested Republican newcomer Joel Wilson in a contest of 20-somethings for the 95th District slot, and will take over for Williams.

Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, after her victory over the GOPs Dick DeVos, faces a first challenge of replacing the Single Business Tax with a new plan to replace $1.9 billion in revenue. She waited until three weeks after the election to submit a plan.

Clear-cut incumbent winners at the federal level were Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Congressman Dale Kildee, both Democrats, along with Republican Congressman Dave Camp.

Here's a chance to choose your own priorities in federal outlays. Saginaw seems in line for a good chance to land $10 million for a new Interstate 675 northbound exit that would drop motorists a few blocks closer to downtown, along with $4.75 million for streetscaping on 16 blocks near TheDow Event Center.

However, proposals that face dimmer prospects - even though they're smaller - are $1.22 million for Saginaw River dredging (on top of $2.42 million already approved), a tiny $400,000 rebate for the city of Saginaw's mandated $110 million sewer basin expansions, $250,000 to tear down abandoned city homes, $200,000 for Michigan's Own Military and Space Museum in Frankenmuth, and $100,000 for Saginaw Valley State University to develop crisis management curricula.

If you were a legislator, which choices would you make?

Saginaw Board of Education members granted Superintendent Gerald Dawkins a pay hike that was slightly higher than those for other employees, with Ron Spess and Bev Yanca opposed. A board majority said they want to keep Dawkins, whose salary is $155,345. He's a former Grand Rapids top school administrator who replaced Foster Gibbs in 2000 but has not established a permanent Saginaw residence, and is a candidate for the top school post both in Detroit and in Glendale, Ariz.

With continued losses in enrollment, the Saginaw school headcount is plummeting down toward 10,000, less than half of the peak achieved during the late 1960s.
The school board as a result is continuing to close and tear down schools even while erecting new ones through a 2004 bond issue. The bond is for $70 million, reduced sharply after voters rejected a $240 million plan the previous year.

Saginaw Township school leaders have stable enrollment of about 5,000, but they are facing a school bond scenario that is similar to what happened in the city.

Voters turned down a $104 million building plan in June, and now the school board is striving to come up with a less expensive proposal for next year's ballot.

A notable departure is the retirement of Rick Lane, who was Saginaw Intermediate School District superintendent for eight years. The ISD is not in the public spotlight but it provides vital services, such as uniform curricula, to the county's 13 local districts.

The outlook in the auto industry remains so bleak that even the tiniest positive notes led to outbreaks of celebration.

Several thousand temporary Delphi workers learned late in the year that they would move to permanent status. Beyond that, they even will get some health benefits to go with the $14-an-hour salaries that are about half of what their predecessors earned.

General Motors Corp. announced it would strive to help Delphi out of bankruptcy, which seems only fitting in that Delphi was GM in the first place.

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When it comes to heroes & villains, Saginaw Housing Commission leaders Fred Ford and Al Holiday made headlines when Federal Regulators discovered they spent more than a half-million tax dollars intended for the poor.

With 30 employees, the Saginaw Housing Commission controls an $8 million budget and administers subsidized housing for 3,000 people across Saginaw County.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, a stark contrast to Ford & Holiday exists in the form of Joyce Seals, who managed to spearhead the multi-faith, multi-racial Ezekiel Project.

In 2003, Joyce stepped down from the City Council after 10 years to undertake a fight against her diagnosis of breast cancer. She obviously has succeeded and marched back into community leadership, as well I can attest in our mutual service on the City Charter Commission. While we do not see eye-to-eye on many charter issues, I can say wholeheartedly that Joyce is both committed to improving our community and willing to listen to opposing viewpoints.

Mrs. Seals was a good City Council member. She paid a lot of attention to the block grants, especially the need to mix public safety along with youth programs to prevent crime in the first place.

Many times she was the conscience of the council, even when decisions were not popular.

Citizens today are looking at the Charter Commission but Mrs. Seals main involvement is through the Ezekiel Project, just as mine is to continue to edit and publish the Review Magazine.

Ezekiel is a fantastic project that lights a fire under the churches to get involved. It's multi-faith and multi-ethnic. Among the churches involved are her own New Christ Community Church, her sister Leona Glenn's Center of Attraction Fellowship, St. Andrew's Catholic, and State Street United Methodist.

Ezekiel fights for social justice. It can be something as simple as making sure that in-city video stores don't charge higher rentals than those on Bay Road, or as detailed as learning that the Michigan Department of Transportation should set aside a fraction of federal highway repair funds for job training, so that more of our local people can work alongside those orange barrels.

Another little known fact about Joyce Seals is that for 10 years she proved herself to be the 'conscience' of City Council. For example, when the Council had no choice because of zoning but to approve Brookwood Park (next to RenView) near the fairgrounds, Joyce Seals & Charles Coleman were the only black leaders who had the guts to face the fact that the city stood to lose an $18 million lawsuit (with no liability coverage) when Joe Stephens and other black leaders opposed the project for affordable low income housing.

We all could pay tribute to Joyce Seals as a hero by getting involved. Her number at Ezekiel is 755-1602.

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Another worthy asset to the tri-city community deserving of kudos is Gerry Ostrander-Vogel of Midland, marketing director for Associated Builders & Contractors, Saginaw Valley Chapter, who managed to pick up three national awards for the 'Be Inspired' construction expo featuring Daniel Libeskind, Master Planner of the World Trade Center site and 9/11 Memorial.

Ostrander and the Chapter were awarded 'National Chapter Excellence' award in the area of business development, the most prestigious award of the conference. This project competed with 78 other chapters across the United States.

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The final 'political highlight' of 2006 is one we save for last, as it is arguably the biggest story of the year, carrying the most meaningful impact as we embark upon 2007: the proposed revision of the Saginaw City Charter by the Saginaw Charter Commission.

Two years in the making, the proposed charter (currently available for review on our website at www.review-mag.com) is essentially a blueprint for shaping the future of Saginaw in a meaningful manner that eliminates racial division by setting up four wards that cross the boundary lines of the Saginaw river, reflecting common interests shared by each ward and ensuring that decisions be made in a manner beneficial to the City of Saginaw as a whole.

Additionally, it proposes that the Mayor be elected by the public at large rather than appointed by Council, provides for the consolidation of departments into more economically viable mechanisms for more efficient delivery of essential services, and contains language that for the first time establishes Standards of Conduct, prohibiting the use of public office for private gain, as has been witnessed so often over the past 20 years.

Critics have labeled this endeavor as 'wild' and 'outrageous', favoring the status quo which to date has resulted in disproportionate tax burdens, many not even voted upon by the citizens footing the bill; delivered us to the brink of bankruptcy courtesy of entitlement plans that eat up a majority of financial resources; and left the majority of citizens completely alienated from the government they elect.

I ask you this, if the current system is so wonderful, why is it that the two most memorable actions taken by the current City Council consist of cutting down on the amount of time people can have to address their leaders, and passing a rule against men (but not women) wearing hats in the council chambers?

A lot of media coverage has transpired since the charter draft was released a month ago, but I would like to take this opportunity to address a few myths & misconceptions.

Critics have stated that the Charter Draft is nothing but the creation of Greg & Allan Schmid, the father & son legal team that spearheaded the movement for Charter revision.  Not only is this untrue, but it does a disservice to elected members of the Commission whom have donated their time, labor, and endeavors towards crafting a dynamic document that actually engages the citizenry by affording proportional representation and assuring that all interests throughout the city become stakeholders in the decisions that are made at City Hall. 

There is nothing 'anti-government' about that admirable goal.

In fact, the draft document has changed considerably from when the Schmid's first presented the notion of moving towards a Ward System. Initially, council assemblymen were to be elected, along with two council members from each ward.  The council assemblymen idea was abandoned through the course of meetings, deliberations, and discussions.

Current councilman Larry Coulouris was instrumental in developing the borderlines defining the actual wards, which have also changed since the inception, to meet legal requirements dictated by State Law. 

Commissioner Dennis Martin (no relation to the publisher of Review) devoted painstakingly thorough hours to assist with developing the Public Safety component of the Charter that would combine police & fire departments.

And I myself, after researching the San Jose City Charter, helped develop the language pertaining to the ability of the City to contract with outside entities in order to bring more efficiency, expertise, and affordability to government services.  Much ink has been expressed by vested interests claiming that portions of the new charter are 'anti-union' and 'anti-labor'.  My late uncle got his head busted open back in the 1930s fighting to establish the UAW, so again, nothing could be further from the truth. Language specifically states that anything contrary to State & Federal Labor Law will be non-applicable; yet similarly, there is no law to my knowledge that states government entities are prohibited from contracting with outside service providers that can provide a given task more affordably or professionally. This is what they did in San Jose, California and even the City of Saginaw when Council decided to contract with the Mid-Michigan Waste Authority for garbage collection.  The only difference with this scenario is that currently citizens are paying twice for the same service. With an Ombudsman, you can bet that accounting will be more accurate, and at least financial audits will be turned over in a timely manner.

In terms of drafting the Charter, each component that was included was voted upon, deliberated, and discussed by the Commission prior to adoption.  The Public and Media has been openly invited to attend each of our meetings, but not until the draft document was produced did they bother to attend, or cover the process in a meaningful manner.

To say this, or any section of the proposed Charter, is written in stone, is simply not true.  Consequently, now is the time to debate, discuss, and hammer out the final details.

Finally, one of the most significant components of the new charter language would be to eliminate the Property Tax Cap and replace it with language that would limit the assessment level at 20 mils, which is the maximum allowed under State Law.

Currently, when you factor in all of the various service fees, solid waste annual assessments, business license fees, etc., that Council has approved without placing to a vote before the public, they are actually operating at 23 mils.  

As public hearings commence and we move forward with the Charter Revision in the New Year, I urge all citizens to take an active and informed interest in what is undeniably an exciting and rewarding experience - perfecting and crafting a blueprint for a government that is more as opposed to less accountable to the interests of the citizens that it represents.

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