After Failed Vote and Much Debate, Muskegon Commission Re-Elects Spataro for Vice Mayor

Andrew Trzaska | January 14, 2014

Muskegon’s City Commissioner voted 4-3 to re-elect Larry Spataro as its vice mayor, after failing to agree on who would fill the position over a week ago.

The position of vice mayor in Muskegon holds mostly symbolic weight, but one major unique responsibilities. The vice mayor runs meetings when the mayor is not present, but does not automatically get promoted to the top position if the mayor resigns or is removed.

At its January 2 organizational meeting where city officers and commissioners were sworn in, the six commissioners present split 3-3 on a vote to re-confirm commissioner Larry Spataro as the city’s vice mayor. Spataro was absent from that meeting.

Spataro gained the title through a vote by commissioners in 2012. When former mayor Steve Warmington resigned, then vice mayor Steve Gawron was voted into the mayoral role by his fellow commissioners, who then voted Spataro into the vice mayor role.

Spataro is the longest serving commissioner in the Muskegon body, followed by Mayor Gawron.

At the organizational meeting, commissioner Willie German advanced the idea that someone other than Spataro should be elected as vice mayor, citing the need for more diverse leadership on the commission. Gawron and Spataro can be racially identified as white.

German suggested that the one third of city residents that are African American may be less apprehensive about approaching the commission and working with city government if a minority commissioner was in the vice mayor position. Commissioner Byron Turnquist agreed during discussions at that meeting, citing a recent public forum he attended at MLive as the basis for his opinion.  Commissioner Eric Hood also voted with German and Turnquist.

The 3-3 vote meant the motion to elect Spataro did not pass, and commissioners agreed to revisit at Tuesday’s regularly scheduled commission meeting because commissioner German was ill for Monday’s work session. Those present Monday did have a long discussion on the merits of Spataro, those of Eric Hood, and issues of uneven voting and uneven outreach across all of the city’s neighborhoods. Multiple commissioners appeared to be undecided as of Monday’s meeting.

Tuesday’s meeting continued the discussion, starting with commissioner Ken Johnson.

“Reflecting on this matter, for every day the past two weeks, though I no longer consider seniority an overriding factor, I still think Spataro is right choice,” said Ken Johnson.

Johnson went on to explain that Spataro’s involvement in his neighborhood association is a lead that city residents should follow. He also included a nod to commissioner Hood, and called for his appointment as chair of the city’s Community Relations committee.

Commissioner Turnquist, who previously voted against Spataro, concurred with Johnson’s statement.

“I don’t think this decision of vice mayor is an area in which we should appear divided,” said Turnquist. “Commissioner Spataro does his homework.”

Turnquist also called all commissioners to join in support of Spataro, in the spirit of unity.

Commissioner German next spoke, stating that he would hold firm in his opposition of Spataro’s vice mayorship. He noted that it wasn’t about Spataro’s race or involvement in the community, but a matter of changing perceptions, “having a governing body that reflects its constituents”, and general change.

“If you do the same things, you get the same results. You get stagnant,” said German.

Commissioner Hood then agreed with German.

“[Spataro] is probably more prepared than anyone. But I agree with Commissioner German that when you do the same thing, you get the same results.”

German then applauded commissioner Turnquist’s “courage” to vote “for change” against Spataro.

Spataro had a chance to speak, tracing a short history of his past 25 years living in the Nelson neighborhood. He said he got involved with his neighborhood association and the commission because he was frustrated with those who tried to tear down the city commission.

“Ward 3 is not all white, it is not all black, it is not all Latino, and it is certainly not the west end,” said Spataro. “[Since 2000] I have served all of them, reaching out to them, and listening to them.”

Spataro went on to share his feelings on the way the discussion played out:

“I have gladly voted for 2 commissioners for vice mayor, and I would have been open to this again if it had been presented in a way that wasn’t divisive. And it was presented that way.”

German later responded to Spataro’s statements:

“My vision for change was based on fact. If you look around at the government and you look at the demographics… When I say changing vision and not more of the same, is to cut the grain and stir the water and see what happens.

“I’m not saying the vice mayor is the reason. But the person who is second at a governmental level… everyone up here is capable of being a vice mayor. But my choice was for commissioner Hood, who is a veteran, who has served this community, who can identify with solutions and problems. These are the kinds of things we have to deal with. And I take nothing away from commissioner Spataro.”

Hood followed up on the discussion:

“No matter who is elected, I would like to see this commission do what we say up here,” said Hood. “Talk is cheap.”

Mayor Gawron wrapped up the discussion by answering Hood’s comments:

“You never want to be static. If anyone feels they are not being reached, then it is up to us.”

The vote ended in a 4-3 split, with commissioners Rinsema-Sybenga, Hood and German voting “no” on Spataro for vice mayor.

Andrew Trzaska

103.7 “The Beat” – local government beat reporter and political analyst