Ahead of August Primary, Crowded At-Large City Commission Field Makes Cases At Neighborhood Forum

Andrew Trzaska | July 11, 2013

A candidate forum at Muskegon High School’s auditorium Wednesday night featured nine of eleven candidates vying for two commission seats in November’s election.

Two at-large seats are up for grabs on the seven-person commission, with the mayor’s seat representing a third seat available this year. Incumbent commissioner Lea Markowski has held the seat for one year since it became vacant when then-commissioner Steve Gawron officially became the mayor last summer.

The other seat is vacant, as long-sitting commissioner Sue Weirengo declined to run again this fall.

The at-large candidates shared the stage with the three people vying for the mayor’s office. View coverage of the mayoral candidates’ forum here.

Approximately 40 people attended Wednesday’s forum, which was put on by the Neighborhood Associations of Muskegon. It will be followed up by a second “meet the candidates” style event on July 22 at 6:30 p.m. at Muskegon Community College. MCC, MLive, and the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce will sponsor that event.  After the primary narrows the field down, the same group will hold a third at-large commissioner debate-style event on October 21.

All candidates who filed for the at-large seats are listed in alphabetical order by last name:

  • Joshua EldenBrady, 30, lawyer, who has previously run for the Muskegon Board of Education.
  • Donnell Harvey, 48, occupation not indicated.
  • Ken Johnson, 31, senior analyst for CARMA International, a Washington, D.C. consulting firm.
  • Bill Larson, 65, former city commissioner and current planning commission member, retired, with past work in auto sales and restaurant management.
  • Lea Markowski, 30, employed by LongerDays.com.
  • Mark Molitor, 46, engineering manager at Holland USA. Molitor recently ran for county commission, losing to sitting commissioner Ben Cross.
  • Ray Charles Roberson, 45, on semi-retirement from CWC Textron.
  • William Snyder, 20, employed by Meijer and student at Muskegon Community College.
  • William Springsted, 35, student at Fort Hays State University, a college in Kansas.
  • Dan (Rinsema) Sybenga, 37, employed by Muskegon Community College as director of business and industrial training.
  • Linda Traylor, 57, who owns Social Graces.

Candidates Traylor and Springsted did not appear at Wednesday’s forum.

Candidates present were each allowed three minutes to present their platforms.  Summaries of each candidate’s statements are listed below, including answers to follow-up questions.

Joshua EldenBrady: Eldenbrady stated he wanted to live in a community where neighbors help each other, and city hall doesn’t say “no” when a “Muskegonite is trying to live a better life.” Eldenbrady’s vision includes revitalization of neighborhoods and downtown internally, instead of “salvation from the outside.” EldenBrady is involved in McLaughlin’s Neighborhood Association as president, and is a substitute teacher in Muskegon Public Schools.

EldenBrady discussed his plan to make downtown about “not just disposable income”.  “If I need to go buy work jeans… when I need to go buy groceries, which we all do, I virtually have to leave the city.” He suggested necessity-based businesses like grocery stores have a place in downtown, and also said Muskegon must reconnect its downtown to the lakefront.  He also said the city has much work to do on updating zoning to its master plan.

To reverse lost tax base due to the loss of Brunswick, Sappi and the B.C. Cobb plant, EldenBrady suggested there is no short-term fix. Increasing and promoting the city’s shipping capacity and promoting cleaner industries can be long-term investments.

 

Donnell Harvey: Harvey’s vision stated the “capital improvements in Muskegon are wonderful”, including the new farmer’s market and traffic circle. He stated he is running because he wants to help, not that his place on the commission would single-handedly make the city a better place. “I think Muskegon is on the rise from the past, and can be a clean city, a green city, and one that is diversified.” Harvey is involved in the A. Philip Randolph Institute and the Optimist Club, both of which he says focus on children and education. He also said he is not involved in his neighborhood association (Lakeside), because he wasn’t asked, and he feels the associations should reach out to their residents.

On the development of downtown, Harvey called back to Muskegon’s old nickname, The Port City, and called the city a jewel that must be polished. Showcasing downtown’s historical buildings including the Hackley Library and Art Museum. As for Lakeside, he said the decision on what to do with Sappi would be “Solomonesque.”

Regarding lost tax base, Harvey said he wants to strongly market the city to businesses elsewhere to show off the city’s benefits – land and water.

 

Ken Johnson: Johnson spoke to the neighborhood associations in the city, saying he would help them work closer with city hall and have more say. He also asked for the help from associations on violence in the city, saying that neither he nor city hall could do it alone. Johnson also said jobs would be a third priority, where he would look to education and training as the answer to more jobs in the city. Johnson is involved in the Nims Neighborhood Association, and Working Together For Our Youth, an organization that addresses violence in Muskegon and Muskegon Heights.

On the question of downtown development, Johnson said he wanted to make it a center for “culture and entertainment” while reusing vacant buildings like the old Muskegon Chronicle building. Johnson also says connecting Muskegon’s downtown to its waterfront is important, as is use of the city’s deep water port for shipping. Regarding Lakeside, he said he did not want it to become a “Downtown Lite”, but keep its own unique culture.

Regarding manufacturing and power plant tax losses, Johnson said the Edison Landing, or “Harbor 31” property along the lakefront must be developed immediately to stave off future payments the city will have to make on the land. He also said closer examination of tax incentives before giving them away will keep the city from giving away too much.

 

Bill Larson: Crime and the city’s image are the chief part of Larson’s platform, and he says they go hand in hand.  He also spoke to his long history with the city, saying his first time on the commission was “chapter one” of his story. Larson spoke to the current city commission directly, saying the intricacies of governance take a lot of learning.  Larson stated he has that knowledge already. Larson stated he is not a member of his neighborhood association by choice.

Larson said tying the waterfront closer to downtown would help development in that region, and said rezoning the now-defunct Michigan Steel property would help downtown move toward the lake. He opted not to provide ideas for Lakeside, saying private money can deal with it.

According to Larson, reversing lost tax base can be achieved by supporting the efforts of developer Jon Rooks, owner of the Shoreline Inn and Holiday Inn.

 

Lea Markowski: Current commissioner Markowski said because she moved to Muskegon, she wanted to be as involved as possible. She also states that as an “outsider”, her perspective “doesn’t carry the baggage” of Muskegon’s past. She list of goals included sustainability and a closer partnership between the city and Muskegon Public Schools. Markowski is involved in the Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership, the Muskegon Area Sustainability Coalition, and is a board member of the Muskegon Conservation Club.  Markowski is not a member of her neighborhood association, but has worked with multiple associations on her sustainability initiatives.

Markowski wants downtown to be “more inclusive”, especially since the rest of the county must come to Muskegon for county business like marriage licenses. She said it needs to be friendlier, and “everyone must be comfortable” in downtown. As for Lakeside, Markowski saw the future of the Sappi property as important. Markowski said lost tax base could be reversed through a “multi-pronged approach” to attract business that includes tourism and positive attitude within the city.

 

Mark Molitor: Molitor states his work at SAF Holland gives him budget, leadership and management knowledge that would be applicable to the commission. He also stated the current city commission is “doing a good job”, and would like to come in and keep things going. Molitor’s priorities include public safety, fiscal responsibility, Pere Marquette development and blight removal. Molitor is a former Big Brother, and is a member of Men Who Care. He does not belong to his neighborhood association, because he saw doing so as a “campaign tactic”.

On downtown, Molitor said the current vision must be completed, and Lakeside development would be a good benefit to the beach.  Regarding lost tax base, he said work will come back to the United States because of rising costs in China and India, and promoting and developing the Muskegon Lake port can capitalize on this.

 

Ray Charles Roberson: Roberson spoke to the youth of the city, saying they need more activities, jobs and education to keep them off the streets and from committing crimes.  Roberson stated that he was originally opposed to the farmers market relocation, but now believes it will bring more visitors and possibly create more jobs. He also said the city should try to entice workers from surrounding towns like Holland to come to Muskegon. Roberson cited a need to take care of grandkids and neighbors as his reason for not participating in his neighborhood association, but said he is out on the streets of his neighborhood trying to influence youth to do right.

Roberson said the market and other development would help with jobs, which could help the rest of the city. He also said Lakeside can help bring visitors to Muskegon instead of other cities. He also supported the idea of a convention center.  He said talking to people in other communities could provide ideas on attracting them, possibly reversing lost tax base.

 

William Snyder: Snyder spoke to his own youthful energy, as he is the youngest candidate running.  He said that the past of Muskegon has included a focus on self interest, and said he would not follow that trend if elected. Snyder also said each neighborhood should be individually strengthened to make the whole city better. His list of priorities includes “create jobs and make this town safer for our families.” Snyder states he has been involved in the Knights of Columbus and Relay for Life. He is not in his neighborhood association, and says he would not join now because it would look like a campaign tactic.

Snyder said downtown development must be a priority for the city, and a close working relationship with the future owner of the Sappi property is a must.   Regarding lost tax base from closed businesses, Snyder placed hope in redeveloping the port.

 

William Springsted: Did not attend forum.

 

Dan (Rinsema) Sybenga: Dan noted that he is not originally from Muskegon, but cited his roles at Muskegon Area First and Muskegon Community College as proof of his involvement. Those, plus his work with the Nelson Neighborhood Association and the Workforce Development Board help  him “get along with people from diverse backgrounds”, allowing him to get things done. Sybenga’s first priority will be jobs, according to his platform statement. he Dan helped found the Taste of Muskegon, and is on the board of the Michigan Irish Music Festival and the United Way’s campaign committee.

When asked about downtown development, Dan said development needs to be focused on Western Avenue. As for neighborhoods, he said each neighborhood should find their “own unique assets”. In Lakeside specifically, more access to the water and improved streetscaping would be his priorities.

Regarding the loss of tax base in the city, Sybenga said the city should work on attracting companies to rebuild right on the sites of Brunswick, Sappi and other lost businesses.  He also said tourism could “have a multiplier effect” on wealth in Muskegon.

 

Linda Traylor: Did not attend forum.

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Andrew Trzaska

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