Muskegon City Commission Swears in New Commissioners; Vice Mayor Vote Stalls

Andrew Trzaska | January 5, 2013

Muskegon’s City Commission swore in two new commissioners at its 2014 organizational meeting on Thursday but were not able to elect a vice mayor.

60th District Court Judge Maria Ladas Hoopes swore in Dan Rinsema-Sybenga and Ken Johnson, who survived a primary field of 11 in August of 2013, and then received the most votes out of a field of four in November.

Rinsema’s history with Muskegon reaches back to when he relocated to the area over a decade ago. He previously served as the director of Downtown Muskegon Now, and currently serves as the Dean of Workforce and Talent Development at Muskegon Community College, and lives in Muskegon’s Nelson neighborhood.

Johnson is treasurer of the Nims Neighborhood Association, and is involved in community anti-violence initiatives including Working Together for Youth.  Johnson works remotely from Muskegon for Washington, D.C.-based media consulting firm CARMA International.  Johnson graduated from Muskegon High School in 1999.

Commissioners also voted on a new vice mayor on Thursday. The commission does this after newly elected commissioners are sworn in, or if the vice mayor’s seat is vacated.

When sitting vice mayor Larry Spataro was nominated by Rinsema-Sybenga, commissioners were not able to get a majority vote.  Spataro originally gained the title in 2012, when Mayor Steve Warmington retired and vice mayor Steve Gawron became mayor.

Commissioners German, Byron Turnquist, and Eric Hood voted “no” on Spataro for vice mayor. With Spataro absent from the meeting, the motion failed to pass on a 3-3 vote.

German spoke to matters of diversity ahead of the vote. Citing over one third of the city’s residents being African American, German urged commissioners to look a bit deeper at the matter and delay the selection of a vice mayor:

“I think amongst us commissioners, we should sit down and talk about this.”

Mayor Gawron was unwavering in his support of Spataro after the failed vote.

“It’s not a matter of an honorarium, it’s not about snipping ribbons in my absence,” said Gawron. “It’s about an individual that can be relied on when I am not here.”

Commissioner Turnquist added to the discussion, giving Spataro credit for his work on the commission.

“No one comes to our meetings more prepared than Larry,” said Turnquist.

Turnquist then cited a recent MLive event where he had dialogue with minority city residents and concluded that it may be time for more diversity among city leadership.

“Maybe this is the time to reach out,” said Turnquist.

In response to Turnquist and German’s comments, Mayor Gawron calmly defended the level of diversity among city staff.

Commissioners ended up tabling the election of a vice mayor until its regularly scheduled January 14 meeting.

Thursday’s meeting included the setting of work session and commission meetings for the calendar year. Work sessions will continue to be held on the Monday preceding the second Tuesday of each month, and commission meetings will continue to take place on the second and fourth Tuesday. All meetings and work sessions will be held at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall.

The 2014 city commission changeover represents increasing diversity in some ways, and decreasing diversity in others.

With the swearing in of Johnson and Rinsema, Muskegon’s city commission will lose its only female commissioners. Longtime commissioner Sue Wierengo opted not to seek reelection in 2013, and Lea Markowski, who was appointed in 2012, lost in last year’s primary.

Both commissioners are under the age of 40, however, and are the youngest two members of the governing body.

Andrew Trzaska

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