Muskegon Heights City Council Candidate Forum: A Breakdown

Andrew Trzaska | November 3, 2011

Nearly 50 people were in attendance at Muskegon Heights City Hall Wednesday night for a forum with all candidates running for mayor and city council.

Muskegon Heights residents Naeink and Latesha Johnson organized the forum with the help of the current council starting about a month ago when no other organized forums appeared to be scheduled.

The city council candidates’ forum featured all four candidates vying for three seats:

 

Kimberly D. Sims, 41, 185 W. Barney, Grand Valley State University

Daniel Franklin, 23, 2308 Eighth, Michigan State University

Patrice S. Johnson, 23, 3304 Ninth, Michigan State University

Vernonell E. Smith, 40, 716 Overbrook, NCTI – National Cable Television Institute

 

Councilwomen Bonnie McGlothin and Dorothy Scott, who are both running for mayor, are vacating two of those three seats.

Sims is the only incumbent candidate running for council this year.  She has served 8 years on the council thus far.

The four candidates spoke about economic development, neighborhood involvement, transit in the city and the community’s connection to city hall.  Their answers, as well as paraphrased versions of the questions (or groups of similar questions) can be found below.

 

(Editor’s note: View a breakdown of the mayoral forum here)

 

Q: Have you reviewed the current council vision for the City of Muskegon Heights, and what is your personal vision for the future?

 

Franklin stated that he had a vision but declined to provide details.

Johnson wanted to develop downtown and Rowan park and “enhance the cultural vision of the city”.  “Muskegon Heights hasn’t necessarily demonstrated its definition as a city,” said Johnson. “We have to debunk the myth of the City of Muskegon Heights.”

Smith’s vision was business-based: “There are no longer CWCs and Lakey [foundries].”  Smith expressed

Like Johnson, Smith looked to improve the city’s image, evoking the “City of Friendly People” motto. “I don’t want the inside people to not believe in the city of Muskegon Heights, and the outside people to just drive through,” said Smith.

Sims touted her grassroots work in her past two terms as part of her vision for the future of the city, and cited her ability to “cross over” and work with other governments on the local, state and federal level as key to the city’s future. “I work well with others,” said Sims. “I can be that voice to bring back resources.”

 

Q: What other communities that may be facing similar issues have you researched, and can you give specific examples of things Muskegon Heights could use?

 

Smith looked north to Whitehall’s redevelopment of the Colby Street downtown corridor as a model for revitalizing downtown Muskegon Heights. Smith also played up the city’s Johnny O. Harris Park and Mona Lake Park as beautifying assets that should be used.

Sims cited Des Moines, Iowa as having a task force that overlaps police, planning and inspections departments as a way to streamline code enforcement.

Franklin cited the recycling programs run in East Lansing at Michigan State as a way to physically clean up the city’s streets.

Johnson cited her travels to London and Japan, where she studied social enterprises; Johnson defined these as businesses that produce a service to the city and “shift cultural involvement”.  She also proposed creating a Citizens Downtown Association that would coordinate all.

 

Q: What are your plans and ideas for public transportation, including train and bus service?

 

Sims spoke about the current status of the bus station project: “We are currently in discussions with [the county] for bringing that.”  Sims stated that the recently-added small enclosure near city hall was “phase 1, step 1” toward achieving a full bus station in lieu of the downtown station.

Franklin cited the record use of Amtrak use in the state of Michigan and said he would continue through with the current council’s plans if elected.

Johnson agreed with Sims and Franklin.

Smith agreed as well and stated it fit with his mission to bring outside businesses into the City of Muskegon Heights.

 

Q: Muskegon Heights residents feel there is a disconnect [between the public and the council] and lack of real leadership.  Do you have a transparent plan so we can keep track of progress?

 

Franklin: “If I am in office, one thing I want to get done is that whatever we do in these meetings gets publicized.  It’s your city.  If we know what’s going on, you should know what is going on.”

Johnson presented the idea of a youth council that would exist as a segment under the city council. “When you have children who are interested, that really sparks something.”

Smith described the city, school system and downtown development authority all as “troubling”.  He also stated that greater communication between the school district and city hall as important.  He also proposed the idea that the Muskegon Heights Police Department’s officers be required to live within the city limits.

Sims cited her previous attempt to start a city newsletter as “not well received” and costing a lot, and stated that Facebook provides new opportunities to communicate.

 

Q: How do you see community members being involved in the future of this city?

 

Smith suggested seeking out noteworthy and powerful Muskegon Heights residents and former residents for ideas.  He also emphasized youth programs as a way for people to get involved.

Johnson restated her strong passion for a youth council, which she stated could “bring back a consciousness, including a historical consciousness” that they may not receive in their regular education.

Sims emphasized strengthening neighborhood associations, having a series of educational information sessions for residents on topics like water bill concerns and municipal government processes.

Franklin cited the Big Brothers/Big Sisters programs he experienced as a child in Muskegon Heights and suggested the community reexamine the program’s ideas to form a unique program.

 

Q: (A series of short questions were presented concerning the costs and complexities concerning redevelopment by interested businesses in opening up or moving to the city)

 

The three new candidates deferred answering many specific details about application fees and processes, with Franklin declining to answer completely.

Johnson cited a healthy Downtown Development Authority as a means to accelerating redevelopment.

Smith stated that recruiting vendors inside and outside the city limits was important and cited the Strand Theater as a prime target for redevelopment.

Being an incumbent, Sims clarified specific details of the process with the questioner, including why the Department of Environmental Quality gives brownfield designations. Sims ultimately defended the current process, including a $600 application fee that she noted covered the cost of site plan reviews and other portions of the process.

View The Beat’s report on the Muskegon Heights mayoral forum here.

Andrew Trzaska

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