Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 7, 2013

New board, new ideas?

By BRIAN McGILLIVARY bmcgillivary@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Election results likely will change the tenor of debate among Traverse City commissioners and possibly trigger a new approach toward street projects.

But neither new nor holdover commissioners predict major changes in the city’s charted course.

“If the commission decides to abruptly change direction, that would shock me,” said Mayor Michael Estes, who won re-election on Tuesday.

Estes lost two close allies on the commission and a reliable voting bloc when conservatives Mike Gillman and Mary Ann Moore decided not to seek re-election. Voters replaced them and incumbent Jody Bergman with former Grand Traverse County Commissioner Ross Richardson, a Democrat, and two younger voices, Gary Howe and Tim Werner.

“It’s exciting,” said Commissioner Jim Carruthers of the city’s newly elected leaders. “I think it speaks to a more progressive, more Democratic vote on the commission.”

But all three new commissioners downplayed progressive labels.

“Some people think walking and sidewalks are more progressive, and if that’s the case, I’m guilty,” Werner said. “But I’m also pretty fiscally conservative.”

The commission theoretically should be more “progressive,” Richardson said, but the group will be something of a mystery until new commissioners “get in the saddle and start acting.”

All three said they plan to work on building consensus on the commission.

“The ability of the mayor or any other commissioner to do anything relies on their ability to build coalitions around issues,” Richardson said. “Estes seemed to have four votes for doing whatever he wanted to do before, and he doesn’t have that now.”

Estes said a look at the city commission voting records shows most votes were unanimous, so he disagrees there were groups or coalitions allied for or against each other. Estes said all three new commissioners appear fiscally conservative, and outside of a different approach to street projects, he doesn’t expect huge divides.

“A lot of times people once they get into a seven-member body, they start to understand ‘OK, I need to bend a little bit’ as opposed to not agreeing all of the time,” Estes said.

But starting discussions with a majority doesn’t encourage the voicing of opposing viewpoints, Richardson said.

“The past commission did a good job, but generally the missteps they have had are because the commission didn’t look closely enough into some stuff,” he said.

Commissioner Jeanine Easterday cited problems with the splash pad at Clinch Park, the Brown Bridge Dam breach that flooded downstream homes, and the debate over converting the former Con Foster Museum into a movie theater as items the commission should have questioned more closely.

“I hope that this commission will learn from some of the mistakes we’ve been through this last year and maybe take a closer look up front at our issues ... and keep a better handle on things,” Easterday said. “It may appear to the public to be more contentious, but I think we can only benefit from some lively dialogue.”

All commissioners seem to agree that Werner, Howe and Richardson will push harder than past commissions for more sidewalks, bike lanes, and traffic-slowing street changes.

City commissioners already planned to revisit the city’s long-term infrastructure plan, and that will take on new importance now that a county-approved road millage will pump about $750,000 a year into city coffers for the next three years.

Estes considers it a tax increase and will challenge the commission to reduce the city millage by the same amount. All three new commissioners said a tax decrease is something they are willing to discuss, but that flies in the face of their campaign promises.

Werner and Howe campaigned consistently and loudly for more extensive and expensive street renovations, particularly for sidewalks.

Estes called them “unique concepts,” but said he’s confident the commission can hammer out individual differences in discussions.

Residents may get a peek at how the new commission interacts when they are sworn in Monday at 7 p.m. The commission will attempt to fill six openings on the planning commission, including appointments of two city commissioners to that board. Estes is allowed to appoint four persons to the planning commission, though his picks require commission confirmation.