By Jan Worth-Nelson
In two of the most watched contests of Tuesday’s election, the contentious Arts Education and Cultural Enrichment millage passed, 47 percent “yes” to 43 percent “no”; and in the 49th District Democratic primary race for state representative, John Cherry, son of a Genesee County political dynasty, defeated former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling, 43 percent to 29 percent.
In the November general election Cherry will face Patrick Duvendeck, who ran unopposed on the GOP side.
Cherry and Walling, who live several blocks apart in the College Cultural neighborhood, dominated a field of six contenders with the other four trailing far behind, for a cumulative total among all candidates of 11,244 votes. The others were King’s Karate owner Jacky King, with 1016; water activist LaShaya Darisaw with 979; Don Wright with 300; and Justin Dickerson with 198.
Cherry, both of whose parents John Cherry, Sr. and Pam Faris, and his aunt Deb Cherry are politicians, had played a central role on the city of Flint’s charter commission, helping develop the charter approved by voters 2-1 last year.
Walling, mayor during the disastrous months of the water crisis, was attempting a comeback into public life, bucking ongoing criticism about his involvement, including from Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha in her recent memoir of the crisis and many water activists, who thought he did not acknowledge the severity of the crisis and did not do enough to fight against the emergency manager running the city at the time and other state officials. He has repeatedly stated, including in a recent interview in Politico, a national online magazine, that he regrets his role.
The passage of the arts millage, one of three approved in last night’s vote, will bring in about $8.7 million/year for ten years into the county’s arts and cultural institutions. The millage of .96 will cost about $48/year for the average homeowner, making it the third highest millage in the county. Taxpayers’ money will go first to the Genesee County Board of Commissioners, which will then pass it on to the Flint Cultural Center Corporation for distribution.
Another story of the day was voter turnout. Yesterday’s 26 percent turnout, while far from a robust sign of voter participation, was a marked increase from last August’s primary turnout of a measly 7 percent, when voters approved the new city charter. Yesterday’s county-wide turnout was 84,330 voters out of 320,000 registered.
Turnout for last November’s election, when Mayor Karen Weaver overcame a recall effort after being challenged by 17 other candidates, was 17 percent. The turnout in the November, 2016 general election was 59 percent.
The arts millage was propelled by Citizens for a Better Genesee County, an entity initially presented as a grassroots effort but funded with $384,000 from the marketing budgets of Flint Cultural Center institutions. Randall Thompson of Fenton was the group’s president and almost only visible member.
Todd Slisher, executive director of the Sloan Museum/Longway Planetarium, said starting today, all benefits detailed in the millage proposal will be immediately available to Genesee County residents. The whole list, including free admission to the Flint Institute of Arts, 30 percent discounts on Flint Symphony Orchestra performances, and waived fees for Flint School of Performing Arts registrations for both adults and children, is available here.
“The first payments won’t be received until after the December tax assessments,” Slisher noted, “But we decided to offer the benefits immediately–it’s better to go ahead and offer them right now.”
“We’re very pleased, obviously, that the millage passed and excited about the access this opens up and barriers removed in terms of price. What we’re also excited about is that this allows us to plan for the future and grow and strengthen our programs with solidity for our funding cycles,” he said.
Slisher said in addressing some citizens’ concerns about transparency and accountability, “We have a request in for a meeting with the Genesee County Board of Commissioners, to discuss accountability, the systems we want to put in place to make sure this is transparent — this is a first step.”
Next, he said, “We’ll want to regularly report to the community. However we can be clear and transparent, we’re going to do it.”
Slisher said on social media the institutions have been sending out thank you’s all day — “for believing in arts and culture and how this can make Genesee County a better place. This is a good news story about how Flint is pulling itself up. And we need good news stories.”
According to the plan worked out between the Citizens for a Better Genesee County, executives of the arts institutions and the Genesee County Board of Commissioners, the four largest institutions–The Flint Institute of Arts, The Flint Institute of Music (including the Flint Youth Theater, the Flint School of Performing Arts and the Flint Symphony Orchestra), The Sloan Museum/Longway Planetarium, and the Whiting Auditorium/Capitol Theater–will each receive about $1.8 million/year.
These amounts will represent between 25 and 30 percent of the institutions’ budgets.
The Greater Flint Arts Council, in addition to receiving about $88,000 in operating funds, will receive $500,000/year for regranting to other arts and cultural institutions county-wide.
And the Berston Field House and the Floyd J. McCree Theater each will receive about $415,000/year — amounts the two north-end cultural hotspots could only dream of after years of penny-pinching.
The actual vote on the arts millage was 40,016 to 36,278–the difference of only 3,700 votes reflecting controversy about the proposal throughout the campaign.
Another factor in the vote was the “undervotes” of 8,013–the undervote meaning that people did not mark a choice on the millage on their ballot. While the reason can’t be documented after the fact, it could be at least partly accounted for because the millage proposals were on the back of the ballot and voters didn’t turn it over.
In fact, both the Michigan State Extension Services millage renewal and the Mass Transportation Authority millage renewal, both of which also passed, each showed more than 7,000 “undervotes.”
Advocates stated the public’s investment in the arts will transform the county’s reputation, provide a host of “tangible benefits” for living here, and create an expansion of economic opportunities and positive consequences. In an email blast the day before the election, four Cultural Center executives all of whom had been actively out into the community in the weeks before the vote, summarized their main arguments: “Investing in this Arts and Culture Millage will attract business and individuals that seek out a high quality of life to Genesee County. It will spur economic growth, and provide our residents with amazing opportunities for many years to come. ”
The blast was signed by Jarret Haynes, executive director of the Whiting; John Henry, executive director of the Flint Institute of Arts; Rodney Lontine, executive director and CEO of the Flint Institute of Music; and Slisher, executive director of Sloan Museum/Longway Planetarium.
Opponents said the city, still reeling from the effects of the water crisis and years of infrastructure deterioration, poverty and the decline of public education, needs taxpayer money for roads and schools first, not the arts. Many also criticized the arts campaigners for a lack of transparency and inadequate provisions for accountability for the public trust.
“Now it’s up to the Board of Commissioners to ensure that this money is supervised in the way that all other taxpayer money is supervised,” said Flint attorney Linda Pohly, one of the most vocal critics of the proposal.
“I don’t wish them ill but I fear their donations are going to be hit hard,” she said. “Now I hope they are going to be subject to a service agreement, with ascertainable standards, something that you can hold them to, to ensure the monies are spent in the public interest.
“It’s going to be a huge battle and I’m not sure the commissioners have the belly for it,” she said. “You better show more bodies through the doors; I would do that assessment annually. We better see that the people of this community are getting some value from what you are offering.”
Pohly said she expected to “go down and talk to” the commissioners, but added, “As for the Board of Commissioners taking an active interest in this — well, their tolerance for irregularities is awfully high. I kind of think that this isn’t going to be the last story.”
Full results from the election are available at gc4me.com, the Genesee County Election Division.
This story was updated at 1:30 p.m. to include comments from Todd Slisher, executive director of Sloan Museum/Longway Planetarium.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at email@example.com.