By Paul Rozycki
Note: This column has been updated for a correction via City Clerk Inez Brown: it was the city’s Finance Department that initially omitted the $320,000 in the budget for this year’s election, not the City Council–Ed.
For most cities, villages, and townships, an election is a pretty routine thing. Candidates file, their names go on the ballot, they campaign, voters go to the polls, and the next set of officeholders are chosen to begin their terms.
Not in Flint.
It was only four years ago that Flint had to petition the state to allow candidates on the ballot, after most of the potential candidates for mayor missed the filing deadline. They would have been left off the ballot, leaving the city with the prospect of a wide-open, write-in campaign. Giggles the Pig’s candidacy gathered much media attention, as the more serious candidates scrambled to put together campaigns in 2015.
This year’s mayoral campaign may not have Giggles in the race (so far), but Flint seems to be continuing its habit of running elections in its own unique and unpredictable way. The primary is scheduled for Aug. 6, and there are four candidates who have filed to run: Greg Eason, state Rep. Sheldon Neeley, Don Pfeiffer, and incumbent Mayor Karen Weaver. The top two candidates will run off in November to win the three-year term for Flint’s mayor.
There are several odd things about this election.
First, the mayoral election is the first one under the new charter, and for that reason, we will elect a mayor for a three-year term — to serve until 2022. After that, the mayor and the council will be elected in at the same time and in the same year as the governor — every four years. Having only the mayor’s race on the ballot, for an unusual term, may confuse and discourage some voters.
Second, while there have been four candidates who filed and were initially certified for the ballot, for a while it looked like some, or possibly all, of those candidates could have been bounced off the ballot, leaving the voters with a wide-open, write-in campaign for mayor. Each of the candidates have faced charges that they filled out their filing petitions incorrectly, and lawsuits were filed to keep them off the ballot.
The Flint City Clerk Inez Brown certified the four candidates, but then the Genesee County Election Commission decided that Greg Eason’s errors were serious enough to keep him from being listed on the ballot. In the end, Circuit Court Judge Joseph Farah ruled that all four candidates should be allowed to run, in spite of a number of errors and mistakes in their affidavits. While Judge Farah did rule that the voters should have the final choice of candidates, in spite of the flawed documents, the lawsuits have delayed campaigning, and may further confuse and discourage voters.
Third, while the mayoral race is (at this time) the only contest on the ballot, there have been several attempts to recall as many as four members of the city council — Kate Fields, Santino Guerra, Allan Griggs, and Monica Galloway. At the moment, Monica Galloway (7th Ward) Allan Griggs (8th Ward), Santino Guerra (3rd Ward), and possibly Kate Fields (4th Ward), are facing recalls. Most of the recalls were initiated by Councilperson Eric Mays, in an attempt to create a stronger pro-Weaver council. There may be more efforts to recall, as well as legal challenges to those attempts. If enough signatures are gathered, the recalls could appear on the November ballot.
Fourth, the city council in a recent meeting, approved the city budget for the next year. That’s all well and good, but as they approved the $55.6 million budget, they added $1.7 million in funds to retain 33 firefighters who would be laid off when a federal grant ran out. The overall budget would have added 34 new positions and cut 57. The problem is that the city didn’t have the resources to cover the new money, and several on the council feared that it could lead to serious financial problems, or another state takeover of the city’s finances. In the end, the mayor vetoed the budget, and a week later the council overrode the veto with a 6-1 vote. After the vote, 4th Ward Councilperson, Kate Fields, said she planned to propose budget amendments to avoid financial problems in the future.
However, as a part of the initial budget process, one other item was left out. The City’s Finance Department initially left out the $320,000 for this year’s election. Though the money was restored, the oversight may have been a sign of things to come in this year’s election.
Yet, in spite of all the strange and unpredictable things that have framed this mayoral campaign, it’s an important election, and it deserves our commitment and attention. Take the time to learn about the candidates, and the issues, and vote on Aug. 6.
Here’s a very brief introduction to the four candidates running for mayor, and ways to learn more about each of them. A forum with all the candidates is being planned for later this month as part of the Tom Sumner Program. The forum will be available for listeners on the program’s archive after the broadcast as well.
Gregory Eason: He is the CEO and founder of Visions Unlimited consulting, served as Flint city administrator from 2006 until 2011, and served as president and CEO of the Center for Progressive Education, the Center for Banking Education, and Jobs Central in Flint.
Sheldon Neeley: He has been a member of the state House of Representatives for the 34th District since 2015, and represented the 6th Ward on the Flint City Council for nine years before being elected to the state House. He was a broadcast technician for WJRT-12 for 27 years and was a union president. His website is: www.neeleyformayor.com.
Donald Pfeiffer: He isa business owner who has worked construction with several electrical firmswith the IBEW Local 58. He was later hired as a director of operations for a minority-owned electrical firm, and later opened his own construction company, where he assisted during the hurricane Katrina devastation, among many other projects. His website is: www.abetterflint.com.
Mayor Karen Weaver: Before being elected mayor in 2015, Karen Weaver earned a doctorate, a PsyD., as a clinical psychologist, and has served as director of behavioral services at Mott Children’s Health Center and Chief Operating Officer of Ennis Center for Children. She was also the owner of Shea Lavelle Boutique, a specialty store for natural skin, hair and body products. Her website is: www.karenaboutflint.com.
As the candidates respond to the twists and turns of the campaign, several questions seem to be the most important for this year’s election.
What about the ombudsperson?
As the first mayoral election under the new charter, the city is still working on appointing an ombudsperson. Several on the council were opposed to the new charter, and have been accused of slow-walking, or blocking the process. As Flint’s past ombudsman Terry Bankert frequently reminds us, it’s been 537 days (as of 6/20/19) since the charter began, and there is still no ombudsperson. Where do the candidates stand on appointing the ombudsperson, as required by the new city charter?
Is the water finally safe?
Several federal agencies, and some scientific studies, have proclaimed Flint’s water to be “safe,” at least if a filter is used. Yet distrust and skepticism runs deep, and many in the city are not willing to trust “expert” opinion after the last five years of water crisis. Are any of the candidates willing to declare Flint’s water as safe to drink? How will they restore trust in the water?
Were the charges dropped fairly?
Many were surprised when the state dropped charges against the remaining eight defendants in the Flint water crisis. The charges were dismissed “without prejudice,” which means that they could be refiled in the future. While some candidates took a wait-and-see approach, expecting new charges might be filed, others saw this as one more betrayal of Flint and its voters. Should charges be refiled? If so, what charges, and who should be charged?
The bottom line is this: in spite of the confusion and complexity of this mayoral election, be sure and get out to vote on Aug. 6.
It matters a lot for Flint.
This story has been updated Sunday, July 21 to note that Karen Weaver has a PsyD degree in psychology, not a PhD–Ed.
EVM political columnist Paul Rozycki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.