By Tom Travis
The Flint City Council last week considered anti-bullying and pot policies for city employees, tabled a proposal for Genesee County to purchase Chevy Commons, and heard a plea for more resources for the Flint Police Department.
The work occurred as the council convened as two specialized “committees of the whole,” the legislative committee and the finance committee.
City Attorney Angela Wheeler was present to add legal opinions about the proposed resolutions regarding bullying and drug and alcohol use–specifically marijuana.
Wheeler noted the city’s harassment policy has not been updated since March 27, 1995 and emphasized it is time for an update.
“The purposes of having a harassment and anti-bullying policy is to provide a safe and equitable workplace for all public servants,” Wheeler said, and “to formalize a procedure when a public servant needs to report a complaint and how the city responds and to protect the city’s legal interests when processing review.” She said the City of Flint has never had an explicitly anti-bullying policy and that the concept is new.
Referring to the drug and alcohol policy resolution, Wheeler said just because Michigan has a new marijuana law, if a public servant tests positive they may still be in violation due to the fact they may work in a department where they hold a commercial driver’s license (CDL).
Wheeler stated specifics need to be developed and closer evaluation and development of these policies needs to be done.
“We need to be careful that we [the legal department] don’t override someone’s union rights as a result,” she said.
Sam Muma, president of AFSCME Local 1600, voiced support for developing the resolutions, noting that the union represents 200 of the 500 active city employees and that union employees cover the entire city.
Fourth Ward Councilperson Kate Fields said she believed the policies as drafted were not specific enough. She offered a substitute motion to bring in outside counsel and send the resolutions back to committee to be more fully developed and the ramifications of the policies better understood.
Second Ward Councilperson Maurice Davis added his support for the resolutions, stating, “This council is out of control on a lot of things and this policy [bullying] should have been added.” Fields pointed out the city’s human resources director has no control over elected officials.
Fifth Ward Councilperson Jerri Winfrey-Carter said she supported Fields’ substitute motion to send the resolutions back to committee, except for the recommendation for outside counsel, stating, “We have a city attorney. That’s what she does for us.”
The council approved Fields’ amended motion to send the resolutions back to committee with only one “no” vote, from Councilperson Davis.
Fields additionally requested a special order for the next meeting asking Wheeler to bring the city’s nepotism and ethics policy to the council for discussion.
Homicides in Flint down 12 percent, council supports more resources
Then the council transitioned into session as the finance committee. After 20 minutes of bickering over the order of the agenda, the council invited Deputy Chief of Police Devon Bernritter to the table.
Seventh Ward Councilperson Galloway said she originally had requested to have Flint Police Chief Tim Johnson attend the meeting to answer questions and concerns in the community.
Bernritter stated he was informed only an hour and a half before the meeting that he was to attend. Galloway expressed concern that Bernritter might not then be properly prepared. Bernritter said he would do his best to answer the questions of concern. Some council members said Chief Johnson might have been out of town.
Councilperson Davis asked Bernritter to summarize the state of crime in the city. Bernritter reported there has been a 12 percent drop in homicides in Flint compared to the same time last year.
Despite that, Bernritter bemoaned large cuts to the police force. He said when he arrived on the police force in 1995 “there were 350 cops. There are 112 today, and we need 200.” Bernritter stated that when Chief Johnson asked for 50 more officers, “we got zero.”
“When we fell below 200 cops, I thought we may collapse and not be able to protect the community,” Bernritter said, ” but this organization has been able to serve and protect the community and I think that it’s because the men and women of this community that serve and protect, love this community.”
Bernritter implored, “We have officers responding to armed robberies, shootings in progress, masses of people running away from problems, and I have one man or one woman responding, that is not safe.”
Councilperson Eric Mays moved “to do all things necessary to move some money to the police department.” He recalled a recent vote that came to council that failed 5 to 4 to send money to the police department.
Fields asked why the police department doesn’t forge better relationships with the state police who already patrol the city on all shifts. Bernritter retorted he believes with Chief Johnson that they have in fact worked well with the State Police.
Bernritter said half of the detective force in Flint is made up of State Police, adding that the State Police are only allowed to investigate two types of crimes–armed robbery and a crime with critical or fatal results.
Davis expressed support for Mays’ motion to move money to the police department, commenting also on the importance of retaining the officers the department does have.
“As soon as they get trained they leave our community,” Davis said. “We need to keep the officers we train.”
Bernritter replied, “With everything that’s going on in our country today law enforcement is a very difficult profession…it is a difficult profession to make attractive.”
Mays later added a suggestion to give new officers a house in a particular ward in the city where they could live while employed as a Flint City Police Officer.
Galloway said she was uneasy with the motion, stating, “the ‘do all things necessary’ is not a real motion to me, no offense, but we haven’t talked about a dollar amount.”
Nonetheless, Mays’ motion to do all things necessary to move money to the police department eventually passed with Galloway’s support, and only Councilperson Fields voting no.
Should Chevy Commons sale go to the public for a vote?
Finally, Genesee County Parks Department officials made a presentation concerning Chevy Commons and Flint Riverfront development and restoration projects.
The presentation was part of a resolution before the finance committee for the City of Flint to enter into a purchase agreement to sell Genesee County nine parcels of downtown land including the former Fisher Body plant complex, once called Chevy in the Hole, and now known as Chevy Commons.
A potential bureacratic snag emerged. Fields offered documents she said she had obtained with help from City Clerk Inez Brown. Fields presented a legislative history of the Chevy Commons property.
Referring to the city’s new city charter, Fields pointed out that it states, “no city appointed land designated as a park or property used as a park shall be sold or transferred unless approved by a majority of electors in a general or special election. A public hearing shall take place 90 days before the election.”
She further argued that in a 2019 draft parks plan, not yet approved but on the city’s website, Chevy Commons is identified as a park.
Fields continued, “You look at the city master plan and Chevy Commons is listed as a park. It is being used as a park.”
She made a substitute motion to postpone or table the resolution to move the resolution back to committee while waiting a legal opinion on whether or not it is legal to sell the property. First Ward Councilperson Eric Mays seconded.
City Attorney Wheeler said the legal department had been made aware of the matter the day before. She said the property title was examined and it does not use the word park on the title.
Council amended the motion to table the discussion and move it to the council’s special affairs committee. Councilperson Davis said he opposed tabling the motion but along with Councilperson Guerra verbalized support for the restoration project.
Fields clarified she did not want to postpone the project, saying she fully supports it. But, she said, “If we don’t check into this properly and thoroughly any citizen can sue the city saying, ‘you sold my park illegally.’ “Mays complimented Fields for “excellent work” on pulling out the information presented, and council unanimously voted to send it back to the special affairs committee.
EVM staff writer Tom Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.