By Tom Travis
Despite a snowstorm barreling down outside, it was standing room only in the 440-seat Council Chamber room on the third floor of City Hall Monday for the swearing in of Flint’s new mayor, Sheldon Neeley.
The audience was a “who’s who” of politicians, entrepreneurs, business leaders, ministers, activists, city leaders. The crowd depicted the ethnic diversity and broad spectrum of the Flint community.
Three rousing familiar gospel songs were offered by musicians from the community. Hands lifted and people stood, many singing along to the familiar tunes, and the crowd swayed together as the performers poured out their hearts.
Flint Court Fifth Division Judge David Guinn met Sheldon and Cynthia Neeley and their daughters at the podium. As he administered the oath of office, when Judge Guinn reached the phrase, “I will faithfully discharge the duties of Mayor of Flint on behalf of all citizens of Flint,” Neeley echoed the phrase and strongly emphasized the words, “ALL citizens of Flint.”
In his 15-minute speech, Neeley sounded notes of unity, promising City Hall would reach out to all parts of the community.
“We will always be transparent, we will always give you the truth, so we can all understand where we are,” he said to applause from the overflow crowd.
He continued, “You’re going to see a city hall that will be reaching out to Flint Community Schools to help them and to see that our children are educated properly. We will work to educate our children up, through and out of poverty.”
“You won’t hear words that polarize us on race, or economic status,” he continued. “You’ll hear words of unity, bringing us together. You’ll hear words to bring us together to help us move forward – unity is strength, division is weakness.”
The audience applauded as Mayor Neeley announced Raymond Barton will continue as Flint fire chief. Then the mayor introduced Phil Hart and formally announced Hart will be the interim chief of police. Again the crowd responded with cheers and applause.
Former Chief of Police Tim Johnson resigned over the weekend, stating he will focus on running for Genesee County Sheriff. Hart also is running.
Mayor Neeley announced the State will come in and help with a transitional financial audit and said once the audit is complete it will be made available to the public. The crowd applauded.
Referring to the often divisive and in recent years combative Flint City Council seated behind him, Neeley said, “To my colleagues behind me on this council, we will work together to provide a better tomorrow for this community. I will be supporting you and I will not be in your way as you fulfill the responsibilities of this city.”
Then he spoke directly to the crowd, issuing a challenge: “You saw me take an oath today. I ask you to take an oath in your heart. An oath of unity, moving this community together, working one at a time, one conversation at a time, sitting down and understanding where we need to go as a community.”
And in preacher style he asked, “Amen?” The diverse Flint crowd heartily responded, “Amen!”
Turning to the front row of family guests Mayor Neeley first referred to his mother, Marva Neeley, who has been battling breast cancer. He presented to her a bouquet of pink roses with one red rose. He said the single red rose stood for, “the love I have for you and all of us who have mothers and loved ones going through this battle.”
The Mayor presented a bouquet to his “life-partner,” Cynthia, stating, “to my wife who I met when I was 19 years old. A dozen red roses with one yellow rose representing friendship, because you are my best friend.”
Addressing the rest of the audience, he asserted, “To our other partners in the private sector, the public sector, the government sector we will be building together a top notch crew to serve the residents of Flint.”
Mayor Neeley closed with a familiar math trick to make a point. He asked everyone to pick a number between 1 and 10 but don’t tell your neighbor. Multiply that number by 2, add 8, divide it by 2, subtract the original number. Raise your hand if you have 4. All the hands went up and the crowd moaned together. The Mayor made his point by saying, “The idea here is that we didn’t all start with the same number but if we’re all willing to multiply, subtract, add and divide we can get to the same number.”
Mayor Neeley humorously commented about the snow storm that was barreling down in the midst of the ceremony.
“I told you things were gonna change when I got elected and you didn’t expect the snow, did you?”
In conclusion, Neeley said, “I leave you with this. Coming together is a start, working together is progress, staying together is success.”
Pastor Monica Villarreal of Salem Lutheran Church offered the benediction in part stating, “Listen to those who oppose you and lead with compassion. Whether you supported Neeley or not, the water crisis has taught us all one thing: that we are inescapably intertwined. For Flint to be successful, we need to strive for togetherness and unity.”
EVM Staff Writer Tom Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.