Editors’ Note: East Village Magazine conducted in-person interviews with both Mayor Sheldon Neeley and Karen Weaver, who are facing off in the Nov. 8 election — Neeley for a second consecutive term, Weaver for a return to the office Neeley won from her by 205 votes in 2019.
The candidates were provided an identical set of questions in advance; answers here combine direct quotes and in some cases paraphrases and light editing of their answers to assure clarity and coherence. In each case EVM asked one question specific to the candidate. The Weaver interview is available here.
By Tom Travis and Jan Worth-Nelson
After growing up in a working class family, the third of five living generations in Flint, Sheldon Neeley launched his political career with nine years as a Flint city council person, the first African-American to be elected to the council from the Sixth Ward.
In 2014, he was elected as the 34th district state representative and finally, in 2020, he was sworn in as the 94th mayor of the city he grew up in.
He was a Flint Northern High School graduate before enrolling at Delta College and later he attended Saginaw Valley State University. He was a broadcast technician for WJRT-TV12 for 27 years and a Flint Community School work experience counselor for ten years.
In 2019, he defeated incumbent mayor Karen Weaver by 205 votes. Neeley received 50.5 per cent of the vote while Weaver received 48.4 per cent.
Now as he seeks a second term as mayor, he is part of a Flint political partnership, with his wife Cynthia Neeley serving as 34th district state representative up for re-election Nov. 8 as well.
Why do you want to be mayor again?/What are your best arguments for why you should be re-elected?
Neeley responded to these two questions somewhat simultaneously by turning to the events and accomplishments of his tenure in office.
“My administration has been living in a vision we created,” he said. “The vision is important: anybody can tell you it’s going to rain bubblegum and jelly beans all day — the vision sounds good and preaches to people’s fears, hostilities and pain.
“But my administration is living a vision that I said we were going to do. We’re going to continue down a path that I created and we have a blueprint for it,” he stated.
“A good thing about this election is that we [both candidates] have a record. So we don’t have to talk about the fantasy of something. We can talk about the reality of what we’ve done.
“My administration has changed the city and the structure of the city. Beyond all of our challenges, what we have in common are much greater than things we have apart. We are One Flint – black, white, rich, poor, Republican and Democrat. As Flint we have one community that we love, we love our families. We have to build on societal norms that are built to divide us. Let’s build on the things we have in common.”
He cited major achievements of his administration:
— Giving the Flint water customers a $300 water credit. Neeley claims this is what the people of Flint want. He said he heard from the community during public meetings and they asked for water bill relief.
— Bringing $220 million from the State of Michigan, adding to the city’s pension fund and diverting the city away from certain insolvency.
— Developing a new State Park along the Flint River, and
— Negotiating the arrival of Ashley Capitol’s $300 million investment to redevelop the largest brownfield in Michigan, the former Buick City.
In determining how to proceed with his priorities, Neeley described his belief of how to move the city forward step by step. “If you have ten priorities you want to get done focus on the first five. Once those first five are successfully accomplished the rest of the priorities will come more easily.”
Reflecting on his lengthy political career, going back to when he first ran for city council, Neeley said he developed “four points of light” which he said now describes his platform for mayor of Flint: Recreation, Economic Development, Education and Public Safety.
Commenting on his recreation goals, Neeley said his administration aims for the parks to be safe, accessible and available for families to visit. He suggests this will add to the city’s economic viability.
A top priority: Public Safety
Citing accomplishments in public safety, Neeley said major crime is down 40 per cent and homicide is down 50 per cent since he took office. “This is through a productive effort of community engagement as well as a partnership with law enforcement,” Neeley claims.
Additionally, body cams were added to all Flint police officers’ equipment, choke holds and no-knock search warrants and high speed police chases are now banned. And also the use of the Michigan State Police helicopter have all added to improved public safety and a reduction in crime, according to Neeley.
Since Sept. 2020 the Neeley administration implemented a “no questions asked” gun buy back program along with the destruction of all confiscated weapons seized in police work. He said his administration has changed how it deals with confiscated weapons rather than allow them to go back into the streets.
“I’m not against guns but I am against cities and municipalities becoming gun dealers and arms dealers. If you have a city riddled with gun violence and then if we have a government that says, “Oh we’re just gonna sell the [confiscated] weapons back into the community because we need revenue.” “So would you rather have a dollar or a peaceful neighborhood?” Neeley asked.
“Public officials are servants of the public. Sometimes people got confused on the structure of their flow charts. The public sits up at the top. The power has never left the people. People have to recognize their power and engage with it. One of the greatest American rights is the ability to participate in voting process,” Neeley said.
“Partnering” with public education
Neeley said he recognizes 40 per cent of Flint kids of K-12 age choose to educate in the out county area. Acknowledging that the Flint Community Schools is a separate entity than the municipal city of Flint Neeley offered this example to explain ways the city and philanthropic organizations can “partner” with the local school district to improve the school district.
Neeley explained his administration partnered with the C.S. Mott Foundation to allow city employees to train with new paving equipment to pave the ravaged Potter elementary parking lot. The Mott Foundation bought the paving supplies. Potter Elementary administration agreed to allow the City of Flint to use their parking lot. “I asked the school district, ‘I ask you one thing, do not to close this school for five years.'”
Neeley noted his administration recently announced it is partnering with the Flint schools to implement active shooter training. The training is not required but each school can request the training to be conducted.
What are your best arguments for why people should vote for you?/What do you envision your administration would do for Flint going forward?
Neeley accused previous administrations of “mismanagement and re-routing” of Water Crisis funds over the last eight years. Neeley said that “profiteers” have “pinched off” money that could have and should have gone to residents and the repair of the city’s water infrastructure. Neeley contended that his administration provides a level insight as to where every dollar needs to go and the services provided for the funds used.
Neeley expressed frustration with “profiteers,” namely attorneys, who were able to “pinch off” a third of the water settlement funds for themselves. Neeley said he asked U.S. Federal Judge Judith Levy to itemize the attorney fees so the public could see the amounts. “The failure of the previous administration to not file a lawsuit against the state of Michigan would have turned the City of Flint from being a defendant in the case to being a plaintiff. And we could have much more aggressively engaged in this lawsuit. The statute of limitations had already passed when I got in office,” Neeley contended.
Neeley touted that his administration had replaced more than 95 per cent of the city’s pipes. When asked about reports of rising lead in parts of the city Neeley said, “Every day of my administration we have complied with all environmental agencies, testing levels and making sure we are within the limits, 15 ppb (parts per billion).”
Neeley cited the Arcadis report (April 2018) that called for a secondary water source for the city to be developed. “We had to have a primary water source and a secondary water source. When I came into office in Nov. 2019 the secondary water delivery system should have been completed. They hadn’t even started. Not one per cent was completed. I put it on the priority list.”
Neeley noted the recent GLWA (Great Lakes Water Authority) water line contamination that affected 935,000 Michigan residents in 23 communities. Flint was one of those 23 communities but because of the recently completed secondary water line the Flint water was not contaminated.
How would you work with the Flint City Council?
“I think the contention [in the City Council] has been internal, within that body. The contention is not between council and my administration — it’s more within the city council. My administration has had a 100 per cent attendance rate. The previous administration “pulled away” their department directors from council meetings,” Neeley said.
“My administration stays focused and consistent, and that’s gonna help the people — not those council people that may be anarchists. I have a positive relationship with multiple people on council. As an effective leader you need to learn how to count. If you don’t learn how to count you’re not going to get anything through.
Five votes is the necessary number, out of the nine votes on council, to successfully approve resolutions on city council, he noted.
Neeley explained that one way to work with council is to, “Point out the merits of the things you can agree on. It’s not about personality — it’s the philosophy of the ten points. You work on the first five and the second five can be achieved.”
“I have standing meetings with leaders on the city council. Mays [First Ward Councilperson Eric Mays] refused to engage.”
Neeley said he has met with the finance chair, vice chair, and the new council president, Dennis Pfieffer. “He has been very receptive to me and has made every meeting with me.”
Neeley also said he has met with Councilperson Ladel Lewis. “You can’t have a coming together if you don’t come together to figure out the problems,” he said.
“It’s a co-equal branch of government. It’s a check and balance. One is responsible for one set of things and the other is responsible for another set of things. Collisions happen only if we get into each other’s lane. I understand the role of a city council person and I understand the role of mayor. I don’t try to cruise in their lanes. If they swerve over and cruise in another lane a collision may happen,” Neeley warned.
What would you have done differently?
Neeley said, “I should have pointed out more the level of “clean up” I had to do when I came into office.” Neeley explained that instead of recounting the failures of the previous administration, “I wanted to inspire hope and goodwill where there was frustration and anger. I made a conscious decision to work very hard to move us forward and not go back and look at every failure from before.”
What is your approach to staffing your team?
Explaining how he has developed his administration staff, Neeley said he deliberately reached out and found “specialists” who knew how to do the work needed to be done. For example, Neeley said he brought on Tyree Walker from Hurley for Human Resources, Brian Larkin from the Mott Foundation, and Lottie Ferguson from the Chamber of Commerce.
“I chose not to have some of my friends who didn’t have experience and giving them a six-figure salary,” Neeley contended.
How do you regard the racial climate of the city?
The racial divide has been a “powder keg” in this community, Neeley asserted. One of his campaign slogans is “One Flint.” When the interviewer noted that sometimes it doesn’t feel like “One Flint,” Neeley responded, “Go to an integrated playground and watch the five-year old children of different racial backgrounds engage with one another take inspiration from them and watch how they interact and engage with one another. No biases of life, race, gender or particular orientation. And use that to stay highly engaged.”
Neeley added with an example of the downtown Flint area.
“Downtown Flint is viewed contentiously by some who live in northern areas of our town that are densely populated by black people,” he said. “They say they don’t feel welcome [in the downtown area]. How do you go about structuring downtown so it’s inclusive? We hired the first African-American DDA director, Kiaira May. I brought her in from Detroit, she brings fresh eyes and vision,” Neeley said.
He added, “Some people use a high emotional, low logic opportunities to divide. That conversation has been muted. Education, respect and understanding are what the city and Flint residents should use to move forward.”
How do you regard where the city stands now with the water crisis — the settlement, the dropping of charges against the state officials by the Attorney General?
Neeley drew upon the history of the initial days of the water crisis, recalling when he asked then-Attorney General Bill Schuette to investigate the Flint water. He said Schuette refused to investigate. Neeley explained he then went to the U.S. Department of Justice and President Obama, asking the federal government to investigate. Three months later, Schuette agreed to investigate.
In a Congressional hearing the late U.S. Representative and ranking member on the House Oversight Committee, Elijah Cummings, held up a letter from then City Councilperson Neeley asking the U.S. government to investigate the Flint water.
Neeley confessed he’s angry at the process the water crisis has taken, including charges recently being dropped against a half-dozen state officials. “The Flint residents have not had their day in court. So based on a technicality, these people are not seeing their day in court. They’re adjudicated or found guilty. A technicality denying residents’ justice. It’s definitely a sense of frustration and desperation,” Neeley said.
What are your views about separation of church and state in Flint faith-based communities?
“I believe in the separation of church and state. But I do believe in a level of inclusion at your table from the faith-based community, philanthropic community and organizations and every organization. But never should one dictate the role of responsibility of the government because the government is for ALL the people. Though I am a man of faith I know how to separate and do separate my personal beliefs on what I stand for vs. what I can tell you. I would never use my pulpit as a mayor to tell you what your values should be,” Neeley said.
By example, Neeley said, “This past week I gave keys to the city to two polar opposite ministries St. Pius Catholic Church and Hands of God Ministries, catholic and non-denominational, one mostly white and one mostly black congregation. But I gave keys to the city for the same reason. They each came out to help the community in the recovery from the aftermath of the Hogarth explosion. They each came to lend themselves to the service of people. The common denominator was to help the community: different faiths, different colors, but they came together to help.”
What do you wish we had asked you that we didn’t? Or what concluding comments would you offer?
Neeley said he would have liked to spend more time on the “misinformation” spread about decisions his administration had made. Acknowledging the “power of social media” and how to handle it as a politician, Neeley said, “I call it social media terrorism.”
Neeley said social media is bullying with “bigger and broader legs.” To combat that, Neeley said he tries to “saturate it[social media] environment with the truth. If you have darkness you light a candle and it will illuminate.”
“We have to be thick-skinned and a student of the past in order to be effective,” he said. “America has a level of dementia: we forget. We can’t forget we have to build and move forward.”
The last administration was “like a magic show, distraction, magician waves their hand to distract you. You see what they’re doing with their right hand but you can never tell what they’re doing with their left hand,” Neeley said.
EVM Managing Editor Tom Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. EVM Consulting Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at email@example.com.