Sunday, October 2, 2011

Council candidates voice views at forum

Council candidates voice views at forum

City spending, the bill for flood cleanup and how long citizens get to speak at council meetings were among the topics covered at a Westland City Council candidate forum at the Dorsey Center.

Six of the seven candidates — incumbents Adam Hammons, Bill Johnson and Michael Kehrer along with first-time candidates Kevin Coleman, Rick Ciaramitaro and Peter Herzberg — seeking to fill four council seats participated in the Sept. 27 forum sponsored by the Westland Democratic Club. Incumbent James Godbout didn't attend.

Unopposed for re-election on the Nov. 8 ballot, Westland Clerk Eileen DeHart Schoof, who is Johnson's sister, also participated in the forum, which was low-key and cordial. Audience members were asked to submit questions that were asked after each candidate make an opening statement.

Incumbents were asked what had been the most surprising thing that happened during their most recent term on council.

“Wrapping my arms around the budget. It's a very complex item, very in-depth. You need to spend a lot of time on that,” Hammons said. “I didn't know how in-depth it was with the facets of the budget and dealing with declining revenue.”

Looking at the city's finances longer term and seeing the projected deficits due to declining revenues was a surprise, Kehrer said.

“Everything is on the table,” he added.

Receiving a more than $2 million bill from Belfor following the cleanup of flooded homes in 2010 wasn't a surprise, Johnson said, it was definitely a shock.

“It was like we laid down a blank check. We were billed for coffee on the way to work and the paper the bill was written on,” Johnson said.

For the first-time candidates, the question was asked what would be the first thing they would do, if elected.

“I would go to each neighborhood and find a voice in that neighborhood. I would open the lines of communications with the people in the neighborhood,” said Coleman, who is campaigning with Herzberg, his cousin. “I think that is a great idea. It should have been done a long time ago.”

Ciaramitaro's goal is to be a thorn in Mayor William Wild's side on behalf of veterans.

“I would ask who, what and a lot of whys,” he said.

Herzberg commented that he would like to see all of council ask more questions before members cast votes.

Candidates were asked what steps they would take to maintain or increase the city's current general fund balance.

Council recently approved the online citizens guide and dashboard, one of the three prongs of the governor's Economic Vitality Incentive Program, Hammons said, which will qualify the city for about $1.4 million in state funding. The city is also getting additional revenue from clothing and electronics recycling and the upcoming city garage sale, he said, along with efforts to reduce spending.

“The council needs to come together with citizens to see what the citizens want. The administration should definitely take cuts,” Herzberg said. “Compared to surrounding cities, Westland is not an attractive place to buy a home. We need to address crime and upkeep to make the city attractive to families.”

There needs to be a closer look at administration perks and costs, Coleman said, rather than more cuts in departments like Public Services, which has already been cut.

“You're squeezing a dry sponge,” he said. “We need to review spending with contractors. We need to keep business investments growing.”

When the city realizes about $9 million from refinancing Taylor Towers, Johnson said he would like to see at least half the money placed in fund balance and not spent.

“The auditors have told us that we need $6 to $9 million in fund balance. We can't take any more from police, fire or the (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) 1602 represented folks,” said Johnson, adding about $1 million could be cut from administrative spending.

With declining revenues, Kehrer said the city budgets have been very difficult.

“Anyone with a great idea, we're willing to listen,” he said.

Ciaramitaro favored increasing revenues by obtaining grants to assist senior citizens and handicapped residents.

“The cost-cutting has to be from the top down. We can't cut police and fire. They put their lives on the line for us every day,” he said.

Not surprisingly, the non-incumbent candidates supported a return to allowing residents five minutes to speak before council while the incumbents, who voted for the three-minute limitation nearly two years ago, viewed the change as a move to allow more people to speak and keep council meetings moving.

“I believe we (council members) should be confined to three minutes like everyone else. We should not be treated different than anyone else,” Johnson said.

About 25 people attended the candidate forum, including current council members Christine Bryant and Dewey Reeves, Wayne-Westland school board member Andrea Clawson, state Rep. Richard LeBlanc and, in a surprise appearance as the meeting was wrapping up, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit.

“I thought it was great seeing all the candidates, it was great exposure. I've got my mind made up,” Democratic Club member Caroline Gaffney said, adding that she didn't have a specific question to submit during the forum.

On Nov. 8, voters will select four council members — the top three finishers will receive four-year terms, while the fourth-place finisher will earn a two-year. The council will take office in January.

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