Thursday, February 28, 2008

It takes a village to spoil a politician

Americans are too distracted by the shenanigans of federal and state officials. If the congresspersons and senators of today were the commissioners, trustees and council persons of yesterday then we should pay closer attention to our local government. It is in our own backyard where poor decisions are tolerated, conflicts of interest overlooked, and politicians discover there's rarely a spanking for poor behavior.

Council's decision Monday night to approve the Downtown Development Authority's (DDA) request to extend a 1.3794 millage to businesses in the recently expanded Principal Shopping District (PSD) is a textbook example of bad governance and inadequate due diligence. Unfortunately, council's collaboration (councilwomen Baker served on the PSD committee) with the DDA to expand its powers, boundary, and tax burden on local businesses regardless the DDA's misrepresentations (read: lies) doesn't attract the negative press and attention it deserves.

How can a council approve a request from the DDA when that request is based on misleading numbers, misleading statements, failure to notify the public, and without substantive and challenging questions to verify the DDA's claims? How can a council constituted to represent the public tolerate the actions of an agency whose board doesn't represent its public? How can the council indulge the DDA's expansion in both size and taxes without proof of need or an invitation from businesses?

They can because promises to not raise taxes are more like "guidelines" than actual "promises." They can because monuments to council's self-importance are worth $30,000 and equipment for the axillary police is not. They can ignore evidence and refuse investigating complaints because their political philosophy values good intentions over full disclosure and accountability.

They can because the village they came from and are accountable to doesn't hold them accountable and rarely discusses their behavior. We've become enablers.

And some of these spoiled children will become tomorrow's candidates for county, state, and national office. Is it any wonder the state can't balance its budget, control spending, or attract businesses and investment? Is it any wonder congressmen and senators pack bills with earmarks and pork? Are they making policy or sausage?

Perhaps this is an unintended consequence of term-limits. As representatives are term-limited out of Lansing lessor politicians are socially promoted to take their place.

Perhaps we'd better keep a closer eye on the kindergartens. They're tomorrow's bus drivers in Washington, Lansing, and everywhere in-between.

All of this is an introduction to the original text of my comments to city council on Monday, February 25. Because of time limitations I edited it on-the-fly (and my diction was poor and I read too fast) so there are some items below that didn't make it to video.
A misleading effort
  • The presentation the DDA made to council in 2007 contained misleading information and omissions designed to make our DDA appear sympathetic and under-funded.

  • They under-reported their income on charts by $150,000.

  • They made false comparisons to Birmingham, RO, and Rochester

  • They misrepresented opposition to the district's expansion-stating in memoranda to council there was no opposition. In fact, multiple business owners both within the original and expanded boundaries approached both the DDA and city council, formally and informally, stating their opposition to the expansion and are willing to testify about those emails, phone calls, and meetings.

  • The already too-cozy relationship between the DDA, city employees, and city council resulted in a lack of due diligence, interrogatory, or even general discussion about the merits of the expansion.

  • Today the millage is requested on the Proposal-A limited taxable value of properties, but already the DDA is scheming to assess the tax on the state equalized value, which will cost all businesses roughly twice as much.

  • They have already approved a BUILD grant application without the money to fund it--then have used that application as justification for higher taxes

    • It's odd the BUILD grant application came from the president of Ferndale's Chamber of Commerce. The Chambers was conspicuously quiet regarding the $0.35/sqft. PSD tax. Earlier statements indicated the membership couldn't reach a consensus, but the prematurely-approved BUILD application suggests a conflict of interests. If the applicant had hoped for the BUILD request to be approved and new it depended on the PSD tax--it would be to the applicant's advantage to sit on the sidelines and neither support or oppose the tax.

    • Communications between the DDA, city, and council members FOIAed by Tiffani Gagne on behalf of substantiate the DDA, city, city council, and the applicant were aware of the BUILD request, the DDA's exploitation of it, and advice from elected officials on how to get around funding limitations as well as offers to pay for it from city funds.

  • In memoranda to the city requesting this most recent tax increase, the DDA claimed the city council put them in a bad position by approving the expansion request without an onerous tax--forgetting it was themselves, the DDA, that asked for the expansion in the first place.
A bad-faith effort
  • Even after admitting now is bad time to raise taxes the DDA is requesting additional taxes.
    • DDA, council members, and even the the mayor have described this as a drop in the bucket.
    • No rain-drop blamed itself for floods in New Orleans

  • Even though they expanded the district to include 187 new businesses they've made no effort to include those businesses on the DDA's board, and no board member has thought this lack of representation was important enough to sacrifice their own seat.

  • They've not included new businesses in the DDA's directory--even though that expense is minimal.

  • They've not patronized Ferndale businesses for their own expenses--specifically printing expenses.

  • They've not organized the Focus Groups they promised to "educate" and "involve" businesses in the expanded area, but they've wasted no time trying to tax them.

  • They've not mailed businesses any information warning them this request would be before council tonight or explaining specifically what services they can expect in return for the tax.

  • They've not spent any effort trying to trim their own expenses, as many businesses and even government agencies are forced to do in tough economic times. If they had they could easily have found $18,000 in lease expenses alone--with money left over.
A misguided-effort
  • In candidate Craig Covey's own words, "... our downtown is sparkling."

  • Our businesses and local charity groups have already proved they can simultaneously promote downtown Ferndale and raise money for charity or profit on their own--without the DDA's assistance.

  • Our DDA, which was intended to be a business accelerator, has become a business breaker--through its own policies, rules, permits, fees--many of them duplicating city hall requirements--it has made opening businesses in Ferndale more difficult, not less difficult.

  • Meanwhile, the Hilton Road corridor is in desperate need of attention. Economic development programs are available for it as well, but our city seems preoccupied with its downtown.

  • perhaps it's too comfortable with its downtown and prefers to rest on its laurels than attack the challenge of Hilton Road, whose revitalization over the next 5-to-10 years would mean more to our entire city's economic health, including our downtown's, than any incremental improvements in our downtown alone.
I could have gone on, but council passed a new rule in January limiting public comments on agenda items to three-minutes, similar to the three-minute call-to-audience limitation. More time would have allowed more specifics, more congruity, and perhaps a more persuasive argument.

If that wasn't the intent of the egg timer, it's at least a fringe-benefit to council.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sign ordinances threaten to remove character from cities

A recent Detroit News letter to the editor caught my eye this AM.
Sign rules imperil small firms

The Feb. 11 article on the fate of Alban's freestanding sign in Birmingham should serve as a wake-up call to planning and zoning boards across the state ("Restaurant's big wheel seeks new home"). Municipalities have needlessly passed stricter sign regulations that have all but eliminated the ability of small business owners to create similar unique signs for their business.

Furthermore, the increasingly restrictive regulations on outdoor advertising stifle the ability of small businesses to compete with the ever-growing number of chain restaurants and stores. Without rethinking sign regulations, beloved landmark signs such as Alban's and other true works of art will only be seen in museums and private collections.

Martin Engel


Ferndale has a sign ordinance that threatens to extinguish its character, too. Imagine how much difficulty Wetmores might have trying to stick half a car out its second story window given our current ordinances. Yet that car (or half-a-car) has become a Ferndale and Woodward icon every much as Alban's wheel sign.

A couple months ago, Doug Fresard endured an interrogation from councilman Galloway that would give John McCain flashbacks. To demonstrate what a populist he is, Galloway showed no consideration for Fresard's $11 million investment in their new Ferndale Dealership and drilled him about a monument sign the dealer wanted in their front lawn. Apparently the monument wasn't compliant with the city's sign ordinance and despite evidence of its tastefulness and utility Galloway objected, wondering what good are ordinances if they aren't enforced?

After an hour's drilling, Galloway relented and Fresard was able to escape council chambers with a variance, his grandfather's watch he'd hidden someplace council wouldn't look, and a little post-traumatic-stress.

Our downtown's authenticity is born from the creativity of our businesses. I think council should give our businesses a little leeway in deciding how best to promote their businesses, spend their own marketing dollars and maybe, just maybe, create the next Ferndale icon

Friday, February 15, 2008

Update: Boulder may lack votes for impeachment resolution

"I am not interested in engaging in purely symbolic acts. ... We obviously lack the power to act on any of the constitutional violations of the current administration."
Boulder City Councilman, Macon Cowles

Boulder city councilman, Mr. Cowles, recognizes the resolution is purely symbolic and understands it's congress' job to impeach the president--not city council's. Thing may change, but it doesn't look like Boulder will be posting this resolution on their website.

Read the rest at The Daily Camera's, Impeachment fizzle: Boulder lacks votes to take on Bush

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Boulder Colorado may consider resolution impeaching Bush and Cheney

Note: please see correction at the bottom of this article.

Last May the Ferndale City Council passed a resolution impeaching President Bush and Vice President Cheney. During the hearing I urged council not to bring the issue to the vote because it was beyond their power (ultra vires for you Latin aficionados and lawyers).

The latest city to consider such a resolution is Boulder, CO. Some Boulder councilpersons, like a majority of ours, are convinced they're representing the citizens by considering the resolution. Instead, it's more likely their motivations have more to do with themselves than their constituents.

For example, unlike every other resolution passed in 81 years of council meetings only one is conspicuously displayed on the city's website--2007's resolution impeaching Bush and Cheney.

Being incorporated in 1927 some might expect resolutions condemning the torpedoing the Lusitania or the bombing of Perl Harbor, drawing the US into WWI and WWII respectively would be proudly displayed. A resolution against President Nixon in 1973 may also have been warranted, but none of these is preserved for posterity on our city's website.

These were important world and national events and resolutions condemning all three have been proven justified from the perspective of history.

Prominently documenting the actions of previous city councils is respectful. Prominently displaying your own demonstrates a lack of humility, a lack of propriety, and a lack of perspective.

Impeaching the president is the responsibility of our congressmen and senators. There's safety in numbers. There's safety in a mob. Like our council, Boulder's is caught-up in the moment, but vigilantism is expected from mobs--not elected city officials.


WWI took place between 1914 and 1918. Back then Ferndale, like other cities around it, was part of Royal Oak Township.

Ferndale was incorporated as a village in 1918, but didn't become a city until 1927--nine years after World War I ended.

Even excluding The Great War, there have (unfortunately) been numerous other events for which humanity has paid horrific consequences that didn't merit a resolution from Ferndale's previous city councils (including genocides and ethnic cleansings) or promotion on its website.

Why didn't I edit the article?

I think it would have demonstrated bad ethics to change the wording of something already published in a material way. I've previously corrected misspellings, typos, and grammar errors, but I will not remove articles or substantively change them to cover my tracks.