December 5, 2020

Dexter would hold elections to sell city-owned property if ballot proposal passes

DEXTER, MI — If passed, a proposal on Dexter’s ballot would require a direct vote from residents in future elections on whether to lease or sell city-owned property, including equipment like trucks and light poles.

Right now, such a vote is only needed if the property is a designated park property, according to officials. The new proposal would amend the Dexter city charter on “restrictions on powers to sell or lease property.”

Two sides have emerged on either side of the issue. On one side is the Dexter Citizens for Responsible Government, which has circulated a petition in favor of the proposal. On the other side is Mayor Shawn Keough and Dexter City Council, which passed a resolution in opposition to the proposal at a Monday, Sept. 14 meeting.

The mayor points out the new measure would require Dexter to hold an election to determine the sale of old trucks, used equipment such as a saws or light poles, or any type of city-owned property. A special election to sell such items could cost $5,000-7,000 — more than the items are worth in some instances.

“Most items that the city chooses to sell are very low value items because they are typically older,” Keough said. “The cost of holding an election, for example, would in many cases be higher than the value of the items the city might be attempting to sell. The proposed charter amendment language (in my opinion) is simply way too broad and unnecessary.”

Six candidates are also vying for three city council seats on the November ballot, including Jamie Griffin, treasurer of Dexter Citizens for Responsible Government.

Griffin said the referendum petition was a result of Dexter selling a portion of city-owned land at 7651 Dan Hoey Road to Avalon Housing and Faith in Action, which proposed a 24-unit apartment complex intended to address affordable housing needs in Washtenaw County.

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“There are plenty of municipalities that permit referendums on land sales,” Griffin said in an email.

Matt Bach, communications director for the Michigan Municipal League, also said similar charter provisions are nothing unusual.

“We have found charter provisions dealing with the sale of property in a few other communities, such as Alpena, Berkley, Bessemer, Highland Park and Wakefield,” Bach said in an email. “These charter provisions often vary a great deal in the specific requirements but are not unusual in municipal charters.”

Griffin said it’s part of the democratic process.

“Although we knew the charter amendment likely would not be voted on in time to impact this particular sale, we felt strongly that there was enough dysfunction in the process and content of this particular sale,” she said, citing the lack of evidence for the land use and its proximity to an elementary school.

While supporters of the Avalon development at a March meeting saw it as an opportunity to address homelessness and housing security, others worried it would cause trouble in the community. There were concerns children at nearby elementary schools would be exposed to residents with substance use disorders.

“Certainly, we’re not looking to violate anybody’s rights,” Griffin said. “One thing the Fair Housing Act does not protect is active drug users and Avalon Housing has permitted drug users can live on the site. There are concerns some people have said.”

During the March meeting about the project, Faith in Action social worker Doug Smith said the opposition was “disingenuous” because it wouldn’t matter if we were building this property miles and miles away from any school.”

“They don’t want this population coming into the community – that’s the bottom line,” Smith added.

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Griffin noted it was never the group’s intent to propose citizens vote on all sales of city equipment and property.

“With the city’s refusal to take any action on a second set of petitions requesting a referendum on the ordinance approving the specific land sale, the city is now setting the precedent that citizens have no means for challenging sales of public real property … unless, of course, those citizens have the financial means to take the city to court,” Griffin said in an email.

Griffin isn’t the only city council candidate with an opinion on the matter.

Cole Miller, also running, opposes the amendment, saying it would be “destructive to the functionality of city government.”

“It does add to the cost of election to anything we want to sell. Nobody could be sure of buying property until (an) election is held and those are held a handful of times a year,” Miller said. “But the central argument against the project was to pre-judge the potential residents as undesirables and outsiders. The project was not opposed by the schools and the current superintendent spoke in favor of the project at some point. I feel that the volume at which the opponents of the project can speak does not represent the number of people they are speaking for.”

The ballot language includes:

“Should Section 13.05 of the Dexter City Charter be amended such that 1) the requirement for approval by 2/3 of City Council and a majority of City electors apply to the sale of any public property (including all real or personal property and equipment); 2) which approval must occur before closing on the sale of that property; and 3) any leasing of public property for more than 3 years is subject to referendum”

Council race also on ballot

The proposal will appear on a local ballot along with the Dexter City Council race where six candidates are vying for three seats.

Candidates include: Griffin, a survey methodologist who’s lived in Dexter for three years; Wa-Louisa Hubbard, an operations manager who’s lived in Dexter for four years; Phillip Mekas, a financial advisor and 18-year Dexter resident; Zach Michels, currently on city council and urban planner who’s lived in Dexter for seven years; Miller, theater manager and 30-year Dexter resident; and James Smith, a retired computer trainer and web administrator, who lived in Dexter for 50 years.

In the Vote411 voter guide, provided through a partnership between MLive and the League of Women Voters of Michigan, candidates shared responses to questions. The responses are not edited. The complete list of questions and answers can be found at Vote411.org, where you can view the voter guide and learn more information about candidates and issues on the ballot.

Below is one of the questions answered by candidates about each candidate’s goals for Dexter and how they will accomplish them with limited resources, if elected:

Jamie Griffin: First and foremost, I will advocate for more frequent and regular outreach to citizens to gather representative and informed input about key decisions. Fortunately, there are several no-cost or low-cost tools available to increase citizen engagement, including online civic engagement platforms, community forums, and surveys. Similarly, my personal commitment to hold office hours, publish updates summarizing key recent and upcoming agenda items, and share easy-to-digest background information about key policy decisions comes at no additional cost to citizens. Second, I will advocate for evidence-based decision making. Again, such a goal need not result in additional costs to taxpayers: Because I am a researcher by training, even when I have a preconceived policy preference, I will actively seek and consider all of the evidence before coming to a decision. Lastly, I will advocate for a balanced approach to growth characterized by the responsible stewardship of limited resources.

Wa-Louisa Hubbard: One of my goals is to help council move forward and compromise on issues where continued division has held up action. I would also like to work on the ever-present challenge of community involvement in local government. Regarding resource limitations, I will say this: I began my career in the nonprofit arts sector directly after college. Working in an environment where we produced high-quality, professional theatre productions on a shoestring budget taught me early on how to make every dollar count. In a local government setting, I will use that same sensibility while relying on experts and personal research to inform my work on the city’s budget.

Phillip Mekas: Once elected to be a City Council person for the City of Dexter my goal would be to help our beautiful small town continue on it’s path of healthy, financially responsible growth while also being able to help those of us who are less fortunate.

Zach Michels: There is a growing mistrust of all levels of government. To serve our community, we need to demonstrate we are working honorably in their best interests. There are many ways to address this, without much expense. We need to follow our rules and procedures, adopt and follow an ethics and conflict of interest ordinance, broadcast meetings, and be as transparent as possible.

It is important to engage as many voices as possible. I listen to colleagues, make myself available to the public, and try to get people engaged in their City government. I have successfully worked to get student representatives on our public bodies. I will work to provide more opportunities for other community members to participate.

Our fire station is functionally obsolete and unhealthy for our firefighters. Our city office is undersized and does not have meeting space. I will work to prepare plans for new facilities that will meet our needs today and into the future and advocate for the necessary millage.

Cole Miller: My goal on council is to foster constructive conversations on council and with the community help Dexter move forward. Whether it is the long-stalled update to our fire station or what our community can be doing to stay safe and support our families and business during the COVID pandemic, there are issues that need careful consideration but also demand action, not delay. There is more we can be doing to involve all of our residents in city decision making and I will make it a priority to be available and in communication with community groups, and interested citizens. I would also make the effort to reduce barriers by meeting the community where they are, providing options to those with busy schedules, limited free time, or no previous knowledge of city politics to become engaged. I believe that if we can plainly communicate the impact of the decisions we make we will find that people want to be involved and register their opinions.

James Smith: We need to make wise choices in allocating our resources. I will focus on these three priorities.

1. I want to continue the Council’s work addressing the deteriorating roads in our community and include a special focus on storm water issues.

2. One of my goals is to find a workable solution for the replacement of our 65-year-old Fire Station. Any new construction includes the question of cost. I look at that cost as an investment in protecting the future of Dexter.

3. The City’s office space above PNC Bank is very cramped. The Senior Center is no longer available for public meetings. I want to provide both improved office space for the City’s staff and a permanent location for public meetings.

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