Candidates for Madison Heights City Council debate the issues

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published September 15, 2017

 Flanigan, a challenger in the race for Madison Heights City Council this November, speaks during the Meet the Candidates forum at Madison Heights City Hall Sept. 13, presented by the Madison Heights Community Round Table.

Flanigan, a challenger in the race for Madison Heights City Council this November, speaks during the Meet the Candidates forum at Madison Heights City Hall Sept. 13, presented by the Madison Heights Community Round Table.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

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MADISON HEIGHTS — On Sept. 13, the Madison Heights Community Round Table hosted a forum in the council chambers at Madison Heights City Hall, featuring eight candidates competing for three four-year terms on the Madison Heights City Council this November.

The candidates include incumbents Mark Bliss and David Soltis, as well as challengers Ronald Butcher, Johnnette Eggert, Aaron Flanigan, Roslyn Grafstein, Mark Kimble and Emily Rohrbach. 

City Councilman Richard Clark would normally be up for re-election this year, but he is retiring. This means that at least one of the challengers will be joining the council.

Mayor Brian Hartwell also attended the event; however, he is running unopposed.

A variety of topics were discussed. The candidates also introduced themselves. To learn the background of each candidate, check out their in-depth profile stories at www.candgnews.com/madisonparknews. Candidate Mark Kimble declined to do a profile story.

Council history, community boards
The first topic asked the challengers how many City Council meetings they’ve attended in the past year, and what hole they feel they could fill on council. For the incumbents, the question was about the community boards on which they’ve served.

Bliss, the mayor pro tem, said he’s long been interested in politics, ever since he was a 10-year-old boy attending a council meeting under then-Mayor George Suarez, lowering the mic so he could ask his question. Bliss said he currently serves on eight boards, either as the council representative or the alternate. He said the most important board to him is the Information Technology Advisory Committee, or ITAC, since he created it and he wants to ensure it’s successful. And he recently proposed a new arts and culture board that would bring together artists and those passionate about the arts to work on arts and culture programming in the city.

Butcher said that he’s attended about five or six meetings in person in the past year; he has many commitments with his younger children in the evenings, and his wife is a schoolteacher with many after-school functions.

As for what hole he could fill, “I look at myself as someone who has new and fresh ideas, who has children who are young and old,” Butcher said. “I work in the Madison district, and my children go to the Lamphere district, so I cover the whole city, not just one area.”

Butcher currently sits on two boards: Crimes Commission and the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. He’s also involved with the nonprofit Madison Heights Men’s Club.

Eggert said she currently serves on the Multicultural Relations Advisory Board at the invitation of Mayor Hartwell and Councilman Soltis. She’s attended a few council meetings over the years, including one where she came out in support of the security fence at the Police Department, an idea proposed by Soltis to keep both the police and the public safe. She said her husband has worked in law enforcement over the years, and the safety of police officers is very important to her. She also noted that her business background as the former owner of a boutique would give her an informed perspective when it comes to courting new businesses in the city.       

Flanigan said the first council meeting he attended was two days prior to the forum, Sept. 11, since he wanted to get the lay of the room. But he said he’s been following each meeting by watching them online and reading the minutes. He hasn’t sat on any boards, but he feels he would be an asset working together with incumbents Soltis and Bliss.

“I don’t necessarily look at this as an adversarial campaign running against Mayor Pro Tem Bliss or Councilman Soltis, but rather I’d have an opportunity to work with them on the work they’ve already done,” Flanigan said. “So in terms of what I’d bring, ultimately I’d bring a level of enthusiasm and commitment, and a concern for the residents of Madison Heights, and a strong desire to want to see the city improve.”

Graftsein said she’s been coming to council meetings “on and off for years,” and more regularly in the past year, including a few months ago when she and around 20 others shared their concerns about the gas station at the corner of John R and 11 Mile roads, preferring to see some other business go there. She also came before council to ask for its support of state Senate Bill 184, which provides a tax credit for those who retrofit their homes to improve accessibility.

“The hole I’d fill is I have a financial background and … I’ve done a lot of hands-on things in this city,” Grafstein said. “I’d basically continue what I’m doing with the support of council.”

Kimble said he hasn’t attended any council meetings in the past year because he’s busy with three other boards: the Zoning Board of Appeals, Tax Assessment Appeals and the Madison Board of Education.

In terms of what he’d bring to the table, “I really embrace technology — anyone who knows me knows I’m a tech guy. I’ve been building machines … networks, stuff like that,” he said. “And the other aspect is on any issue, I research, research, research; I am probably a research junkie (who wants) to understand every aspect of an issue, and I’d like to bring common sense to the council on issues.”

Rohrbach said that like many people, evenings made it tricky for her to attend council meetings in the past, so she hasn’t attended any, but she has watched them all online and read the minutes.

“When I started one of my jobs early on as an executive assistant to a CEO, what I learned is you learn what’s going on by reading the minutes  … and that’s kinda what I’ve been doing,” she said. “Over the last year, I’ve been going back and reading minutes of council meetings. That’s where I developed my knowledge of what’s going on.”

She said she believes her strength is in organizational change, and she feels she could work with the council to help implement complex ideas as they arise.

Councilman Soltis serves on the Crime Commission, and he started the Multicultural Relations Advisory Board. He’s the environmental and school liaison, as well as the past president and treasurer of Madison Heights Youth Assistance.

“But sometimes I go rogue,” Soltis said. “I got a senior veteran a (mobility) ramp from Lowe’s — fantastic. I went to the (police) gun range and fired a gun — they showed me this because the range is dilapidated and we need a new one. I take the seniors to Lansing (on Older Michiganians Day each year). Oh, and Christmas poinsettias donated from Lowe’s to the senior center. I also did ride-alongs with police and fire, and I did a six-month (city) internship for my master’s in public administration.”

Research done on city needs
The next question asked the incumbents and challengers about how much research they’ve done on the needs of the city, especially with regard to rental properties and vacancies.

Soltis said that the industrial occupancy rates are doing well at about 70 percent, with around 200 manufacturers in the city. He said he believes manufacturing is “the city’s economic future.”

As for rental properties, he noted that many residents seem concerned. He said he’s reported a number of blighted homes and cars without license plates, letting the city manager know about potentially problematic rental homes. He feels the city may want to toughen its code.

“Maybe we need to increase (the city ordinance) and make it stricter,” Soltis said.

Rohrback said she’s been going door to door talking to as many voters as possible, and the topic of rentals has been a recurring theme. She’s interested in the mayor’s initiatives to check up on negligent landlords, and she wants to find redevelopment opportunities for major vacant properties like the old Kmart, “so we can make sure every boat rises with the rising tide,” she said.

Kimble said that as someone in the real estate business, the issue of rentals and vacancies is something he looks at all the time.

“Rentals are a problem,” he said. “I’ve been a landlord in the city in the past, and I understand that there are certain responsibilities that people need to take. And I think the city should really enforce that, definitely.”  

Grafstein said she lives near the former hoarder house on Longfellow Avenue, which was ultimately condemned and torn down. She feels that the city needs to invest in strong and consistent code enforcement. With regard to real estate vacancies, Grafstein said she wants to entice venture capitalists and angel investors to invest in the city.

Flanigan said that in terms of rental properties, if he were to move and rent out his house, he would still feel an obligation to make sure the people he’s renting to are taking care of it, and he’d visit regularly to make sure that’s the case. So he doesn’t want to demonize landlords, since he feels it can be done correctly, but the city needs to do its part to supervise them, he said.

Eggert said that as a former business owner, she knows businesses are drawn to cities that are clean and well-maintained. She also said that she has some neglected properties near her home and she shares the concern. Eggert said she wants the city to work with the owners of private homes to help them care for their properties more efficiently.

Butcher said that he hasn’t had any problems with rental properties in his neighborhood, since they’re well-maintained there, but he said he attended the city’s downtown development forum last year and he’s been interested in trying to entice new business owners to the proposed downtown, which would benefit the town as a whole.

Bliss said that in his tenure on council, he’s done numerous town halls and public surveys, which led to feedback such as the need for bathrooms in public parks, which council implemented. Running a division of a software startup in town, Bliss has seen the potential of private investment, but he feels the city needs a plan, and he pointed to efforts already underway pushing for new businesses while regulating those adding to blight or sitting vacant for too long.

City of Progress
The last question was about what each candidate would do to help make the city of Madison Heights live up to its nickname as “the City of Progress.”

“We’ve gained a lot of ground in modernizing the city through technology, but we’ve got a long way to go,” Bliss said. “We’ve gained a lot of ground in adding events to the city and bringing people together, in boosting code enforcement, attracting new businesses.

You know, we put up signs in the (Downtown Development Authority) recently, which I was very proud of, but we also put up a new website — the first place investors check … if you want to know what the city is. When we tackled that project, we did so knowing what was at stake, which was that investment in our future.

“We need to do (that) from now on: We need to continue to find ways to better serve our citizens, to accommodate working citizens, to put more services online and open up City Hall after hours,” Bliss said. “To find more grants and creative funding sources to add new equipment to our parks and city that benefit both families and seniors. And you know what … we need to keep working with our Police and Fire (departments) to keep this city safe. They need all the resources they need to get the job done; otherwise, everything else I mentioned is irrelevant.”

Butcher said a downtown is a necessity for a City of Progress. But beyond that, “I feel we have an untapped resource we’re not really looking at, and that is our senior citizen population,” he said. “They’ve been here, they’ve done it; they know what does and doesn’t work. So I’d like to get more input from the seniors, and I’d like to get the senior citizens and the school-age children … together in a room once a month and just talk about what’s on their minds. The seniors have so much knowledge and the young people have no idea what’s in their heads, so to get them together in a room to talk will come up with some crazy-awesome ideas to move the city forward.”

Eggert said that the city is currently on the right track toward progress; she said many residents are happy with city services, and she wants to continue on the current track and make a good thing even better.

“The success of every city starts with the citizens and the listening ear of the City Council, the local governance, and also being able to attract businesses where citizens can be employed, which is when they flourish,” Eggert said. “In regards to our senior citizens, they love this city, and all they request … is just the ability to leave their homes where their homes are taken care of — electric, porch repair, things of that nature.”

Flanigan said that if you were to make a checklist of things that make a great city, Madison Heights is well on its way: police, fire, medical services, snowplows, leaf removal, parks and so on.

“I think what we have now is a great foundation. If someone were to ask you to put a city together, you’d have a lot of pieces already in place,” he said. “I think other things will make the city more fun” — things like tree-lined streets, bike racks and other quality-of-life touches — “and make people want to come here, but in terms of what’s already in place, I think we’re well ahead of the game, and all those additions will just make it that much better.”

Grafstein said she’d like to clean up the brownfield properties in the city. She said this is one of the most progressive things the city can do with its vacant lands: to clean them up and then use them in ways that benefit the community, be it a garden or a farmers market.

“If you have a vacant lot and it’s full of sunflowers, people aren’t going to complain the way they do when it’s all grass and concrete,” Grafstein said.

Kimble said he doesn’t have an idea of a master plan for the city’s future, but he does have open ears and wherever the city goes, the city shouldn’t abandon its core of good city services.

“I do think we need to absolutely maximize our green space and acquire more wherever we can, because the cornerstone of any great city is the green space they have, and the amenities for children and just people in general,” Kimble said. “That’s so important in everyday life now with all the tech and people staying indoors that we maximize on that.”

Rohrbach said she agrees with many of the ideas raised so far. She added that one of her concerns is the issue with trees in the city. She said that when she first moved to Madison Heights, there was a beautiful canopy in her neighborhood, but within a couple of years they lost nearly every tree on their block due to construction projects.

“It was really disappointing and very frustrating,” Rohrbach said. “There needs to be a good plan in place like we see in cities all around us for replacement and maintenance of our tree canopy, because people don’t want to live in a neighborhood that feels abandoned and clear-cut. One of the most beautiful things we have in this city is our old tree canopy, and we need to maintain that and continue to work on that going forward.”

Soltis said the City of Progress needs to address child poverty. Soltis did an in-depth report to council last year that used census data to show that the city has many single mothers with children under age 5 who are in poverty. One in four families that has kids has a hard time getting by.

“That’s a real issue to me. … That bothers me a lot,” Soltis said. “Progress also means protecting our seniors. On Dequindre Road, I watched a senior barely make it across before the light turned green, and that’s why I took my picture there with (the Madison-Park News), because seniors are dying over there because they can’t make it across.

“Now we’ve started talking with the city of Warren to try to get the problem solved,” he said. “To me, that’s the City of Progress.”

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