Aug. 8 primary: 6 vying for 2 Grand Rapids commission seats

Top, left to right: Grand Rapids City Commission First Ward candidates Catherine Mish, Christine Mullan and Kurt Reppart. Bottom, left to right: Second Ward candidates Michael Farage, Joe Jones and Tami VandenBerg.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Voters in two of Grand Rapids’ three wards will go the polls for the Aug. 8 primary to decide who will represent them on the city commission.


In Grand Rapids’ 1st Ward, three candidates are in the race to replace current commissioner Dave Shaffer, who cannot seek re-election because of term limits.

A total of 63,867 residents live in the 1st Ward, which is bordered by the city limits to the north, south and west. To the east, the ward line runs along the Grand River north of Fulton Street, and east of Division Avenue south of Fulton Street.

One 1st Ward candidate is no stranger to city hall. Catherine Mish worked for the city’s legal department for more than 13 years, including eight as the city attorney. Mish left the city in 2016.

“Having worked 13 years in Grand Rapids City Hall, I saw a lot of what was really going on behind the scenes, and there are a lot of things that I would like to see changed,” Mish said.

Among Mish’s top concerns is the lack of support that she says Grand Rapids police officers are getting from city commissioners when it comes to the debate over police-community relations.

She said voters she has spoken with are frustrated with the commission’s priorities.

“I found that bike lanes, for example, are really very unpopular on the West Side. Not bike lanes themselves, but prioritizing bike lanes over other things, like for example, the condition of the road bed itself and making it safe for vehicles,” Mish said.

Christine Mullan is another candidate on the 1st Ward section of the ballot. A part-time social worker and community activist, Mullan says not everyone’s being heard at city hall.

“As a social worker and active in the immigrant community, I really want to raise voices of people who maybe have been ignored before,” Mullan said.

Mullan listed a number of issues she would like to tackle if she wins a seat at the commission table, including improving police and community relations. She said affordable housing is also at the top of her agenda. It’s an issue the city commission has pledged to spend $1 million per year in the future to address.

As many Grand Rapids neighborhoods have experienced a rebirth and uptick in development, property has become a premium commodity. While developments have promoted economic growth and jobs, there are concerns some residents are being priced out of their neighborhoods.

“I think inclusive zoning is something we should be doing, which is including a certain percentage of affordable housing in any new developments,” Mullan said. “And as far as other policies, I would say, the most important thing is getting those voices to the table. I’m not experiencing an affordable housing crisis. I’m doing all right. So I want to hear from people who are experiencing those crises and what do they think we should do.”

Kurt Reppart is also a candidate in the 1st Ward. As executive director of Other Way Ministries on West Fulton Street, Reppart has had a front row seat to changes on the West Side.

“The city’s doing great, which is wonderful. I think we have an opportunity to keep it moving in the right direction,” Reppart said.

He has also witnessed the lack of affordable housing and said the funding set aside for this issue is a good start.

“I think that it’s… really is about intentionality. I think that by creating that fund, it says this is a value of our city, and we need to determine the most effective way to use those dollars so that they actually create the most affordable housing,” he explained.


In the city’s 2nd Ward, Joe Jones is being challenged by two candidates.

Jones was appointed to fill Rosalynn Bliss’ seat when she was elected mayor in 2015. Home to 62,253 residents, the 2nd Ward’s northern border and eastern borders are the city limits, its southern border is Wealthy Street SE, and to the west, it shares its border with the 1st Ward.

One of Jones’s challengers, Tami VandenBerg, says her efforts as a small business owner and community activist would serve her well at city hall.

“I feel like I have experience in a lot of different spheres that would be really helpful to the city commission,” she said.

City services, including the Grand Rapids Police Department and the way it interacts with the community, are among the issues on her agenda. And, like most of the other candidates in both wards, VandenBerg also considers affordable housing a major issue.

“I think sometimes we overcomplicate some of this,” VandenBerg said.

“We just need to make sure there’s enough housing for everybody and we need to make sure resources are distributed fairly. I certainly understand there’s a time to give big tax incentives to developers, absolutely. That makes sense in lot of scenarios. But what are we doing on the other end?” she questioned.

Another 2nd Ward candidate is Michael Farage. Farage is no stranger to local politics, especially when a tax increase is on the ballot.

“People probably know me, or know of me, as the guy jumping up and down, yelling and screaming in regards to taxes,” said Farage, who heads the Grand Rapids Taxpayers Association.

This time around, it’s Farage who’s on the ballot.

He says current city commissioners aren’t giving GRPD officers a fair shake when it comes to the debate over how they interact with the minority community.

Another issue he puts at the top of his agenda is something not covered in the city charter. He claims children aren’t getting a good education in Grand Rapids. While that job falls to the Grand Rapids Public Schools and its board of education, which is independent of city hall, Farage is convinced he can still play a role in education as a city commissioner.

“Number one, we become advocates and we spread the word. And for me, I’m an activist, whether I’m elected. I always say to myself, I’m either a board member or a commissioner or an activist,” Farage said. “I think Commissioner Farage has a stronger tittle to where people will listen a lot more.”

The man VandenBerg and Farage are challenging says that as president and CEO of the Grand Rapid Urban League, he has helped bring a new way of thinking to the city commission.

“I’m bringing to the table some perspectives that aren’t always considered, I think, on a regular basis. And that is getting an understanding of the historical context of our city, our nation,” Commissioner Joe Jones said.

While the debate continues on how to improve relations between Grand Rapids police and the minority community, Jones is optimistic about the future of those ties.

He also wants another term to address the affordable housing issue.

“I do believe there is a way to have that same type of economic impact in a way that’s much more equitable, to where you have more people who are able to benefit from it, whether it be by way of ownership of properties on a major thoroughfare, or the homes that make up that neighborhood,” Jones said.

The polls will open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. on Aug. 8.

You can find your polling place and view a sample ballot by visiting the Michigan Secretary of State’s Voter Information Center website. You don’t need to show photo identification to vote, but it does speed up the process, so the SOS advises you bring your ID.

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