Tough questions for GR city manager finalists

Grand Rapids city manager
The three finalists to be Grand Rapids' next city manager at a Feb. 5, 2018 forum at Wealthy Theatre. Left to right: , Pontiac Deputy Mayor Jane Bais-Disessa, Port Huron City Manager James Freed and Arlington County, Virginia, Deputy Manager Carol Mitten.


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Grand Rapids residents got their only chance Monday to question the three finalists in the search for the next city manager.

The finalists — Pontiac Deputy Mayor Jane Bais-Disessa, Port Huron City Manager James Freed and Arlington County, Virginia, Deputy Manager Carol Mitten — brought a range of experience and backgrounds to the podium at Wealthy Theatre during Monday’s public forum.

They faced questions about everything from racial inequity to affordable housing.

Below, read some of the questions to the candidates and their answers.

IMMIGRATION

Question: “What are the reasons Grand Rapids either should or should not be a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants?”

Bais-Disessa: “One of the biggest issues that all cities face when you’re dealing with the issue of sanctuary is there’s the potential of losing grant dollars, especially when you’re working on certain programs — CBG is the first one that comes to mind — and you don’t want to do that.”

Freed: “We will advocate on comprehensive immigration reform because we need the talent, we need the workers and the talent immigrants bring to this community. They built this community.”

Mitten: “Labeling yourself a sanctuary city makes you a target and having all the values and yet not labeling yourself a sanctuary city is a way to live your values without the label.”

VIOLENT CRIME

Question: “We already have had five homicides in the month of January, which is a third of our annual average. If you were city manager, how would address this increase in violence in the community?”

Freed: “Reducing crime is going to be a partnership. We need to build a real, authentic relationship and communication with our residents.”

Mitten: “I think one of the most important things is to understand what’s causing murder and violence crime.”

Bais-Disessa: “We’re meeting with community groups to sit down with the public and find out what’s happening.”

>>App users: Watch a replay of the forum via Facebook

RACE

Question: “In the book ‘A City Within A City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids,’ our history shows that managerial racism has been a significant challenge in our community. As the city manager, what personal and professional actions would you take to ensure that this does not happen under your leadership?”

Bais-Disessa: “Under my leadership, obviously, being a person of color, I’ve dealt with those tough issues. And so one of the things that I would do to make sure that it doesn’t happen is to be inclusive, to make sure that everyone is part of the major decisions that the city has to undertake.”

Mitten: “I think the first thing is to be — and I admire the city for taking this on — to be conscious of the fact that managerial racism has been an issue. And I think having people have dialogues about that, having people in the hiring process and in the creating an environment where people of color or various minority groups would feel that they would be welcome in the government.”

Freed: “In the city of Grand Rapids, we have real opportunities and real struggles. As city manager, my greatest concern is preventing a gap of hope from emerging. And what I mean by that is I don’t want to see a mom or dad or a resident of this city look to the racial inequalities, the disparities of income or socioeconomic, the education challenges or the housing costs and look at the future of this city and say, “You know, maybe there’s not a place for me.'”

AFFORDABLE HOUSING

Question: “There are approximately 50,000 single-family homes in Grand Rapids. Currently, there are less than 125 single-family homes for sale in our city. Housing prices are increasing and residents are becoming displaced. How would you address the need for more affordable housing in the city?”

Freed: “Economic growth is fantastic. It’s great. But as we grow, we need to have equitable growth, and we need to ensure that as we grow, everyone can come along. And so we need to make sure that we’re intentional about development.”

Mitten: “I think it’s a challenge to figure out how you can increase supply at an affordable level. One of the things that we did in the district and continue to do is we have multiple tools that we use. So one is we have inclusionary zoning. So if you build higher, you build more density, that exchange for that incremental density, then you have an affordability requirement.”

Bais-Disessa: “I’ve had to deal with that issue in several of the communities that … I’ve worked for. I know that in one community, it was small but yet it was one where we were very fortunate that we had very low occupancy rates, and so even before a house became known that it was going to be sold, somebody had already purchased it. So one of the things that I looked for was to identify perhaps or acquire some vacant property where we could bring in some new housing developments. And wherever there was a home that was vacant or that perhaps the city could acquire, I would look into it to see if we could maybe perhaps gather a large piece of space so that we could work with a developer to bring in some new development.”

PUBLIC REACTION

Residents who attended the forum had mixed reviews on the candidates.

“There were either candidates that did not have the capacity to understand the issues that Grand Rapids is faced with or they didn’t have the experience, or either they were giving really, really soundbite cookie cutter answers that were over-rehearsed and practiced,” Grand Rapids resident Denavvia Mojet said.

>>Resumes (PDFs): Bais-Disessa | Freed | Mitten

City commissioners will conduct final interviews Tuesday. Mayor Rosalynn Bliss has said that if none of the candidates seem to be the right fit, city leaders are willing to start the search over.