GR commission expansion, election dates get closer looks

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Two citizen groups want some changes that would affect the Grand Rapids City Commission.

However, some city commissioners say they want those ideas to be discussed more.

One group wants to add two members to the commission.

Currently, the city has three wards and two commissioners represent each ward.

But under the Grand Rapids Democracy Initiative, the city would have an eight-ward system with one commissioner in each ward. Initiative members say their plan provides better representation.

“It reduces the ward size down to a more geographically compact size. It reduces the amount of residents who are represented per commissioner,” said Don Lee of GRDI.

However, commissioners on Tuesday expressed several concerns, like the cost of adding two-part time commissioners to the city payroll and the challenges of drawing the ward maps to make sure there’s equal coverage.

Another concern among commissioners is what GRDI members say would improve under the new ward system — equity.

More seats would attract a more diverse field of candidates.

But some city commissioners say additional candidates would mean more money would need to be raised to get elected. 

“It does speak to, potentially, who would have the financial capacity to run. I think it’s a legitimate concern,” said Second Ward Commissioner Joe Jones.

It’s likely the commission will create a blue ribbon committee to study the idea, but that may not stop the movement.

“Our timeline is currently the November election, and that hasn’t changed,” Lee said.

He says the petitions to put the question on the November ballot are ready to go, but his group is also willing to work with city hall.    

“If they make a compelling case for us to perhaps take a longer view at this, then I wouldn’t say our timeline isn’t set in stone,” Lee said.

Jones says regardless of what the Grand Rapids Democracy Initiative does, he thinks there’s value in a longer look at the issues.

“I think there’s intrinsic value in creating a committee to take a deeper dive into the issues,” Jones said.

Meanwhile, another battle is shaping up between commissioners and the group that successfully pushed for term limits at city hall in 2014. 

This time, it’s over when you vote for city offices.

Empower the Citizens wants to move elections for city offices to even years.

The mayor and commission would appear on the same ballot with the governor and president, depending on their term.

In recent elections, voter turnout in the city has been as much as five times higher in even years.

“By moving to even years, we are going to end voter suppression in Grand Rapids, and we are saving money,” said Rina Baker of Empower Citizens.

The group also plans a second initiative that would end the practice of allowing a candidate that gets more than 50% of the vote in the primary to win the office outright.

Once again, some city commissioners expressed concern over unintended consequences.

“I think that it’s going to take a little bit longer than what we’ve had so far to find those answers,” said First Ward Commissioner Kurt Reppart.

Commissioners want that plan to go to the expected blue ribbon commission as well.

But members of the Empower the Citizens say they’re not waiting for the commission to mull over the idea.

They’ve already prepared a lawsuit they say will force the commission to put it on the November 2020 ballot.  

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