GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Grand Rapids City Commission could undergo a major change if a community-driven proposal makes it onto the ballot.
A citizen group is looking to change the number of wards on the commission from three to eight, which would completely redraw the electoral map. The question is whether the current three-ward system leaves many people without an adequate voice and whether the city commission and voters agree that change is needed.
The current three-ward system has been in place for more than 100 years. City historians say a massive strike of furniture workers in 1911 prompted the furniture lobby to get the city charter changed. Grand Rapids, then a city of 112,000, went from 12 wards to three.
The plan has endured even as the city has nearly doubled in population.
“It doesn’t provide residents who potentially could be great leaders in this city the opportunity to be lifted to those levels,” Don Lee of the GR Democracy Initiative said.
Lee, the executive director of the Eastown Community Association and an Aquinas College instructor, said the problems with the three-ward system are geographic and demographic, meaning many community groups are not a part of decision making.
“Eastown, for example, is in the same ward as the far northeast side and we have vastly different needs,” Lee said. “There’s a big difference between what the people in the inner city need and people who are on the southeast border of Kentwood.”
Lee said he and other group members saw the enthusiasm for the statewide ballot question in November that changed the way redistricting is done in Michigan and thought the same thing could happen in Grand Rapids.
As they work on a local plan, they are making presentations to neighborhood groups, talking to city officials and administrators and they want vigorous residential input.
“One of the primary drivers of this is to ensure that communities have a resident leader from their community,” Lee said.
It would also make campaigning and serving easier and less costly for candidates.
“You would only be mailing to 25,000 doors instead of 66,000 doors, you’d be walking in a geographically contiguous areas, you’re more likely to be a resident from that area so you’re more likely to know your residents and know what their needs are,” he said.
The Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce told 24 Hour News 8 that it is watching the process and want more details. The chamber opposed the statewide redistricting initiative, but spokesperson Josh Lunger said the city proposal is different and the group is open to hearing more.
The GR Democracy Initiative wants their plan on the Nov. 5, 2019, ballot. If it passes, the wards would be drawn based on 2020 census information. They would go into effect in 2023.
The proposed charter amendment would also require that if seat opens in the middle of the term, it must be filled by the vote of the people and not by appointment of the city commission, which is what happens now.
Grand Rapids City Clerk Joel Hondorp said the plan would cost the city more because it would pay two more commissioners' salaries — around $24,400 each — but it is something that can be done.
“It would be an amendment and it would take three-fifths of the city commission or five members to put it on the ballot, or if it was a citizen initiative, it would take 5 percent of the voters to put it on,” Hondorp said.
GR Democracy Initiative plans to make a formal presentation to the City Commission on June 4 asking them to put the measure on the ballot.
City Attorney Anita Hitchcock said the change of wards could be done without having to open the entire city charter to revision.