Task force says no to GR Commission expansion idea

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Grand Rapids City Commission should not expand to eight members, a task force has recommended.

The Task Force on Elected Representation, or TFER, is a city commission-appointed panel formed in answer to a citizen-lead effort to expand the commission to eight members to attract a more diverse field of candidates.

But what may look like a defeat to those pushing for additional wards, may actually be an opportunity for proponents of the idea.

“I think the TFER report is largely favorable to our initiative,” said Don Lee of the Grand Rapids Democracy Initiative.

The effort to increase the city commission is part of a series of suggestions by two citizen groups who want to make city government more responsive and diverse.

Members of Grand Rapids Democracy Initiative had proposed expanding the current six-member, three-ward systems to eight wards, each represented by a single commissioner.

But in a draft report to city commissioners, the Task Force on Elected Representation says the commission should remain at six members.

“The City of Grand Rapids should reject the proposal for eight, single-member wards. Yet we believe the current municipal electoral structure in the City can and should be improved to make it more inclusive and representative. Determining the precise formula for changing the system is beyond the charge of our Task Force,” wrote task force members in their report to the commission.

The group listed both the pros and cons of the expansion idea.

On the con side:

  • Reducing ward size in this way would increase the risk of electoral “capture” by special interest groups.
  • Studies show multimember districts result in increased racial/socioeconomic and viewpoint diversity of representatives.
  • Alternate reforms would better achieve the benefits of smaller wards and more connected representatives.
  • Multimember districts tend to encourage collaboration between representatives on issues impacting specific neighborhoods as well as citywide issues.
  • There will be a financial cost associated with adding new members to the City Commission.

On the pro side:

  • Increasing the size of the City Commission will increase the connection between citizens and their representatives as wards would be smaller and the number of people represented by each Commissioner would be reduced.
  • A larger City Commission would likely generate more deliberation and accountability on neighborhood issues.
  • Grand Rapids is a growing city and its elected representatives should reflect that growth without diluting the representation of its citizens’ voice.
  • May increase the democratic nature of the City Commission by lowering barriers to entry for ethnic minorities and women as there would be more seats open to competition.

The task force also suggests the current commission structure needs work to make it more inclusive and representative.

“That gets us a longways towards what we’re seeking, which is a restructuring of the wards and an additional two commissioners,” Lee said.

Lee believes that conclusion would open the door to talks of a smaller expansion, to four, two-commissioner wards.

But opponents, including the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce which had a seat the task force table, say they’ll likely continue to oppose any expansion of the commission.

“When we took it to our membership, what we heard most was, ‘What problem are we trying to solve?’” said Josh Lunger, the chamber’s senior director of government affairs.

Lunger says his organization is concerned with the potential long-term effects of an expanded commission.

“We’re always open to talking about trying to learn what people are trying to address and seeing if there’s a way to make things better,” Lunger said. But these are significant questions and once it’s changed, you’re never going back.”

The task force also tackled three other proposals.

They recommended changing city commission elections from odd to even years when major state and national offices are decided, suggesting the move would allow for a larger and more diverse voter turnout.

They also suggested doing away with a rule that eliminates the need for a November runoff election if a city commission or mayoral candidate captures more than 50 percent of the vote in the September primary election.

The task force says voter turnout is normally higher during the general election, and that new information could come to light in the time between the primary and general election, which could change public opinion on a candidate.

Last, the task force recommends some future vacancies on the commission be filled by special election. Currently, the city commission appoints members to fill vacancies. Under the task force suggestions, a special election would be required if the vacancy occurs with more than one year prior to the next general election.

Lee says the time left in the vacancy should not matter.

“We just feel that appointments are just not democratic,” he said.

The city commission is expected to review the task force recommendations on Tuesday.

Lee says if his group can’t work out a deal with city commissioners on ward size, his group will move forward with plans to put the original eight-ward proposal on the ballot.

“It’s time for some change and I’m hopeful that the city commission will take action on this,” he said.

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