Interview #120: Clawson, MI Councilmember Susan Moffitt (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

Susan Moffitt experienced an eventful first year on council in which chickens took center stage! She discusses how people’s backyard pets made the news and how the city is casual in some ways about its procedures.

Q: There is a majorly important subject that exploded in your council’s face last year. I’m talking about backyard chickens. Walk me through how Clawson pecked its way into the spotlight on the chicken issue.

A: Historically, although the city had ordinances that prevented having backyard chickens, the practice was sort of allowed. Citizens told stories of neighbors reporting them and the ordinance enforcer going, “yeah, it’s okay that we have chickens.” Someone in the city had a rooster and that led to some complaints. There was a directive to take care of the rooster, which was misinterpreted to mean, “let’s start enforcing the chicken ordinance.” Chickens used to be a barnyard animal. Now they’re kind of pets. So when letters went out saying you’ve got 90 days to get rid of your chicken, they interpreted it as: “you have 90 days to get rid of your pet.”

Q: Were you angry that you had to resolve a crisis that seemed to be created by previous councils and current city employees deciding to have zero tolerance all of a sudden?

A: I don’t think angry is the right word. Never should our citizens be blindsided; but having had that happen, we had a bunch of citizens engaged. It was great that so many people came out.

Q: You seemed to be very pro-chicken from the start. Other council members over the course of multiple meetings said, “well, at first I thought no on the chickens, but now I’m a maybe, and actually now I’m a yes.” Why do you think they ended up joining you? Did it have anything to do with the fact that people showing up to defend their chickens were normal people who looked and sounded like you all and used their chickens for companionship in a very relatable way?

A: I think that had a lot to do with it. People had those personal connections. Ninety-five percent of the people want chickens and five percent don’t want the chickens. The people that don’t want it, they don’t want it on principle. We’ve been able to refute all of their arguments. If you don’t want chickens, don’t have them. But you can’t reach into your neighbor’s yard and decide whether they’re gonna have them.

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Clawson, MI Councilmember Susan Moffitt

Q: I’m sure you recall your recent meeting of January 2 when Councilmember Paula Millan objected to a vote to confirm the mayor’s appointees because the charter said the council was supposed to receive their resumes–and you did not receive them. How blindsided did you feel?

A: Not only was I blindsided, but the mayor was blindsided. What I don’t understand is if she felt she should have received something prior to the meeting, why she waited until five minutes before the meeting started to request it.

Q: How worried do you get about the city’s image and the confidence people have in the government when one council member waltzes in, pulls out their phone, and reads the section of the charter that you all are not following?

A: That’s one piece in all of the activities that we do. If they’re upset about it, they have the opportunity to talk to us. There’s a lot of pieces of our charter that are old or outdated. I always have concerns about following a law for the law’s sake. One of the things about our city that’s unique is that we have a sense of moving forward without being overly concerned about the laws on a regular basis–evidenced by the fact that we had a chicken ordinance that was prohibiting chickens and it wasn’t enforced for years and years. That’s how Clawson has been governed for a long time for good or for ill. The citizens seem to not be upset by those kinds of things.


Follow Councilmember Susan Moffitt on Twitter: @Moffitt4Clawson

Month in Review: December 2018

In the final month of 2018, we were fortunate enough to experience some of the most thrilling, most breathtaking council meetings of the year.

It was in December that we learned about the city council that was abruptly slashed in half by a higher power.

And it was in December when we heard from a city commissioner who essentially sat through a Trump rally and received heavy criticism.

Naturally, it was also difficult to escape the holiday cheer–like the city council that honored the best home decorations of Christmas 2018.

To look under the tree and see which December council meetings we wrapped for you, peek at the December Month in Review. (And check your stocking for the podcast.)

And if you are pondering why these people are dressed so festively, educate yourself by clicking here:

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#179: Clawson, MI 12/18/18

It was the type of announcement that separates the city councils who take the winter holidays seriously from those who are, well, Scrooges.

“Every year we have beautification awards,” explained a representative from the Parks and Recreation Department. “People can call in houses they see around town that they really like the way they’re decorated.”

She added, “our Parks and Rec Advisory Board also goes out and are each assigned a section of town. They kind of score all the houses. The top five point-getters were the ones we give awards to tonight.”

With that, the five chosen families strolled to the front of the chamber for a photo. Many of them sported some type of seasonal attire–from the more discreet Santa pin and St. Nick hat to the more flashy necklace of Christmas lights and festive sweaters.

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The decorators

If you were expecting this Yuletide cheer to be followed by three French hens, two turtle doves, or even six geese a-laying, city attorney Jon Kingsepp disappointed you–but only slightly–by talking instead about backyard chickens.

“Fifty years ago, they were barnyard animals. Dinner table items. That’s no longer the case,” he explained.

“Chickens are great in most cases, unless you’re a neighbor that doesn’t want chickens next door to you,” Mayor Debbie Wooley observed dryly.

Kingsepp sighed. “There are two ways to look at that. There’s one that can say, ‘I don’t like chickens next to me because they’re loud and they’re gonna attract vermin.’ The other approach is, ‘if you like cats and dogs next door, then what is the difference with chickens?’ The noise level of a chicken is extremely low.”

“I want zero” chickens, shot back Council Member Paula Millan. “Not because I don’t like people’s chickens but because I don’t want them in my backyard. I just don’t.”

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Beware the Butcher of Clawson

She paused. Although her reaction was intense, it was not, in fact, poultryphobic. “I don’t think it’s the animal that’s really the problem,” she admitted. “I would assume it’s most likely the owner. If you have a neighbor that cares only about themselves and not the people around them, there’s an issue.”

A woman in the front row seized on a lull in the discussion and launched into a tutorial on chicken care. Rather than cut her off, surprisingly, the mayor allowed a microphone to be passed down.

“Great pets,” she boasted of her own chickens. “No one ever knew we had ’em. My aviary was spotless. The rats cannot get into it.

“There are rats in our neighborhood. A lot of ’em. But they never came for my chickens.”

A posse of women from the earlier home decorating contest were sitting two rows back in their Christmas sweaters nodding vigorously.

“My grandchildren–24 grandchildren–played with those chickens like a puppy. They were very sweet,” she argued, while one of those 24 grandchildren slumped in his chair next to her asleep.

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Dreaming of poultry playtime at grandma’s

Chickens may have been quiet and kind. Heck, they could have been the cure to cancer. But Council Member Millan was immovable.

“Some of my neighbors have been on our block since they built their homes in 1967. They don’t want chickens in their backyard,” she insisted. “Their perception is not that they are pets.

“It’s not against the animal. It’s about, ‘I moved to a city. Didn’t move to a farm. Where’s it gonna end?'”

She shrugged. “We have to address the ‘where’s it gonna end’ thing.”

Perhaps next year, Clawsonians can decorate an aviary and win the beautification contest. Then people might realize that chickens can be family, not food.

#177: Cadillac, MI 12/3/18

“My law partners and I own a building,” announced a well-dressed gentleman resting his forearms on the public’s lectern and peering through his glasses. “I’ve been meaning to come and thank you for a year now for the Cadillac Commons. I can’t tell you how nice it is, no matter how stressful the day, to walk out of my office at noon and hear all the laughing and screaming and fun going on at the splash pad.”

He concluded with a simple, “it’s wonderful.”

Starting a meeting with a heartfelt thank-you is rare. And of course, short lived.

“The Cadillac community has an ongoing hunger problem,” reported the next man at the microphone. “Our children are going to bed tonight hungry, crying. Where’s Robin Hood today? High taxes. High cost of living.”

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We need a hero.

His Robin Hood may have just entered the council chamber in an unexpected form:

“I am a certified grant administrator,” a woman explained to the council. “We’re requesting $970,100 [from the federal government]. The grant funds will be used for demolition to remove two blighted buildings. The national objective supported by this project is the elimination of blight.”

But this was not what the man had in mind.

“No public tax dollars for private business!” he railed. “No public tax dollars should be used for any corporation to become wealthier on grant money. If you can’t build it on an entrepreneurial business venture, then we shouldn’t build it.”

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Mom-and-pop demolition companies only, please.

Technically, the city wasn’t “building” anything. They were tearing down. But he had a point: if Apple can get rich selling phones and Nike can get rich selling shoes, why can’t some entrepreneur turn a profit on–what exactly?

“The entire roof on both buildings has asbestos. There is also several areas of asbestos floor tile. So there’s a lot of asbestos,” a staff member explained with a grimace. “There is some lead. There is also soil contamination. And under the clock tower area, there is a lot of rubble down there–we’re not positive what it is.”

I see. Rebuttal?

“I just want to reiterate: we have children going to bed hungry,” the man returned to insist. “Developers are becoming more wealthy in Cadillac on our dime. It’s corporate welfare at its best. I could be wrong.”

City manager Marcus Peccia quickly refocused the meeting onto something highly unrelated to corporate profits: Christmas decorations.

“The city is playing some seasonal music down in the plaza on a timer, when the timer works,” he chuckled. “You can really only hear it if you’re down in front of the Christmas tree or on the synthetic ice rink.”

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Turn it up to 11.

“We have a wonderful community. It looks so great,” bragged Council Member Tiyi Schippers. “I love coming home when it’s dark and driving around, taking a long way with the kids.”

The city manager nodded. “Over the years, we added more trees to the lakefront, especially along Chestnut Street. At the same time, the donations of the lights and whatnot had not increased.”

He leaned back and pondered. “What we might look at doing next year is relocating some of the singular strands of lights along several trees to a more focused area within Cadillac Commons and create more of a spectacular light display versus having–”

“One string of lights a block away?” finished Council Member Schippers.

“Either that or we need more lights!”

Yet another cause in search of a Robin Hood.

#168: Northville, MI 9/17/18

It was a historic day in the Northville council chamber–in the sense that history was the number one topic.

“It’s kind of prestigious to be on this,” prefaced a visiting architectural historian, flipping through a slide show about Northville’s spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

She flashed a boot-shaped map onscreen. “This is what the Historic District looks like when we started. The goal is to have the local and National Register districts match.”

Ah, who doesn’t love an audit! In this case, instead of sifting through hundreds of pages of documents, she sifted through hundreds of…buildings?

“We photographed all of the buildings, over 400. We developed historic significance–all of the things that make Northville Northville.”

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You’re gonna need a bigger list.

The historian cautioned that not all Northville memorabilia made the cut. “It has to be cultural,” she warned. “The hand of man has to be felt on it. That’s why rivers aren’t in a district, but a bridge would be.”

She gestured to a blank space in the center of the map. “This the ball field. It doesn’t have any history from over 50 years ago. It’s just a piece of ground, so that can’t be cultural.”

“What about the six mills that were there?” interrupted Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Darga.

“Are they there now?” the historian shot back.

“Their footings are,” retorted Darga.

“Well then,” the historian replied slowly, “that would be archeology. That’s not something that’s covered.

The mayor pro tem was horrified.

“Northville started on that ball diamond,” she insisted. “It’s because there was a mill there. We now just took the beginning of Northville out of the Historic District!”

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For shame!

The historian refused to back down. “Do you want to have archeology? I don’t think you can have archeology just for one plot. It’s gonna be the whole district.”

The consequence of that? “Anybody who wants to put in a new garden may have to consider” what lies below.

No one was eager to turn Northville into an excavation site for stegosaurus bones, so the baseball diamond issue was closed.

“Maybe I’m missing something here,” Darga said after a pause, “but we established a local Historic District in 1972. But now we’re trying to establish a NATIONAL–”

“You already have a national district,” interjected the historian. “We’re trying to make sure the boundary represents what’s here today. You don’t want to lose your district. And the Park Service will do that. They will de-list districts.”

This historic preservation business is ruthless. I imagine archeology is a cakewalk in comparison.

“I got a little lost,” Mayor Ken Roth admitted as the lights turned on and the projector turned off. “Our Historic District is listed…?”

“It’s both. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and it’s a local Historic District,” the historian patiently reiterated.

“Okay.”

“The person who is the head of the National Register list is called the ‘keeper,'” she said.

“Seriously? The keeper?” Mayor Roth exclaimed. “That’s a real title?!”

“Yes! It’s much sought after,” she assured him.

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Where do I apply?

The council thanked the historian and switched to their regular business. The mayor requested a motion to approve the agenda. But suddenly, once he got it–

“All right, we will move on,” the mayor charged ahead before others on the dais stirred to halt him. He had forgotten to take a vote on the motion.

“I’m sorry. That was tricky,” he apologized, grinning. “We need the keeper!”

Month in Review: July 2018

July was a solid month for a couple of our key demographics. Readers, for instance, were buoyed by the news that the Book Mobile was roaring back after a 30-year absence!

People who enjoy theater and comedy were also pleased when we interviewed the city manager whose council loves to put on an elaborate production once a year.

We also heard on the podcast from two council members who were part of a once-hostile atmosphere at their city halls that has since cooled down considerably.

To find out who is a city council trendsetter and who is still working out the kinks of the job, check out the July Month in Review.

And if the thought of catching up on all of the council meetings you missed seems daunting, the deputy city clerk here feels your pain:

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Interview #96: Charlotte, MI Councilman Branden Dyer (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

Branden Dyer spent 2011-2015 on the Charlotte (rhymes with “car lot”) city council, was defeated for reelection, but was appointed back on the council this March. The difference in tone between 2015 and 2018 is night and day.

Q: In your final meeting during 2015, you said you felt that the “negative campaign” against you was a distraction. Your city is only 9,000 people; don’t take this the wrong way, but what was there to be negative about in Charlotte?

A: A group of individuals who were not happy with the situation made an effort to remove me and other individuals from council. You kind of expect it in national elections, but there was a lot of rumors, a lot of negative Facebook comments and attacks.

Q: Some meetings, commenters seemed to imply the council was a rubber stamp for the city manager. Was that part of the tonal shift in Charlotte politics?

A: Yes. Their intention was to get rid of the city manger. When they made a move to not renew the city manager’s contract, there was a significant community uproar and they eventually backed down.

Q: Did you ever feel any pressure on council to go out of your way to question or oppose the city manager’s recommendations because you had this accusation of a rubber stamp being hurled at you?

A: No, I had no qualms with disagreeing with the city manager. But also, the city manager has a PhD literally in city management and I do not! In this age of complex government regulations and techniques, I think it’s best to defer to the expertise.

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Charlotte, MI Councilman Branden Dyer

Q: Well, I have a PhD in making quality municipal affairs audio content (obviously from the University of Phoenix), but it is 100 percent impossible to look at any of your council meetings from 2015 without noticing a young man named Zachary who was a candidate for mayor and an unrelenting critic of your government. What was his deal?

A: [He] was a disgruntled citizen that definitely exercised his five minute public comment limit down to the second at every chance he got. I tried to get him involved on a city committee but he never responded to my offer. After losing the mayor race, apparently his concerns were satisfied or he just kind of disappeared.

Q: He was pretty much in there nonstop to troll you guys and, I’m assuming, get free video of his speeches for his campaign. How did you respond to being baited?

A: Zach never really came after me personally. [The mayor] did not choose to run for reelection. Her term as mayor was difficult on her. Zach routinely attacked her and the city manager personally. The environment and vibe on council was a lot different than when I first went on council and my current term on council. “Toxic” is not really the word I want to use, but I think that’s kind of the best way to describe it.

Q: Was part of the reason you wanted these meetings videotaped and put online so that people who were not the attackers could look at what you were encountering and kind of sympathize with the situation?

A: I don’t think I was necessarily looking for sympathy, but you want everybody to be informed. The group that came against me and other council members were very savvy at using social media. They could get their view out there, and I wanted to be sure there was an official record so that if individuals chose to, they had the ability to see what actually happened instead of taking one viewpoint from one group in town. I wanted to make sure things weren’t skewed.