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On this episode, you will hear excerpts from these full interviews:
By the way, did you know that one year ago this week is when “Tear It Down” was released? In that time, thousands of people have listened and many have walked away with a newfound appreciation for the functionality of their own local governments. To hear the entire eight-chapter series and its colorful cast of characters, visit www.tearitdownpodcast.com.
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When the city manager of Troy was arrested in 2018, it was the latest in a series of events that forced the city council into some tough decisions. Ethan Baker describes his points of view at various times in the multiyear saga and what that has done to his council relationships.
Q: On March 11, 2018, your council met in a special Sunday session to fire city manager Brian Kischnick. What had happened in the last 24 hours to necessitate that firing?
A: It had actually been about 48 hours. That Friday evening, the former city manager had gone out to a restaurant in a neighboring city with his girlfriend–who we didn’t know was his girlfriend but happened to also be his assistant. They apparently had too much to drink and he physically assaulted her. He got arrested and was in lockup that weekend. We met on a Sunday and we terminated him for cause.
Q: There is more: in the summer of 2016 the council commissioned a report on the city manager’s conduct. It came to you confidential in July of that year and at the August 8 meeting, your council decided whether to release that report to the public. This vote was 4-3 with you in the majority against the release, and you said to the city manager, “we are watching everything that happens in city administration at this point.” After that vote, how did you notice the city manager’s behavior change based upon your observations?
A: It did change initially. We met with Brian Kischnick quite a bit in closed sessions. As time progressed, it seemed that he went kind of back to not being as communicative with us. Things snowballed and he got indicted after he was terminated.
Q: After you made your statement about “we’re watching you,” the city manager continued to solicit bribes, extorted money from a contractor, lived rent-free in a fully-furnished apartment, and bullied his employees.
A: One thing that the public has to understand a little bit is city council members are not full-time employees. We are rarely at city hall. A lot of information didn’t come to us. It’s one of the shortfalls of this style of government, a council-manager form of government, where you have a city manager who runs the show. That form of government works great in communities throughout the country. The only problem with it is when you have the person at the top, the city manager, who is the problem.
Q: What did it say about your council that city workers did not feel comfortable coming to you for their problems with your employee, the city manager?
A: There’s not supposed to be a lot of interaction between city council members and city employees. By edict of the city manager, everything was to be funneled through him, which became a problem. But because of the 4-3 vote in the summer of 2016 saying we’re not going to release the report, I think some city staff felt that Brian Kischnick’s protected. I’ve since learned that’s what Brian Kischnick was telling people. The employees felt fruitless–why bother if there’s only gonna be a minority of council members who might do something? Had I heard something more from any employee, I would’ve been the first to say [to Kischnick], “I’m sorry, we gave you another chance. You blew it.”
Q: After Brian Kischnick’s arrest and firing in early 2018, there was again a demand for you to release that report. On April 9, three council members wanted to publish the report and three did not. Which meant that you were the decisive vote. Did you walk into that meeting knowing that you were willing to release the whole thing?
A: I don’t know if I was 100 percent sure that I was willing to do it. What you can’t hear in the audio is that there were at least 100 people sitting in our chamber. It was standing-room only. When they heard that I was going to release the full report, there was a lot of relief in that chamber. I am so happy and thankful that I did make that vote. I think it’s done a lot of good for our community.
Q: You speak of relief. People in Troy vilified you for your 2016 vote. But now, you kind of redeemed yourself. What’s your thought on that?
A: “Redemption” is funny. You’re only one vote away from having somebody not like you. Things change and it goes back and forth all the time.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.