Democracy in action or backroom deals and cronyism in action?

On April 22 of 2009, just two weeks before the millage election to raise property taxes to fund the $50 million Silver Line bus in Grand Rapids, the unelected board of the Interurban Transit Partnership (The Rapid) suddenly changed the route. This is only vaguely referenced in the minutes of that meeting.

Mr. Varga [CEO of The Rapid] noted . . . that staff has received some suggestions for changes to the route alignment that has been reviewed internally and by City staff. . . He reminded the board that by having already submitted an LPA [Locally Preferred Alternative] to the FTA [Federal Transit Administration], that was accepted by them, any significant changes in the cost or scope of the program, could result in failure to get approval from the FTA.

Mayor Heartwell commented that we have had discussion, involving many entities, regarding alignment changes and noted that process is important when dealing with this issue. He noted that a resolution was developed that we will take to the PTT [Public Transportation Tomorrow Task Force] to evaluate and bring back to the ITP Board regarding consideration of alternate routes for the Silver Line.

A motion was made by Heartwell, supported by Holt, to adopt the resolution regarding further evaluation of the Silver Line routing. Motion passed unanimously.

The resolution itself is not in the minutes and not available on The Rapid’s web site (unsurprisingly).

The Grand Rapids Press reported the next day on The Rapid’s sudden change in plans after so much planning:

Now Rapid staffers are exploring the possibility of stops near Wealthy Street and Division near Logan, and considering whether the current plan to use Lafayette Avenue through Heritage Hill is the best way to access Michigan Street NE.

The vote came after Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell introduced a resolution that was not on the agenda. Among other things, the resolution says the board is aware of alternative routes being studied by Rapid staff and believes they warrant serious consideration and input from all “constituents.” Heartwell said he developed the resolution after talking with residents from the Heritage Hill neighborhood and representatives from Grand Valley State University.

“The interest here was in being fully transparent before the election,” Heartwell said. “We didn’t want to go into an important election, then suddenly afterwards make a change.”

What really happened behind the scenes? How “transparent” was this process?

A local resident who was concerned about this change filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the City of Grand Rapids to get more detail on the process behind this sudden change. Those emails were made available to Kent County Families for Fiscal Responsibility this year.

We now understand that the Heritage Hill Homeowners Association (HHA) held the Silver Line hostage through threats of opposing the millage and through a potential “veto” as part of its historical status. The leadership of HHA claimed that they supported the Silver Line, just not in their back yard. Mayor Heartwell went to bat to ensure that the HHA was satisfied, despite, as City Commissioner Roslyn Bliss put it, “honking off” Grand Valley State University because the Silver Line would no longer run to the new health sciences building on Michigan Street. The route was subsequently changed, almost overnight, as a result of these threats. The Silver Line route was moved from Lafayette Avenue to Ransom, just outside the boundaries of Heritage Hill.

Not only did the Mayor go to bat to appease HHA, he later called it an exercise in democracy. How this can possibly be considered an exercise in democracy is beyond us. The Rapid’s board, itself an unelected body, was dictated to by a single neighborhood association. Yet, just two weeks later the voters of the six cities sent a clear message to The Rapid: “NO SILVER LINE.” What has been the Mayor’s response to this? The Rapid is trying again this year for the same plan, while doubling the requested tax increase. Apparently, voters saying “NO” isn’t important to The Rapid’s unelected board. At the millage kickoff event this year Heartwell called those who oppose the millage “anti-community.” Somehow, when Heritage Hill residents oppose the Silver Line in their back yard, it’s “democracy in action.” When voters across the six cities say no to the wasteful and redundant Silver Line, they are “anti-community.”

Voters should ask themselves: Taxpayers in six cities (Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids, Walker, Wyoming, Kentwood and Grandville) are being asked to pay for the Silver Line, but who is really calling the shots here? Certainly not those who live outside Grand Rapids.

(To view the Silver Line’s “new” route, just outside of Heritage Hill, please see a Google Map by clicking here. The blue line is the Silver Line Route and the green box is Heritgage Hill’s boundaries.)

Below is a review of the timeline of events, with links to relevant emails (click on the date to view the original email):

  • March 18, 2009. HHA president Michael J. Clark sent a letter to Peter Varga, CEO of The Rapid, demanding a change in the Silver Line bus route. The letter says, in bolded words, “While the concept of the BRT [Bus Rapid Transit/The Silver Line] is greatly applauded, the proposed route to use Lafayette NE is strongly opposed by this neighborhood and therefore, the board cannot support your request as presented at this time.”
  • April 2, 2009. HHA president Michael J. Clark sends another letter to Peter Varga, stating: “With the alternative proposal presented to the Association Board members on April 1, 2009, we are in full support of the project. The specific route adjustment follows Jefferson to Ransom, Ransom to Crescent, Crescent to Bostwick, and Bostwick to Michigan Street. This new alignment removes the buses from the residential streets of Heritage Hill and instead uses the more appropriate non-residential streets. This revision reflects the desires of the residents and neighbors of the Historic District and we believe this new route will have no significant negative impact on the Heritage Hill Historic District.” (Emphasis is in original).
  • April 17, 2009. HHA president Michael J. Clark sends another letter to the board of directors of The Rapid complaining that they want assurance that the route of the Silver Line will be changed, prior to the May 5 election. “The Heritage Hill Association currently finds itself in the very unfortunate position of potentially opposing the upcoming May 5th millage. . . At the subsequent meeting of April 1st . . . [HHA] happily accepted a route change suggested by the RAPID that would take the Silver Line off residential streets and specifically off Lafayette Avenue NE. * * * We have now been informed that the PTT will not present its findings until May 7th and that the route change(s) will not be voted on by the RAPID Board of Directors until its May board meeting. * * * [HHA] recognizes that as the millage vote is now less than two weeks away, action must be taken.” (Emphasis added).
  • April 17, 2009. Kent County Commissioner Jim Talen emails Rapid CEO Peter Varga to complain about the Silver Line route: “I was disappointed to hear again, today, that the issue of the Silver Line route running on a Heritage Hill residential street will not be officially acted on until after May 5.” He later, in the same email, states: “It is important to resolve this as soon as possible – near or after the election is too late, in my opinion.” (Emphasis added).
  • April 19, 2009. Grand Rapids City Commissioner Rosalyn Bliss asks Mayor Heartwell to consider a resolution at the upcoming City Commission meeting to support the Silver Line millage. Mayor Heartwell expresses concern that the vote would not be unanimous and he specifically mentions the Lafayette controversy. Bliss then replies to Mayor Heartwell: “It has gotten a little ugly. Peter [Varga] came up with an amended alignment that satisfied the HHA Board but honked off GVSU (it comes up Ransom rather than Lafayette, serving GRCC and Spectrum well but hitting two blocks away from Cook DeVos Center). The HHA is threatening to oppose the millage if the ITP Bd. doesn’t act in advance of 5/5. . . If HHA opposes, even if the millage passed (and it might not with their opposition) the State Historic Commission could deny the approval killing the ENTIRE project.” (Emphasis added).
  • April 19, 2009. Kent County Commissioner Jim Talen again emails Peter Varga: “A group of folks met, today, to discuss the Lafayette Avenue route situation. I agreed to try to convey to you, Heritage Hill’s interest in getting a commitment from the ITP board, this week, to avoiding residential streets in Heritage Hill and on the Silver Line route.”(Emphasis added).
  • April 21, 2009. Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell emails Peter Varga with proposed resolution language, to be voted on at The Rapid’s board meeting the next day. The resolution clearly misrepresents the situation. Heartwell admits that the resolution may “be more than the ITP Board will be willing to say. * * * Resolution – The ITP Board of Directors is aware of the staff recommendation of an alternative route to the current proposal and believes it may have merit for both environmental and ridership reasons. Further, the Board strongly believes in the process of route evaluation established through the Public Transportation Tomorrow Task Force. Therefore, the ITP Board directs staff to explore other route options in keeping with this established procedure.” (Emphasis added).
    Why would the ITP Board be unwilling to discuss what is going on behind the scenes?
  • April 21, 2009. Kent County Commissioner Jim Talen emails Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell: “I’m not really sure what Heritage Hill will approve but I know there are some who want to find a compromise. I’m willing to argue for your proposed language at the HH meeting tonight (7pm).”
  • April 21, 2009. Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell emails the president of The Rapid’s board, Don Lawless: “I received, last evening, a proposed resolution from the HHA. I have redrafted it and shown the draft to Peter and Jim Talen.” (Emphasis added).
    Now apparently the Heritgage Hill Association is dictating resolution language to The Rapid’s board.
  • April 21, 2009. That evening, Kent County Commissioner Jim Talen again emails Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell announcing that the Heritage Hill Association has OK’d The Rapid’s board resolution. The final resolution reads: “Resolution – The ITP Board of Directors is aware of staff proposals for alternate routes for the Silver Line to the current proposal and believes these proposals warrant serious consideration and input from all constituents including potential environmental, historic preservation, and ridership interests. Further, the Board strongly believes the process of route evaluation established through Public Transportation Tomorrow Task Force. Therefore, The ITP Board directs staff to explore other route options in keeping with established procedure.” (Emphasis added).
    It’s a slap in the face to voters to say to them that the process is open to their input, yet one neighborhood association is dictating policy to a government body – and that government body is bending so quickly and easily. One could say that The Rapid’s board is even cowering. Two weeks later, constituents said NO to the Silver Line bus tax increase. Clearly that didn’t matter much.
  • April 22, 2009. Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell emails Rapid CEO Peter Varga and Rapid Board President Don Lawless: “I responded to Jim Talen’s email expressing appreciation (you were copied) but I wanted to ‘converse’ with the two of you off-line.” (Emphasis added).
  • April 22, 2009. Rapid Board President Don Lawless emails Mayor George Heartwell, Rapid CEO Peter Varga, and Kent County Commissioner Jim Talen: “Thank you for all your hard work and support for the SilverLine. I will rely on George to present the resolution language and will ask for support from the board.”
  • April 23, 2009. Rapid CEO Peter Varga emails Jan Earl of the Heritage Hill Association and Mayor George Heartwell: “I thank you all for listening and participating in a positive way towards a more reasonable solution. A very healthy exercise in democratic behavior.” (Emphasis added).
    Just how democratic is it that a single neighborhood association overrides months of work and dictates to a government body how to word a board resolution – under the threat of “vetoing” the entire Silver Line project?
  • April 28, 2009. Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell also emails Jan Earl of the Heritage Hill Association: “The efforts in the last few days before the ITP meeting are truly an illustration of democracy in action.” (Emphasis added).

So now we see how “transparent” this process was. Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, along with Kent County Commissioner Jim Talen, worked very hard to ensure that the wishes of one powerful neighborhood association were followed – and the details kept as vague as possible for public consumption. This was to the point that the neighborhood association dictated to The Rapid’s board of directors how it would word a resolution and that it would vote on the resolution before the election… or else HHA would veto the entire project. This was also despite the fact that this last minute route change “honked off” Grand Valley State University. Democracy indeed!

Voters should understand that their will isn’t very important. Voters said no to the Silver Line in 2009, yet The Rapid didn’t get the message. Apparently voting isn’t much of an important exercise in democracy – unless you live in a special interest neighborhood and have influential friends!

All of the original emails (many more than quoted above) are available by clicking here. All of the emails have also been uploaded to a third party web site, available here.