The Rapidian

Citizens launch petition drive to reform the Grand Rapids City Commission

The Grand Rapids Democracy Initiative aims to add five new wards to the Grand Rapids City Commission.

/Nathan Slauer

/Nathan Slauer

Citizen activists launched a petition drive to restructure the Grand Rapids City Commission. Their proposal aims to change the current ward system from three wards to eight wards, with one commissioner per ward.

Around two dozen supporters attended the Grand Rapids Democracy Initiative (GRDI) kick off event at the Meanwhile Bar on July 11. Crowd members expressed their enthusiasm for the grassroots movement, whooping “democracy isn’t dead” as they added their signature to the list.

Volunteers must collect 7,500 signatures for the petition to reach the ballot. Members of GRDI’s ten-person leadership committee feel optimistic that their team of approximately 100 volunteers can reach that target before the August deadline.

Don Lee, Executive Director of the Eastown Community Association, started GRDI as a Facebook group a year ago. He believes that GRDI will pass due to the momentum of Proposal 2, a statewide redistricting reform ballot initiative that passed last year, and ongoing frustration with economic inequality.

“We feel like the middle class is suffering; there’s tremendous wealth disparity, some of the greatest since the Great Depression,” Lee said.  “People are looking for answers. One reason is that they do have not representation in the government.”

Over 200,000 residents live in Grand Rapids. Each ward contains approximately 70,000 people, nearly the same amount as a state House district.

Increasing the number of wards would make each ward more geographically compact, according to Lee. City Commissioners could better communicate with their constituents and address frequently overlooked issues such as lead poisoning in smaller wards.

Tami VandenBerg, co-owner of the Meanwhile Bar and GRDI committee member, argues that decreasing ward size will reduce the amount of money campaigns must spend on materials to reach voters. VandenBerg’s campaign for Second Ward City Commission cost close to $50,000, a price that many potential candidates would find too high. 

“If a ward has 25,000 people, it’s going to open up the opportunity for more people to run, especially activists and neighborhood organizers who are not backed by special interests,” Vandenberg said.

GRDI supporters aim to diversify the racial and geographic makeup of the Grand Rapids City Commission. With new voices at the table, the Grand Rapids Commission could change its spending priorities during the budget making process.

“The City has given an enormous amount of tax credits to developers,” VandenBerg said. “This made sense when the City was half-vacant and desperately needed development, but we’re not there anymore. We’re giving tax credits to people who already have lots of money versus taking the tax revenue and investing it into affordable housing, programming for kids.”

GRDI is not the first effort of its kind. Unsuccessful reform movements took place during the 1950s and 1970s.

Jeff Smith, Director of the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID), said that Grand Rapids’ three ward system dates back to a 1916 city charter change. He referred to Jeffrey Kleiman’s 2006 book, “Strike! How the furniture workers strike of 1911 changed Grand Rapids,” which describes how furniture barons called for ward reduction to assert their power over workers.

“The plan was designed to create a government less responsive to direct citizen participation and the interest groups that dominated specific areas of the city,” Kleiman said.

No previous campaign experience is required to join GRDI.  Anyone with an interest in getting involved can sign up for updates on the group’s Facebook page and receive training, petitions, and a canvassing location.

“This is a great opportunity for anyone interested in politics,” VandenBerg said. “Let’s get this on the ballot and let voters decide.” 

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