Traverse City News and Events

Commissioners, Mayor Work Toward Compromise On Board Appointments

By Beth Milligan | March 23, 2021

A heated years-long debate over how candidates are chosen to serve on Traverse City boards could soon be resolved. The mayor and city commissioners are near a compromise on mayoral appointments, with the goal of adopting a new policy that outlines a consistent interview process for candidates and offers transition help to new members of city boards.

While the mayor of Traverse City has the right to appoint candidates to certain city boards, those appointments must be confirmed by the rest of the city commission. That checks-and-balances approach has led to multiple contentious situations – including in 2014 and 2016 – when city commissioners blocked mayoral appointments. Commissioners cited concerns ranging from perceived biases in the candidate selection process to not having enough information from a mayor about why a particular candidate was chosen to receiving complaints from applicants about inconsistent interview processes – or not being interviewed at all. Commissioners also noted the many crucial decisions made by various city boards, heightening the importance of appointments, and worried that inconsistent interview practices would discourage qualified applicants from public service. Mayors, meanwhile, have sometimes bristled at having to justify appointments they see as being within their purview under state law.

After the issue flared up again in December, commissioners held a study session in January to discuss a possible new approach to making board appointments. Several commissioners expressed their desire to use an ad hoc committee to interview and select candidates, rather than leaving it solely up to the mayor to conduct one-on-one interviews. Based on commission feedback, City Clerk Benjamin Marentette fleshed out several recommendations for updating the board appointment policy and brought those options to commissioners for discussion Monday.

For all city commission and mayoral appointments, Marentette said the city could use an ad hoc committee of three commissioners to conduct interviews with applicants. The mayor would serve as the automatic chair of ad hocs for mayoral appointments, with other commissioners randomly assigned by the city clerk’s office. If there were a vacancy on a board where city commissioners were serving – such as on the city planning commission – one of those commissioners would be asked to serve on the ad hoc. Marentette recommended using a consistent interview process for all applicants – such as 15-minute interviews with each candidate, either all virtually or all in-person – and giving at least a one-week notice for interviews.

“I think the consistent theme from at least a majority of the commission was to have consistency in the process…so that all candidates are (treated) in the same fashion,” Marentette said of the recommend rule changes.

Commissioners expressed support for that approach Monday. Some added that while the ad hoc committee should have discretion over how many applicants are invited for interviews, incumbents seeking reappointment to boards should automatically be granted interviews. Past commission criticism has focused on mayoral appointments not giving enough consideration to incumbents, resulting in rapid turnover on boards – like the planning commission and Downtown Development Authority (DDA) – where experience can be valuable given the complex issues handled by those bodies.

Commissioners also expressed support for dissolving city manager appointments and having those interviews handled by an ad hoc of commissioners going forward, as well as providing a consistent onboarding process for any new city board members. That process is designed to help members who are new to city government quickly learn the ropes. Commissioners added a recommendation Monday that the chair of the board be required to connect with the new board member to assist that individual in getting up to speed.

With commissioners appearing to have consensus around most of the recommended changes, Marentette said he would draft a revised policy outlining the new city rules and bring it for a formal vote at an upcoming meeting.

Also at Monday’s commission meeting…
> City commissioners expressed support for moving forward with a request-for-proposals (RFP) process to solicit plans from developers to redevelop up to four downtown parking lots with housing or mixed-used developments. Commissioners acknowledged that two of the lots – Lot G next to Modes Bum Street and Lot O next to The Omelette Shoppe – seemed like much more realistic targets for redevelopment than the other two lots under consideration, Lot X (behind the Hall Street utility substation) and Lot T (southeast corner of Grandview Parkway and Union Street). However, commissioners said they wanted to leave the process open to see what kind of proposals developers might submit.

Similarly, commissioners agreed that their priority was to see proposals that featured rental housing for a variety of income levels – in particular, affordable, missing middle, or workforce units – but did not want to set overly strict parameters in order to allow developers to be creative in their proposals for housing. A draft RFP is expected to come back to commissioners for review and approval in April, after which time it could be opened to developers.

> Commissioners approved a DDA recommendation to realign and widen the Uptown riverwalk along the Boardman River between the Union Street Bridge and the Uptown development. The riverwalk is already under repair for accessibility improvements, and the recent natural downing of a willow tree along the riverbank offers the opportunity to make a wider and safer path at a lower cost since construction is already underway, according to DDA CEO Jean Derenzy. Commissioners added a caveat to require city staff to plant one or more new trees to replace the lost willow, and also said they wanted the willow stump to remain in place to help stabilize the riverbank.

> Finally, a proposal to offer a new kind of tax abatement called a neighborhood enterprise zone (NEZ) for a proposed housing development at 309 West Front Street was pulled from Monday’s meeting agenda. Derenzy – who has been leading discussions about bringing the NEZ to downtown – could not attend the commission meeting, with staff recommending it be pulled from the agenda. The topic is expected to be brought back at a future commission meeting.

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