Keys to consensus: civility and compromise
In the last few months, both the Birmingham City Commission and Bloomfield Township Board of Trustees have been dealing with significant issues in their communities – and in each, there are factions of the public who disagree with the government bodies, which is their right. What isn't appropriate is the amount of civil discord and downright rudeness that is taking place at meetings.
For some individuals or groups, respect has become a word with no recognition. Whether in our own homes, places of business or government meetings, nothing productive can be achieved when we don't treat others with respect.
In Birmingham, the city and commission are wrestling with a long-developing crisis with the city's parking, and have the opportunity to rebuild one of the city's existing parking structures, the N. Old Woodward garage, and to also develop the site around it with mixed use buildings of retail, residential and commercial buildings, a public plaza, and a bridge over a Rouge River stream to Booth Park. Another long-desired goal would hopefully connect the downtown business district with the N. Old Woodward shopping and dining area. It would be developed in a public/private partnership with a group chosen after a long process, Woodward Bates, LLC, and the city is in the midst of public meetings where they are reviewing the development agreement, design reviews, site plans, costs and timelines.
Bloomfield Township is facing a predicament due to unfunded liabilities in the township's Other Post-Employee Benefits (OPEB) trust fund related to retiree costs. Contrary to what a few vocal residents contend, they do not have a budget problem due to mismanagement of daily finances, but a dilemma because over decades the township had not funded retiree benefits, choosing pay-as-you-go. However, in the last year, Michigan enacted a law, Public Act 202, intended to ensure local retiree health care and pension plans are adequately funded following the bankruptcy of the city of Detroit. Under the new law, the township must provide at least 40 percent of the OPEB Trust is funded within 30 years. Bloomfield Township is in the same boat as several other Michigan municipalities.
However, now they have to find the money up front to fund their benefits, to the tune of $5 million to $7 million annually. After studying a number of options, the township board recently approved putting a proposed $2.3 million tax in the form of a 15-year special assessment district before voters in August which would be dedicated to public safety operations, replacing the township's public safety millages. The reason is a majority of the unfunded liabilities are for police and fire employees, and it will provide enough money for the benefits and to fund public safety operations. They also anticipate making some cuts after the vote.
In both communities, the vitriol and lack of decorum and civility is not only inappropriate but counterproductive.
Public forums deserve public behavior, so vitriol must be left at home.
Meanwhile, as a side note for public officials, we understand the need for established rules for operating public meetings, hence the two- or three-minute time limits on those wishing to speak at public sessions. But on major, critical issues facing a municipality, sometimes the suspension of time limits on citizen comment could make sense, providing that the public input is not just a steady stream of speakers repeating the same concerns as prior speakers. A temporary suspension of the rules on critical issues – on a trial basis at some meetings – might be a good compromise that could help restore civility.