Voters in Birmingham, Bloomfield Township and Bloomfield Hills will be determining the fate of primary candidates and a school proposal in the Tuesday, August 4, election, either at the polls or, better yet, by absentee ballots as part of a community collective effort to keep further spread of the coronavirus under control.
This is a primary election in which you must vote on candidates in just one political party, thereby deciding who best can represent your party in the November general election.
Downtown newsmagazine sent questionnaires to candidates in contested primary races, the answers to which can be found in the special Voter Guide inside this edition or online at downtownpublications.com.
When making our recommendations we considered a number of factors based on answers from candidates and our institutional knowledge of candidates. In determining who we thought could best represent a party heading into the November contests, we looked at both views of the candidates, their ability to run a competitive campaign and how quickly they could assume office should they make it through the general election balloting.
9th Congressional District – Two-year term
Two Republicans filed to run for the party nomination to challenge Democrat Andy Levin, first elected to the U.S. House from this district which includes part of south Oakland County and meanders into Macomb County. We only heard back from Republican GABI GROSSBARD despite a number of attempts to connect with his primary opponent, so we were left with no choice in this endorsement. Grossbard does seem to come across as a moderate Republican on key issues, with a sincere drive to increase representation from the working class in the halls of Congress, certainly more refreshing than what we been able to glean about his opponent who bills himself as a “patriot.”
11th Congressional District – Two-year term
(Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills)
Once again we have been left with little choice when it comes to an endorsement. Five Republicans, two from Oakland County, filed in hopes of being the chosen one to take on incumbent Democrat Haley Stevens in this district which runs from the local area to north of Pontiac and then into the western Oakland and western Wayne County areas. ERIC ESSHAKI from Birmingham, with degrees in law and nursing, appears well versed on the issues and gets our nod in this race.
Oakland County Executive – Four-year term
This race proved to be one of the harder ones in which to determine who would best be the Democratic standard bearer in the general election. Both are baptized Democrats. Both are running strong races. So equally, if not more, important is the question of who can best navigate and manage Oakland County in future years should they win the November general election contest. We have known and liked county treasurer Andy Meisner, who came to this post after three terms as a Michigan Representative in the state House for part of south Oakland County. He has handled the job of treasurer well, with the help of a good staff, and we suspected for years that he intended to seek this post as long-time county exec L. Brooks Patterson neared the end of his long run. But as the saying goes, “the best laid plans of...men often go awry.” Patterson passed away in 2019 and the county board of commissioners named Democrat David Coulter of Ferndale, nearly a decade as mayor of Ferndale and eight years as county commissioner, to be the interim executive until the 2020 election. He was forced to assemble a mostly new deputy executive staff and showed promise as the manager of the county government. Then the pandemic hit and his management skills were put to an even tougher challenge. Frankly, we think he has passed the litmus test and officials from both parties tell us that, too. They also tell us he has more collaborative inclinations than Meisner, who has his detractors within his own party. No, it has not been perfect, but no management job ever is. Meisner is left taking on an incumbent who will have one year on the job come the election. We think voters should opt for someone already in the driver seat – DAVID COULTER.
Some of us go back several decades with MIKE KOWALL, beginning when he was first township supervisor in White Lake and during his time in the Michigan House and Senate, where he held a leadership position. No doubt he is the better choice in the GOP primary contest for Oakland County Executive.
Oakland County Prosecutor – Four-year term
Jessica Cooper has certainly given of herself in terms of public service, dating back to 1979 when she started as a district court judge, then on the Oakland County Circuit Court and the Michigan Court of Appeals prior to becoming county prosecutor in 2009. No doubt that she has mastery of the law and the system after all those years. But we may well have arrived at a juncture for society where some of the old ways of handling the administration of justice are due for an overhaul, as well are some of the laws that govern the system. And we are not convinced Cooper – who says she does not believe the prosecutor's office should be used as a bully pulpit -- is willing to take on this task. Enter former Oakland Circuit Court Judge KAREN MCDONALD, who resigned from the court bench to run for this office. Billed as part of the progressive prosecutor movement sweeping the nation, she appears to be willing and capable of using the office to make changes in the inequitable and discriminatory bail system and increase use of alternative sentencing. We also take into account the criticism of the incumbent we hear from those in the public safety and legal communities, many of whom are hesitant to go public with their thoughts for fear of repercussions. Cooper talks about supporting the state criminal justice reform report issued this past January. Talk is cheap. We need someone in office to implement some things locally and use the office to push the folks in Lansing on others. Lastly, we were disturbed by comments the incumbent has made that she doesn’t see in the current system any racial bias. We say — get real. The winner of this race could well end up being the likely winner in November. So voters are best served with making a change in this primary election. Vote for McDonald.
Oakland County Sheriff – Four-year term
We were impressed by two of the candidates – Vincent Gregory and Barnett Jones – running in the Democrat primary for sheriff, the winner of which will face popular Republican incumbent Michael Bouchard this fall. Both candidates bring backgrounds in public safety and suggest improvements to be made in this department if ultimately elected. However, based on his advanced degrees in public safety and on more time in the trenches in actual day-to-day experience managing police forces in larger Michigan municipalities, we give the edge to BARNETT JONES in the Democrat primary.
Oakland County Clerk – Four-year term
TINA BARTON is one of two party candidates hoping to challenge incumbent Democrat Lisa Brown in the general election for the county clerk spot. She offers 15 years on-the-job experience working first as a deputy clerk in Bloomfield Township and most recently as the city clerk in Rochester Hills. Strong undergraduate and master degrees in business administration and leadership, Barton is well-prepared to run a spirited campaign leading into the general election during which we expect to hear more about improvements that may be needed at the county. Barton is the only choice in this primary race.
Oakland County Treasurer – Four-year term
The current county treasurer has opted to run for county executive so this critical county post is up for grabs. In this primary contest, we recommend those voting on the Democrat ticket go with ROBERT WITTENBERG of Huntington Woods, who is just wrapping up his last term in the Michigan House of Representatives. He is best prepared for this office and will no doubt represent the party well in the general election battle.
We were impressed by SUSAN ANDERSON of Royal Oak who has spent time as an elected trustee on the Oakland Community College board, where she now serves as treasurer. Formal education in the accountancy field along with time actually doing the work, she will make a formidable candidate in the general election.
Oakland Water Resources Commissioner – Four-year term
Oak Park resident ROBERT BUXBAUM enters the GOP primary contest well prepared with both formal education (BE, MA, Phd) and work experience in the field of chemical engineering. Buxbaum raises some valid concerns about the current operation of this county office under the incumbent commissioner who he will face in November so we look forward to a more detailed discussion in the months ahead.
Oakland County Commission – Two-year term
(Birmingham, Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills)
The winner of this race will face Republican Chuck Moss in the November balloting. This was a close call between two candidates new to the political scene but we'll throw our endorsement behind Democrat KELLY DILLAHA of Birmingham.
(Part of Bloomfield Township)
Democrat MARCIA GERSHENSON of Bloomfield Township has represented this district for 16 years. She certainly has a thorough understanding of how the commission and county function, and we have been generally impressed by her past service. So Gershenson remains the only option in this primary race.
Bloomfield Township Supervisor – Four-year term
On the Democrat ticket, current township trustee DANI WALSH should understand township governance after serving the last four years on the board of trustees. Her opponent, whose name still appears on the ballot, has dropped out of the race and endorsed Walsh, making her the only choice for those voting as Democrats.
Bloomfield Township is an economically-stable, thriving residential community which has come under attack in the last few years by a small, but extremely vocal, minority of residents determined to churn the waters and have everything their way – including a lowering of taxes to the point where services would be decimated, affecting the standard of living enjoyed by the majority of township residents, and the reason they have chosen to live there. But the real vitriol has been reserved for township supervisor LEO SAVOIE, who was appointed to the position in 2011 and elected in 2012 after having been a trustee since 2004, much to the chagrin of his primary challenger, former treasurer Dan Devine, who stokes the dissident group's fire at township meetings and on social media. Devine, as treasurer, squandered his time in office, working infrequently at Township Hall, and not paying careful attention to financial details. And let's not forget the bizarre (dare we say, unhinged?) behavior that included contacting the police department to allege that Savoie had kidnapped his adult daughter when Devine could not reach her by phone one morning. As a counterpoint, Savoie has spent the last several years putting his nose to the grindstone, cleaning up financial disarray in order to save residents money, especially related to unknown excessive fees related to the $80 million bond issuance, employee retirement benefit guarantees with Prudential Insurance, and notably in funding and closing the Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB), which at one time were a $164 million liability for the township, but which he has worked to reduce. He has an innate and attentive sense for budgeting, with the ability to balance wants and needs on one side with what can actually be afforded, a critical skill at any time but even more important when facing the impact of the coronavirus. He understands a key part of the job is accessibility, and his open door policy, whether to any resident seeking a word to a business owner looking for advice, helps him stand out from his opponent in the race – who believes spreading mistruths is his recipe to win. Savoie deserves to be the Republican candidate in November. Rock steady – not a time for change.
Clerk – Four-year term
After 16 years of the knowledge and professionalism of township clerk Jan Roncelli, one of the state's premier clerks, we have to admit we were a little disappointed in the field of GOP choices for this position in the primary. We are most hopeful of the potential of TOM SMYLY, and tip our hand to him as the Republican candidate for the November election to take on Democrat Martin Brook. While every job is different, Smyly has already been working in Bloomfield Township government for 12 years – putting his life on the line everyday as a township police officer. He has further shown his commitment to the township as a homeowner's association president and business owner. Most residents seek an advocate in getting their needs taken care of, not someone with a political agenda, and we believe Smyly is best suited to achieve that of the candidates running.
Treasurer – Four-year term
The winner in this two-man race will automatically become the township treasurer because no Democrat filed for the position. In the four years BRIAN KEPES has been Bloomfield Township Treasurer, he has fundamentally revolutionized the office – under his auspices, township reserves have grown almost $3 million, versus just $476,000 under his predecessor; defined benefit equity and retiree health care trusts are up 40 percent and 20 percent, respectively; $1 million in fees in treasury costs and fees were negotiated down; and many customer services, such as water and sewer bills, are available for residents to pay online. Kepes has a proven record of service to the township going back over 25 years, as a trustee since 2009, former chairman of both the board of review and zoning board of appeals, and other boards, dating back to 1994. He brings with him degrees in accounting, as a CPA, and experience in business as a property manager. No question on this one – taxpayers need to retain Kepes.
Trustee – Four-year term
Four Democrats are running for four open seats to be placed on the general election ballot, so they automatically advance to the November ballot to face the winners of the GOP primary. On the Republican side, five candidates are running for four open seats. Incumbent NEAL BARNETT brings years of experience, financial insight, legal and psychological perspective, institutional wisdom and stability to the township, having been a trustee for 16 years. He also sits on the planning board. MICHAEL SCHOSTAK, completing his first four-year term, comprehends the financial implications of budgeting, investment policies, debt and all economic policy issues, as well as having an ability to drill down on zoning and ordinances. Candidate TIMOTHY ROBERT MEYER offers not only environmental and epidemiological knowledge, but also the experience of having run Oakland Community College and Sault College, and having been a deputy executive of economic development and community affairs for Oakland County under Brooks Patterson. ERIC PERNIE has shown his commitment for the township through his work as a police officer before becoming a realtor and attorney, and will provide a voice for public safety and community on the board.
Bloomfield Hills Schools – Bond issue
When we first examined the details of the Bloomfield Hills Schools' $200.155 million bond proposal to support school renovation, additions, security and the movement of some school populations, it was in February, when it was proposed for the May ballot – before the coronavirus pandemic, before over a million Michiganders were laid off, furloughed or fired, including many in this area. It seems like a lifetime ago, but it was just a few short months ago.
In March, the board of education wisely pulled the bond proposal from the May ballot, moving it to the August primary – a smart move anyway, as we believe May elections should go the way of February elections, and cease to exist by edict of the state legislature.
The Bloomfield Hills Schools district had been looking at school improvements as well as safety and technology upgrades for the last six years, and put together a wide-ranging committee comprising teachers, parents, former parents, residents, community officials, students, clergy and other stakeholders, called the Scope and Design Committee.
Of the $200 million ask, approximately $33 million in costs are immediate needs. The rest are improvements, safety and security upgrades at all schools, renovation costs and a district realignment that would take into account how students learn and will learn for the next several decades – taking the three middle schools and combining them into two middle schools, including re-opening the former Lahser High School and renovating it as a middle school, with Bloomfield Hills Middle School as the other site; significant renovations at Conant and Way elementary schools; the movement of Lone Pine elementary to West Hills Middle School, which would become the new Lone Pine, with renovations and updates; Eastover would move to East Hills Middle School, which would become Eastover, also with renovations and updates; Bloomin' Preschool would be housed and expanded at Eastover and Conant; and Bloomfield Hills High School would receive health and wellness upgrades, among other improvements.
This is a new bond proposal. If approved by voters, the school district’s tax rate is projected to increase by 1.85 mills. A mill is equal to $1 in property tax per every $1,000 in taxable value, which is typically about half of a home's market value.
We were impressed in February with the district's plan to redesign and realign the schools and the district, and a second examination does not change our mind. But we recognize the significant cost which it comes with. Education is an investment in our future, and there is a price tag to go with it. If you can afford to, we recommend you vote YES.