For Meridian Charter Township primary voters, it's pick a side or stay neutral.
Forget about votes based on party affiliation. In Meridian, where the GOP was competitive just a decade ago, Democrats now rule; they outnumber the Republicans 16 to four on the ballot.
But the margin for Democrats hardly signals unity.
Based on the literature flooding the township, there are two Democratic factions vying for support next week. And one man, untethered in the middle.
One slate includes incumbent Julie Brixie for treasurer, Gayelord Mankowski for clerk, and Dan Opsommer, Patricia Jackson, and Phil Deschaine running for three trustee seats.
“I ran as a team in 2000, and I found it to be a really good way to get involved,” said Brixie, a trustee who is running unopposed. “The other advantage of having a team is that you can put together a group of people that are very different from each other and have very different backgrounds but have the same goals for the community. When we have diverse people, with diverse backgrounds leading our government, we get better decision making as a result of that.”
And it appears that Brixie is not the only person who feels that way. The other faction comprises Ron Styka for supervisor, incumbent Brett Dreyfus for clerk, and Brett De- Groff, Kathy Sundland, and John Veenstra for trustee. Though not explicitly a slate, this group does have campaign fliers that list all five of those names stating “Support the Candidates Who Will Protect Our Quality of Life.”
The differences between these groups reflect some longstanding rifts on the Board and a perceived disconnect with the citizens.
“We have several people on our board who often pretend they’re engaging in public policy discussions when actually it’s basically political attacks that are disguised as political discussions,” Dreyfus said. “It’s really discouraging because they use their public position to advance their own personal political goals and they’ll bring administrative issues to the board meetings to discredit other offices.”
So what are these issues that have bred so much contention? Use (or overuse — depending on “team” allegiance) of Brownfield Tax Incentives and development (or over-development) of local communities. But by far, the CATA-BRT seems to be the most divisive.
BRT stands for Bus Rapid Transit, and it is the title of CATA’s plan to replace CATA’s Route 1 from downtown Lansing to Marsh Road, by Meijer and Meridian Mall. The overall cost of the project is $133 million, mostly to be funded by the federal government.
It would create a center lane exclusively for buses along Michigan and Grand River avenues.
Brixie’s team embraces the BRT, while Styka’s opposes it. Some of the benefits would include reducing trip from the Capitol to the mall by roughly 10 minutes, increasing ridership and reducing congestion by preventing cars from being stuck behind buses that make frequent stops. But Brixie’s group warns that it doesn’t have the full picture yet.
“That’s because the BRT plans that have been presented are only about 30 percent complete. And we would like to see the entire plan before we say ‘yes, this is good’ and ‘no, this is not good,’” said trustee candidate Deschaine said. “I am aware of the fact that it has drawn a lot of opposition, and those concerns that the residents have brought up have to be a part of the final BRT plan. The township board has an advisory role to the BRT, and while we can influence the project, it’s not a project that the township initiated or the township has developed on its own.”
CATA hopes to break ground by late 2017 or early 2018.
However, the complaints against the BRT are many.
“It’s a $140 million project when we include the money for construction, and the public has not gotten any details when that money for construction is going to be spent,” Trustee Veenstra said. “They plan to put in seven lanes of traffic, so I assume they will move the curbs out, and that’s expensive.”
This point really concerns business owners, because drivers will now have a median to watch out for, meaning left turns become more difficult. In a worst-case scenario, this could cause customers to avoiding stopping into some businesses altogether.
But divided as the board is, there is one member who stands alone: Milton L. Scales. An incumbent and candidate for Meridian Township supervisor, Scales agrees with the side against the current BRT plan, his stance is made unique. This is because he is the only Democrat running for an elected position in Meridian Township who has not allied himself with another group.
“I’m a leader. I want to work with whatever team or mixture of teams the voters send me, but I’m seeking to be the supervisor, also known as the chairperson of the board,” Scales said. “I’m not going to tie myself completely to any faction. The faction that I tie myself to are the voters.”
“People are less concerned about the D’s and the R’s and more concerned about ‘are the roads being fixed? Can I flush my toilet? Are the sewers being cleaned? Am I protected by the police and fire?’” Scales said.