Two years ago, then city manager Mark Howe was putting the finishing touches on a five-year plan to fix the streets in Lowell. He had obtained a $1 million grant from the Department of Environmental Quality to assess the city’s stormwater and wastewater system. A draft development plan for the Downtown Development Authority was in the works.
Howe was also embroiled in protracted union negotiations as the City of Lowell worked to create a contract with its employees. The issue turned into a flashpoint that led to a contentious 2015 election. “The Mayor’s excuse for fighting the City Workers is that they are paid above average for their job position,” wrote Alan Teelander on his personal blog in 2014. “Any hourly worker out there should be pretty riled up with this thought, and I suggest that you start to speak your mind.”
Teelander would go on to run for office and be elected in November 2015 along with two other newcomers: Mike DeVore and Jeff Phillips. The three elected Jeff Altoft – since recalled – to the position of mayor and made it their first order of business to fire Howe. Since then, the City of Lowell had seen Greg Canfield elected to take Altoft’s spot on council, city manager Mike Burns hired and Mike DeVore elevated to the position of Mayor.
After a tumultuous first year for the new council, the last seven months have been marked by relative calm and unity. While there has been little drama and strife, there has been little other action as well. Whatever happened to all those promises made in 2015?
Street Work Has Stalled
One of the key promises made in the run-up to the 2015 election was an increased emphasis on street repairs. Supporters of Teelander, Phillips and DeVore circulated flyers indicating that a change was needed on the city council to address issues such as crumbling roads and rising utility rates. While the three councilmembers say they were not responsible for these flyers, DeVore did tell a local reporter after the election, “My plan is to begin fixing the roads immediately.”
That plan never materialized. The five-year street repair plan created by Howe and the previous council has been largely disregarded, and the major project scheduled for 2016 – the Jefferson Street reconstruction – was pushed back to 2017.
At a Coffee with Council meeting earlier in the year, councilmembers explained they were waiting for a new assessment of city streets to be completed before deciding on a course of action for future repairs. The previous five-year plan was created through cooperation with the Grand Valley Metro Council which was doing street ratings for the city each year. The new assessment is being done by an engineering firm and will include an evaluation of utility pipes as well.
Councilmembers argue the new study is needed to ensure the city doesn’t have to rip up road work later to complete future utility repairs. Howe counters his plan was always to scope out the pipes underneath affected streets before a road project began. That way, the city could identify whether utility work would be needed at the same time. This system would ensure citizens didn’t have to wait for another citywide assessment to be done before roads were improved.
Regardless of which approach is right, the reality is the election promise of quick repairs to the streets has gone unfulfilled.
Projects Delayed or Forgotten
The five-year street plan isn’t the only project forgotten or delayed under the current city council. Here’s a look at a few of the other issues brought before the council that have received scant attention this year.
- Rebuilding the Showboat: The Lowell Showboat is an integral part of the city’s identity, but the council appears to have punted its rebuilding to the Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce. Senator Dave Hildenbrand was able to secure $1 million for the project, but he did this independently without any collaboration from the city.
- Meijer Trail Connector: The council held a special joint meeting with the Lowell Area Recreation Authority earlier this year to discuss how to connect the Fred Meijer River Valley Rail Trail to the Lowell Area Trailway, but nothing appears to have been done since then.
- Union Negotiations: Both the Lowell Light & Power and Police Department union contracts have been wrapped up, but negotiations with city workers have dragged on. Councilmembers have declined to comment on the progress or lack thereof. The council will next discuss the issue during a special closed session scheduled for the start of August.
- Food Trucks: New Union Brewery had plans to bring food trucks to its business until it was pointed out that the city didn’t have an ordinance allowing them. Brewery owners attended a meeting early in the year to request one, but there has been little progress on the issue since then. Councilmembers say the brewery has found another way to bring food to its establishment, but the owners say they never told the city there was no need for a food truck ordinance. The issue was brought up briefly at the last council meeting but no action taken.
Even projects proposed by councilmembers have failed to gain traction. Teelander reportedly said after the election, “I want to create some kind of an association of business owners and city council so we can work with them and for them and help them thrive and grow so they’ll stay for a long time.” However, it does not appear he ever pursued that initiative.
Who is Responsible for Moving the City Forward?
Nowhere is the lack of action in the city more evident than during council meetings. Members appear to quickly run through agenda items with little or no discussion. Previous councils would often meet for an hour or more while the current body is typically done in a half hour. The council appears to mainly react to issues brought to it rather than proactively seek out ways to improve the community.
The question is: whose job is it to propose new initiatives and foster council discussion? Currently, most new agenda items appear to be brought forth by City Manager Mike Burns. However, based on prior comments from councilmembers, it seems as though the council itself should be the driving force for positive change in the city.
Teelander wrote this on this personal blog in 2014: “Real leaders lead from the front as they enter a campaign or battle and do not hide behind their subordinate officers as this mayor does so well with the City and LL&P manager(s)…” Paradoxically, virtually every request Lowell’s First Look has made to Teelander in the past seven months has been met with a response directing us to the city manager.
To be fair, Teelander has said several times that he was wrong about many of the things he published prior to his election. However, we would argue he is right in this regard. The council should lead from the front. While Jim Hodges is retiring in November and understandably doesn’t want to start any new projects and Canfield is still new and learning the ropes, the remaining councilmembers should take a hard look at how they have been governing for the past 19 months.
Leading from the front puts you in a vulnerable place – as Howe and former councilmember Sharon Ellison could probably tell you – but you need to put yourself on the line to accomplish great things. Our councilmembers promised us great things and positive action when they were elected. Please make good on those words, councilmembers. We are waiting, and we are watching.