To hold public office in Birmingham, you need a warm coat.
On Tuesday at 9 a.m., the Birmingham City Commission held an official meeting — outdoors. In attendance and bundled against the winter were the mayor, the city attorney, the city manager and all but one of the elected city commissioners.
Staff from public works crew were there, too, and thank goodness. One of them handed a disposable hand-warmer to a chilled reporter, who was taking bare-handed notes. City Clerk Alexandria Bingham was ready with her clipboard, and a city audiovisual tech had his camera running, when the group gathered to say the Pledge of Allegiance, although no flag was in sight.
“We do have a quorum,” Mayor Elaine McLain announced, beneath an umbrella that said, “Love is in the air.” Billed as the “Shirley Road and Arlington Street Walk,” the walking tour took officials through a lovely neighborhood, studded with old trees but one lacking sidewalks, and beset with debate about just those things. Standing in the snow among the officials were dozens of residents who implored them to oppose a plan by city planners to remove more than 100 trees, then lay sidewalks. An underlying issue, appearing nowhere on the agenda, seemed just as important: freedom of speech. At the level of local governance, the question in a nutshell is: To what extent can local leaders control their opponents’ speech?
Other cities wrestle with it, as do township boards and school board members. Leading up to the meeting, Birmingham’s elected commissioners said they wanted to meet, and talk with residents and tour their area, but to do so in a group, because allowing one commissioner to meet, and talk and tour alone, they decided, was illegal. In a vote earlier this month, they decided that allowing one commissioner meet and talk and tour by himself was a violation of Michigan’s Open Meetings Act, if that speech involved an issue pending before the group. That limitation rules out most of the reasons that people want to speak to their elected officials.
The one commissioner, who frequently takes on the other commissioners, and who says he has met and talked with residents face-to-face in their neighborhoods for years, and who was the city’s top vote-getter in the last two elections, outpolling even the mayor, was Brad Host. Time after time, Host has been the target of city officials to silence him. Before he was elected, Host and others were silenced by a previous mayor for speaking in opposition to a city ballot proposal. The group then sued in federal court. They were so thoroughly vindicated in 2019 that the city immediately granted them and other residents full rights to speak at future meetings. Soon thereafter, Host was elected. But at Tuesday’s chilly walking tour, he was muffled, and not just in wool but by order of Birmingham City Attorney Mary Kucharek.
“This is an official commission meeting, so none of the commissioners can talk to anyone. That would be inappropriate,” Kucharek told the Free Press, adding: “The commissioners like to hear the people, so they agreed to tour the neighborhood.” That neighborhood of multimillion-dollar houses is unusual, even by Birmingham standards. Streets are wider than elsewhere, with curbs bordering old trees, some of which date back more than a century to when the area was a tree nursery, resident Jim Mirro told the gathering, during one of the allotted comment sessions.
Mirro went on: “Over there is the home of Ethan Davidson, the adopted son of Bill Davidson, who owned the Detroit Pistons. The Davidsons have a heavy concentration of mature trees right up to the street,” many of which would become wood chips if sidewalks are laid. Mirro then pointed out a new house across the street, soon to be occupied by the family of Calvin Ford.
“He’s the great-grandson of Henry Ford. They have quite a few trees that go almost to the curb, and a lot of those would be destroyed” by the city’s plan, Mirro said. City officials heard from anyone who wished to speak. After each finished, the mayor said: “Thank you. Your comments are date stamped and part of the record. Who’s next?”
The trend to build sidewalks is a strong one, powered by decades of growing interest in walking and jogging, and by a 20-year-old urban design trend called “Complete Streets,” which says roadways should be just as friendly to walkers, cyclists, wheelchair users and those with disabilities as they are to trucks and sports cars. The National Complete Streets Coalition was founded in 2005 by a coalition of advocacy and trade groups, including AARP, the American Planning Association and the American Society of Landscape Architects., according to the Washington, D.C., think tank Smart Growth America.
Still, as one resident pointed out, Birmingham is ranked among the most walkable cities in Michigan. More than 80% of residents oppose adding sidewalks in Birmingham’s neighborhood of Shirley Road and Arlington Street, according to a city survey mailed last fall.
Birmingham’s own “Multi-Modal Plan” for getting around, locally, states that sidewalks are essential, should be on both sides of each street, and “shall be installed” during major projects such as street resurfacing or sewer-main replacement. That mirrors the policy in many other cities in Michigan, although two notable exceptions border Birmingham: Bloomfield Hills and Bloomfield Township.
The scene, and scenery, couldn’t have been more different early this month when Hazel Park City Council heard residents speak on almost identical issues involving opposition to tree removal and sidewalk construction. That, too, was an official city meeting, with a quorum of elected officials chaired by a mayor, and with city staff arrayed nearby. As residents repeatedly posed questions, Hazel Park’s longtime mayor, Michael Webb, replied to many of them, sometimes turning to city staff for details. City Attorney Melissa Schwartz did fast research on her laptop, pulling up the number of trees removed from city easements in recent years. City Manager Ed Klobucher told the tree lovers, “None of us want to take down trees. It costs money!” Only trees that are deemed hazardous, mainly those likely to fall in storms, are tagged for removal, Klobucher told the residents.
“We do have a fund for replanting trees, and we offer that to every resident where we take down a tree,” he said.
At Birmingham’s outdoor meeting, some residents voiced a hope for a plan less than wholesale tree removal and sidewalk construction but one that still would improve conditions for pedestrians at several intersections, and one that would consider the high cost that the city’s plan would impose on homeowners. The owner of a corner lot said he projected the plan as stated would cost him $80,000.
Birmingham’s city commissioners are expected to vote on the tree-removal-and-sidewalk-laying plan at their next meeting, on Monday. The meeting is scheduled to be indoors.
Contact Bill Laytner: [email protected]
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Birmingham leaders hold outdoor meeting before vote on sidewalks
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