Mayor Heartwell and Backroom Deals Circumvent Democracy in Rapid Millage

On April 22, 2009 the Rapid made a route change to its proposed Silver Line less than two weeks before the election with little fanfare or explanation. The Silver Line’s proposed route to the medical mile connecting with Michigan Avenue was suddenly adjusted from Lafayette Avenue to Ransom. The new route would bypass the newly completed Grand Valley Health Sciences Building.

At the time the Grand Rapids Press vaguely reported the following: “Now Rapid staffers are exploring the possibility of stops near Wealthy Street and Division near Logan, and considering whether the current plan to use Lafayette Avenue through Heritage Hill is the best way to access Michigan Street NE.”

The question though, was why after years of planning did the Silver Line’s route change right before voters were expected to go to the polls?

The answer is one of back room deals, powerful political forces within the city of Grand Rapids, and a total commitment by the mayor of Grand Rapids, a county commissioner, and the leadership at the Rapid to push forth their agenda of implementing the Silver Line, even if democratic processes had to be circumvented.

The Kent County Kent County Taxpayers Alliance received documents from a curious citizen who issued a Freedom of Information Act request for communications from Mayor Heartwell, Rapid CEO Peter Varga, County Commissioner Jim Talen, and others that explain the extraordinary lengths taken to placate a powerful Grand Rapids neighborhood association that had taken the Silver Line millage hostage.

The Heritage Hill Association (HHA) is an influential neighborhood in the city of Grand Rapids because of its residents and its unique status as an historical neighborhood. That designation gives it unique ‘veto’ privileges for projects that are planned either in or through the neighborhood. According to emails obtained, the HHA was supportive of the transit system so long as it did not traverse their neighborhood. The HHA cited safety, vibration, congestion, and noise as reasons for their opposition. Due to those concerns, the HHA said that, if unchanged, it would oppose the millage and that it had to be altered before the election. City commissioner Rosalyn Bliss accurately noted that the HHA had the power to veto the entire project even if it passed at the polls.

Mayor Heartwell, Peter Varga, and commissioner Talen quickly went to work in an attempt to mollify the association. They did this even though, according to Grand Rapids city commissioner Rosalyn Bliss, GVSU was “honked off” that their facility would be bypassed by the new bus route. They then passed a resolution written by the Heritage Hill Association that simply mentioned that the planning board should look at more considerations with the routing of the Silver Line and make a decision right away.

Of course, the only input was from one neighborhood association that dictated a completely revised route of a major millage proposal before six cities. The reasons for the change were not made public to anyone outside of this small group of insiders and certainly not to anyone outside of the city of Grand Rapids. Afterwards, Mayor Heartwell stated in an email that the process was “a very healthy exercise in democracy.”

KCTA spokesman Eric Larson had this to say about the recent revelations, “The very purpose of our county-wide organization is to promote government transparency and the efficient use of taxpayer dollars. This episode with how one Grand Rapids neighborhood behind the scenes held the mayor, a county commissioner, GVSU, and the Rapid staff at hostage without allowing any input or explanation for anyone in the outlying cities is outrageous.”

“One of the major complaints we hear from people in the cities of Walker, Grandville, Wyoming, Kentwood, and East Grand Rapids is that the Rapid system is one which serves primarily the city of Grand Rapids and that Grand Rapids dictates the terms. Many citizens feel that the outlying cities are simply viewed as a tax base by Grand Rapids and that the real political power of the unelected Rapid board lies downtown.”

“During the Friends of Transit kick-off campaign, Mayor Heartwell described those who opposed the millage and expansion of the Rapid as ‘anti-community.’ Yet, he felt that the back-room deals he helped orchestrate are an exercise in democracy. We cannot help but think that the Mayor and his cohorts view the majority of voters who opposed the Silver Line in 2009 in disdain while they work behind the scenes to circumvent a transparent and democratic government.”

For a more complete time line and copies of all the relevant emails, please visit this link.