ROYAL OAK — The ideological differences between the four candidates running for City Commission became immediately apparent during the Oct. 14 League of Women Voters-sponsored forum inside the Royal Oak Middle School.
Candidate Sharlan Douglas opened the forum saying that the 1,800 voters she had spoken to were happy with the city’s direction.
“We’ve got momentum,” she said.
Candidate Diane Hargan agreed that the city was shifting but not for the better.
“I think we have momentum, but I don’t think it’s in the right direction,” Hargan said.
Their opening statements began the hour-long forum where the candidates voiced their opinions on topics including street repairs, rats, the city’s unfunded liabilities and the human rights ordinance that will appear on the Nov. 5 ballot.
“This is one area we need to look into,” Mayor Pro Tem David Poulton, the only incumbent commissioner running for re-election, said of the city’s unfunded obligations to its employees. “It’s being looked into now. This is a problem that has been going on. It needs to be addressed and will be addressed in the next four years.”
He said the city is looking to float bonds to help pay for the liabilities over a longer period of time.
Candidate Jeremy Mahrle said Royal Oak wasn’t alone in facing the prospect of dealing with future retiree pay. He said it is an issue cities across the country are facing and that Royal Oak has done a lot already to control costs, like reducing city staff, negotiating contracts more favorable to the city’s bottom line and switching from a defined-benefit pension plan to a defined-contribution plan. Mahrle added that the city must keep in mind that it made promises to its employees.
“Whatever our solution may be, we must keep in mind our employees and the sacrifices they’ve made,” Mahrle said.
Douglas said because unfunded liabilities are affecting most cities across Michigan, the state should create a bond fund from which cities can borrow.
“The Michigan Municipal League suggests that we go to the state and ask them to create a bond fund that … we may be able to take advantage of to pay off those contributions over a longer period of time,” Douglas said.
Hargan called tackling the city’s unfunded liabilities her top priority.
“This has been a decade-old problem,” she said. “It’s not something that cropped up yesterday.”
As for the human rights ordinance, the ballot Proposal A split the candidates evenly. Douglas and Mahrle expressed support for it. Poulton and Hargan did not.
The ordinance, if passed by voters, would prohibit “discrimination based upon actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, height, weight, condition of pregnancy, marital status, physical or mental limitation, source of income, family responsibilities, sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status.”
“I think our constitution and its amendments protect everyone properly,” Hargan said.
Poulton said if there was a need to extend civil rights to homosexuals and other groups not already protected nationally, he would support the ordinance, but he felt there was no sign of discrimination.
He added the results of last year’s community survey put on by the city had no mention of needing to pass such an ordinance.
“The survey found not one concern with enacting a human rights ordinance,” he said.
Douglas said having the ordinance would go a long way in drawing young residents to Royal Oak.
“They embrace diversity, and they want to live in a community that is welcoming and diverse,” she said.
The forum can be viewed in its entirety at cmntv.org or on Channel 18 for WOW and Comcast subscribers.
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