Council members seek review of board applications, diversity practices

Hansinger appointment passes, but he turns it down after his nomination passed

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published July 17, 2020


STERLING HEIGHTS — Sterling Heights recently appointed a new Zoning Board of Appeals member, but he swiftly turned down the offer. And the discussion that his appointment raised over how the city should approach diversity and representation is ongoing.

During a July 7 Sterling Heights City Council meeting, the council voted 4-2 to officially appoint Dennis Hansinger to the Zoning Board of Appeals, the second and final vote as part of a two-step appointment process.

Mayor Pro Tem Liz Sierawski and Councilwomen Barbara Ziarko, Deanna Koski and Maria Schmidt voted yes. Mayor Michael Taylor and Councilman Michael Radtke voted no. Councilman Henry Yanez was absent as a precaution due to reported exposure to someone who later tested positive for COVID-19.

On June 16, the City Council voted 6-1 to initially nominate Hansinger to the Zoning Board of Appeals. Radtke voted against the nomination, saying he didn’t object to Hansinger “as a person” but wanted a female or minority candidate instead because “the board is all male and all white, and I want to change that.”

After the meeting, Radtke issued a press release, which said it was his job to make sure that diversity and broad representation are reflected in board appointments.

“We have now identified a more qualified minority female candidate who has already spent a year serving with distinction on our Ordinance Board of Appeals II,” the statement said. “I look forward to appointing her to ZBA to make sure that the 51% of our city that is female will finally have a say on one of our most important committees.”

During the July 7 meeting, Ziarko said the appointment process turned into something it never should have become. She also criticized Radtke’s statement.

“I want to know what went on behind closed doors that a press release by one person said ‘we’ve decided,’ because I wasn’t approached about it,” she said.

“So don’t use the royal ‘we’ and include me, especially after it goes out and members of the community are lumping us all together as if we’ve done all of this. I wasn’t a part of it. I believe in equality.”

Ziarko said discrimination has no boundaries, and “equality is equality,” whether it means sex, ethnic background or skin color. She said the city looks at board and commission applications as “black ink on white paper,” and added that sometimes it’s even hard to tell whether a candidate is male or female by their name.

Schmidt also said the board applications don’t declare race, sex or other statuses. She believed that the setup “is as unbiased as we can be on this board when choosing someone.”

Schmidt also said she believes that Hansinger is qualified.

“I think the day that we start cherry-picking candidates for some of these boards and commissions based on sex or ethnicity is a sad day,” Schmidt said.

“I think we need to stay unbiased. This is a nonpartisan board up here. We need to keep that in check, because when that is not kept in check, special interests come before this city. And we are here to do what’s in the best interest of every resident of this city.”

Sierawski said the decision of her vote was a hard one to make. While she said she’d love to see more women get involved in the city, she also said she can represent people from groups that she personally does not belong, such as gay people, men and Muslims.

“My specific gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity doesn’t come into play when I represent the people of Sterling Heights,” she said. “I represent everyone.”

Koski alluded to the base requirements for qualifying for a board or commission, such as living in the city for at least a year and being a registered voter.

She said a board should consist of different experiences and knowledge backgrounds in order to make the right decisions, and not set quotas based on factors like skin color, sex or religion.

“I’ve served on this council where I was the only female,” she said. “The rest were all men. Now it just so happens that we have four females and three men. Should we eliminate some of the females because we have to have that balance?”

When it was Radtke’s turn to speak, he said “inclusivity starts with us,” and that it’s up to council members to find candidates for board positions. He mentioned that among the positions for the ZBA and the Planning Commission, 14 out of 16 members are men.

He also said that just after he raised the diversity issue at the June 16 meeting, around 15-20 candidates applied for different city positions “because they didn’t see themselves up here, and they want to be a part of it.”

“The idea that, on a board that decides zoning issues across the city, it’s gonna be all men, all white men, in a city that is 51% women doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. “There’s no quota here — I’m not saying that it has to be this way or that way. … But it doesn’t make sense. We need to speak for all of our constituents.”

During the discussion, City Planner Chris McLeod explained why he had recommended Hansinger, calling him knowledgeable, professional and always educating himself about city requirements and policies.

“The Zoning Board of Appeals deals with, should the city break or not break its zoning requirements?” McLeod said. “And he seemed like he was very much, again, a rule follower. And I think that the Zoning Board of Appeals, within reason, should be a very stringent body.”

Taylor said he was glad that the two-step voting process was in place. While he voted in favor of Hansinger’s nomination, he chose to vote against the appointment.

“I’ve done work as an attorney in other jurisdictions — obviously not here in Sterling Heights — representing individuals, business owners, people that are asking for a zoning variance,” Taylor said.

“And my personal belief and philosophy on it is that I’d rather not have a zoning board that’s super conservative on those sort of things. And as Mr. McLeod stated, that’s what he thought Mr. Hansinger would be.”

Hansinger’s appointed term was supposed to last until June 30, 2023. According to Sterling Heights Community Relations Director Melanie Davis, ZBA members get paid $30 per meeting, with a $90 monthly maximum.

However, when asked for comment about his appointment, Hansinger said in an email to the Sentry, “My comment is that I am unable to serve at this time.”  

The mayor confirmed that he heard the news, too.

“He sent council an email the day after his appointment saying he couldn’t serve,” Taylor said in a text message.

Residents speak out
During public comment, residents who supported and opposed Radtke’s approach on the diversity issue spoke.

Resident Charles Jefferson, who is Black, criticized how the issue was handled and called for Radtke to step down. He cited Martin Luther King Jr.’s message of judging not by skin color but by character.

“We the residents of the city deserve to know that everyone is getting fair treatment,” Jefferson said. “By him distinguishing that …  he wouldn’t have interest in putting a certain race up on a board or commission is not fair to that race of people. We all know that isn’t correct.”

Another public speaker, Theresa Uzenski, mentioned how corporate America has recruiting relationships with racial and ethnic professional organizations. She warned about “unconscious bias” and said that if the city is serious about having diverse committees, it should seek out expertise.

“I thought it was naive that people say that they don’t really look at all these different aspects,” she said. “Studies have shown you just look at the name on the resume, and you put it in the other pile because it sounds ethnic or it sounds Black. You put it in the no pile. You don’t even think about it.”

Changing approaches
At the end of the meeting, council members continued to discuss diversity and representation. Radtke said he wanted to see the city fund a diversity coordinator, which he said was cut this year from the recently passed budget.

Sierawski said the city needs better outreach in volunteering and probably help for diversity training.

“We need to understand what communities feel underrepresented and what communities we can help get to where they want to be,” she said.

Koski asked that the city attorney and city manager review the volunteer application for possible revisions. She said she wanted to know what other cities are doing.

“Maybe we need to update it,” she said. “I am not too sure I want to see male/female and so on put on there, but I would be open to any suggestions that they might have.”

Taylor said he would not be in favor of asking applicants their sex, gender, national origin, color, race, sexual orientation and more. But he said he would be fine with seeing what other cities were doing for best practices.

“To the extent that you can determine what other cities are doing to encourage a more diverse pool of applicants, I would be in favor of that, as well,” he said.

Taylor added that he was encouraged by the number of new applicants and hopes that the last few weeks have educated people about the importance of civic engagement.

“I will say, you know, if there’s any positive byproduct out of this process over the last three weeks, it has been that there’s been significantly more interest in serving in our boards and commissions from qualified, diverse candidates, and I’ll never say that that’s a bad thing,” he said.

“We have struggled for years to recruit candidates. We’ve had volunteer fairs, and we’ve posted on social media, and we’ve done a lot to try to get more people to apply, but for whatever reason, it’s sometimes proven to be difficult.”

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