Mayoral candidates discuss issues at public forum

MH voters will decide between Swanson and Hartwell Nov. 3

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published October 26, 2015


MADISON HEIGHTS — The two candidates for mayor of Madison Heights made their case before a who’s who of public servants and volunteers at the annual Meet the Candidates Luncheon, held by the Madison Heights Community Round Table at the Lamphere schools Administration Office Oct. 21.

The incumbent mayor of 16 years, Ed Swanson, is challenged this year by Brian Hartwell, a former councilman of eight years and mayor pro tem of four years, who resigned earlier this year in order to run for the office of mayor.

The election is Tuesday, Nov. 3.

Three council members also spoke — Robert Corbett, Bob Gettings and Margene Scott. The council seats are unopposed this year. Only the mayoral race is contested.

“I’ve always run a self-funded campaign,” said Swanson, a resident of more than 33 years, during introductions. “Everything I’ve accomplished to date as mayor, I’ve done as a team. No man is an island, and there is no ‘i’ in ‘teamwork.’”

Swanson noted his involvement in the creation of the Downtown Development Authority; leasing out the Nature Center to Oakland County; the neighborhood roads program and sidewalk repair program; updates in technology; the creation of the employee health and wellness center; the continuation of the fall open house and holiday tree lighting; achieving financial solvency during the recession; maintaining police and fire during tough times; declaring a state of emergency during the flood to secure county and state funding; and protecting seniors from cutbacks to lunch programs and transportation assistance.

“During the recession, I was the first to step forward to propose a reduction in pay, and I voluntarily did so,” Swanson said. “This act caused others to follow suit, with savings passed on to (the residents of) Madison Heights. … I’ll continue to focus on bringing people together, bridging differences and creating an environment where council and staff work together.

“The time for a new leader is not now,” Swanson concluded. He later added: “We have a population of 30,000, and for 16 years, I’ve been asked to be mayor. Thirty thousand people, and they want me. I hope to continue to do good work.”

Hartwell, who worked alongside Swanson the last eight years on council, described himself as a proactive person who will be very hands-on if elected as mayor.

“I believe mayor is more than just a title. A mayor is a spokesperson for what the people value today, and the goals we set for tomorrow. A mayor is a visionary,” Hartwell said. “A mayor doesn’t sit back and let others (do all the work). … A mayor leads from the front through action; a mayor inspires others to act through good deeds and community service. … A mayor should be the busiest public servant in the city … and his success is measured not by votes, but by ideas, actions and outcomes.”

Hartwell talked about how during his time as mayor pro tem, he chaired the Crime Commission and reformed it within weeks to become a “modern 21st-century policy think-tank,” one that studies modern best practices and police work. Commissioners have been recruiting new members and publishing policy pieces on issues such as gun safety in schools and youth counseling to keep kids out of the system. Now they’re talking about identity theft, an issue that impacts the vulnerable senior population.

During his time on the Planning Commission, Hartwell also pleded with city planners to develop a transportation system that would help people without cars, such as senior citizens and the disabled, as well as people who use a bike to get to work and school. Now the city has developed such a plan.

Hartwell also recalled the time earlier this year when he saw a disabled man sitting in his wheelchair on John R Road because the bus stop was covered in ice and snow.

“We took action,” Hartwell said. “I got a half-dozen groups to join us, and we took shovels and cleaned every bus stop in the city.”

Hartwell’s work received recognition from county executives around the region, but he said the best outcome was hearing that an elderly woman had called in to say she hadn’t been able to reach the bus stop with her walker due to the snow and ice, and now she could get to the pharmacy for the first time in weeks.

“I teared up hearing that,” Hartwell said. “That’s an outcome, the kind of outcomes I will search for as mayor of Madison Heights.”

Property values and blight
The first question collected from the audience was, “What will you do to keep rental properties from lowering and deteriorating property values, especially in the south end of the city?”

Swanson said he wants to help rebuild the south end of the city, noting that there is an interest in park space there. He said he’s not well-versed in real estate, however, and would seek the counsel of people knowledgeable on the subject, such as Councilman Robert Corbett, a real estate agent.    

Hartwell runs a law firm in Madison Heights and said real estate law is the biggest part of his business. He currently has a client in federal court on a housing discrimination case, so he has studied the law on housing rights at all levels of government. He said he’s also walked to over 2,000 doors during his campaign, and blight has been a recurring concern.

The best way to fight blight, Hartwell said, is to address both the tenants and the landlords. With the tenants, he feels the city can do more to educate them on the city’s values, such as mandatory recycling and keeping yards clean. With landlords, especially absent and unlicensed ones, the city needs to go after them, he said.

“We need to pinch (unlicensed, negligent landlords) with aggressive fines,” Hartwell said.

Civic involvement
Both candidates said they would need a lot longer than the one minute allowed to rattle off their entire history of volunteer work.

Hartwell went first this time, noting that his longest involvement has been with the Kiwanis Club, where he served as president and currently serves as vice president. One of its projects is to give dictionaries to third-graders each year and, funds permitting, to every foreign-born student in the city as well. Hartwell is also a dues-paying member of the new Madison Heights Men’s Club.

Swanson said he’s an active member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and over the years he’s been involved “in just about all of the general clubs” in the city. He also expressed interest in a new Korean War group.

Health and experience
Swanson was asked what he would tell those who are concerned about how long he’s been in office and whether he’s still able to fulfill his duties.

“I’ll know when to leave — how about that,” Swanson said. “So far, so good!”

Hartwell, 33, was asked what he would tell those who are concerned about his youth and whether that translates to inexperience in government.

Hartwell seemed puzzled by the inexperience question. He noted that in addition to serving the last eight years on council, and half of that as mayor pro tem, he also has college degrees in politics, economics and law. Hartwell is also a business owner in the city, and he has served on boards and in civic groups, giving him a wide range of experience.

Helping the seniors
When asked how the city should help seniors, Swanson said, “Seniors are very important in the city of Madison Heights,” after saying he agrees with the issues brought up by the other council people who spoke before him, such as improved accessibility and transportation for seniors with limited mobility, and maintaining the Senior Citizens Center.

Hartwell spoke next, and said he has helped many seniors by acting on his own, forming a free law clinic for low-income seniors.

“Seniors are telling me they’re being attacked by scam artists, and there are issues of ID theft. And then there are basic everyday things like estate planning and end-of-life issues,” Hartwell said. “So I’ve done everything I can to donate my time as a lawyer to these hundreds of seniors. I meet with them every month, they tell me what’s going on in their lives, and their story is unique to them, but I start to see trends like the ID theft. So I want to bring in more attorneys and professionals to assist our seniors on fixed incomes. And speaking of which, all city fees should be scaled to take (fixed incomes) into account.”

Challenges going forward
When asked what challenges face the city of Madison Heights in the future, Swanson replied, “Actually, I don’t know if we have many of them. This is the first time in 28 years that no one has challenged the (councilman incumbents) on City Council. And what this tells me is everything must be going pretty well in our city. We’re not getting the complaints we normally would. We’re progressing with the streets; we put the sidewalks in. To be truthful, I think the citizens are very happy with what’s going on.”

Hartwell said he disagrees with his rival and said there are still many challenges facing the city.

“I view things differently from Mayor Swanson, and that’s because I’m on the bottom of the income spectrum in Madison Heights,” Hartwell said. “Low fixed incomes are the biggest challenge in our city. So my first priority as mayor is to change the mindset at City Hall from this panicked recession sense of ‘what’s good for the budget’ to ‘what’s good for the residents.’ And we should always keep those low-income, fixed-income people in mind.

“(Another) challenge will be to focus police efforts on crime fighting,” Hartwell continued. “During the recession, we got away from that by reducing undercover, reducing the investigation unit, and converting those into road patrol. Clearly, that’s an unveiled revenue generator (by ticketing drivers). So we need to go back, speak with members of our Police Department and make them crime fighters, not revenue generators.”

The election is Tuesday, Nov. 3.