Residents to get shot at voting on public safety issue

By: April Lehmbeck | Advertiser Times | Published February 16, 2011

HARPER WOODS — The May school election will not only be for school business this year, as a major controversy in the city could culminate at the ballot box.

The attorney general approved the ballot language for a charter amendment proposal that would allow the city to make a controversial change to a public safety department if approved by the electorate. Then, last month, the City Council cast its vote in favor of placing the measure on the ballot in May.

“Now that council has taken this action, the language is forwarded to the governor, who must approve the ballot language so that we can certify it to the county clerk before the Feb. 22 deadline,” Harper Woods Clerk Mickey Todd said early this month.

The debate over public safety issues has been going on for more than a couple of years now and even caused a long-running lawsuit pitting the city against its own firefighters.

The city started a cross-training initiative and invited police and fire employees to train in one another’s discipline to create a public safety unit. It was an initiative officials said was meant to help with manpower and funding.

The firefighters’ union basically said “no way” and contended it was not allowed based on the city charter’s specification that there be two distinct departments for fire and police.

The firefighters took their case to court and came out on top, even after an appeal from the city.

After the latest ruling, the Harper Woods Professional Fire Fighters released a press release early last month asking the city to back off and “stop wasting taxpayer money to combine police and fire fighters into a public safety department.”

“The charter language could not be clearer,” union President Pat Rollison stated in the press release. “The provision was made because the charter authors knew Harper Woods would be best served by expertly trained fire fighters and police officers with clearly defined roles on the emergency scene.”

The union claims that overriding the charter language was attempted more than a decade ago, and the voters turned it down.

Both sides contend they are making decisions they feel are in the best interest of the community and its safety.

Harper Woods officials claim that this will help ensure more manpower on the streets because they can use a cross-trained fleet. The city is not in an economic position to hire additional police or fire personnel to get the manpower up to where it needs to be to man two separate entities, according to city officials.