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West Bloomfield board members show unity in reelection bid

By: Andy Kozlowski | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published February 7, 2020

File photo by Deb Jacques

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WEST BLOOMFIELD — The current term of the West Bloomfield Township Board of Trustees (2016-2020) has been a peaceful one, defined by civility among its members — a refreshing change of pace from previous cycles, where in-fighting was a common occurrence, officials said.

Wishing to keep a good thing going, the seven board members up for reelection Aug. 4 are now campaigning together as a unit and endorsing each other. They are currently running unopposed. All seven are Democrats, and all seven seek to renew their four-year terms.

They include Steven Kaplan, running for another term as township supervisor; Debbie Binder, running again for township clerk; Teri Weingarden, running for another term as township treasurer; and trustees Jim Manna, Howard Rosenberg, Diane Rosenfeld Swimmer and Jonathan Warshay.

Binder, Manna and Warshay began serving in their current positions in 2016. Swimmer came onboard in 2012, and Rosenberg and Weingarden in 2008. Kaplan was elected supervisor in 2016, but he previously served as a township trustee from 2000 to 2004, and again from 2008 to 2016.

In a series of email interviews, members reflected on the way the board culture has changed.

“Our residents appreciate the fact that disagreements on policy and budget issues are civil, and that compromises are oftentimes reached,” Kaplan said. “The public does not want to observe feuding and dissension among its elected officials. No personal attacks or insulting conduct has occurred at any of our board meetings during the 39 months of this four-year term. Even when the board is divided 4 to 3, 5 to 2 or 6 to 1 … the minority accepts the decision, and afterward does not simmer or complain about the result.”

Kaplan points to a 2018 vote on a proposed residential project at the site of the former Eagle Elementary School at 14 Mile and Middlebelt roads. The board was divided 5-2, but the two dissenting members did not dwell on the issue. And later, in 2019, the board voted unanimously to approve a 52-unit condominium plan there proposed by Hunter Pasteur Homes.   

Contrast this with how things used to be. As Kaplan recalls it, previous boards were fraught with conflict dating back to 1992. From the mid-‘80s to the mid-‘90s, all officials were Republicans, and since 2012 all officials have been Democrats. Kaplan said that during the time in between, in the early to mid-2000s, the board was prone to partisan bickering.

But partisanship was only part of the problem. Clashing personalities were the main problem — and all the sharp words and bad blood that come with it.

Some examples of strife include sharp divides on development issues from 1992 to 2000, when the board clashed over approvals and denials of residential projects in open and unbuilt areas. As recently as 2008 to 2016, it was still not uncommon for the board to be divided 4-3 on issues.

Things improved with the current term, prior to which the seven board members agreed that something had to change with the board’s culture.

“The seven current members decided … to set aside any personality disputes and to display respect to one another at board meetings,” Kaplan said. “On agenda items where disagreement exists, the discussions have been civil and courteous, without personal attacks, hostility or insults.”

Weingarden observed that the change in attitude has also led to an increase in productivity. Among the current board’s accomplishments have been unanimous adoption of a balanced budget for three consecutive years; realignment of the planning, zoning and engineering departments; passage of the public safety renewal millage, supported by 82 percent of voters; construction of a new fire station at Green Lake and Commerce roads; and improved morale among staff.

“The bickering and attacks on previous township boards were a distraction. Often, agenda items discussed at the board table were meant to embarrass or attack fellow members. The previous culture had a deep mistrust among members and even different departments within the township. This negative culture made collaboration almost impossible,” Weingarden said.

“Our board meetings run more efficiently now. Members thoroughly read and research their board packet agenda items, allowing questions to be fielded by department heads and staff prior to board meetings. This allows for productive discussions, a deeper understanding of the issues, and improves the discourse at the board table,” she said.

“Board members don’t always agree on the issue, but we are able to share our viewpoints and have a civil discourse. Since everyone feels that they contributed to the board discussion and their opinion was heard, there are not negative feelings, regardless of who is on the prevailing side,” Weingarden concluded. “We act as a team, and the residents benefit from this approach.”

Binder agreed, and said she hopes to continue working with the current team. She highlighted such board accomplishments as ratifying four-year contracts with each of the seven labor unions, and refinancing the township’s health care bonds to save $1.54 million.

“I look forward to running as a unified slate as we continue to vitalize West Bloomfield Township,” Binder said. “It is validating when I frequently encounter a resident who recalls the ‘old way’ and is extremely grateful we found a way to be productive as a board, without dissension.”

Rosenberg said that even when he’s at odds with others, he still feels like his opinion has been heard and respectfully considered.

“We deliberate, debate and disagree without rancor,” Rosenberg said. “We make our case regarding our position on an issue, work hard to incorporate all ideas, build as best a consensus as possible, take a vote, and accept the result.”

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