Zoning board nomination draws diversity discussion

Councilman seeks more diverse candidate for ‘all male and all white’ board

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published July 7, 2020


The nomination of a Zoning Board of Appeals applicant at a recent Sterling Heights City Council meeting became a microcosm for national conversations on race, namely the philosophies and methods institutions use to achieve equality and diversity.

During the June 16 council meeting, Councilwoman Barbara Ziarko named Dennis Hansinger as a potential nominee to fill an opening on the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals. She said she hadn’t talked to Hansinger recently, but she was going through city materials and applications during the stay-at-home order.

“And in my notes, I had on there: ‘great candidate for a commission.’ And so as I was looking over the nominees, and his choice for Zoning Board of Appeals is his second choice. So I thought it would be a great opportunity for him to serve.”

The City Council voted in favor of Hansinger’s nomination 6-1, with Councilman Michael Radtke voting against. During discussion, Radtke said why he would vote no on the candidate.

“I’m not going to object to Mr. Hansinger as a person, but the Zoning Board of Appeals is all men and all white. And the idea that we can't find one female or one minority candidate in all of our applications to put on this board befuddles me,” he said.  “And it's going to continue to be all male and all white until we make a change.

“I'll be voting against this just because it's not a diversity candidate. Nothing against Mr. Hansinger — I think he's probably a great candidate. But the board is all male and all white, and I want to change that.”

Zoning Board of Appeals appointees go through two rounds of City Council votes before they are seated — first a nomination vote and then an appointment vote. The vote on whether to formally appoint Hansinger to the zoning board was scheduled to occur July 7. 

Should Hansinger be formally appointed to the ZBA, his term would last until June 30, 2023. The ZBA has seven seats in total, and Community Relations Director Melanie Davis said in an email that the city pays ZBA members $30 per meeting, with a $90 monthly maximum.  

After the meeting, Hansinger said in an email that he had no advance notice that he was going to be nominated that day. He said he applied months ago and no longer thought a nomination would be likely. 

He said he is “willing to serve,” adding that his experience includes 40 years of Sterling Heights residency and over four decades in the insurance business.

“I've always appreciated how the master plan for the city was developed and adhered to over the years,” Hansinger said. “I think it is a well thought out plan, and I think it shows a lot of organizational skill on the part of the city.  

“I am an open-minded individual and realize that sometimes exceptions need to be made to our zoning ordinances and at times they make sense.”

In response to the discussion around the June 16 nomination vote, Hansinger said his race is not relevant, just as his age is not relevant.

“Mr. Radtke has a vote as a council member,” Hansinger said. “He voted against me. That is his prerogative as a council member. I respect that.”

Radtke’s remarks came amid widespread media attention to racial issues, inequality and police brutality following the death of Minnesota man George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. In recent weeks, other Sterling Heights city officials have spoken about the need for inclusivity, noting that the word “inclusive” appears in the city’s 2030 Visioning vision statement. 


Diversity and the law

The Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act guarantees “the opportunity to obtain employment, housing and other real estate, and the full and equal utilization of public accommodations, public service, and educational facilities without discrimination because of religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, or marital status as prohibited by this act.”

Further in the act, the definition of public service includes “a public facility, department, agency, board, or commission, owned, operated, or managed by or on behalf of the state, a political subdivision, or an agency thereof or a tax exempt private agency established to provide service to the public, except that public service does not include a state or county correctional facility with respect to actions and decisions regarding an individual serving a sentence of imprisonment.”

 In an email, Wayne State University Law School professor Robert Sedler said Elliott-Larsen prohibits “a policy of discrimination, such as a quota limiting the number of minorities, whites, women or men who can serve on the commission.” 

Sedler said it doesn’t ban a council member from taking race into account in order to increase a commission’s diversity, which he said is the case here.

“Members of a city council are free to vote on appointments for any reason that they choose,” he said.

Sedler constitutionally compared the matter to how the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public universities may consider race as a factor to foster educational diversity.

“For the same reason, I would submit that it is constitutionally permissible for a city council to take race or gender as one of the factors in appointment to a governmental agency,” he said. “The city has a compelling interest in ensuring that governmental agencies are reflective of the city's population.”

Sedler said cities may promote representation and diversity by making sure that minorities and women apply for board openings.

“The city can then take race or gender into account as one of the factors determining membership,” he said. “But it cannot use quotas.”

Peter Hammer, a law professor and the director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University Law School, offered some general opinions.

“Current laws dealing with affirmative action and non-discrimination are poorly equipped to deal with the racial equity needs confronting us today and move this country forward,” he said.

Hammer said the way nondiscrimination laws and affirmative action provisions are practiced today can “often create greater racial inequality by preventing progress in increasing racial diversity.”

“We need new justifications for affirmative action grounded in a respect for and appreciation of how different life experiences are essential in informing collective public decision making,” he said.   

“The real ‘story’ may lie in historic patterns of discrimination that led city decision making processes to generate the names of exclusively white males in the first place. … Color blind application of principles of non-discrimination can be used as a sword and applied with a vengeance to block racial progress and to perpetuate systems of racial hierarchy and oppression.”

Several members of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, including its media contact, declined to answer emails by press time. However, the department’s online Racial Equity Toolkit outlines differences it sees between advocating equality and equity.

In a section titled “Equality vs. Equity,” the department said equality is “often associated with justice and sameness, yet when its practice and implementation lack an equity lens through which physical, structural and historical differences are acknowledged, inequitable outcomes are created and sustained.” 

“Equity takes into consideration how the past has shaped the present and assesses social advantages/disadvantages in order to promote justice and fairness,” the toolkit added. 

Macomb County Commissioner Leon Drolet, R-Macomb Township, was the statewide chairman of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, which through voter approval successfully amended the Michigan constitution in 2006. 

That amendment bans cities from discriminating against, or giving preferential treatment to, an individual or group based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin for public employment, public education or public contracting.

Drolet said Sterling Heights officials should treat each person as an individual and “not as a gender category or a skin color.”

“Mr. Hansinger has a right to be treated as an individual without his ethnicity being a factor in how he is treated by his government. Instead, he was reduced to a skin color by a city councilman who stated that Mr. Hansinger was otherwise qualified.”

Drolet said Sterling Heights city officials should reflect on whether they are doing everything possible to make sure that all citizens have the opportunity to apply for boards and commissions. He said they can legally extend recruitment widely in many venues and formats, adding that the current approach might only be narrowly reaching a segment of the residents. 

“The solution to a lack of gender or ethnic diversity can be addressed by widening outreach to encourage more people to apply,” he said.


Seeking inclusion

In the June 16 City Council agenda packet materials, the agenda item came with a list of 37 individuals who had applicant information on file, including Hansinger. 

In an email, Sterling Heights resident Sharron Allen shared her experience with community involvement in the city. She said she is a member of the Ethnic Community Committee, as well as the new African American Coalition on Equity.

Allen, who has lived in Sterling Heights for over 30 years, said she is surprised that the City Council has no members of different races. In regards to the City Council's ZBA nomination discussion, she said her issue is that it's not enough to simply make a statement — a diverse candidate should be presented to the council.

"In order to do that, you have to know and associate with people of different backgrounds, and that is what I say will solve a lot of the issues we have  as a community — it is getting to know each other," she said.

Radtke said in a statement issued after the meeting that “we have now identified a more qualified minority female candidate” to put forward.

Allen, who is Black, said the Black community and other communities must work together to fight and overcome systemic racism and injustice.

"We have to communicate and listen to one another, which I think people are uncomfortable with talking about racism," she said. "But it's time, and I believe the city is trying to do that. Our police chief is showing a good example of what we should be doing in the city, which is reaching out to different communities, to be inclusive."


City officials react

Councilwoman Barbara Ziarko declined in an email to comment on questions related to her reaction to Radtke’s no vote; how many minorities have historically sat on boards and commissions; and the role that race, sex or identity should play in choosing nominees. She added that she will have the chance to make additional comments at the July 7 City Council meeting.

Radtke did not comment on questions in two emails asking how he planned to vote on Hansinger’s appointment; whether he had his own candidate recommendation ready; and which further steps the city should take to attract diverse representation. When reached by phone and asked if he wanted to provide comment, he declined to speak with the Sentry on the record.

Radtke issued his own public statement.

“When I first ran for office, I ran on a platform of ‘Creating a City for Everyone’ and I consider it my duty to ensure that all of our residents are represented in city government. When a position came open on ZBA — a committee made up of all white men — I decided it was time to act, and that I could not support a nominee that was not female or a minority. 

“In a city of 133,000 people, the idea that our boards should be made up of all men is retrograde and discriminatory. I believe it is my job as a city councilman to rectify this situation, ensuring that diverse people are appointed to our boards, so ALL of our residents are represented.

“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. 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.”

Although City Manager Mark Vanderpool and City Attorney Marc Kaszubski didn’t respond for comment, Sterling Heights Community Relations Director Melanie Davis issued an emailed statement on the city’s efforts to foster diverse representation on boards and commissions.

The statement said the city has an open application process, and it regularly encourages residents to apply to become appointees on its volunteer boards and commissions. 

“The City does not discriminate against applicants on grounds of religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, and/or marital status in making appointments to City boards or commissions,” the statement said.

“There is no question having a diverse board reflective of the community, whenever possible, is consistent with best practices throughout the country and provides for stronger dialogue, engagement and collaboration.” 

Davis’ statement said city boards, commissions and committees currently are largely made up of people from “diverse backgrounds and experiences,” including the Zoning Board of Appeals, the Planning Commission, the Youth Advisory Board, the Sterling Heights Drug Free Coalition, the Ethnic Community Committee, the Clergy Forum and the African American Coalition on Equity.

“While a pool of applicants may be perceived as limited, the city continues to seek residents that reflect the composition of the Sterling Heights community and who are willing to serve in these volunteer roles,” the statement added. 

“Efforts include community outreach through social media, local media outlets, email blasts and groups like the Chaldean Community Foundation, Welcoming Michigan, the newly formed African American Coalition, the Ethnic Community Committee, local schools, the business community, religious institutions and neighborhoods throughout the City. 

“The City acknowledges that there are always ways to improve this process, and we are committed to continual improvement.”

Find out more about Sterling Heights by visiting www.sterling-heights.net or by calling (586) 446-2489. 

Call Staff Writer Eric Czarnik at (586) 498-1058.