Allen Park looks to end crony subsidy deals
Stealth elections that are held at odd times of the year when few voters are paying attention have dominated Michigan over the years.
They are orchestrated by groups that have a special interest in the result and voter turnout traditionally is limited.
The opposite of that is taking place this year and some local grassroots efforts are having a hard time getting noticed with such a stacked ballot.
As a result, there's concern by some that well-organized special interest groups will win on their issues, more or less by default.
That scenario is a major concern to supporters of a local charter amendment on the ballot in Allen Park.
Tim O'Brien, executive director of the Small Government Alliance, said that at this stage of the election he sees his primary task as informing and reminding voters about the amendment, not making a case for it. The charter amendment his group is backing would prevent the city of Allen Park from issuing bonds without approval of the voters.
"We're pretty confident that an overwhelming majority of voters would vote in support of this," O'Brien said. "But, with everything else that's going on in this election — from the presidential race on down through the statewide ballot proposals — there are concerns that our local proposal might get lost. Our voters are facing a two-page ballot, both front and back, with the local issues listed at the end."
Voter turnout for presidential elections typically outpaces other elections and voters often are faced with long, daunting ballots.
"This is always a problem," said Inside Michigan Politics Editor Bill Ballenger. "You have all these local issues on the ballot in communities across the state that could get buried by the other stuff that is getting more attention. There's a potential for a huge drop-off from the number of votes cast at the top of the ballot and those cast on the questions at the bottom."
Ballenger said the issue could be intensified this year due to the campaigns on the statewide ballot proposals.
"I just ran into this Up North in Marquette," Ballenger said. "Up there the concern is that the campaigns against the statewide proposals will get confused with local proposals. In other words, when voters hear 'vote no, no, no,' will that carry down to the local proposals?"
Allen Park, a city of 28,000 in Wayne County, is in debt and is awaiting the appointment of an emergency manager. A large portion of Allen Park's budgetary woes stems from a $31 million dollar investment in a failed movie studio complex.
A few years ago, Allen Park's elected officials tried to cash in on state film and education subsidies. The city partnered with a movie producer in a project to build studios and sound stages, editing and animation facilities, as well as a school to retrain laid-off auto workers in entertainment industry-related skills, at a site in the heart of the city.
Financial backing for the project included the sale of more than $30 million worth of 30-year bonds. Then, when the project crumbled, Allen Park taxpayers were stuck with the IOUs.
The Allen Park charter amendment on this year's ballot is aimed at preventing this sort of debacle from happening again.
O'Brien said most public officials and those who stand to benefit from unrestricted public spending are opposed to the charter amendment. He describes them as "a highly motivated faction of the Allen Park electorate."
"I'm not too worried about people confusing the charter amendment proposal with the statewide proposals," O'Brien said. "In our situation that's not the fear. I think it's mostly a matter of making sure that as many voters as possible are aware of our proposal. I think if they're interested enough to go all the way down to the local issues, they'll understand what they're voting on."
O'Brien said the local paper has written about the proposal and also editorialized against it. When he tried to respond, he said "the newspaper wouldn't publish it."
"My background is in advertising and I just don't think there's a substitute for paying to get your message out," O'Brien said.
“In an election like this, doing a local mailing is the key," O'Brien said. "Of the roughly 11,000 registered voters in Allen Park, about 4,000 vote by absentee ballot. We did just manage to get a mailing out in time for absentee voters to receive it. But now we're concerned about the other 7,000 who vote on Election Day. We're working on making sure that those voters know about the charter amendment proposal."
In addition to national, state and local proposals, Ballenger said there's an added layer of issues in many communities, too.
"No one has paid much attention to it, but the legislature changed things so that many local school board elections take place in November this year," Ballenger said. "With everything else that's on the ballot, you have to wonder how many people will be knowledgeable about those local elections."
O'Brien said he wanted to make it clear that Allen Park’s financial problems didn’t begin with the $30 million bond issue for a failed project.
"The bond issue was just the straw that broke the camel's back," O'Brien said.