It’s not easy, but public trust in government can be built, and rebuilt

Cheryl Farmer

Dr. Cheryl Farmer was mayor of Ypsilanti from 1995-2006, and a retired physician.

At a recent fundraiser for a nonprofit community organization, a citizen discovered I was a former mayor of Ypsilanti. He asked me a great question: What had I done as mayor that made me most proud? I have been thinking about that question ever since, and my answer also explains the way in which Ypsilanti managed – nearly 20 years ago – to do the complex infrastructure replacement that the entire state of Michigan sorely needs to do today.

In my almost 12 years as mayor, the city improved its streets and replaced aging water mains (many with lead components). We accomplished this, along with building – and rebuilding – trust between residents and city government, as well as among elected officials. Prior to my election I had seen council members yell at each other in meetings, harass city employees, vote to hurt their “enemies” even when warned it would result in a lawsuit, leave colleagues out of discussions, and willfully disregard city ordinances with the expectation that their elected position would protect them.

But through “visioning retreats,” grassroots consensus-building and strong leadership, we were able to rebuild the public’s faith in city government to the extent that voters entrusted us with several major initiatives that upgraded our water infrastructure and improved our streets – both projects the state needs, desperately.

Given how The Center for Michigan has recently published a citizen-engagement report demonstrating just how shattered the public’s trust in its government is, these lessons might be useful to others.

We had a transitional council of 10 members my first year, because even though a new city charter had downsized the council from 11 to seven, some members who were duly elected under the old charter still had a year left on their terms of office. Of the 10, only two were supporters. We could all count, and I actually had council members occasionally call me in advance of a meeting to say I might as well not even put a certain issue on the agenda because I didn’t have the votes. I put every issue I wanted on the agenda anyway, for a full public discussion. Good ideas can withstand scrutiny, and bad ones can’t. Sometimes by the end of the discussion I actually did have the votes.

I assumed that since council members who initially squared off against me as the “enemy” didn’t actually know me, they would open their eyes if treated fairly. All praise for a job well done was given in public, and all criticism (of colleagues or staff) was done privately.

What can we all agree on?

For our first visioning session, we included all council members, the city manager, city clerk and all department heads in the retreat. We brought in a professional facilitator, and respectfully asked each person in the room to talk about what they thought were the city’s strengths and weaknesses, and what might be done to address them. We identified a few ideas, on which we all agreed, to address Ypsilanti’s weaknesses, and asked the city manager and staff to come up with plans to implement them. All areas of disagreement were set aside.

Next we tackled the perception and reality of public safety. This involved having an outside consultant do a review of the police department, which led to a reorganization. The Citizen’s Police Academy was instituted. We did diversity training with our officers. Part of the force got out of their cars and patrolled by bike or on foot. We called on HUD to make policy changes that allowed us to remove people from public housing who were engaged in illegal activity, and to make physical upgrades to the units.

EMU faculty were engaged to help provide summer programming for underprivileged youth, and later facilitated the establishment of Neighborhood Associations (NAs) in every neighborhood that lacked one. We organized Co-PAC -- the Community-Police Action Council -- consisting of one representative from each NA plus the police chief or designee. It met monthly and provided a reliable connection between the police and public.

The second time I ran, everyone was asking when we were going to fix the streets. City Manager Ed Koryzno said there was no money in the budget, and suggested we establish a Blue Ribbon Committee (BRC) to decide how we would finance the project. The committee was balanced by ward, party, gender, race, age and union membership. I wanted everyone in the community to see someone on that Committee that they knew and trusted. After studying the issue for months in public meetings, the BRC concluded unanimously that the only way we could afford new streets would be to pass a bond.

I will always remember the Council meeting where we adopted the BRC recommendation to put a bond issue on the ballot. One man stood up during audience participation and said Ypsilanti is a blue collar town, and blue collar people didn’t care about the streets. John Fosket, a longtime union leader at our Ford plant, then stood up and said “I’m blue collar, and I want the streets fixed!” Fosket went on to co-chair the committee to pass the bond, along with Republican BRC member Herb Miller.

While we have those holes open...

As we discussed rebuilding streets, residents began coming forward with concerns about multiple water main breaks in their neighborhoods. Wouldn’t it be a waste of money to rebuild a street and then have to tear it up due to a water main break? We invited representatives from the Ypsilanti Community Utilities Authority (YCUA) to a council meeting to tell us about the condition of our water mains. They were hard to pin down. So I asked “What is the average lifespan of a water main?” The answer was 60 years. When I asked which areas of the city had mains older than 60, the answer was: All of them.

Council then had to decide how to pay for new water mains under every local street. We voted to attach a surcharge to water bills. Residents were not thrilled, but they understood the need and Council actually got very little heat for this vote. We then notified DTE that they would be expected to upgrade all of the electric and gas lines under the new streets, and likewise for the cable company.

The earlier successes City Council had had in addressing less costly issues through our visioning sessions and through our new habits of civil, rational, inclusive and transparent public discussions laid a groundwork of trust. That trust between council members, the city staff and the members of the community was necessary for us to later successfully address the bigger, more expensive issues of rebuilding all the local streets and replacing all the water mains under them.

Not only have we replaced all of the water mains beneath our local streets, but during that process identified those connections from the street to the house that were lead and should be replaced. We are fortunate now that Ypsilantians will never have to worry about lead poisoning such as the residents of Flint have suffered.

The cost of overtime for employees who had to fix water main breaks in the middle of the night, on weekends and holidays went down dramatically; almost no new streets had to be dug up; the volume (and therefore cost) of water purchased from Detroit went down significantly because we were no longer losing 10 percent to leaky pipes before it could get to our homes.

Currently water mains, sewers, bridges, streets, dams and other aging infrastructure needs to be replaced all across Michigan. As we learned in Ypsilanti, when road repairs are put off too long, they can no longer be repaired. The roads have to be rebuilt, and that is more expensive. As they have learned in Fraser, when sewer replacement is put off too long, sewers collapse and swallow homes, putting lives at risk and increasing the cost.

How do Michiganders move ahead with needed infrastructure repair now, before the financial and human costs rise even higher? I believe we have to begin by rebuilding trust in our government, and that has to start with electing officials who are honest, transparent, trustworthy, civil and collaborative. 

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Judie Davis Glick
Sun, 04/09/2017 - 2:46am

Thank you for an example of how to do infrastructure where needed. We also need basic civic lessons concerning what govern ments do and what taxes contribute too.

Mark Higbee
Sun, 04/09/2017 - 8:27am

I much appreciate Cheryl Farmer's account of how significant civic decisions were made when she was mayor of Ypsilanti. Her account is fair and accurate. However, no one should conclude that in Ypsilanti we have no outstanding infrastructure needs today (such as bridges). The state's systematic neglect of public infrastructure can be mitigated by, but not wholly made up for, by local initiatives.

Sun, 04/09/2017 - 12:54pm

Thanks for all the good you did, but this article is sooo one sided, this is the Mayor who strapped Ypsilanti with Water Street.

Sun, 04/09/2017 - 3:54pm

This is a practical, effective approach to governing, improving services, and upgrading infrastructure.

Beth Marshall
Tue, 04/11/2017 - 12:45am

A lesson everyone could learn about the importance of transparent, inclusive leadership. Thank you for your years of service.

Geoff Taylor
Tue, 04/11/2017 - 5:43am

Yes, public trust can be repaired. The easiest is at a local level where the issues, resources, manpower and debate are personal. Above that, State and Federal politicians cannot and won't win back trust until the money is taken out of elections, the canadates are not beholden to monied interestes and are called to task for misdeeds. Citizens know that and so we get worse and worse.

Jackie Berg
Thu, 04/13/2017 - 10:20am

I've worked on many Ypsilanti community initiatives over the years and know that there is no shortage of passionate people in this community. It's great to see (new) alignment among them! -Jackie Berg, Publisher TheHUB Detroit