Pontiac leaders must cooperate, roundtable participants agree
Of The Oakland Press
PONTIAC -- The lack of cooperation among elected officials echoed throughout a meeting room as a group of roughly 20 community leaders were asked to voice their frustrations with being formal leaders working in or around Pontiac.
By the end of a nearly two-hour discussion on reforming political leadership, Mayor Clarence Phillips was urged by fellow city leaders to organize a retreat with the City Council members to resolve their differences.
"When there is a lack of cooperation between our elected officials, that emulates everything else," said Charles Tucker, interim director of the Pontiac Growth Group. "Unless you have a cohesive working relationship, even with the school board, this city will see no progress."
The fourth and final topic of the Oakland Press roundtable series titled "Pontiac: What's Next?" centered on political leadership last week. The event was at the Michigan State University Management Education Center in Troy. Previous roundtable topics have included education, finance and public safety.
Confidence in the city's leaders, lack of trust and too many people trying to take on the role of running the city were named as top issues interfering with effective leadership in Pontiac.
The roundtable was facilitated by Rick David, vice president of strategic relations for United Way of Southeast Michigan. David opened the discussion by asking all who were present to list their recent contributions to the city, then name their main frustration.
Jeff Love, president of Baker College, suggested getting "everyone in a room and lock the door until they begin to work together."
"The lack of teamwork with the mayor and City Council, union groups for police and fire and anyone else that needs to be at the table to get this budget stabilized is frustrating for me," Love said. "The future of this city relies on everyone working together."
Phillips said a few council members have expressed interest in the idea of a retreat and reassured the crowd that it will happen.
"All is not lost in the great city of Pontiac, and I mean that," he said.
"Some council members have come to me, open to the idea of a retreat ... I have to admit that I, too, expected greater cooperation from our legislative branch during these very critical times in our city. But one thing I'm proud of is the way we've dealt with our financial situation. Of course it's not perfect, but with the things we've put in place, I think we've kept our heads above water."
Oakland County Commissioner Tim Greimel said despite what many may think, "every city leader in Pontiac does care deeply about the city and genuinely wants to see the city prosper."
"Yet, there has been a conspicuous absence of people coming together to get things done," Greimel added.
No members of the Pontiac City Council were present at the roundtable. Council President Art McClellan was invited, but did not attend.
"We are here discussing all of these great things to help the city move forward, but we're missing an essential voting body," said Sandy-Michael McDonald, director of the Pontiac Downtown Development Authority. "Unless you have all of the people here who are responsible for decisionmaking, these recommendations and discussions serve no purpose.
"The fact that they're not here -- whether it was inadequate outreach to get them here, or lack of interest on their part -- means like many things in Pontiac, this discussion will get us nowhere," McDonald said.
'Who has the final word?'
A comment by McDonald that "too many people are trying to lead the crowd" brought nodding heads and more discussion on the flaws of elected officials.
"Pontiac's problem is you have a group of legislators who don't understand their roles," McDonald said. "We have a strong-mayor form of government, but here you have another group of people trying to run the city. If people focused more on doing their job, as opposed to getting in the mayor's way, maybe we could begin to tackle these issues that are holding the city down.
"(Deputy Oakland County Executive) Robert Daddow was at both finance roundtables," McDonald said. "He gave you methods to reduce the structural deficit, yet nothing has been done."
The Rev. Douglas Jones, pastor of Welcome Missionary Baptist Church in Pontiac, said that two years ago a transition team was put in place giving the city recommendations to decrease the structural budget deficit, but the results have yet to materialize.
Rosemary Gallardo, president of the Pontiac Regional Chamber, asked why the city can't hire a turnaround specialist to solve its financial woes. The conversation then veered back to defining the true leader of the city who would make that decision.
"Who do we go to, to say we want a turnaround specialist?" asked Kevin Gross, formerly with the Pontiac Board of Education. "That's the problem, you think this is something that can be handled by the mayor, but there are seven other personalities that you have to answer to. Who are the real leaders in Pontiac? Who has the final word?"
Circuit Court Judge Fred Mester said city leaders have to "get past this attitude of 'How can I protect my turf?' "
"When you focus on your own personal self-interests, you're overlooking the greatness that could come to this city and make it a better place," Mester said.
John Ziraldo, chief executive officer of Lighthouse of Oakland County, said Pontiac is a community that is still fighting old fights, instead on focusing on fundamental things that could improve the city.
"These political leaders need to set aside their personal issues and rise above self interests," he said. "How can we expect younger people to break new ground if they don't have leaders showing them the way? We need our young people to see Pontiac as a place to rise to new leadership É How can you do that if you're stuck in the past?"
Jones added, "Too much focus on the past hinders the vision for the future. Yes, there was a lot of mismanagement in the past, and money was lost. But you'll never find that money. It's gone. Now it's time to move forward."
Education, employment, business
Other recommendations made to improve the city -- from representatives such as Patricia Dolly, president of Oakland Community College's Auburn Hills campus, and Jonathan Witz, producer of Arts du Jour 2007 and Arts, Beats and Eats -- were to improve education and invest in downtown Pontiac.
"The lack of urgency among Pontiac leaders when it comes to education frightens me," Dolly said.
"You can't get jobs here, you can't get an education here -- all because of lack of government cooperation. If you can't find a way to provide these essential things, the city will continue to fail."
Calvin Cupidore Jr., interim superintendent of the Pontiac Board of Education, said that in the year that he has been with the school district, he has noticed ineffective governance across the city.
"I like to surround myself with visionary, strategic people," Cupidore said. "And I don't see enough of that here. It seems as though we live from crisis to crisis instead of looking beyond and moving forward." Witz, who arranged for Arts du Jour 2007 to move from its original location of the Somerset Collection in Troy to downtown Pontiac, made a personal challenge to County Executive L. Brooks Patterson to make an investment in the city.
"I have witnessed some great improvements in the city -- particularly the downtown area -- but there needs to be more," he said. "Take some Oakland County (government) business into downtown Pontiac. It might not be good for your bottom line, but someone has got to invest in this city."
Patterson agreed the transformation of downtown has significantly improved, but said he, too, would like to see more results. "Just drive through downtown Flint. There are tangible results in downtown Flint and I want to see the same results in Pontiac," Patterson said.
Jack Weiner, president and CEO of St. Joseph Mercy Oakland, accused Patterson and Oakland County in general of undercutting Pontiac.
"There's a lot of lip service paid to Pontiac from the county, and the city keeps getting undercut," he said. "It's OK to build something nice in Novi or Clarkston -- these nice, white neighborhoods where they have money and good insurance, but not in Pontiac. That's my frustration."
To summarize the major problem Pontiac faces, Weiner said there is no vision for the city.
"I don't know what the vision is for Pontiac," he said. "Is there a vision? I see a lot of activities leading up to a vision, but there is no concrete vision. I appreciate the activities, but until we get that vision, it's just a bunch of activities."
In response to Weiner, Phillips said: "The vision is to get out of the financial hole in the first place. That's the first move. But if you've got one foot in the grave and one on a banana peel, you're in a tough position."Contact staff writer Kaniqua Daniel Smothers at (248) 745-4714 or firstname.lastname@example.org.