Sterling Heights mayor faces primary challenge after Biden vote, spending moves

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Sterling Heights has transformed its 26 parks into a bit of a playground for adults and kids under a $45 million parks millage approved by voters in 2016.

A skate park and dog park are now attractions in the Macomb County city as well as a splash pad used by young and old alike. Park pathways have been resurfaced, entrance signs and play structures replaced, picnic tables and garbage cans have been added and athletic courts and fields were renovated.

Resident Jennifer Vesperman says she loves the amenities in Sterling Heights, Michigan’s fourth largest city, and she plans to elect city leaders who will keep investing in her community.

Niran Jaju carries Anna Maria Sadik, her nine-month-old daughter, both of Sterling Heights, as they play in the water at the splash pad water park at Dodge Park, Wednesday, July 21, 2021.

"I have lived here for 13 years and my major issue is keeping the city going in the direction it is going," Vesperman said.

But Aug. 3 primary is contentious in part because of the parks millage and Mayor Michael Taylor, a Republican who voted for Joe Biden in Michigan's Democratic March 2020 primary election. Macomb County backed former President Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020.

Taylor faces two challengers, Charles Jefferson and Ken Nelson, a former two-term city councilman in the city from 1995 to 1999. Nelson has criticized Taylor, saying he is concerned about the direction with spending and the city's debt, including for the approval in December of a nearly $38,000 raise for City Manager Mark Vanderpool. The move increased his salary to $202,950.

Observers say the Aug. 3 primary — for mayor and six council seats —  is a critical election because voters in November approved eliminating the previous two-year terms for mayor and council. Electing officials to four-year terms means those winning seats will be in office twice as long.

Sterling Heights has about 500 full-time city employees and was expected to record revenue of about $110 million and spending of about $106 million last year.

The top two vote-getters in the mayoral race advance to the November election.

Taylor, mayor since 2014, declined to be interviewed for this story. But Taylor told Bloomberg, a news organization, his ballot cast for Biden was the first time he’s voted for a Democrat. He told the Chicago Tribune he voted for Donald Trump in 2016 even though he had been skeptical of him at first.

Sterling Heights has seen both industrial and residential property values increase by roughly 5%, according to to a news release posted July 2 on the city's website. Taylor said in the release he believes the city’s strong property values reflect a strong local economy and that "proactive economic development initiatives offered from the City have led to billions of dollars in manufacturing investments, which have in turn generated new jobs and a demand for housing."

Taylor was first elected to the Sterling Heights City Council in 2009 at the age of 26, according to a professional biography online. He is a partner at the law firm Kirk Huth where he is also head of its estate planning and probate division.

Nelson, 71, a semi-retired associate real estate broker, has lived in Sterling Heights for more than 33 years and earned a bachelor's degree in business. Debt and spending are his biggest issues.

Ken Nelson

"Over the last four years I have witnessed out of control spending, high property tax rates, much higher water rates without explanation and a lot of deaf ears to the residents' concerns by the mayor and council," Nelson said.

In addition to the parks system millage, Sterling Heights has built a new public works building and upgraded the entire city complex in recent years, he said.

"These were all completely funded by the sale of municipal bonds — a.k.a. credit. Road work has been completely funded by transportation bonds," Nelson said. "All the mayor can say is that money is cheap right now."

Jefferson said he has stopped campaigning after becoming ill and declined to be interviewed for this story. His name remains on the ballot, city officials confirmed.

Six at-large council seats are being sought by 15 candidates. All current council members are running for reelection: Deanna Koski, Michael Radtke Jr., Liz Sierawski, Maria Schmidt, Henry Yanez and Barbara Ziarko.

New candidates running for council are Steven Bahoura, Eric Briskey II, 

Nicholas Cavalli, Russ Cleary, Elizabeth Hanna, Paul Manni, Kelley Skillin, Moira Smith and Roy Wilson.

The top 12 vote-getters in the council race will advance to the November election.