2 say Birmingham officials blocked them from speaking
Birmingham — Two Birmingham residents say the mayor and city attorney unlawfully prevented them from addressing city commission this week about a proposed $57.4 million bond issue to fund construction of a parking garage near downtown.
Clinton Baller of the Balance 4 Birmingham citizens’ group and David Bloom of the Birmingham Citizens for Responsible Government, said they attended Monday's commission meeting to challenge the need for the bond proposal, which will go before voters Aug. 6.
Neither got the chance, with officials saying a contract between the city and the Birmingham-Bloomfield Cable Board, which films and streams the meetings, “prohibits political speech.”
“I never would have thought this could happen in Birmingham.” said Baller, a 39-year resident who wanted to know who was responsible for a mailer being sent to all of the city’s residents encouraging a “yes” vote on the proposal. “We’re educated. We’re affluent. But apparently we have a few people in City Hall who think it's OK to trample on our constitutional rights.”
Bloom, a 20-year-resident, said he barely was able to get a few sentences out of his mouth before being told he was out of order by City Attorney Timothy Currier and Commissioner Patricia Bordman, who also is the city’s mayor.
Bordman, who adjourned the meeting with a bang of her gavel and immediately left the room, did not respond Thursday to voicemails or emails seeking comment.
Currier said Bordman responded to an attempt by the residents to "hijack" the meeting.
“One of the people got a little loud and boisterous and she made the decision to adjourn the meeting,” said Currier. “... political discussion during public comment is not permitted and that was explained to both of them. We can’t let someone hijack the system.”
Both men, who frequently differ on opinions involving what’s best for the city, said they agree a proposed public/private pact with the Woodward Bates Partners group involving a new parking deck is a “bad deal” for the city and its residents.
“There are so many things wrong with it that some are calling it a $22 million land giveway because it involves prime land that could be developed, but this is not the way to go,” said Bloom, an auto industry purchasing agent. “I think they should stop, go back to the drawing board and develop a Plan B should the vote not be approved.”
Baller said that hours before Monday’s meeting, he had filed an extensive Freedom of Information Act request with the city and also complained to the Michigan Bureau of Elections about a mailer that, he said, “crossed the line into advocacy.” The bureau confirmed Thursday it had received the complaint but had taken no action on it yet.
“A city has to be neutral in any election question put to voters,” he said. “That wasn’t done here.”
Bloom cited a section of state law which makes it a misdemeanor to mischaracterize local ballot questions and states that “a public body shall maintain strict neutrality in each election and that a public body or a person acting on behalf of a public body shall not attempt to influence the outcome of an election held in the state…”
Bloom also objected to the “Myths vs. Facts” mailer sent out to voters. Officials described it as an educational mailing created by a city employee. Critics described it as argumentative.
“It was appropriate and educational, something we have done before in special elections involving parks and millages,” said Currier. “We state the facts for voters to consider. I don’t think it violates anything.”
Under the development proposal, the current 50-year-old, 745-space parking facility on nearly four acres west of North Old Woodward near the city’s business district, would be transformed into a newer, bigger facility — three underground levels and six floors above ground — with 1,157 spaces.
Officials have said taxes would not be used for any aspect of the program, which would be funded by the city's Parking Systems fund and special assessments on surrounding businesses. It is one of five parking facilities operated by the city.
Not part of the ballot proposal, but discussed by city officials, is a 99-year development lease for $400,000 a year with the developers, who would also operate a mixed-use arrangement of offices, businesses and residences.
Critics of the plan say with parking spaces allotted to the new tenants, there would be no net gain of spaces for visitors.
Bloom said a recent city study found the North Old Woodward parking facility needs about $6.3 million in repairs but is otherwise safe.
"I would think that is more sensible than spending nearly 10 times more," he said.