Local ElectionLocal Government

Recap: 10/24 Muskegon City Commission At-Large Candidate Debate

Andrew Trzaska | October 24, 2013

Four men vying for two at-large commission seats in the City of Muskegon squared off in a debate Tuesday night at Muskegon Community College, covering topics including economic development, budgetary challenges, and the future use of properties like the former Sappi paper mill and the B.C. Cobb power plant.

Mark Molitor, Ken Johnon, Bill Larson, and Dan Sybenga made it through August’s primary, reducing the field from eleven to four.

Thursday’s forum allowed the four to share a bit more of their views in a public forum, than the crowded ones held several months ago.  It followed a debate held Wednesday between Muskegon’s two remaining mayoral candidates, incumbent Steve Gawron and challenger Dr. Zawdie Abiade.

[Note: View 10/23 Mayoral debate summary here]

Muskegon Community College professor David Takitaki and Muskegon Chronicle reporter Dave Alexander moderated the debate, which was sponsored by the college and the news organization. Questions were taken from the MLive editorial board as well as its website and Facebook commenters.

Each candidate’s opening comments framed their candidacies differently. Bill Larson positioned himself as the most experienced candidate, having been a commissioner before. Ken Johnson emphasized his love for the city, his positive outlook, and his work in international affairs as a governmental credential. Mark Molitor focused on his business and budgeting expertise. Dan Sybenga emphasized his high level of involvement, from his career work for MCC and Downtown Muskegon Now, as well as his neighborhood association and other volunteer work.

After opening statements, the series of questions came in different formats throughout the event, which began at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in a Stevenson Center lecture hall and lasted slightly over an hour:

  • Candidates were first asked questions with an opportunity for the other candidates to rebut.
  • A lightning round of yes/no policy questions followed.
  • Lastly, candidates were given a chance to ask one opponent a direct question.


Round 1: Long-Form Responses and Rebuttals


How should the city rezone the Sappi property?

Johnson: Noted that no matter what the city chooses to rezone it as, Melching is grandfathered in under its current industrial zoning.  He leaned toward light industrial work but also planned unit development with mixed units if it would not all be industrial. He said jobs are needed, so industrial would be the best use, and it could be a benefit to Lakeside.

Larson: Stated he would rezone it to lakefront recreation.  He believes Melching would not own the property for long, and the new owners would want it to be lakefront. He also threw out ideas of what could be there, including a working sawmill, fish smokehouse, and a yacht basin. He claimed that lakefront use would be more beneficial for the property than industry.

Molitor: Said that deed restrictions would prohibit rezoning, and opted not to give ideas of what it could become because of those restrictions.

Sybenga: Agreed with Johnson and Molitor that it could not currently be rezoned, but opened the idea that the commission could open conversations with the owners to see if new uses could be found outside of industry. Commercial, recreation and residential uses would be ideas for new uses if the owners would allow for it.


What should city hall be doing for jobs that can support families?

Larson: Explaining he has been around since 1980, he said the city has worked to improve its inspections department, which is a step in the right direction. He said the current commission takes too long and doesn’t act quickly enough. He would act more quickly.

Molitor: Manufacturing jobs will help the most. He cited the industrial park on the east end of town as a great benefit and a growing area. He emphasized the city’s deepwater port as a way to create new jobs.

Sybenga: Citing the “multiplier effect”, he said some jobs produce more economic impact than others, most especially industry and tourism. He said those types of jobs bring wealth to Muskegon. He lauded the turnaround in the Port City Industrial park, but said the city and the county and others need to work better together and people need more training for the jobs of the future.

Johnson: Advanced manufacturing is key to the future of Muskegon. Muskegon needs to capture the “insourced” jobs coming back from China and Mexico. Supporting small businesses is also important, including helping people start their own. Port development is also important.


On urban violence, if elected how would you address this issue, and how does redevelopment of neighborhoods fit into safety.

Molitor: Safety is the top priority, and economic development will help with that. He said a committee should research what works and doesn’t work in other cities in order to get new ideas, as well as provide metrics and budget to see what it would cost. He also said eliminating blight will help.

Sybenga: There is a practical and cultural implication to the question. On the practical side, a larger police presence will help.  On the cultural side, he noted that he lives near some of the hotspots, and he doesn’t see hope. Getting through to kids who are prone to violence need to be mentored or better supported through schools.

Johnson:  Agreed with Sybenga on the idea of hope. He tied crime in Muskegon Heights to crime in Muskegon, saying he has been working with other community members to find the causes and solve some of the violence. He said it comes down to fear and hopelessness, and wants to find the source of where the guns are coming from. Police must also be better equipped, but it is up to voters if more surveillance equipment should be used.

Larson:  Every industrial city in the USA has the same issues. He said consistent, strong enforcement of laws will turn things around. Police substations near violence hotspots are also helpful.


What is your budgetary philosophy? Strategies for generating revenue? Where would you give more funding, and where would you cut?

Sybenga: Said the city has done a fairly good job with a complex group of funding sources, many of which are getting cut including dollars from the federal government and state government. Rising property values and more people employed will help the city improve its finances.

Johnson: He would like to stop cutting if possible, which means more revenue. More economic development will lead to more revenues. New revenues need to go into the general fund, and not into funding schemes like tax increment financing. He said getting the Harbor 31 property must be a top priority because it is a drain on the city’s finances

Larson: Wants to build funds to go out and market the city and attract business. With new business will be more revenues to the city. He wishes the new city manager Frank Peterson would be able to spend more time out of the office than in the office, trying to sell the city and build partnerships.

Molitor: Said he is a fiscal conservative and he would bring it to the commission. He has had to cut every year at SAF Holland where he works, so he knows how to keep a budget in line. He also said he would not cut the police department, and would even consider chopping other departments more to increase police presence.


What is the city’s role in downtown development and what policies should it have on the matter?

Johnson: While the city holds very little property downtown, he said the city could help champion small businesses. The city also needs to fix its reputation as being unfriendly to cities.  More access to the waterfront is very important, and has been in the city’s long-term plans since 1988 but hasn’t happened.

Larson: Said he used to be opposed to the Downtown Muskegon Development Corporation but changed his mind because they are doing a “fine job”. He said making the city look better will help, citing the new Muskegon Farmers Market. Noted that the argument between the city and Muskegon Bike Time is “ridiculous”, and the city needs to get along better with people.

Molitor: The city needs to break down barriers for small businesses. No policy can be written and passed that will just magically make development happen, but improving the look of the city and developing action plans for eyesore properties will help.

Sybenga:  Views downtown “from the outside” now that he is not the downtown manager, and therefore understands that perception is important.  He said it is vibrant and improving, but has a long way to go. Zoning and planning can be done by the city to help out with development, and walkable neighborhoods are important. Praised the city for allocating more money to Downtown Muskegon Now for promotion of the downtown region.


How important is the waterfront to the city’s future?

Larson: It is important, but said he is against moving Fisherman’s Landing. He said he is for a rennaisance zone as well, but noted what port facilities are already on the east end of the lake are not well taken care of.

Molitor: Working with the newly formed Port Advisory Committee will help develop Muskegon Lake’s port facilities. Also is greatly in favor of commercial development at Pere Marquette beach.

Sybenga: Said water is the most favored attribute of the city and other towns and parks around the county. The bike path is great but more development at places like Sappi, Lakeside and Pere Marquette Park are each important too.  Port development must involve the state and other counties in the region.

Johnson: The “blue water” economy is important, including shipping, food processing, and water-intensive manufacturing.  He is excited about Harris Hospitality’s development at the beach but would not want it to be overdeveloped. More development should happen in Lakeside and downtown.


With the B.C. Cobb power plant set to close soon, what should the city hall’s role be in turning this lemon into lemonade?

Molitor: Hopefully the recent push of closure off until 2016 will be pushed again, but spending must be trimmed now to get ahead of it. Proactive work with Consumers Power must be done to stay ahead of the problem.

Sybenga: City can be proactive from a “master plan” perspective. Shipping lanes and land at the site could be used for other things but city must be ahead of it and work with Consumers.

Johnson: The city is in “limbo” because they are not closing the property – they are simply “mothballing” it so they can reactivate it at any time. As part of the recently developed port consortium Consumers Energy is letting people use its docks, but city needs to do more with Consumers to focus on the future.

Larson:  Said the farmers market and Harbor 31 could lead to new revenue streams, and more people employed would pay more income taxes.  This is a way to be prepared for the plant’s closure – focusing on other revenue streams.


Is there a racial divide in Muskegon and if so how would the city deal with this?

Sybenga: There are many issues with race, noting that all four candidates were white males. Interracial dialogue is not always positive. The City must demonstrate how to act to show people what is right and wrong

Johnson: There is a racial divide and we can’t deny it. The city cannot legislate it away but can help people get together to work it out.

Larson: Yes there is. The ward and at-large commissioner system the city uses helps make it more equitable on the board of commissioners.  He said he has spent his whole life working on race relations, and also said it is “embarrassing that there is only one black police officer” in the city.

Molitor: City commissioners are not superheroes but commissioners and city staff can have a zero-tolerance policy for bigotry and race bias.


Question: In 1981, Marguerite Holcomb was providing leadership in the city. Starting next year, there will be no woman on the commission. Is that an issue for you, and if so, how do you respond?

Johnson: The more representative our government is, the better the city will be.  Thanked outgoing commissioners Sue Wierengo and Lea Markowski for their service. He said he did take consolation in the fact that there are many strong women in the community who have the ears of the commission. Also noted that many strong women lead community organizations like the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce, United Way and Community Foundation.

Larson: If there aren’t any qualified female candidates, than that is the way it is. He said he has learned his male biases from working with women on the commission previously, and said they can provide “a softer side” to the discussion.

Molitor: He said it is “not that big of a deal” because women will still have a voice as wives and sisters.

Sybenga: He said it is a bad example that residents cannot look up to a woman on the commission, however not much can be done at this point after the primary. People should take it to heart and think about it for future elections.



Round 2: Lightning Yes/No Questions

Should we reform our zoning laws to allow for more urban farming?

Johnson: Yes
Larson: Yes
Molitor: Yes
Sybenga: Yes


Are you open to the relocation to the relocation of Fisherman’s Landing to help with port development?

Johnson: Yes
Larson: Yes
Molitor: Yes
Sybenga: Yes


Do you support commercial development at Pere Marquette Park?

Johnson: Yes, within reason
Larson: Yes
Molitor: Yes
Sybenga: Yes

Do you support a downtown casino?

Johnson: Do not object to one, but do not support one.
Larson: Yes
Molitor: Yes
Sybenga: Not supportive but would not object to one under certain conditions

Should the city support a new summer music festival?

Johnson: Yes, but not fund
Larson: No
Molitor: Yes, but not fund
Sybenga: Yes, but not fund


Should the city pursue a water agreement with the City of Muskegon Heights?

Johnson: Yes
Larson: Yes
Molitor: Yes
Sybenga: Yes


In one or two words, what is the most pressing issue for the city?

Johnson: Economic Development
Larson: Crime & Image
Molitor: Economic Development
Sybenga: Economic Development


Will you endorse a candidate for Mayor?

Johnson: Like both, would not endorse
Larson: Neither
Molitor: Gawron
Sybenga: Gawron


Round 3: Candidate-to-Candidate Questions


Molitor, to Sybenga:

Q: If you had to vote for one of us, who would it be and why?

A: Not formally endorsing any other commission candidates.


Sybenga, to Larson:

Q: How would you react to people saying you are “old guard” and not open to ideas from outside the city?

A: I drive around the city every day and sees his accomplishments from the past, including garbage service, Fisherman Landing’s public-private partnership and more. My mind is working all the time.


Johnson, to Larson:

Q: You said City Hall takes too long to act sometimes. Do you support giving the owners of the Harbor31 property more time to develop, or tell them to pay up their back taxes?

A: No more years to work on development. Take the property back if there’s no development to be had from the group, but it must be done cooperatively.


Larson, to Molitor:

Q: To fill holes in the city budget that may be lost from personal property taxes, would you levy more of the city’s available mills or use the city’s rainy day fund?

A: Said he wasn’t aware of a rainy day fund for the city, and wouldn’t make a decision on the spot. He would take a close look at the budget to see how it could be done.


[View 10/23 Mayoral debate summary here]

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