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Houghton’s waterfront redevelopment

An issue currently playing itself out in Houghton is, writ small, an illustration of an issue now being played out on a national scale: What role do or should the facts, as best as we can establish them, play in public perception and public policy?

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw said, “The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who lack it.” If we take cynicism to mean the belief that, left unchecked, most people (including public officials) most of the time will pursue their own self-interest rather than the common good, then I empathize with Shaw’s sentiment. Hence, the need for regulation and for public and media oversight.

However, one check on cynicism is (or should be) the facts, whether related to local politics, climate change, pandemic response, election results, or anything else. As the late Senator Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

In The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel say that the primary purpose of journalism is “to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” To that end, they say that what separates journalism from entertainment, propaganda, fiction, and art is that journalism is “the discipline of verification.”

Similarly, legendary reporter Carl Bernstein says that the goal of journalism is to produce “the best available version of the truth.”

During the August 28 and December 4, 2019 Houghton City Council meetings, some people were surprised by developers’ responses to the City’s Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for downtown waterfront redevelopment and, hence, assumed that plans had been made in secret.

If people believe this, then some might be disinclined to participate in future meetings, such as that on December 15, because they won’t have faith in the process. So here are a few of the significant details.

Michigan’s Open Meetings Act https://www.legislature.mi.gov/documents/mcl/pdf/mcl-act-267-of-1976.pdf requires public notices of “a public body at which a quorum is present for the purpose of deliberating toward or rendering a decision on a public policy.” Typically, the City complies with this requirement by publishing meeting notices on its website (www.cityofhoughton.com) and in the Gazette and other media. On the City’s homepage, check the Public Meeting notices immediately below the opening image (note the left and right scroll arrows) and on the Event Calendar.

Lately, the City has also been publicizing meetings via its email list. If you’re a resident of Houghton and want to be included on this list but are not yet on it, contact the City Clerk https://www.cityofhoughton.com/clerk/

With a keyword search of Houghton’s Documents-on-Demand center https://houghtoncitymi.documents-on-demand.com the earliest reference I find to waterfront redevelopment is during a January 15, 2019 meeting of the Downtown Development Authority. The minutes for this meeting report that two developers are interested in purchasing part of Houghton’s parking-deck property for redevelopment projects.

Between this meeting and the August 28, 2019, public hearing, waterfront redevelopment plans are mentioned in the minutes of at least 10 public meetings. For example, the February 13, 2019, City Council minutes report, “City Manager Waara said there are two developers interested in redevelopment projects on the city-owned property where the big parking deck sits. He would like to put out a formal request for redevelopment proposals and will work with the MEDC [the Michigan Economic Development Corporation] on this request.”

During the City Council’s August 14, 2019, meeting, three developers made brief presentations on their qualifications for the waterfront redevelopment project, after which Councilor Megowen moved to set a public hearing for August 28 to solicit public comment on their qualifications. That motion passed unanimously.

I haven’t been good about attending public meetings myself, but I did attend three or four of these 10 meetings, and–other than city officials and journalists–there were usually only two or three other people present.

Houghton’s redevelopment plans are also described throughout the City’s 2019-2023 Master Plan, which is available on the City’s website at www.cityofhoughton.com/city-master-plan/ (See, for example, page 111.) The City issued a call for feedback on a draft of this plan on August 22, 2019 and held a public hearing on the draft on October 22, 2019.

Although the city and the media might both do a better job of promoting public meetings (as might we all by word of mouth), it’s certainly not true that there haven’t been public meetings.

A joint meeting of the Houghton City Council, the Planning Commission, and the Downtown Development Authority begins at 5:30 on Tuesday, December 15. The focus of this meeting will be a Lakeshore Drive redevelopment presentation by the developer, Veridea. The next regular City Council meeting begins at the same time the following day.

Interested people can attend via Zoom. The Zoom connection can be found at the top of the meeting agenda, which is available with the public notice about the meeting and on Houghton’s Documents-on-Demand center; just click on the link and follow the on-screen instructions.

The agenda for City Council meetings always includes an opportunity for the public to address the Council and a reading of any correspondence the city has received.

According to the Pew Research Center, “High levels of political and civic participation increase the likelihood that the voices of ordinary citizens will be heard in important debates, and they confer a degree of legitimacy on democratic institutions.”

I know people have other priorities, with jobs, families, etc. Ultimately, however, if we don’t participate, then we’re no better off than those who can’t participate: we get the government we deserve.

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