I represent the gays. My uncle is gay' : Sterling Heights City Council Divided on Diversifying Zoning Board

The ZBA, and Why it Matters

Kelley Skillin, a nine-year resident of Sterling Heights, said she was "horrified and appalled" at the language used and the ideas perpetuated at two recent city council meetings, particularly the one held July 7.

"I voted for some of these people," Skillin said. "And everything that they said showed just a marked lack of understanding about representation and why it matters."

The issue at hand was the nomination and subsequent vote to appoint an individual to the seven-member Zoning Board of Appeals. The ZBA is one of the two highest-profile and important boards and commissions, along with the city's Planning Commission, as both are rule-making bodies.

During the June 16 city council meeting, councilmember Barbara Ziarko nominated Dennis Hansinger to an open position on the ZBA. The vote was 6-1 in favor, with councilmember Michael Radtke as the sole 'no' vote. He explained that his vote was not a comment on Hansinger's qualifications, it was simply that six white males already sat on the board; Hansinger will be the seventh.

According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates for 2019, of more than 132,000 people who live in the city, Sterling Heights is comprised of 51 percent female residents. In terms of race, non-Hispanic white (82 percent), Asian (7.5 percent) and Black or African American (6 percent) rank highest in number. In 2012, close to 40 percent of businesses were women-owned, and about 16 percent were owned by minorities. That's significant because zoning issues affect all property owners, both home and business.

ZBA appointees go through two rounds of votes, a nomination vote and an appointment vote. The second vote occurred at the July 7 council meeting. By then, councilmembers had clearly taken sides.


The Council Members Speak

The first council member to speak on Hansinger's appointment at the July 7 meeting was councilmember Ziarko, who said she believed in equality, and that anyone can be subject to discrimination. She also pointed out that four of seven council members are women.

"This appointment has turned into something it never should have been turned into," Ziarko said. "Equality is equality. I know that discrimination has no boundaries. It could be gender, sexual orientation race, color of your skin. It's discrimination and that's how I feel because we are all equal. We all come from the same two people if you are a Christian."

Councilmember Maria Schmidt took issue with what she described as "cherry-picking" candidates.

"The day we start cherry-picking candidates for some of these boards and commissions based on sex or ethnicity is a sad day. This is a nonpartisan board up here. We need to keep that in check, because when that is not kept in check special interests come before this city," Schmidt said. "And we are here to do what's in the best interest of every resident of this city. That's the oath I took and that's what I live by."

Because no other candidates had been brought forward, Schmidt said she was comfortable with voting for Hansinger.

Mayor Pro Tem Liz Sierawski said the distinction between being an elected official who represents the entire community and an appointed member to a board or commission is an important one.

"I represent the gays. My uncle is gay. He's been gay his whole life, obviously. I'm not gay but I still can represent those interests. I represent men. I have five men in my immediate family … I represent their best interests. I represent — and I've said this before — African Americans. Who knew I actually had some in my history? I represent Muslims because I care about … what they believe, and [their right] to practice their faith in any way they choose. So my specific gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity doesn't come into play when I represent the people of Sterling Heights."


Watch the full meeting here:

Like Schmidt, Sierawski said there simply wasn't a large, diverse number of candidates who applied for the position. She said she "would love to have every woman in this community apply for positions" to ensure that there would be a wide pool with "multiple blacks, Muslims, gays, lesbians, transgenders, so that we have options," but that they lacked those options.

Councilmember Radtke implied he didn't buy the argument that the applicant pool was lacking and the council was helpless to do anything about it.

"Inclusivity starts with us," Radtke said. "It's on the council to go out and find candidates for these positions … and then to put them on boards. In a city of 133,000 people, 51 percent which is women, it shocks me that we can't have or find a female candidate for one of our major boards."

A woman already serving on one of the committees had been identified by Radtke as a candidate. He said she was a lawyer and wanted to move up to the ZBA.

Councilmember Deanna Koski spoke next. She said, "Our purpose was to have representation of the city" on the boards and commissions, and things such as the color of one's skin or sex shouldn't matter.

At the same time, Koski said, "We don't go down the boards and commissions and say, 'OK, this board is composed of seven people. We have to have one female that's gay, we have to have one male that's homosexual, we have to have one black, we have to have one yellow, we have to have one green, we have to—' that's not the way it's supposed to be. It's supposed to be the knowledge, the training the experience that you have that you are willing to share with your fellow citizens of your city help make your city better."

Mayor Michael Taylor commented that both sides made valid points and that there was a need for greater diversity on boards and commissions. With Sterling Heights having one of the highest foreign-born populations in the state, he said the boards and commissions should reflect that.

"It's unfortunate that this happened the way it happened tonight and I call on all of us to do better the next time," Taylor said.


Walk the Talk

Skillin, the Sterling Heights resident, said that if the council members claim they want diversity it should be reflected in their actions.

"Saying things like the fact that you have a gay uncle means that you represent the interests of LGBTQ people" was one example she provided of a lack of understanding.

"It's just frustrating because … we just declared a resolution for Pride Month and Juneteenth and then they go, at the very next meeting, and say, all of these things that go against all the things they claim they want to recognize and promote," Skillin said.

Both Skillin and Radtke decried the claim that because the pool of applicants was limited, their hands were tied.

"It's easy to say the words and not as easy to do the work," Skillin suggested. "You have to actively seek out a wider pool of candidates. You can't just say, 'Well, we put an application on our website, and anyone who wants to volunteer can.' Because what happens is you end up with the 114 people that knew that that board existed or that knew what that process was."

Between The Lines spoke with Radtke a week after the meeting; council members Sierawski, Koski, Schmidt and Ziarko did not respond to emails for comment.

"I think a lot of these arguments are disingenuous," Radtke said. "At the end of the day, my sole focus is two-fold. One is to dismantle the 'good-old-boy' networks that operates insidiously — people don't even realize they're operating. But more than that, I simply want the committees in Sterling Heights to reflect the diversity I see when I walk outside of my house every day."

Walking outside her house every day, Skillin herself has seen vast changes in just the nine years her family has lived in Sterling Heights. When they moved in, the neighborhood mostly consisted of older white homeowners who bought houses when they were originally built in her subdivision in the 60s and 70s.

Now, she said, "a lot of younger people have moved in, a lot of families, a lot of immigrant families, African American families."


Putting Principles into Practice

When pressed about how to fulfill the goal of widening the pool of applicants for any given post, Radtke acknowledged there was more the city council could — and should — do.

"I think the city has not fundamentally altered its application process in many years," Radke said. "And so I guess we've been relying on people to come to us and affirmatively saying, 'I want to be appointed to this board or this thing,' and I think that because we've not done the outreach that we need to do — and I'll blame myself on this. We should be doing more to outreach to communities."

Michael Radtke

Radtke said the application process was being revamped, something Skillin is likely to be pleased to hear.

"We are poised to be the third-largest city in the state," Skillin said. "And I really think that the city needs to be showing some leadership on issues of diversifying their boards, and to think that they don't have a responsibility to do this is just kind of passing the buck and letting everything continue the way it has in the past."

In fact, there may be an opportunity for what Skillin calls "showing leadership" on the issue: when all was said and done, Hansinger declined the appointment, which means the council must go through the process again. The vote was 4-2 in favor, with Radtke and Taylor voting against the appointment; one council member was not present. According to Radtke, the day after the meeting, Hansinger sent a letter indicating his circumstances had changed. No specific reason was given.


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