Phoenix Rising in Pontiac as City Gets All New Council with LGBTQ+ Community Members

 “Started from the bottom; now we here.”

Incoming councilperson Melanie Rutherford chose the popular Drake song lyrics as part of her swearing in speech Sunday. Rutherford is one of seven new Pontiac councilpersons after voters made a clean sweep of City Hall this election, selecting Tim Greimel to serve as mayor and seven city council first-timers.

Though they’ve not served on council before, each of the incoming officials comes with a strong background of community involvement and leadership — working their way from community volunteers and advocates to the positions they now hold.

Among them is the city’s youngest councilperson ever, as well as two out and proud members of the LGBTQ+ community. Several of the new officials have experiences in other offices or positions in community organizations that will help as they work together to bring Pontiac out of economic struggle.

The community often uses the symbol of the Phoenix for inspiration, a brave, bold bird rising from ashes. And as Pontiac rebuilds an economy decimated by the closing of factories, emergency management by the state, and the challenges of differing personalities working together, Sunday’s swearing in at the historic Strand Theatre served as a symbol of hope.

In District 1, Melanie Rutherford is ready to hit the ground running. Rutherford has served as the Secretary on the Pontiac Library Board, and has worked as a Training Ambassador at Next Education and Homeless Assistant Specialist at AmeriCorps. Currently she works for United Way, helping connect people with resources and support. In her speech, she thanked her team and shared the songs that inspired her, including Drake's "Started From the Bottom." On her campaign website she wrote, "I’m proud of my Pontiac roots and I want to make our community a place every child can be proud of growing up in.”

Brett Nicholson now represents District 2. "We were sworn in as a council on January 2nd. As one of Pontiac's first LGBT council members, I felt it important to celebrate this moment for our community by inviting the first LGBT circuit court judge in Oakland County, Jake Cunningham, to deliver my oath of office,” he said.

Nicholson is the owner of Liberty Bar, a longstanding gay bar in Pontiac’s downtown. He’s also been active in Main Street Pontiac, a group dedicated to the downtown’s success. “I’m proud to report that Pontiac could not be in better hands,” he said. “We have a unified interest in progress, a unified commitment of collaboration, and diversified backgrounds that will serve the city in a way we have never seen before.”

When asked about his priorities, Nicholson said, “The previous administration has left us with not even 50 employees for a city of 60,000 residents. I'd like to focus on ensuring our city is offering excellent benefits, competitive salaries and an atmosphere where they can thrive. When our city employees are well taken care of, they will be able to provide more and better services to our residents.

“It is important to me that when a person wants to make Pontiac their home or locate their business here, that we are known as a thoughtful and welcoming community. The bureaucracies and hurdles that exist will be something I know we will be taking a sharp look at.”

The youngest councilperson in Pontiac’s history is Mikail Goodman, representing District 3. Though still in college, Goodman had already been volunteering for community efforts and campaigns. “I know this is a leap of faith for many of you who voted for me. I appreciate all of the time you took to listen to me and the opportunity to earn your vote,” he said. “There is a lot of work to be done.” He added that he will continue to listen to the residents.

In District 4, the newest councilperson is Kathalee James, who has been involved in Pontiac since moving there in the 1960s. She graduated from Oakland University in 1969 and was a member of one of Pontiac’s first civil rights youth groups, the Pontiac Organization of Black Youth. Prior to coming to Pontiac, she was also a member of the Savannah Chapter of the NAACP and she attended the 1964 March on Washington with this group and was active in the sit-ins that led to the desegregation of downtown Savannah.

Among her many more recent activities, James is the founder and president of Friends of the Pontiac Parks Association, where she continues to advocate for cleaner, better equipped, safer parks for all Pontiac residents to enjoy. She also serves on the Board of Directors for the Pontiac Community Foundation and The Village of Oakland Woods, and is a member of the Pontiac Sun Time Bank. James told the crowd that she ran on a platform of unity and a desire to “bring our city together.”

“I believe that we are in a very unique time,” James said. “I believe this is our time.”

William Parker, Jr. now represents District 5. He took time to thank friends, family and supporters and to acknowledge that at times the political process has caused splits in relationships. His hope is for people to come together. “I believe in the power of ‘We,’” he said.

Parker is the Senior Pastor of New Springfield Missionary Baptist Church as well as a businessperson with 35 years of experience working for Fortune 500 companies, where he handled multi-million dollar budgets and diverse workforces. Since moving to Pontiac in 2005, Williams has been involved in many groups and activities including Pontiac Parks and Recreation Committee, the city’s Sheriff's Relations Team, as well as faith-based organizations and civil rights efforts such as the NAACP. Those collaborative efforts put him in a position to work well with fellow officials. “We are not in competition, but in concert,” he said.

District 6 is now represented by William Carrington, who brought with him to the podium a message “of peace and love.” Carrington previously served as President of the Pontiac School Board and of the WeCare Neighborhood Association. He is a mentor to youth and to individuals who have been released from prison and need support. Plus, he's the Treasurer of Pontiac Panthers, an organization that supports youth football and cheer. “Today is about our youth, who are the future of this great city,” he said. “Today is about every citizen of Pontiac that feels in their spirit the hope on the horizon.”

Mike McGuinness of District 7 basked in kind sentiments from Congressperson Brenda Lawrence who was among the speakers at the swearing in event. “He loves the opportunity that being in politics gives him to listen and to care. He’s a go-to get it done person and I’m so glad to see him here today. This is one of his dreams,” Congressperson Lawrence said. “I am so proud of you, Mike.”

McGuinness won a write-in campaign, no doubt bolstered by his connections from serving on the Pontiac School Board, including as president and secretary, being chair of the Pontiac Arts Commission, and serving as executive director of the Oakland County Historical Society, based in Pontiac. He has a history of working in politics and government that includes working with Congressperson Lawrence. When he was elected to the School Board in 2016, he became the first openly gay elected official in Pontiac.

Among his priorities are "Making Pontiac government more user-friendly for residents and businesses," "Strong collaboration with our new Mayor," and "Strategically leveraging federal, state, and county resources to invest in long-term infrastructure upgrades ."

The mayor and what comes next

Also sworn in on Sunday was Mayor Tim Greimel.

Greimel was a state representative who was the Democratic leader in the house for four years. He previously served on the Oakland County Board of Commissioners where he was Caucus Chair. His involvement and activism has been as robust and broad as the new councilmembers who will be joining him in leading the city.

But as he said, “It’s not about me. It’s not about incoming city council people. It’s really about our collective vision for the great city of Pontiac.”

“Our residents have high expectations, as they should,” Greimel said. “Our residents recognize they deserve the same high quality parks, the same amazing senior centers, the same facilities as those in our neighboring communities.

“They recognize they deserve to have their snow plowed on time and their roads fixed. They deserve an accessible and accountable city hall. They recognize they deserve to have blight cleaned up and addressed in their neighborhoods. And they recognize they deserve safe communities where nobody has to face down daily bouts of gun violence.

“And they also recognize that as we bring investment to Pontiac, that we need to make sure all Pontiac’s residents benefit from that rising economic tide. So our residents understand that they deserve more, and we are going to work tirelessly to make sure they get services and the quality of life they deserve.”

The changes won’t be easy, or happen overnight, but Greimel said that he and his transition team are ready to begin taking on those tasks.


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