By Charles Sercombe
Should Hamtramck abolish its police and fire departments, and the allow members of the city council to decide how to provide those services?
That’s a question voters will be faced with on the November ballot – if state officials sign off on the wording of the two ballot proposals.
The proposals were presented to the city council last week by Councilmembers Mohammed Hassan and Fadel Al-Marsoumi, who said they are seeking ways to reduce city expenditures.
One proposal would eliminate the charter provision that establishes a police chief and police department, and the other one does the same thing for the fire chief and that department.
As one might expect, there was plenty of opposition from residents, and pushback on social media.
During the public comment portion of the council meeting, which is held before resolutions are discussed by the council, there was plenty of input – mostly from those against the proposal.
Among those opposed were several current and former Hamtramck firefighters.
Fire Chief Danny Hagen was the first from the fire department to speak at last week’s city council Zoom meeting. He questioned the need for this proposal.
“I’m unaware of any major problems of either departments,” Hagen said.
“This is a dangerous proposal,” Hagen added.
Bill Dickens, also of the fire department, said the proposal fails to say what a restructuring plan would look like.
“Resolutions like this make it harder to retain employees,” Dickens said.
Rachel Srodek, sister of Councilmember Andrea Karpinski, was more direct, calling the proposal a “slap in the face” to residents.
“Shame on you for even allowing this resolution,” she added, in a criticism aimed at City Manager Kathy Angerer who, with the mayor, prepares what will be on the council agenda.
But there was one resident who attended the Zoom meeting who seemed to be open to the idea of allowing voters to decide the issue.
“If this doesn’t pass, then it’s over with,” said Bill Meyer, who is the co-chair and founder of a non-profit group called OneHamtramck.
Plus, he added, the police and fire departments are “heavily white” and not representative of the city’s demographics, which are largely Yemeni and Bangladeshi.
During the actual council discussion, Councilmember Karpinski questioned the timing of this resolution.
“This is coming out of left field. I’m absolutely opposed,” she said.
She said there is no study to back up the need for this proposal, and that it is clear that a majority of the public opposes it.
There were some residents who spoke out against the proposals, saying the replacement would be a public safety department, a model which a number of other communities in the region have tried, and later abandoned.
Mayor Karen Majewski attempted to correct that assumption, saying that there is nothing in the resolution that calls for the creation of a combined department.
“It’s a generic term referring to police and fire,” she said.
But she did question what would happen if voters approve the charter revision to eliminate the departments.
According to the city charter, the mayor does not vote on such matters unless there is a need to break a tie vote.
Councilmember Hassan said the proposal, if passed by voters, “does not eliminate any department.”
He then said that combined police and fire departments have worked in other communities, such as the City of Fraser, and have resulted in lower costs to that city.
In Hamtramck, the police and fire departments represent about half of the city’s annual budget — $8 million. The city’s total budget expenditure for the current fiscal year is $17 million.
The city is currently in deficit spending and is burning through a $5 million budget surplus which will be exhausted in over a year.
Councilmember Nayeem Choudhury said the proposal isn’t about combining the departments.
“It about giving the people the power to decide – not eliminate anything,” Choudhury said.
The proposals, which are split into two separate proposals, ask voters whether to “delete and remove” the charter sections that create a fire and police chief, as well as fire and police departments.
And, if voters approve of either proposal, it would allow the city council to decide how to “provide for public safety (police and fire protection) in a manner that council determines is in Hamtramck’s best interests.”
Councilmember Al-Marsoumi defended the proposals, but focused his remarks on the fire department.
He said it’s about addressing the costs of fire fighters, considering most employees in that department work about half of each month. Hamtramck’s firefighters work around-the-clock shifts for a few days, and then have a few days off before another shift starts.
While on duty, they sleep at the fire station.
Al-Marsoumi added that “it’s about making it more affordable” to maintain fire service.
The vote on the matter was split 4-2, with Councilmembers Ian Perrotta and Karpinski in opposition, and Councilmembers Mohammed Alsomiri, Choudhury, Al-Marsoumi and Hassan in favor.
One reason why the proposal was presented at this point is because there is an Aug. 14 deadline to submit charter revision proposals for state officials to approve the language.
It’s not clear when state officials will reach their decision.
Posted Aug. 7, 2020