Flint voters will head to the polls on August 3, 2021 to decide who will make the ballot for the Flint City Council in November. This is the first in a weekly series in which Flint Beat will explore the issues in each of the city’s nine wards and talk to the candidates running to represent them. For more election coverage, including other stories in this series, visit our elections page.

Flint, MI— Eric Mays is the only candidate for the first ward City Council position, and his constituents don’t seem to mind. 

Mays, who’s been on the Flint City Council for almost eight years, won the last election in 2017 with 1404 votes—the most votes any candidate received in that election, and nearly three times as many as his opponent.  

Community leaders and residents of the first ward say that’s because Mays always answers his phone, even when it rings after midnight, and helps people get their problems solved. 

But while his constituents support him, some of his fellow council members don’t. Mays has been removed from a number of council meetings, suspended for a month, arrested, and is often accused of being disruptive. 

“I think one of the biggest challenges as the first ward councilperson is trying to get the various councilpersons to understand how to operate and what our job is in a council meeting,” Mays said. “I think that’s one of my biggest challenges most of all, just trying to get respect and understanding from my colleagues.”  

Mays won’t appear on the ballot for the primary on Aug. 3, since he’s running unopposed, but this election still has a lot at stake for him, and for his ward.

“I’m hoping that for the council seats that will have somebody new…I hope they’ll be fair, open, honest, and have the political will to meet and serve the people,” Mays said. “That’s my hope for the upcoming council term.”

Kids play on W. Parkway Ave. on in Flint’s first ward. first ward residents held a socially distanced block party on Aug. 21, 2020, to have some summer fun during the pandemic. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

The first ward is located in the northwest corner of Flint, covering about two and half square miles, according to a University of Michigan-Flint research report on all nine wards from 2017. It is the second smallest ward geographically, and has a population of around 10,000.

According to the report, the first ward has the oldest median age of any ward at 39 years old, and has the highest percentage of African-American residents of all the wards at 92%.

The research shows that the average median income for this ward is around $22,000, and about 41% of the population is living below the federal poverty level. Of those over the age of 25 in the ward, around 13% have a college degree, while 19% have not earned a high school degree.

The first ward has the least amount of park acreage, and the second highest number of religious organizations of any ward, according to the report.

For first ward residents, “serving the people” looks like answering the phone, dealing with day-to-day problems, but also advocating for greater police presence and blight resources.

The neighborhood groups in the first ward are already tackling some of these issues themselves, but need as much support as they can get. 

Stronger Police Presence

Mays said that one of the main calls he gets from residents have to do with public safety.

“They want faster police response times when they call, a higher profile of police presence, and they also want action when they file a complaint,” Mays said. 

Shawn Hairston, president of the Bel-Aire Woods Block Club, said the first ward has been seeing a lot of speeding, reckless driving, and accidents happening lately. He said more police presence could curb some of that. 

“We need more police. I understand we don’t have enough police to run a city like Flint, but we need funding from somewhere to get more police on the streets,” Hairston said. 

Pastor Chris Martin gathered pastors and Flint community members outside of the Cathedral of Faith Church in Flint’s first ward to march and pray on December 29, 2020, in response to the killing of Naomi Anthony, 25, who was found shot and killed in Hasselbring Park on Dec. 26, 2020. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

Jeanette Edwards, president of the Brownell-Holmes Neighborhood Association, said hearing gunshots and cars racing at night makes it hard for residents to sleep without fear.

Mays has advocated for increasing police budgets at many recent council meetings, proposing hiring more officers, and also investing in police technology and cameras. 

In the first ward, Hairston said neighborhood groups have already started a security initiative called Look Out, to deal with crime following several robberies in the ward.

“Any time we see something going on strange, we call each other up. People will call me, the vice president, or somebody, and then I’ll call Eric, and he’ll call someone downtown,” Hairston said. “That’s what we have to do. What other choice do we have?” 

Through this system, Hairston said they were able to catch almost all of the people committing the crimes, and they’ve since been arrested.

Edwards also mentioned having a phone system, where neighbors all call each other to report anything going on.

But they both say that the neighborhood needs more police patrols to reduce and deter crime.

Blight and abandoned homes

Along with public safety, blight is an issue Mays hears about from his constituents all the time. 

Michael Vaughn, 53, lives next door to Hasselbring Park, where the 1st Ward cleanup was held during the City Wide Cleanup on May 15, 2021. Vaughn would like to see more young adults participating in the cleanups. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

“I get calls about blight, burnt-out and half-burned structures they want torn down, weeds and grass cut, mattresses picked up in a timely manner,” Mays said. “Also get calls about missed garbage pick-ups, issues with sidewalks that need fixing.”

Michael Vaughn, a resident of the first ward for 40 years, says abandoned homes are one of the main issues in the ward. Vaughn said he’s watched the neighborhood deteriorate since the ’70s, but that many properties have a lot of potential. 

“We need to try to salvage some of these houses. Buy them, build them back up so it’s not an eyesore,” Vaughn said. 

According to the Flint Property Portal, there are 2,177 vacant lots, and 4,287 other properties in the first ward. 

Of the properties, about 58% of them are listed as being in “good” condition. About 22% of them are fair, about 7% are poor, and about .06% are sub-standard.  

There have been 1,059 demolitions completed in the first ward. There are 326 that are listed by the Land Bank for demolition, but funding is in place for only seven.

Edwards said the burned and empty homes are also a safety hazard, especially for the kids in the neighborhood who run around and play outside.

Edwards said the neighborhood hosts lots of cleanups to try to take care of some of these issues, but it takes time. Right after volunteers held a major cleanup in the first ward, Edwards said someone dumped a bunch of tires, trees, and debris in the neighborhood in the middle of the night. 

“It took four hours to clean up all the debris,” Edwards said. “We need cameras because we’re not all up in middle of the night.’ 

1816 Woodlin Dr. Flint, MI on March7, 2021. This property will be one of 37 the City of Flint plans to demolish. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

Mays has proposed putting more money into dealing with blight and purchasing equipment, as well as creating summer jobs in blight cleanups for the youth. At a recent council meeting, he also requested the city administration share with the council what the other bids for garbage collection are, following delays in pick up from Republic Services. 

Supporting the work that’s already happening

Mays said he’s proud of the work that organizations in his ward are already doing to combat the issues in their neighborhood.

In addition the security team, Hairston said his block club started a lawn care service for seniors in the ward.

Edwards has started a virtual reading program where police read books to children, and a yearly celebration for Flint’s special needs students, called Champions of Excellence. 

The neighborhood groups host clean ups, bring water to seniors, and help eachother anyway they can, but there are some things they can’t deal with alone.  

Hairston recalls calling Mays at 3 a.m. after a pipe burst in the neighborhood. He said Mays came out, called the water department, and it was fixed the next morning. 

First ward resident John Jefferson, 79, rakes leaves and twigs at Hasselbring Park during the citywide cleanup on May 15, 2021. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

Another time, he said a deer was killed and left in the street, becoming a health hazard. Hairston said he called Mays who then made a three-way call to the proper authority, and got it taken care of in 24 hours. 

“Those are the relationships they don’t know I have,” Mays said. “I have a network of first ward activists, community-minded people who actually do things. I link them with city resources, and communications about public safety, and blight.”  

His constituents know Mays is a controversial character in Flint, but as far as many are concerned, he is someone they can count on. 

“Mr. Mays tries to help us with whatever is going on. I could call him anytime, day or night, and I’ll get a response,” Edwards said. “I know a lot of people fuss and complain about him, but as far as the first ward, we get respect from him.”

Amy Diaz is a journalist hailing from St. Petersburg, FL. She has written for multiple local newspapers in her hometown before becoming a full-time reporter for Flint Beat. When she’s not writing you...