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Flint, MI– The Flint City Council meeting was cut short after heated arguments related to allocating funds to the grocery store on Flint’s north side prompted a few members to walk out.
On Feb. 28, the council held their regular council meeting but only made it to a couple of items on the agenda. While they unanimously approved a resolution officially recognizing February as Black History Month in the city of Flint, the council didn’t get much farther than that.
The council moved on to one more resolution, but took no action on it. Since the meeting ended before the agenda was completed, a special meeting has been called for March 3, at 5:30 p.m.
After the council voted on the Black History Month resolution, they moved on to a resolution to allocate $600,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to the North Flint Food Market project, which would be used to “alleviate major cost increases to the overall grocery store budget due to the COVID-19 pandemic and associated supply chain issues.”
With dozens of community members present, this topic proved to be a passionate issue for residents and members of the council, which led to arguments, yelling, and members leaving the meeting.
Last year, the city learned that it would be receiving $94.7 million in ARPA funding as part of a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package intended to aid the country in recovering from the pandemic.
Since the money has come in, council members have been divided on how to go about spending the money–piece by piece, or with every dollar budgeted in advance.
So far, the council has allocated about $4 million of the funds: about $1 million for a one-year contract with a compliance firm to help ensure the rest of the spending is done correctly, and about $3 million giving premium pay to certain essential workers. Both of those resolutions approved by council were brought forth by the mayor.
The administration has laid out a timeline for spending the rest of the funds, as presented by the Chief Financial Officer Robert Widigan during a community forum on Feb. 22.
At that forum, Widigan said the process was to complete the public input sessions (the council has two more to host, as does the mayor), process community input, conduct a review session with council, and then create a recovery plan and budget. Once the budget is finalized, the administration would announce grant opportunities and encourage organizations to apply for funding to complete the budgeted projects.
This is the process some council members want to follow before approving funding for any groups. Other council members want to start spending now.
“I’m quite sure that I’m going to hear from my colleagues that y’all want to wait until we have the four meetings, y’all want to wait until we put our request for proposals,” said Councilman Quincy Murphy. “Some of these agencies and organizations are already what I consider shovel-ready programs that’s already boots on the ground, that’s in position to receive some money just like the essential workers pay that we just paid.”
Pamela Hawkins, the president of the North Flint Food Market board of directors, spoke in support of the resolution during public comment. She asked all those in attendance in support of the market to stand up, and everyone in the audience, approximately 30 people, did.
“I want to make it simple. I know that you always receive data, you receive statistics, you receive all that, but I want you to see who wants the store,” she said. “It’s the residents of Flint.”
Councilwoman Eva Worthing said she wanted to make sure the council followed the process in spending these dollars.
“I thought we were going to have all of our ward meetings, compile that data, and then formulate a plan,” she said. “I thought that we would have a fair and equitable system, where if we have a set amount of money for businesses such as the North Flint, that we would have an application process.”
She said that if the council were to approve this resolution now, they’d be sending a message that the council is going to just give money to their “favorite project … before any other businesses in the city get a chance to apply for these monies.”
These sentiments were shared by three council members during the committee meeting last week discussing the same project. Widigan also made the same comment about following the process.
“We are not saying this shouldn’t happen, and we’re not against this project in any way. However, we must follow a process,” Widigan said. “This resolution before us does not follow the process. And we must ensure fair, equitable and accessible opportunities for all investment interests in applying for these artifacts. We welcome this investment. However, we need to follow a process.”
One aspect of the process, Widigan said, was that it is the mayor who must bring spending resolutions forward—not the council. Council President Eric Mays fought him on that point.
“We can sponsor resolutions. We can sponsor them to do all things necessary to do this. We can sponsor them to hold a hearing and get rid of you,” Mays said to Widigan.
Arguments and interruptions continued between Mays, Worthing, Widigan, and Attorney William Kim, who attempted to speak to the legality of the situation.
Murphy told Mays he was using his “position as the chairperson to attack,” people, and said it was “wrong,” and “disrespectful.” Mays said he thought “Mr. Widigan and them ain’t treat (the council) right yet.”
As arguments continued, Murphy got up to leave the meeting.
“That’s what y’all get for voting for him for president,” Murphy said as he was leaving. Mays asked a police officer to escort him out.
Shortly after, Mays had Worthing escorted out by a police officer as well, after she said she would not be leaving on her own.
The council took a ten minute recess, and when they returned, the discussion shifted from process to legality, seeing as two members of the council are members of the North Flint Food Market co-op.
Kim told the council that, “in general, state law would prohibit council members who have a financial or personal interest in the business entity from participating in a vote that would grant a subsidy to that entity.” He said that the two council members who are members of the co-op should abstain from the vote.
However, according to Kim, if a “quorum,” or at least five members, were a part of the co-op, they could all vote on the resolution. Mays proposed that he, Councilwoman Tonya Burns, and Councilman Dennis Pfeiffer all pay $25 to become members.
Rather than postponing the resolution to committee meeting, Mays suggested they move the resolution to the community ARPA fund meeting on March 2.
City Clerk Inez Brown said the meeting was posted as a community meeting, and wasn’t sure it would be legal. Mays and Brown began to argue, and Burns got up to leave the meeting.
“If you’re upset because because I said to Ms. Brown or whatever you’re upset about, God bless you. Pack your bags and be gone,” Mays said as she got up to leave.
Councilwoman Allie Herkenroder got up to leave as well, and the meeting lost the required number of members to continue before any vote was taken on the resolution.
A special council meeting has been announced for March 3, at 5:30 p.m. to handle the unfinished business from the last meeting.