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This story is a part of a weekly series in which Flint Beat explores the issues and concerns of resident in each ward, as well as each council candidate, leading up to the Aug. 3 primary. For more election coverage, including other stories in this series, visit our elections page.
Flint, MI– Residents of the eighth ward will have four very different options when voting in the Flint City Council primary Aug. 3.
The incumbent, Allan Griggs, 76, has served on the council for four years, and has a background in industrial design, and engineering.
Thomas Ross, 30, is a lifelong Flint resident earning his master’s degree in public administration with a concentration in criminal justice.
William Harris Jr., 35, has lived in the eighth ward for 20 years, has been an ordained elder in the Church of God in Christ for 13 years.
Dennis Pfeiffer, 43, was born and raised in Flint, and works as a project development director for a manufacturing company.
The eighth ward is the largest ward in Flint, making up about six square miles of the southwestern part of the city, including the Bishop International Airport and the Flint General Motors Assembly Plant and Engine Operations Plant.
It is also home to the Swartz Creek Valley Golf Course, small businesses along Corunna and Miller roads, Powers Catholic High School, Southwestern Classical academy, Eisenhower Elementary and Neithercut Elementary.
This ward has the highest population of all nine wards according to a report from the University of Michigan-Flint. In 2017, the ward was home to 13,300 residents, 61% of whom are white, 33% Black, and 3% Hispanic.
The report shows that the median household income was also the highest among all wards in 2017, at approximately $32,300, with about 37% of residents living in poverty.
Like all the wards in the city, the main concerns for eighth ward residents are crime and blight, but each candidate has different ideas about how to address these issues.
Dealing with crime and blight
Cheryl Christoff is the president of the West Flint Community Watch group, a non-profit organization made up of concerned citizens on the west side.
Christoff said the biggest concerns she hears from residents at the neighborhood meetings are crime and blight.
“In the Ballenger Highway area, roughly between Sunset Drive and Corunna Road, we’ve had more violence in that area than we’ve experienced in the past,” Christoff said.
As a lifelong Flint resident, and a resident of the eighth ward for 30 years, Christoff remembers when the policing situation in her community used to be very different.
“Crime is always a concern, but we did have a neighborhood patrol officer when this organization started many years ago,” she said. “We felt that having a face that we recognized and saw regularly, with the rest of the community, that would be helpful. So the mini station idea, and getting officers out on the street more to build those relationships would be something that we would like to see.”
That’s something Ross said he would like to see as well.
“We’re at about, maybe a little under 100 police officers I believe, so really we need to double that,” he said. “I spoke to a resident who told me, once upon a time there was a police officer that basically patrolled the eighth ward and at one point, we had a mini station that was right here in our ward. I would like to bring back that kind of stuff.”
Ross, 30, was born and raised in Flint. He has his bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Michigan, and is currently earning his master’s degree in public administration with a concentration in criminal justice.
“A police officer who works this beat that residents to get to know on a personal level would help close that gap between residents and policing,” Ross said. “There’s a lot that can be done.”
Ross has a pending assault charge from 2019 that he has pleaded not guilty to, and will go to trial for next month. He said the charge is from a physical altercation that started with his 8-year-old niece and nephews saying a man had been hitting them at a baseball game.
Ross said he went to approach the man, got punched, and began fighting. More people got involved in the altercation, and Ross said it was “a matter of self defense” for him. He said that he is looking forward to getting the issue resolved and moving on.
Ross has been thinking about running for council for a long time, but decided to wait until he felt more prepared, as he does now. He said the “rapid decline” in the city over the past decade is what pushed him to run.
“I haven’t seen much action taken,” Ross said.
In speaking with residents, Ross identified blight, crime, and helping small businesses as the top three priorities for his ward.
“I personally believe that crime and blight kind of go hand in hand. When you got a lot of blight, usually, you got a lot of crime,” he said. “We could take care of them at the same time.”
In addition to hiring more police officers and having an officer and mini-station specifically for the eighth ward, Ross said he thinks getting certain roads cleaned up and blight-free would help with crime too.
“Fenton Road and Corunna Road are like the business district, so to speak, for the eighth ward, but there are so many old businesses that used to be there and are no longer there,” he said. “But the buildings are still there, and they’re just burned out, and their windows are busted up, and it’s affecting the other businesses out there.”
According to the Flint Property Portal, in the eighth ward, there are 4,316 properties listed as being in “good” condition, 764 in “fair” condition, 162 in “poor” condition, and 67 in “sub-standard” condition. There are 74 properties listed for demolition, only four of which are funded.
“I believe if we cleaned up those two roads, we could take care of a lot of the crime, and make way for new, up to date businesses,” Ross said. “By cleaning up those two roads and getting rid of some of the houses that need to be torn down, we could start bringing in homeowners that want to move into the eighth ward too.”
Harris identified crime as one of the biggest issues in the eighth ward, but said that it is typically low-level crime.
“That consists of cars being stolen, cars getting broken into, homes being broken into. Those are the kinds of things that we really deal with a lot in the eighth ward,” he said. “Not so much as violent offenses like armed robbery and murders and things of that nature. We deal with a lot of low-level crime.”
Harris said this doesn’t make the ward a desirable place to be for people.
“With that, people don’t feel safe and they end up leaving and vacating the city, so that is one of the issues that we’re really dealing with,” he said.
For Harris, part of the solution is better education, and more community centers and programs for Flint’s youth.
“When you can’t fill out a resume, when you can’t write your name, when you can’t understand the paperwork, can’t understand the job descriptions, even if you go for a job, you won’t be able to work, because most jobs today require at least a diploma equivalent,” he said.
Harris has lived in Flint, and the eighth ward, since 2001, and studied at both Mott Community College and the University of Michigan-Flint. He says he’s running for council to bring back “transparency and integrity,” into the eighth ward.
Part of his vision for the eighth ward is to see programs and partnerships put in place to tackle educational issues in the community, and give kids more things to participate in.
“If these kids could read, if these kids could write, and we could help them on a path to have a GED, I believe a lot of these issues would go away,” Harris said. “I honestly believe that if we can catch them while they’re young, and correct things that need to be corrected, that will keep them from entering into low-level crimes which eventually escalate into high-level crimes.”
Harris said that in Houston, where he grew up, there were all kinds of community centers, parks, and community resources for activity.
“There’s nothing really like that in Flint, outside of the Berston Field House, and I’m not knocking that at all, but there should be several of those different entities across the city, where we can give our kids something to do,” Harris said. “If we know that we’re lacking in an area, then we should be able to be a voice in the community, and push for those things.”
Griggs said he would also like to bring in community centers to the ward.
“I’d like to get a senior center and a youth center into ward eight. I’ve been snooping around Zimmerman School, but I’m not getting too much anywhere with it,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be Zimmerman, it just needs to be something, because ward eight doesn’t really get as much funding as the other wards I’ve noticed.”
Griggs is an honorably discharged veteran, and earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial design, and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. He spent 30 years working as a consulting engineer, but has since retired, choosing Flint as his final home about 17 years ago. He’s served on the council since 2017, and also owns the Knob Hill Bed and Breakfast.
He said the two major problems he hears about from his constituents are about crime, blight, and high water rates.
Griggs said his neighborhood groups have been very supportive in working to resolve some of these issues, and that he often works to supply dumpsters for neighborhood clean ups. He said he also points residents in the direction of good, quick-responding contacts for dealing with crime issues, but a lack of funding from the city poses challenges.
“Ward eight has the largest population, has the largest number of registered voters, pays property taxes, so it should be more than what it is, but we get very little funding for ward eight,” he said. “And I’m trying to rectify that, but it’s very slow.”
Griggs said he thinks this might be because there are fewer problems that seem to come out of the eighth ward.
“The squeaky wheel doesn’t get oil, but ward eight has the same amount of problems. My gosh, the blight is just terrible, and our crime is increasing. I can see it,” Griggs said. “One of my constituents just last night had her car stolen out of the driveway, a brand new car.”
He said he wishes some of the American Rescue Plan Act funds could be used for these issues, but isn’t sure it can be.
“I wish we could get some of the funding from this initial $47 million, however, that’s for COVID-related problems, and it’s hard to make blight fit into COVID-related problems,” he said.
Pfeiffer said he thinks there is a way that funding can be used to address these issues.
“We should be able to use a good portion of the COVID funds, if we play the finances right,” he said. “So it’s not necessarily part of the U.S. Treasury’s plan to use those for blight, but we should be able to funnel that money through the water department.”
Pfeiffer said if the government can credit people that are back due on their water through a stimulus payment on their account, that money could then be transferred to the general fund to be used as they please.
“We can use those funds to put police on the beat, we can use it to tear down houses,” he said. “That is strictly from the bill, is we can use it for grants or use it for stimulus for poverty-stricken areas for water utility reimbursement. And that’s one thing that is proof that nobody in our council wants to help the people. They’re looking at spending it in ways that will show no improvement in the city.”
Pfeiffer said he was inspired to run for council out of disappointment with the current representation.
“The neighborhoods went to complete garbage with all the blight, and we don’t seem to be getting the representation to get our ward, even to a level with the amount of money going through the other wards,” he said. “Because he doesn’t speak up or fight for the people of the eighth ward. Unfortunately the loudest voice in council seems to get all the attention, and all the monies or resources sent to their wards because it is the loudest.”
Pfeiffer said blight is the biggest concern for the ward, and that crime, while there, is less prominent than in other wards.
“But with the amount of houses that are burned down, abandoned, it’s only a matter of time before that blight turns into crime,” he said. “If you go around to talk to the neighbors, they are concerned about the houses being illegal dumping grounds, and the lack of pride in their neighborhoods anymore because of the blight.”
The role of a councilperson
Christoff said she expects her councilperson to be a good communicator, have good executive skills, get involved in the work that neighborhood organizations are doing, and put residents ahead of their own egos.
She said Griggs currently meets all of her expectations, attends the neighborhood meetings, and helps facilitate various work in the community.
“I’m happy to say our council person has met all of those, as well as doing everything he can to be civil at the meetings,” she said.
Griggs said he takes countless calls from residents each week, and that’s the part that he enjoys the most, as well as his main responsibility.
As far as the council meetings, Griggs said he wishes the council could get along better, but that it’s been a challenge.
“I wish we could come together as friends and work to resolve a lot of problems but, I don’t know, the climate doesn’t seem to be conducive to that,” he said. “But I’m willing to keep on, and try to keep a civil tongue in the meetings.”
He said he’s worried about what the council’s fighting will do for economic development in the city.
“We’ve got to welcome these businesses that come in, and we’ve got to be able to show them a good face. That concerns me a little bit, and right now, with our council meetings, we’re not betting on a real good face,” Griggs said. “I think we will improve. I have high hopes for this election this year.”
Harris said he’s not an argumentative person, which he thinks is important for the council.
“I believe in disagreements, but I believe in disagreeing to the point where we can come together. My father has a saying that it’s okay to disagree, but it’s a problem when you disconnect,” he said.
Harris said dealing with the budget as a legislator, dealing with ordinances, and being a voice for constituents are his three main responsibilities as a councilperson, but that it goes beyond that.
“You’re a leader, you’re elected by the people, and it goes beyond just budgets, it goes beyond ordinances, it goes into customer service,” he said. “It goes into hearing, into listening, into dealing with people on a daily basis … I can honestly tell you that from the current representation that we have in the city council, those are the kinds of leadership attributes that our community needs.”
Ross said he would like to increase communication as a councilperson.
“I believe I’m supposed to be a direct point of contact, and to me, that means being hands on, being visible, and being seen—literally, physically being seen in your ward,” he said. “It’s easy to take a phone call, but it says a lot more when you actually go and say hey, can I come by there, and you can personally show me what the issue is, and we can try to work to get that taken care of.”
He said he would like to have a drop box where residents from any ward can write down their issues and concerns and leave them for the council to read, as well as monthly newsletters and reports of what residents are doing, and what the council is working on.
“As an elected official you’re put in that position because of the residents, and once you’re in that position it’s not your job to just do whatever you want,” Ross said. “It’s your job to find out what the residents’ needs are and represent them, even if they don’t always line up directly with what you think needs to be done.”
He also said the council needs to work with each other, as well as the rest of the administration.
“There’s no point in trying to do anything if we’re not working together, because one person can’t do it all,” Ross said.
Pfeiffer said he views a major part of his responsibility as councilperson as holding the rest of the administration accountable.
“As a co-equal branch of government, we have to hold the administration responsible. We have to be the checks and balances,” he said. “The blight department isn’t doing anything. They’re not doing anything to help the city, they have people but they have no goals, they have no plan, they have no accountability. The same with basically almost every other department within the city.”
Pfeiffer said it’s the role of the council to ask the right questions to department heads, and hold various departments responsible for the work they need to do. He said he was disappointed in how this council handled the budget process, and felt they didn’t ask enough questions about where the money was going.
“So, first and foremost, we have to be the accountability. We have to be the police if you will, of the administration,” he said.
“I think that when concerned citizens send multiple emails of different complaints that they’ve had within the city and there’s zero follow up to provide a plan to rectify those issues, there has to be accountability,” Pfeiffer said. “The taxpayers have issues that aren’t being resolved…and our constituents have a right to live in a clean, safe community.”