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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—Flint’s fourth ward residents will be choosing between three very different candidates this election year.
There’s the incumbent, Council President Kate Fields, who has served on the council for six years, and has a formal educational background in public administration.
Then there’s 26-year-old Michael Doan, a business owner whose desire to get involved in politics stems from his son who was affected by the water crisis.
Doan has run for council before, but this will be Judy Priestley’s first time. Priestley has her bachelor’s degree in accounting, and believes her financial knowledge would be an asset to the council.
Like the residents of the fourth ward, all three candidates are tired of the arguments and fighting among council members. Residents say they want a council representative who is respectful, gets along with the rest of council, and spends more time getting city business done than fighting.
For the fourth ward, residents say the business they’d like to see taken care of is related to blight and illegal dumping.
The fourth ward is located on Flint’s east side, an area where arson has been a major problem. Not only are houses abandoned and blighted, but many of them have also burned down, or are partially burned.
According to a research study from the University of Michigan-Flint, this ward has approximately 11,900 people living in it, as of 2017. The population is 75% white, the highest percentage of white residents in all wards, 18% Black, and 8% Hispanic, which is also the highest percentage of Hispanics among all wards.
The report shows that the median household income is $30,555, which is the second highest of all wards, and that 37% of this ward’s population is living in poverty.
According to the Flint Property Portal, half of all of the buildings in the fourth ward are listed in “good condition.” About 40% are listed as “fair,” and the rest are “poor” and “sub-standard.” There have been 570 demolitions in this ward, but there are 159 more that are listed, only eight of which are funded.
While many residents on Flint’s east side try to clean up blighted properties, they say their work doesn’t always last long, as people use this area to illegally dump trash. Additionally, for burned out homes or abandoned homes that are privately owned, residents can’t do much in the way of cleaning them up.
They’re looking for support.
Cracking down and cleaning up
Edna Sabucco has lived in Flint’s fourth ward for 45 years. She’s the president of the Eastside Franklin Neighborhood Association, and actually formed the group with her neighbors back in 2015.
She said the biggest issue in her ward, “just like every other part of Flint,” is blight and dumping.
“It’s very frustrating, because, you know, you clean up an area and people from wherever come in, and they mess it up all over again,” she said. “We actually had a cleanup on May 15, and one of the sites that we cleaned up was all residential trash from, like, two miles away. Rather than bagging it up and putting it on the curb, these knuckleheads drove two miles and dumped it in an abandoned house.”
Sabucco said she doesn’t think the council can do a whole lot about it, but that Fields seems to try.
“I always feel that I can call her and voice my concerns or my frustrations, and even if she can’t do anything about it, she will point me in the right direction and tell me who to speak with,” Sabucco said. “And I think that’s every bit as important as somebody rolling up their sleeves and diving into it headfirst. I have friends that live in other wards, and they call, and they don’t get an answer, and they don’t get a call back.”
She said Fields came to the citywide clean up on May 15, and brought food and beverages for all of the volunteers. Fields also helped organize it, and locate the various sites they chose to work on.
Fields called the fourth ward a “mirror of the city.” While she identified blight and illegal dumping as major issues, she said this ward also deals with crime, drugs, illegal businesses run out of homes, and arson.
She said she would like to strengthen existing ordinances, pass ordinances that have been postponed, and propose new ordinances related to these issues to hold the people behind these problems accountable. She said for blight, cars parked illegally, and all the other things her constituents complain about, no one seems to get held accountable.
“The problem is the citations, the tickets, go to this court, and at the worst, it goes on the property, which the county treasurer’s been refusing to put these on the properties, and then it goes into foreclosure so the owners are never held accountable,” Fields said. “I want to change the ordinances to say no, we are going to take you into a civil court and get a judgment against you, and if you don’t take care of these problems, then we will go after your assets to pay for taking care of them.”
Fields said she is also looking to propose an ordinance that would get burned homes demolished quicker.
“I want some legislation that says, if you were a private owner of a property that is burned down and you don’t have insurance, that the city will demolish it and we will attach your assets to pay for it,” she said. “Because basically once something burns, people leave it, and then they stop paying taxes … but then it goes into the (Genesee County) Land Bank, and then the land bank has yet another property they don’t have any funds to take care of.”
Fields lives in the house her parents moved to one week before she was born in 1948. She grew up in Flint, and left for a while “in the era of hippies” for the San Francisco Bay Area, before moving back in 1993. At the University of Michigan, Fields got her bachelor’s and her master’s degrees in Public Administration.
She started a nonprofit organization, the Greater Eastside Community Association, that did various work related to housing including demolitions, rehabs, and building energy efficient housing, although it is no longer operating. She also worked as a professor at UM-Flint for 15 years before retiring in 2017.
In 2016, Fields was appointed to the fourth ward council seat when Josh Freeman resigned. She had to run for election that year to fulfill the remainder of the term. She ran again in 2017 for a four-year term and won.
She said she feels that there is a role for her on the council, although she’s been disappointed with some council decisions, such as the postponements of an ordinance that would hold landlords accountable for blight resulting from evictions, and an ordinance related to drag racing.
Apart from getting those ordinances taken care of, Fields says she calls back every constituent and tries to direct them to the proper department who can take care of their issue.
“There’s just a never ending array of complaints, and rightfully so,” she said. “People don’t want to live like this, and I work very hard with the administration to help every constituent I can.”
Fourth ward resident Karl Collyer said that Fields has advised him about who to contact for recent issues he’s had, but that he had already tried the avenues she suggested. Collyer said the people he talks to from the administration haven’t been helpful in getting things resolved.
“I mean, they’re dragging their feet. It’s just weird,” he said. “The other problem is the blight office has been politicized. Last year was a good year because they were doing really good, but this year, they’re down to two full-time employees and two part-time employees … I mean, they’re trying to save money at the administration, but blight is one area they can’t really save on in my opinion.”
Collyer does a lot of work in his neighborhood, and participates in the land bank’s Clean and Green program, but feels that on the city’s end, things aren’t getting done.
“The biggest issue is people dumping, it’s like they don’t know what to do with the trash,” he said. “The city government’s not very responsive lately, so they just take it upon themselves to go dump on a property.”
Additionally, he said there doesn’t seem to be any development in the fourth ward.
“I mean, there’s a couple of new buildings on Davison, but they’re very small, but show me some buildings, or construction or something of value being built in the fourth ward,” Collyer said. “I live on the part between Dort and the river, and there’s nothing being built here…I mean you got to promote your area, you know.”
Doan said he’s been meeting with community leaders and talking about the same thing.
“The fourth ward used to have so many businesses. Flint used to have so many businesses period, and so even with the original coney island closing out over in the fourth ward, right along with other businesses, a couple of Metro stores, barber shops,” Doan said. “I was over in the Latinx community talking to them the other day, and they were just saying the same thing.”
Doan was born and raised in Flint, and graduated from Northwestern High School in 2015. He owns two businesses: a Metro T-mobile phone store on the east side that opened six months ago, and Platinum Sports Bar and Grille, which isn’t open yet due to the pandemic.
“The residents want someone who will actually get out in the community, work with different community leaders and everything of that nature,” Doan said. “So, you know, I’m young, I just started another business, I got lots of energy, and I’m always able to be right up front and be energized and help.”
Doan said his son, who has autism, inspired him to run for council, and get more involved in his community. He said it was a struggle at first to understand why his son wasn’t talking yet, and then he learned that the water crisis affected young children’s development. When he realized this was an issue affecting the whole community, he wanted to get involved to try to help other kids.
He started working at an education program helping children with special needs, as well as young adults looking to go back to high school and get their degree. In 2017, he ran for council in the fourth ward but lost to Fields. In 2019, he attempted to recall Fields, but failed.
Doan said one of his main goals is to bring more youth programs to the fourth ward.
“The work is not finished. It’s far from finished. We still need to worry about our youth,” he said. “My main thing in the fourth ward is creating some more youth programs throughout the summer, and trying to make sure we think about skilled trades coming back to Flint.”
He said the biggest issues in his ward are blight and abandoned houses, and that residents are looking for someone who can come out to help fight blight.
Priestley said there needs to be a change in attitude among residents in the neighborhood.
“I think that it’s the deterioration of the home, and basically it comes down to pride,” she said. “There’s a lack of pride in the area, in the care of the homes, and the businesses. I mean, there’s just so many vacant properties all over this area.”
Priestley was born in the fourth ward, and has been a resident in the same home for more than 30 years. She has her bachelor’s degree in accounting from Lake Superior State University, and is currently employed by Intuit. She says her experience is mainly in nonprofits, and that her specialty is in grant accounting.
“I felt that with my experience in accounting, I would be an asset to the council,” she said. “Because I know the last financial statements that I looked at, the audited financial statements, there were so many accounting inefficiencies, it’s amazing that the city can even function.”
If she were elected council person, she said she feels one of her responsibilities would be to direct finances where they should go, and hold department heads accountable.
But those aren’t the things that drew her to run for council.
“I’ve decided to run for the council because I find it to be very dysfunctional,” Priestley said. “It appears that everyone’s fighting with everyone, so it’s time to clean them out.”
A council that works together
Flint City Council meetings are notorious for lasting several hours, and being full of arguments. The council tends to be almost evenly split on issues, whether it’s about city business, or the rules of conducting a meeting.
Priestley said she can hardly get through watching a whole council meeting as it is.
“They just don’t get the city business done. They just don’t,” she said. “We just need to work together and I thought a clean slate would be good. “
Priestley said she sees two factions, with Fields on one side, and Councilman Eric Mays on another.
“I think she’s not trying to build a consensus, and she’s the council president, and that’s what she should be doing,” she said.
Fields is well aware of the divide on the council, but says the solution is for certain members to stop “enabling” Mays.
“The biggest challenge is the individuals on council who are trying to create chaos on purpose, are trying to obstruct anything Mayor Neeley tries to do and are being so ugly in the process that they’re alienating basically the majority of people from even wanting to participate,” Fields said.
Fields said that Mays, Councilwoman Monica Galloway, Council Vice President Maurice Davis, and Councilwoman Jerri Winfrey-Carter make the meetings “beyond unpleasant.”
“I think it rises to the level of abuse. People feel traumatized after having to listen to, much less be in, the council meeting for not even a reasonable amount of time,” she said. “How is it that for decades and decades, a city council was able to handle the business of the city, in a two to three hour meeting until Eric Mays got on council?”
Fields said her hope for the council is to get some new people on that will make for “enough votes to not allow this type of behavior.”
Fourth ward residents say they want the council to see the council work together better.
“I would like to see the city council work together a little bit more rather than the divisiveness and picking at one another,” Sabucco said. “I don’t like that. And I don’t like to see them drawing lines in the sand.”