ST. JOSEPH — Three St. Joseph residents – Al DiBrito, Shawn Hill and Susan Solon – are seeking city commission seats held by three incumbents.
They are seeking seats held by Commissioner and Mayor Pro Tem Laura Goos, elected to a two-year term in 2017; Lynn Todman, appointed to fill an unexpired term in December 2017 and now seeking a full term; and Jeff Richards, first elected in 1986.
The top two vote-getters serve four-year terms, and the third-place candidate serves a two-year term.
DiBrito ran for city commission two years ago. This is the first race for Solon and Hill.
DiBrito is the deputy chief for Spectrum Health Lakeland’s Safety, Security and Emergency Management Department. He retired from the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2012 after a 24-year career as a special agent. Prior to joining the FBI, DiBrito served as a police officer in the Chicago area for 10 years.
After his retirement, DiBrito served two years as the deputy director for the City of St. Joseph’s Department of Public Safety. Some of the accomplishments listed by DiBrito include being a founding member of the Benton Harbor Boys and Girls Club, and founding the Berrien County Water Rescue Team, the FBI’s Violent Crime Task Force, and a Tactical Medical Team. He has served as a member of the Lake Michigan Catholic school board and serves as a board member for the Berrien County Medical Control Authority.
Solon worked for the city for 20 years, first hired as an administrative assistant to then-City Manager Frank Walsh in 1998, and then as marketing and communications director. Solon shepherded the public art display from its inception in 2004 to 2018, was director of the Downtown Development Authority, liaison for more than 70 local events, editor of the city’s newsletter and calendar, and maintained the city’s website. Before stepping down, she worked with the city’s downtown master plan committee.
After retiring from city hall, she took a position as director of member services at the Cornerstone Chamber of Commerce, but left to focus her time on the commission race.
Outside of her city duties, Solon served on the board of the Citadel Dance and Music Center, the Heritage Museum and Cultural Center, and the Southwest Michigan Women’s Scholarship Program. She is a member of the St. Joseph Today board and continues as co-chair of the Community Showcase at the Senior PGA.
Hill is a manager for Hillview Farms in Dowagiac, in sales and dispatch and setting up daily routes for drivers. He also drives tour buses for Royal Excursions. He was a manager for Hill Enterprises from 2003 to 2009, handling a staff of 30 for the trucking company and managing budgets and other duties.
He has a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business. He was a volunteer firefighter in St. Joseph from 1996 to 2002, and a Benton Harbor Reserve firefighter from 2011-14.
After retiring from city hall, Solon said she still wants to contribute to the community.
“I just don’t want to walk away,” she said. “I want to help and do my civic duty in moving our great city along.”
Solon believes that the tax burden on residents is “outrageous” and that leaders need to stop raising taxes, including the 2.55-mill increase for street repairs. “The taxpayers shoulders are getting pretty heavy.”
Instead, officials need to look for creative ways to increase revenue that doesn’t fall on residents, Solon said. One suggestion she has is bringing paid metered parking to downtown, such as St. Joseph has at its beach lots, with residents exempted. Solon said that the city needs to look at charging downtown merchants for trash pick-up. South Haven downtown businesses remove their own trash, she said.
Solon has no problem with some of the recent tax abatements approved by the city that allowed companies such as Whirlpool, United Federal Credit Union and LECO to undertake substantial renovations and construction.
“It’s very competitive out there,” Solon said, and she believes that such incentives are necessary to keep businesses in the community, with employees who spend money and pay taxes.
Solon is excited about the ongoing development of St. Joseph’s downtown. She insists that the downtown master plan being finalized “cannot sit on a shelf and gather dust.”
The last major refurbishment of downtown took place in 2003-04, she noted. “That was 15 years ago. We need to get back to that and spruce it up again.” She added that those drafting the plan need to make sure the city has the revenue to make the proposed improvements.
She is not in favor of building a parking garage, which she said would be very expensive. If St. Joseph would consider such a project, it should be a public-private partnership, she said.
Solon said the traffic going into Silver Beach County Park has improved, but it can be better. She said city leaders need to get in a room with county officials “and get it straightened out,” possibly with metered parking at Silver Beach instead of the admission gate.
She would “absolutely” want to bring public art back to downtown, after its hiatus this summer. Solon called it “one of my proudest accomplishments” and “a great economic tool” for bringing people downtown. “You might say there are bigger fish, but a vibrant downtown is a pretty big fish.”
Listening to residents and providing quick responses to their questions and concerns should be a priority, Solon said.
Solon promised to be a full-time commissioner. She said she has watched some of the newcomers on the commission “and none of them have any idea of the commitment it takes to be a great commissioner. Not a good one, but a great one.”
DiBrito said he sees a lack of transparency and fiscal responsibility among city leaders.
“The more transparency you have, the better fiscal responsibility you have,” DiBrito said. “If one fails, so does the other.”
He said he sees too many decisions being rubber-stamped and he would like commissioners to be more vocal about issues.
“They work out their differences ahead of time. I think some of that should be transparent,” he said.
An example was a decision on a recent tax abatement request, where DiBrito said some commissioners first expressed skepticism, and then supported the issue. He said he would have liked to have heard the reason why they changed their minds.
On the financial side, DiBrito said that St. Joseph’s public safety department last year spent almost a quarter of a million dollars on overtime, which he said is “pretty steep for a city with low crime and very few structure fires.” He said he advocates looking at creating a regional fire department.
He is in favor of looking at options for ambulance service to St. Joseph, and he is a proponent of fire-based emergency medical services, providing basic life support.
DiBrito is in favor of term limits for commissioners. While he didn’t know what the “magic number” should be, he suggested a range of around four or five terms. He said term limits bring in new ideas, encourage more people to vote, and give new elected officials more influence early in their tenure.
He is in favor of new businesses, and downtown and harbor development, but added that officials must realize that infrastructure is needed to support these endeavors. Now “residents are being held to pay the bills. I see my taxes going up to pay for infrastructure.”
On the traffic going into Silver Beach, DiBrito said St. Joseph officials have been passing the buck for a long time.
“My observation is that the city sees this as a county problem,” DiBrito said. “I see it as a city problem...The city refuses to draw a line in the sand with the county. We’re at an impasse.”
Possible solutions he suggested included creating a “high-occupancy vehicle lane” for residents below the bluff, or providing police escorts, similar to those offered for funerals. He is in favor of considering metered parking at Silver Beach.
Above the bluff, DiBrito is against building a parking garage. He suggested validating parking for people who spend a certain amount downtown, exempting them from getting a ticket.
DiBrito said his professional experience will benefit the city.
“I’ve worked in government all my life. I know when government isn’t working, I know how to identify it and how to fix it,” DiBrito said.
Hill said he has been attending city meetings for about two years. After he was interviewed for an open seat in 2017, he felt “pretty confident” about his qualifications.
“I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring and let the people decide this time,” Hill said. “I want to give back to the community that has embraced me and my family and that has helped us grow.”
Like the other candidates, Hill said he is hearing from residents that taxes are too high.
“We do get a lot for what we pay,” Hill said.
He’d like to see the infrastructure repairs speeded up so streets and underground pipes don’t get any worse, “instead of putting a band-aid on it. If it becomes worse, then it will be more expensive to fix it.”
The city should look into low-interest bond loans and state and federal funding to pay for some of this work, Hill said.
Getting sidewalk contractors to patch cracks in the streets with concrete instead of asphalt should be considered, he commented. “Concrete and asphalt don’t go too well together.”
Hill sees tax abatements as benefiting the community through business development and employment. He said that St. Joseph is “a step above” other lakeshore communities with its mix of tourism, manufacturing and other businesses.
“It’s not a forever thing,” he said of the tax incentives, and the city eventually gets the full tax benefit.
On the parking and traffic issue at Silver Beach, Hill suggested that a phone app could be used to track when the lot is full, directing visitors to other lots until space is available. He also favors meters at Silver Beach. “We need to sit down with the county and see what we can work out.”
Residents might have suggestions, as well, he said. “There are a lot of smart people here, with great ideas. We could present it to the public and let them come back with their ideas.”
Hill said he would bring back the downtown public art “in a heartbeat.” In going door-to-door, many people have asked about the display, and others plan their vacations around it, he said. “A lot of people are really upset.”
Hill promises to listen to residents, and he said he’d like to see more people show up at commission meetings. “It’s healthy to know what’s going on.”
“The biggest thing is, I want to represent all residents. I’d love to hear from everyone,” Hill said. “Things seem to be going pretty good, and I want to contribute to that.”
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