ST. JOSEPH — St. Joseph City Commissioners Jeff Richards, Laura Goos and Lynn Todman are seeking to retain their seats on the Nov. 5 ballot.
Also seeking seats are challengers Al DiBrito, Susan Solon and Shawn Hill (who were previously profiled in The HP). The top two voter-getters will serve four-year terms, and the third-place finisher gets a two-year term.
Richards, a St. Joseph veterinarian since the 1970s, has been on the commission since April 1984, and is the longest-serving representative in the city.
Goos, who also serves as mayor pro tem, is completing a two-year term, her first. She works for Whirlpool Corp. in human resources.
Todman was appointed to fill the unexpired term of Chris Heugel in December 2017. She is the executive director of population health with Spectrum Health Lakeland.
Richards quotes a former city official who said that St. Joseph “is the best little city in the country,” and that small-town feel is something he wants to maintain, while modernizing services.
That’s his motivation, he explained. “I just enjoy doing this. I enjoy public service.”
He said he first ran as “one you can count on, and one you can trust,” and he hopes he has stayed true to that. In a small community “if you’re not doing your job,” and doing it in a respectful way, “you stick out like a sore thumb.”
Some candidates have suggested that the city consider term limits because of the extended tenure of Richards and other commissioners.
“We have term limits every two years,” Richards said. “Is 34 years too long? It’s up to the people, they have the say.”
On the subject of taxes, Richards said the city need to stay affordable, while continuing to work on facilities and infrastructure. On the increase in the road millage, for example, Richards believes “if you tell people what it is for, how much it will be, and for how long, they will accept it.”
Commissioners “have to keep their promises, or you lose trust,” he said.
Richards said he is looking forward to seeing the finalized downtown master plan. He emphasized the need to balance the needs of the residential and commercial areas “and keep it more neighborly.”
Leaders also “need to be innovative and think outside the box,” and not neglect locations east of Main Street, he said. This could include using existing parking lot space for townhouses and other development, he said.
A parking garage is “a maybe” for Richards, if it was put in the right spot where it would be used, incorporating commercial and residential space, he said.
On the budget and funding for infrastructure, Richards concedes that previous commissions, and communities across the state, should have been putting money away while state revenue remained relatively steady, before its decline.
“We thought the roads would last forever,” Richards said. “I wish we had that to revisit.”
Richards said he enjoys downtown attractions such as Live Mannequins and the public art display, that he noted brings “a persistent trickle” of people. If public art comes back, he’d like to see a committee of some of the creative people in the community put together to decide what direction it should take.
Commissioners have been able to build “on the broad shoulders and thick skins” of the people who came before, Richards said, and he thinks he and others have done a good job.
“We’ve done it with the cooperation of the taxpayers. We raised the bar high, and we can do better,” Richards said. “I think the people do trust what we’re doing.”
Goos said she spent the first months of her term learning how government works, which she said moves at a slower pace than the corporate world.
“There is a lot of information we need, and a lot of homework,” Goos said, with much of that provided by city staff.
She said she also welcomes the public comments officials receive, and the ability to have discussions during meetings and presentations. “I’ve come to appreciate how valuable that is.”
Among the accomplishments she listed was the passage of a non-discrimination ordinance that includes protections for members of the LGBT community.
“That had the effect of making people feel welcome here, whether it’s visitors, residents, newcomers, kids in school. It’s telling them we have their back,” Goos said.
The formation of a sustainability committee that looks at financial stability, environmental issues, stewardship of natural resources and social inclusiveness, was another achievement, Goos said. Under this effort, the city won the Michigan Green Community Bronze Award for taking steps toward energy efficiency and reducing its carbon footprint.
Raising the millage for the library was another positive step that she said was supported by residents she spoke with.
During her two years in office, Goos said she has held 10 “Coffee with a Commish” gatherings, and has been going door-to-door to talk to residents. Among the people she has met with, Goos said she spoke with only one person who objected to a tax increase to pay for street and other infrastructure repairs. Some of the sewer pipes under the ground are 100 years old, she pointed out, and need to be replaced. “That’s not sustainable.”
On the issue of parking, Goos said a consultant working on the downtown master plan reported that there are enough spaces available during the summer, except for a few weekends. On the traffic flow into Silver Beach County Park, Goos would like officials to meet with Berrien County representatives to find a solution to back-ups that impact residents below the bluff.
Goos said she would like to see organizations such as the Krasl Art Center, Box Factory for the Arts, the Benton Harbor Territorial Arts District and others work together to bring back public art to downtown.
“There is an opportunity to re-invent it,” and share the responsibility, Goos said.
Goos was president of the Board of Directors for the Box Factory for the Arts from 2014-2018. She also has served on the board of the Safe Shelter, a local domestic violence shelter, in 2007-2008.
She said her core beliefs are that her job as a commissioner is to listen and find balanced solutions. “I believe in a win-win.”
Todman said she has enjoyed her time as a commissioner, and wants to continue to make a contribution.
She said she also like to see even more people get involved, such as looking at the city’s recently updated master plan “and decide what they want to work on, and engage and not sit on the sidelines.”
“It’s easy to put that kind of plan on a shelf,” which Todman said she doesn’t want to see happen.
One area she said was identified was the need to attract younger residents, which she called “our future taxpayers.” Without that, the tax burden falls to older residents, she said. That will require providing affordable housing and leisure and entertainment options, Todman said.
Todman said she supported the non-discrimination ordinance that included LGBT protections, and the formation of the sustainability committee.
On the tax increase for streets and infrastructure, passed in May 2018, Todman noted that she came a bit late to the plan that was the result of a three-year study. She did point out that the major needs resulted from deferred spending by previous commissioners.
“Now it’s catch-up,” Todman said, which she added is happening across Michigan and the U.S., as well.
Todman advocates for more inter-governmental cooperation with surrounding communities and Berrien County. One example of a shortcoming is the need to find a solution to traffic going through St. Joseph to Silver Beach, she said.
“A mutually agreeable solution needs to be found,” Todman said.
She said the decision on downtown public art was “a pause button” and not meant to eliminate it. She would like groups to “find something different and novel and innovative. We have to refresh it.”
Having city spaces where people can meet and connect is “a critical concept,” Todman said.
Todman has been with Lakeland since 2015. She has organized the Community Grand Rounds series of speakers on issues of race and health, and smaller “Brave Talks” on community issues.
She is active with the Berrien County Mental Health Authority, and board member with Edgewater Bank and Cornerstone Alliance and Benton Harbor Promise Zone Foundation.
Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak