Pages From A Popular History Of Grand Rapids

New River Free Press Interview,


August 1976: By Michael Daniels


William Blickley:

Bringing Fire to

Citizens & Government

[This was the introductory note to the New River Free Press Interview published in August 1976.]

William Blickley: 34 years old, 5' 11 1/2" tall, blue-gray eyes; BS in urban planning from Michigan State, eight months of urban research based upon a major GR (Grand Rapids) problem directed by the International Federation of Housing & Planning; self-employed most of his working life--a television antenna business for eight years, a snow plowing business for 12 years, and horse-back riding and camping facilities north of GR; neighborhood planner for GR Planning Department for seven months; founding member of WEFF, one of the first neighborhood associations in GR interested in the total neighborhood environment; chairperson of Eastown Community Association, and temporary chairperson of Coalition of Neighborhoods in Government; married; two sons (11 & 13 years old; wife teaches at Oakdale Christian School.


Following his return from a voyage of discovery to Europe and Africa, I heard William Blickley deliver an impassioned plea to the GR (Grand Rapids) City Commission urging it to examine his findings of the citizen participation efforts in Bologna, Italy.


The secret, he stressed, lies in sharing decision-making power with neighborhoods. His evident concern impressed me.


But soon afterwards, he donned the role of neighborhood planner with GR's Planning Department. I have an elemental skepticism of the intentions of all individuals and groups that gravitate towards the City Planning Department, that modern repository of the Imperial Wizard, Court Jester, and Keeper of the Keys of the Kingdom.


"Why is it that this advocate of decentralization is joining forces with the worst elitist, autocratic centralization in the City," I wondered.


Blickley ended up burning his fingers plucking chestnuts for the City planners out of the neighborhoods. Next, he became Eastown's chairperson. Seeing a distinct conflict of interest, I became disillusioned.


But not for long. Soon afterwards, Blickley resigned from the Planning Department, claiming City planners lacked commitment in fulfilling their obligation of promoting neighborhood citizen participation in Community Development.


Thereafter, strengthened by the lessons of GR's bureaucratic sanctuary, he helped launch a successful effort to force the City Commission to appoint a task force to design a process for citizen participation in City government.


At this time, there is no better person to interview on how to nurture the enlightening fire of participation in government.


MD    Did the recent fire-station-closure episode reflect on what exists in GR in the area of citizen participation in City government?


WB    I guess I see a breakdown or at least the evidence of a lack of a good system of communication between citizens and government in a couple of areas.


The commissioners told me that the only choice they had was a reduction in service, that they didn't have a choice to increase cost to maintain the services or to increase services. They felt there was only one decision they could make.


Speaking to the people in the neighborhoods, I discovered that wasn't the main concern, although they did want to maintain taxes at the same level. The main concern was to maintain services (by retaining fire station #7 and #11).


There is not a mechanism to help citizenry understand the functioning of, and the limitations of, the system so that they can make an informed contribution. That seems to me to be the basic limitation of our system.


We found out when we had the information we could evaluate and make a valuable contribution towards the solution. But what we had to do was beat them (the commissioners) on the head before they would share with us the information they had.


It took 2,500 signatures and 18 organizations and numerous telephone calls before the City Commission would hold a public meeting to explain their professional data on fire stations. It took all that and I think that's too much.


If you want to convince the public not to respond, that's the best way. If I want to condition my animals not to do something, I make it difficult for them to do it, then they don't or they do something else. I think that's what's happening: Government is making it difficult for people to participate.



MD    What type of structure would you favor to promote citizen  participation?


WB    I think a system that will take the issues to the group of neighborhood people that are going to be affected, and work out the compromise there. Then, if there is a necessity of collecting extra taxes, the people at the neighborhood level will understand if there is a necessity or not, and they will be able to campaign for, or against, additional services.


The only other alternative, seems to me, is for seven men on the City Commission to make a very political decision, normally against anything that will stir up a controversy, and then to wait for a crisis to develop that will get everybody upset and moving after which they will make a last minute decision.



MD    Do you think the City departments are presently capable of handling such a people-oriented system?


(Blickley pauses for a long time. Then, laughs.)


WB    Do I think they are presently capable? Some of them say they are doing it already . .  .



MD    What was your experience on the Planning Department?


WB    My short experience as a bureaucrat among other bureaucrats showed me that most people (bureaucrats) feel that they could just as well do their job themselves without outside interference. There are a number of people, for instance, working in the Planning Department that understand the need for citizen involvement and want to get citizen involvement, but the system is not designed to accomplish effective citizen involvement.


It is not required that citizens be heard and when they are heard it's not required that anything be done about what they say. Their comments could be filed or could be acted upon and it would make no difference to the system.



MD    What changes are needed?


WB    I think we need some laws, whether they be charter laws, or otherwise, that would require that before a city impacts a particular neighborhood the city must notify and consult with representatives from that particular neighborhood that is being impacted.


And that would require that those people being consulted have enough power to have a significant outcome on the issue at hand--not a public hearing where city people come and tell you what they're going to be doing and let you respond without any effective assurance that you'll have any impact on the outcome.



MD    You just said neighborhood representatives. Doesn't that presuppose a certain amount of effective democratic participation at the neighborhood level?


WB    Absolutely. That will be a requirement for effective citizen participation at the neighborhood level.



MD    Do you think it exists at present in the neighborhoods?


WB    To some extent in some neighborhoods. But only to a limited extent in that present neighborhood centers and CAP (Community Action Program) centers have only a limited authority--from zero to authority over certain programs.


If we had neighborhood councils or representatives with increased influential power with City government on neighborhood issues, we would have an increase in the recognition of neighborhood people of the importance of their participation.



MD      So, which is the first step in promoting a system that will maximize citizen participation in City government?


WB       First step, I think, is to set up a system which will assure a democratic process for selecting neighborhood representatives, and second of all--they are almost intertwined that you kind of got to do them together--is to make sure those neighborhood representatives effectively, significantly participate in all City Hall decisions relating to that neighborhood. I think, by the way, the City has taken the first step in setting up the Community Development target area councils--at least in their work plan.



MD      Don't you think they were not democratically elected?


WB       I think there were weaknesses in the selection, but I think it was significant that the effort was made. But I would also comment on this point thus:


I believe Commissioner Warke stated when he wrote to Jack Schwab . . . that these target area council members are appointees of the Mayor's and not really representatives of the neighborhood.


I'm disturbed that he'd say such a thing, that the City Commission would ask for neighborhood nominations, neighborhood elections, and then attempt to steal their validity as neighborhood representatives.


I question whether  the City Commission is concerned with whether neighborhood associations represent neighborhoods democratically, when they don't recognize the validity of neighborhood representatives chosen by a process administered by themselves.



MD    What are the prospects for the next year?


WB    First of all, we have a task force evaluating citizen participation and seeking to come up with a structure and process to ensure citizen participation in government decisions. That, added to the recurring demands of neighborhood groups for an effective voice in determining what happens to them and their neighborhoods, along with citizen groups around the country developing citizen participation structures, we should make some progress.


I think one of the important things for citizens to recognize in electing government officials is that when they say government must be close to the people, they must also say how that can be accomplished. To achieve effective citizen participation and effective democracy in Grand Rapids is not going to be easy.


It's always going to be easier for government officials to do it themselves without other people interfering with them and it will always be easier to let them do that but it also will be more difficult to live in the City, if we continue in this pattern.


Grand Rapids is a city of churches and it seems to me that each church governmental structure is a pretty good structure for what I envision for the neighborhood structure. The churches I have been involved in have been very democratic and sensitive to individual needs and for me at least a governmental system that is very fulfilling.



August 1976 credit line: Michael Daniels is the  editor of  New River.


A New River Free Press Reprint/August '76

New River Free Press:

Your Friendly Guide To Urban Survival & Improvement

From 1973 to 1977 Grand Rapids' Independent Voice

This community newspaper was lovingly hand-crafted on an
IBM Selectric. All of its Bookman headlines were produced by
individually hand-pressing transfer lettering.

--Michael Chacko Daniels, Editor & Publisher

Reprinted as part of a new, continuing
Grand Rapids, Michigan,
Popular History Project


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Posted on Sunday, October 9, 2005 at 09:33AM by Registered CommenterMichael Chacko Daniels | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint