Jerry Steiner isn't satisfied with Battle Creek's city government. 
He said he was hoping, that this time around, City Commissioners would do what the people wanted and allow a direct election of the mayor.
That didn't happen. 
"I've just been sitting back a lot because I know that a lot of African Americans, and a lot of citizens, period, are dissatisfied with the way government is run here in Battle Creek," he said. "My whole concern is that the community has a voice, and I don't feel they had a voice this time...I sit by and let that go, and my grandmama — I sure wish she would come back from the grave and whoop my butt."
When City Commissioners were discussing whether to put direct election of the mayor on the ballot last week, giving people a voice was at the heart of their discussion.
Several commissioners who voted against the resolution said that they didn't think it did enough to improve representation in the city. It needed six votes to pass. It got five.
Some residents feel Commissioners missed the mark and support a plan to start a petition to get direct election of the mayor and a new ward system on the ballot. 
"It's time for a change," Battle Creek resident Janice Banks said. "They choose among themselves. They've been doing it a long time." 

Choosing who represents the city

Battle Creek has a council-manager system of city government, which means that the mayor is not the chief executive of the city and doesn't make decisions for the city apart from the City Commission. Electing the mayor wouldn't give Battle Creek residents any more influence on city policy than they already have, but for voters like Steiner, it's not about electoral power. It's about choosing who represents the city. 
"When you think of city government, you think of the mayor," he said. "What has happened here in Battle Creek is that the City Commission has gotten so powerful with this political cronyism, you know, 'We're going to pick the mayor among ourselves because you the population aren't qualified to do it'...To place such an important decision in the hands of such a small group of people is a slap in the face to the hard working people here in Battle Creek."
Prior to the Board of Commission's vote on direct election of the mayor, Ward 3 Commissioner Kate Flores did an informal study on how well Battle Creek's current electoral system has promoted broad representation. 
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The data showed that, in the last two decades, all of Battle Creek's mayors have been white, most have been men and most have lived south of Columbia Avenue. Only two people of color have ever served as mayor in a city where approximately a third of the residents are non-white, according to the 2017 American Community Survey. 
Steiner said letting people chose who will represent them as mayor would help people feel more included in their government. 
"It would come from among the people," he said. "African Americans, in my opinion, have gotten so disenfranchised with city government they just say, 'Oh, just another thing. They're just going through their changes.' And like I say, one year somebody's vice mayor, another year somebody's chosen as mayor, and it goes back and forth."
Banks said that a direct election of the mayor could bring the community together and cited the support Kalamazoo Mayor Bobby Hopewell has received from his city.
"They right behind him. Picked him up: 'This is my mayor.' That's what I like. That's called unity. Togetherness," she said.
Banks said that right now, she doesn't feel like her voice can be heard in city government. 
"They have these conversations, and certain people can talk. They don't let everybody talk now. I've been to those meetings, too. They jump right over me... That's OK. I understand. But I say, hey, we pay taxes, if you don't do none of that, at least give us our opinion. We pay for that." 
Battle Creek resident Jeremias Andrews expressed similar concerns. 
"Whenever citizen movements or bodies of citizens get together to want to do something, they hack it up and destroy it," he said. "When you have a city who says constantly 'We want citizen engagement. We seek citizen engagement. We crave it'... When they get it, they don't take it." 

Blue Ribbon Advisory Committee

Battle Creek has debated direct election of the mayor for a long time. The primary focus of the 2018 Blue Ribbon Advisory Committee was to make recommendations for selection of the mayor and vice-mayor. 
One of the recommendations put forward by the committee was the direct election of both mayor and vice mayor. In another proposal, the Blue Ribbon Committee recommended increasing the number of wards from five to seven while reducing the number of at-large positions from four to two.
Most committee members felt that completely restructuring the system would create a commission that better represented Battle Creek neighborhoods, but the Board of Commissioners only took up the recommendation for direct election of the mayor and planned to leave the current ward system in place. 
Some members of the committee were against the city commissioners passing a resolution for the direct election of the mayor without restructuring the ward system because they thought it would dilute under-represented voices in the community.
"It's worse from a democratic standpoint," Blue Ribbon Advisory Committee member Andy Helmboldt said. "It makes it easier for a demographic minority to win an oversized majority of seats." 
"Anyone who understands the geographical makeup of our neighborhoods in Battle Creek and has looked at our ward map in the last 20 years or more can see that our current ward breakup does not mirror neighborhoods in the best way that it could," Andrews said. "So I was disappointed in that. Disappointed because that would give us much broader representation around town, and it would give people the opportunity to vote for mayor and vice mayor." 
Andrews said that although Battle Creek has a weak mayor system, the position is still important because the mayor helps chose board positions and sets the tone for commission meetings.
"I'm also disappointed that our Commission voted against that incremental step," he said. "That was an opportunity to make a move forward, right? Is it the exact perfect move? Maybe not... however, incremental steps get you there...I feel like we have paralysis by over analysis." 

Ballot initiative

Now that the resolution for direct election of the mayor has failed, community members are considering a citizen-led petition to put the Blue Ribbon plan on the ballot. 
Under state law, in order to get a proposal on the ballot, 5% of qualified and registered voters in a city need to sign a petition. In Battle Creek, that would be nearly 2,000 signatures, according to the Calhoun County Clerk's Office. 
Helmboldt said that a petition is going to happen, and he plans to be highly involved.
A citizen-led initiative would be "the next best thing" to the Commission putting the Committee's full recommendation on the ballot, Helmboldt said.  
"Definitely preferable to the proposal the commission voted on," he said in an email.  
Helmboldt said that the petition would have to list the seven ward system and the direct election of the mayor as two separate items, based on his understanding of what the city attorney has said at commission meetings.
Steiner said he would support a petition to get direct election of the mayor on the ballot, and he wants to do what he could to let people know about the issue. 
"It's time for a change," he said. "Look at what they're doing down here in local government...Five people out of nine decided what what going to happen for 51,000 people...I believe in fair play. I believe in it, and I don't think that was fair." 
Contact Elena Durnbaugh at (269) 243-5938 or Follow her on Twitter at @ElenaDurnbaugh.