December 18, 2018

Carruthers’ Election: What it Means

Guest Opinion
By Grant Parsons | Nov. 25, 2017

The recent city election may look like a split decision to some, but the objective result is clear as a bell. The reelection of Mayor Jim Carruthers will likely define the city’s future character.

This city has been mired in a long-running debate over the city’s future. The election gave voters the opportunity to decide the issue: Do we want tall buildings or do we want to preserve our small-town character?

The voters’ decision was, “We want small-town character.” Carruthers, a leading proponent of small-town character and a leading opponent of tax subsidies for tall buildings, was the top vote-getter.

At first glance, the city commission votes appear almost evenly balanced. Incumbent Michele P. Howard got 2,662; newcomer Brian McGillivary got 1,857; incumbent Tim Werner got 1,797; incumbent Gary Howe trailed at 1,769; and newcomer Leonhardt came close at 1,738. There was a whisker-thin difference of 28 votes between incumbent Werner winning and incumbent Howe losing. (I contributed to McGillivary and Jeff Leonhardt, and supported Howard.)

Carruthers, however, was the hands-down vote-getter, with 2,802 votes in the mayoral race. His candidacy was unopposed, so some will question the value of his win. If so, they’re missing the obvious. First, a highly-motivated, well-funded coalition opposed him – the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, local media, the Traverse City Downtown Development Authority, and many civic leaders — but they could not even find a candidate willing to run against Carruthers. That is what we call preemptive strength. Second, every single voter who pulled the lever for Carruthers knew his vote was non-determinative yet more voters took the time to cast a vote for Carruthers than voted for any other candidate.


Each voter who pulled the Carruthers lever did so as a statement of principle.  Carruthers’ stand on the issue of small-town character was the principle.


For years, in city government, he’s backed projects like the parking decks and the Munson Medical Center expansion, but he’s been a vocal proponent of small-town character. He steadfastly opposed tax subsidies for large-scale developers, opposed unpaid infrastructure costs, opposed rubber-stamped development permits, and opposed environmental trade-offs.

In other words, he was a lightning-rod candidate. Thus, his win — and his vote tally — are a clear marker of city sentiment. 

Carruthers has been an opinion leader before. He’s won four successful referendum elections and four office elections: the 2000 referendum drive to make the mayor an elected office, the 2006 drive to defeat the Federated Properties’ parking deck bond, the 2011 non-discrimination ordinance, the 2016 Prop 3 referendum, the 2007 and 2011 city commission races, and the 2015 and 2017 mayoral races.

As Carruthers goes, so goes the city.

More importantly, he’s won by publicly articulating his ideas under pressure. During a highly charged commission meeting on the Pine Street tall-building proposal, Carruthers took the microphone late in the evening and recited chapter and verse of city development standards, carefully explaining why the proposal was substandard.


Temporarily, he lost that debate when commissioners voted to approve the permit; later he was vindicated. In a legal challenge (in which I was deeply involved as an attorney) Circuit Court Judge Phil Rodgers Jr. invalidated the development permit. Rodgers’ prosaic opinion was affirmed by a unanimous Michigan Court of Appeals.

In the recent election, Carruthers’ principle of small-town character was derided by pro-development forces. The TC Chamber, DDA, and civic leaders belittled the notion of small-town character by campaigning on the snarky theme, “Time to grow up, TC!”

If money and power controlled this city, tall buildings would have won by a landslide. The fact they didn’t win is evidence of the public view of what they represent: tax subsidies and zoning sleight of hand. Tall building projects – always pitched to the public as some form of “affordable housing” – don’t pay their fair share of infrastructure costs and threaten the character and functionality of their surroundings. For reasons that evade logic, local planners and administrators act as accomplices with rule-bending, rubber-stamp approvals.

Voters delivered some stark news: They live in Traverse City for a reason, and tall buildings are not the reason.

Opponents of tall-building developments have won every issue-related election since 1986, and Carruthers’ win is the icing because the forces arrayed against him were better organized than ever before. The Chamber of Commerce is now a full-fledged political organization; the DDA has morphed from a booster to a carny barker for any and every tall-building scheme.

Carruthers beat an extremely well-connected, well-organized coalition of civic business interests, and he beat them on their own ground.

This is what the reelection of Jim Carruthers means: Clarity of community intent. His scaled plan for economic growth in the city is specific and predictable; it’s an approach developers, planners, administrators, boosters, and preservationists can rely on. It won’t divide the community, and it won’t require developers to wait years for an appeals court decision.

Carruthers’ win is like a billboard at the city limits: “Incorporate our small-town character into your development plan. Tax subsidies, go home. If you build here, your investment will be preserved.”  

During the election run-up, Carruthers pitched tax fairness, neighborhood protection, pay-as-you-build infrastructure cost sharing, good government. One person alone cannot accomplish a community’s vision, but one person can articulate a community’s vision. Carruthers did that.


Now it’s time for the power players in Traverse City to grasp the obvious meaning of the election — and act accordingly.

Grant Parsons is a trial attorney, a native of Traverse City, with a keen interest in local politics, especially land use.


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