Politics & Prejudices: Risking a community for oil? 

Imagine a peaceful, multiethnic suburban community where everyone gets along and things are finally beginning to recover from the Great Recession.

Then, suddenly, a failed politician turned "bishop" has the evangelical congregation he founded buy a large sprawling campus in the city, the site of a former Catholic friary. The bishop, who lives in a million-dollar mansion in another town, decided he wants to drill for oil on the church grounds!

His neighbors are stunned. The area is on porous rock. It's near the Rouge River, and hundreds of people nearby depend on well water.

The people launch massive protest demonstrations. The politician-bishop couldn't care less. The mayor and the entire City Council try to stop the drilling — only to be told that the decision is up to the MDEQ. That's the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. You may know them best as the agency that tried to deny and cover up the decision to poison the water in Flint.

No, this is not a nightmare. It is all far too true. The politician is Keith Butler, a former Detroit City Councilman who became a Republican.

Ten years ago, his political career crashed and burned after he ran for the GOP nomination to the U.S. Senate. He was overwhelmingly defeated by Mike Bouchard, who then lost in a landslide to Debbie Stabenow.

During the campaign, Butler was attacked for pressuring the thousands of members of his self-founded Word of Faith International Christian Center to give all they could to his church, and for paying cash for a $1.3 million house in Troy.

Butler may be moved by the spirit, but his most sacred color appears to be green. He hasn't been willing to talk to the press about his oil deal, and Southfield Mayor Kenson Siver told me he hasn't been seen around city hall since he stalked off in a huff when another mayor declined to back his oil well.

Butler intends to lease 40 acres of church land to Jordan Development of Traverse City, one of Michigan's biggest oil and gas exploration firms.

There's utterly no mystery why he is willing to potentially risk contaminating the ground water. In a rare comment to the media, church spokesman Andrea Simpson told Crain's Detroit Business last month "it could be a source of income or revenue for the church."

On its website, Word of Faith had defiantly if ungrammatically posted "The United States has a longstanding, constitutional right, which allows landowners to reap the benefits from their ownership of private property."

In fairness, Jordan Development is a reputable firm, and the church claims it won't allow the highly dangerous technique known as fracking.

Nor does anyone even know for sure if oil is there. But drilling in a residential suburb, near ground water needed to supply wells?

The city government is unanimously against it. Last week I went to see Mayor Siver and asked if he could stop it.

"We don't know that," he said. "But we are going to do everything we can to try." Southfield is, by the way, a unique community in this area, one of the nation's only authentic large middle-class, African-American suburbs.

Nearly all white in 1970, it is now perhaps three-quarters black. But thanks to enlightened leadership and a strong sense of community, it hasn't toppled over into decline. Community is more important to its 75,000 people than race.

There was a special election last year to replace Mayor Brenda Lawrence, who had been elected to Congress. Two longtime council members battled to see who would be her successor. Someone, possibly supporters of Sylvia Jordan, who is African-American, stuffed black mailboxes with crudely racist fliers designed to make people think white racists wanted Siver, who is white, to win.

Siver, 70, a retired teacher, was also the target of smears because he is gay. But he was elected by a landslide.

Soft-spoken and unassuming, the mayor would much rather talk about his economic development plans. He is proud that the city's fiscal prudence allowed it to weather the recession without layoffs and while barely reducing services.

He is excited about the potential of the land on the site of the former Northland mall, which the city bought and plans to redevelop. But he is worried about the environment, and the idiocy of a suburban oil well.

Hal Fitch, chief of the MDEQ's oil and gas division, is the man who is expected to make a decision on issuing a permit. He might have done so already, but things may have been delayed by the protests.

City officials did persuade MDEQ to hold a public hearing — something they don't always do —at 6 p.m. tonight in the Southfield High School auditorium. "We moved it there because the auditorium has a thousand seats," the mayor told me. They may well need every one.

By the way, MDEQ's Fitch says his email is running 7 to 1 in favor of the oil well. That made no sense ... till I found out that was organized by the church. Anyone who feels differently may want to let him know.

Sordid Little Virgil Update

Remember little Virgil Smith, the sleazy politician who last May took his assault rifle and repeatedly blasted his ex-wife's Mercedes on a residential street in the wee hours of the morning?

Virg, as near as I can make out from various accounts, evidently asked his ex-wife to come over but had forgotten he already had another woman in bed with him. Everyone got into a fight, and Virgie decided to settle it the old-fashioned way, with his AR-15. You might have thought they would have locked him up afterward, scheduled a trial, and shipped him off to jumpsuit land.

That is what would have happened ... except the Virg is a Michigan state senator, the best walking argument against term limits there is. Prior to reaching the legislature, Smith's prior accomplishments mainly included shoplifting and drunken-driving convictions. Such a stunning record would normally qualify someone to aspire to (maybe) work in a car wash.

But Virgie's far more respectable father — also named Virgil Smith — was a state senator who had to leave office because of our competence-destroying system of term limits. Guess who the voters elected to replace him.

Smith is a Democrat, probably because you can't get elected in Detroit without being a Democrat. After he was arrested and charged with a whole slew of felonies, you might have thought he would have been forced to resign.

You might have thought his fellow lawmakers would have expelled him. But no. His disgraceful Democratic colleagues didn't even have the guts to call on him to quit. That's sort of baffling, because Virgie then became a willing tool of the Republican majority, obediently showing up and voting the way they wanted him to, even when it meant screwing over the poor people of Detroit.

Finally, last week, they announced a plea bargain. Smith would finally quit the legislature, plead guilty to one of the lesser felonies, and do 10 months in the Wayne County jail. He would even (what a guy) tell the cops finally what he did with the weapon. But to his credit, Wayne County Circuit Judge Lawrence Talon said he thought maybe Smith belonged in prison.

He's going to have another hearing March 14.

Unfortunately, that means Smith will continue to pollute the legislature and draw a salary for another month. Here's hoping he is extracted in time for a special election that will hopefully send Rashida Tlaib, the class act he unfortunately defeated two years ago, to Lansing instead.

More by Jack Lessenberry

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