Dysfunction junction

To understand the dysfunction that plagues Hamtramck city government, it is helpful to know the story behind the Hamtramck 2000. The saga began in June 1998 when Mayor Gary Zych, the young city councilman who edged out 18-year incumbent Robert Kozaren by nine votes in November 1997, proposed to spruce up the city’s decrepit downtown with new trash cans. Simple enough, right?

In any other small town, perhaps. But in Hamtramck, hardly.

What originated as a routine request to provide a basic city amenity emerged one year later as one of the most infamous and embarrassing episodes in the city government’s history. For six months, council members remained unable to reach consensus on what type of trash bins to purchase. Two members supported Zych, citing tenets of good urban design. Two others, concerned with budget constraints, supported acquisition of a cheaper model, the now-infamous Hamtramck 2000. The lower-cost product was developed so hastily by a local hardware store owner with no prior manufacturing experience that the paint on the prototype was still wet when it was presented to council. A fifth council member abstained. As a sculptor, Zych claims he recognizes a poorly designed trash can when he sees one, and the Hamtramck 2000 was it. So he too held his ground.

Critics accused Zych of slighting the would-be entrepreneur because he was a supporter of Kozaren.

As the debate raged on, punches were thrown, death threats levied and wild accusations made, related to both this and a host of other equally mundane matters, until one day in December Councilman Robert Wozniak unexpectedly raised the tabled trash can issue, turning his abstention to a vote in favor of the Zych-endorsed receptacles. The Americana series trash bins are just now hitting the Hamtramck streets and downtown shoppers will finally have a place to toss their refuse more than a year after the controversy began.

Elsewhere, the Great Trash Can Debate might be written off as local politics as usual. But the level of ire that this and most other standard matters of city business continually raises, and the length of time those issues wear on, may surpass anything outside of trash-talk television.

"This isn’t just politics. This is something that’s even hard to describe. This is Belushi-Radner ‘Saturday Night Live’ meets Jerry Springer meets professional wrestling. That’s essentially what our meetings are and they’re an embarrassment to the community," laments Ellen Phillips. One of three council newcomers, Phillips resigned from her position in April, calling the meetings a testimony to the triumph of emotion over reason. It is up to the council to appoint a replacement for Phillips. The council’s stalemate comes as no surprise.

"I thought this was going to be difficult but I had no idea just how bizarre, absurd and hostile the experience would actually be," Phillips reflects.

The public comments period – virtually unmoderated until Phillips championed a heavily contested proposal for time limits on speakers – has served as a forum for citizens to air viciously any and all grievances, typically in the form of personal attacks, however remotely related to city business.

One recent, lengthy discussion segued from the failure of the city clerk’s office to investigate the citizenship of a registering voter to a convoluted discourse on state registration requirements. Not exactly a matter under council’s purview, but one near and dear to many Zych opponents’ hearts, as theories circulate that the June 1999 attempt to recall him was defeated by immigrants new to the city who voted illegally.

Such xenophobic behavior is common at the meetings. One of the current council’s first major battles broke out when the mayor sought funding to raise flags downtown of the various nations represented in Hamtramck. Council members who supported the mayor’s initiative were accused of allegiances to terrorists, among other things, and the mayor himself was called a Nazi. Such animosity is typically limited to the yelling of such comments as, "I’ll kick your ass," or even more subdued accusations that Zych’s supporters on council are rubber stamps. But not always. Freshman councilman Phillip Kwik, who says he has become accustomed to epithets hurled from passing cars and anonymous late-night phone calls since taking office, was once punched by an audience member during a meeting recess.

So how is anything accomplished in such an environment?

The short answer is, for the most part, it’s not.

"People watch now for pure shock entertainment, for the absurdity of it," Phillips says of council meetings. "They even do impersonations of their favorite characters, and nothing’s being accomplished."

And while the absurdity may boost the viewership of Hamtramck’s public access television channel, it also impedes, if not completely halts, progress at a time when the city can least afford it.

Like Detroit, which surrounds it, Hamtramck is poised on the cusp of urban rebirth. Traditionally home to Eastern European immigrants, this city of about 16,000 people is becoming increasingly multicultural, with 28 languages currently spoken in the public school system. Young urbanites are flocking to its affordable flats, trendy nightclubs and the ragged but intact downtown. Even people outside the area are taking notice: Two years ago, Utne Reader declared Hamtramck one of the 15 hippest cities in the United States and Canada. This newfound interest in older urban areas is part of a nationwide trend which Hamtramck could easily ride if its regeneration is appropriately managed. Given these factors, the decisions the city government makes, or doesn’t make, are especially critical today.

Uncivil war

The antagonism between council president Julia Boluk, also a freshman council member, and the mayor seems to be the biggest impediment to progress, although it is by no means the only one. The recent attempt to recall Zych indicates that Boluk is not alone in her criticism of the mayor.

One of the main issues in the recall was Zych’s inability to deliver such basic services as fire hydrant repair, a plank in his campaign platform. Many city employees actively supported the recall, claiming Zych has unfairly laid off workers and mistreated employees. His insistence that city employees punch a time clock was especially contentious but, in the mayor’s defense, perhaps necessary in a city where it is alleged some Department of Public Works employees end their city work days at noon in order to make it to their second jobs on time.

There are signs of bureaucratic hostility as well. The city clerk and treasurer have prominently posted in their respective reception areas the numbers 01-01-00, the date they expect a new administration to take over.

Zych survived the recall attempt by a 300-vote margin, although some have speculated that a portion of those votes were cast against Boluk, who is next in line for the mayor’s seat, rather than in favor of Zych.

Still, conflicts rage on and it is tempting to frame them in black-and-white terms: the entrenched Polish-Catholic, working-class old guard, characterized by elected officials such as Boluk and five-term councilman Michael Witkowski, versus a progressive, college-educated new guard, represented by Zych, Phillips and freshman councilman Kwik, who have ties to Hamtramck but may not be as firmly rooted in the city. The recall attempt underscored this dynamic: The first petition was presented to the Wayne County clerk before Zych had even fulfilled the requisite three months in office. This suggests it was not so much Zych’s policies at issue, but what he represents.

Again, the issue of trash cans is instructive. While Zych’s camp touts preservation, park maintenance and downtown beautification, for instance, Kozarenites remain loyal to an ousted mayor who once suggested trash on Joseph Campau, the business district’s main drag, be collected in cardboard boxes which could then be carted off at minimal taxpayer expense.

But the problem extends beyond such clear-cut ideological differences.

There is also, for instance, the issue of the city charter. Zych’s critics accuse him of consistently sidestepping it. The mayor and his supporters, on the other hand, cite Boluk’s painstakingly literal interpretation of the 1922 document, as well as her lack of control over meetings, which are typically marked by name-calling, swearing, even violence, as key obstacles.

Although philosophically aligned with Zych and Kwik, Phillips says she believes both sides are culpable.

"Julia has allowed things to take on this new level and that’s why I think the council is viewed as the worst council ever because of that," she says.

Furthermore, Phillips believes Boluk has mistakenly taken on the role of micromanager. "My view is the basic government view that council is in charge of budgetary concerns and policy, not administrative day-to-day functioning of the city. That is the mayor’s job," she points out. "Our charter does give a great deal of leeway to the council, so Julia has read that as her responsibility to be doing that, and I totally disagree with that." Under Boluk’s direction, the council almost categorically denies appointments to administrative positions and sends regular directives to the mayor and his appointees on a wide variety of minutiae. Reads one 1998 communication to the mayor’s newly appointed chief of staff: "Council has requested information as to which staff you are chief of and what are your chiefly duties."

And the needling extends beyond the council chambers.

Boluk was late for an interview for this article because she stopped to call the mayor to complain that the Police Department had not received its daily shipment of bottled water.

Boluk claims she has made every effort to facilitate progress, following past clashes. Those include her claim that Zych pushed her and his counterclaim that she had filed a false police report.

"I’ve repeatedly, repeatedly bent over backwards to try to be understanding and forgiving and work with the mayor," she says.

"The mayor just refuses to work with me. He’s been belligerent and nasty 100 percent from the first time I did not share his opinion.

"There’s room for improvement in all of us," she adds.

"But there has to be a basic foundation, some basic principles: a willingness to listen and plain human decency and accountability."

Politics as unusual

Zych may not be the demon Boluk and the recall supporters make him out to be, but he doesn’t always appear to help matters. The mayor has alienated not only city employees and Kozaren supporters but some of his former allies, with what more than one observer has called an arrogant my-way-or-the-highway attitude.

"One of Gary’s strengths has been his aggressiveness and tenacity. It took someone like Gary to really break the hold on the city," Phillips observes. "But that’s also one of his weaknesses, and I see as his greatest challenges being able to step up when some of this turmoil dies down and be a statesman." However, she adds, Zych took on a no-win situation.

"Anything that Gary does was going to get attacked," she observes.

"Gary came in under stressful conditions," agrees Michael Allen, chair of the city’s Planning Commission and one of 24 candidates for the upcoming City Council election.

"What happened is he kind of moved into this political warfare mode that he hasn’t been able to get out of. Rather than reach out and build bridges, there was automatically this animosity right from the get-go. There was no chance for compromise. … Now we have what we have, which is no progress and constant bickering and total civil disrespect."


Zych says he has been able to proceed with his programs despite the obstacles. He cites an urban design partnership with Lawrence Technological University, a crackdown on unproductive city employees, tapping into state and county funding sources and assembling a staff that reflects the city’s ethnic diversity. Problems such as delayed garbage pickup and an inability to follow through on his campaign promise to fix two fire hydrants every week are blamed on city employees trying to sabotage his administration. It’s no coincidence that sanitation workers fell behind schedule just before the recall election, he contends, or that the husband of the head of the Water Department, which has held up fire hydrant repair, is a former city councilman, who Zych claimed in a police report once hit him with a trash can. Go figure.

"It hasn’t been at all difficult to figure out what needs to be done," insists the mayor, who describes his management style as "firm and fair."

"Our challenge is to go around roadblocks, and we’re very good at going around the roadblocks people set up for us."

Mandate this

His opponents contend this means flying in the face of council mandates. And sometimes they’re right, the mayor says. For instance, he recently permitted the DPW superintendent to hire a computer training consultant despite council’s denial of funding for the position. Zych says he’ll bring a request for funding to council again and force them to vote to stop payment, which he does not believe they will do. Such maneuvering is a regular course of business for his office, Zych says.

The question is whether the mayor is demonstrating blatant disregard for his legislative check or merely attempting to move his administration forward in the face of unreasonable opposition. After all, not only did council deny a request to allow the consultant to come in and train employees on a new computer system, as is customary in most places of business, it was then suggested that the DPW instead send its staff to adult education.

"We’re accustomed to the abnormal behavior of some of the council members, and we simply persevere in order to accomplish our goals," he says. "We’re acting in the best interest of the city and taxpayers in going around this roadblock."

However he gets things done, and whomever he offends in the process, Zych remains Hamtramck’s best hope, argues Walter Wasacz, a Hamtramck native and reporter at the local newspaper, the Citizen. Zych’s foes accuse the paper of allying itself with the mayor, but Wasacz claims he and his colleagues are not so much pro-Zych as they are pro-progress.

"He’s not the type of guy you’d like to go out to a ballgame with so much. He’s a sharp-edged doer who kind of pushes people out of the way to get things done and I think some jobs are perfect for that type of personality and I think mayor of a city that’s been dysfunctional for a number of years needs that kind of leadership, needs that kind of will that Zych brings to the table," he says.

Imperfect progress

And while progress may not yet be visible – potholes remain unfilled, hydrants unfixed and garbage untended – it is palpable, Wasacz insists.

"There will be a separation, people will begin to see that even if Gary Zych isn’t perfect, even if he is arrogant or even if he is not a nice guy in the way a small town wants him to be, maybe they can look at his programs and see that this guy is ultimately good for what we’re doing."

Boluk, too, believes progress may be imminent. Her indication, though, does not exactly forebode a groundswell of reform. The breakthrough event?

"The mayor spoke to me today," she says.

With that representing progress, it remains highly unlikely that much will get done before November’s election.

Phillips agrees. "Nothing’s going to happen this year," she predicts. "They can’t even replace me."

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