What makes a city the kind of place you want to live? Great schools. Diverse businesses. Modern infrastructure. Cultural and recreational attractions. Effective leadership.
All are important, but the most crucial thing that keeps a city thriving and growing, and the quality of life for its residents high, is employment. People need jobs, good jobs, to provide for families, buy and maintain homes, take care of their health, and enjoy and utilize all those things that make a city home.
If a stranger was appraising Michigan City’s economy right now, they might get mixed signals. There’s construction all over, from a new hospital on the south side to an expanding casino on the north; roadwork signs are everywhere; park and civic improvements keep coming.
There’s also a small faction making noise because they don’t think there are enough jobs, or more specifically, jobs that are available to everyone.
The city has a local hiring ordinance, which specifies any company contracted for a city project of $150,000 or more must spend at least 50 percent of its payroll on local workers.
Wonderful idea, but to work, it necessitates not only that there are enough workers to fill jobs, but qualified workers, be they truck drivers, electricians, plumbers, masons or carpenters.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen Mayor Ron Meer fine one of the city’s largest construction companies for not complying with that ordinance. But on appeal, the Board of Works overturned three of the fines – Rieth-Riley Construction agreed to pay the fourth.
The overturning of the fines led to a small storm of criticism at two public meetings, and a protest outside the Common Council meeting.
A local pastor, who says he’s concerned that not enough minority workers are being hired, threatened “civil disobedience,” more protests and other “drama” to force the city to enforce the ordinance, and hire more minority workers.
The problem with this approach is obvious. Protesting is one of our rights as citizens, but unless you have a plan to improve things, a protest is basically noise. When you call for change, you should have specific ideas about how to make it happen.
So far, the Rev. Damon Carnes and his supporters have not come up with alternatives to the hiring ordinance, or ways to improve it. They call it unfair and “anti-black,” and they say it needs fixing – knowing that mandating minority hiring is not an option.
A City Council member proposed a database of local workers for jobs on city projects. That’s a start, but again, there must be a way to assure workers are qualified for the positions, and are members of the unions involved in the hiring process.
Meer suggested the minister’s group might be more effective if, instead of creating “drama” and making outlandish statements, they work with the unions to properly train people who want to work, get them into apprenticeship programs, and make sure they’re prepared when jobs open up.
Several council members agreed to sit down and discuss ways to improve the ordinance, knowing it cannot simply mandate that 28 percent of workers on a project are African American to reflect the city’s racial makeup (2010 census). The Michigan City Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Corporation Michigan City say they are willing to host such discussions.
We think such a meeting would be a great start to the process of making the hiring ordinance more effective and getting more people trained. The meetings should include representatives of construction companies and unions. Getting together in a setting free of antagonism is the only way to get it done.
So far, the protesters have said thanks for the offer, but haven’t agreed to meet. We wonder what they’re waiting for? If Carnes is truly inspired to get more residents hired, he should have jumped at the chance to sit down with city officials and economic leaders before the contentious meetings. Seeking such a meeting should have been the first priority.
If that’s truly his goal. It’s been suggested that all of this is a political ploy because Carnes wants to be mayor. The pastor says it’s the “furthest thing from my mind.” We hope that’s the case. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to run, but name-calling, accusations and criticism, without introducing solutions, are no way to start a campaign.
Such tactics do not lead to anything productive. Calling for civil disobedience while alluding to Ferguson and Baltimore will not help the city or its residents, only generate negative publicity; calling the mayor racist can turn discussion into animosity.
And it could have unintended negative side effects. Potential businesses and prospective residents might think twice before coming if all they see are negative headlines and people shouting in the streets.
Drama for the sake of drama is not an answer. Having all the parties sit down, hash out the issues and come up with workable solutions might be. That is how we get everyone on the same page. That is how we start the process of getting more people hired. That is how we keep Michigan City a great place to live and work.