Benton Harbor Democrat Targeted for Recall

Trenton BowensUpdated 12-8-2013.

Benton Harbor City Commissioner Trenton Bowens contacted me over the weekend to tell me that he was potentially facing a recall election. At issue was his vote to allow a tax proposal to be placed on the ballot for voter consideration. The cash-strapped and democracy-starved city, which has long been under state-mandated emergency management, remains among the poorest in the state. Exploring revenue options is the responsibility of any good leader. The commissioner was simply doing his job.

Bowens, a Democrat, said of the proposal “Enough is enough. It’s simple. Let the people decide.” Yet, Benton Harbor activists and local Republicans didn’t see it that way. After launching a successful campaign to defeat the tax, they have additionally decided to go after the 25 year-old commissioner. The notion of the public even being allowed to consider a tax hike was too much for them.

trenton recall petition

Are recalls the problem?

The jury is still out as to whether Michigan will see a decline in recalls after tighter restrictions were passed by the state’s legislature last year. Initially, Democrats had been on board with the idea, as had many pundits and policy wonks. The theory was that after the frenzy of recall efforts in 2011, there could be a massive retaliation, so amending the state law would protect everyone and make for overall smoother governance.

However, Democrats soon discovered they’d been duped in light of the frenzy of GOP lame-duck legislating in December of 2012, which included among other gems, right-to-work. Republicans had insulated themselves from the predictable backlash over the law.

Public Acts 417 and 418 placed a number of new restrictions on the recall process. Among them is a requirement that the petition language be “factual”, as compared to the previous standard which simply called for “clarity”. It is debatable as to whether this provision of the law complies with Michigan’s Constitution which demands recall language only be clear and understandable without a requirement to justify the reasoning behind the petition. The law is new, and remains ripe for a constitutional challenge.

Recalls are as American as apple pie. The first record of them goes back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631. While various states have different rules governing the specifics, they are here to stay. (A fun fact for our Tea Party friends: your cherished Anti-Federalist Papers strongly advocated for the right to recall).

The wave of national recalls in 2011 removed nearly half of the approximately 150 elected officials from office. Most prominent here in Michigan was the ouster of the Republican House Education Committee Chair, Rep. Paul Scott (R-51). A move that earned the Michigan Education Association, a key player in the recall, the ire and retaliation of multiple GOP forces. They subsequently appointed inexperienced lawmaker, Lisa Posthumus-Lyons (R-86) to head the committee, with marching orders to destroy the union. The bulk of her policy has been directed to that end, with little focused on the realities of public education.

The notion that recalls are a frequent occurrence in Michigan just isn’t borne-out by the numbers. The Citizens Research Council found that the state averages 38 recalls a year, meaning that only 0.2 percent of officials eligible for recall are targeted. The number of recalls has been trending upward from 2000 to 2011, with a peak of 87 in 2006, yet it is worth noting that dissatisfaction with government is closely tied to the economy.

The vast majority of Michigan recalls are at the township, village and city level — accounting for 9 out of 10 efforts. State level officials come in at 0.4 percent, with school boards and counties making up the rest. It turns out, the Paul Scott recall was a statistical fluke, but it still rattled GOP lawmakers.

In small towns like Benton Harbor, recalls are rough on the fabric of the community — they get personal for everybody. The tiny town of Hesperia, population 900, just went through a brutal school board recall election initiated over the firing of a varsity wrestling coach. The vote was mixed, with one official keeping his position and another ousted. Wrestling coach preferences probably shouldn’t rise to the level of holding an expensive and contentious election — a bad use of resources and even worse juju for the community.

However, there remain times when to not recall should be a crime. Buena Vista Township Clerk, Gloria Platko, needs to go. Recall petition language was filed against her last week:

We the residents of Buena Vista Charter Township expect our leaders to display good judgment in their interactions with their constituents and their colleagues. Our Township Clerk, Gloria Platko, has displayed conduct and behaviors unbecoming of her position including calling our Township Supervisor, Dwayne Parker, an ‘Arrogant N-Word’ in January 2013. For this reason, in pursuant of Michigan Election Law Act 116-1954-XXXVI, we the residents of Buena Vista Charter Township call for the recall of the Buena Vista Township Clerk Gloria Platko.

But, not all recalls are so clear for the voters to decide.

Several years ago in my small community of Acme, we experienced a recall election of the entire township board — an action set in motion by a fake grassroots group that was created and funded through a complex scheme that involved Meijer, Inc., a major public relations firm out of Grand Rapids and a prestigious law firm from the Detroit area. The retail giant wanted to develop in the area, unfettered by local government. The recall failed, and subsequently their nefarious plot was revealed when some campaign finance violations tripped-up the perpetrators. Few people though have been punished for their misdeeds, but the lead attorney who stood at the nexus of the hoax still faces discipline before the Attorney Grievance Commission. He could be dis-barred. 

Although recalls are hard on the officials targeted, they remain a part of the tradition of our democratic process. They certainly continue to offer the potential for abuse, even under the stricter laws in Michigan. Another hazard is, a failed recall attempt is frequently viewed as vindication, giving rise to the kind of arrogance we see in Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. As if he wasn’t bad enough before he survived the recall vote, he dialed-up the hubris to maximum afterwards, assuming an absolute mandate was his for the taking. Michigan’s Gov. Snyder, ever-so-slightly more nuanced, kept a cool head and proceeded to sign right-to-work legislation in to law. Are the two connected? We’ll have to wait for his memoirs. Neither Walker or Snyder should be patting themselves on the back though — in our nation’s history, only two governors have ever been successfully recalled, although many have deserved it. It’s a tough campaign to win.

The potential recall election for Bowens is not yet approved. The petition language will be reviewed on December 6th, with a possible ballot placement in May of 2014. The sad irony is that while the failed tax proposal would have spread the city’s debt service over a wide population, including non-resident employees, Emergency Manager Tony Saunders has now solicited the state for a $2.4 million dollar loan that will become the sole responsibility of city residents, without them having a say in the decision. Consequences for defaulting on this type of loan can be dire, including dissolution of the municipality. Suddenly, a city tax is looking like a pretty good deal.

And…so much for the claims of fiscal responsibility.

For the sake of Benton Harbor, let’s hope voters make the correct decision, and retain smart leaders like Trenton Bowens.

Update: reference to “Tea Party activists” was changed to “activists”.

Amy Kerr Hardin



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15 Responses to Benton Harbor Democrat Targeted for Recall

  1. Heather Gitersonke says:

    Retain smart leaders like Bowens? What a bunch of crap! His efforts to pass a city income tax was an attempt to make people who live in places outside the city pay for 40 years of ineptitude and mismanagement. Two things that have cost the city millions of dollars. What Bowens wanted was taxation without representation. Then the EM states that any funds raised by the taxation would be put into the city employee pension fund. What happened to road repairs and other improvements?? Not gonna happen said the EM. At least not until the pension fund was 80% funded (20% at best, currently) and he had every intention of that being the course of action. There is MUCH this article failed to mention and Commissioner Bowens needs to experience life a little more before preaching about “outsiders” and how we need to ante up for the privilege of working in a town who has had the highest murder rate per capita in the country. Yes, you read right. There is good reason people live outside of the city. Inept government, little or no police presence (all with experience have been fired to save money) and thug life seems to rule. Get your facts straight Ms. Hardin

    • John Williams says:

      Heather get over yourself…Commissioner Bowens is one of the brightest people we have in BH in politics..You stay in an another city in Michigan not even in BH..Wake up to the real world and stop with all of your bitterness and hatred torwards the leaders of BH and people of Benton Harbor

      • Heather Gitersonke says:

        Your brightest has a problem telling the truth when it comes to his plans. Everything I sited was given to me from Commissioner Bowens himself in Facebook or gotten from Herald-Palladium articles. You might want him to apprentice a little more so he can differentiate between fact and fiction.

  2. Heather Gitersonke says:

    You know nothing of me so don’t act like you do. Benton Harbor is where I was raised and I have followed the politics or the years. I have friends who live in BH and those who have fled the city because of the mismanagement by the city commission. I have seen member of the commission lob rocks at one another and sit back like nothing happened. I have seen them get recalled only to get voted back on because nobody else wanted to take on the monumental task of straightening out this hot mess. Other communities have watched BH hire a city manager who manages to tick off someone on the commission and gets fired with 3 years still on contract which then must be paid. The only entity to fair worse by their own hand is the Benton Harbor Community Schools. Get over myself?? Benton Harbor was a joke when I was growing up, now it’s just a pitiful travesty that is trying to legally “mug” her businesses and their employees. Businesses that will leave the city before they will succumb to the hold up.

  3. Brittany Myers says:

    Great BLOG Amy keep up the great work. Keeping us informed of the tea bag’s and their dirty politics. Just remember when the corrupt and crooked GOP changed the rules here on recalls the rules also apply to them. I stand behind Trenton’s decision. The hating tea bag’s can’t stand anything left up to the people. They have declared WAR on the people and think we are incapable of deciding anything anymore. We gather signatures here for issues to be put on the ballot, voters vote them down. And the Great Snake Snyder over rides the voice of the people. Same with the wolf hunt. We need more Trenton’s who will stand up for the people and allow the citizens to have a say so in what goes on in their community. Heather get a life!!!!!!!!!!!!! Keep up the great work AMY

  4. Robert Bruce says:

    The fact remains that Mr Bowens ADMITTED to lying to the residents of Benton Harbor. Would Brittany Myers care to explain exactly what the Tea Party had to do with his admitted lies? BTW, I am a former Berrien County Democratic Party Chairman…I’m no Tea Party supporter. Fair is fair, though. Read the Herald Palladium front page article of 12-5-13 where Bowens admits to lying, and get back to me.

  5. Robert Bruce says:

    Ms Hardin, upon rereading your article, I feel that it is incumbent for a writer to ensure that what they write is grounded in fact; I say this respectfully. I led a successful effort in my community to remove a 20-year police chief; I managed this against enormous odds in large part because I was careful to obtain the facts before I said/wrote anything for public consumption. Gitersonke is correct in her points regarding the character of Mr Bowens, who personally attacked those who disagreed with his proposed City Income Tax, who admitted to lying to City residents in the 12-5-13 edition of the Herald Palladium newspaper, and who is currently under State investigation for Campaign Finance irregularities. To answer the statement that John Williams made, our concern regarding Bowens does not mean that I harbor ill will towards the City of Benton Harbor; to the contrary, I happen to hold the opinion that the residents deserve better than Bowens. I am hopeful that the City has the moral center that I trust that it does and a deliberately deceitful representative is consigned to the infamy that he richly deserves. Anyone who attempts to inject race into an issue of taxation…however subtle and between the lines as it was…has no place in public service…black or white.

    • admin says:

      The mere filing of a campaign finance complaint is not proof of wrong-doing. It generates a long (and boring) audit process with the Michigan Department of State, which typically concludes with the implicated party either filing, amending or correcting any errors or omissions. Whether Mr.Bowens indeed broke the law is yet to be determined. Late filings, errors, omissions and any one of a number of campaign finance issues are commonplace.

      A complaint does not add-up to a crime. Kind of a core American principle here. Hello?

      If Bowens made a misleading statement to the media, designed to confuse the opposition as to resources available, while sly and deceptive, it is not a campaign finance violation. However, not reporting amounts when the dollar threshold is met or exceeded is a violation. As is not properly indicating “paid for by”, albeit an error as common as weeds. These two violations are fairly routine and rarely even reported. When they are, the result is a letter from the governing body requesting compliance, with the occasional nominal fine.

      The likely governing body may actually end-up being the Berrien County Clerk’s Office. Certain types of committees may be filed with the county, and subsequent campaign finance reports would also be submitted locally. Qualifying committees, including PACs, must state that their activities will not cross county lines. There are other minor restrictions.

      Secretary Johnson’s office may send this matter back to the county for review, or take it up at the SOS. That decision itself, could take months.

      Berrien County Prosecutor Mike Sepic will soon learn that his office may not have jurisdiction to investigate. Historically, the Secretary of State conducts discovery and determines punitive action, if any. The SOS policy is to assume the role of aiding and guiding with filings and errors and corrections — recognizing that the area of campaign finance is complex, and errors and omissions are frequent, they rarely act as a punitive body — primarily sticking to ensuring compliance and accuracy.

      In the event Sepic moves forward with an investigation of his own, he will necessarily be compelled to investigate all campaign finance complaints in the county. A poor use of resources for a department that is as cash-strapped as the City of Benton Harbor. However, he may elect to take punitive action if the SOS (or County Clerk) finds the complaint valid. Again, the prosecutor would be setting dangerous precedent in so doing. Filing CF complaints would become an even more widespread practice for purely predatory reasons, with the prosecutor becoming an unwilling tool in local politics.

      A major test of CF complaint jurisdiction occurred in 2007-08 in the Meijer scandal. The company willfully ran a clandestine campaign for both a recall and a referendum in which they did not report the many hundreds of thousands spent, nor did they file a committee in either case. The then Sec. of State, Terri Lynn Land, fined the corporation a record $190,000 and exonerated them of any criminal ramifications. Attorney General Mike Cox issued a statement supporting the SOS as the sole jurisdictional authority. The prosecutor in the county where the election fraud occurred then sought provisional jurisdiction to seek misdemeanor charges and was granted authority by the state supreme court (I sat in the courtroom that day and listened to the arguments). Subsequently, Meijer successfully argued that the crime took place in the county where the Meijer headquarters is located, and the prosecutor there declined to take the case…because historically, the SOS enjoys the final word on campaign finance compliance.

      Sec. Johnson’s office will likely assert jurisdiction here, if she doesn’t kick it back to the county clerk. If both the SOS and the prosecutor are investigating simultaneously it would result in a possible double jeopardy if they both seek punitive action, i.e. fines, for the same offense. Additionally, it would then look even more like a politically motivated witch-hunt with the prosecutor meddling in a state-level complaint — rightfully casting doubt on the impartiality of his office. The whole thing would reek of politics, as if it doesn’t already. (Worth noting, the Meijer fine was truly record-setting, typically it’s only a few bucks — enough to cover the additional paperwork.)

      Most complaints are politically motivated and the SOS is cognizant of that fact. Opposition campaign managers frequently review filings for errors and omissions.They are there to be found (easy pickins) in most campaign finance reports if one looks hard enough. If errors and omissions on campaign finance filings are solid grounds for recall, then a goodly number of our leaders are in jeopardy. Prosecutors among that group.

      (By way of example, a typical state House race does not have its books in order and fully closed-out for many months after the election. They file multiple amended reports, and undergo a standard audit that triggers yet even more amended reports of corrections and missing information to be filled-in.)

      The concern here today with the Bowens case is, the question of whether the campaign finance report is merely being leveraged for political purposes unrelated to any genuine concern about his actual due diligence with the Secretary of State’s Office. If that is indeed the case, then this should properly be called a “witch hunt”.

      Under the amended recall rules, one can no longer be subject just because their policies are unpopular. There is a larger problem I addressed in the article. Recalls continue to be used as a means to thwart the democratic process.

      You will note another case I cited — the one about the potential recall of the Buena Vista Township Clerk for unbecoming conduct. She was audio-recorded calling the Township Supervisor an “arrogant [n-word]”. The recall petition was denied two days ago because they could not prove that she said that, in spite of both the recording and her public admission and apology.

      Mr. Bruce, I appreciate the heated nature of politics in Benton Harbor and your passion. I’ve been in multiple rough-and-tumble political battles, at both local and state-level races. I’m retired from that game now, mostly so I may write about it from the outside with a truly informed perspective.

      That perspective tells me that the campaign finance complaint against Commissioner Bowens is designed specifically to discredit him and give energy to the recall — an election which will take place in May of 2014, while the SOS investigation languishes until mid-summer. That is straight-up politics.

      It is incumbent upon me to to tell that story.

  6. Robert Bruce says:

    I did not state that his admission of lying constitutes a crime regarding campaign finances. I separated the two. One has nothing to do with the other. But, for Bowens to state firstly that he lied about receiving donations, then claiming that monies spent were from “personal” funds, hardly adds up.

    As to your example regarding Meijers, it’s hardly a strong defense for Bowens’ actions to point out that another entity did it as well. In legal terms, it’s called Tu Quoque (“you, also”) and is a logical fallacy. The Nuremberg War Crimes trials disallowed such a defense, and rightly so. It’s hardly a strong defense of Bowens’ admission of lying to the residents that he serves. And, for the record, I objected to Meijers having engaged in a campaign of deception.

    True, being investigated does not necessarily constitute guilt; but, then again, I care little for that aspect of this matter. What bothers me the most…and should bother BH residents more…is Mr Bowens moral conduct during the months leading up to the failed vote on the City Tax issue. Conduct that included personally attacking those who disagreed with him as well as his admitted lying in order to achieve his goal of forcing outside workers to pay for the mistakes of himself and his colleagues on the BH City Commission. I cannot imagine a more vile and despicable conduct. If he hadn’t taken down his official government Facebook page…and I can only wonder why he did so…you yourself could directly see this. I believe that the contents of this page speak volumes of the character of Bowens.

    I state the following respectfully: you cannot possibly understand both sides of this story without reading the contents of either that FB page or his FB page devoted to the specific issue and, as he has heavily censored both, it is simply not possible.

    Those of us who opposed the issue began by merely opposing the issue. I myself was a supporter of Mr Bowens prior to the personal attacks levied in the wake of merely asking questions regarding the issue. After my wife and I were subjected to personal attacks from Bowens, our attitude towards him changed dramatically. Mind you, all we did was ask questions regarding the fairness of taxing workers who lived outside BH. Nothing that anyone certain of the ground that they stood on would have taken as a personal attack. Unfortunately, his evident immaturity precluded rational discourse.

    So be it.

  7. Robert Bruce says:

    Another point: do you have a scintilla of evidence that the “Tea Party” is, in fact, behind the recall movement against Bowens? Just because Bowens…an admitted liar…claims this to be the case does not make it so. I’m curious to see your and/or his evidence to back this claim. Your headline should contain the word “alleges”, but instead presents his claim as an apparent fact.

  8. Robert Bruce says:

    I appreciate the intellectual honesty in removing the Tea Party reference in the previous headline. As I stated previously, I am no fan of their organization, but I do believe in fair play…even if they largely do not.

    However, having followed this issue closely, I disagree with the simplistic notion that the recall is based on people not wanting Bowens to search for revenue for his beleaguered community. My guess, and it is only a guess…albeit an educated guess…is that Bowens’ personal conduct has helped to foster an attitude of resentment and dislike. This conduct was recorded on two Facebook pages that he operated, and has since removed. It was a record of contempt and hostility towards those, like myself, that questioned the fairness of taxing outside workers who contributed nothing to the financial woes of Benton Harbor, among other questions regarding the tax’s effectiveness in other Michigan cities; one report that Bowens attempted to use as evidence of its value was actually evidence against its value. I am not going to debate the issue; the voters of Benton Harbor decided the issue firmly against it. And, it should be added, the voters decided firmly against in the face of what turned out to be a deliberate attempt to mislead them by Bowens himself.

    Again, and I repeat this with respect, there is no possible way to understand the conduct of Bowens without being able to read an uncensored version of the two Facebook pages that have been taken down. I strongly urge you to look into “the other side of the story” before rendering judgment on this matter. I believe that you will come to a much different conclusion…party politics aside.

  9. Pati Heinz says:

    Trenton is completely innocent. Hightower BELIEVED he had a fund and big backing. Trenton let him believe that. Any money spent came out of pocket. It’s really that simple. And, as far as his job as a Commissioner, he’s one of the best. Why does everything get so blown out of proportion? If anyone should be investigated, it’s Hightower.

  10. Robert Bruce says:

    I apologize in advance, but in the interest of honesty, I simply cannot allow Pati Heinz’ comment to go unchallenged.

    The initial assertion that Bowens is “completely innocent” is, of course, to be determined. Tying this, as I’m assuming that the ongoing State investigation is what she is referring to, the statement “it’s really that simple”, is sheer absurdity. Campaign Finance laws protect the public from being…to use one of Bowens’ apparent favorite words…bamboozled by unscrupulous politicians.

    Again, no guilt has been established in Bowens’ case. However, as of this evening he has not been cleared, either.

    “Completely innocent”? Certainly not in regard to his own admission of having deliberately misled…or, in simple plain English…lying to the community that he serves. Of course, it reads much kinder as “Trenton let him [Hightower] believe that”. How very charitable.

    Would that same spirit of charity apply to Mayor Hightower, who apparently should be investigated. For what, exactly, we are not informed. For opposing a City Income Tax proposal that may well have led to businesses leaving Benton Harbor? For standing up for what he believes in? The Lindbergh Baby kidnapping? The imagination can only wonder at the scope and magnitude of Hightower’s offense!

    Even the assertion that Bowens is one of the best of the Benton Harbor City Commissioners is highly debatable. Bowens’ conduct towards city residents who dared to disagree with him was laden with disrespectful and petulant comments along with personal attacks. Of course, you can no longer view these, as two Facebook pages chock laden with examples have been removed. Suffice it to say, however, that Bowens expressed little apparent interest in swaying opponents by use of rationality and reason. This is most decidedly not the conduct of a responsible public official.

    • Pat H. says:

      As you said, guilt has not been establish, yet so many are screaming that he is guilty while having no personal knowledge into the situation. Like your friend Jeff’s post that says he said hello to Trenton’s “committee”. There was never one established. Leading the opposition to ASSUME there is backing is not a crime, it doesn’t even specify if it is moral, monetary, or any other kind of backing.
      This is truly a situation in which the investigation needs to run its course because then everyone will see that these accusations held no truth. Trenton has been willingly cooperating with the investigation. And soon everyone will see the results.
      As for Hightower, during the campaign for the city tax he we saw him while he attempted to remove a pro-tax sign that had been posted on a property adjacent to the Family Dollar on Pipestone and Britain. That is attempted theft, with the sole motive of limiting the citizens exposure to both sides of the issue. Maybe I relied to much on my emotions for my previous post and got swept away with anger towards what is happening to Trenton, but Hightower’s side of the Tax was heavily funded by Whirlpool so one cannot rule out the possiblity of both the Mayor and/or his supporters votes being bought, especially when we have seen the shady way he can act.

      The vote on the tax is done and over, the citizens made their decision. Even though it is not what Defending Benton Harbor or Commissioner Bowens supported we can live with their choice, that is how democracy works. I believe the investigation was initiated specifically because a recall is being circulated at this time and it would increase the publicity of the Commissioner in a negative manor.

      Trenton does have backing, and it is us who have supported him. But not though funds; through moral support, trying to spread his the idea of his tax proposal, by making signs, and by handing out and placing the ones he him self paid for.

    • Pat H. says:

      It really IS THAT SIMPLE! No big story. It’s all in their heads.

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