Oakland County Commission candidates seeking to represent the new 18th district faced off Thursday night at during a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters.
Republican candidate Steven Zimberg of Huntington Woods and Democrats Craig Covey of Ferndale and Helaine Zack of Huntington Woods answered questions on budgets, priorities and more during the forum.
The event was held to help educate residents in advance of , when voters will choose a candidate to move on to the general election Nov. 6.
Covey and Zack currently serve on the commission but, due to redistricting, are competing to represent the new 18th district, which includes Huntington Woods, Hazel Park, Oak Park, Royal Oak Township and Ferndale.
Zimberg opened by saying government has gotten too big and powerful while "most communities, families and businesses are suffering dearly."
"What's missing is the active voice of the citizen," he said. "I don't have all the answers and I'm not perfect but I love this community and I'll do my best to make a meaningful difference."
Covey began by pointing out his work as a City Council member and then as mayor of Ferndale and helping turn "an empty canyon of a downtown" into the thriving, popular city it is today.
"I promoted this region with new ways of doing things," he said.
Zack said she "never set out to be a politician" and said she brings her experience as a social worker to the table. As a commissioner, she says she has fought for more resources for the south end of Oakland County, helped bring the Catalpa Oaks park to Southfield and also worked on transportation for senior citizens.
Michelle Appel of Huntington Woods, who serves as a judge at 45-B District Court in Oak Park, attended the forum and said it was very educational.
"The League of Women Voters always does a great job," she said. "I was especially impressed with Helaine Zack's successes in her tenure."
Ferndale City Councilman Dan Martin was also in the audience.
"I thought the candidates did well and I'm really grateful we've got these events to hear their views," he said, adding that Ferndale will be broadcasting the forum on TV and he hopes the other cities also will run the video. "Ferndale is ahead of the curve to get these out and broadcast."
Ferndale resident Greg Pawlica, who supports Craig Covey, was also at the event. "I think it was a really great forum. It gave an opportunity for all the candidates to speak about issues that are important to them and things that they would like to change if elected."
Here's a look at what the candidates had to say in response to some of the issues addressed:
When asked about the persecution of medical marijuana caregivers, Covey said he stands up for medical marijuana rights of seniors and those with debilitating diseases and said the county prosecutor and county sheriff have "ignored the wishes of the voters and have repeatedly gone after legitimate businesses." He said political consultants would tell him to stay away from the controversial issue of marijuana. But, "I was told that years ago and I refused to follow that advice," he said.
Zack said she supports medical marijuana for those who need it and said there has been some recent clarification on the law that should help. "I'm all in favor of straightening out the law in favor of the patients who need medical marijuana," she said.
Zimberg said the issue has "gotten out of control" with people being thrown in jail for being found with marijuana. "This is ridiculous," he said, adding that he thinks whether people use it should be "a personal thing."
On the topic of experience with budgeting, Zack said she has been on the commission's finance committee for 10 years and has extensive experience with the process.
Zimberg said budgeting is "critical" and he would look forward to serving on the finance committee as well.
Covey said he has experience not only on council and the commission but also in running nonprofit organizations. "We're proud that we have a surplus but it's way out of control," Covey said of the Oakland County budget, which he said has a more than $200 million surplus. "When people are hungry, when people don't have jobs, when roads are not being worked on, we shouldn't have that size of a surplus."
Zimberg said "we're all equal" and it's more of an issue for the older generation.
Covey said supporting diversity has been an "absolute core value" of his since his teenage years and he has worked for 35 years to bring equality to the LGBT community. "We are stronger, we are a more interesting community, we are safer, when everyone gets a seat at the table regardless of your race, religion, color," he said. "We've certainly done that in Ferndale and it makes me very, very proud."
Zack said she's "all for inclusion" and has personal experience as a minority on the commission, being a woman and Jewish. "I know what it feels like to be in a minority position and I treat people fairly and respectfully," she said.
Avoiding tax increases
On the topic of maintaining services without tax increases, Zimberg suggested cutting back on the high rates residents are charged when they fall behind on property taxes.
Covey said smart government is about finding ways to provide services at lower costs, and said a focus needs to be on bringing jobs back.
Zack said three out of the five communities in the 18th district have the lowest taxable values and she would look at ways to stabilize housing and increase revenue through business development and by working more collaboratively.
Representing five unique cities
When asked about how they would support the different issues of all the five cities in the district, Zack said she is doing that now in her current district and keeps busy going to various council meetings and working to meet each city's unique needs. "I'm very visible in my community as much as I can be," she said. "I talk to them about issues, I take it to Oakland County and solve problems. I look forward to the next set of five communities."
Zimberg said he would leave it up to the people and give residents platforms to discuss issues that concern them the most.
Covey said the five cities are each unique and also could learn from each other.
When asked about how they would connect with residents online, Zimberg said a written form of contact might be better and said he is open to finding the best way to reach people.
Covey pointed out that he is readily available online via e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, and his blog and website. "I use it all the time to reach out to constituents," he said. "We in the slightly older generation have to learn how to use mass media or the new social media."
Zack said she is very responsive to her e-mail and is getting active on social media, especially because that will be important when serving Ferndale. "I obviously have a lot of learning opportunities and I look forward to growing in that area and responding to the needs of the Ferndale constituents," she said.
Guiding principles when budgeting
For Covey, a guiding principle when budgeting is a balanced budget. "My guiding philosophy is never spend more than you have, always remember that it's not your money ... I treat it as if it's someone else's, which it is, and I always try to save and cut costs."
Zack said she's very fiscally prudent and conservative on spending money and said she values a balanced budget. "However, at the same time, I will invest in those things that I feel are valuable to meet the needs of the citizens," she said.
Zimberg said his background in economics will be beneficial and said he also will take a long-term approach when making decisions. "On the budget side, it's all about balancing and considering the long-term consequences of our actions," he said.
Zack closed by pointing out Covey's "undeniable" fine job as a council member and mayor but said she believes she is best-suited for the newly formed district. "I have supported and am knowledgeable about all job economic development efforts to get our community working again and despite being a minority member of the commission I've shown that I can get things done," she said. "I chose to run again in this challenging primary because I'm the more experienced county commissioner and because I offer a unique voice, lots of energy and I passionately care about helping others."
Covey said he wants to continue to work to halt urban sprawl, build public transportation and "create a sustainable future here for our families and our kids." He asked that people visit his website for more information and urged residents to vote in the primary. "We don't have a ton of money but elections are won by hard work and live interactions with residents," he said.
Zimberg reiterated that government branches "have run astray" and said "it's time for each of us to get involved and claim our voice." He said he wants to replace bickering with "common sense solutions that we so desperately need."
"I don't have all the answers and I'm not perfect and I love our community," he said. "I think I do possess the unique ability to cut to the root of problems, weigh the alternatives and present fair and meaningful solutions."