VANDENHEEDE: I would like to introduce myself

Dan Vandenheede is a Niles city council member, he can be contacted by email, djvandenheede@gmail.com or by phone, (269) 635-8458.

was recently approached about doing an occasional guest column for this paper. I was honored to be asked and hope I can provide some useful insights, information and occasionally provoke some thought or discussion.  For those wondering, “Who are you and what are you doing in my paper?” it seems like an introduction is in order.

I was raised in Niles and my wife, Jodie, and I have lived in Niles for the last nearly 30 years, raising our three, now adult, children here.  I recently retired from 25 plus years of teaching and coaching, mainly at Dowagiac High School I have a penchant for collecting stray cars, especially Volkswagen buses, and I have represented Niles second ward for the last 20 years on the city council.

I imagine that last bit is why I asked to write a column, unless they are trying to reach the elusive VW bus enthusiast demographic. I am going to play it safe and stick with city council, starting with how I came to be on the council and my philosophy of serving.

This sounds a bit corny, but it’s true.  I talked myself into running for council while trying to get my high school civics students fired up about government and getting involved. I was a fairly new teacher and was trying to get freshmen excited about government, how it affects their lives and why they should get involved. Combine listening to myself repeating this to class after class with what I was reading in this paper, and it actually worked, at least for me. Hopefully it rubbed off on a few students too.

There were several things going on in our city government at this time that concerned me. This was the time when the city sold the land on Front Street across from the relatively new Riverfront Park for the development of the Parkview Apartments which now stand there. It seemed like the story kept changing on what the apartments were supposed to be and what the city would get out of it.  It was also the time of the very controversial sale of the old post office building for a dollar and subsequent leasing it back for a substantial amount — that could be a whole column in itself.   

Anyway, instead of just complaining, I decided to get involved. I went to some council meetings, which only added to my frustration because I didn’t understand the process for citizen participation, as we now call it on our agenda.  So, young, energetic and with a bit of a chip on my shoulder, I decided to run. I don’t remember how I figured out the process, probably from the city clerk, but I got my petitions signed and got on the ballot for November.  It was for an open seat as Mike McCauslin was giving up his seat to run for Mayor, but I wasn’t the only one vying for it.  In a strange and unfortunate twist of fate, my opponent died a few months before the election.  No, I didn’t know him. Yes, I have an alibi. As a side note, the second time I ran I won by drawing out of a box top after a recount declared the election a tie. This stuff made for great material when teaching civics.

That is how I came to be on the council. It was humbling and educational. I learned a lot more goes into decisions than what you read in the paper or see at a meeting. When I would go to a council meeting as a spectator, they would give you a one-page agenda and then, with very little discussion, the council would pass nearly everything with unanimous votes. When I picked up my first agenda as a council member, a few days before my first meeting, it was over an inch thick! Apparently there was a lot of homework to being a council member — the teacher had become a student. Over the years, I have learned the reason for so many unanimous votes — ideas are well vetted through committee meetings, memos and one-on-one feedback before they get on an agenda, thus if a proposal does not have broad support, it probably won’t make it on an agenda.  I have also come to appreciate Robert’s Rules of Order; as much as I enjoy a free-spirited debate, I now understand why it can’t be a free for all — there needs to be limits on what can be discussed when.

There are limits on this column too, and I am running out of space, so I will wait until next time to share my philosophy of representative decision making — hint, it’s all about quality of life.

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