It's quite common in Detroit to hear residents voicing their frustrations about the actions (or inaction) of local politicians. With infighting, inflammatory statements and constant tension between Council and city leadership, it's sometimes a surprise that anything is accomplished.
But you only have to look a bit north and east this week to find another local government that's matching Detroit for drama. In the community of Sterling Heights, the recent antics of a City Council member with ties to the Tea Party have provoked condemnation from citizens and his colleagues.
Councilman Paul Smith is no stranger to controversy -- he's the local politician who once attended a rally with a sign that depicted President Obama's head on a spike. In his latest adventure, Smith found himself pitted against the business end of a Caterpillar (the frontloader construction vehicle, that is).
"Stop right there. I'm a City Councilman, I'm telling you to stop. I'm ordering you to stop right now. Stop this vehicle," he shouted in a recorded call to 911 on Tuesday. "We have a vehicle driving on the streets, no license plates, I need help here now."
Then he reveals that he has the vehicle blocked in -- not with his car, as the 911 operator thought, but by standing in front of it.
"We're getting officers on the way, but I would not advise you to do this," the dispatcher told Smith. "Sir, I would get out of the way. Do not put yourself in harm's way."
The 911 recordings first appeared publicly on the political blog of Sterling Heights resident Geoff Gariepy. Listen to the full recording below.
Later that day, at the Sterling Heights City Council meeting, Smith defended himself after blogger Gariepy brought the issue to the floor.
"I felt then and I felt now that … they don't have a right to drive unlicensed construction equipment through my neighborhood," Smith said in the meeting. "I won't tolerate it."
Smith then condemned the unknown individual who had sent the recording to Gariepy. But he didn't remain unknown for long.
"I'll end the mystery right here. It was me," Mayor Pro Tem Michael C. Taylor said. "I thought it was an embarrassment. ... To be using a dispatcher's time when somebody could be on the other end having a heart attack. ... It's unconscionable that somebody on the City Council wouldn't understand that that's an egregious waste of time."
In an email to The Huffington Post, Gariepy opined why Smith remains in office:
He's in office for himself, not his constituents, because it lends him some credibility and prestige he could not earn anywhere else. Unfortunately, he has also somehow confused his situation with that of being the lonely good guy engaged in a fight against "big government", so when he was formally asked by other members of council to step down, he was unable to see the true reason for it. Council is essentially powerless to enforce its own code of conduct, and so we are stuck with Mr. Smith, at least until the next election. Whether or not he will be booted out is an open question.
Last August, City Council voted 6-1 for Smith's resignation. Smith was the only holdout.
Smith received a tongue-lashing from multiple Council members at Tuesday's City Council meeting, though their rebukes did not silence the controversial local politician. After Smith pled for additional speaking time to challenge a point, Mayor Pro Tem Taylor challenged him right back.
"The mental gymnastics you go through to justify behavior in your head is really bizarre to me. … Your erratic behavior cannot be the behavior of a sensible, reasonable, logical person," Taylor said.
In the end, David was only sort of triumphant over the construction Goliath. Smith said Tuesday they had come to an agreement that the trucks would not drive down his street, but the police didn't issue any tickets, according to WXYZ-TV.
“It is just like Tiananmen Square,” Smith told the local news station. “You stand in front of the tank for freedom."