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Benton Harbor gets a new mayor; denies charter amendments

Mayor-elect James Hightower on election night with his wife, June Hightower.
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Mayor-elect James Hightower on election night with his wife, June Hightower.

Super close mayoral race

City Commissioner James Hightower narrowly beat the incumbent Mayor Wilce Cooke. Cooke is likely to challenge the results, which came in 681 to 673, a difference of 8 votes. There were two write-in candidates who got a combined 8 votes. The state appointed an emergency manger to take over the city’s finances during Cooke’s second term as mayor.

Hightower admits it’s going to be a tough job with a divided city commission. “I truly believe that everyone wants a commission that is business oriented,” Hightower said. He says everyone on the commission wants to have a strong public safety department, better roads, and better customer service. He says the biggest immediate challenge is concerns about dramatically rising water bills.

Hightower is hoping for a seamless transition when Emergency Manager Joe Harris hand power back to the mayor and city commission. That’s expected to happen within the next 8 months. Hightower says the elected body needs to agree on common goals.

We’ve got to work together,” Hightower said, “But working together involves getting results and you’ve got to know what kind of results you want before you can accomplish those results.”

Hightower is an administrator in the health care industry. He’s lived in Benton Harbor for more than 50 years; served as a city commissioner for four years. He’s generally been supportive of Harris, who was appointed by the state in 2010 to fix the city’s finances. Hightower supported all 7 amendments Harris proposed to Benton Harbor’s city charter.

7 Benton Harbor city charter amendments fail

One of the amendments would’ve reduced the size of the commission from 9 members to 5. Another proposed amendment would’ve reduced commissioners’ term to 2 years from 4. Several other Benton Harbor City Charter proposals would’ve streamlined power under an executive, instead of having separate department heads reports to the elected city commission. Harris says the changes are needed in order for city government to operate properly.

Harris says he knew there would be some backlash against the proposals simply because he put them on the ballot. But he was surprised all of them failed.

“I was optimistic enough to believe that because we had been so successfulover the last year and a half that the majority of the people would accept my recommendations for change,” Harris frowned, “Well, it didn’t happen.” Harris worries some of the same problems will remain without structural changes to the city charter. 

“People knew that this was something that was shoved down their throat and they didn’t like it,” said City Commissioner Juanita Henry, who wasn’t up for election this year.

Henry is happy about the outcome for the city charter amendments. So were city commissioner-elect Mary Alice Adams and city commissioner-elect Trenton Owens. Adams is a small business owner in Benton Harbor. “Things are changing and they’re changing for the best,” Adams said. 23-year old Owens works part-time in customer service at Whirlpool. He says his toughest challenge will be getting people to believe in Benton Harbor again. “We have a lot of potential and we’re not using it,” Owens said.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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