Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) Executive Director John Johnson wrote a letter to the Alma city commission on Aug. 9 warning that “race, color, and/or national origin” must not be factors in its consideration to rezone a parcel of land so that a former nursing home can be used to house unaccompanied alien minors who crossed the U.S. border illegally.
“A denial by the city commission of the rezoning request would prohibit unaccompanied refugee minor children from Mexico and Central America from residing on the property. If the race, color, and/or national origin of the intended residents are factors used to deny the rezoning request, that decision may constitute unlawful discrimination,” Johnson wrote.
“The Alma City Commission must refrain from making decisions based upon any applicable protected class or acting on fears, stereotypes, unfounded assumptions, or alleged public safety concerns that involve unfounded beliefs that members of particular protected classes are more likely to engage in criminal activity.”
The letter goes on to tell the Alma city commission that MDCR will investigate any complaints of unlawful discrimination, and may report any alleged acts to federal authorities.
The six-acre facility in question would be operated by the non-profit Bethany Christian Services, which would lease the premises from owner Masonic Pathways, another non-profit, for $385,000 a year.
The proposed facility would house up to 36 teenage boys aged 12 to 17 while Bethany staff worked to reunify them with their families, according to Bethany spokesperson Nathan Bult.
According to a statement from the Administration for Children and Families, clients in such homes would be provided with mental and medical health services, case management, classroom education, recreation, and free legal representation.
The Alma planning commission had on Aug. 4 voted to deny the rezoning request and recommended that the Alma city commission do the same. The vote followed a heavily attended meeting on July 12 during which most speakers opposed the rezoning.
Prior to the vote, some members of the planning commission acknowledged the “big picture” of the immigration crisis on America’s southern border, and the resultant emotional discomfort they felt by seeing the images of suffering children. They made it clear that the rezoning request would be viewed as a zoning issue only.
City Attorney Tony Costanzo replied to Johnson’s letter on Aug. 19, assuring Johnson that the city is mindful of the prohibition against discrimination based on race, color, or national origin.
“It has been my position as City Attorney, from the outset, that this request by the Michigan Masonic Home and Bethany Christian Services must be governed by the Alma City Ordinance relative to conditional rezoning,” Costanzo wrote, adding, “The use requested … is not allowed under the R3 District, where this property sits.”
Costanzo pointed out in the letter that the city does have a zoning district where such a use would be permitted. He then provided the Civil Rights Department with the five planning and public policy factors outlined in the ordinance that were used by the planning commission in making its determination.
The Alma city commission met in regular session on Aug. 24 before an overflow crowd. Commissioners were furnished in advance with a copy of the letter from the Department of Civil Rights and the city attorney’s response.
The commission deferred action on the rezoning request because the officially approved minutes of the planning commission’s Aug. 4 meeting had not yet been received.
On Aug. 25, Assistant City Manager Aeric Ripley said the planning commission is scheduled to meet on Sept. 13 to formally approve the minutes of its Aug. 4 meeting, and the city commission is scheduled to meet on Sept. 14 to vote to either approve or deny the rezoning request.
Costanzo told the Epoch Times, “Whatever happens on September 14, I think this thing is going to be with us for some time.”
Great Lakes Justice Center’s senior legal counsel Dave Kallman, a Lansing attorney, said he has been approached by two separate parties in Alma for advice on what to do next in the event the city commission reverses the recommendation of denial by the planning commission.
“One party said it looks like the city commission will cave and reverse the denial,” said Kallman. “I told them both they could proceed on a political track, such as a maximum pressure campaign, including threats of recall before the vote, vote them out of office in the next election, or look at litigation.”
Kallman, who has reviewed the Civil Rights Department’s letter, told the Epoch Times, “It’s a not-so-veiled threat. It is an inappropriate and threatening letter.
“Think about it. This letter did not come through regular channels. Normally, these things are handled by some lower-level official. This letter came from the director himself. I wonder who ‘informed’ him? Who brought the director of the Michigan Civil Rights Department into this routine local zoning decision?”
Kallman said it appears to him to be a preemptive strike, delivered before the city commission has even voted. “They are calling it a civil rights violation before any decision has been made. That’s like saying ‘We’re warning you in advance, if we don’t get the right outcome, you can expect us to come down on you.”
“The city commission should not give in to that kind of threat,” Kallman said.