Brugger challenges McCaleb for Grand Haven mayor

Alexander Sinn • Apr 12, 2019 at 3:34 PM

Grand Haven’s longtime mayor will face a challenge this year from the city’s youngest councilman.

Coming to the end of his first four-year term on the City Council, Josh Brugger announced this week that he is running against Mayor Geri McCaleb, who is vying for her fifth two-year term in office.

Brugger said he did not expect the mayor to run for re-election when he submitted his signatures on Wednesday. He called his campaign a “natural stepping stone” in his political career.

Brugger, 41, is the council’s youngest — and newest — member. He previously served on the city’s Planning Commission for three years after a stint on the Zoning Board of Appeals.

The councilman has opted to open up his council seat  to a newcomer as he aims to take the city’s top leadership position. He said term limits could benefit the council to encourage fresh perspectives to join the ranks.

“A part of the democratic process is turnover and new ideas to carry the country at the national level and the city at the micro level,” he said.

Brugger said he is focusing his efforts on making the city debt-free by 2035, improving affordable housing, welcoming diversity and leveraging the city’s assets for business opportunities.

In his time in office, Brugger said he helped push the city to form a task force on affordable housing and pursue revisions to the Zoning Ordinance to increase density while maintaining neighborhood character. He said he hopes to occupy the middle ground on a range of issues that lack consensus.

Brugger said he is in favor of reducing the city’s deer population without relying solely on lethal culling — an issue that has divided the council. He wants the Board of Light & Power to be more transparent, but is supportive of the municipal utility’s pursuit of renewable energy.

Brugger said he has shifted his “all-or-nothing” view for repurposing the city airport to considering mixed uses for the asset. He does not support recreational marijuana sales in the city, but is open to allowing medical facilities.

“One of the things I’d be able to do is find the middle ground between two opposing viewpoints,” he said. “It’s a give and take.”

McCaleb, who was first elected mayor in 2011 after serving on council for eight years, said leading the city requires a balancing act of preserving its character while ushering in new developments. She said she has provided consistent positions on the issues.

The mayor said she is keen to act on facts rather than emotions, and said she prefers to do research before jumping on board with a new idea. In her tenure, McCaleb has overseen the construction of the Lynne Sherwood Waterfront Stadium and the Grand Landing development, and she is hoping to see a few more projects completed. She said the BLP’s energy transition is a priority she would like to help steward in another term.

“You’re never going to totally finish everything, but as long as I feel I can make a contribution, I’m going to keep working on it and not just walk away,” she said. “I’ve got the interest, I’ve got the energy, I’ve got the experience.”

McCaleb is not convinced that renewable resources like wind and solar are the future, but she said the city has a stake in protecting its forests, as invasive species have threatened local tree populations. She also said the city benefits from preserving its waterfront for public uses, as a river overlook is planned for Harbor Drive along the channel and tenants are considered for the historic train depot.

“When you go to a lot of cities that have waterfront, they’ve capitalized all of that and nobody can see there’s water there,” she said. “You can’t just look at financial benefit. There’s a spiritual benefit. There’s a quality-of-life benefit. Everything doesn’t come down to dollars and cents.”

The mayor did not want to allow a distillery to serve alcohol at the depot, while Brugger pushed for the new business, saying the city shouldn’t “micromanage” businesses.

“Whenever government gets involved in economic activity, the wheels of government turn so slow it creates frustration in the business community,” Brugger said.

Brugger, a third-generation Grand Haven resident, and his wife, Jen, spent six months as missionaries in South Africa in 2004. But their faith called the family back to West Michigan, Brugger said, where they started a family. He owns a construction business and holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Hope College. 

McCaleb, who studied earth science at Grand Valley State University, was born in the Netherlands, where her family experienced the hardships of World War II. She said her family roots provide lessons on which she still relies.

“I grew up on war stories,” she said. “You’ve got to have grit and you’ve got to have self-determination.”

Mayor Pro-Tem Michael Fritz will vie for his seat on the council, where he has served since 2003. Andy Cawthon, chairman of the city’s Musical Fountain Committee, is running for the Board of Light & Power board.

The deadline to submit signatures for the city’s Nov. 4 election is April 23.

Whether or not this is the end of the road for McCaleb, she said her political role has relied on conversations with people in the community.

“One of the things that I enjoy most is talking to people, seeing where their passions are, seeing their interest in stuff,” she said. “The people in Grand Haven care so much about their city.”

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