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Coffee Conversation

Robert Stocker
former Royal Oak Mayor (1985-89)

During the 1980s, Robert Stocker served two terms as mayor of Royal Oak, following four years as commissioner. He remembers the joy of "walking every precinct each fall and spring" to stay in touch with residents, "something I don't see happening these days." He recollects downtown being 60% vacant when he took office and about "90% occupied with diverse retail which attracted all ages, seniors as well as young people," when he left.

Stocker recalls being personally involved in visiting retailers in Birmingham, "where leases were running about $25 per square foot," and urging them to come to Royal Oak where comparable space was available for single-digits per square foot. I reminded him that the city was working with liquor license moratoriums at the time, but he countered with, "We weren't anti-liquor, but we wanted to maintain a balanced downtown."

Robert also recalled having to overcome the fears of residents when he supported Fresard's purchase of the senior center. That recollection moved our conversation quickly to the present, since another Fresard property has recently been purchased by the city to be converted into a parking structure. What has former mayor Robert Stocker to say about current civic/political matters in Royal Oak?

Quite a bit. Drawing on his experiences as an elected official and in his personal/political circles Stocker offers:

The current city commission "is certainly not impressing anyone."
He suggests that Jim Ellison should be a bit more forceful with his gavel and that the commissioners stop micromanaging excessively, perhaps violating the charter which specifies commissioners should not deal directly with department heads. "They seem not to understand, or choose to ignore, that the commission's job is to set policy which is then implemented by the administration."

The former mayor wanted to stay with this one, adding, "Sometimes elected officials might not even have finished high school, but Staff is usually made up of educated professionals." Hitting still harder, he said, "Any idiot can become an overnight success by getting elected." Working our way around The Table, Robert and I compared impressions. Perhaps because he has been there, his assessment of the individuals is much harsher than mine.

Stocker believes there should be term limits for commissioners and mayors.

Speaking softly but making statements which others might shout, the former mayor made several points:

  • Do not sell either city-owned golf course. Recreational facilities are an important dimension of life in Royal Oak. "So what would they put up on the golf course? More condos, and I'm not terribly impressed with the quality of existing condos."

  • He mentioned increased load on the police as a concern. "Neighborhoods shouldn't have to live with delayed response time because of the needs of downtown."

  • There should be no more cuts in staffing of Police or Fire. "These people put their lives on the line for us." Stocker passed over my hypothetical suggestions about terminating this or that department and focused instead on getting control of pension benefits. "Double dipping, which happens almost exclusively in the public sector, must be eliminated." And even if individuals decide to retire before age 62, they should not be allowed to collect until they reach that age.

  • The city will probably have to hire outside counsel to attack benefits. "We can't realistically expect city-paid employees to work to reduce their own benefits."

  • About the proposed hearing to explore forcing a ZBA volunteer off the board, he shook his head in apparent dismay and agreed with the resident (Bill Shaw) who during Public Comment chastised CITCOM for taking time to conduct a "City vs. Rasor" hearing when they should be focusing on solving budget problems.

  • About the Bordine vs. English Gardens brouhaha, Stocker sides with English Gardens and maintains that if Bordine Nursery wants to operate in Royal Oak, "They should buy or rent property, not set up a tent."

Throughout the conversation, whether he was reminiscing about his time in office or commenting on current problems, former mayor Robert Stocker repeatedly returned to the theme of judging elected officials by whether "they're in politics for their own benefit or to serve their constituents." "But," he warned, "nor should an elected official bend with every breeze coming from voters."

When we chatted about the effect of current economic times on one's personal and business life, I failed to ask Robert whether he misses political life. --  May 2009