Grafstein reflects on new role as mayor of Madison Heights

MADISON HEIGHTS — Meet the new mayor of Madison Heights.

Previously the mayor pro tem, Roslyn Grafstein has now been appointed to the partial term vacated by Brian Hartwell when he became judge of Hazel Park 43rd District Court. Her appointment comes nearly two months after Hartwell resigned, and roughly halfway through one of the craziest years in recent memory, with a global pandemic continuing to put much of society on lockdown.

But for Grafstein, a first-term council member first elected in November 2017, things got busy prior to the pandemic, when a bright green liquid seeped onto Interstate 696 late last year.

The liquid was contaminated groundwater laced with cancer-causing hexavalent chromium, and the source was Electro-Plating Services (EPS), a shuttered factory overlooking the freeway.

Hartwell, the mayor at the time, was out of town on an extended trip, so his duties fell on Grafstein, then the mayor pro tem. She quickly became the face of the city’s response to a disaster that drew national attention. The city worked with county, state and federal agencies to contain the mess and ensure its cleanup. The city’s drinking water was never at risk of being compromised, but it nonetheless put people on edge, and they had questions.

“Residents, press and other elected officials were looking to me for answers,” Grafstein said. “The first council meeting I chaired was a special meeting under the glare of three TV cameras. Because of my level of involvement with this situation, even after the mayor returned, I stayed active with the EPS situation, speaking up at the weekly updates to keep focus on the site.”

Then, just before the pandemic broke out in the spring, Grafstein found herself at the center of controversy when her home address appeared on a list of potential claimants for a class action lawsuit against the city seeking damages from the flood of 2014.

She said that she was added to this lawsuit without her knowledge or consent prior to her joining council. She has since resolved this potential conflict of interest, signing an affidavit last month where she and her husband agreed to forgo any payout from a potential settlement in the case.

Now the world is in the midst of a global pandemic, and Grafstein finds herself helping the city navigate turbulent times where businesses struggle to stay solvent and many remain unemployed.   

She also finds herself making history as the first female mayor the city has had in more than 40 years. The last female mayor was Virginia Solberg in the mid-1970s.

Grafstein’s rapid ascent in local politics is also notable in that she’s originally from out of town, having moved to Madison Heights from Toronto in 2004. The same year, she was wed to her husband at Madison Heights City Hall, in a ceremony officiated by then-Mayor Ed Swanson, who has since passed away. The couple now has two teens who currently attend Lamphere High School.

Grafstein herself is a business consultant with an economics degree, and a chartered financial analyst with more than 20 years of experience in the finance industry. She stays busy between her profession and her family, but she also has been diligent in attending workshops and forums to stay informed on issues facing the city. She said that hearing from residents has inspired her.

“For almost three years I have taken the opportunity to represent the city and council at various activities and events,” Grafstein said. “These experiences were important to my decision in asking for support from my fellow council members to serve as the appointed mayor until November 2021.”

The City Council had been divided in how to approach the situation of Hartwell’s replacement, with several options available to them. Had they not chosen one of the current council members to serve the remainder of Hartwell’s term as mayor, then one option would have been to vacate his seat and hold a special election in May 2021, which would have cost the city $20,000.

Grafstein felt this was impractical.

“It was not logical for me (as mayor pro tem) to chair the meetings, sign documents and handle other mayoral tasks for close to a year, then have a special election, at which point someone else would step in for potentially only six months,” Grafstein said. “Our residents elected council to look out for their best interests and to follow our charter even under unique circumstances. Council appointed me to be mayor because they felt it was the best decision for the city.”

She said that the mayor and council have one employee — the city manager, Melissa Marsh — and that she has faith in Marsh and her administrative staff. The mayor and council, meanwhile, focus on directing policy and performing ceremonial duties. The mayor leads meetings, but is largely identical in function to a regular council member, with no veto power.

“As for policy, my goal continues to be guiding the city with strategies that will provide economic opportunity for all our residents, while still affording the necessary funding for our emergency services and day-to-day operations,” Grafstein said. “We are experiencing a downturn in the economy, and as we prepare for this, we need to be more creative and flexible, looking for solutions outside the box.”

Grafstein recounted how in May, she requested that staff explore options for outdoor seating at restaurants in Madison Heights. The next meeting, the council approved an ordinance that assisted them with reopening and social distancing requirements.

“We need to encourage these types of solutions and look to other cities to see what solutions they have that we can duplicate or modify for our own purposes,” Grafstein said. “My priorities have always been and continue to be the safety and well-being of all our residents.”

She said that with local school districts opting for virtual classes for at least the first two months of the new school year, there will be a greater need for access to technology, food and safe havens outside the home. She said there will also be a ripple effect for parents who rely on schools as a form of childcare while they’re working during the day, and that this will force some parents to change jobs or seek new business opportunities. She expressed a desire to find ways to help them.  

As mayor, Grafstein is also on the board of the Downtown Development Authority, where she looks forward to working with the board’s Economic Vitality sub-committee.

“As we move forward into the new normal of COVID, we need to seize this opportunity to revitalize our DDA and promote ourselves to emerging and expanding businesses who want to see the city succeed,” Grafstein said.

The city is preparing updates to the master plan — its guiding document — and Grafstein said she will rely on input from residents, as well as research she has done through organizations such as the Michigan Municipal League and the Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments.

“I view my appointment as mayor as an honor that I will seriously uphold,” Grafstein said. “I look forward to joining council as we work together to serve our residents. We each have our strengths to offer as we find solid and innovative ways to meet the challenges facing us in these unprecedented times.”

When asked for his thoughts on his successor, Hartwell expressed full confidence, and also shared some words of advice.

“Mayor Grafstein will succeed in completing my term as mayor if she focuses on problem-solving and community service,” Hartwell said. “I can think of many examples in her past that demonstrated her understanding of public service, from her time helping the schools, to cleaning up our parks and neighborhoods, to leading reforms at city hall, to supporting downtown growth and spurring industrial development, to attending regional conferences bringing home new ideas.

“During a crisis, we need a responsible, active and unifying leader, in and outside City Hall,” Hartwell concluded. “Roslyn will introduce her personality and ideas to the position, and I trust that she will use this opportunity to help others.”

First published here

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