ROBERT TEICH JR. was sworn in as the new mayor Monday, Nov. 21. Owosso City Clerk Amy Kirkland handled the swearing-in ceremony, while outgoing Owosso Mayor Chris Eveleth was beside them. Eveleth has been with the council for over 13 years.
(Independent Photo/Karen Mead-Elford)
Following Nov. 8 Election Day, an organizational meeting was held at city hall in unusually crowded council chambers on Monday, Nov. 21 to swear-in city council members – all nonpartisan positions – and decide on the new mayor and mayor pro tem.
To offer clarity, Owosso’s Election Day results, correctly submitted to the county, were completely accurate. City staff discovered on the morning of Nov. 9 that their resulting numbers did not match what the county had initially posted online. Later that day, the Shiawassee County Clerk’s Office offered a public statement to both local newspapers that the city had no fault in the discrepancy and the issue had taken place at the county-level – meaning that city results were true and precise as presented by the city. The county withdrew the incorrect numbers posted online and replaced with the corrected data.
Returning to Monday’s organizational meeting, council members had two nominations for mayor: council members Janae Fear or Rob Teich, both longtime Owosso advocates. Council members voted in favor of Rob Teich in a 5-2 vote. In Owosso, the mayor is chosen by the city council, so following the vote, Teich was sworn-in as the new mayor by Owosso Clerk Amy Kirkland. In a symbolic gesture, outgoing Owosso Mayor Chris Eveleth was on hand for the transition and to give Teich the keys to the city and the historic council gavel, which dates back to 1964.
Teich took a few moments to offer his gratitude for the mayoral opportunity and to mention his mother, Virginia “Jo” Teich, who was the first woman to hold a council seat in Owosso and served to inspire him toward service, as well. The city council chambers are actually dedicated in honor of his mother who was a highly regarded community member.
“This is going to be a newbie for me,” Teich shared about being mayor. “But I’m gonna tell you one thing, I’m going to give it all I can give.”
Following Teich’s swearing-in, he took the formal seat as mayor for his first time, which led into the mayor pro tem decision by council. Only council member Sue Osika was nominated and following a council vote of approval, Osika was once again sworn-in as the Owosso Mayor Pro Tem.
Next on the organizational agenda was for council to consider and approve council rules and procedure. As part of those rules, Teich then brought it to attention that new council member Emily Olson had earlier sent out an email to council, questioning the necessity of the opening prayer as part of the meeting format. Olson expressed a desire for more community inclusivity, since the prayer portion of the meeting is contextually Christian and so potentially exclusionary to those who are not Christian, not religious or those who endorse the full separation of government and church. Olson stated her email was intended as an inquiry.
In Owosso, the decision for prayer falls under the jurisdiction of the mayor and Teich said he was not willing to consider removing prayer, but he was leaving it open to Olson to make a motion for council discussion on the subject. Olson made the motion, which was supported by Fear. Fear offered she was surprised a number of years ago, having worked as a journalist at the Independent, when she discovered council still included an opening prayer, since many municipalities/organizations do not. Fear said she agreed with Olson’s email and suggested removing the prayer in favor of offering a moment of silence, allowing people to pray or reflect as they wish.
Council member Dan Law offered an opposing view in support of prayer, calling Owosso a “Christian City,” based on the number of churches in the area, admitting he had “sort of drifted away” from the belief. He said he thought the Christian members in the community would want the representation.
Council member Nick Pidek thanked Olson for bringing the subject up and admitted to doing some research on the topic, citing a Supreme Court case in Greece, NY to uphold prayer (Town of Greece v. Galloway, 572 U.S. 565).
The discussion continued between council members with various opinions expressed, falling back to Fear reiterating that she finds the opening prayer exclusionary and calling for inclusive alternatives.
Teich shared, having served on council for seven years in total, he had never been approached by a community member stating prayer made them feel uncomfortable. However, one resident did later tell everyone in attendance that she was uncomfortable with prayer.
Ultimately, council kept the opening prayer with Olson’s motion defeated in a 5-2 vote. Teich emphasized he found the issue now resolved, at least regarding council members. His statement can legally have no affect on any upcoming public commentary, though.
Owosso City Manager Nathan Henne added the “Rules of Civility” into the mix of conversation, with the focus being that “council members, city staff and members of the public will communicate respectfully with each other in their conversations, reports, debates and testimony. All present will listen attentively to others when they are speaking, not interrupt others or carry on side conversations; and when given the floor will speak to the issues at hand, etc.”
Included in conversations that evening was also a focus on Olson’s symbolic decision not to stand for the Pledge at an earlier meeting. Olson also decided to not stand for the Pledge during Monday’s meeting. She offered a detailed explanation on her city council Facebook page.
“I support the idea that religion, any religion, should not be able to influence or constrain the practices of government business,” she offered. “I am of the belief that a government should, at its bare minimum, create a space in which all of its citizens feel that the rules, laws, ordinances and efforts being made do not automatically exclude them or favor another, based on religious affiliation or practice.” For more on Olson’s statement, visit Emily Olson Owosso City Council on Facebook.