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Meet the candidates: 2024 Grand Rapids First Ward commissioner election

Get to know the four candidates running for First Ward commissioner before the Aug. 6 primary election!
Top row from left to right: AliciaMarie Belchak, Dean Pacific. Bottom row from left to right: Melanie Droski, Mike Fassbender.

Top row from left to right: AliciaMarie Belchak, Dean Pacific. Bottom row from left to right: Melanie Droski, Mike Fassbender. /Photos courtesy of AliciaMarie Belchak, Dean Pacific, Melanie Droski and Mike Fassbender

Disclaimers and additional information

The responses provided have only been edited for minor corrections, such as spelling, punctuation, missing words and general readability.

This article is a component of The Rapidian's Democracy Project. 2024 is a major election year and will have significant impacts on Grand Rapidians as we elect a new mayor and two commissioners. Our goal is to make information about local government, local elections and civic engagement accessible, digestible and engaging. For more information about voting, download The Rapidian's 2024 Grand Rapids voter guide.

A similar article for candidates running for the Third Ward seat will be coming soon.

Four candidates are running to replace First Ward Commissioner Jon O’Connor on the Grand Rapids City Commission in the upcoming election. Commissioner O’Connor was first elected in 2015 and again in 2019. Due to term limits, he is unable to seek reelection in 2024.

On the ballot for the Aug. 6 primary election are AliciaMarie Belchak, Melanie Droski, Mike Fassbender and Dean Pacific.

The Rapidian reached out to all four candidates and asked them to provide answers to seven questions via an online questionnaire. Their answers can be found below:


Q: Tell us a little bit about your background and some of the work you have been involved in.

Belchak: I was told once that I “live at the nexus of ideas.” Someone else more recently said that I “have a high bias for action.” It is from this place, and a desire to make a lasting difference, that I wish to serve as city commissioner.

My roots run deep in the First Ward with over two decades of extensive volunteering, professional experiences and entrepreneurial endeavors. Plus, I am proudly raising three kids here as the third generation of First Ward residents.

My professional work centers on communicating complex ideas, developing and empowering leaders and building community at the grassroots level. My career has included managing a two-county program with the Kent & Ottawa Conservation Districts, reporting for numerous local news publications on family and business topics, serving as Sr. Communications Specialist for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and canvassing with the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.

Currently, I’m a “solo-preneur” offering marketing and freelance writing services as well as life & leadership coaching. I also work with my hubby to operate a duplex rental property in the ward, which was our first home and is now occupied at low, non-market rates.

As a community leader, I serve on the board for the West Grand Neighborhood Organization and have a track record of volunteer work with JBAN/SWAN, GRPS schools, The Other Way Ministries, Women's Resource Center, GROW, Girl Scouts, Family Futures, Kids’ Food Basket, Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, GR Climate Coalition and other organizations. As a grassroots organizer, I have volunteered for several legislative campaigns as well as various community outreach efforts.

I hold two degrees: a master’s in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor of Science degree in environmental science from Aquinas College. My coaching certifications come from The Brave Thinking Institute.

Droski: [Bachelor of Business Administration] from Davenport College of Business. My professional background consists of serving in finance and administration management for over a decade. I currently serve GRPS and Kent ISD as a part-time bus driver for Dean Transportation.

Fassbender: Served in Desert Storm [and] was a Captain in the USAF. Owned and operated tool and die and plastic injection molding businesses that I started after my military service. [I] sold both in 2022.

Pacific: I am a lifelong resident of the First Ward. I grew up playing in John Ball Park and later made my marriage proposal to my wife there. I learned to love reading at the Grand Rapids Public Library and graduated from Grand Rapids Public Schools (Union High School). My wife Nikki and I raised our four children on the West Side and have been blessed to live surrounded by neighbors who look out for each other.

I have always strived to not just enjoy what is great about Grand Rapids, but to contribute to it. Accordingly, [I] have a long record of community service. I currently serve on the Grand Rapids Civilian Appeal Board and the Head Start for Kent County Board of Directors. In the past, I've also been involved with the John Ball Zoo Board, Faith Hospice Board, Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce and numerous church and school boards and committees.

I have worked as an attorney for 28 years. I also work as a court-approved mediator. In this role, I regularly help parties who have strong opposing views reach a resolution that works for everyone. Successful mediation practice requires a lot of listening, understanding, respecting all views and asking the right questions to identify areas of common ground. I’ll bring those same skills and approach to the work of the City Commission.


Q: What are your top priorities and why?

Belchak: Everyone deserves a high quality of life and a responsive local government. Our city thrives best when working families and individuals are supported with strong, safe communities and economic opportunities. We also owe it to future generations to think long term while addressing current issues.

That’s why my priorities as city commissioner are: 1) cultivate strong, safe neighborhoods with accessible amenities and diverse housing options at all price points; 2) promote bustling business districts that create local jobs and generate prosperity; 3) develop resilient, sustainable infrastructure that adapts to a changing climate and secures access to clean water, healthy air, cooling pools & beautiful parks; 4) ensure cost-effective, high-quality city services while keeping taxes low.

We have the opportunity to create a bright future together as our city (and especially the First Ward) grows and develops. Let’s make Grand Rapids a healthy and successful place for all residents, businesses, and neighborhoods.

Droski: Fiscal responsibility, integrity and transparency. These priorities are needed to provide the best outcomes for constituents no matter the end goal.

Fassbender: Housing and inflation—both affect many families directly. Fiscal responsibility of the City—spending what, where, why and how. Comparing costs and following budgets.   Understanding the “true cost” of things like the amphitheater—that is way too expensive.

Pacific: 1.) Public safety. Every resident deserves a safe environment. Although our population has grown since 2010, we have fewer uniformed police officers today than we did then. Proper staffing improves response times, expands community policing efforts and reduces the incidence and effects of crime. 2.) Economic opportunity. We must create an environment that promotes economic opportunity for all residents, attracts new businesses, retains those already here and encourages entrepreneurship. While larger projects and developments often garner the most attention, most new jobs are created by smaller, locally-owned businesses. We need to support and encourage this vital growth.  3.) Accountability and transparency. Our residents work hard for the tax dollars they send to the City. They have the right to expect good stewardship of those funds and to be timely and meaningfully informed regarding how [those funds] are used so that they can have an effective voice in the process.


Q: What is the biggest issue the First Ward faces? How do you plan to address it?

Belchak: The First Ward faces many challenges, such as rising housing costs, economic disparities, concerns about public safety, crime and traffic. There is also a need to reimagine aging infrastructure and build towards energy independence and climate resilience. Plus, there has been eroding community trust in city institutions, service delivery and responsiveness.

In particular, I see housing as a critical juncture where many overlapping issues come together. It’s where family safety and security first begin—people need to be able to put down strong roots in the community and be invested in their neighborhoods. Housing is also where personal financial stability and wealth come from—people can’t save for their future when rents are painfully high and it’s hard to buy into a red-hot real estate market. Housing is also where saving money on utility bills starts if landlords and homeowners take advantage of weatherization incentives and assistance for solar installations—both strong moves towards more climate resilience.

Over 14,100 new residential units are required by 2027 to house our growing population. As a city, we can do better to address urgent housing needs—from implementing creative, citizen-driven zoning policies to expanding home-buyer assistance programs and from incentivizing green & energy-producing housing at scale to redefining “affordability” based on city-wide data instead of county-wide data.

Strong, safe neighborhoods begin with housing, but they also rely on investments to enhance community policing, mental health, social services and crime prevention programs. It also means ensuring well-maintained, beautiful parks and places to relax and enjoy nature. It means having local businesses and accessible amenities nearby. People also need reliable public transportation to get around in addition to traditional cars or bikes.

New people want to come to Grand Rapids and residents want to keep living here—we just need to make it possible.

Droski: The biggest issue is not being heard by the current local government. Under my Commission, First Ward community members will be able to voice what they feel their concerns are and know I am there and will work for them. The biggest issue may be different for each resident, so I feel that they all need to be heard, voiced and addressed. As commissioner, I will make it my priority to hear and address each community member who voices a concern. I will then seek possible solutions and outcomes.

Fassbender: Housing—look to make loans affordable for developers to create more housing.

Pacific: Maintaining safe and strong neighborhoods. We can accomplish this by making the proper investments in public safety, creating an environment that encourages and supports the formation and growth of locally-owned businesses, and by keeping residents informed and engaged in decisions that impact their neighborhoods.


Q: The City is currently in the process of updating its Master Plan. What is your vision for the City of Grand Rapids over the next 20 years?

Belchak: The city in my imagination is just one possibility, and I believe it takes the collective vision of all residents, plus all our individual and institutional actions to make any portion of that vision become a reality. That’s why I value proactive community dialog to identify and innovate as we solve the problems of today and lay the groundwork for tomorrow. That said, I imagine Grand Rapids as a forward-looking city that leads the state (and even country) on many fronts— from low crime and high community engagement to award-winning green design and sustainability programs and attractive entertainment and housing markets, a place where taxes remain low while still maintaining a high quality of life.

Imagine with me for a moment. Imagine living in a city where housing options are abundant and priced so people are able to save for the future or invest back in their neighborhoods. Here, residents build community together with neighbors, send their kids to successful local schools and enjoy public pools, parks and tree-lined streets. Envision a place where jobs are plentiful and new businesses with new entrepreneurial faces are opening while long-time neighborhood favorites keep thriving. Here, economic expansion spreads across the wards through equitable development, investments in infrastructure and creative financing opportunities. Community policing in this future has led to lower crime and better community relationships with the police, plus access to mental health and social services helps raise people up. Here, people are mobile —socially, economically and physically. I see innovation in public transportation being implemented so people have easy alternatives and expanded choices for getting around town, whether for work or for enjoyment at many diverse venues. Picture with me an array of inviting green spaces and living architecture—such as plants growing up walls or on roof tops—that helps buildings remain cooler while also beautifying our streetscapes. I foresee an energy-independent Grand Rapids, where solar installations on large development projects are the norm and cutting carbon emissions from construction is as important as discussing parking needs. In this version of Grand Rapids, all residents breathe easier, enjoy cooler spaces, trust their clean drinking water and save money on their utility bills. Here residents feel safe in their homes, on the streets and in their entrepreneurial endeavors. Here new industries and job opportunities grow and expand.

We can create this kind of dynamic city together. With visionary leaders willing to keep asking the right questions and the will to make iterative changes, we can do just about anything.

Droski: First and foremost my vision is to be a voice and representative for the people, the residents, and the business owners. To listen to their concerns and make sure I represent their interests. With that said, there are many updates to the master plan. I see a vision that encompasses this city with all [its] unique neighborhoods and maintains the individual character that each neighborhood uniquely holds. A vision where people can thrive in a prideful and prosperous community

Fassbender: Beautification.

Pacific: I want Grand Rapids to be a growing, vibrant community with safe and strong neighborhoods, economic opportunity for all, affordable housing and transparent and inclusive City government.


Q: Some residents and city leaders have expressed concerns about inequitable investment in the city’s wards. How do you plan to address this?

Belchak: It’s not always easy to admit, but the harsh reality is that Grand Rapids has remained one of the most segregated cities in the country from a racial, social and economic standpoint. As a result, some areas of the city have benefited significantly from investment and gentrification while others have not. And that has led to changing dynamics within residential areas and business districts. Yet, studies show that mixed-income communities with diverse economies tend to be stronger, more resilient, better for business and more welcoming for residents.

As such, I see a critical and significant need to ensure underrepresented voices and disenfranchised neighborhoods get the attention they require. Economic gains in these areas are entirely possible when these residents are fully and fairly represented and heard on a wide variety of issues facing their neighborhoods and Grand Rapids as a whole. As a city, I believe the elected commissioners, the various committees and appointed councils and the staffed departments can do more to improve communication, transparency and accountability with underserved and underrepresented people in our urban settings.

Among other things, I would like to see a robust economic equity and environmental justice commission created upon which residents from various neighborhoods can serve. This commission would work together to build bridges between government departments and regular folks from impacted areas, as well as bring recommendations before the entire elected commission. This new body could also direct or oversee the critical “Third Ward Equity Fund” as it is dispersed or as projects get reviewed. And similar support systems could be created for areas in the First Ward to promote diversity and empower equitable investment along economic corridors.

Droski: I am focused on fiscal and social growth responsibility. Find out exactly what the disparities are—whether it's lack of affordable housing, access to fresh food, lack of safe neighborhoods, etc., then we come together as a community/ward to come up with a solution to act upon. Community members and leaders have the best solutions and need to utilize this resource. I believe in equal benefit for state and federal funds. I believe in full transparency to the constituents and weighing the right balance between investments and constituent benefit. A healthy neighborhood depends on a variety of investments and a village to implement.

Fassbender: Would be based upon [percentage] of residents per ward.

Pacific: If elected, my first priority will be the residents of the First Ward. Our City Charter assigns representation over geographic wards intentionally, and I believe that each Commissioner is called upon to represent their neighbors first. But as a member of a body that governs all city residents, I would balance the needs of my own ward with those of the city as a whole. Our city is far better off when every resident in every neighborhood has the opportunity to grow and thrive.


Q: How do you plan to balance urban/economic development with the needs of the community? For example, how will you mitigate potential negative impacts on neighborhoods by redevelopment projects?

Belchak: I think the city can and should do much more to balance development with community needs. It starts by taking a hard look at the impact of current policies and practices—both intended and unintended—and then following through with addressing those consequences in a meaningful manner. Simply by taking a closer, critical stance and asking questions designed for deeper thinking, we can make constructive and concrete improvements for those who need it most but have perhaps been least considered.

For instance, are we taking steps to ensure BIPOC leaders are at the decision-making table? Do we require enough of our developers and business partners in the planning process to ensure community benefits or incentivize forward-thinking designs? What rules or standard ways of doing things get in the way of potentially more creative, innovative projects or could streamline the process for efficiency? Have we gathered additional info so that the city has fair and robust data upon which to make decisions (or is something lacking)? What impacts are omitted or are currently low priority in planning decisions—and who do these decisions affect the most? What are the biggest needs for the majority of people within the community and how well have these aligned with current proposals or projects?

As city commissioner, I will happily champion policies and initiatives that empower human-centered designs that put people, planet and prosperity front and center. It is possible to create jobs, stimulate business growth and expand housing stock while also developing a more green and resilient urban environment. But only if we choose to do so. These are the conversations that we must lead from multiple aspects within the community, including the City Commission.

Balancing community needs with growth also means finding ways to offer tangible community benefits to neighborhoods—giving back to residents in the surrounding area. As commissioner, I am willing to take into consideration why these projects are being put forth, the way in which they will be built and who will be impacted most. We have an opportunity, but also an obligation, to prioritize infrastructure and planning processes that generate a robust, resilient and reliable citywide system—from economic development to environmental sustainability, from financial investments to budgetary choices, from community engagement to public health and beyond.

Let’s prioritize projects promoting equitable economic opportunities and seek sustainable investments that position Grand Rapids as an economic powerhouse, a climate leader and a must-see destination for visitors and residents alike.

Droski: Each case of urban redevelopment is unique. Developers come before the Planning Commission and then you need community input for projects affecting the area of redevelopment. All parties need to put all outcomes and solutions out on the table so that we know the outcomes will be in the best interest of all. We do not want urban decay from redevelopment projects. This involves input from everyone to be successful.

Fassbender: Supply and demand—“Adam Smith invisible hand.”

Pacific: We have an obligation to protect the character and integrity of our City's neighborhoods. Strong neighborhoods are what make Grand Rapids such a great place to live and we have to balance growth with the need to protect those neighborhoods. To me, the key is thoughtful planning and zoning policy decisions that intentionally seek and incorporate feedback from our neighborhood residents on issues such as transit, parking, environmental impacts and other effects on the quality of life in their neighborhoods. With careful planning, we can find ways to ensure that development and redevelopment can happen while prioritizing the needs of our residents and protecting the character of their neighborhoods.


Q: Many residents at City meetings have expressed feeling like they are not being heard by local government. How do you plan to engage with and involve the community in decision-making?

Belchak: It is essential that those in power are willing to engage beyond their own traditional borders or networks. As leaders, we must cultivate welcoming, safe spaces for residents to freely express themselves because they can also be an integral part of the solution. This kind of empowering approach cultivates deeper conversations and better ideas that improve our problem-solving process. It can also foster proactive policies to prevent further neglect of impacted groups. When residents' lived experiences are respectfully received, City leaders are able to make appropriate, positive changes to policies, procedures and practices.

That’s why I am truly committed to representing all the voices of the First Ward. That means listening and responding to residents’ needs and concerns as their elected official. It means having open availability on my calendar to proactively seek input from the community and follow up on ideas, comments or questions. It means being willing to be uncomfortable sometimes and be willing to discuss difficult topics—and to remain open-minded and present in the process.

With journalism and science in my background, I like listening and learning. I want to hear as many sides of an issue as possible and collect feedback and community data. As city commissioner, I plan to hold regular community “coffee chats,” create open office hours, and partner with local groups to host ongoing neighborhood conversations.

I take the role of city commissioner seriously and, despite it being a part-time job, I plan to make it my full-time focus to better serve my neighbors and fellow First Ward citizens. I am ready to meet residents often, look deep into data, ask smart questions, listen to folks from all walks of life, and make sure we have a diverse representation of people at the table. If we truly want a vibrant city for all, we must continually pursue this kind of inclusive, proactive and open dialog with residents. This is what builds community trust, unlocks creative pathways to solutions and collaboration, and ultimately improves the city’s decision-making process.

Droski: This is a very valid concern, and the current local government has not been acting on the voice of the people. I have attended and listened to City Commission, Planning Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals meetings and the perception is real. With all the planning and amendment changes presented and taking effect, as well as regional asset decision-making, there have been a majority of city residents with valid and opposing voices in each of these areas. They are not being heard! This is a reason [why] I have chosen to run for City Commission, so I can have a voting voice for the people of this community that involves 1) fiscal responsibility; 2) integrity; and 3) transparency. I will engage in neighborhood meetings, listen and meet with constituents when the need arises and be their voice in the City [Commission] chambers.

Fassbender: By being out and around—available and accommodating. Have monthly meetings for constituents at places like the Anchor Bar.

Pacific: We need to create opportunities for residents to have meaningful input in important decisions earlier in the process. I intend to do so by utilizing town hall meetings, online platforms and consistent opportunities for meetings with individuals or groups to discuss their ideas and concerns.


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