A brief history of Hamtramck politics

I hope the following time line will explain why our current situation, while very serious, is not quite as unusual or alarming as many people think. This post is by no means complete, so if you remember another year that the city had to borrow or take advances to make payroll, another time that the city threatened to privatize services, another major arbitration award, or if you think I’ve got it all wrong, please leave a comment or send an e-mail.
1922: Hamtramck incorporated as a city. Peter C. Jezewski was elected mayor.
1926: Peter C. Jezewski was convicted of bootlegging and other vice crimes, served one year in Leavenworth federal prison. Arthur Majewski was elected mayor on promises to clean up the city, but failed because the council was loyal to Jezewski.
1928: Rudolph G. Tenerowicz was elected. A subsequent recall effort failed.
1932: Rudolph G. Tenerowicz, two councilmen, the chief of police, and a police captain were indicted on charges of collusion with the rackets. Tenerowicz turned his position over to Peter C. Jezewski. Tenerowicz was convicted and sentenced to three and a half to five years in prison. Peter C. Jezewski was then re-elected mayor.
1934: Joseph Lewandowski elected. On receiving a petition signed by 15,000 Hamtramck residents pleading for his release, Gov. William A. Comstock pardoned Rudolph G. Tenerowicz.
1936: After a heated election season that included a bomb detonating next to Lewandowski’s garage, Rudolph G. Tenerowicz was re-elected mayor.
1938: Rudolph G. Tenerowicz was elected to congress and resigned from his mayoral position. Councilman Sadlowski was sworn in as interim mayor, but Councilman Walter Kanar challenged the appointment.
1939: A state attorney general opinion sided with Walter Kanar, who then took over the office.
1940: The city pension system was created.
1942: Walter Kanar resigned due to an accusation that he took a $500 kickback from a city contractor. Anthony Tenerowicz, brother of Rudolph Tenerowicz, was named acting mayor.
1942: Stephen Skrzycki was elected. During his tenure, he paid off $4 million in debt, but was not popular with the unions after threatening to lay off 90 city employees.
1952: Albert Zak, “the man with the plan for Hamtramck”, was elected mayor on promises of better recreation and health programs, slum clearance, more jobs, and clean streets and alleys. Zak opposed loans and raises for city employees, while financing continuous street-sweeping and paving of city alleys at the expense of the pension fund. Payless paydays for city workers were not uncommon.
1957: The city needed a tax advance from Chrysler to make payroll.
1962: Hamtramck became the first city in Michigan with an income tax.
1963: Albert Zak took an appointment with Wayne County and resigned. Council president Joseph Grzecki Sr. succeeded him as mayor.
1968: Residents displaced by urban renewal programs of the 1960s filed a class action lawsuit against the city. As a result, the city was barred from demolishing any buildings without court approval.
1970: Raymond Wojtowicz was elected to office with the campaign slogan, “Where did the money go?”. Upon taking office, Wojtowicz called for an audit by the state. The city received a $400,000 tax anticipation loan.
1971: The state treasurer declared that the books were “a mess”, and the state took control of the city finances. Sixty-nine city employees were laid off. A successful recall was waged against four council people. Replacements were appointed by Governor Milliken.
1972: A reporter for The Nation wrote that our city of 26,000 people was in court-ordered receivership with yearly revenues of $4.7 million, and debt of $32 million, including $28 million owed to the pension fund. The taxes were as high as law would allow, and the spending was the highest per capita of all cities in the United States. There were 30 or 40 boards and commissions and 400 employees, all voting residents of the city. Mayor Wojtowicz remarked, “This town almost died from people doing friendly favors for each other.” The Superintendent of Public Works, an appointee of the Mayor, was threatening to privatize the garbage service, and the union and council were planning to take him to court. The financial problems were said to be caused by generous pensions and benefits of the 1960s, a hospitalization plan that included free prescription drugs, and an annual clothing allowance of $100 to every city worker. However, that was during the same period that the city bulldozed the houses of 300 families on the South End for a doomed civic center, the R-31 Wyandotte project. Three of the four councilmen appointed by the governor lost their bids for re-election.
1974: Albert J. Zak was re-elected mayor, having appealed to voters’ desire for stability on the campaign trail. He died in office the following year.
1975: William V. Kozerski assumed the office of mayor, serving through 1979. The shopping district and population of the city were both in decline.
1979: Chrysler announced that Dodge Main would close. In September, 83 city employees were laid off in anticipation of the loss in tax revenue.
1980: Robert Kozaren was elected mayor, having defeated Kozerski with an optimistic message that the city was not as bad off as it seemed. The same year, he created the Labor Day Festival. General Motors announced plans for the GM Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly plant.
1981: Robert Kozaren negotiated an agreement with Judge Keith and the Plaintiffs of the R-31 lawsuit. In exchange for being allowed to demolish properties for the new GM assembly plant, the city was required to build 350 homes. Kozaren and his administration, namely Howard Woods, brought in grants from the federal government for both the assembly plant and Senior Plaza. Building Senior Plaza counted for 150 of the homes required by the consent decree.
1989: Robert Kozaren negotiated the jail “payment in lieu of tax” agreement, and the William Dickerson Detention Facility was built.
1990s: The city gained in population. Paczki Day began to gain momentum. Robert Kozaren began to face challenges at the polls.
1991: Legislation in the State House of Representatives, sponsored by Chester Wozniak, allows the conversion of Hamtramck pension plans to MERS.
1992 and 1993: The city needed tax and revenue anticipation notes to meet payroll. A lawsuit was brought by Kulhavi and other members of the city pension fund alleging that their benefits were miscalculated.
1994: The city placed a 30-mill levy on the property tax bills to pay for the environmental clean-up of a contaminated property that the city’s Economic Development Corporation bought from a lead paint manufacturer and sold to Freezer Services 10 years prior. Kulhavi prevailed in court, and the judge ordered a state take-over of the city pension system. The city was also ordered to make payments on the $38 million unfunded liability over 20 years.
1998: Councilman Gary Zych defeated Kozaren by only 9 votes. Once in office, Zych set about having it redecorated, and then created commissions and jobs for political allies, all the while calling for layoffs of union workers.
2000: It is probably an understatement to say that Gary Zych and some of his supporters were rude and insulting to city employees and long-term residents. A reporter for the Metro Times noted that Hamtramck City Council “can include death threats, insults, bickering and the occasional slashed tire or punch in the chest.” A $2.9 million deficit was projected, $2.1 million from an arbitration award to the police unions. Zych and his allies on the council threatened to privatize services, such as city trash pick-up. His budget plan included eliminating 33 of 170 city positions. After the resignation of a member, the council became deadlocked, half wanting to lay off union employees, and the other half wanting to lay off department heads that were appointed by the Mayor. The second of two recall attempts against Gary Zych failed.
2001: The council couldn’t agree on a budget. Emergency Financial Manager Louis Schimmel was appointed in November. Schimmel threatened to replace the police department with patrols by the County Sheriff, replace the fire department with paid-on-call volunteers, privatized the trash service, sold the DPW building, sold all the DPW equipment, such as new garbage trucks, for pennies on the dollar, and canceled the Labor Day festival. Zych and his supporters began a political action committee called the Solidarity Slate. Zych was re-elected over Ethel Fiddler by only 2 votes.
2002: Louis Schimmel issued $2.5 million in fiscal stabilization bonds to balance the budget.
2003: The city ran out of appeals on the Kulhavi case. An $8.25 million judgment was charged to the property tax roles at a rate of 14 mills per year, 49 mills total.
2004: Thomas Jankowski was elected after a heated election season that included his supporters having their tires slashed at a fundraiser. The entire council remained loyal to Zych. Louis Schimmel issued $2,865,000 more in fiscal stabilization bonds.
2005: A new city charter was passed. Council president and Solidarity candidate Karen Majewski was elected mayor over Thomas Jankowski. Solidarity also had a majority on the council. Don Crawford was hired as the first city manager in July. When he took office, he discovered that Wayne County had stopped paying on the jail PILOT agreement, but the city continued to spend as if the money was in the bank. There was a severe cash crisis in June.
2006: Schimmel signed a contract with the firefighters’ union just before resigning. The agreement tripled the firefighters’ banks of accumulated time off (ATO), but greatly reduced health-care benefits for new employees. It was a good deal for the city long term, but the immediate costs nearly bankrupted us. Neither Crawford or the union liked the contract. They tried to renegotiate. Council passed an RFP to privatize the fire department. No new agreement was made, and when the new contract took effect, the city laid off 6 men. In the end, the city lost in arbitration, and layoffs only increased the cost of implementing the contract.
2008: City council was displeased with Don Crawford because he would not allow increases in city spending. They replaced him with William Cooper.
2009: Karen Majewski is re-elected mayor over Councilman Abdul Algazali, but Solidarity lost their majority on the council. Detroit stopped paying on the GM agreement, but the city continued to spend as if the money was in the bank.
The Political Graveyard
The Driven City by Greg Kowalski
“Hamtramck: Waiting for Pilsudski” by Desmond Smith, The Nation, 1972
Crazy Politics” by Ann Mullen, Metro Times, 2000

3 thoughts on “A brief history of Hamtramck politics

  1. Hey, I guess we’ve got less corruption now than has been historically the case in the city, I guess that’s a good thing?

  2. Some things I have to pin the dates down on;

    The year that Patrolman Kalinowski was the only officer to report for duty on Christmas, and his supervisor told him not to leave the station.

    The year that minimum manning was added to the police contracts.

    The years between 1979 and 1984 that the city took out $5 million in loans.

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