Tuesday afternoon, the city clerk’s office will close and we’ll know whose names will appear on the ballot for the Saline City Council election in November.
So far, Clerk Terri Royal has verified the nominating petitions of incumbent Jack Ceo and first-time candidates Jim Dell’Orco, Brian Cassise and Kevin Camero-Sulak.
Dell’Orco, a diabetes researcher at the University of Michigan Medical School, was the first candidate to submit his nominating petition to the city clerk’s office. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise to everyone. He’s been engaging neighbors and members of Saline City Council in the campaign to hold developer Damian Farrell to 30 units for 207 S. Monroe St., a development planned for four acres of vacant land behind the West Henry Street home where Dell’Orco lives with his wife, Nicole, and their daughters.
Since then, he’s been a regular at city council meetings.
“It’s funny, because I never saw myself as someone who would ever run for office. But I became really interested in how these decisions get made. Even after the Fairdene development issue was settled, I couldn’t stop going to the council meetings. Whether the issue was parking or growth, I’d watch council members at work and wonder, ‘How would I have handled that?’” Dell’Orco said. “So, I’d come home from work. Have dinner with my family and then head to the council meeting.”
Dell’Orco, originally from Garden City, grew up in Canton Township. He was the oldest of nine children. He moved to Saline with his ex-wife in 2010, attracted to the school district’s special education program to serve the special needs of his ex-wife’s daughter. Following his divorce, he was “nursed back to health” by friends at Saline First Presbyterian Church.
Whether he’s thinking about the place he grew up, or talking to his friends at church, when he’s talking about local issues, Dell’Orco often finds himself talking about growth.
“One of the many reasons I left Canton was because of the way it grew from a small, working-class community with a lot of farmland into this place swelling with homes at a breakneck pace, with growth far outpacing infrastructure and roads unable to handle traffic. The plan there was just to keep building,” Dell’Orco said. “A lot of the people I’ve spoken to see the same thing happening in Saline today.”
Dell’Orco said he’s not anti-growth, but he thinks it can be curtailed and managed with planning. Dell’Orco wasn’t impressed with the way the city planned and managed the development at 207 S. Monroe Street. He watched the development grow in scope from 14 units to 30 units. And then, after the city agreed to sell the land to Damian Farrell for a 30-unit development, the developer came back with a plan to squeeze an extra 14 units into the small parcel. The plan had the support of Mayor Brian Marl, city staff and several council members.
“It felt like a runaway train. It seemed reckless,” Dell’Orco said.
So, Dell’Orco got involved. He went door to door in his neighborhood and gathered signatures of 170 similarly concerned residents and turned them into the city clerk. Dell’Orco and neighbors spoke at city council meetings, imploring council members to hold the line at 30 homes.
“There was a voice in my head saying, ‘You can’t fight city hall,’ so I didn’t know what to expect. But I think we did influence the outcome. I think we convinced several city council members to see things from our perspective. So that made me feel like I can make a difference,” Dell’Orco said.
The tenor of council meetings has been a topic of discussion recently. Councillor Heidi McClelland cited a “negative attitude” at the council table when she announced she wasn’t seeking re-election. Dell’Orco agrees the council proceedings have been strained lately.
“The discourse that’s unfolding doesn’t always seem very productive. There’s a lot of time spent critiquing and challenging. I wonder if more homework can be done ahead of time so that council meetings are used to discuss policies and procedures, and not to disparage each other or staff,” Dell’Orco said. “I think many council members are doing an excellent job. I just don’t think the meetings need to be a sparring match.”
Beyond cooperation at the council table, Dell’Orco also wants to see more cooperation between the city and local governments – especially when it comes to planning and managing growth.
Affordable housing is another issue in which Dell’Orco is interested.
“I keep hearing that developers won’t build 1,400-square-foot homes. I don’t know if I buy that argument,” Dell’Orco said. “There’s a need in Saline for affordable homes, whether it’s for the aging population or young families who can’t afford $400,000 homes,” Dell’Orco said. “I don’t know if that’s an issue we can tackle at the council table, but I sure would like to try.”
That’s about as close to an “agenda” as Dell’Orco got during a 30-minute conversation.
“I just want to represent the interests of people who live here, and use my background as a scientist to ask questions, gather information and make smart, data-driven decisions,” Dell’Orco said.