Since the 1960s, Flint’s circumstances have slowly deteriorated. The population trickled out of the city, taking their tax money with them; General Motors began to pull up shop closing offices and factories, and small business faltered. With little money or population left, city leadership began to cut back while desperately searching for ways to reverse the situation. The budget quickly became a problem that would grow in significance each passing year. By the late 80s, Flint had taken a number of shots, was out of breath and standing on tired legs. No reprieve was on the way. In fact, one more punch was coming. The city mostly responded by scaling down and contraction yielded mixed results. The mayors from 1987 to today ran into their own battles, scandals and adversity – each of them tasked with searching out and uncovering a miracle.
This series has tracked Flint’s Mayors throughout history, providing short accounts of their professions, lives and decisions they made while in office (if known). Some mayors were men/women of great deeds or of great controversy; some simply acted as placeholders in time. Each of them, however, chaired a city important to its country and its citizens on a path through triumph and heartbreak, and toward its revitalization.
Matthew Collier – (1987-91)
Born in Flint in 1957, Matthew Collier was Flint’s youngest elected “strong” mayor. Upon high school graduation, Collier attended the U.S. Military Academy West Point where he earned a degree in general engineering. He continued his military career, achieving Airborne Ranger status with the Army and rose to the rank of captain. In Fort Lewis, WA, Collier became the youngest program manager in the Army. After six years, he came back to Flint and almost immediately threw his hat into the ring to become mayor. His opponent was incumbent James Sharp whose reputation was (unfairly) soiled by the AutoWorld debacle. Running on a platform of bringing jobs back to Flint and reducing crime, Collier beat Sharp by over 3,000 votes. He wasted no time making changes. On his first day in office, Collier fired the City of Flint executive staff, dealt with an oil spill on the Flint River, attended a press conference with Michigan Governor James Blanchard, received a death threat and learned of a recall effort initiated against him. Collier’s biggest goals were erasing a $4 million dollar deficit while maintaining a balanced budget and keeping jobs in the city. He partnered with General Motors to reopen a closed automobile plant as the “Great Lakes Technology Center” bringing approximately 7,000 jobs back to Flint. (The center closed in 2009.) In 1988, he and Genesee County officials negotiated a new water contract with the City of Detroit. (The contract would be in effect until the beginning of the Flint Water Crisis.) In 1989, Collier and his administration dealt with the fallout created when Michael Moore released his documentary “Roger & Me” about the effects of the GM cutbacks on the city. Collier stated that the film “crippled the city’s self-image and demoralized Flint as a whole” and that “the film made it increasingly difficult to champion the city’s successes.” After losing the election to Woodrow Stanley in 1991, Collier continued his education at Harvard University, earning a Masters in Public Administration in 1993. Since that time, he has worked in a number of private and public positions such as vice president of engineering at Sensors, Inc. (1995), president and part-owner of SAFER Systems (1997), and vice president of Los Angeles-based Symark Software (2009). In 2015, Collier was appointed by President Obama as Senior Advisor to the Secretary at the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Currently, he acts as the founder and CEO of VetAccel Inc., chief strategy officer for OutcomeMD and as senior advisor with Fieldstone Equity Partners. In 2020, Collier was named a member of the Joe Biden Presidential Transition Agency Review Team.
Woodrow Stanley – (1991-2001)
Woodrow Stanley was born in 1950 in Schlater, MS. In 1959, his family moved to Flint and Stanley attended Flint Schools, graduating from Flint Northern High. He then took a job with General Motors and paid his way through school at Mott Community College and then UM-Flint, where he earned a degree in political science. In 1983, he was elected to the Flint City Council where he served for four consecutive terms. In 1991, he ran and won the seat of mayor. In office, Stanley started the Mayor’s Youth Cabinet, a summer employment program, instituted Job Corps in the city and attempted to provide property tax relief to constituents. He would go on to win subsequent mayoral races against Don Williamson and Scott Kincaid. After the 1999 election, Flint’s problems grew too big to overcome. While in office, jobs continued to flow out of the city and Flint’s deficit continued to balloon, capping out at nearly $30 million. Stanley and the Flint Council were constantly at odds with finding ways to fix the problem. In an attempt to keep Buick City in operation, Stanley banned foreign cars at the city office, but to no avail. The final stroke came in 1999 when GM closed Buick City. Stanley attempted to privatize garbage pickup, sell city trees, and even bring in a Continental Basketball Association (CBA) franchise, all failed or were blocked by the council. Next, the City Council began to take a closer look at the budget and hired an auditor to examine the 2000 spending plan and found a “phantom” $10 million in revenue. When the council attempted to amend the plan, Stanley sued and was eventually forced to adopt the budget without the $10 million in question. With citizens fed up with abandoned houses, unrepaired roads and unkept public spaces, a recall effort began. Stanley lost the recall election by nearly 3,500 votes. After the election, Stanley exclaimed “they will never break Woodrow Stanley!” Proving true to his word just two years after his recall, Stanley was elected to the Genesee County Board of Commissioners and became chairman in his second term. In 2008, he was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives. While there, Stanley served on the Banking and Financial Services, Redistricting and Elections, and Regional Affairs Committees, as well as serving as the vice chairperson of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus. During his professional life, he also served as president of the Michigan Municipal League, chair of the National League of Cities Advisory Council, vice chair of the Michigan Democratic Party and president of the Michigan Association of Mayors. Woodrow Stanley died in February 2022.
Don Williamson – (2003-09)
Controversial from the get-go, Don Williamson’s tenure as mayor was a whirlwind of activity. He was born in Flint in 1934, one of eight children living on Kearsley Dr. He left school after eighth grade and later entered the world of business. In 1962, Williamson was convicted of several business scams including passing bad checks, was incarcerated for three years and then paroled. After serving time, he started a variety of successful businesses including Rugged Bed Line, Colonel’s International, and Brainerd International Raceway. After his marriage to Patsy Lou in 1972, they started the very successful Patsy Lou Automotive Group. In 1999, he ran for mayor against incumbent Woodrow Stanley and lost by a landslide. Immediately after Stanley’s recall, Williamson threw his hat in the ring against Floyd Clack. His campaign was rather unorthodox with Williamson using his own money to clean the streets and neighborhoods while overseeing the project wearing a workman’s hardhat. He promised to do the job without taking a salary and voters were swayed – he was elected by a large margin. As soon as taking office, Williamson began feuding with the City Council and local media. He banned all reading materials unrelated to city business from City Hall and had a Flint Journal carrier arrested for refusing to divulge the identity of city employee subscribers. He described the City Council as “about as valuable as puke on a brand-new carpet.” In his first four years in office, Williamson worked within a balanced budget. During the 2007 election against Dayne Walling, Williamson found himself in hot water. He was accused of bribing citizens for votes when he handed out nearly $20,000 at the car dealership Patsy Lou owned as part of a “Customer Appreciation Day.” Each person who received money was given his campaign literature. During the election, he also claimed the city had an $8 million dollar surplus; but after his election win, auditors found a $4 million deficit. In order to balance the budget, Williamson fired 60 employees and proposed an additional loss of 174 employees, 21 jail security guards, 59 police officers, nine firefighters, and closure of the city jail. By 2018, the deficit grew to $9 million at which time a recall petition was submitted with the election scheduled for 2009. Williamson resigned just weeks before the recall election due to ill health. After leaving office, he erected a bronze statue of himself in Davison Township inscribed with the motto, “Success is the best revenge.” Don Williamson died in 2019 and the Williamson Foundation was founded in honor of Don and Patsy Lou.
Dayne Walling – (2009-15)
Born in Flint in 1974, Walling graduated from Flint Central High School in 1992 and went on to attend Michigan State University where he earned a degree in social relations. Next, he attended the University of Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, receiving a degree in modern history. He then received a master’s degree in urban affairs from Goldsmiths, University of London. Upon his return to the U.S., Walling worked in the mayor’s office in Washington, D.C. as manager of research and communication. While there, he founded and served as president of the Flint Club, a 501c3 non-profit acting as a network of people who care about the City of Flint. Walling then served as Rep. Dale Kildee’s field coordinator. In 2007, he returned to Flint and ran for mayor, narrowly losing to incumbent Don Williamson. After Williamson’s resignation in 2009, Walling ran against and defeated Brenda Clack. As mayor, Walling chaired the Economic Development Corp., Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, Downtown Development Authority and Genesee Chamber of Commerce Energy Committee. In 2010, he was named chair of the Karegnondi Water Authority Board. In 2011, he lost all mayoral powers on the day of his reelection when Flint was declared in a state of “local government financial emergency” with the office of mayor taken over by a state-appointed financial manager. In 2013, Walling made good on one of the promises made during his first term when the city adopted its first new master plan since 1960. Over 5,000 residents took part in its creation. Dubbed the “Imagine Flint Master Plan” it has won numerous awards and still serves as a guide for new developments. In 2014, Walling was given authority over the Planning and Development, and Public Works Departments, restoring some mayoral powers. In 2014, the city made the switch from Detroit water to the Flint River with Walling famously taking a drink on television and personally testifying to its safety. This, in conjunction with the ensuing water crisis, would cause him to lose the next election. After his mayoral tenure, Walling would own and manage 21st Century Performance – a company that works with and aids non-profit entities. He also became an instructor at UM-Flint, Saginaw Valley State and Central Michigan Universities, and acts as principal and senior policy advisor for 21p/m/c Policy & Management Consulting. In 2018, Walling ran for State House of Representatives, losing to John Cherry in the primary.
Dr. Karen Weaver – (2015-19)
Flint’s first female mayor, Karen Weaver came from a family of firsts. She was one of three children born to Marion Coates-Williams (Flint’s first African American school teacher) and Dr. T. Wendell Williams MD, the first African American to serve on the Flint Board of Education. She attended school in Flint, graduating from Flint Northern High in 1977. From there, she attended UM-Flint and then transferred to Tougaloo College in Mississippi where she earned a degree in psychology. Weaver went on to earn her master’s degree from Long Island University in New York and a doctorate in clinical psychology from Michigan State University. Upon her return to Flint, Weaver worked as director of behavioral services at Mott Children’s Health Center and the chief operating officer of Ennis Center for Children. She also served on a number of committees including the Hurley Medical Center Board of Managers, the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, and Priority Children. After defeating incumbent mayor Dayne Walling in the 2015 election, Weaver immediately declared a city-wide emergency to deal with the growing water crisis. She pushed for and gained similar declarations from Gov. Rick Snyder and President Barack Obama. In 2016, she testified to the U.S. Democratic Steering Committee as to the seriousness of the crisis. As mayor, Weaver served as the president of the Downtown Development Authority, a member of the State of Michigan Economic Development Corporation, 2nd VP of the African American Mayors Association, as advisory member of the United States Conference of Mayors, and board member of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative. Gov. Snyder appointed her a member of the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee. Weaver appointed Flint’s first chief public health advisor and continued to meet with the White House in efforts to acquire funding for renewed water infrastructure for the city. Her efforts secured $389 million for recovery, $2.9 million to recreate the Economic Development Department and $30 million for new affordable housing initiatives. In 2017, Weaver survived a recall attempt and remained in office to serve out her term. After her time in office, she started the Karen Williams Weaver Foundation to help communities build and renew infrastructure to support health and safeguard the right to safe and affordable water.
Sheldon Neeley – (2019-present)
Born in 1969 in Flint, Sheldon Neeley attended Flint Schools and graduated from Flint Northern High in 1986. He then continued his education at Delta Community College where he earned an associate’s degree. He studied communications at Saginaw Valley State before joining the professional workforce. Neeley worked as an engineer for WJRT-12 in Flint and served as the local union president for the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians – Communication Workers of America. In 2002, he jumped into public service when he joined the Flint Civil Service Commission and in 2005, was elected to the City Council and reelected in 2009 and 2013. In 2014, Neeley went a step further and was elected by a landslide to represent Flint’s 34th District in the House of Representatives, and won subsequent elections by the same margin. In Lansing, he focused on public safety, education, restorative justice and Flint’s economy. Neeley championed the Flint Promise scholarship fund, awarding free college or reduced tuition to Flint graduates, and the Flint Development Center Literacy Lab. Throughout his political career, he hosted numerous Expungement Fairs to inform individuals of their rights in the process. In 2019, he ran against and defeated incumbent Karen Weaver with a campaign based upon better transparency and fiscal responsibility. In addition to his public and professional achievements, Neeley worked for ten years as a counselor in Flint Community Schools and acts as the voluntary CEO of the Flint Inner City Junior Golf League.