Benson questions GOP law making it harder for ballot drives

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson on Tuesday called into question the constitutionality of a Republican-enacted law that makes it harder to put proposals on the Michigan ballot, asking the state’s attorney general for an opinion on a major move in the recent lame-duck legislative session.
Benson made the request to Attorney General Dana Nessel, a fellow Democrat, who also signaled her concerns with the law. Nessel’s opinion, while not the same as a legal ruling, would bind the Department of State unless it was reversed by a court.
The law, which Gov. Rick Snyder signed before leaving office , imposes a geographic requirement on groups trying to gather hundreds of thousands of voter signatures to qualify for the ballot. No more than 15 percent of signatures can come from any one of Michigan’s 14 congressional districts, a restriction that could prevent ballot committees from solely targeting the most heavily populated areas.
“I am proud that, for more than a century, Michiganders have exercised core constitutional rights in the circulation of initiative, referendum and constitutional amendment petitions,” Benson, who took office this month, said in a statement. “I am deeply concerned that the new restrictions enacted late last year in Public Act 608 of 2018 may potentially violate those constitutional rights by adding new burdens and restrictions on the process.”
In a letter , she asked Nessel to determine the constitutionality of the geographic limit but also other provisions, including one that requires paid signature collectors to file an affidavit with the state. She said it could present “unique difficulties” for the organizers of referendums, who must file their signatures no more than three months after the close of a legislative session in which a challenged law is passed.
Benson said she needs to be able to provide appropriate guidance to potential ballot drives because the 2019-20 election cycle is already underway. Nessel welcomed Benson’s request, saying the law “puts a limit on the people’s voice and that is cause for great concern — something a rushed lame-duck Legislature failed to regard.”
Republicans, who still control the Legislature while Democrat Gretchen Whitmer is governor, approved the business-backed law in December — a month after voters passed three Democratic-backed proposals to legalize marijuana for recreational use, curtail the gerrymandering of congressional and legislative districts, and expand voting options.

Google self-driving spinoff Waymo to put factory in Michigan

LANSING (AP) — Google’s self-driving car spinoff Waymo said Tuesday it will bring a factory to Michigan, creating up to 400 jobs at what it describes as the world’s first plant “100 percent” dedicated to the mass production of autonomous vehicles.
The company plans to spend about $13.6 million to retrofit a to-be-determined manufacturing facility in the Detroit area. In exchange, it will get a state incentive grant worth up to $8 million that was approved Tuesday by the Michigan Strategic Fund Board.
Waymo spokeswoman Alexis Georgeson said the company plans to hire up to 400 people to work at the factory, including engineers, operations experts and fleet coordinators. She said Waymo is looking for a site and hopes to open the plant in the middle of this year. A memo from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. says Waymo will create 100 jobs, with the potential for up to 400, and it chose Michigan despite a “high level of interest” from states in the Midwest, South and Southwest.
The company integrates its self-driving system into vehicles it buys from automakers and is currently testing autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans in a preferred rider program for passengers in the Phoenix area, but with human backup drivers on board. It plans to expand the service to the San Francisco area but has not given a time frame. Waymo previously announced plans to buy 62,000 Pacificas and 20,000 I-Pace electric SUVs from Jaguar.
Waymo, which has a 20-employee facility in the Detroit suburb of Novi where it tests vehicles in snowy weather, will put the new factory in Wayne, Oakland or Macomb counties, where the auto industry dominates the economy with thousands of jobs from U.S. and foreign-based automakers as well as parts supply companies.
“As we begin to commercialize our business and vehicle supply grows, we’re laying the foundation for a scalable, robust vehicle integration plan, starting in Michigan,” the company said in a blog.
Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who studies autonomous vehicles, said the announcement shows that Waymo, which was spun off from Google and is part of parent company Alphabet Inc., has plans to integrate itself into the existing auto industry.
“You can’t reinvent everything. Coming to Michigan in some ways is your complete recognition of that,” Smith said. “Michigan is where you go in the United States to be fully immersed in automotive culture and industry.”

GVSU to have woman president

ALLENDALE, Mich. (AP) — Grand Valley State University has selected a woman as the western Michigan school’s president for the first time in its history.
The appointment of Philomena Mantella as the school’s president was unanimously approved Tuesday during a special board meeting at the university’s Allendale campus. She says in a statement that the school is among those helping to “carry the promise of a degree and a path to prosperity for learners from all backgrounds.”
Mantella is currently senior vice president and chief executive officer of the Lifelong Learning Network at Northeastern University in Boston. She has a Ph.D. in college and university administration from Michigan State University and degrees in social work from Syracuse University.
She’ll replace Thomas Haas, who earlier announced plans to retire this year as the school’s president.

Man charged with killing father

ROYAL OAK, Mich. (AP) — A 31-year-old Detroit-area man has been charged with killing his father, who was found dead with his hands and legs bound.
Dane Matthew Steward of Royal Oak appeared in court Monday on a first-degree murder charge and was ordered held without bond.
Police say they found 73-year-old Dennis Steward’s body Thursday inside the home the two men shared. An autopsy determined he died from strangulation and had likely been dead for more than a day. His car was missing.
Authorities issued an alert for the vehicle and Dane Steward. A Berrien County Sheriff’s deputy reported he had contact with Dane Steward early Thursday near the Michigan-Indiana border, where his car had run out of gas.
Steward was arrested Thursday night after leading police on an hour-long chase through several counties.
It was unclear Monday if he has a lawyer who could comment.

School bus chief has heart attack

PORTAGE, Mich. (AP) — A man in charge of transportation at a southwestern Michigan school district has died while shoveling snow.
Portage district officials say Mike Westbrook died Saturday from a heart attack.
Superintendent Mark Bielang told families that Westbrook’s “work impacted every student who rides a bus.” He says Westbrook was “masterful” at bus logistics in the Kalamazoo-area district.
More than 5,000 Portage students ride buses. Westbrook had worked for the district since 2002.

Driver says he was high, hit cops

DETROIT (AP) — State police say a man who admitted smoking marijuana lost control of his car and struck a trooper’s vehicle on the shoulder of Interstate 75 in Detroit.
No injuries were reported Sunday. The trooper had stopped to check a crash on southbound I-75, near the Davison Freeway. The 26-year-old driver of a Chevrolet Malibu was arrested and taken to a hospital for a blood test. In a tweet , state police said, “C’mon Man!!!”
Marijuana is legal for Michigan residents who are at least 21, but it’s illegal to drive while under the influence.

Marijuana advocate opens cafe in Detroit

By KATHLEEN GRAY
Detroit Free Press
AP Member Exchange
DETROIT — Despite being a self-described mess, the aging and more mellow John Sinclair is taking a victory lap.
Arguably, the man most responsible for starting the movement to legalize marijuana in the United States, Sinclair is quietly celebrating Michigan’s vote to free the weed by repeating a daily ritual — lighting up a joint or two, but now happily doing so without the fear of being arrested.
Sinclair said he hopes opening the John Sinclair Foundation Cafe and Coffee Shop in Detroit will resurrect the hippie hangout days full of art, music and poetry that he remembers so fondly.
“I live in Amsterdam half the year and every day I go to the coffee shops. I take my laptop and do some work and smoke a joint when I want to,” Sinclair told the Detroit Free Press . “Here in Detroit, there is nowhere to go. I live off the Cass Corridor and there are all these new people there, but they’re all squares. They don’t smoke weed. They’ve got coffee shops, but they’re upscale, like you see on TV.”
He’s given up the radical notions that led him to start the White Panther Party to support the ideology of the Black Panthers with the ultimate goal of changing a capitalist society. That activism led to too much attention from law enforcement and he racked up three marijuana-related arrests and ended up landing a 10-year prison sentence for giving an undercover police officer two joints.
After serving more than two years of the sentence — with time in both Marquette and Jackson correctional facilities — Sinclair was let out a few days after a “John Sinclair Freedom Rally” in 1971 in Ann Arbor that featured rock luminaries John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Bob Seger and Stevie Wonder, poet Allen Ginsberg and radical activists Abbie Hoffman and Bobby Seale. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the sentence was unduly harsh and he was released from prison and his conviction was ultimately overturned.
But he never gave up weed, and started several organizations that advocated for legalization. A few months after he was released from prison, Sinclair was instrumental in getting the first Hash Bash — an annual, very public and smoky celebration of all things marijuana — off the ground on the Diag at the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor.
“I’m the pioneer. I was the first one in Michigan who said marijuana should be legal and they said I was totally nuts,” he said. “I’m proud to have a played a part in this. I spent nearly three years in prison because of marijuana.”
Matt Abel, director of the Michigan chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, called Sinclair, “The father of the modern legalization movement since the late ‘60s. He was one of the first to go public that marijuana should be legal and has stayed with the fight all these many years. It’s great that we have him as a senior leader of the movement.”
Time has not been kind to Sinclair, however. He’s traveled the world, living in Ann Arbor and New Orleans and now splits his time between Amsterdam, where marijuana is plentiful, and Detroit. But his health is failing and after a few falls, the 77-year-old now uses a wheelchair and calls the Detroit Medical Center his second home.
“I’m a mess,” he acknowledged.
But not enough of a wreck to give up his passions: a weekly radio show, promotion of artists, musicians and poets and the ability to get high.
“I learned in prison when I was up in their face with the radical stuff about ending their way of life and the war and female oppression. I concluded there’s nothing I can do about it. In the ‘70s, they said back off,” he said. “So I focused on the arts. The only issue I’ve really kept active on is marijuana because it’s so important. It’s been a continuous war for 80 years on people like you and me. They’ve got no business messing with us for getting high.”
And he hopes that will continue at the coffee shop, which will be housed in the appropriately named Dr. Bob’s Psychedelic Healing Shack, a brightly painted doctor’s office, cafe and gathering spot for hippies, hipsters and anybody who’s looking for a place to “relax.” He’ll record his radio show on Monday nights, feature blues’ musicians on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights and host poetry readings on Sundays.
There will be no marijuana for sale at the coffee shop and even smoking in a public place remains in a legal gray area. But on a recent Wednesday afternoon, Sinclair casually smoked a joint at the gathering spot and dreamed about what is to come.
“It’s been my dream for a long, long time, since 2008 when they legalized medical marijuana, that we should have a place where we can go,” he said. “I’m not interested in dispensing weed, I’m a person who’s gotten his weed form the black market since 1962. In Michigan, if you smoke weed, you know somebody who’s got it. I just want a place where you can go and relax.”
Although Michigan’s new marijuana law prohibits public consumption of pot, it also allows communities to designate spots for cannabis consumption at businesses that aren’t accessible to people under the age of 21. Sinclair hopes that his coffee shop will become one of those officially designated spots.
And while he’s happy with the ballot proposal victory — it passed by a 56-44 percent margin — he’s disturbed by the maze of rules, regulations and expenses that are going along with the budding marijuana industry.
“They came up with all this oppressive regulatory stuff,” he said, referring to a $6,000 application fee and $66,000 regulatory assessment to open a retail pot shop. “Take the seed-to-sale tracking they’re going to do with marijuana. Do they track a carrot? Do they track a tomato seed? There’s nothing wrong with marijuana. There’s never been everything wrong with it.”
And now that Michigan voters have had their say, joining nine other states that have legalized marijuana for adult recreational use, Sinclair expects the federal government will jump on board too within the next few years. And while he’s glad to have played a part with taking marijuana mainstream, he hopes widespread acceptance and legalization happens in his lifetime.

Michigan cancer study considers toxic air pollution

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — Michigan regulators are expanding an investigation into air pollution produced by a medical-device manufacturer, and the results could be factored into a cancer study.
The Department of Environmental Quality this month announced plans to widen air-quality testing around the Viant Medical facility in Grand Rapids, The Grand Rapids Press reported.
The department issued several pollution violations after noting elevated emissions of ethylene oxide, a known carcinogen. The company uses the chemical to sterilize medical equipment.
Exposure to the toxin at low levels over months or years can harm the eyes, skin, respiratory passages and the nervous system, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Constant exposure over time could cause neuropathy, kidney damage, liver damage. Pregnant women could miscarry.
Viant said it is cooperating with the investigation.
“Immediately upon receiving the results of the DEQ’s modeling study in November, we ceased the activity that was likely the most significant contributor to ethylene oxide emissions,” spokesman John Truscott said.
The study shows that toxins from the facility could be present in the area where the Kent County Health Department is studying cancer cases.
The county began studying cancer rates around Butterworth Landfill last year after residents raised concerns. The department now is factoring the ethylene oxide investigation into the cancer study, said Alicynne Glazier, a county epidemiologist.
It’s too soon to determine if there’s a connection between the emissions and cancer cases, said Chris Ethridge of DEQ’s Air Quality Division.
A public meeting on the issue will be held March 6.

Pregnant women in Michigan use yoga to relax

BY SHERI MCWHIRTER
Traverse City Record-Eagle
AP Member Exchange
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — A group of pregnant women gather each week to get Zen together and practice yoga with their soon-to-be-born babies.
Yen Yoga & Fitness in downtown Traverse City offers a multi-week prenatal yoga program for pregnant women who seek to build strength, reduce stress and improve both body and baby awareness as they approach their due dates. The course is taught by certified prenatal yoga instructor Naomi Cole who said the experience is meant to help women cope with the effects of pregnancy.
“It’s designed to help women with normal pregnancy aches and pains,” she told the Traverse City Record-Eagle .
Cole said prenatal yoga classes include several helpful postures, including hip and pelvis openers, butterfly poses and goddess squats. Also part of the class is restorative postures to enhance blood flow to the baby, she said.
“We build strength and increase energy and flexibility. It aids focus, decreases stress and decreases or eliminates discomfort,” Cole said. “It promotes circulation, good alignment, proper posture, body awareness and bonding with baby.”
Erika Corcoran of Traverse City said she’s taken Cole’s prenatal yoga class during both of her pregnancies, including her current one now in the third trimester.
“I liked how it gave me special time away to focus on myself and my mind with all the changes taking place with my body,” Corcoran said.
Classes take place in a darkened room at the yoga studio’s annex facility in downtown Traverse City. Breathing exercises learned in the class even became quite helpful when actual labor happened with her first daughter, Corcoran said.
The program was so helpful, Corcoran said she happily registered again during her second pregnancy.
“I think it’s even better the second time around because this time, almost all my time is focused on my daughter,” she said. “For an hour I stop and think about the new baby.”
Corcoran said she highly recommends the prenatal yoga workshop series through Yen Yoga & Fitness to other pregnant women, especially those who could benefit from a slower-paced, relaxing and reflective experience with a focus on awareness and breathing.
Cole is certified to teach prenatal yoga through the Yoga Mamas program of Yoga Tree San Francisco. She also is a trained and certified birth and postpartum doula, and even teaches postpartum yoga classes.
“The fun thing is if the moms have done prenatal, a lot of the babies know my voice and settle right now when (postpartum) class starts,” Cole said, laughing.
A new prenatal yoga series will begin Wednesday, though only a few openings remain available. Additionally, Cole in February will teach a prenatal and postpartum yoga combination class at Table Health at The Village at Grand Traverse Commons.

Franklin tribute show planned

DETROIT (AP) — Some of Detroit’s prominent artists are gathering to celebrate the music and memory of Aretha Franklin.
The event, “A Celebration of The Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin in Song and Dance,” is scheduled for Feb. 1 at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Producing and singing is Joan Belgrave, wife of late jazz trumpeting great Marcus Belgrave.
Belgrave’s husband played with Franklin in her early days, and the women became friends in the mid-2000s. She says the show will reflect the diversity of Franklin’s stage and studio work, incorporating jazz, gospel, R&B and even dance — courtesy of Franklin’s longtime dancer and choreographer, Lisa McCall.
Other scheduled performers include Thornetta Davis, Mark Scott of the Miracles, Emmanuel EJ Johnson of Enchantment and the Motown Legends Gospel Choir.
Franklin died in August.