September 22, 2018

Tempers flare between DDA and city officials during council meeting

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WEST BRANCH — A packed city council meeting became heated multiple times as members of the audience and even city council members quarreled with the city manager and mayor during public comment portions Monday night.

Nearly two hours of the three-hour meeting were spent discussing — sometimes heatedly — reported miscommunications among City Manager Heather Grace, Mayor Denise Lawrence and members of the city’s downtown development authority.

Discussion began during the first public comment portion of the meeting when local business owner Darrin Hunter, whose wife Autumn is on the city’s DDA, addressed the board regarding an email that had been sent by Grace to members of the DDA shortly before its most recent meeting. The lengthy email addressed multiple issues, but Darrin Hunter’s focus was on a part of the letter where he claimed Grace threatened to close the city’s parking lots in the winter instead of having them plowed.

For the past several years, the city’s DDA has assumed the cost of plowing several city lots. However, as discussed Monday and at previous DDA meetings, the DDA cannot afford to continue doing so, and has asked for other options moving forward.

In the email, Grace presented three options: continue to have the city’s Department of Public Works remove the snow, have a third party do it or do not remove the snow at all.

“The only slight modification to this that could occur is if the DDA would like the city to continue to remove snow from the sidewalks, but not remove snow from the parking lots at all…” the email reads. “In which case, the DPW would only remove snow from the parking lot on North Fourth so as to allow access to City Hall, and then would put up signs and barricades indicating that all other city parking lots are closed for the season, as this would eliminate the argument that the city was taking on the duty of keeping those parking lots clear of snow and thus not increase the city’s potential legal liability.”

Grace references “legal complexities” and says the city is threatened with lawsuits all the time, adding, “You would see that these are the only options that can really be considered without potentially setting up city taxpayers for expensive litigation.”

“So I want to ask you, as a council, is this your recommendation?” Darrin Hunter asked the city council. “Are you willing to let this happen to the city? Because as a business owner, I have to notify my employees I will then be laying them off for the winter and I will be shutting my doors. What do you say to that? Please tell me.”

Lawrence responded saying the comment was taken out of context and that there was more to the email.

“I believe there was more to that email,” Lawrence said. “I think that was a part of a solution to other things, that they wanted to not have the city remove the snow.”

“If they didn’t want to pay for the snow removal, that was an option,” Lawrence added. “There was much more, much, much more than what you’re bringing up here.”

Councilman Rusty Showalter, who also sits on the DDA and is a former chairman of the board, said the proposal was not a viable solution.

“In my opinion, and I’m just going to throw it out there, I believe the DDA, especially in this matter, is being held hostage,” Showalter said. “The way the email read is that it brought in legal terms, which I too am very upset about, and stated that once you started plowing city parking lots, there is a — I don’t have the email in front of me so I can’t quote it directly — that there’s a belief by the public that that is the norm, so if the DDA stopped paying for it, that ultimately the only choice the city had was to close the parking lots because they would continue to have to be plowed otherwise it opens up liability.”

Showalter went on to say other communities have cost-sharing agreements between their DDAs and cities, but instead West Branch was charging administrative fees to its DDA.

“If we don’t have a downtown, we don’t have a city,” Showalter said. “We’re nothing more than a township.”

Grace said the option to close the lots was just that — an option — but not one she would actually recommend.

“It was presented as an option because I was asked to present to the DDA what options they had available,” Grace said.

Other issues between the DDA and the city stem from the approval of the DDA’s budget, money the DDA says should be appropriated to it from the city and new state regulations that require more detail to be provided regarding DDA expenditures. Members of the DDA say the city owes it $7,500 toward the current year’s budget, but Grace says the money cannot be appropriated because the DDA did not submit a proper plan for spending the money prior to it being allocated.

“It’s probably an old-fashioned word, but a lot of these things have been done by trust and it’s really worked out great for the city,” said DDA member and local business owner Joe Clark.

“To be perfectly blunt, trust is not the legal standard we are required to be held to,” Grace responded. “We can’t issue a blank check to an organization and not require accounting back and just trust that because they say it was all spent appropriately that it was. I’m not saying that it wasn’t. We just need the proper paperwork to submit to the auditors to prove that it was. We’re legally required to do that. I’m legally required to make sure the DDA submits that. If I don’t do that, I’m not doing my job and I’ve set the city up for violations with the Michigan Department of Treasury that can cause us financial problems because they will withhold revenue sharing. They will withhold all sorts of funding for the city that will not allow us to continue our operations and provide essential public safety services.”

During the long discussion, many references were made to poor communication as being the cause of issues between the DDA and the city. But local business owner Pete Fabbri said the problem was the city leadership.

“What I see is good people, excellent people here put in positions they should not ever be put in because they are hardworking, honest,” Pete Fabbri said. “They’re decent people. I’ve watched tonight, I’ve watched multiple people apologize for the root cause when they didn’t own that root cause. I’m going to address the 800-pound elephant in this room. You know what it is, it’s the leadership of this town. It’s the mayor and the city manager who is causing all of these problems with deceptions, lies and all this underhanded stuff that appears to be going on that’s affecting the lives of all these people.”

“This has got to stop,” he continued. “I don’t know what it’s going to take to stop it, whether a resignation is asked for, or what it is. But the 800-pound gorilla in the room, I just addressed it, because a lot of people know that is the root cause.”

But Grace said she is not trying to deceive anyone and she feels she is often taken the wrong way. She referenced a recent DDA meeting the DPW was asked to attend, where she bought lunch for everyone involved.

“I feel that people take everything I do and my tone in the wrong way and they put negative assumptions on me,” Grace said. “That particular meeting, just because I wanted to express my goodwill to the DDA and thank the DDA for attending that meeting, I personally — not with city funds — personally bought lunch for the entire DDA and the DPW. Afterward I was told that members of the DDA were upset and had raised issue, that they assumed they were being billed for that. I try, when I can, to show goodwill. But it doesn’t always go the right way.”

No motions were made during the meeting with regard to the DDA, and some left the meeting feeling as if not much had changed.

City resident Cathy Zimmerman was one of those.

“I’m hoping this is a pivotal moment,” Showalter said as the meeting wound down.

“I don’t think so,” Zimmerman said, addressing the board. “I’m not seeing any indication that anything is going to change on their part. I just don’t see anything. I think these folks (in the crowd) have done all they can do and they’re reliant (on the city) and she’s just looking at us like, ‘It’s my job. I’ve got a contract. I’m here.’”

“You guys can just suck it up, because it’s not going to change,” Zimmerman said to the crowd.

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denny

Although I'm not a resident of West Branch, I am affected by the actions of the leaders. This is an example of their abilities. I respect the remarks of Pete Fabbri and Rusty Showalter because they have the experience and insight of the city workings and how it relates to the community. Intimidation should not be part of leadership.

I have also heard recently that the 4th of July fireworks will not happen this year. Now that effects this and surrounding communities! Decisions made by the city manager affect us. It was said that the manager will sue if the fireworks go on because of the 'supposed' contamination caused by the residue of shooting off of these fireworks. Has anyone researched how this 'supposed' contamination effects the ground water at the site? This community has a 'expert' that sits on the Michigan Groundwater Committee. He knows if and how our fireworks contaminate. I asked him if he has ever told the city that it is safe. "Nope, I haven't been asked." Give Steve Simmons a call; hear the facts. A chance to bring so many people to our wonderful fireworks and community should not be deterred by one person.

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