A temporary holding place for this blog until such a time as a new site is launched.
Welcome to The Asylum. Just as before, Josh is always right.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Let's Go A-Wanderin'

Writing to be read is always an adventure.  You put your time and effort into something for public consumption, and you're never sure what their reaction is going to be.  Positive or negative doesn't necessarily play into it, it's more of a question of direction.  What will this cause people to think?  What will their own perspective lead them to read into it or take away from it?

It's funny, because those of you who have been reading my work before I started covering local politics know that I write about anything and everything I have an opinion on.  I wrote a piece about the Tennessee and Northern Virginia battle flags a few weeks back, and one person who only knows me for my local coverage said -- nay, demanded! -- that I should do myself a favor and "stick with your local politics rants."  (My simple answer?  "No.")

Or, for example, my coverage of the Rick Rose and Duke Anderson scandals.  Aside from a few in Rickie's camp attempting to intimidate me out of bringing you the facts -- even his wife going so far as to wrongfully accuse me of "slander" -- I have received an outpouring of support the likes of which I never could have imagined. 

And the fun part has been watching everyone start asking questions.  Even the questions that are way off-base or only half-informed.  That's okay!  That's a good thing!  Not that people don't have all the information, but that people want the information, that they're looking for the information.  Asking questions is how things change and progress is made.  Asking questions gets things done.

That's something that my mother taught me, and it's been both a blessing and a curse.  She will happily tell you that her own mother had told her that, one day, she'd have a kid just like herself.

She got three, and we've all been driving her up the wall ever since.

That's because she instilled in all of us the desire to ask questions.  Why is the sky blue?  What causes photosynthesis?  How does the computer's operating system work?

(She really regretted that last one.)

It's that same desire that drives me to write, because after I ask questions, I learn facts, and I form opinions, and I want to share what I've learned and the conclusions that I've come to so that, at the very least, we can come to an understanding of where we all agree and disagree.  I'm not looking for any great universal truth or anything here, I just want us to make informed decisions... on any topic.  If I have a thought about it, I can write about it, and hopefully, we can talk about it.

And if it seems like I'm rambling here; that my mind is wandering... you're right!

I have this thing called obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.  It's not what you think it is.  It basically means that my brain has two settings: single-topic mode or EVERY-topic mode.  Moreso than most people.  I'll lock onto something for a while and practically everything else will be ignored.  Then the switch flips and my mind will just wander from topic to topic and not be able to lock on to anything.  I never know when one side or the other will take over, and yes, it can be detrimental.

But after thirty years of life, I've learned how to use my OCPD to my advantage.  It allows me to ask more questions about a variety of topics when I'm not locked-in on just one.  When I'm more focused on a certain topic, it's generally because I'm interested in that topic, and I ask more questions about that topic specifically.  So, in essence, I'm either going to go in-depth on something or I'm going to simply get the relevant facts straight and make a call.  And the good news is that, even when I'm not hyper-focused, I can turn my attention to matters related to the topic I should be focused on.

All that said, this is one of those weeks when we don't really have a whole lot to talk about locally.  Things are running better than they have been in years at City Hall, and while there are still plenty of issues left to be resolved, this week's meeting left me thinking little more than, "good job, folks.  Keep it up."  And it's in weeks like this that my mind will wander to plenty of other matters that I'd love to hear and read your perspectives on.

We're not going to agree on all of them, and that's okay.  We don't agree on all local issues, either.

For example, I haven't even touched the same-sex marriage ruling (which was the correct one) in this space, though we've certainly talked about it on Facebook.

There continues to be a horrendous epidemic of murders of transgender women in this country, most recently India Clarke in Tampa, who is the tenth identified this year... and I say "identified" because those are just the few we know about.  There are likely more who are misgendered by their family, police and the media, and are kept quiet about.

There continues to be a horrific epidemic of suicide amongst transgender youth, who feel that it's the only way out because their family and communities reject them simply for a biological trait that they cannot change.  There was one such suicide recently right here in Michigan, that of Sam Taub, whose mother and stepfather are clearly a part of the problem.

The Sandra Bland case -- in which Texas police lynched a woman and are attempting to claim it was suicide after they wrongfully arrested and jailed her for absolutely nothing at all -- took another insane twist as police removed and replaced an obviously edited dashcam video of the stop because they claimed the edited video was not edited but was "corrupted" during upload.  (I work with video, and corrupted uploads do not loop as seen in that footage.)

Donald Trump is absolutely bat-excrement crazy, and the GOP base is proving in the polls that they are, too.

Hillary Clinton is corrupt as hell (I have no link there, it's simply common knowledge), and the Democrat base is proving in the polls that they are, too.

CBS Radio is firing people left and right, and people in the industry still refuse to admit that the last great radio company is getting out of radio.

The record industry still has its head up its ass when it comes to the Internet (and most other things).

And, of course, my beloved Miami Marlins, getting swept by the Phillies, proved once again that, even when they're not the worst team in baseball, they're still the worst team in baseball (and we can thank Jeffrey Loria for all of our woes).

Then there's the amazing Women's World Cup victory, the confused and confusing Iran nuclear deal, the simultaneously hilarious and sad fact that The Onion broke a real international news story, and the glorious return of Bloom County.

Oh, yes, I pay attention to pretty much everything I can.

That and the fact that I was burning myself out by trying to write both a news and opinion piece for the same publishing date is what has led me to move these opinion columns to Fridays instead of Wednesdays.  Because even though I've had 30 years to learn how to use my OCPD to my advantage, learning how to work around it is a constant process with every new situation that comes into my life.

I guess what I'm really trying to say here is, my mind wanders.

And I would enjoy it if you would wander with me.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

CITY TO MOVE FORWARD WITH TREATMENT PLANT RENOVATIONS

The Hillsdale Board of Public Utilities' wastewater treatment plant was the primary focus of Monday night's two meetings at Hillsdale City Hall, where the BPU Board held a special meeting an hour prior to the City Council's regular meeting.

The three present Board members -- Bob Batt, Barry Hill and Duke Anderson -- took up three issues related to long-needed renovations at the plant: a construction contract for the job, a bond authorizing ordinance, and a resolution to approve state revolving fund agreements and documentation in connection with the proposed issuance of those bonds.  All three were included in one agenda item so as to pass them as a package to recommend each to the City Council, who would then vote on each issue individually.

The Board heard statements from Jeff Pugh of the design firm Fleis & Vandenbrink, and Jim White of the law firm Mika Meyers Beckett & Jones.

To start, Pugh described some changes in the construction contract that the Board was voting on that evening.

"Back about a year ago, we did a study called 'project planning' addressing what the DEQ [Department of Environmental Quality] saw as needs," he said.  "There were things that we considered important and key to maintaining treatment, and there were some things that were not so important in doing that."

"In the design phase," he continued, "there's been a trend in the industry of prices going up for contractors, and we weren't sure if it was a temporary blip, because things just started to pick up, and it was known that contractors had scaled back with some of the equipment, had let people go, but they were gearing back up to do the work.  This trend has continued, and it's continuing.  During that time, we decided to take out some of the less than necessary items that were in the original project plan."

Pugh listed those items as a tertiary filter, a ferrous chloride filter system, and improvements to the plant's grit handling system.  He said that those improvements can be implemented later on, and that the BPU might find later that they can do the job themselves at less of a cost than the current bids.

He said that the board has already made improvements to the filters and grit handling system that are working well.  However, he added that there is a grit classifier that still needs to be replaced, which would cost about $70,000 for the equipment itself, and that remains on the list of improvements to make at some point.  There are some cells within the filtration system that should be replaced, as well, but wholesale replacement of the filters may not be the best use of money.

Pugh said that base bids for the project came in about two million dollars higher than expected, and that one of the major components of that cost was the planned combined heat and power system (CHP), the system that creates energy from biological waste.

"When we did the original economic analysis in the project plan, the spread between CHP and non-CHP for capital cost was between seven and eight hundred-thousand dollars.  When we received the bids, the difference between CHP or dual-fuel boil -- which is also energy; biomass utilization -- the difference was 1.3 to 1.4 million; almost double of what it was.  So when you redo the economic analysis, there isn't a good payback upon a CHP system right now, and a lot of that is due to the fact that the plant is only partially loaded right now.  It has additional capacity.  The more material you see at the plant, the more gas you'll produce, to take the bio-solids out and produce energy from."

He said that one of the possibilities that had been discussed with former BPU director Rick Rose was the use of alternative biomass feed stocks such as waste from the Bob Evans plant.

"The long and short of it is, right now, based on current loads, if we brought in auxiliary feed stocks, we could make five times the amount of gas.  The digester itself, the tank that does the work, has five times the capacity that is currently seen.  So there is a lot of potential, but there isn't a lot of payback currently, so the thought was, let's take this off the table for right now.  You can always build it in the future if you want to.  It's not essential to the project; it doesn't help treatment at all, but it does make electricity."

Pugh said that by removing that aspect of the project and some of the unnecessary pieces of the electronic remote operation system -- namely replacing fiber wiring with a radio system -- as well as some pumps that the BPU had recently replaced or rebuilt, the pre-award change order was negotiated down from an original base bid of $7.761 million to a new base bid of $5.779 million.

He concluded by stating that the DEQ required paperwork to be returned for approval of the project by this Friday, the 24th, and as such, he recommended that the board approve the contract at the new lower price to avoid negative action from the state.

"That could be severe at this point," he said.

Board member Duke Anderson asked if there had been anything that was removed from the project that the DEQ might expect or require to be built.

"I think that would be their first reaction," Pugh replied, "but I think we could successfully negotiate with them, negotiate what we're going to do.  There's been some talk about possibly going after what's called a segmented project, and maybe include the generator issue you've probably heard about.  We don't know where that's going to go.  But again, that's something we could negotiate with the DEQ; try to get something a little more reasonable."

He said that the segmented approach would allow the BPU three additional years to piggyback on this project without the need for additional studies to be done, giving the utility the flexibility to simply implement the items removed from the new change order, then contact the DEQ to report the implementation.

"I think that would be the best approach, to negotiate that.  And see, we have that ability right now to have that type of relationship.  If you were to receive an executive order to do the work, it would be a little bit different scenario; be a little more difficult; you wouldn't have all the flexibility you have right now."

"So far, the Board has done an awful lot to satisfy the DEQ, and made a lot of progress in quite a short amount of time."

Referring to the previous two power outages and the last outage's causing of a 70,000-gallon spill of raw sewage into the St. Joseph River, Pugh elaborated, "There hasn't been an issue with the generator, as far as I know.  I've been involved since, like, 1992 or so.  I don't know-- the last two things happened so close together.  I don't understand exactly how that happened.  There are other options to talk with the DEQ about; the kinds of safeguards you could have in place and things you could change."

Asked for a timeline, Pugh said the project will take about 22 months.

"What'll happen is, we will get the information into the DEQ, and then we would wait about six weeks for all the gears to turn in Lansing, and then about the middle of September, there should be a loan closing, and then shortly thereafter, we can issue a notice to proceed to the contractor, and then the contractor will start.  Right now, we're kind of anticipating start of construction October 19th of this year, and completion on August 13th of 2017."

Jim White then took the podium to address the bond ordinance issue.

White said that since there were no petitions filed by the public during the referendum period earlier this year, the City Council can now take it up without a public vote.  The bond ordinance authorizes the city manager and the city finance director to approve and sign paperwork related to the bonds.

The bonds are not to exceed $7,615,000, though the exact amount slated for approval by the state is not yet known.  They will be repayable over 20 years at 2.5% interest, and amortization is expected to commence in 2018 and extend through 2037.

He specified that these bonds are only payable from revenue generated by the sewer system.

"This is a bit of a departure from what the city has done in the past.  The last few issues that have pledged revenues from the sewer system have also pledged revenues from the water system.  This ordinance is kind of intended to be sort of a first step so that sewer system finances are only paid for by sewer system revenues.  The same would be true if you had a need in the future occur in the water system, that only water system revenues would be pledged to water system improvements."

White said that another aspect to that first step is that there are still outstanding annual returnees on bonds issued in 2009.  Once those are dealt with, all prior bond ordinances for the water and sewer systems no longer apply.  This wastewater treatment plant bond ordinance would lay the groundwork for future ordinances in regard to water and sewer being separate financial matters.

In regard to the state revolving fund, White said a credit rating was required.

"S&P issued their decision today, and the city does fall within the investment-grade category."

As a result of that assessment, White says his firm believes that an additional pledge of full faith and credit will not be necessary in order to procure the requested funds.

Asked why the bond ordinance allowed for more than the estimated cost in the current change order, White answered that the figure was based upon the original base estimate with an additional ten percent as a "safety cushion."  However, the amount in the ordinance is merely a high limit for the authorization, and the actual amount loaned to the city will be determined by the state.

"The timing of all of this is such with the state," he said, "that we can't wait to get final number for the bond issue and then adopt an ordinance with everything all set.  Some of these last series of dates, you don't have a lot of time to react between those dates."

The third action item consisted of standard form paperwork that would be filled out and sent to the state.  White said that also includes a provisionary resolution authorizing the city manager and financial manager to sign a pledge of full faith and credit if that is, in fact, deemed necessary.

"We don't do this as part of the bond ordinance because the bond ordinance has to be published, and we don't want to publish all these extra documents," he said.

All three present board members voted in favor of presenting the items to the City Council at their later meeting.

At that later meeting, only Councilperson Brian Watkins was absent and was excused.  Councilperson Mary Beth Bail was also retroactively excused for her absence at last Tuesday night's joint meeting with the BPU Board.

The plant was the primary issue of the night, and the most discussed.  The Council unanimously passed the resolution to receive the recommendations from the BPU Board, which allowed them to take up the three items in the Board's packet.  Pugh and White both remained in the gallery to make their presentations to the City Council, most of it the same as what they presented at the earlier meeting.

After Pugh's comments on the resolution to award the construction contract, Councilperson Sharp took the lead and confirmed that Pugh's firm was responsible for the study to determine necessary upgrades.

"Just recently, we had a spillage, supposedly, in the river.  Why wasn't there a plan in place for a generator to be put in there to prevent this from happening in the first place?"

Pugh reiterated that he's been involved in plant projects since 1992, that this has been discussed before with the DEQ, and that this latest incident surprised him.

"There may have been some better ways to deal with it," Pugh continued, "and I think [Interim BPU Director Nate Rusk] has come up with some good ideas to make some simple system changes, basically the way power's fed and also using an existing generator; a small one, it's not capable of handling the entire plant, a small generator.  It would basically pump the sewage in and then pump the sewage out.  Generation at least for your treatment."

"In general, the outages have been fairly short in duration over the last twenty-some years.  There is some storage capacity in the inlet, plus the 24-inch line that carries the sewage has some storage capacity in it, and I've calculated that, but I think that's helped in the past to not have these incidents."

"Generators are quite expensive," he added, "and the plant has three feeds coming in, so you can't put a single generator there and handle the entire system.  You need to put in at least two to handle the inlet works and the main treatment system.  The third one serves mainly the digester, so I suppose we could leave that alone."

Pugh estimated that each generator would have to put out about 500 kW of power, and each generator would cost $500,000.

"We felt the funds were better used in other areas of the plant, more critical areas involving treatment every day."

"So when the DEQ possibly comes down here and could possibly fine us for this," Sharp pressed, "and they're going to wonder what was the plan in place.  Because we sat with the BPU Board last week.  It was mentioned that we produce a million gallons of waste... is that correct?  Basically?  The only plant in the state of Michigan that produces a million gallons of waste that does not have a generator for that purpose.  Would you say that's correct?  This is coming from the guy in charge down there at the wastewater treatment plant."

"I don't know for a fact that that's true," Pugh replied.  "I know other plants have used dual feeds, had power fed from two different areas.  The issue is, when something happens, someone has to physically go out and throw switches."

"Right, but this did happen; we were without power for four hours and had a discharge in the river," Sharp asserted.  "We've had other power outages before, but we've always sidestepped and gotten lucky.  This past time, we weren't so lucky.  And that's my concern, we should have something in place to make sure we have our bases covered this next time."

City Manager Mackie threw in that he's been asked a lot of question over the last couple of weeks, particularly pertaining to this issue.

"I do agree with Jeff and Nate that there were some operational issues there that lent itself to this particular issue," Mackie said.  "The idea of power generation equipment there has been discussed with the DEQ in my understanding.  It was just felt in the past that our ability to reroute power within our system from different areas was sufficient enough to handle it."

"We also have a portable generator down there," he clarified, "that could potentially move between treatment stations.  That was not utilized during this time, and we had issues with the rerouting of the power.  I don't want to say that it was kind of a perfect storm, but there were a number of issues that lent itself here."

Mackie went on to inform the Council of the segmented construction process that Pugh had mentioned at the earlier meeting, which would allow this immediate project to deal with the issues that the DEQ has been most concerned with for the largest amount of time, then allow the city to address additional issues down the road, which could include the power generation issue.

"Jeff and I had a discussion over the last couple days about the last 90, 120 days of issues we've had, and that's probably something that would be wise for the future.  But that is something we are actively talking about, that is making the DEQ aware that we want to pursue this segmented relationship where they will allow us to add it to our SRF [state revolving fund] project without going through another process.  So we are addressing it.  We're also addressing the operational issues."

"So you're saying we have a standard operating procedure?" Sharp asked.  "If something happens, this is the policy we're going to do from now on, from this point forward?"

"Absolutely," Mackie replied.

"So do we have assurance that this won't happen again?" Councilperson Adam Stockford asked.

"I can't guarantee anything," Mackie answered, "but I can tell you this: that Nate, I, the supervisors in the particular departments, we had a meeting to discuss the issue, as the DEQ has sent us a number of correspondence via e-mail.  So they want to see it addressed, we want to see it addressed, and I'm drilling down to the specifics of operational plan, an emergency management plan, to make sure it doesn't happen."

"In this situation, there were some basic issues, simple issues, that probably could have prevented it."

The resolution to approve the construction contract was approved by a unanimous vote.

Jim White once again took the podium to make his presentation on the bond issue and reiterated much of what he'd said at the earlier meeting, with most of the same questions and answers.

Councilperson Patrick Flannery, however, asked a couple of questions that had not yet been brought up, starting with the rating from S&P.  Paul Stauder of Stauder, Barch & Associates, who worked with White on that aspect, took the podium to answer.

"Standard and Poor's didn't actually sign a rating; they were asked to do an assessment of the credit, because the cost of having the rating assigned would have been about 40% higher, and it's already a pretty expensive process.  So we simply asked them, if the issue were rated, what category it would fall into, and it came in at low investment grade."

"So around triple-B, probably?" Flannery asked.

"It would be, probably, in the high triple-B range.  They like everything they see.  The one item that they thought was a little bit below average was the liquidity of the system, meaning you don't have a lot of idle cash within the utility system.  I think that probably would have put it up into the A category."

Councilperson Emily Stack-Davis had asked earlier about why this particular sewer bond issue had been split from the water finances, and Stauder took the opportunity to address something sbout the matter that hadn't been stated previously.

"From a historical perspective, the water and sewer utility were combined.  They were operated on your books as a combined system.  It was often done back in the early days when the utilities were created in order to enhance credit and attract bondholder interest.  As history has gone on, the city has developed the practice of separating those utilities.  Right within your audit report, you maintain separate assets on both sides, separate revenues, expenses and so on.  And so it's sort of just a natural transition; you have an opportunity here, because the old bonds are nearly matured, to get rid of the provisions of the old ordinance, separate the systems as they already are in practice, and then move ahead on that basis."

"It makes sure, in the end, that water system customers are not paying for sewer system improvements and vice-versa.  In the end, when you have these separate utilities like this, separate pledges of revenue, that can't happen."

Councilperson Flannery asked if there were any unusual covenants that the city has included in this bond agreement, and Stauder replied that there were none at all.

"Very, very typical, common covenants made under a sewer revenue bond ordinance."

The bond authorizing ordinance passed unanimously.

Jim White again described the third resolution as approval for the city manager and city finance manager to approve and sign documentation for the project, including the possible additional pledge of full faith and credit.  That resolution passed unanimously, as did the statement of work detailing the plan to be implemented by Fleis & Vandenbrink in their execution of the project.

Later in the night, other BPU issues were addressed, beginning with an upgrade to the Internet connection provided by the Michigan Merit Network.  Currently, the city's service plan allows for 10 megabytes per second (MBPS) of bandwidth, but combined usage of the city's connection between various departments has been anywhere between 8 and 18 MBPS, forcing the city to pay undesirable overage charges.

This upgrade will change the service plan to allow for 25 MBPS of bandwidth at a current base cost of $250 per month.  That cost will vary due to the expiration of existing credits applied to the city's Merit membership, eventually resulting in a monthly fee of $330.83, but by the time that amount comes into effect in December of next year, that cost is estimated to be less than the cost of the overage charges and the 10 MBPS contract.

The City Council voted unanimously to pass the new contract.

The BPU also sought approval of a contract for inspection of and possible removal and disposal of bottom solids from a 200,000-gallon fuel oil tank at the city's Baw Beese Lake electricity generating plant.  The plant is currently inactive, but the city is preparing to bring the facility up to regulatory requirements for emergency power generation should the grid lose its power from outside sources, which has not been done since the Northeast blackout of 2003.  The resolution in question would authorize an inspection of the tank and testing of its contents for contamination at a cost of $19,966.

City Manager Mackie opened discussion by relaying that the BPU Board, when voting to send this matter to the council, did not know the amount of fuel still in the tank or how much it would cost to have it cleaned out.  However, an estimate had come back in the time since, determining that there are about 15,000 gallons currently in the tank, and that removal and disposal of it would cost approximately $6,000 in addition to the base cost of the inspection and testing.

Councilperson Sharp asked when the plant was last brought online, and Interim Director Rusk replied that it was brought online last year for testing purposes.

Councilperson Stack-Davis asked for clarification on costs, in answer to which Rusk explained that testing the integrity of the tank and the viability of its contents was included in the base cost of $19,966.  The additional $6,000 is for removal and disposal of the fuel currently in the tank if it is contaminated.  Rusk said the fuel can be used if it's not contaminated.

The council voted to approve the contract unanimously.

On the following item, the BPU's request to purchase several pieces of fiber networking equipment, Councilperson Adam Stockford asked why there were no price comparisons besides the total cost of $47,892.95 given in the summary.  Rusk explained that the equipment was found online rather than through a bidding process, so price comparisons were not necessary.  City Manager Mackie also noted that the BPU's initial budget for these purchases was $100,000, so the savings were significant.

The council approved the purchase by unanimous vote.

The council also unanimously approved the purchase of a new transformer that will supply underground power to McIntyre Dorm on the Hillsdale College campus, replacing a section of overhead lines that are inaccessible due to their path through Slayton Arboretum.

In other council business, City Manager David Mackie reported that the state will be sending the city roughly $95,000 divided over the course of four quarters for the 2015-2016 fiscal year.

"It's not a whole bunch, but every bit helps," Mackie said.

The Code Enforcement Office submitted a report updating the status of 25 properties under their watch.  While no recommendation was made for council action, the staff's report stated that they are "working with legal counsel to determine the best method to obtain court order to bring properties into compliance where the owner has not been willing and/or able to do so and the violations are presenting a public safety concern."

While Code Enforcement had headlined 55 S. Broad Street in their report -- a property that has been posted unsafe since 2009 with no improvements made other than mowing the grass -- Councilperson Bruce Sharp pointed attention toward a different pair of properties.

"58 and 60 [N. West Street], those are the ones that concern me the most.  One's a meth lab they had in the house, and the other one is owned by the same gentleman.  We keep approaching him and he keeps putting stuff on the back burner.  He keeps trying to push it off, push it off.  I hope that we would just say enough's enough and move forward and do what we have to do to get this cleaned up, because they're two big buildings, and there's animals living in there, all kinds of issues going on there that are not savable as far as it's concerned."

"I know we've been pushing hard on 55 S. Broad Street," Sharp continued, "and that's just another pain in our side, but the lady is making some efforts.  But the other one over here at 58 and 60, he just keeps playing games with us, and I would like to see something resolved on him soon.  Because he owns more than just those two properties; I believe he owns six properties in the City of Hillsdale."

"I know they're working on it, but I would like to see something done soon with him," Sharp said.

The Code Enforcement report states that 60 N. West Street has been posted as unfit for occupancy since 2014 due to structural and sanitation violations.  The owner claims to have contacted the county inspector for what the report refers to in quotes as "final" inspection, but has not obtained any permits for repairs.

During discussion on city clerk and treasurer issues, Councilperson Adam Stockford took the opportunity to remind the public that Tuesday, August 4th is the date of the election in which voters in the City of Hillsdale will decide whether to keep the city clerk and city treasurer positions elected or change them to appointed positions.  A "yes" vote means they will become appointed positions.  A "no" vote means they will remain elected positions.

Two respective resolutions were presented to approve the Community Development Block Grants for both 42 Union Street and Stock's Mill and to authorize the mayor to sign and submit the related paperwork for each.  They were passed unanimously at the appropriate time, however City Clerk Michelle Loren was notified later in the meeting that no resolution numbers had been assigned as required, so the two issues were voted on again at that later time with the same results, and the appropriate resolution numbers were assigned to each item.

The council voted unanimously to schedule two public hearings for their regular meeting on August 17th.

The first is for an amendment to the city's parking ordinance.  In light of current and anticipated Rental Rehab projects in the city's central business district, the Planning Commission formed a committee including members of the commission itself, the Department of Public Services, the Hillsdale Police Department and the Economic Development Department, and that committee came to the conclusion that the city should expand overnight parking spaces downtown to be utilized by new tenants.

The second public hearing is for an amendment to the city charter to alter the language governing the Board of Review.  The current charter language does not reflect current state statutes and terms of office, and language has been added to the state law to allow cities to adopt an ordinance changing the membership and manner of appointment of the Board of Review without holding an election to change charter language.

Assessor Kimberly Thomas wrote in her report that the ordinance will address three specific issues:

  1. Under the current charter language, Board of Review members are appointed in April.  State Tax Commission approved training for Board of Review members is generally scheduled by the county, the Michigan Townships Association and other organizations in January and February in order to accommodate membership terms beginning in January under the statute for general law townships, thus Hillsdale's Board of Review members serve through both the July and December meetings without having received any formal training.
  2. Current charter language limits membership to three consecutive terms of one year each, which gives Hillsdale Board of Review members only three years maximum in which to serve in that position.  Statutory appointments are two-year terms, which would give Hillsdale Board of Review members six years to serve before they reach their limit; an advantage to both training and finding willing appointees.
  3. Current charter language does not provide for the appointment of alternates, which presented a specific problem this spring when the Hillsdale Board of Review has one member out of town and another member in poor health.  This being only a three-member board, it is essential to have alternates available to serve if needed.  Statute for general law townships allows for appointment of up to two alternates and provides cities with the option to create up to three separate Board of Review committees should the need arise.

Again, both of those public hearings will be held at the City Council's regular meeting on Monday night, August 17th at 7:00 PM in the council chambers.

The council also voted unanimously to approve the application for a Neighborhood Enterprise Zone certificate for a new residence to be built at 216 N. Manning Street by William and Janet Brodbeck.  This property lies within the newly-created Neighborhood Enterprise Zone #2, which the council established at their meeting on June 1st.

The council voted unanimously once again to approve the 2015 National Functional Classification Resolution, a decennial report to the Michigan Department of Transportation mandated by federal law.  This report lists any changes to the functionality of the street system, such as ingress or egress to new developments, industrial or commercial facilities and similar projects.  There were no such changes in the City of Hillsdale, and this report will reflect that fact.  The background on the agenda item, prepared by Department of Public Services Director Keith Richard, also notes that no such changes occurred under Hillsdale County's jurisdiction either, and the Hillsdale County Commission passed this same resolution at a recent meeting.

In final matters for the evening, the City Council appointed Eric Moore to the Planning Commission, filling a vacancy for a term that will end in November of this year.

In a somewhat humorous moment, some off-topic discussion resulted from a bit of confusion between the Stock's Mill CDBG re-vote and a wedding in Stock's Park that the council had approved in the consent agenda.

Councilperson Stockford asked if the city offered a discount for rental of the park to city residents.  City Clerk Michelle Loren, who also serves as the director of the Recreation Department, replied that the fee is set by the Community Development Committee, and that it's a flat rate for all applicants.  Stockford suggested that the council should look into changing that.

Councilperson Sharp added that he was on that committee when the rate was set, and pointed out that it's simply a flat rate to act as a security deposit.

Councilperson Stack-Davis politely interrupted to state that this should be discussed during the council comment period, and the matter was dropped.  Most of the discussion already having taken place, it was not brought back up during the council comment period.

In his report, City Manager Mackie had several issues to inform council of:

  • The land purchase contract for the new 911 facility should be finalized this week.
  • Union contract negotiations also begin this week with three unions, including those representing employees of the BPU, the police department and the fire department.
  • Advertisements have been placed and submissions will be accepted through July 31st for the position of City Attorney.
  • The Fields of Dreams Late Summer Classic takes place this weekend featuring 10U and 12U teams.  All proceeds will go to Fields of Dreams improvements.
  • Signup for football will be taking place in August.

Mackie also said that, as suggested by the City Council, he's contemplating the formation of a five-member review board, himself included, to assess the state of the Board of Public Utilities.

"I want to make sure that everyone understands that this is not a simple task, because this is a big business entity and a critical part of the community.  So it's something that I'm not taking lightly, as we're looking into the audits and the finances and the operations, and it might require a third-party evaluation to determine the cost as we're thinking forward."

"The key here, as with any business that you're potentially looking at putting on the market and selling is getting it in the best position possible for evaluation.  I think that, though some of these things that have happened over the last week or two have been negative in regard to the operation and the community, it's actually shined a light on some of the deficiencies that, once we get them addressed and get things operating well again, it will help with the value of the operation."

"Those are all things that need to be taken into consideration, and my hopes are that, maybe at the next meeting, we'll look at some names for the council to take into consideration on this committee."

Mackie stated that his desire would be to see the committee populated by someone from the City Council, someone from the BPU Board, and someone with a financial or accounting background, as well as someone from Economic Development to bring a business-oriented outlook to the table.

And in the council comment session, Councilperson Stack-Davis asked about the city's dealing with Jay Easterday, who was taken to court for cutting down a city-owned tree in the right of way despite the tree posing a public hazard.  City Manager Mackie said that the city has submitted a resolution to the court that he believes will be favorable to both Easterday and the city.  Councilperson Stockford clarified later that the matter had gone to court, and Easterday requested a payment plan, which is the arrangement that Mackie was describing.

Councilperson Sharp had two points to share.  Firstly, he addressed garbage left on the curb by residents thinking that the city has street-side pickup service.  He made it clear that the city does not have street-side pickup service, and that these items need to be dealt with accordingly, not left in the right-of-way for others to collect.

Secondly, Sharp mentioned that the council had planned on setting up a meeting with City Manager Mackie to outline job goals, and while making it clear that he wanted to give the new manager a month or so to get his feet wet -- to which Mackie jokingly replied "in more ways than one!" -- Sharp said that such a meeting should be discussed soon.

The soonest opportunity for that discussion would be the City Council's next regular meeting on Monday, August 3rd at 7:00 PM in the council chambers at Hillsdale City Hall.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Duke Anderson's Leeroy Jenkins Moment

At the risk of sounding like those theocrats whom I'm constantly shaming, I have to ask this question (even if I do so with tongue planted firmly in cheek):

Could it have been divine intervention, the power outage and subsequent 70,000-gallon raw sewage overflow, providing us with some damning evidence for last night's joint meeting between the BPU Board and the City Council?

The Lord works in mysterious ways.

Honestly, what are the odds?  Lightning takes out the entire grid and massive amounts of sewage get dumped into the St. Joe through an overflow pipe that isn't even supposed to be there.  What are the odds that those things would happen on the very day of the special meeting at which the Council would draw the lines clearly for its subordinate public utility advisory committee?

Let's put this all together into the proper context, shall we?  This meeting was called because the BPU Board, after being told in no uncertain terms that their beloved super drunk superintendent wasn't going to be coming back, hired an attorney to find a loophole.  Don't let them lie and tell you otherwise, that's exactly what their motivation was, and they damn well know it.

Keep in mind, when Rick Rose's proposed new contract was still on the table, we were told by then-Interim City Manager Doug Terry (and the Board themselves at the Open Meetings Act violation -- ahem, sorry, "previous special joint meeting;" that's what I meant to say there) that, essentially, Rick was the BPU, that without him the entire operation would fall apart, and God forbid any major issues should arise when he isn't there to oversee things, because Rick Rose is The Man For The Job®.

Disclaimer: "The Man For The Job" is a fully registered trademark of The Hillsdale Good Ol' Boy Network and is used without permission.  All rights reserved.  Void where prohibited.  Your mileage may vary.  Member FDIC.  Consult a physician before beginning a Rick Rose regimen.

Of course, pressed further -- toward the end of that very same OMA violation -- Terry and company were begrudgingly forced to admit that, well, no, the place wouldn't just fall apart the moment Rose's contract ended; that there might kinda sorta may be some people there who, you know, actually run the place from day to day, and, I dunno, maybe they might know a thing or two about what they're doing.  I guess.  Maybe.  We'll see.

Well, hey, guess what?  We got a chance to see!  Sure enough, we had two massive related system failures after Rose's departure -- through no fault of the people who currently work there, mind you -- and amazingly enough, they got resolved in a timely manner!  It's a miracle!  Hallelujah!

Or maybe, you know, it might have been the employees doing their jobs, which in no way required Rick Rose to be the man in the office making the decisions.  Could that be a plausible scenario?

Nah, let's go with the miracle explanation!  It better reflects the Good Ol' Boys' narrative!

Now, some might argue that the sewage spill in particular is a sign that Terry and the Board were right; that things did fall apart without Rose's oversight.

Lose that notion right now.  This is the mess that Rick Rose left behind.

Do you have any idea how many times the Department of Environmental Quality has had to step in under Rose's watch and tell the BPU to, quite literally, get its shit together?  The water treatment plant has, for years, been an environmental disaster just waiting to happen.  That it happened after Rose left was only a freak matter of sheer chance.

While funding was never sufficient to fix the problems that he knew existed in one fell swoop, Rose could have at least made some progressive repairs.  Instead, he cut corners and let the system become a dilapidated mess that is essentially impossible to fix and needs to be entirely replaced right this very minute.

No, we don't have the money to do that, either.

And get this: the reason why the back-up generator didn't kick on?  That's because there is no backup generator at the wastewater treatment plant.  The following fact was made mention of several times at last night's meeting: we are the only city in the entire State of Michigan with a wastewater flow of one million gallons or more that does not have a backup generator on site at its treatment plant.

So what have we relied on all these years?  Power routing.  Apparently, the grid has been set up so that the treatment plant can be fed from any one of five substations in case the one it's on goes down.

The problem Tuesday morning was that, when lightning hit the main substation for the city, it ran along the lines and fried three other substations as well.  The only substation that didn't go down was the Industrial Park.  There was no way to shift the feed from there to anywhere else, so thus, we got the nightmare disaster scenario we just went through: the backup to the backups failed, and the river is contaminated as a result.

The impression that the current BPU employees are under is that the DEQ had been satisfied with this setup for all these years, but that satisfaction had suddenly changed back in May, when they warned Rose after there had been a two-hour power outage and possible danger of overflow.

I'm not so certain that that impression is wholly accurate.  I get the feeling that the DEQ had warned Rose about it many times before, but being on his way out, this was the one that Rickie chose to actually be honest about.  Because the word of Rickie J. Rose isn't so trustworthy these days (more on that later).

For the record, no spill happened back then, but the BPU Board was told last night that regulators essentially told Rose at that time that we either get a backup generator NOW or there was going to be hell to pay.

Taxpayers, make no mistake about it: after Tuesday morning's fiasco, you will be paying that hell.

This is also Doug Terry and the current BPU Board's legacy.  Rose was their man.  The proposed new contract for him contained glowing praise about his character and professionalism.  Character and professionalism does not result in 70,000 gallons of  human waste in one of the Midwest's most important watersheds.  And yet, that's what Rose's leadership (such as it was) has led to.

Both Terry and the Board sought to be his enablers.  They fought a power struggle with the City Council because they wanted the man responsible for this environmental disaster -- and make no mistake about it, this is an environmental disaster, don't let anyone try to downplay it to you -- to keep his job despite what is turning out to be decades of mismanagement and lying.

Yes, lying.  Lies of omission, outright lies, lies by way of intimidation... all of that addressed in passing by Councilperson Bruce Sharp at last night's meeting.  I've been hinting at it for weeks now, but there are people out there who have been keeping silent for many years about what kind of boss Rick Rose really was.  You're going to be hearing stories in the time ahead that reveal a reign of terror-enforced mediocrity, and if you think it stopped at just withholding information from the BPU Board, may I remind you that he threatened to murder four councilpersons.

Oh, and on that note, the Michigan State Police kept it hush-hush and quietly decided that, well, dear old Rickie didn't really mean it, he was just venting his frustrations.

I have to question whether or not the MSP's investigation went as deep as his ex-employees who are starting to ask if it's safe to come out of hiding yet.

And then we have the driving force behind all of this within the BPU Board, Duke Anderson.  You may recall my pointing that out to Board President John Waldvogel in my article last week.   Anderson was the most vocal at the previous joint meeting.  He's been quoted by the Daily as their go-to guy on the topic, furthering the impression that he had taken the leadership role for himself.  He certainly has no compunctions about breaking the law, following the ever-popular "better to beg forgiveness" model in his federal antitrust case as Hillsdale Community Health Center's CEO.

Yet he was mostly silent last night, save for a point of contentious clarification on the director search process.  In fact, he's been mysteriously quiet ever since the antitrust suit came to light.

Don't believe for a second that it's for lack of time or desire.  I get the distinct impression that someone somewhere is telling him to get wise and shut the hole under his nose before he incriminates himself any further.

Are you familiar with the Leeroy Jenkins video?

Let me give you a brief description.  It's a viral video of a group playing the online computer game World of Warcraft, in which these players have all teamed up to complete a difficult mission.  Strategies were formed, weapons and rations were handed out according to each player's strengths and weaknesses, and the group was almost ready to set out on their task.

Then came a whooping "LEE-ROOOOOOOOOOOY JEEEEEEEEENKIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINS!"

The player who unleashed the greatest battle cry of all time rushed into the room where the creatures that the group was planning to attack were located, and was promptly slaughtered.  This, of course, caused all the rest of the players to completely lose their minds, rush after him in a disorganized attempt to salvage the mission, and fail miserably.

And after everyone's characters had died and they had all thoroughly condemned Leeroy for his ruinously impulsive act, Leeroy replied with a full mouth, "At least I have chicken."

It is widely considered to be one of the funniest gaming videos in the history of ever.

This has been Duke Anderson's Leeroy Jenkins moment.

Over recent months, we've seen Anderson attempt to assert his own authority within the Board itself and the Board's authority against the City Council.  He made a misguided attempt to rush into battle, and he was shut down not only by the Council that he was attempting to attack, but by his corruption coming back to bite him as the hospital's antitrust case unfolded and he was clearly at the center of it.

In the last few weeks, the rest of the BPU Board attempted to take hold of the situation, and it did not go well for them at all.

As I mentioned last week, Waldvogel seemed to take the lead on the issue in Anderson's silence -- and whether that was his choice or Anderson's, only they can tell you.  But don't take it any other way; there was absolutely a shift of leadership there.  Waldvogel has been the board president all along, so for that shift to occur and put the responsibility back where it should have been this whole time speaks volumes.

New City Manager David Mackie, on his very first day on the job, called the Board's bluff.  He and the Council agreed to review the legal analysis of the Board's authority and, just as everyone on the correct side of this literal and figurative power struggle already knew to be the case, it determined that the Board did not have any further hiring and firing authority than the immediate daily operation of the utilities, that the City Manager -- with the Board's guidance, but not the Board's decision -- had sole hiring and firing authority over the BPU Director position, and that the City Manager's decision is subject to Council approval, not the Board's.

I honestly wish I had been there to see the looks on each of the BPU Board members' faces as they read that analysis yesterday morning.  It had to be the political equivalent of Maury Povich saying, "You ARE the father."

Yes, my desire for schadenfreude must go unfulfilled... but for good reason.

Councilperson Adam Stockford said it best last night when he stated that mistakes were made on both sides of this tiff, and while he made it clear that he in no way regretted voting down Rose's contract, he also went out of his way to apologize for any wrongdoing beyond that point on his part.

I'll add my two cents here and say that I don't believe he has anything to apologize for, but it was a show of good faith from him -- and other members of the Council, as well -- toward the BPU Board, an acknowledgement that communication and cooperation has been lacking between the bodies.  Which it has.

But that show of good faith went unanswered.  Waldvogel's simple response was, and this is a complete and direct quote, "I look forward to working with you in the future."  No apology for failing to take the initiative and ask around the BPU as Sharp had done.  No agreement that communication had been a problem.  Nothing.

The Board members should have admitted their own failures in trusting Rose's word and not asking any questions beyond his stonewalling (which they've even admitted in the past was a problem).  But that didn't happen.  In fact, Waldvogel found that one solitary sentence to be so appropriate to the situation that, when Stockford asked if he wanted to elaborate further, he said it again.

"I look forward to working with you in the future."

In other words: damn it, Leeroy.

Anderson, in his one moment of active participation for the whole night, attempted to correct the Council out of his own misperception.  It seems he thought that the call for transparency in the hiring process was the Council's attempt to subvert the Board's advisory authority, and he defiantly asserted that that was the Board's purview in cooperation with the City Manager.  Mackie reiterated that the process called for he and the BPU Board members to work on the search and bring the suggestions to the Council, who will then vote on them.

Anderson replied "That's correct, but..." and went on to put in his own words what Mackie had just said, finalizing his statement with, "Ultimately it's you who brings the information back to the City Council."

In other words: at least I've got chicken.

Even toward the end of the night, the Board members were defiant.  Bob Batt refused to even acknowledge that such a problem existed!

"I'm a little surprised to hear that there's a perception that there's some kind of animosity between the City Council and the Hillsdale BPU," he said.  "I don't think there is, from my perspective as a BPU member.  We have some disagreements, we're working through them, I think they've been cordial if not back-slapping friendly.  I think we'll continue to look forward to move forward.  I don't consider there [to be] any animosity whatsoever."

He added that he wouldn't speak for everyone on the Board, but all three other present members interrupted him right then and there and whole-heartedly agreed with him.  Just sweep it under the rug and forget about it, eh boys?

That's not going to happen here.

While the Council, City Manager and the Board need to make a full-faith effort to work together in the days, weeks and months ahead, I feel far more confident about the Council and Mackie's willingness to do so than I do about the BPU Board's.  No one needs to be pretending that the last few months simply haven't happened, and I'm already getting the sense from several people on the Council and Administration side that they're not happy with the Board for doing just that.

And if the Good Ol' Boys think that David Mackie is going to be just as easy to push over as Doug Terry was, I'd encourage them to take a look at what has happened just in the single week he's had the job!

  • He believed that the legal analysis that the BPU ordered behind the Council's back was going to go in the Council's favor, so he suggested that they reverse their decision to ignore it.  He was right.
  • He suggested a joint meeting to discuss that and moving forward with the BPU Director search.  That's what we just had last night.
  • He stood up to a wrongfully defiant Duke Anderson and essentially sent the message, "quit trying to take charge here; I know what I'm doing."

The guy is quickly proving he's not an insider and he's not going to take their crap.  Quite literally, in this case.

Frankly, the next step is to remove Duke Anderson from the Board of Public Utilities.  His conflicts of interest abound, not the least of which being that he's Mayor Sessions' boss at the hospital.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not charging Sessions with any sort of conspiracy there, but I'm pointing out that the connection is seriously concerning.  If the City Council votes to remove Anderson -- or even to reject a Board suggestion that had been championed by Anderson -- how can we expect Sessions to contradict his employer?  God forbid he cast the deciding vote!

Anderson has proven that he has no regrets about anything that he's done wrong and no qualms about continuing his behavior -- both on the BPU Board and at HCHC.  One has to wonder how long he'll continue in either of those positions, but the one we have control over is his seat on the Board of Public Utilities.

It's time we remove him from it.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Is this what progress feels like?

We got through an entire city council meeting with no controversy.  This fact has me questioning just what universe I'm living in at the moment.

No, seriously!  There were no Open Meetings Act violations, there was no need to define elementary school-level words used in the city charter, there were no arguments over what difference a changed date made... this isn't the Hillsdale I know!

Oh, I'm sure I picked up on a few passive-aggressive verbal barbs here and there.  Nothing out of line, but just some interesting phrasing that could have been taken as references to some recent events.  I won't say who directed what at whom, but if you've been paying attention, you can probably guess with some accuracy.

And yes, I snickered once or twice over them.

Now don't get me wrong: I don't credit Doug Terry's departure for this.  At least not entirely.  Lew Loren has been just as much a cause of trouble in the recent scandals that have plagued Hillsdale's city government, and I get the feeling that his retirement, while not necessarily triggered by the public attention, was certainly accelerated by it.

His demeanor at Monday night's meeting was one of... I can only call it indifference.  It was up to Council.  You could do it either way.  Doesn't make any difference to his life.  He was completely relaxed in his chair with a palpable air of nonchalance about him.  He has nothing to lose, so why should he pretend otherwise?

But I think we all know what everyone really wants to hear about: new City Manager David Mackie's first night on the job.

My first impression was simply this: he's off to a good, positive start.  Granted, he had relatively little background on any given issue coming into the meeting, so there wasn't much for him to really speak up about, but he was paying attention, taking it all in, watching it all unfold in front of him.

Or, in this case, to the sides of him.  If you're unfamiliar with the council chambers' layout, the room is divided roughly in half by a banister.  On one side, at the front of the room, you have the U-shaped council table.  On the other side, you have the gallery, including the desk for the media to the left of the podium and the desk for the city clerk and attorney to the right.

Doug Terry used to sit at that right-side desk.  David Mackie sat at the council table.

It appeared to be a show of goodwill.  It felt like he was part of the team, not sitting opposite the team.  There didn't seem to be any presumption in it.  On the contrary, it came across that he wanted to work with the council, not just for the council.  We'll see if the seating arrangement remains that way when we once again have all nine council seats occupied, but I don't see why he shouldn't be right there with them at that point, too.

One other thing that (really shouldn't have) impressed me was that, when the time came for the city manager's report toward the end of the evening, there were no grand, illustrious flourishes of language.  Mackie simply, respectfully addressed his concerns to the council -- in this case, about the BPU situation -- and gave his suggestions for how to move forward.

He was assertive, but not forceful.  I didn't get the sense that he was going to blow his top if someone disagreed with him.  He merely made his case, respectfully answered any questions asked of him, and that was that.

It was truly refreshing.

We'll have a lot more to go on in the weeks and months to come, and I'm certainly not going to jump up and down and shout "THIS GUY IS AWESOME!" just based on one meeting, especially not his first meeting.  But for the first time in the few months I've been attending them, I came away from a Hillsdale City Council meeting thinking that we might just be okay.

As to the suggestions themselves, I was very pleased both by what they were and that he brought them up.  The council had decided several weeks ago to schedule a joint meeting with the BPU board, but they never actually scheduled it.  They knew they wanted to include Mackie in the process of hiring a new director, but whether or not that was going to include the joint meeting was never addressed, and it wasn't on Monday night's agenda at all, either.

Mackie took the initiative, and the meeting has finally been scheduled for Tuesday the 14th at 7:00, prior to the BPU's regular meeting, in the council chambers at City Hall.

But that wasn't all!  City Manager Mackie also suggested -- and the council agreed -- that the city should receive and review the opinion of the attorney that the BPU board decided to hire behind their backs.  Which says to me -- and I've been getting some not-so-subtle hints from various directions leading up to this -- that said legal opinion is not what the Directors of the Board of Public Utilities hoped it was going to be.

Which reminds me of that little article in the Daily a few days ago in which BPU Chairman Jon Waldvogel said he'd pay for the lawyer out of his own pocket if that was the issue.

Jon, man to man: we both know that's not the issue.  C'mon.  Really.  Don't do fellow board member Duke Anderson's dirty work for him.  You're better than that.  We all know Duke was leading the charge there.  He wanted Rick Rose in place.  God only knows what little deal the two of them had going on, and don't you dare deny it, either.  If Duke was violating antitrust laws as hospital CEO to the tune of a five-grand-plus federal lawsuit, he is not above skirting the law in regard to his other duties.  He doesn't belong on any board any longer, and you don't need to be covering for him.

I'm very interested to see how this all plays out.  The directors had Terry and LewLo on their side.  Now Terry's gone, Loren's retiring, the directors are reeling, and the public and members of the council are collectively rather pissed off at the whole lot of 'em.

Has it been worth it, gentlemen?

No, I'm not gloating.  I'm not even taunting.  I'm genuinely asking: when each of these individuals went into their respective roles in this farce, what personal gain were they expecting to get out of it?  Because they sure as hell weren't doing it as a public service.  Deceit doesn't serve the public.  So there had to be something they were hoping to achieve for themselves.  In the end, they're getting nothing but disdain and loss of authority.

So has it been worth it?

Spare me the "there are two sides to every story," naysayers.  In the past week I've heard conspiracy theories, counter-conspiracy theories, and a few cases of outright nonsensical gibberish.  I've had people demand to know my sources -- as if they don't understand that the phrase "anonymous sources" means I'm not telling you, my mother, or anyone else.  I've been badgered by people who think they've got it all figured out, and they left frustrated because I wasn't having any of it.

Because it's pretty frickin' obvious that I'm right.

And I'm not tooting my own horn, because I'm not alone.  Countless others came to these conclusions long before I did.  Hell, in the grand scheme of things, I'm just settling in here!  But I'll tell you this much: I may not be the mostest intelligenty guy in the world, but I'm fairly well-off in the brain department.  I know when something's off-kilter, and it doesn't take me long to figure out who, what, when, where or why, because I never stop asking questions.

Seriously, ask my mother; it made raising me a bit of a nightmare.

What was most heartening to me was the fact that the gallery seating in the council chambers was almost full Monday night.  Many people stuck around after the earlier meet-and-greet event, and it was the biggest crowd I've ever seen in that room.

Of course, I'm sure that there were many among them whom we won't see at City Hall again for a long time to come.  Meeting the new City Manager is kind of like Midnight Mass: everyone goes to their church on Christmas Eve, but come any given Sunday morning, most of them are still asleep.

(No, I'm not without fault, either.)

We in the broadcasting industry call that a "look-in audience."  They're tuning in to see what it's all about, and there's always a falloff in the ratings for the next episode.  The trick is in maintaining as many of the listeners or viewers as you can, and this is no exception.

No, I'm not suggesting that the council should vote a member off the island at the end of every meeting... though that'd sure be entertaining.

What I am suggesting is that, while this may not be The Greatest Drama of All Time (that title is reserved for Hamlet), it is something to engage yourself in.

In fact, the council just approved a Planning Committee framework for encouraging the citizens to participate in City Hall's governance of growth and development.  It's aptly titled the "Citizen Participation Plan."  It's a good step forward, and it's a sign that the city administration wants to listen to you when they're making their decisions.  Don't pass up the opportunity.  Grab it and make use of it.

This is the progress we need to be making, and I can't deny it: it feels good.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

MACKIE HITS THE GROUND RUNNING AT HIS FIRST COUNCIL MEETING

Elected officials and the general public alike arrived at Hillsdale City Hall early Monday night for a meet-and-greet function to introduce themselves to newly-hired City Manager David Mackie, and many of them stayed for his first Hillsdale City Council meeting afterward, nearly filling the gallery in the council chambers.

For the council, it was mostly business as usual.  All councilpersons were present except Emily Stack-Davis, who was excused.

In opening public comments, concerns were raised about the future of the Hillsdale Board of Public Utilities in light of the closing of the Endicott Generating Station in Litchfield.  Jeff King of the Airport Advisory Committee noted that the committee had been left out of the Citizen Participation Plan, and requested that it be added.

Several major matters of business were on the agenda, beginning with the departure of City Attorney Lew Loren, effective August 15th.

After Mayor Scott Sessions read Loren's letter of resignation, Councilperson Brian Watkins expressed his appreciation for the attorney's service, joking "I understand why you're going, and I would retire today if I could myself."

Councilperson Adam Stockford also thanked Loren, and asked if, were it appropriate, the city attorney could suggest names for consideration as his potential successor.

"It's my understanding," Loren replied, "that there will be either a committee to research it or a committee as a whole of council, serving as a committee of the whole, and at that time, if the committee requests that, I certainly could do that.  But I hesitate to do that right now publicly, because I might be putting somebody in the line of fire that really doesn't want to be there."

"Sure," Stockford responded.  "This is not something that you just give to the lowest bidder, so I appreciate that."

Included in the meeting's agenda packet was an e-mail from Mayor Sessions to City Clerk Michelle Loren, forwarding a message from City Attorney Loren with suggested next steps.  Among those options were sending the matter to the Operation and Governance Committee, forming a special committee, or the entire council taking on the matter as a committee of the whole.

Sessions stated in that e-mail, and reiterated in person at the meeting, his desire to be included in the process, as the city charter gives the mayor appointment authority and gives council authority of approval for that appointment.

"A committee of the whole," Councilperson Bruce Sharp began, "I would feel a lot better after the mess we went through with the city manager, and we had three or four applicants, and we didn't see any of them until the very end.  And the flak we caught on that from the public was not... enjoyable at times, when we had to say, 'well, we didn't know who the other people were.'"

"I feel a committee of the whole would be better suited," he continued, "because that way we all have involvement in it.  It may take longer, it may not; it's just, put the applications out there, we'll see who's interested and go from there.  I'd feel more comfortable having Lew involved in it, too."

Watkins added his support for either a special committee or a committee of the whole, noting that a committee of the whole would be preferable, but it might be difficult to align everyone's schedules.  He also added his desire to include City Attorney Loren in the process.  Councilperson Sally Kinney also voiced her support for a committee of the whole.

Councilperson Patrick Flannery cited time constraints as the basis for his suggestion to create a special committee.

"I don't think there's a lot of time before August 15th to get this through, and we started looking at how many weeks to allow the RFQ [request for qualifications] to come back, time to be able to review them properly, to interview some of the candidates.  It would be extremely difficult to get something, someone in place before August 15th, and we only have one meeting in August before August 15th."

"I would suggest a subcommittee of three," Flannery continued.  "You [Mayor Sessions] would be the chairman of that committee, and that here at this meeting, we set clear expectations of what we would expect out of that committee; whether it be a list of who the people are who applied, whatever people want out of that."

"I think that would have been extremely helpful to me as a member of the O&G Committee, because frankly, when we went into it, we had no guidance from council on expectations, and it would be helpful if, here, we set that."

Councilperson Stockford wanted some clarification on that timeframe, asking if there was a rule similar to the 60-day limit for interim city managers found in the city charter.

"It was my understanding that, at one time, Lew had said that he did work when he was asked to do work, so is the city attorney an everyday job, or is this just something that we could go to a local attorney when we needed them if we're spending a little extra time trying to find the right fit?"

"If you would do that on a temporary basis," Loren replied, "you could do that, but you surely don't want to do that on any kind of long-term basis, because there's a whole range of problems that arise with continuity of involvement.  For instance, there's a pending real estate contract right now that's going back and forth, back and forth, and the history of that is important to know."

"There's not any magic in August 15th," he added.  "I just tried to pick a date that would accommodate Council some.  I didn't want to do a 30-day notice; I thought that that was awful short, so I kind of pushed it out a couple weeks.  The council meeting after August 15th is August 17th, and you could certainly go through a city council meeting without having a city attorney present.  It's not a requirement for the city attorney to be present at the city council meeting, it's just a good idea."

Councilperson Sharp followed up that thought.

"It's a good idea because of questions we might have.  Regarding something that came up in the past, a couple council meetings ago, when we were approached about Open Meetings Act violations or something like that, it kinda put us in an uncomfortable seat.  At the time, we didn't know what the answer was, so we treaded lightly."

"Whatever firm we do consider hiring," he suggested, "make sure they have some form of legal representation here for us every time we have a council meeting so we cover our bases.  That's my only concern; I just want to make sure we don't misstep across that boundary."

Mayor Sessions then asked Loren if he would be willing to delay his resignation date until the first week of September or on an as-needed basis.  Loren said that if the council requested that, he would do so.

"I've been doing this for the city for 44 and a half years, and a couple weeks here and there really isn't going to change my life one way or the other," he added.

Councilperson Watkins reiterated the need for timeliness and responsibility, and moved to use the council as a committee of the whole to start the process as soon as possible.

Councilperson Flannery requested clarification on the structure of the process, which Mayor Sessions explained was simply that the council, as a committee of the whole, would make recommendations to the mayor, who would then present his decision to the council for approval.  Watkins added that, upon the success of the vote he moved for earlier, the mayor should begin the process with Loren.

Sessions pointed out an RFQ form passed out to the council and requested that they note any changes they would like made to it.

Councilperson Sharp had one such change already, suggesting that the requirement for the city attorney to be at all committee meetings would be costly to the taxpayer, and that the language should be changed to state that the city attorney should be at all city council meetings instead.  The mayor clarified that the form came straight from the Michigan Municipal League web site, and that it could be changed to reflect that.

The final timeline decided on was that all changes to that form would be presented to Mayor Sessions by July 10th, at which point he, City Manager Mackie and City Attorney Loren would review the changes, then send out or otherwise make the form available to law firms responding to ads placed in the media.  Additional discussion would take place at the regular council meetings on July 20th and August 3rd before an appointment is made, if possible, on August 17th.

That vote passed 6-1 with the lone dissenting vote coming from Councilperson Flannery.  The subsequent vote to accept City Attorney Loren's resignation passed unanimously.

Public hearings were held for the economic development projects involving Creative Constructs, Inc. at 42 Union Street and Marvo Properties, LLC -- the property ownership branch of Mar-Vo Minerals, Inc. -- at Stock's Mill.  No action was deemed necessary, but the hearings were open for council questions and public comment.  Economic Development Director Mary Wolfram made those presentations.

Councilperson Sharp brought up the possibility of the state legislature passing a road funding bill that would soon cut funding from economic development resources.

"Actually," Wolfram replied, "I have their assurance that because we got in under the wire and we have that letter of intent, which we received for this project back in December, that that funding is secure.  So for both of these projects, we have a letter of intent, and that is secure."

"They're going back and forth about where they're at on that;" she followed up, "whether they're going to write any more letters of intent.  We have projects sort of in the pipeline, and that's a great judgment call as to whether we're going to move forward with those projects and hope they get funded or drop the ball, and there's been a lot of discussion, but right now, we're covered for these two."

Councilperson Stockford had a question about statistics included in one of the application forms, quoting a few portions that drew his attention.

"'In the City of Hillsdale, 10.3% of the general population lives in poverty.  15.7% of residents over age 65 live in poverty.  Overall, 25.2% of populace makes less than $15,000 a year.  Over 17% do not have a high school diploma.  Unemployment is higher in the City of Hillsdale than in the county, the state, or the nation.  The median household income is lower than in the county, the state, or the nation.  The number of residents with disabilities is higher in the City of Hillsdale than in the county, the state, or the nation.'  And so on and so forth.  Those are very disturbing statistics to me."

"They are," Wolfram agreed.  "We are in the process of updating the Master Plan, which would be the document that this came from."

"Just so you know, we're kind of in a funny moment in time in this Master Plan, community development plan, because we're in the process of redoing it," she continued.  "There's been Planning Commission meeting after Planning Commission meeting on updating the plan, and there's going to be a public hearing on that new plan."

"Some of those statistics are not far off," she concluded, "and it is unfortunate, and it's something we should really all be concerned about."

Planning Commission Chairperson Laura Smith stepped up to the podium briefly to clarify that the current Master Plan, having been passed by the council in 2008, contains figures from the 2000 census, however some crosstalk between Smith and Zoning Administrator Alan Beeker might suggest that the figures in the Master Plan come from a more recent American Community Survey, which the United States Census Bureau conducts continuously between census years.

Wolfram clarified that whereas the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) application for 42 Union Street was specifically designated to deal with blight, the application for Stock's Mill was for a CDBG grant to help create jobs.  While the statistics are decidedly negative, they are presented to prove to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, who administers the CDBG program, that there is a genuine need for this type of grant in our community.

Mar-Vo Mineral owner David Wheeler took the podium to address any questions the council had, and Councilperson Sharp led things off with his gratitude for someone doing something with the mill, asking Wheeler what the next step was.

"We're real excited about getting in there," Wheeler replied.  "We're in definite need.  Our growth rate is continuing and we're really pressed for space, so it's just a matter of going through the processes; the environmental reviews and stuff."

He added that the process has taken longer than he had anticipated.

"We originally had a purchase agreement with [current property owner] Dr. Horton for seven months, and I thought that that was plenty, and that expired, so we've rewritten it, he re-signed it, for quite a liberal length of time that made sure it was covered.  As soon as the ink's dry, we want to be in there renovating."

Wheeler went on to say that Mar-Vo is too busy manufacturing product to simply shut down and move immediately, but that once things slow down in November or December, the moving process will begin, allowing them to be ready for January or February of 2016 when things pick back up again.

"It's exciting, and it's definitely what we need," he added, "and I think we can make something happen there that sorely needs to happen."

Sharp asked how many jobs Mar-Vo plans to create, and Wheeler replied that they're committed to creating four at first, but the company's growth rate has been in excess of 30% over the last four years.

"This will enable us to develop new products," Wheeler explained.  "That [growth] has been almost exclusively our deer mineral product.  We've developed two more products.  One is actually completely ready to go.  Tomorrow, the first load of packaging is coming in."

"The potential is for a lot more than those four jobs," he concluded, "but I'm very comfortable with those four happening within the time frame of the next two years."

With the public hearings closed, Laura Smith once again addressed council, this time to give the Planning Commission's annual report.  She summarized the activities of the commission over the past year, including fifteen projects, four planning reviews, and a Michigan State University Citizen Master Planning course taken by the commission, which she encouraged all city government officials to take themselves.

Smith also addressed the city's Master Plan, which she noted is to be updated every five years.

"Last time the Master Plan was done was in 2008," she explained.  "We began the update when there was a lot of turnover in the city, and when we returned to doing the update, we decided that it didn't just need a minor revision as we had originally planned, it needed far more of a deep revision, especially since so many of us had gone through the master planning course and had a lot of ideas that needed to be implemented in the city."

"We are very familiar with the statistics, some of those that Mr. Stockford brought up, with the socioeconomics of the city and the needs of the city, so we really needed to take our time to add all of those factors that help the city in grant writing, that could the city to acquire dollars that would help us in the best way.  That would help us to really put a plan together that could be measured."

"In the past," she continued, "the Master Plan did not have measurable goals, and as well know, a goal needs to be achievable, attainable and measurable.  So we decided that we needed to rewrite the Master Plan goals so that they were achievable."

"Hopefully, Mr. Mackie will have a very nice Master Plan to work with, and it will hopefully open up many doors for the city."

Smith announced that the public hearing for the new Master Plan will be Tuesday night, the 21st, at 5:30 in the council chambers at City Hall.

Councilperson Stockford asked Smith about some zoning changes made around the college campus, and Smith explained that much of those changes were done through changing legal definitions, which led to the use of form-based code.  She expressed her desire to see the entire city eventually transition to form-based code.

Alan Beeker stepped up later to explain that form-based code is a presentation-oriented method, verbally describing the look and feel that a zone should conform to rather than strict usage definitions of residential, commercial and industrial.  He added that this is much better suited to mixed-use properties or zones.

Councilperson Flannery asked what the commission had coming up after the Master Plan is passed, and Smith replied that the Master Plan itself breaks down all of the goals within it into timeframes within which those goals should be accomplished.  She stated that roads are one of the primary issues, as well as the aforementioned form-based coding transition, and continuation of site planning projects already on the list.

Smith came back to the topic of the Census statistics once more.

"I think it's important, when [the Master Plan] comes out, that Council reads the statistics.  I think we need to know those income levels so that we can be honest.  I think we need to know that we have citizens that are living in poverty so that we can think, 'how do we help?'  We have a civic responsibility as citizens with one another and neighbors.  This just isn't an issue that is about an ordinance [solution], this is neighbor helping neighbor."

The remaining items on the agenda were mostly brief housekeeping issues:

  • The council voted unanimously to appoint City Manager Mackie as the city's FOIA Coordinator.
  • After clarification that her term ended with the departure of former City Treasurer Susan Arnold, the council voted unanimously to reappoint Katy Price as Deputy City Treasurer.
  • Once Mayor Sessions added the Airport Advisory Committee to the text on the earlier request of committee member Jeff King during public comment, the council voted unanimously to pass the Citizen Participation Plan.
  • The council voted unanimously to name Mayor Sessions the duly authorized representative of the city to sign the MEDC application, sign contracts with the MEDC, and sign all grant payment requests for the projects at 42 Union Street and Stock's Mill.
  • The council voted unanimously to approve Gary Wolfram for an additional term on the Economic Development Corporation, effective for six years until July of 2021.

The final major issues dealt with came during City Manager Mackie's report, which he began by thanking the mayor, council, staff and citizens for his appointment.

"I think this is a great opportunity.  As Laura Smith had indicated, this is a good time to be in Hillsdale.  There are a lot of good things going on, and I'm proud and excited to be a part of that."

Mackie brought up two issues, beginning with the joint meeting between the Hillsdale Board of Public Utilities and the City Council.  The discussion was mostly centered around scheduling and what would be most sensible in terms of timing in relation to other meetings.

The council voted unanimously to hold the meeting on July 14th at 7:00 before the BPU Board's regular meeting in the council chambers at City Hall.

The second issue Mackie raised, related to the first, was the opinion of the lawyer that the BPU Board had independently hired to review their authority as given in the city charter.  That opinion had been placed on hold indefinitely by the City Council, as the BPU Board did not have the authority to use city funds to hire the attorney without council approval.

However, Mackie stated that it was his understanding that the attorney had done most of the work already, and he trusted the lawyer's independence, expertise and professionalism, so it was the City Manager's suggestion that the council receive and review that opinion in preparation for the upcoming joint meeting.

The council voted unanimously to receive and review the opinion.

In the final public comment session, District 1 Hillsdale County Commissioner Ruth Brown thanked City Attorney Loren for his years of service and welcomed City Manager Mackie before announcing a law enforcement training course being put on by the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Hillsdale County.  That will take place at the Hillsdale Intermediate School District facility on September 23rd, and is free for law enforcement and dispatchers.

Dennis Wainscott announced his write-in candidacy for City Council in Ward 1.

Councilperson Sharp took the opportunity in the council comment session to address an e-mail received from Holly Carpenter about equality in children's sports and health concerns related to an incident she had experienced at Fields of Dreams, and thanked Key Freese for addressing Carpenter's concerns.

"Do girls matter?" Sharp seemingly quoted a question from the message.  "Yes, they do.  Everybody's equal in this town.  Sports or otherwise, they do matter."

"Also," he shifted focus, "it's good to see there's more than one person running in the 1 Ward.  We actually have, what, two people now in Ward 1?  And one in Ward 4 so far.  I hope we get more people involved."

"It's not easy sitting in this seat," he advised.  "You are under the line of fire.  You have a bullseye on your back if you're not careful what you say and what you do.  Always remember what you say -- my wife's always taught me, remember what you say; what comes out of your mouth, because you will be held accountable when you say it."

"So, many times, you see me here with a dumb look on my face, because I'm not gonna say it, 'cause I can hear that voice in the back of my head telling me 'don't you say that!'  It's a hard job sitting here.  But you do your research and you ask your questions on a lot of thing that have been going on around here lately, and I've done that, and I've found out a lot of things, and it's an eye-opener being on council."

"It's not an easy job," he concluded, "and it's a thankless job at times, but I enjoy what I'm doing, and I'm gonna do the best I can as long as I'm on council."

Mayor Sessions thanked all involved, and the meeting was adjourned by unanimous vote.

The next regular city council meeting is Monday, July 20th at 7:00 in the council chambers at City Hall.

The joint meeting between the Hillsdale City Council and the Board of Public Utilities is Tuesday, July 14th at 7:00 in the council chambers at City Hall, to be followed by the BPU Board's regular meeting.

CORRECTION: This article previously stated that Councilperson Bruce Sharp had thanked City Clerk Michelle Loren for her help in addressing Holly Carpenter. We have since learned that Councilperson Sharp directed his gratitude to Kay Freese. We apologize for the error.

Friday, July 3, 2015

HILLSDALE'S LEGAL COUNSEL TO RESIGN

Hillsdale City Attorney Lew Loren has tendered his resignation.

In a letter to Mayor Scott Sessions dated June 30th, Loren writes that he is retiring from the practice of law.

"I have been in the process of closing my law practice for some time now," the letter states, "and this process has reached the point that it is now necessary for me to terminate my legal relationship with the city."

The letter gives an effective resignation date of August 15th, 2015, but Loren adds that he will step down if his successor is appointed before then.

Loren's resignation letter is contained within the agenda packet for the upcoming regular City Council meeting.

Also included in the packet is an e-mail from Loren to Sessions, forwarded within an e-mail from Sessions to City Clerk Michelle Loren, detailing the responsibilities for finding a new legal counsel for the city as according to the city charter.

In the forward, City Attorney Loren points to Section 4.9 of the charter which states that the Mayor shall appoint the City Attorney with the approval of the Council, implying that council participation is necessary in the selection process.  He goes on to say that Section 4.14 "specifically states that the Mayor and Council shall appoint a City Attorney for an indefinite period to [sic] shall serve at their pleasure."

The attorney concludes that the selection process could be referred to the city's Operation and Governance Committee, which he says is the only standing committee that "seems to fit."  He goes to say that the council could also form a special committee, or the issue could be referred to the council itself acting as a committee of the whole.

In the message from Mayor Sessions to City Clerk Loren, Sessions asks the clerk to include in the agenda packet his recommendation that the matter be referred to the City Council as a committee of the whole.

The matter will be discussed at the City Council meeting on Monday night, July 6th at 7:00 PM in the Council Chamber at Hillsdale City Hall.