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.