“It could have been settled over a cup of coffee,” said Belleville attorney Barbara Rogalle Miller during Monday’s special meeting of the Belleville City Council called to consider ousting a new planning commission member.
After 45 minutes of discussion, the council voted 5-0 against removing Bob Balderston from office.
Last Thursday, a letter to the editor of The View was published and on Friday Mayor Richard Smith called Monday’s special meeting to remove the letter writer from the Planning Commission.
Mayor Smith appointed Bob Balderston to the Planning Commission in late January and the February planning session was his first meeting.
His letter in The View, “Put the brakes on the Streetscape projects,” was signed “Bob Balderston, Belleville Planning Commission Member.”
The signature was what drove the mayor to take steps to remove him from the non-paid, volunteer position. Mayor Smith said the signature appeared to indicate Balderston spoke for the Planning Commission, which he didn’t.
This was the latest of three letters that Balderston had published recently.
On Friday, a uniformed police officer came to Balderston’s door, bringing him a letter asking for his appearance before the council.
If he had not attended the hearing, it would have been an indication of his resignation, he was told.
Balderston faced the council for his hearing before an audience of seven, as city attorney John Day read the formal charges against him for malfeasance in office.
The formal charges had just been distributed to council members and Balderston before Monday’s meeting.
Balderston opted to hold his hearing in public session, although Day told him he had the right to a closed session.
Balderston told the council he couldn’t believe that he was appointed, made one infraction, and then was slated to be removed, an action he said he believed was a foregone conclusion.
No one had called him or visited him or pointed out they were unhappy with his letter-writing before he was summoned to this public hearing for removal, he said.
The official charges quoted the city’s Code of Ethics, Section 2.3 (B): “An official employee shall not represent his or her personal opinion as that of t he City, its administration or the department for which he or she works.” Also, Section 2.6 of the code provides that a violation of the Ethics Code constitutes misconduct in office and shall be grounds for removal and discharge.
Balderston protested that he was not an “official employee” of the city since he received no pay and Day said the written charges had a typographical error and it should say “official oremployee.”
The charge, prepared by Day, read: “On or about Feb. 18, 2010, a letter to the editor was submitted to The View signed by ‘Bob Balderston, City of Belleville Planning Commission.’ In said letter, you commented on an issue which had yet to be presented to the Planning Commission. You further held out an opinion of your own as that of the Planning Commission, indicating that the Commission had reliable data as to the public danger posed by such signs, and that opposing data would be ‘less convincing’ and ‘biased’ and not in keeping with the ‘general public’s well being.’ The opinions expressed in your letter represented a denial of Due Process to the participants coming before the Planning Commission and could potentially expose the Commission and City to unwanted litigation and potential liability.”
Balderston protested that the source for information in his letter criticizing plans for a LED message board at Main and High streets was a 2007 study of the National Transportation Safety Board and nowhere in his letter did he say the Belleville Planning Commission has evidence. He said Day misquoted him.
Day asked if he had the NTSB study with him for proof and Balderston said he did not have the 591-page study with him. He did not know the charges against him until he arrived.
Balderston asked when the council came to a decision to hold a meeting to remove him and Mayor Smith said it was his decision, made on his own.
He said the meeting was called the day after his letter appeared in The View calling for putting the brakes on the streetscape and Mayor Smith said that had nothing to do with it.
Balderston said he was raised in the South and “am used to kangaroo court justice.” He said he has been praised in public and criticized in private.
He asked if every time he disagrees with the mayor is he going to be harassed by the police? He said the mayor “took disturbance” at one thing he did and then police appeared on his doorstep.
Balderston said he committed no act of slander, sabotage or other action against the city, except to disagree with some actions.
Balderston said he has a First Amendment right to write letters to the editor to voice his opinions and he put his membership in the Planning Commission at the end to “add credence to my thoughts” and the council will not find any malice in his writings.
He said after agreeing to serve in a volunteer position, he has been called to “a most humiliating public forum.”
“He could have called me any day of the week to talk about this,” Balderston said of the mayor.
He emphasized that in the letter he said he was a member of the planning commission and, “I’m not the Planning Commission.”
John Juriga, a member of the Planning Commission, said he has found that if you want to become a process of change, “you do it up there,” referring to a seat on a board or commission. He said Balderston’s letter led him to read the March 3 issue of the New York Times on the subject of signs and to become better informed.
Attorney Barbara Miller, a long-time volunteer and 16-year member of the Downtown Development Authority, said to Day, “This hearing is ill-advised.”
She said they are being a little too quick to rush to remove Balderston from office.
She said Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was removed from office and this “small breach” by Balderston does not call for the humiliation of this public hearing.
Miller said it was outrageous for this person who served ably as a volunteer to be put before the public, to “bite him and say it was improper is horrible… It could have been done over coffee.”
Mayor Pro Tem Rick Dawson stressed that as an official Balderston has to go along with the city’s Code of Ethics.
“You’ve been to one meeting and wrote three letters,” Dawson said.
“As a whistleblower, no one is liked,” Balderston replied.
After Dawson said he wasn’t a whistleblower, Balderston said he noted two things: 1. “I denote hostility,” and 2. “You don’t like my opinion.”
He said this hearing was a court just brought about to humiliate him.
Dawson and Balderston continued an exchange that got louder and was silenced by Councilwoman Kim Tindall with, “Point of order. Please, gentlemen.”
“I will go along with your Code of Ethics,” Balderston stated.
“I have no problem with you having an opinion … I think it’s great you write letters,” Tindall said. “But, it’s potentially perceived that you represent the Planning Commission…”
Balderston said The View made a typographical error in the way his letter was signed and Day challenged him to prove it. Balderston said it was home on his computer.
“I’m sorry you feel this council is trying to quiet you,” Tindall said, adding there are people like the person on her left (Dawson) who fought for your right to speak out. “But, you can’t represent your opinions as those of the Planning Commission.
“I walked in agreeing with Mrs. Miller,” Tindall continued. “When you wrote your first letter, I thought someone would say something to you … maybe it should have been me … and they didn’t and then the second letter and the third… You can tell people you’re on the Planning Commission… it’s a fine line.
“I think this could have been handled a lot better,” Tindall said. “You can speak, but you don’t represent the Planning Commission.”
“The mayor already decided what would happen,” Balderston said referring to his ouster and Tindall replied, “He’s only one man.”
“If I’m [removed and] a private citizen, am I still subject to humiliation and harassment?” Balderston asked.
“You took your appointment and it went south,” Dawson said, adding Balderston bashed other committees.
“Doesn’t he have a right to write a letter to the editor?” Tindall asked.
Attorney Day said that Balderston says the council is charging him with writing letters, but the official charges are for one letter that indicates a prejudice and represents he is acting as the Planning Commission.
“I’m not trying to stop your freedom of speech,” said Councilman Jim Shrove. “Just don’t sign as a Planning Commission member, only as a private citizen.”
“I think this could have been handled differently,” said Councilman Brian Blackburn. “It could have been in closed session and, if it had been me, the first thing I would have said after the door closed is, ‘I’m sorry.’ I have no problem with your letters … but you have to follow the rules.”
Mike Windiate, president of the Main Street Merchants Association, said with Balderston being a new member of the Planning Commission, it would have been better to just call him in and talk to him.
“It’s natural for him to be defensive,” Windiate said. “It should have been addressed two letters ago … We all have manuals. Maybe he didn’t understand it.”
Day said the council has a choice in how to handle the situation. It has discretion.
“Whether this particular infraction qualifies for removal, is up to you,” Day said. “If in your heart you feel this qualifies for removal… If you feel it’s shall, mandatorily, then vote that way.”
Windiate asked if the code of ethics applies to everyone with the city and he was told it does.
Balderston said the code is 1,000 pages and he’s been in the military so he has no qualms complying with a Code of Ethics.
“It’s the humiliation factor and not being told in advance…” he said.
After the public hearing closed, Councilman Shrove asked Balderson about his letter writing.
“I will not write as Planning Commission,” Balderston replied. “I have no hostility to anyone here … I was brought forth in a manner that was humiliating to me.”
When the mayor asked for the board’s pleasure, Dawson made a motion to remove Balderston from office, seconded by Blackburn, then everyone voted no.
Dawson noted Balderston is still on the commission and will write letters as a private citizen.
Balderston was born in a small town, in upstate New York, which he describes as small as Belleville; his father served 21 years as a enlisted man in the U.S. Air Force, and the family settled in the Tidewater/Hampton Roads region of Virginia. He lived there for more than 24 years before coming to Michigan 12 years ago.
He served a brief period of time, as an enlisted man in the U.S. Navy, and spent most of his adult life in the management fields. He is a member of the Belleville Area Council for the Arts and has been an artist all his life. He has published two books of cartoons and has many copyrights to his works.
Balderston has two independent blogs on the automotive industry and said he has a feeling, he will be starting another one based on public/government work as well.