By Rosemary K. Otzman
After members of the public took part in an enthusiastic work/study session opposing updates to the Van Buren Township Board Meeting Rules of Conduct, the board decided to remove the item from the agenda for the regular meeting on March 5.
VBT Supervisor Linda Combs said the board was listening to the people and will reconsider some of the changes proposed.
Members of the audience at the March 4 work/study session especially opposed cutting the time allowed to speak from the present 4.5 minutes (one 3-minute speech, followed by a 1.5-minute speech) to 3 minutes for one time only.
“I have major heartburn on this,” said John Delaney, who had called a roomful of friends to attend the work/study to speak out against the changes.
Delaney said all the questions and answers will end up at the work/study.
“There is no time to debate,” said Clerk Leon Wright. “You’re not a participant … we’re participants. You are allowed to comment.”
Delaney started reading from a Michigan Township Association bulletin.
Trustee Brenda McClanahan cut in stating the board members need to talk to each other to come to consensus.
Trustee Reggie Miller said the MTA says that the meeting is the board’s meeting.
“You have elected us to represent you,” said Supervisor Linda Combs.
Two attorneys were waiting for the board to go into closed session to discuss a letter to Visteon, so the board wanted to suspend the work/study so they could meet with the attorneys and then come back for more work/study.
Some of the people in the audience who had come to discuss the changes objected to them shutting down the meeting and leaving.
Ernie Tozier said he was against limiting citizens to three minutes, when developers come in and talk for an hour.
“That’s not fair and I’m paying your salary,” Tozier said.
Supervisor Combs said, “In all fairness, I have not watched the clock since I’ve taken office … but we have to have some limits.”
Clerk Wright said there are other avenues to talk to board members and he is not likely to change his mind at a board meeting. He said he needs the information before the meeting.
Clinton Anton of Belleville said he received a phone call earlier that day about these changes and he read a prepared statement, saying he taught Robert’s Rules of Order for 30 years.
The board then went into executive session, coming back later to discuss the subject further.
At the next day’s regular meeting on March 5, Combs announced the changes would be reconsidered.
During public comment Delaney said the public is getting less and less time to come up and speak in other townships, too. He said the changes would give VBT speakers “only one bite of the apple no matter how many items are on the agenda.
Delaney said Dr. Lou Bennett taught a session through the Michigan Township Association saying that the board meeting is only about board members and “we get to watch but have very little say-so … Audience participation is being taken away.”
Delaney said he likes to comment, “but it’s not about me … This isn’t about me. It’s a freedom of speech issue.” He said this is being “mis-taught” through the MTA, noting other publications of the MTA have audience participation as a prime focus.
“We listened to the people and we are going to reconsider some items,” Supervisor Combs said.
“I’m glad the brakes got put on,” Delaney said, adding that otherwise there would be some major issues “litigation-wise.”
Combs said to Delaney, “Some people say they don’t attend meetings because you, sir, monopolize the meetings.”
Ruth Bleeker, who lived in VBT for 40 years and then 27 in the City of Belleville, complimented Combs on the way the meetings are being run, but added, “You were elected to serve us.” She urged them to continue with the present 4.5 minutes.
Sandy Croswell said three to four minutes is not enough time and meetings should be for everyone. “Please don’t shut the people out.” She said Delaney gets requests from people to speak for them.
Ernie Tozier was back voicing his concern of limiting residents and even the 3 minutes followed by 1.5 minutes isn’t enough, especially when you have a laundry list of issues to discuss. He said sometimes the planning commission and board members are cheerleaders for developers.
“Even if we need to rant, to vent, you watch the clock” and then are glad when we are done, he said. He paraphrased Clerk Wright who said, at the previous day’s meeting, “If you think I’m going to change my mind at a board of trustees meeting, you’re wrong!” He said he was saddened when nobody on the board said that was not true.
“You’re here to help us and protect us,” Tozier said.
“You’re absolutely right,” Supervisor Combs said, noting the policy is being reconsidered. She said everyone on the board has an open-door policy.
Tozier said he spent a couple of hours with someone on the previous board to explain his concerns about the Hoosier project and the board member then said he was relying on the planning commission and no homework was done.
“We’re counting on you,” Tozier said. “… We have to live with the results of that.”
“Be assured, we will listen to you,” Combs said.
Reggie Ion also spoke against the 3-minute limit which gives the impression it’s for hushing them up. He said during the Hoosier discussion, the Planning Commission chairperson kept hitting people with the time limit. Ion said he would like to see her step down.
Dave Frankling also spoke on the present Rules of Conduct that originated in 2007 to shut people down. He pointed out that “chiding” is not permitted and then explained that the word means “gentle rebuke.” It’s illegal in the current law and should be taken out. He spoke of other aspects of the 3-minute rule.
Mac Black said he has lived in VB for 46 years and wants the board to listen to the residents.
Pam Ruff of Canton asked about why there are no new meetings on the township’s Live Stream and Combs said the cable director had surgery and when she comes back to work they will be on.
Also at the March 5 meeting, the board:
• Approved Supervisor Combs’ reappointments of William Osier and G. Frank Bellomo to the Construction Code of Appeals Board with term to expire Feb. 28, 2016;
• Approved Supervisor Combs’ reappointments of Charles Coleman, Mark Duff, Harold Gant, Kimberly Nofz, and Tammy Wall and the appointment of Sam Villa to the Recreation Committee with terms to expire Feb. 1, 2014. Villa fills the position of Ralph Nodwell who did not wish to be reappointed. Villa is a life-long resident of VBT, attended BHS and EMU and has a Master’s Degree in Education. He currently is employed by Van Buren Public Schools as a physical education teacher;
• Approved the second reading and adoption of Ordinance 2-19-2013 to amend the Township Zoning Ordinance pertaining to storm water basins and landscaping design standards;
• Witnessed Clerk Wright read a proclamation honoring Eagle Scout Jeffrey Scott Neal for his work to clean up and improve Tyler Cemetery; and
• Was informed that the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) awarded the Merit Award to VBT’s Water System Improvement Project, which included the water tower, lake crossing water main, new water main, and water main control valves..
In the middle of the March 4 work/study session, the board went into closed door session with two attorneys to discuss “privileged written opinion letter concerning Visteon.”
Pay for lodging?
Also at the work/study session, Treasurer Sharry Budd complained about Clerk Wright asking for payment for Michigan Township Association conference lodging at the Marriot Ren Cen for $348.66, plus MTA conference meals of $37.68.
Budd said she wanted to pull the Voucher List out of the Consent Agenda and put it farther down in the meeting so she could vote against it.
Budd and Trustee Jeff Jahr said at the budget sessions last year board members discussed payment for conferences, which is allowed under the policy. Jahr said they decided no one would get paid for nearby conference lodging.
“We’ve never paid for anything that close before,” Budd said.
Trustee Reggie Miller said she stayed downtown and incurred expenses because they didn’t get out until late and she didn’t know her way around Detroit.
“I paid my own,” Budd said, noting it was only 25 miles from home.
“Two years ago I stayed and I paid for my conference,” said Jahr. “I agree with you … I find it very difficult to drive back and then get up early and drive back.”
But, Jahr recalled, “We were not going to ask the township to pay… I didn’t turn in my expenses.”
Wright said in the past, he had turned in his expenses and it was a big deal, so last year he didn’t go. He said in the past he and Trustees Ostrowski and Partridge rode together in inclement weather and there was almost an accident.
“I refused to do that again,” Wright said, adding, “I totally disagree with not paying. Anything for elected officials should be reimbursed.”
He said the MTA convention is only once a year and he doesn’t go to any other conferences.
He said next year’s conference is in Traverse City. He pointed out if he’s not the clerk, he’s not going to be at the MTA.
“At the budget preparation hearing, we said we wouldn’t pay,” Budd insisted.
Wright read the township policy on reimbursement and noted they did agree no out-of-state travel would be approved.
“I won’t be going to meetings that I need for my job at my own expense,” Wright said.
“I agree but … it’s part of my duties as a trustee,” Jahr said. “I paid for it. I made the option to stay downtown … I thought we were all in agreement.”
Trustee Brenda McClanahan said it should be in writing and, “If it’s in writing, we’ll understand.”
Trustee Phil Hart said they all agreed they weren’t going to reimburse for lodging. He said the weather was bad but he drove back and forth.
When Jahr said to pull the payment for Wright’s lodging, Budd said it’s has already been paid since it’s on a credit card.
“I can pay it back,” Wright said, noting, “It will hinder me in going to events.”
“Then, you pay for the room and board,” Budd insisted.
“We need to revisit this,” Trustee Miller said.
“We didn’t think we should pay township dollars,” Budd said. “I drove in the rain, in the snow.”
Miller said, “Anyone I’ve ever worked for paid for staying the night for work. This is work.”
“We have a policy in place that we pay,” Hart conceded.
Supervisor Combs said they should adhere to the policy and change it in the future, if desired.
“At the budget hearing we said we don’t pay,” Jahr said. “I said I’m going to pay for my own and I did.”
“Unless we have something in writing, we’re just talking,” Trustee McClanahan said.
“I don’t know how we cannot do it,” Supervisor Combs said.
“We have money in our line items for training,” Hart noted.
“When we discussed it, we said we wouldn’t do it,” Jahr insisted.
“We have to follow policy,” Hart said.
“You want to be jailhouse lawyers,” Jahr groused.
Jahr said a number of officials from other communities were not staying overnight at the conference because they weren’t paid for lodging.
“If this is going to become an issue, I’ll reimburse,” Wright offered, noting if anything happens on the way to a conference, it’s too late.
“We need to discuss this as a board and put something in writing,” McClanahan said.
By Rosemary K. Otzman