That was my official statement (which the COLDNews received but never used Friday afternoon) drew up after a panel made up of County Probate Court Judge Jeff Nellis, County Treasurer Andrew Kmetz, and County Clerk Cheryl Kelly comprising the Mason County Election Commission held a clarity hearing Friday (August 4) morning at 9 PM in order to determine whether this reporter's recall petition language against Ludington City Councilor Les Johnson was sufficiently factual and clear. As you can likely infer from the statement and the excitement of President-elect Truman, the tribunal approved the language.
This wasn't a done deal by any means as I had stretched what could have been a simple one sentence statement that would have been perfectly fine saying Johnson hiked taxes, into two more sentences explaining Johnson's rationale and what was the actual case. The last sentence actually lost me a unanimous vote, with Clerk Kelly lone dissenting vote made because she thought it was an opinion.
Form aside, I came into the hearing as an impudent citizen taking on a 13-year institution named Councilor Les Johnson, the perennial mayor pro tem of Ludington, and as the minutes ticked down to the hearing's start, a city hall contingent filtered into the courtroom: City Manager Mitch Foster, Asst. City Manager Jackie Steckel, Mayor Mark Barnett and the two most senior councilors, Kathy Winczewski and Johnson himself. I advised my friends, family, and other supporters to stay home out of fear for them that they may become targets for reprisal at some point.
Besides, it was Friday morning at 9 AM, they were either hard at work, minding children home for the summer, or sleeping in after a long Thursday night of enjoying life. It's not like they can drop everything and show up, unlike (apparently) those whose job is to manage and run the City of Ludington (COL). Subtly, the other side's "solidarity" may have helped the overall effort, effectively showing the clarity panel that the COL had enough money to spend around $200/hr. to have their two managers show up for what was essentially a political hearing.
I had observed three clarity hearing already this year, so I was familiar with the process. Judge Nellis would read the script on how the commission would determine whether the language on the petition was factual and clear. I offered them my supportive records, but the panel isn't otherwise determined the truth or falseness of statements, so they primarily are making sure that the 'facts' aren't opinions or subjective commentary. A fact would be if a shirt was blue, a non-fact would be if a shirt was considered ugly, as that is a viewpoint.
This might seem like a simple thing to do, but the 2-1 vote this day and on past days show that it isn't. After the introduction they allowed me to make an opening statement and I gave the following one:
XLFD: "2023, an odd year, I bet the election commissioners thought they would have an easy time this year, but here we are again and you have some more business in just one week.
I've effectively summoned you here today to determine the clarity of my petition to recall Les Johnson as Third Ward Councilor of the City of Ludington. This is not an action I enter into lightly, and I hope this at the very least sends a message to Councilor Johnson and his elected peers to not pass enormous tax hikes, just because they have the power to.
On June 26, the six ordinances Councilor Johnson would later vote for came before the council for first reading. At this point, I warned the council during public comment that it is not wise for them to vote for policies and ordinances whose popularity is in the single digits. They were not only considering the tax hikes, but beach parking fees, which was negatively received by about 94% of the citizens from local social media polls I had taken.
I would take another poll for the tax increases being considered by the City, and lo and behold, citizens were 95% against the council imposing more taxes on them. Almost 20% of Ludington residents are living below the poverty level, nearly 150% higher than the average poverty level in the state, but Johnson and his peers, guaranteed an increase in city revenue by at least the inflation rate (plus new construction property taxes) voted unanimously to raise taxes on its people by over a quarter of a million dollars, tacking an average of nearly $75 to the average taxpayer's bill.
It is unseemly and unethical for a representative of the people to raise their constituent's taxes without providing any reason why they need that money more. I could relate a lot of wasteful spending the City is engaging in but permit me to relate the latter third of my comment during the truth in taxation hearing that day, which is relevant towards this proceeding:
"...The City's income goes up by a lot more than the inflation rate, while the people you supposedly represent lose ground because you believe that hiking their taxes is the best way to help them even when 94% tell you otherwise.
When 94% of your constituents tell you that they are against this tax hike, you may want to heed them. I know that if my ward councilor votes to affirm these unpopular tax hikes, I will assuredly take out a recall petition on him and I will easily get signatures based strictly on this vote taken firmly against his constituent's interests and wishes. I encourage others to do the same with their ward councilor should they get greedy with your money."
And the City did get greedy, with each ordinance passed unanimously without discussion, that is until they were all passed and Councilor Johnson, Chairman of the Finance Committee since 2017, decided to try to make the greed of the City look somehow noble and said:
"... if we did not approve these ordinances, we would not have garbage pickup, we would not have a lot of other services that we have. The police department, I don't know of any of you would like to live here without the police department that we have, so I guess I just want to make that clear that if these did not pass, we wouldn't have a lot of these services."
Garbage pickup costs around $1 million annually and the LPD's expenses are about $2 million for the City in the latest budget. The significant raise would be less than 10% of their budgeted expenses. Without the tax hike, the City would have to live within its means better, maybe buy fewer $1.4 million bathhouses for one of its "enterprise zone" campgrounds, but it would not seriously affect garbage pickup, the LPD, nor would we lose "a lot of other services".
This recall is less a testament against Councilor Les Johnson, who is a good person, rather it's a signal to the rest of my City's elected representatives to remember who they serve and who loses money when they raise taxes without any reason." [END comment]
Johnson was allowed thereafter to respond saying: "The idea that holding a truth in taxation hearing then approving the rates to remain the same is the same as raising taxes is not factual." It is factual, however, with the Michigan Constitution's Headlee Amendments automatically reducing tax rates, which then become the permanent rate, if not for a truth in taxation hearing raising them beyond that new rate back to the old rate or anywhere in between.
He continued: "Those ordinances deal with the establishment and levying with millages for the City of Ludington. This is a statutory requirement in order to collect any taxes within the State of Michigan." He then explained the hearing allowed the city to use value and inflation to increase revenue and his words were an attempt to make it clear to the audience.
I am not sure who wrote this script for Councilor Johnson, but it isn't true that the state requires them to establish and levy taxes each year (it is permissible, see section 3(g) and 3(h) of the Home Rule City Act, The city charter does provide for appropriation and levy ordinances for taxes in order to implement the adopted budget prior to the next fiscal year and that presents a problem:
Per the charter, the appropriations and revenue ordinances are considered and adopted sometime between the adoption of the budget and the next fiscal year. In the last few years, the council doesn't approve the budget until their last December meeting. This means those ordinances should not be brought up in June and July, but sometime in December as the COL's fiscal year does not begin until January 1st, and the adopted budget is always passed in December!
Councilor Johnson's defense has actually provided the Ludington Torch with an additional way to fight these tax hikes without taking every greedy-ass politician down through regular elections and recall. We shall develop this line of attack shortly.
After the audience was given the opportunity to talk, without any takers, the panel would discuss the merits of the language. I was pleasantly surprised by the judge and treasurer who would fairly quickly accept the language as factual and clear. The only holdout was the clerk, who thought the last sentence was opinion. The others suggested voters could look at the record to decide its factualness, and truly, the city manager's memorandum to the council verified my assertions thereon: that the COL would be out of about $300K in taxes due to the Headlee rate rollback and that this alternative had no services slated to be lost.
Councilor Johnson would illustrate how out of touch he was with the taxpayers by releasing a statement to the COLDNews after the hearing concluded in my favor: "I definitely was disappointed in the way they voted. It's frustrating for me because I'm just trying to do my job and do it to the best of my ability and for the best for the people in the community."
Mr. Johnson, your job is to represent the people in your district, and if 95% of them say they can use that $300,000 you helped hijack from them better than the COL can, a City that cannot even suggest what their $300,000 raise beyond inflation will be used for, then your vote should have been different. Of course, he continued:
""I'm just not sure what's the best thing for the City. I certainly don't want to do anything that's going to cost them money."
Says the man who voted to take an additional $300,000 from the people he represents; he certainly wasn't concerned about costing THEM money.
Love the picture. Well done X. It is sad when supporters of your efforts have to think about making themselves less visible so they won't become a target for the gang running Ludington. Thanks for all you have done. One has to wonder why all of these high paid City employees are allowed to attend this hearing on City time. I wonder if they were off the clock knowing it would look bad for them to show up at this hearing when they should have been working. I believe this is the first time there has been a recall in Ludington that challenges the old guards way of doing business and this might bring out an over reaction by them and they may take out their frustration on you and those they perceive as their enemies. Watch your back.
When the group doing petitions for PM Township were gathering signatures, according to my sources in that group, a few citizens were reluctant to sign because they feared the power of the Bleaus should they retain their seats. The recall petitions are public records and so this isn't a far-fetched concern given the retributory nature of the Bleaus in their most recent actions.
In Ludington therefore, I plan on targeting voters that will have little to lose should the recall effort fail to sign my recall petitions, not those with something big to lose. I have also formulated a Plan B, which I think will solve problems better than Plan A, but it requires the COL to accept a proposal that will help them get out of this mess and get back on track. It won't negatively affect them in any way, but the hard part will be selling it to them as the best alternative.