Ludington City Council Meeting, December 18, 2023: Putting the Slay Before the Reindeer

The agenda packet for the December 18, 2023 meeting of the Ludington City Council featured the usual end of the year tasks of finishing off 2023's business and ushering in 2024's.  It was noticeable when leafing through the packet that the city was 'putting the cart before the horse' on a couple of agenda items and so this became the running theme of the three comments I made at the meeting, slightly altered to the season by saying they were 'putting the sleigh before the reindeer'.  

And since this was apropos to the ongoing deer cull fight, my third comment took a poetical turn and resulted in my recital of "A Visit from Wildlife Management", at least the first half of it, as Mayor Scrooge could gift me no extra time over my two minutes, even when my poem was from his viewpoint.  

The Ludington Torch continued a tradition we started six years ago of delivering Christmas cards to councilors and other seated officials at the last meeting of the year.  The last two years we've went out of our way to find cards featuring cute deer, trying to appeal to the last shreds of decency they may have in their little Grinch hearts so that maybe they could grow up to three sizes and reconsider some of their acts made against the folks this year.

Once again, it didn't work.  Nor should it, as an elected public official's mind or heart should not be swayed by a seasonal Hallmark card.  This is just our way of showing, at least once a year, that the many disputes we have with the city's administration and council is nothing personal.  No, it's because we have strong beliefs that the city's actions, policies, or behaviors are impractical, unethical, or illegal.

So when the time came for public comment, it wasn't surprising that I brought up three topics of concern, having been gone the prior two meetings:

XLFD:  (7:10 in)  "Anybody who thinks that the business of the city is not preordained before these meetings need only look at two things on the agenda tonight.  You see a first reading of an ordinance that would allow for alternate members to standing committees, and then a motion that appoints councilors to committees as alternates even without any such law yet made providing for alternates for standing committees.  That's putting the sleigh before the reindeer.

I would discourage the council from passing this ordinance at future meetings, and here's why.  Many topics and issues come up at multiple committee meetings.  If the three regular committee deliberate over an issue at one meeting and then at subsequent meetings, the alternate is activated, one could make a strong case that a violation of section 3(3) of the Open Meetings Act has occurred, namely:  " All deliberations of a public body constituting a quorum of its members must take place at a meeting open to the public"

In the scenario provided, four of seven city councilors will have deliberated over an issue of public policy, and while you may use the defense that it happened over two meetings, In Booth Newspapers v. U of M Board of Regents the MI Supreme Court found such deliberation of an issue over multiple sub-quorum committees of a board to be a violation of the OMA. 

Lastly, I see the monthly police report is being presented tonight so I hope that maybe the chief can answer a simple question that arises from a recent arrest of a guy walking on the sidewalk in a shark costume.  Are city police using the Law Enforcement Information Network unlawfully to target citizens as they seem to have done there? [END Comment]"

City leaders listened to my first point and pulled an audible after public comment, amending the agenda to reflect that they would not approve the standing committees with alternates at this meeting.  City Attorney Ross Hammersley would also address my second point later on, suggesting that the use of alternates would not lead to situations where the OMA could be violated. 

I disagree; one of the strong points in the OMA lawsuit I filed with another citizen back in 2018 was that the loose construction of standing committees back at that time led to some issues being regularly discussed in detail by five or more councilors in committee(s) before it ever made it to the council.  The use of alternates is the first step towards going back to that wayward policy.  

LPD Chief Chris Jones would not address the latter point regarding shark-man Timothy Zeller, and that's too bad because I have been getting more reports and names of folks who have been similarly harassed by city police while walking or driving lawfully.  If the LPD is going above and beyond to look for bench warrants on Ludington citizens in the LEIN, there would probably be a large contingent of citizens behind them for doing just that, even if it it may not be lawful for them to do so.  The chief's loud silence on the issue betrays his knowledge that such practice is not lawful.  

Terry Grams, a Ludington Torch contributor and editor of who is on the front lines of being against the Ludington deer cull, went next and offered a defense against Councilor Winczewski's assertion that there was nothing to fear in eating the venison of deer who spent much of their time grazing in the areas where contaminated groundwater was at on the north side of town.  Grams continues to offer a lot of points that were never considered by councilors running towards this year's deer cull. 

'Fourth Ward Mayor' Chuck Sobanski would finish up the comments, praising his peers but hoping they would have redone the Copeyon Park bathrooms.  After approving the consent agenda with the one amendment noted, they opened the public hearing on the 2024 budget, and I laid into both the process and what city leaders had done this year:

XLFD:  (15:40 in)  "The city is obligated to adopt its budget by the end of tonight according to the city charter, which also says in section 8.6:  "To implement the adopted budget, the City Council shall adopt, prior to the beginning of the ensuing fiscal year, a) An appropriation ordinance making appropriations by fund or function, and b) A tax levy ordinance authorizing the property tax levy or levies and setting the tax rate or rates."

After the expected adoption of this 2024 budget, you will see that there are no ordinances to be passed, or even come up for first reading, dealing with appropriation or tax levy ordinances, so clearly the council is violating the charter.  

But wait, you might say, (whining councilor voice) "We passed those ordinances back in July, hiking taxes nearly $300,000 by holding a truth in taxation hearing and overriding the Headlee rollbacks that would have prevented the city's haul from property taxes from obscenely eclipsing the inflation rate.  You were there arguing passionately against those tax hikes, Mr. Rotta, while we ignored your plea to justify to the citizens of Ludington why we were robbing them.  Remember now, you recalled a city councilor because he was so tone deaf to the citizens."

Yes, I recall that clearly, and how no councilor even tried to justify their lust for the people's cash by listing one reason why the city needed your money more than you did.  There's a good reason too, it's because our city administrators hadn't even worked yet on the 2024 budget to give you one reason.  
So whereas the city charter says we adopt appropriation and tax levy ordinances to implement an already adopted budget, the city once again puts the sleigh before the reindeer and aggressively hikes our taxes by $300,000 months before they present a budget to the people. 

Then with all that extra money, your administrators fit a budget around their newfound wealth and continue to spread the horse manure around that they need to find even more creative ways to make money in future years without mentioning that they would have plenty if they weren't finding creative ways to fund private developers offering illusory growth by calling playgrounds and schools historic commercial areas. [END comment]"

And after the dust cleared with the closing of the hearing with no other comments, the council passed the 2024 budget without any further discussion.  I chatted with City Manager Mitch Foster earlier this fall about the problem with passing tax levy and appropriation ordinances before the budget is adopted and (noting that neither of us are tax lawyers) we differed.  He indicated that there was a state deadline for getting in tax rates that happened after their votes in July, I maintain that such rates (if done within our law) would have already been established in the December of the prior year and could be changed via truth in taxation in December after next year's budget is adopted.  

Hiking taxes up $300,000 in July without justification is perhaps the biggest fraud the city committed this year, which is saying a lot.  This would be a lot more uncomfortable for them if they had to do it in December and had to figure out a rationale of why they needed the money more than their lifeblood, the taxpayers.  Their tax hike is paying for Mayor Barnett's deer cull in perpetuity, among other inefficiencies, and they cannot prove that wrong at this point.  

The meetings only controversy among councilors was the approval of New Year's Eve fireworks on the top of the columned former bank at 124 S James.  While Councilor Wally Cain was the only 'no' vote, I was shocked, shocked that there was no explanation from councilors or local chamber president, Brandy Miller, of why they changed this position, other than the former positions were less safe to people on the street.  We will reveal that hidden motive in a later article.

They had the first reading of the aforementioned alternate ordinance and passed two others raising the clerk's and treasurer's salary commensurate with other city officials.  They take the extra step due to the requirements of the city charter for these two elected officers.  They also reappointed the city attorney law firm.

The council recognized the retirement of Captain Steve Wietrzykowski with a presentation of a plaque, but it won't be a full retirement as he will go to Scottville to fill a spot on their department.  Scottville, whose commission also met tonight, have effectively added two full time code enforcers over the last couple months, so watch out over this long Mason County winter for petty violation notices.  Mike Haveman, who will replace him as captain, had his employment agreement approved, deemed necessary as he moved to LPD administration.  

They amended the Brownfield agreement with Lofts on Rowe, this doesn't appear to seek any more money from the citizens for these overpriced units as they did when they amended it before, upping the TIF amount to $4.2 million from $2.8 million, it just redirects more money away from the developer, as we understand it.  

Finally, they housekept by appointing 2024's boards and committees and set the meeting dates for 2024 to be the same idea behind 2023's.  I have had a running joke with Foster regarding changing the dates for 2024 just to see how fast Scottville would be changing their meeting dates to match, but apparently, he wasn't able to arrange it.  Over the last couple years, Scottville has changed their meeting dates to be the same as Ludington's in order to discourage people (perhaps just certain people) from attending both meetings.  I fully understand why Ludington councilors would like it this way too-- except they will miss some opportunities to hear more poems and constructive criticism.  

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What an impact! X. Sad satire. I hope your poem ruins the Christmas spirit of those pushing for the cull.

I don't think they had a whole lot of positive Christmas spirit to begin with.  Why certainly they pay $20K to kill off up to 5 teams of the same species that pull Santa's sleigh, but they also pass a budget that goes against the season's spirit of giving by spending the usual amount out adjusted for inflation, plus that extra $300K they took from all of us this summer via their unlawful truth in taxation hearing.  If we treasure peace, amity, and charity as values of Christmas, the city council failed on all counts. 

Thanks for the report. That was a very good catch regarding the alternate committee members and it's violation of the OMA. That would never have occurred to me. Very astute observation on your part. I wonder if the Council realized what they were doing or did they intentionally plan it. Also another excellent observation you had was about dealing with appropriation or tax levy ordinances. This Council has to get up darned early in the morning if they want to slip something passed you.
It's obvious that the actions of the police regarding the LEIN situation is done with the Administrations approval. Well done X.
It's very nice that you let those in power know that all of their misbehaving is not taken personally by you and that you are only trying to make sure that the process is done properly and legally, however, it's obvious the establishment takes in very personally that you are keeping tabs on all the problems they create with their handling of the citizens business and their bungling attempts at governing.

Back in the days of Shay, committee meetings, which were sporadically held and typically not noticed to the public (OMA does not generally apply to advisory standing committees) they used this as one of the ways to get council consensus on controversial issues before they were made public-- this is how the 'rubber stamp' label came about.  

In that same lawsuit I mentioned above, me and my very competent co-plaintiff, filtered through several years of notes of these committee meetings and found this to be a regular method of subverting the OMA.  For example, the splash pad at Copeyon Park was discussed in some detail multiple times in two different committees over two years before being approved quickly by council at one meeting. 

Without substitutions or alternates, its consideration by two committees would mean that 5 or 6 councilors deliberated over it already, but back then they freely substituted, so if I remember right, all councilors had already grappled with the splash pad idea before it became 'public' and had a vote, which not surprisingly unanimously passed it without argument therefrom.  My co-plaintiff lived right across the street from the park, but never knew about the splash pad going in until after that council vote; her surprise and my disgust over the whole process was what inspired the legal action.

Thank you, X, for reiterating the OMA subcommittee violations lawsuit with discretion of my privacy.

That said, I must commend X for being the brains behind prevailing against the City of Ludington for the way they secretly violated the OMA for years. I innately knew something was wrong the way the discussions never came before the public until the vote was made in a "Wham-Bam this-is-what we are going to do" vote, without involving the taxpayers in discussion.

It was a hard, 2+ year struggle to present "pro se" (without attorney) which meant that X and I paid all monies out of pocket, devoted and volunteered labor for research, preparation, typing, and presentation in the Court while we sat against high-paid, intimidating lawyers from Grand Rapids. In the end, if you prevail, you get your filing fees and cost of mailing back (stamps and copy costs).

For those of you who think that X or anyone else does this for profit, you are sorely wrong. X is a one-of-a-kind public servant for Justice in his own way. I learned that X is Way More dedicated to doing what is right than those working for the City, getting paid big money and big benefits.

Some of those "public servants" seemingly consider the public as peons unworthy to be involved in public discussion. I am still hoping that the old administration is changing their mindset, BUT this idea to swap Alternative Councilors appears as a sign that the City did not learn its lessons.

Way to be on top of this issue again. X definitely has a gift if assimilating information quickly ... so quick you couldn't see his wheels spin if you watched intently.

Except for one other characteristic, your humility is only overshadowed by your magnanimity.  But don't let her fool you, "Du Wright" supplied more than her share (50% +) of the research, heart, brainwork and soul in the grand 'Battle for the OMA' started about 5 years ago.

That other characteristic is tenacity.  You firmly but respectfully stood your ground against the forces lined up against us; it was an unexpected role for me to be the 'moderate' part of our team.  Not all recognize that one files lawsuits like these against city hall only when there is no other way to correct the situation, as the powers-that-be have decided that the law doesn't apply to them.

The concessions we wrangled from the City regarding standing committees and other gains for transparency were very important and have been a large part of the amity that has developed between the Ludington Torch and City Manager Foster.  Instituting a new ordinance that goes the other way would be a setback for such relations to continue.

Nevertheless, of all the lawsuits I've filed against the five public entities who have broken the law, the one I filed with you was probably the one that will stand out as having the most important long-term result as it changed several negative behaviors the City had exhibited for a couple of decades at least (I may modify that if my quo warranto lawsuit annulling the charter revision vote gets affirmed by the MI Appeals Court in February), and it was definitely more 'fun' than going it alone and having to deal with 100% of the bulldung from their rabid defense attorney.

Thank you, X, for the accolades of magnanimity. After I reminded myself of the definition, I am inspired to revise the bitterness I harbored toward some of the City of Ludington administration and realize that the two-year struggle may open some doors for citizens to be involved in their governing and change the elitist government clique mentality.

My dream was to make Ludington a retirement home and had put a lot of effort into revamping an older home, but felt so disenfranchized about the way the city violated its citizens that I moved on to a bigger purpose in life and a homestead with less taxes, own water supply and less governmental harrassment.

Keep up the good fight! I read your articles frequently and have faith that goodness and justice will prevail!


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