Ludington City Council Meeting January 25, 2021: The Princess and the PJP

I figured out this Monday that there is one thing more unsatisfying than writing a public comment for one of these virtual city council meetings, it's writing one and then failing to send it out to be read at the meeting.  I had copied my comment onto my E-mail, listed the ten officials for it to be sent to, drew up an introductory paragraph giving the city manager directions on how best to present my thoughts, but then I was distracted right at the point where I was about to send it, and mistakenly thought I had done so, until I eventually saw a video of the meeting later that night, without my comments being read. 

Fortunately, I can air those words here and offer Ludington Torch readers an exclusive post-view of what I had wanted to say this night, while recapping what actually went down.  Besides the two issues I focused my comment on, the docket featured a couple of reports, a couple of program extensions and a new traffic control order.  

The traffic control order was made in order to correct a danger made by a prior TCO passed in April 2019, which made the pair of stop signs on Court Street switch over to William Street where they intersect.  Dedicated parking spots on Court made it difficult to see traffic to the east, the new TCO eliminated a couple of spots to the east which were too close to allow a view far enough for traffic going north on the one-way, one-block street.  

The Inside-Outside program throughout the City will remain for up to November 2021, where weather-resistant pieces of artwork are displayed around town thanks to the council's vote.  A first presentation of an ordinance to grant the cross connection program to CCRA Professional Services LLC, the only company sought for this state mandated program.

Chief Kozal answered some questions from the monthly police report, and an update report was given dealing with the closure of a sludge pond (as seen in the packet).  The council went through all these issues without problems.  Of the two issues I addressed in my comment, the first (regarding docking a charter boat at Waterfront Park's seawall) elicited the most discussion at the meeting, with some officials indicating which side they preferred at this point.  The latter issue was non-controversial to the councilors since it involved seeking free grant money for a local business without any contribution from the City (other than many hours of work from the highest paid administrative officers). 

As noted, I failed to send in my comment so you won't find it anywhere in the video, you will find that Councilor David Bourgette did read Karen Nielsen's letter in the last comment period, and allowed Mayor Steve Miller to defend it as part of his job.  If Miller intends to make himself look like he's a friend of transparency when he makes a high profile transition like this he should share his reasoning with the person and with the public.  If you want to make LMTA go towards a new direction, then plot your course and let your financiers know your intentions.

XLFD:  "If the last ten months have shown us Michiganders anything, it is that too much government involvement in the affairs of small businesses does not benefit anybody other than the few chosen to be winners.  Local businesses have shut down, many more are suffering, and most politicians are wondering how best they can help, without understanding that their best attempts at helping before is what led to the dead and suffering enterprises now.

Two local private businesses are petitioning for favors from city hall tonight.  The first is a charter boat company wishing to relocate itself adjacent to Waterfront Park, the marina board voted to recommend this at its Zoom meeting last Thursday.  By the way, I've looked at the city website for notices, I am enrolled in E-mail notifications, and there were no notices for that special virtual meeting to conform with the Open Meetings Act, which the marina board is directed to abide by in Section 66-176 of the city code.  

Aside from that, if this council was to entertain this move from this established business, then they should anticipate that other charter boats will seek similar favor to get their own advantage in that location.  If the city council cannot adopt a fair and explicit policy to cover all inquiries into using public facilities by private interests, the public will see any approval as favoritism, any disapproval as discrimination.  Mr. Laaksonen should, at the minimum, explore all of his other options in the private sector before seeking government benefits. 

Freshly retired Councilor Joe Lenius should be proud tonight.  His peers will vote to apply for a $598,400 grant for his daughter's business tonight in a process that Councilor Lenius made a motion to recommend approval of this grant's amendments back at a October 26, 2020 Finance Committee meeting.  He then voted to approve it at the council meeting later that night, the amendment allowed his daughter to be eligible for this additional government funding. 

He did these official acts without ever disclosing to the public that his immediate family members would be beneficiaries of the government largesse.  We can debate whether these grants used to benefit private developers are a proper use for public funds, but it's really not debatable that Councilor Lenius erred by not disclosing his immediate family's potential $600,000 gain from his influence and in not abstaining from the two votes he made.  Thank you. [END comment]"

The October meetings were in-person and both minutes reflect that Joe Lenius made votes concerning the first part of qualifying for this $600,000 grant for his daughter's business, PJP Holdings LLC, but that he never disclosed that fact and made it part of the minutes, as he should have to be in compliance with state and local ethics laws.  The minutes do reflect that the chairman of the Finance Committee (aka the mayor pro tem) Councilor Les Johnson, vigorously defended that non-disclosure because no money was directly involved at that time.

We can spend over a half million dollars to clean up the contaminated soil on James Street, but it seems like the corruption two blocks away on Harrison Street only gets worse.  LCC Section 2-72(a)(1):  "No officer or employee shall make or participate in a decision in his or her capacity as an officer or employee knowing that the decision will provide... a member of the officer's or employee's immediate family... a financial benefit... An officer or employee who makes or participates in making a decision under this subsection which places or may place him or her in a potential violation of this subsection, shall deliver a written statement to the governmental body of which such officer or employee is a member or employee and to the city clerk disclosing the potential conflict of interest and explaining why, despite the potential conflict, he or she was able to make or participate in making the decision fairly, objectively, and in the public interest."

When those disclosures aren't made, and your fellow officials either stay mute, or worse, make a corrupt fool of themselves like Les Johnson did, the whole institution looks bad.  A different brand of favoritism will be embraced if the council inevitably decides to allow Al Laaksonen's Princess of Ludington to be berthed at Waterfront Park.  

The discussion among councilors at the meeting was mostly over parking and figuring out whether they could accommodate the boat at city marinas; minor concerns were raised about the continued use of the venue, and the serving of alcohol on the boat, as brought up by Councilor Stibitz, who thought it may open a can of worms if the boat was to be allowed. 

Her concerns seemed to be in the minority and weren't discussed in any detail, but they are in the right direction.  When considering something like this, the first reflex should be to look at city laws rather than worrying about parking.  The city code gives little direction as it does not allow council to prohibit or permit a private business from operating out of a park.  The city charter comes closest to addressing this by saying (section 14.3):  "The Council shall not... lease... any public park grounds without first securing the approval of a majority of the electors of the City voting thereon in any election."

Other than that, if there isn't any process already defined in law or council-approved protocols, choosing to allow the Princess to park itself at Waterfront Park  will not only open up a can of worms, it will create a slippery slope, which isn't safe so close to the deep waters of the harbor.  What's preventing other charter boat businesses from seeking similar berthage at that park and from properly claiming discrimination when the process is shown to be uncodified and arbitrary?  

If the City approached this smartly, they would seek to create a fair process first, before addressing whether the Princess or any other charter boat would qualify for consideration under this process.  If they can't figure out how to do so equitably, then they should either forget it or put the issue out in front of the people in an election proposal.  On May 4th, local polling locations will be open to vote on a school millage for the local ESD, if this is considered quickly this issue could also be put on the ballot at minimal inconvenience and cost, and in time for the boating season.  

Kudos to the city manager who put this on the council agenda for discussion before sending it to committee.  This is how public business should be done, it's how it used to be done.  In 21st century Ludington, new business has automatically been sent to the committees before being considered by the whole council, often being passed on a Monday after the weekend where the public first hears about it.  One could argue that way is more efficient, but it inarguably is less friendly to transparency and engaging the public in the discussion.  

Let's hope this becomes regular practice in the future, rather than the exception.  It will encourage more input from the public and from the full council before it is reviewed in committee.  

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Thanks X. As usual your very thorough analysis leaves the little boats in the wake of the big one. I hope your comment will still be read by the councilors. The conflict of interest by Lenius is horrifying, though as you say, I'm sure it would in the end benefit the community. But just what is so hard about disclosing possible conflicts of interest for this city? Afraid in their deepest of hearts that they know their actions are wrong? If Joe Lenius had disclosed the conflict, I'm sure the vote would have gone the same way, just looked better. Too bad that there is not a clause that when a grantee receives a state grant, upon selling at a profit they need to return some or all of the grant to the state.

Thanks, I only hope that the City of Ludington makes stronger attempts in the future to come clean with all potential conflicts of interests when they embark on projects like this-- because even in the promise of the Foster era, this fault hasn't noticeably improved.  The principle at city hall should be that if any project or policy may directly or indirectly benefit one of the councilors (or other board/committee members making a decision), then they should get in front of it and make public that conflict or potential conflict.  

It's obvious here, and there seems to be nothing gained by Joe Lenius not making the disclosure and not abstaining from the vote.  That only makes me, and other like-minded people, a lot more suspicious of the motivations of those involved.

Love that picture of the bed with a hundred blankets. Interesting meeting summary X. Why couldn't the Princess tie up at the transient dock at the City Marina. The transient dock gets very little use and would be within walking distance to downtown and many motels. The first boat to tie up and use the dock when it was first built was the Keweenaw Star which I believe is a larger boat than the Princess. I know that charter boats are not supposed to use the marina but we all know that will never be enforced, so let the Princess lease the dock space and help pay for the City Marina money pit.

This comment goes directly to the CC and Town Manager since we know they read the opinions on this site.

The permit for the Princess should be an obvious pass.

I do not know the owner and have no idea what kind of person he is. That should not even play into the final decision.

It is a simple decision if one has common sense.

1) There is a children's playground abutting that area. 

2) It is a public park that people use to walk and admire the view. That view would be impeded by a big ol boat. The park belongs to everyone. It is not to be used for private profit.

3) There is indeed alcohol served on this boat. That means that drunk people will be getting off a boat and spilling into a public park( next to a playground) at a pier that has a pretty steep drop into the water. 

Be realistic folks, this is a serious liability issue for the owner and the city. 

4) The condo owners pay a gigantic amount of fees and taxes to live by the water and have their view. Do they want to look at the Princess at the park every day?

5) Private businesses should not be run on public land . Full Stop!

But as they say, common sense is not so common anymore.

Do the right thing city of Ludington. Take a big pass on this one...

Lake Lady, you and I are in agreement that this is a very questionable move and that common sense indicates that this request should be denied.  I have to remind you, however, that city hall runs on politics, not common sense.

State law precluded private charter boats operating in the Ludington Municipal Marina.  I remember chatting with Ray Karboske Sr., the founder of Ray's Auto Marine, a few years ago.  He was able to recount in grand detail talking with the city manager, mayor and some councilors back in the 1970s telling him how the new marina would just be a harbor of refuge and would not house charter boats, just recreational watercraft.  State law prohibited that from happening too, however, the LMM was not open a full season before these started moving in and taking up seasonal dockage spaces.

The state has done multiple upgrades since, all have the clause in about forbidding private businesses from operating in the marina, but city hall ignores it as does Lansing.  So when those wanting the Princess at Waterfront Park start marketing their project in committee meetings, I expect the councilors' eyes will light up when they look at the extra $10,000 they can make for docking the boat and imagine all of the additional economic benefits this might bring in to the struggling downtown area. 

Liability, fairness, stability, compatibility, etc. will all be overlooked until the City makes the decision to end this partnership in a year or two.

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