On July 24, 2017, I established a record for myself, and perhaps for any other Ludington citizen ever. I commented on four separate occasions in front of the city council, using most if not all of the time I was allotted. What was more profound, however, was that each of my four speeches had four separate ways to influence the decisions or policy of the city leaders.
Now, I am not suggesting this indigent firewood seller has the ultimate say in what happens in the city hall of Ludington, but I am suggesting that almost anybody can make a major difference in the course of their city's ultimate direction. As a lifelong resident of Mason County, I want it to be the best it can be, and as a resident in the city limits of Ludington for the past 24 years, I have a vested interest in the city's present and future. If you read the Ludington Torch regularly, you probably have your own interests in the future of Ludington and the rights of its people.
I see a lot of entrenched people with a lot of power and a lot of rich and powerful allies in city hall. Their interests are often insular, they don't bother wondering if the changes they make are popular with the public, or economically-sensible, or made in the interest of the health and safety of the public. They use the local media and the general apathy of the majority of the common folks to secure their goals. I try to bring awareness and suggest alternatives that they rarely consider.
So how can poor powerless and near-penniless me (or you) make a difference in turning things around? Ideas, supported by facts and proofs. As I use an alias, use alternate media, and use a jack-o-lantern for my icon, I think it appropriate to borrow a phrase from the main character of the "V for Vendetta" who did the same in his fight for justice for everyone against an incredibly fascist and corrupt government: "Beneath this mask there is more than flesh, Beneath this mask there is an idea, and ideas are bulletproof."
But ideas and facts cannot always be presented in the same way to influence public officials to steer them towards doing the right thing, methodology must be constantly adapted to their changing defenses against doing what's right, so at great risk of giving away my secrets or appearing as a sorry braggart, I present the four public comments I gave on July 24, and illustrate how they were generally very successful in influencing those at city hall.
The first was the public comment I spoke before the special meeting at 4 PM in the city hall basement, a meeting called to interview the two candidates, Carrie Rangel (below) and David Bourgette for the 6th Ward city council vacancy made by former councilor Gary Castonia being appointed to the county board.
"The biggest unheralded problem our city faces, our two newly appointed councilors will face, is the culture of corruption that has taken hold in our local city hall over the years. I have stated over a course of four public meetings a case showing the unrefuted ethical misconduct freshman Planning Commissioner Spence Riggs committed by gaining a major financial benefit for himself through his public service, with zero attempts by him or this city to follow state law concerning the standard of conduct of public officers. To the contrary, they would rather ignore or cover up the indiscretions.
This is not the first time, I've brought items like this to the council's attention, nor will it likely be the last with the ingrained culture of corruption that is in power. But even before Spence Riggs joined the club, even before there was a significant amount of donated funds in the Shop with a Cop program that were never accounted for in the city's account, even before our city attorneys bilked the taxpayers for three years by charging rates that were sometimes over $150 per hour more than what they were contractually bound to, there was a culture of corruption deep within the Downtown Development Authority.
The leadership of the DDA, which mirrors the real leadership of our city, allowed their members to gain financial benefits of more than a de minimis nature in many of the events they funded and sponsored without any mention of that fact to the public. Here is just a sample of what passed as ethical behavior that was never mentioned at the meetings or in the minutes of those meetings.
A member made etched glasses for the Ball Drop and received hundreds of dollars. She later received a spectacular discount when the city sold her some public property.
A member sold alcoholic beverages for events from the convenience store they owned and received several hundreds of dollars on several occasions.
A member sold gold painted signs to the city without any contract or without any bidding and was scheduled to be reimbursed up to $150,000. They have received many more dollars for other projects.
Insurance coverage for several DDA events was provided by a member who sold insurance for the agency that was picked; the agency received hundreds of dollars.
There are more, but I have limited time, and the last member I reviewed has now applied to become a Ludington City Councilor. I am positive she will get the job, because she has already showed what it takes to become a Ludington city official. An ability to profit herself or her private business by taking from the public coffer, and not revealing that information openly to the public. Thank you."
Influence Analysis: As the unrecorded meeting was only going to be interviewing both candidates with questions and nothing else, this was actually a set-up comment to go with my third comment later in the regular meeting. The ''I am positive she will get the job" was to work subliminally to make them more likely to do the opposite, just to prove me wrong. The pointing out of her past indiscretions at the DDA was to effectively highlight that I wasn't above calling her out on her misdeeds, and lumping it with other city councilors (two of those other DDA miscreants became councilors).
Additionally, some or all of the councilors present may have been aware of a strong rumor circulating concerning other indiscretions by Ms. Rangel in her private life. Though I prefer not to give oxygen to rumors concerning the private lives of others, I think this may have also led to her not getting any votes later on despite her connections.
The next public comment came at the beginning of the meeting dealing with the agenda item of the proposed Commercial Redevelopment District. My public comment's goal was to get the city to address the facts standing in the way of this proposal, for part of the deal seemed to go against an existing covenant specially made by the city just 3 years ago (links to the facts are provided, comment starts at 2:45 into the video:
"In tonight's agenda it is explained that the City of Ludington is creating a Commercial Redevelopment District for a property at 424 S James Street. The property being set up is part of a real estate deal set up between the current owners of 424 S James and Sweetwater Holdings LLC, their neighbor to the north, which splits a lot which the City sold to Sweetwater back in June of 2014 for a very low market price, $5000, a price this council accepted unanimously.
Sweetwater now plans to sell about 40% of the property at that same price, $5000, to their neighbor. Ironically, the City had the opportunity to sell that full lot to 424 S James Street a few years back for significantly more than $5000, but were denied by city management. The lot to be acquired here, needs to be split due to the restrictions of the city code, ironically the same restrictions that need to apply to Planning Commissioner Spence Riggs' residential lot on Lavinia, and equates to the southernmost 20 ft. of width of that lot.
The purchaser, KLS Properties, wants to develop that as part of their overall plan in getting tax credits, but when the City sold that property, they included covenants that would ensure that the land thereon remain as green space. The city's resolution of selling this lot in June 23, 2014 stated in relevant part: "WHEREAS, the offer to purchase is for less than the estimated fair market value of the property due to the following conditions: 1) The South 23 feet of the City-owned lot located at 420 South James Street would be subject to a restrictive covenant such that it remain open space.
In your council packets, there is nothing in the buyer/seller agreement that includes the restrictive covenant. It appears that KLS Properties could build a structure or lay pavement on that section of property, in violation of the city's covenant with KLS Properties. The public was assured through our city officials that this piece of land would remain undeveloped.
That restriction needs either to be secured as a condition with any resale of the property, or this council needs to void their own special covenant they crafted three years ago. Thank you."
Influence Analysis: The influence used here is to use direct facts and laws, including the city's own covenant they seemed intent on ignoring after a majority of the city council had voted for less than three years ago, and illustrate that people do sometimes pay attention to their actions and their fine print in these contracts. Near the end of the meeting, the city attorney and city manager discuss this and come to the same two alternatives that I did, and will have to choose one.
I am positive they will revoke the covenant (or am I using the same reverse psychology I used earlier with Carrie Rangel, and actually directing them to retain it?). Knowledge is power and goes a long way in equalizing the playing field between me and city officials who try to play off an ignorant public.
The third comment was the only comment during the public hearing where they covertly raised the DDA taxation rate. I had raised much of the same ruckus at the prior meeting, when they announced they would hold a hearing to raise it, costing much more to hold than what they would get for at least five years with the additional taxes. I start at the 8:40 mark:
"This truth in taxation hearing is a fantastic proof that this city is being mismanaged fiscally. By Headlee, when the assessed value of a local tax unit’s total taxable property increases by more than the inflation rate, the maximum property tax millage must be reduced so that the local unit’s total taxable property yields the same gross revenue, adjusted for inflation.
When our leaders learned that relatively minor Headlee rollbacks of millage rates would kick in for the City, for some undisclosed reason they decided that they would choose to hold a truth in taxation hearing to raise just the DDA millage rates over the Headlee limits. The DDA millage is collected only from properties in the downtown district and raises about $45,000 per year for the DDA. The difference between the Headlee rollback and the maximum level it could be raised shows that it will just generate an extra $49 per year, that is undisputed by our city leaders.
Also undisputed by our leaders is that just to publish a "Notice of Public Hearing on Increasing Property Taxes" in the newspaper it would take at least five years of collecting these additional taxes to repay that cost. Your packets show that the clerk's office spent $584 to Shoreline Media for advertising during this period. I don't know whether this was all from noticing this hearing, but if it was then it will take twelve years of the increased taxes to pay it off.
We are taking a lot of our public monies from our treasury in order to raise taxes for our downtown shopkeepers and take collectively $49 extra from them each year, a mere fraction of what is being spent. Is that your goal, to raise taxes as high as you can even if it comes at a cost prohibitive to any sensible person?
At last meeting, John Shay said this raising of the taxes was to be done in order to preserve the millage rate, and that the extra money would be to help fund major projects in the downtown coming up. Yet, there are only reductions of expenditures in the future budgets of the DDA, Shay has not revealed any other use for the money (which should be IOUs to the general fund until the cost of this hearing is realized), nor is there any justification in your packets. You have one half page of justification saying simply that you gotta preserve the DDA tax rate. No reason why, as if having high tax rates is a desirable goal.
Allow me to empathize with an entrepreneur who is deciding whether to establish a business downtown. An additional 1.6 mils on his tax bill may or may not affect his ultimate decision, but if they see that the Ludington City Council willingly raises taxes above Headlee rollbacks and spends twelve times more than they get per year from it just to do so, then they correctly have to wonder what kind of insanity is ruling the area..."
Influence Analysis: There was never any chance of getting the city council to vote against this tax hike since the money had already been spent to notice the hearing, but this speech and the one at the previous meeting, have a delayed influence on whether they decide to use these nuisance hearings to raise tax rates in the future by the small amounts these hearings often allow.
Exposing fiscal idiocy like this when it occurs may not stop it now, but more officials should look more closely at the numbers next time before they get embarrassed by some citizen telling them what the numbers mean, and how they are unapologetically tax-hungry nuts who are only preserving the craziness of our city manager.
The last open two minute comment iced the waters for Carrie Rangel further, as I once again 'endorsed' her. I also brought up a point about the second comment period's placement on the agenda, a point of which was taken up by Councilor Krauch at the end of the meeting (1:35:10 in), and agreed upon as future protocol. I spoke at 1:16:35, just after fellow reformer, Chuck Sobanski at 1:15:20 talked of boat launch freezers, signs on posts, and proper microphone usage by the officials.
"I cannot tell this council how many times I have heard prospective city council appointees address the question raised to them in interview about what ways the city can be improved mention the terms transparency and communications. At our last meeting we had three late additions to the agenda. How can you restrict the public to addressing items on the agenda when you leave issues off the agenda until the last minute?
There is also the topic of timing. When this council voted for splitting public comment into two periods, it was explained, if not codified, that the second period would allow citizen feedback after the council had performed their regular business. On the agenda given to the public, the mayor and the council are performing five different public activities after the public has spoken their last word. One of these is the very important task of selecting their pick for Sixth Ward Councilor.
How can the public be responsive to the work of this council if a significant portion of their work is done outside their ability to respond? Under the umbrella of being more transparent and opening up avenues of communication, consider moving the "Comments from Public Officials" portion of the meeting up before the second public comment. You can always have the last word under miscellaneous business, should you want it.
Since we have this system now, I will merely express my congratulations to Carrie on being chosen the next Sixth Ward Councilor."
Influence Analysis: The repetition of the 'inevitability' of Carrie Rangel being appointed, only helped my earlier use of reverse psychology to secure the position for her opponent, David Bourgette (pictured below taking the oath of office). I hope he does become an independent voice that questions the city as he did in his two appearances before council regarding corporate welfare, that's why I threw my indirect support behind him.
As noted, the council immediately decided to move the official communications up in the agenda after I emphasized how it would be better and used my congratulations message to show why.
I was extremely enthused after this meeting, for all of the modest objectives I sought in my comments were achieved, a result that usually falls short even in the simpler meetings. I was able to publicly condemn past unethical practices by Spence Riggs and other city officials in the DDA, I was able to point out the violation of a binding legal covenant in a business transaction the city had oversight of, I was able to publicly condemn a tax hike which cost many more taxes to realize, I was able to convince the council to move more of the meeting before the last public comment, and I successfully spiked the candidacy of a former public official who violated ethics laws. Not bad for the good guys of Ludington, but what to do for an encore?
If you want Ludington to change for the better, if you want to root out the deep corruption, you need to engage those standing in the way of positive change using your own modest powers, as I do. You will fail many more times than you succeed, but you will always fail if you don't engage.
You said this much better than I could have Verdad.
Hats off to you XLFD, you are to be admired for your courage, willingness and your ability to see through the BS.
My hat comes off to both of you; you have each walked a small journey yourselves in keeping officials accountable through your own efforts in different parts of the state. One can better appreciate the unrewarded efforts and sacrifices others make in years-long quests when they take on the Quixotic adventure themselves. Meaningful freedom and liberty won't long survive if our officials are allowed to expand their powers without bound.
Just finally got to listen to this quite long mtg., and again X, you bode well for all Ludington citizens as usual, many thanks. Now to the mtgs. agendas. The city auditor made comment to general excess funds of $2.8 Million. Was this in reserve accounts? I ask because that "reserve account" in 2009 was about $7 Million. If so, what happened to it to go down so much? I think he was referring to a different account, but can't be sure now. Also, now MDOT wants part of it's traffic count at 6-9 am. Does that sound like a reasonable time to be canvasing? 11-1 and 3-6 are also times, but, I think the earliest times are a way to help distort the final analysis, because, hardly any traffic is there then. The KLS Corp. for 50% reduction in millage for 12 years is also a concern. Mostly, because that expensive tax exemption only might produce 4 jobs, not 40. And, so who is Mr. Gibson anyhow? The Nancy bid of $1950 for goal-setting mtgs. also concerns me. If other bidders said $4-7K for their bids, is her bid equal to the same amt. of mtgs. and time spent on those goals, or greatly reduced?l Something doesn't add up there imho. Then another awards plaque to Castonia, whom I always thought was shallow in thinking, and voting ineptly repeatedly. Now I see he's also plagued with Parkinson's, and shakes like a leaf on a windy day. Lastly, I witnessed that Mayor Holman is still pretty mixed up in her position and ways to perform her duties. She repeatedly asked for motions instead of roll call votes. Without the supervision via whispering by Shay and Wilson, she would be totally lost. Oh yeah, Shyster Shay still has that scary stare at X at the beginning of the mtg., and also during the comments, which says his immaturity and lax way to perform his duties continues into infinity.
With regards to that auditor again, that mtg. he said the new floating Bonds were for 40 years, not 30 years as was stated months earlier. That tell us how much and how long the city taxpayers are going to be in severe $30 Million debt? WOW! To me, and anyone else with any financial expertise, should give a Big Red Flag of incompetence, one that requires Shay's firing at once imho. Ludington has never experienced that kind of debt for infrastructure for that long in our entire history to my knowledge. And yet they renew his annual contract for employment? WTH!
I'm beginning to think that you and Kaye Holman had the same math teachers at LHS, Verdad, LOL.
Shay hasn't done a thing to reign in employee expenses since he made some personnel cuts 9 years ago and had to deal with some minor blowback.