Ludington City Council February 28, 2022: Composting the Siren Debate

The agenda packet effectively had five items for discussion and action on by the Ludington City Council for their regular meeting on the last night in February.  One was the annual routine to amend the poverty exemption policy to effectively reflect the changing numbers it takes to qualify for a property tax exemption.  Two were to amend two existing contracts with minor changes as regards the new restroom at Loomis Street and at the wastewater treatment plant.  These three were passed without controversy by the council when they came up. 

The other two issues should both have been controversial, but the first of those was passed without any problem and received no recognition by the public during the two comment sessions.  

That issue was to approve a 5 year contract with Morgan Composting to manage the leaf collection corral at Bryant.  The memo and contract (see p. 50 of the above packet) indicate that the cost of the first year may be upward of $80,000 (considering $55K for removal of existing compost, $25K for removal of this year's yard waste).   If it seems like a colossal waste of money to you, we at the Ludington Torch cannot argue your point.  As typical of the recent contracts the City has gotten themselves into, there was no competitive bidding even attempted in this boondoggle.

Yard waste has traditionally been taken to this spot, gone through the composting process, and returned to use as black dirt for sale and for use for city projects.  It's been smartly managed in the past, where the costs to maintain have been low ($10K or less per annum) and the returns of dirt and clean yards have been substantial.  The contract does not even allow for the City to receive any of the dirt the Sears, Michigan contractor will make with all of the compost material when they take it 70 miles across the state.  The Ludington Torch will be reporting on the utter waste of resources in this scheme whose only apparent positive is that our 'hard-working' DPW staff will have more time to attend to Legacy Park events.  We are in the process of gathering information.

But the issue of compost contracting was eclipsed by the furor over the potential silencing of the curfew siren, eliciting seven comments from the public and leading to a closed session, not on the agenda, when the city attorney provided a written legal opinion to the council.  This impromptu session, as usual, was not a 'clean' transition in regard to the Open Meetings Act (OMA).  The council used section 8(h) of the OMA as a rationale to go into closed session to 'consider the written legal opinion' of City Attorney Ross Hammersley. 

The section allows the council to review items covered by the attorney-client privilege, however, neither the council, nor any other city official for that matter, seems to have invoked the privilege for that written opinion.  Furthermore, the considerable time they took for this session (about 52 minutes) indicates that they did a lot more than consider the opinion-- from what I could see through the windows of the door, considerable debate ensued.  The state redistricting committee recently found out that section 8(h) does not allow for discussion by dint of a public attorney's written opinion, and the state's attorney general's recent opinion backed that interpretation. 

As the public was never told what this opinion was even about before the council assumed it was privileged material, the Ludington Torch has asked the City for this opinion and for any indication that the council or any other official ever claimed the opinion was privileged.  The public paid an attorney over $200 an hour for writing this memo, they shouldn't be shut off from what it says by dint of a privilege that was never invoked.  If they do not cooperate, we guarantee there will be a lawsuit.

As for the discussion, Jana Rose, the distaff part of the couple complaining about the siren, led off the debate with a salvo that was heard by the council, particularly the distaff part of that body.  Rose pricked both Councilor Cheri Stibitz and Kathy Winczewski with a thorny speech that showed her frustration with the process she had to go through and the characters she had to deal with.  She comes out swinging just after the two-minute mark into the meeting (see video below).  

Mayor Steve Miller warned everyone at the end of her speech that directing comments to councilors is generally not permitted, but Ms. Rose did not direct the comment to the councilor.  Following this pronouncement, four citizens, veteran George Peterson, august Fourth Warder Chuck Sobanski, lifetime Fourth Ward firefighter Gary Lange, and Tom Sanders all spoke strongly in favor of the siren and urged the council to keep it going, most relating how much it had meant to them and others over the years.  

My turn came next, and I struck in between both sides, alerting the council to what polls said, but suggesting a new way for the City to proceed when they are planning to drop a controversial land use on the public at large.  One doubts, however, that they would ever allow themselves to be governed by the same zoning laws they make for the rest of us:

XLFD:  "One year ago, the council openly debated at multiple meetings the topic of bringing the curfew siren back and where to place it if they did.  The issue was discussed on multiple local social media sites quite extensively, my Facebook franchise even ran a poll which indicated that over 80% of the 400 respondents wanted the siren back in town.  This council ultimately chose Copeyon Park as its location and this was broadcast in multiple media outlets.  In the six months between that choice and the siren's installation, there was zero controversy about the decision.

Had the City been secretive about its intentions to bring back the siren or about its location, we should be more sympathetic towards the Pier Pointe condo owners and Nathaniel Rose for their expressed disquietude with the siren.  But their absence in the debate fora in this chamber and the internet over those months, before money was spent to install the siren, should indicate that the City's position is strong.  A lot stronger than when they frequently operated against the Open Meetings Act in placing the splash pad in Copeyon Park and were sued for those violations by two citizens.  

What makes better sense is that the City should, whenever practical in the future, follow the same zoning laws that they enforce on private individuals.  If I put a siren capable of being heard throughout the City on my roof, or erected a huge splash pad in my backyard, I would have to go through the planning commission, who would send out notices to nearby properties and hold a public hearing to allow those individuals and others to voice their concerns or support.  If a truly open process is followed your legal liability is low.

Let's consider that if the quiet enjoyment of your property is going to be affected by noise coming from new construction on a neighboring lot, you should have a process and a way to voice your concerns whether it's private or public property that the noise will come from.  Thank you."

Only one other person spoke, former Councilor David Bourgette, now living in the Scottville area.  Bourgette disciplined the council for not putting the issue through the committee process, a characterization that the mayor would dispute later in the meeting.  The mayor was correct, as was I, that this issue went through the committee process before it came to council.  When the Rose's voiced their dispute, they also went to committee.  His facts were incorrect.  

After the hour of potentially unlawful discussion in closed session, the council would convene and almost immediately Councilor Wally Cain made a motion to allow the city attorney to go into negotiations with the Roses.  Councilors Stibitz, Ted May, John Terzano, and Les Johnson all voted against it, and no other motion was made.  This signaled that the City would maintain their position and await whatever move the Roses and their attorney would make.  During the closed session hiatus, I discussed the issue with Jana Rose for around forty minutes and fully expect she will pursue legal redress. 

The meeting ended with an interesting twist after nobody spoke during the second comment.  After Councilor Winczewski gave her report on the status of the coronavirus, Councilor Johnson addressed the concerns of a member of the audience which had been made over the last two meetings about a new firefighter with multiple felonies as part of his record (see his story here).  

Johnson: (1:36:15):   I got some information.  I'm on the Michigan Works! Board and I did get some information from them.  They have a program through MDOC (Michigan Department of Corrections) and on a normal year they have between 1100 and 1500 parolees go through their program, that is I believe state numbers, and if they are chosen or designated to go through this program, they can receive several services like housing, employment, social support, counseling, things like that.  One program that they have is to train people who want to be truck drivers.  The parolees that have enrolled in that have had a 96% success rate.

I just want to make you aware that the person that Mr. Rotta is talking about has not gone through this program, but he has a lot of support from the firefighters, they all say that he has been doing a good job and they are all behind him 100% and I feel that it is only fair that we give him a second chance.  There are rules in place that he has to abide by, and so far, from what we've heard from the volunteer firemen that he has been a model volunteer.  He's just trying to make his life better and I feel that we should try and help him succeed with that, and I guess if you want to look at the MDOC... (he can't recall the stat, Councilor Terzano reminds him it is 'offender success') they have information on that and it's very interesting to hear some of these stories from those people.

I just hope that we can give this guy a chance without attacking him for what he's been through."

Councilor Terzano then related his experience with the program he mentioned.  None of them wanted to address the major omissions on Austin Billings' application about his criminal past, where at least five felonies were forgotten.  None on the council is worried about how the local victims of his violence and larceny will feel when he goes into their homes.  Nobody addressed the recurring drug possession convictions in his past as a red flag for somebody who may be driving around a million-dollar piece of municipal equipment. 

None addressed why the new fire chief would allow this person on the department with those lies on the application and forego a formal interview.  The city manager was not around to tell the council why he approved the new firefighter when he has the duty under the city code to oversee these hires; why didn't he notice the long criminal history and the fraud on the application.  The Ludington Torch is a firm believer in giving second chances, but Billings has been given second chances about seven times and has squandered it, then he cloaks most of it by attesting he has only three felonies on his employment application.  

Johnson ends his defense of Billings by using the phrase "attacking him for what he's been through".  What HE's been through?  What about worrying about what the victims of his repetitive felonies have been through?  Austin Billings has voluntarily made the same mistakes multiple times, he went through the court process which indicated he was at fault each of those times.  What he's been through is a hell of his own making.  Many jobs are not in a position of trust, let him have a try at those.  Why are our city leaders putting him in a position that American's regularly vote as the most trustworthy position around?  Answer that question Councilor Johnson and Terzano, quit dancing.

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I have to agree with you about the  compost situation. Does this new contract state that the yard waste will be removed before it changes into compost or after? If after then why should the new contractor be allowed to use city property to let the product they will be removing turn into a valuable commodity?  And should the contractor not have to pay the city for the privilege of using taxpayers land. I say the contractor should haul the debris away and put in on private property to let it morph into mulch.  This entire situation smells like a heap of City Council, back door, secret, conniving pile of sh_t.

As for the siren. If I were on Facebook I would have voted against reinstalling that noisy relic. At least not in a residential area. If folks want to have an annoying look into the past then I say put it on wheels and transport it nightly to the houses of all who want those old memories so they can get a good feeling as to just how noisy nostalgia can be. For pete's sakes it should be common sense that this oldies but goodies screech machine should be installed in a commercial or industrial area far from residential housing. I like fog horns. Should I be allowed to install one in by back yard so I can reminisce about the good ol days.

I will point you to p. 50+ of the agenda packet for details on the compost contract to get some of the specifics on this agreement and the reasoning and summarize it in answer to your questions as I understand it.  To my understanding after reading this and past committee meetings, is that they will effectively clean out what is already there (compost in various stages) as a one-time 'deal', moving about 7500 square yards at a cost of $7.50 per, or roughly $56K back to their Sears' facility.  They will also be quickly moving 2022's yard waste estimated to be about 4000-6000 sq yards at the rate of $3.50 per ($14K to $21K).  

New regulations indicate that the EGL (formerly known as the DEQ) would require them to build a drainage pit for runoff from their existing compost, and then transport the contents to the WWTP.  Such a pit would reportedly not be needed if the yard waste didn't reside there for over a year.  

Ergo, it seems as if they are spending all this money to get out of the yard waste recycling business and alleviate the DPW from any responsibility after they dump here.  I think it's pretty irresponsible to go this route.

Thanks for the information X.

Always waiting for and enjoying your keen observation of Ludington Council meetings and thanks again, X, for not dancing around the felonies of Austin Billings and Les Johnson's liberal whimpering answer to your earlier questions, even though I appreciate that LJ at least tried a reply. I agree exactly with your reply to "all AB has been through." I hope the real accounting comes from the city manager as to why they allowed a multiple felon that firefighting position, especially when there is a program in place to help felons "which he did not go through." Come on COL, quit covering up for your shortcomings, bad decisions, lack of research in decision making, and figurative and literal expensive compost-hauling that costs the taxpayer crazy amounts. I hope 4th Ward, Cheri, and Parks chair, gets her eardrums bursted with Willy's idea of a portable siren placed in her front yard. Those who spoke for the siren do not live on the front line and there should be NO comparison with those who live much closer. I hope the Roses prevail and the city learn to hear its residents before making decision that affect one's peace.

In full disclosure, I've always liked Ludington's siren even on those nights where I would be hanging out at the old fire station and the noisy thing went off right above my head.  You actually heard activation noise about two seconds before the siren went off, so once you recognized that, you could plug your ears so you wouldn't be temporarily deafened.  I would not be upset if this was on my roof or outside my window on a trolley, but I can commiserate with those who might.

Thanks for understanding my points about Mr. Billings; believe me, I know too many people, myself included, who have made one or two mistakes in the past and have risen to positions of trust and responsibility and earned those spots.  Billings extensive record does not indicate that's the case and when you can't even admit to half the felonies you have done to get to that position of trust, you have not been reformed.  Sorry, the City of Ludington and Mitch Foster has lost a lot of my trust in their integrity by this hire.

Well that's just it, X, Billings not admitting to the felonies on his application ... I know that Lowe's would find out a lie (omission), doing a background check, and would immediately disqualify applicant from job for just one felony. So why has the city of Ludington, entrusting a ?seven-time? Felon into citizens homes ... besides the "boo-hoo" second-chance excuse seemingly aimed at covering up COL failure of doing a procedural background check and Les Johnson trying to minimize you. I think you are right ... one who does not admit his past sins is not truly on the path to recovery. One who habitually continues to lie may be lying about more than his felonies.

I agree with X and FS regarding the hiring of Mr. Billings. It's true that most if not all municipalities insert a clause in their employment applications that more or less state that any lying, withholding or omission   of information will be grounds for future dismissal of the applicant. What we have here is a lack of honesty and integrity by both Mr. Billings and City staff. For someone to falsify a document is unacceptable but for City employees to condone, ignore and conceal that  behavior is even worse and it says volumes about who is running the City. These people just can't be trusted.

Regarding the siren. Why not put the siren into retirement and have church bells ring daily instead of that  past it's prime siren. It would be much more pleasant to hear bells than to hear what amounts to be an air raid alert.

LUDINGTONS SIREN

Compared to

CHURCH BELL

 The way things are going in this world we just might need the air raid alert.

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