Ludington City Council Meeting, July 22, 2019: An Impromptu Witch Trial

This meeting of the Ludington City Council looked as if it was going to go down as a typical midsummer offering of topics that evoked little notice or controversy. But a little over eighty minutes into the affair, the mayor changed all that with what he claimed was a burden imposed on him and that body which needed to be addressed.

What followed was an entry into a dark place, transforming a normal city council meeting into a tribunal, where witches are real and unsubstantiated accusations are deemed truths without question. They found amongst themselves a heretic. One who maybe didn't communicate with evil spirits, but did so with citizens on social media. One who maybe didn't issue hexes and curses towards others, but instead questioned the policies and personnel of the City in a manner unlike other councilors.

But before I get ahead of myself, there was 83 minutes of a meeting that took place before this metamorphosis occurred, in which several notable things were accomplished. The uncontroversial nature of most of the items considered reflected itself in the public comments of the night, where speakers talked of off-agenda items, expressed confusion over agenda items or spoke in support of Miss Sawyer's "Never Forget" Garden at Stearns.

Perhaps as a harbinger for what was to come, a car alarm going off outside distracted the council at the start of the meeting, and during the public comment period. Terry Grams began the public comment at 3:45 into the meeting, making an appeal for lifeguards following the recent drowning introduced by Chief Barnett during the invocation. I was pleased that he did, because that was also my topic, and now if the council does go that way, implementing a new lifeguard program, they don't have the onus of having to admit that I suggested it first at a council meeting. My comment follows the video:

July 22nd, 2019 Ludington City Council meeting from Mason County District Library on Vimeo.

XLFD: "I think it's a good time to broach the topic of beach safety once again. We have record high water levels making small waves shut the breakwater down, a couple of girls swept off that breakwall, another one dead, and budget time is fast approaching.

Do we want to spend our money on a beach patrol, primarily versed in code enforcement and crowd control, or do we want to spend that money on a lifeguard program, primarily versed in rescue and positive beach interaction? Both cost roughly the same, but I see a lot more value in what the lifeguards do. I remember back in 2009 the lifeguard program was shut down even though there had been three lives saved by them in June of that year. I also remember what happened the next year: three deaths at Stearn's Beach due to drowning. The beach patrol was budgeted for 2011, with personnel costs slightly higher than the lifeguards and have continued since.

The arguments against lifeguards made by the City in those years had to do with liability, but it was never adequately explained to the people why a city that employs police and firefighters would cringe in fear at liability and run away from the rescue of a human life, or three. Perhaps that could be explained in some detail this time around so that you have a better explanation for when the parents of a drowning victim start asking you uncomfortable questions.

Let's at least consider reinstating a lifeguard program, it can be revenue neutral if you replace the beach patrol, it can serve as an additional draw for tourism as very few places offer lifeguard service. It can turn a headline of horror, into a headline of heroism. Thank you."

Despite these early appeals, there was no further discussion on the topic. Notables Budde Reed and William Anderson spoke in support of the veteran garden and other veteran projects, and Miss Sawyer Hendrickson explained the garden in detail. Jack Stibitz went next, commending city workers in their work during the drowning incident. Kaye Holman rounded it out by talking of microphone problems.

The hearing to approve the vacation and abandonment of 801 North Rowe took place thereafter with area resident 80 year old Julia Nickelson confused about the whole issue and why the city may want to abandon the alley and whether they planned on selling their warehouse to the north of the address, having received conflicting reports from city officials. I followed up myself, first admitting that the genesis of my comment was also confusion about this transaction.

XLFD: "While I'm thrilled that somebody may be redeveloping the historic Haskellite Building at 801 N Rowe, I do have some concerns about the process thus far. This public hearing was set at the last meeting without a lot of context. We had a letter from an attorney about their client purchasing the Haskellite Building and needing the alley vacated, we have a resolution drafted in order to do that for this meeting, along with a couple of maps. But absent is any reason why it is in the public's best interest to vacate and abandon this alleyway, rather than to retain it.

I would have expected a spokesman for Lofts on Rowe LLC to have introduced this to the public, either at the last meeting or between meetings and make their case for abandonment, but that's absent too. I am suspicious that they have made deals covertly with city council and planning commission members, as Councilor Kathy has signaled for the PC's Text Committee to relax the minimum square footages of living spaces for adaptive reuse of existing buildings at the July 10th PC meeting, likely in preparation for what she has heard from the LLC.

I also see that she and Councilor Joe have already set a mid August meeting to introduce the future of the building even before this abandonment is passed. I would love to see this building rehabilitated into residences but the company and the city, to borrow a common phrase from when this building was constructed in 1892, seems to be putting the cart before the horse in that process."

Councilor Winczewski explained that the alleys Julia was worried about were not likely the ones in dispute, these were ones covered up by the Wolverine (Haskellite) Building. But in looking over historical maps and the one supplied, the alley in question refers to one where a railway used to go through (in yellow on the map) and this actually falls under the City's warehouse to the north, which stores road salt, barrels picnic tables. etc., for the City.

It seems strange that the City is making light of their interest in this vacation, even without a sale of the property, which seems imminent. City assessing records do not record a sale, and the sale is likely going to be contingent with this alley issue settled and a change of zoning. The history behind this building is impressive, however, and it would be great if somebody could rehabilitate the building. I will have an article in the near future on this building's background.

Other items of business were contractual. The City agreed to hire engineering firm Prein & Newhof for two different projects: floating marina installation at the city marina and upgrading the lighting on Loomis Street while the street is worked on in 2020. They okayed an ordinance for a three year contract with EPS at the water plant for communication services. They considered and passed the last likely amendment for 2018 water utility improvements.

The most lasting item on board was approving a 40 year water supply deal with West Shore Community College, wherein the college will pay to connect to the City's water line adding their own water infrastructure in the process. The college has already okayed this deal at their last meeting, so this will start in earnest shortly.

A couple items were good for our kids. Miss Sawyer's garden was passed with praise, as was a request to put substance-free playground signs around various city parks. Cartier Park's season was extended to last until the Haunted Campground time in late October, with concerns raised by Councilor Serna as to liability issues. A road closure for a block party on Court Street between Washington and Emily was approved. Building permits were raised nominally to adjust to the extra work the inspector needs to do, and a lot split was approved for a vacant lot behind Edgar Struble's properties on Second Street, with the west part looking to be used as a parking facility, the east side as a backyard for an apartment house.

City councilors followed patting other city officials on the back for doing their jobs over the recent flooding, pulling barberry weeds at Cartier Park, hemlocks at other places. The city manager went over developing an orientation manual for city officials, the Growth Alliance's future, priority based budgeting and the upcoming visit by Manitowoc officials. The mayor reviewed the Marijuana Committee's progress after talking a bit about process and how it sometimes takes time.

He then covered the first of two serious issues, describing his experience at going down to the beach during the night of the drowning at Stearns and how it affected him. Then came the twist which surprised a lot of people that have seen the council moving in a positive direction lately at 1:23:00 in.

"The last item I bring no pleasure in bringing towards you but I'm going to read something." He read this: Sanction.pdf. Then asked "Do I have a motion", to which Councilor Winczewski moved, Councilor Lenius seconded, Serna's peers in the Building & Licenses Committee. He moved it into the record and asked for comments.

Councilor Winczewski: "Ive been on council for 5 years. This council is a team. We don't agree lots of times. We don't agree, and Mayor Miller and I disagree very vehemently about something. But I respect his opinions and I feel he respects mine. We need to as a council and as a working body, empower that. We need to respect each other, we need to discuss with each other with respect, but not put out things that are not true and not be rude and disrespectful. So I feel that this reprimand is appropriate, and it was proper to put it forward. So thank you."

Of course, the height of respect and teamwork in Councilor Kathy's perspective is branding somebody a rude, disrespectful liar in public with zero proof behind your words. Councilor Serna waited until the mayor asked for more comments before hitting back in measured tones.

Councilor Serna: "If we're supposed to work as a team then we shouldn't keep stuff from each other. It's all I gotta say." Yet she continued: "We're supposed to let the community know about things, we're supposed to be involved together. We're not supposed to be doing stuff behind each other's back. So let's make it a team then instead of doing things behind other people's backs."

Winczewski asked for an example, Serna replied: "Well, if I could know exactly which comment you were referring to, I can respond to it, but Mayor Miller refuses to tell me exactly what comment he is referring to. I make lots of comments on social media, using my own personal social media page in regards to stuff going on in the city, there are a lot of people in the city feeling the same way, but they're just afraid to say anything. I'm not afraid to say anything. I didn't cuss anybody out, I didn't call anybody a bad word, bad name or anything.

I said that people need to be doing their job. They need to be doing their job. Just like if you were to go somewhere and get service at a restaurant, and the restaurant was horrible, you would have every right to go on-line and say I had horrible service at so-and-so place. Are they going to call you out in public? They might, but you have every right to call them out in public. So why can't I, as a taxpaying citizen call somebody out in public for not doing their job? Or doing stuff behind people's backs? In reference to yours and Joe's meeting with the thing that's going on."

Some back and forth ensued about whether the coincidence of the developer meeting with two of the B&L Committee members but not her was made, before she finished with: "That's my comment. The truth hurts sometimes. And yet you reprimanded me." The motion passed with nobody voting against. We have since FOIA'ed the 'offensive' posts. See them here.

Since the meeting, I have communicated with both parties, sat with Mayor Miller for over two hours primarily discussing this one issue, looked over the records and have concluded that the charges against Councilor Serna are poorly founded, poorly communicated to the public, and that her posts did not merit such retributive action as this tribunal imposed.

Had Councilor Serna been an employee in a private firm saying critical things about the company and other employees, I could see disciplinary action being warranted after giving her a fair hearing to explain herself. But she is not. She is an elected official of the public body known as the "City of Ludington" reporting other employees/officials as either not doing their jobs or keeping secrets from the public, adding that the police chief will not accept the state's definition of a 'vehicle'.  Her charges have not been debunked.

Hers is not empty criticism, it is in the line of whistleblowing, and there are Michigan laws that protect whistleblowers from the corrupted government they may work for. The last time I saw a quasi-legal hearing like this was the last time I saw "Monty Python and the Holy Grail":

I was half tempted to defend the councilor and attack the process, but thought better of it when the second public comment followed.  Due to the process, I was in the dark as to whether there was a case to be made against her, just like everybody else who wasn't privy to be a city official. 

Yet, there was still a little fireworks left in the crowd who were still a bit stunned from what they saw.  Miss Sawyer thanked the council with her usual grace. Nancy Mustaikis talked in favor of short term rentals and advocated for the people living on the flooded corner of Rath and Melendy. Anna Nixon would later talk of her own problems living on that corner (1:39:10) which were substantial. Heather Hendrickson, Sawyer's mother, also spoke up about the street lake, and the health hazards-- and how coincidentally that the pumps start running when the water reaches Councilor Johnson's property. The councilor would deny this.

Lyla McClellan brought up the city's deer population, and wondered about sex offenders living at short term rentals. Larry Hathaway had more concerns about the alleys near the Wolverine building, and the prospect of many people living there. A few from the neighborhood were also in the audience.

The council ended on a light note, talking about Sawyer and her experiences, but the meeting adjourned, and contrary to what you may have heard, Councilor Serna did not fly home on a broomstick.

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It looks to me like the Mayor and the rest of the City Council are all guilty of doing what Councilwoman Serna was accused of doing. Many people in Ludington feel exactly the same way about our police department selecting which laws they will enforce and not enforcing all laws, anyone on the brakewall after it has been closed should be given a ticket, whether or not they washed into the lake. If citations were issued and made public maybe it would prevent a future drownings, people would think before walking on the pier if they thought they might have to pay a fine. I hope Mrs Serna continues to notify the public about unsafe conditions and wheather or not the city employees are doing their jobs.


I agree with your opening statement, I think it unseemly for one councilor to say another is not telling the truth and vote for censure, without explaining what exactly the other is lying about, and why it is a lie, if not readily apparent.  The listed criticisms of police and the chief are Councilor Serna's learned opinions-- that Councilor Winczewski does not agree with.  Instead of talking it over like an adult, as she does with the mayor, she instead calls Serna names in a public forum.  If that isn't hypocritical, I don't know what is.

I disagree with ticketing, but only because I think a verbal warning is more in order in most situations. which if it's unheeded, would result in a ticket.  

Seemingly very fair reporting, X, and thank you for waiting to comment until the facts were FOIA' d regarding the reprimand of Councilor Serna.

Ironically the Shoreline media just reported that 10 people were fined for disobeying breakwater closure.

I appreciate Serna's forthright honesty and concern and effort to do what is right. Thank you. Angela. And thank you, X for digging for the truth.

And even though I don't agree with the punishment or how the proceedings went, I do appreciate the mayor taking some time in laying out his case for me.  Several of his points were compelling, and I hope he isn't offended that I came to a conclusion that is different than his.  I just hope the City does not plan going further down this road and putting us all in jeopardy of paying for both sides in a legal contest. 

Some may be surprised I say that, knowing my history of litigation with the city, but when a city does not follow the rules and will never admit wrongdoing or fault, you will either have to be senselessly frustrated or sue.  

I'm glad to hear that Mayor Miller talked to you at length. I think that is a move in the right direction for a city to listen to the citizen's concerns.

Hopefully both sides learned from communicating with one another, even if your conclusions were different.

After reviewing the links again I can see better why the council may have got upset with Serna for the posts. It may have better been made as a Councilor communication to the open council at an open meeting rather than a post. How did the city (mayor perhaps?) propose that an issue such as this be discussed?

Or ... While Councilor Serna has a right to post her feelings, there was a conclusion of frustration in her tone. And she says she had tried to discuss directly with the chief before to no avail. The chief's superior is the city manager. I wonder to what extent Serna discuss the lack of the police doing their job (policing the break wall and beach I'm assuming) with the city manager?

Still I thank Serna for courage to stand up for what she feels is right and which may be a fix to a problem that haunts all the citizen's--that being the drowning of a 14 year old off our city Beach.

I advocate for lifeguards also. Less ticketing without warning, less uniformed presence and more friendly but skillful lifeguards.

The chief answers to the city managers however the manager answers to the council so serna was not going around the chain of command when she communicated directly with law enforcement. Sounds like sour  Grapes coming from the chief. He should have kept his mouth shut and just did his job. 

Also councilor wski does not understand that the council is not a team. Each councilor represent their district and therefore is political leader for her team, her precinct. Wski does not understand the adversarial side of politics. She needs a reality check.


Am almost certain as this plays out that Third Coast Development sees Councilor wski  as a rube, a stooge in the political arena who as long as they mention solar panels or windmills on the roof will be for whatever tax abatement scheme they propose. 

Interesting that they asked her to bring another like thinking Councilor to the meeting as well as Third Coasts choice of only passing out handbills in the neighborhood. Not exactly politically  astute on anyone's part especially in lieu of the fact that Third Coast was rejected in Manistee for their tax abatement plan for the Olson's Grocery Store Property.  They also hold title to the Glick property up there.

A word of advise to Councilor Wski, If you are playing a game of political poker and you don't recognize who the chump at the table is, you best leave the game.

Throughout the years, whenever I criticized the LPD for the many problems it has faced, Chief Barnett had no problem addressing me-- provided it was after my last opportunity to speak.  To him I was the shameful guy lobbing rocks from behind the bleachers and discrediting the good folks protecting and serving the city.  I can't recall exactly how many times he has coyly suggested that I may have problems getting help if I called 911, the only thing saving me might be the professionalism of those officers.  He dodges the truth of the critique every time in order to attack my character and motives.  

So I was kind of surprised when he remained quiet during the inquisition of Councilor Serna, rather than telling her that she ought to be ashamed of herself, yada yada.  I finally figured out why he was able to on review of the tape.  While the mayor was reading the charges, Councilor Winczewski signaled over at the police chief, and before the mayor was through, the chief's binky was in place.  This was a better planned impeachment than we thought.

One more thought regarding the decision to suspend the lifeguard program ... I wonder if it was suspended because if a city doesn't have lifeguards they then can't be as easily legally responsible for a drowning? I wonder if that is the reason many communities in our area suspended lifeguards? Swim at your own risk. There will be drownings, and guarding raging waters are a hard business. But I still agree, if we put two? Uniformed beach patrol on duty, that money may be better spent on dedicated lifeguards. I've seen the beach patrol with their back to the water activities apparently smoozing with pretty young girls at the concession area, the only time I've seen them down there. Maybe they were doing their job of "community interaction" but they did not seem dedicated to beach patrol at that time. And maybe I'll be censured for saying that, but that is the truth.

The beach normally had three lifeguards on duty during the summer, and they would have their zones on the beach, they wouldn't wander away from them.  Over the last 8 years, I would say I've probably cruised the beach at least 100 times during the tourist season on bicycle, foot or car, and I can only remember a handful of times when I saw either beach patroller west of the inner drive sidewalk, and only once on what would have been within a lifeguard's zone.  

Their job description and duties does not include rescue, just observe and report.  Beach security guards.

Really unbelievable attack on Councilor Serna. Just shows what happens when one tries to expose the truth. Seems like it may have been brought on by Councilor Wincewski. I hope she is checked on her secret meeting.


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