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March 26, 2019 12:59 am

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Former Saugatuck Township Planning Commission Chair Says Current Township Officials Facing Recall Are Abusing Power, Hiding Information From Public & Engaging in Questionable Legal Activities

Letter To The Editor

Reasons Why Citizens Are Voting For The Removal Of The Saugatuck Township Board.

The Saugatuck Township board, now under recall, is trying hard to convince voters this election is simply because some citizens didn’t agree with the “difficult” votes they’ve had to take. Hogwash!

This recall election is the direct result of the township board’s continuous abuse of its power and authority.

What this recall is NOT about is development. Equal numbers of supporters are both for and against development. As a planning commissioner, I never vote consistently either way. If a developer followed ordinances, they were approved.

Nor is this a political issue. Equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats joined this recall. Because current board members filled Republican slots, challenging candidates MUST run as Democrats or Independents.

But don’t be fooled. Vote for the candidate, not the party. Current board members facing recall are counting on your confusion. Even if you are a Republican voter, consider crossing over. Vote to elect William Wester, Sr., as clerk. He served as township supervisor for over ten years as a well-respected Republican. In this election, he must run as a Democrat, as well as candidates Jon Helmrich, Stacey Aldrich and Abby Bigford.

I’m writing to share some of our community’s experiences with this board.

While I was chair of the Saugtuck Township Planning Commission in April 2017, NorthShore’s developer called me. Clerk and Planning Commissioner Brad Rudich had sent internal township documents related to the development to him. At first the developer didn’t admit where he got the information, but after asking him four or five times, he admitted Rudich had forwarded it to him. “I didn’t ask him to do that or want him to,” he told me.

The developer went on to tell me that the first time he met with Rudich, Saugatuck Township Zoning Administrator Steve Kushion and Saugatuck Township Manager Aaron Sheridan, they discussed NorthShore’s development. “These guys told me they were unhappy with how the McClendon process went and didn’t want to let that happen again,” he said.

He told me this group told him that if he followed ordinances, “they would make sure this time his development would get approved.” Repeatedly the developer referred to Rudich, Kushion and Sheridan as “those knuckleheads.” “They shouldn’t be doing this,” he said laughing.

On April 18, 2017 I sought advice from Saugatuck Township Attorney Scott Smith about this discussion. Smith grew visibly frustrated and told me he was aware of Rudich’s many external discussions with the developers. “I saw Rudich on the phone again with them just this morning!” he told me.

As a planning commissioner, Rudich had a vote on NorthShore’s development. His discussions with developers, outside of official township business as clerk, were therefore considered “ex parte” discussions and unethical. When information is exchanged with developers, but not shared with all the commissioners who can then evaluate it, it can invalidate any of the decisions the commission makes on that development. This NorthShore developer was well aware of that potential and insisted he didn’t ask for, nor did he want, Rudich’s or Sheridan’s help.

Smith and I discussed what might be done. We knew removal of Rudich from the Planning Commission, or any discipline, would likely go before the five-member township board on which Rudich had formed a three-member majority alliance.

Rudich had learned the power of consistently voting in a bloc with his good friend and golf buddy, Saugatuck Township Trustee Doug Lane, and his office mate, Saugatuck Township Treasurer Lori Babinski. As a result, on every vote of the board over the last years, whatever this small group wanted passed - and no matter what pushback from other board members - they consistently ignored input from citizens and appointed officials.

Told of the problems, Township Attorney Smith wearily suggested “training,” and nothing was ever done.

When the NorthShore plans were presented to the Planning Commission that month, three of five planning commissioners involved in the decision, including myself, went to Rudich to request the assistance of a planning consultant. Rudich defiantly blocked our request and later instructed Zoning Administrator Kushion to tell me that a lawyer’s advice was enough, and if I wanted planning guidance for our commissioners, I would have to “find a way to pay for consultants” on my own.

As a result, our planning commissioners received no professional planning assistance with decisions on the complex marina and planned unit development (PUD) surrounding it.

I spent days pouring over township ordinances trying to understand which of our complex laws were relevant. This was a long list. In spite of that diligent effort, I overlooked Zoning Ordinance Sec. 40-910-(h) which disallows excavating a canal or channel for the purposes of increasing water frontage on the Kalamazoo River.

During the planning meeting for the final vote on the marina, Saugatuck Township attorneys were also caught off guard on the potential application of section (h) of 40-910. When citizens wanted to discuss that section of the ordinance, Township Attorney Smith scrambled, but effectively blocked discussion by advising that it wasn’t on the “agenda.” The commission was rushed and forced to vote on the marina with little to no discussion of how this pivotal ordinance might apply.

Even with further discussion, a majority of the votes might well have been the same. But I, for one, would have voted differently. After studying that ordinance in detail, in my opinion, the NorthShore marina is a clear example of exactly what that law was written to prevent, and it is illegal.

Instead of being forced to rely solely on the township attorney’s advice, a planning consultant would have been more appropriate to assist us further with that determination.

Rudich was only one Planning Board commissioner, not even chair, but blocked four fellow planning commissioners from professional guidance because of his role on the Saugatuck Township Board. Ethically, because of his declared bias and ex-parte conversations, Rudich should have recused himself and not voted on any of the NorthShore plans. In my opinion, Rudich’s obstruction left the Planning Commission - our citizens only representatives on such issues - woefully unprepared to adequately assess this complex development.

Those obstructions were crippling. No one knew that better than highly respected planning commissioner Joe Milauckas. When Milauckas formally sent Rudich a letter in May 2017 requesting details on the justification for the restrictions on our planning commissioners’ access to professional assistance, he was rudely ignored.

Rudich knew Milauckas was up for reappointment that summer. Milauckas tried sending a second request to him a few weeks later, but in July 2017 the township board, including Rudich, coldly voted to replace this dedicated, valuable civil servant to loud public outcry. Commissioner Milauckas never received an answer.

After public pushback, a planning consultant was retained, but not until too late. The marina vote was done. It required only one vote because it was a “special approval use.” All that was left was the final PUD approval, which was more housekeeping than regulating.

But once again Rudich controlled our access to information.

We were instructed not to contact the consultant directly, even while she spent hours together with the developers. We were only allowed to ask her questions at the meeting in which we were to take the final vote. I voted no. Ethically, I couldn’t approve plans that, in my opinion, were never adequately assessed. That consultant’s input was useless.

Rudich eventually wrote a defiant “letter to the editor” in a local paper. The majority of planning consultant fees are always paid out of a developers’ escrow funds set up for that purpose, but Rudich claimed he denied the commission assistance because of township budget considerations. I will leave it to the voters to decide if they believe that…. or not.

The board’s battles with our township firefighters have also reached epic proportions. Instead of working together with our firefighters, this board has attempted to villainize them. Rudich even accused Saugatuck Township Fire Chief Greg Janik of trying to take money from citizens by “rummaging around in people’s homes after a fire trying to find reasons to charge inappropriate cost recovery fines in order to ‘pad’ his salary.”

Chief Janik, a long-standing, highly respected leader in our community, would not even consider such insulting, ridiculous actions. And everyone on the township board knows that! He has spent his entire career unselfishly educating and protecting this community. Many of us cringe at the board and many of its supporters’ almost daily disrespectful treatment of our first responders.

The fact is, cost recovery fees in the township are minuscule and were applied only seven times over the last five years to township citizens, affecting less than 1% (.52) of those who received the services of the fire department. In the last two years not one fee was levied.

And ironically, the use of cost recovery fees, which are used only when fires result from some form of illegal action, are becoming a well-accepted practice in communities across Michigan. These regulatory fees actually benefit the vast majority of taxpayers by keeping firefighting costs low for citizens who follow our laws.

This dangerous feud with our first responders will only continue to escalate to the determent of all our citizens’ safety until this current Saugatuck Township board is removed.

Officials in Douglas and Saugatuck have also clashed with Rudich, Lane, Babinski and fellow trustee Roy McIlwaine, as well as Sheridan. These officials stand firmly behind our firefighters and refuse to alter their fire safety laws. These officials will no longer even meet with Sheridan after he unethically taped one of their meetings without their consent.

Township Manager Sheridan’s well-documented performance issues, including vulgar language and threats, have caused severe problems for our township. Rudich, Babinski, Lane, and McIlwaine condone Sheridan’s unprofessional behavior by protecting him. They know that no matter how loud the public outcry, without township board votes he cannot be removed. Sheridan knows this too, and even though he is a township employee, he has continued (many say unethically) to campaign for the reelection of his benefactors. We don’t have to wonder why.

And then there is the Sheridan suing debacle (they are suing The Local Observer over reporting on son Aaron Sheridan’s actions and other township news) which never ends. Rather than build support for their son to keep his job, seems logical this family’s misguided actions will actually hurt his and other long-time community members’ local job prospects. Their aggressive behavior will likely cause regional employers and local government officials to think twice about hiring “homegrown” applicants, if they believe they won’t be able to manage an employee’s performance effectively without fear of such public reprisals from local family members.

If this current board is not removed, bickering, unsubstantiated denigration of our first responders and neighboring community leaders, turmoil with township citizens and small businesses, etc., will all continue. Nothing will change. Many good citizens have been driven away from volunteering to fill civic roles. I’ve been told some citizens are too afraid to speak out or even go into township offices for fear of the “cold shoulder” or some other, even worse, retribution.

This is not how democratic government is supposed to function.

William “Bill” Wester, Sr., running for clerk to replace Rudich, is a good man, married for over forty years to wife, Deb. Deb often contributes by volunteering her gardening talents to our community. Bill has extensive experience in township governance. As mentioned, recently he spent ten years as Saugatuck Township supervisor and before that he was on the zoning board. Bill has expertise in all aspects of our township business and will make an excellent clerk!

Jon Helmrich, running for treasurer, has strong, directly applicable financial experience with thirty years of nonprofit budget management. He has represented the township for four years on the Harbor Authority. Jon will make an effective and transparent treasurer. We’ve all witnessed this man’s class in the face of the opposition’s adversity. Jon is a born leader, who has an innate ability to always find consensus among diverse opinions. He is a strong choice to help regain control of our “ship” and set it on the right course again as our treasurer.

All four candidates challenging the board are highly intelligent and will quickly learn their responsibilities. Because the current township board members have experience they’re convinced that’s all it will take not to remove them. What? How ridiculous! Elected positions ALWAYS turn over. That’s the very foundation of our democracy.

And frankly, no amount of experience in a role can teach integrity, leadership, or just plain respect for others.

Please consider these many reasons to vote for William Wester, Sr., Abby Bigford, Stacey Aldrich and Jon Helmrich for positions on the Saugatuck Township board.

Former Saugatuck Township Planning Commission Chair Says Current Township Officials Facing Recall Are Abusing Power, Hiding Information From Public & Engaging in Questionable Legal Activities

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