Saugatuck Officials Decide To Ignore Illegal Signs Placed In Public Rights-Of-Way
Saugatuck and Douglas residents are violating city law by placing signs and placards in the public right-of-ways in connection with the upcoming Nov. 5 vote on consolidation.
But at least in Saugatuck, officials say they are turning a blind eye to the illegal actions, raising questions, concerns and angry accusations by some that political vested interest is at play.
In a questionable move, the Saugatuck City Council discussed the controversial issue during a recent workshop session and then agreed to a decision by Saugatuck City Manager Kirk Harrier to not uphold the law by letting the illegal signs remain in place.
To make matters worse, say critics of the city council’s and city manager’s actions, no mention of the sign issue or the council/city manager’s decision to ignore the law was placed on the public agenda so citizens would know what had been decided regarding the illegal signs.
Those critical of the city officials’ decision say there is something more nefarious at play.
“Most of the illegal signs are anti-consolidation and most, if not all, city officials of both Saugatuck and Douglas are anti-consolidation supporters as well,” says Jack Brenard, co-owner of a Saugatuck home who also lives in Chicago.
“A law should be enforced no matter what; we don’t give city officials the power to pick and choose which laws they will enforce and which they won’t. That’s not why we have laws and that’s not why they are in government,” says Brenard.
“And isn’t it interesting that the city wants to ignore this law when most of the illegal signs support their anti-consolidation positions, including those of Saugatuck Mayor Bill Hess who is a leader of the main anti-consolidation group, Citizens for Independent and Cooperative Communities (CICC)?
“What if we all decide which laws we’ll abide by and which we won’t? This decision by city officials is what leads to disrespect of our legal system and eventually anarchy. It’s the good-old-boy sytem rearing its head once again in Saugatuck and Douglas and it’s just plain wrong!”
If both Saugatuck and Douglas voters approve consolidation in the upcoming election in November, the two governments would merge and some government staffers and elected officials are expected to lose their jobs and elected positions and power, says Brenard.
“At best, their (Saugatuck city officials’) actions are self-serving and at the worst they are permitting the law to be violated to help protect their own jobs,” he added.
Asked to respond, Hess said that the “sheer volume” of the number of signs throughout the city makes it impossible to deal with them.
But that argument holds little sway with Hess’ and the council’s detractors.
In the past when problems with illegally placed signs arose in Saugatuck, for example, the city’s Zoning Administrator and/or employees of the Saugatuck Department of Public Works were sent out to remove them, they argue.
The entire issue over the illegal signs and the city officials’ questionable decision to ignore the law arose at Monday’s city council meeting.
And it wasn’t council members that brought it out in the open so the public would learn about it and their decision.
That came about only after Catherine Simon, local business owner and member of the pro-consolidation group - Consolidated Government Committee (CGC) - brought it up during public comments.
Simon says she also questions city officials’ motives, noting the council discussed the problem of signs in the public-right-of-ways during last week’s workshop and “tacitly agreed” not to enforce it, while at the same time not providing a proper public platform by which the public could be kept abreast of the issue and have the opportunity to comment.
Hess confirmed that there was, in fact, a “decision” regarding the signs during the workshop session.
“It was an administrative decision,” said Hess. “Due to the sheer volume of signs - and it must be said here, that they are temporary and of political nature - the problem is that we don’t have the staff resources to enforce the sign ordinance. Those cited would have 14 days to correct the violation.”
Hess continued, “As long as they are not a safety hazard or a visibility issue, it was determined that we wouldn’t enforce it. Douglas, I believe, is taking a similar approach.”
Asked why the decision to not enforce the sign ordinance wasn’t made in an open council meeting where the public could learn about it, Saugatuck City Manager Harrier said, “This wasn’t a vote and the council did not take action; it was a question that was brought up by a council member - there are too many signs in the right-of-ways. They asked for my advice.”
“Hogwash,” says Brenard. “You can’t get around the law by all of them getting together and quietly discussing an issue and then agreeing to ignore the law. Just because they didn’t officially vote on it doesn’t mean their actions were in accordance with the law on how these matters should be handled. They discussed it; they made a decision and they chose not to tell the public about it. End of story!”
Simon agrees, noting, “The most troubling part of this is that it’s a violation of the rule of law for the council - even if they didn’t vote on it - but they moved forward in a passive agreement and they didn’t inform the citizenry.
“They (city officials) made an active decision not to enforce the local ordinance because it is beneficial to them not to enforce it because it supports their position; ‘This time we like the way things are looking so we won’t observe the law.’”
Harrier argues that, “There isn’t anybody from the community complaining about it. If people were complaining and that was something the community wanted to address, then we would drop everything to deal with it; we would stop construction of roads, we would stop applications before the planning commissions.”
He says Simon was the first and only resident that had at this point expressed concern about the local ordinance violations.
During Monday’s meeting, Simon asked the council, “The ordinance is still on the books, right?” Harrier responded in the affirmative. Simon then asked if the city would cite her in violation of the law if she were to put a sign in the public right-of-way in front of her downtown business. “No,” said Harrier.
The city manager is either ignorant of the law or being totally disenguous, says Brenard.
“It’s not a question of whether anyone in the public has so far complained about the issue of the signs,” he says.
“It’s a violation of law! His job and the city’s job is to enforce the law, not come up with reasons to ignore illegal acts.
“And as far as there being too many signs, are you kidding me? It would take someone in a DPW truck about an hour or two to drive by and grab those illegal signs. Who is Harrier trying to kid?
“Everyone who lives in Saugatuck or Douglas should be concerned about this. What if next time someone violates the law and it impacts you directly and the city decides to ignore the law for some reason?
“A law is passed so everyone, including city officials, have to abide by it. This is not only wrong, it’s frightening in its implications,” he adds.