Saugatuck Township Asks For - Receives - Lower Rates From Its Attorney Bultje
“Our legal bills are projected to be considerably less in 2014,” wrote Saugatuck Township Supervisor Bill Wester in a February 6 memo to township Attorney Ron Bultje, requesting a change in the legal service agreement with the lawyer.
The Saugatuck Township Board briefly discussed the issue at last Wednesday’s meeting, saying they wanted to reduce legal costs as much as possible for the local taxpayers.
“He (Bultje) has agreed to lower the cap from ($50,0000 to $40,000),” said Saugatuck Township Manager Aaron Sheridan, referring to last year’s agreement between the township and the attorney to drop the hourly legal service rate from $130 per hour to $100 per hour when the township reached $50,000 in legal costs.
Bultje responded to Wester’s inquiry last Thursday: “That is certainly acceptable to me. I value the township as a client and I appreciate the opportunity to work with you and the other township people. Thank you for that.”
In recent years, the township had been plagued by mounting legal costs associated with local and federal court disputes with Oklahoma City natural gas magnate Aubrey McClendon.
At the end of 2012, the township had to pay more than $430,000 in legal fees for the township to fight a lawsuit with McClendon, an amount for which insurance covered $100,000 and public donations provided $45,000.
In 2010, the township electorate approved a two-year 0.5 mill levy, generating $247,435 to help cover legal expenses.
That levy was proposed and passed after a local environmental group secretly agreed with then-township officials to come up with about $100,000 to help cover part of the cost of litigation with McClendon, but the public was never informed of that development before the vote, according to records obtained by Observer Newspapers.
Later, the environmental group - Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance (SDCA) - only came up and provided the township with roughly a third of that amount despite its earlier assurances to the officials.
As of today, the township has settled all its legal wrangling with McClendon’s local land firm, Singapore Dunes LLC.
However, given the history and the ongoing development proposal, the township could conceivably face another legal challenge either by McClendon or those opposing his plans, namely the pro-preservation group SDCA.
The group has consistently challenged the developer and township officials, including filing suit in circuit court last year asking the court to void the township’s critical dunes overlay restrictions alleging state of Michigan law preempted them.
The developer’s proposal to develop the 310-acre of duneland north of the Kalamazoo River and fronting Lake Michigan has caused much controversy among locals and environmental groups the last several years.
Tensions rose when a series of related lawsuits and court actons caused financial hardship and threaten the township’s financial stability.