Saugatuck Township Officials Are Harassing Residents Who Signed Recall Petitions To Remove Them From Office & Trying To Intimidate Them, Says Township Supervisor Jon Phillips
Saugatuck Township Board officials and staff had a meltdown during last Wednesday’s meeting.
Feeling the pressure of possibly losing their seat and/or their job in an ongoing recall initiative that will be part of the ballot for the general election in November, township officials had, by Trustee Roy McIlwaine’s own admission, “a venting session,” and went on in an all-out attack against The Local Observer newspaper, Saugatuck Township Fire District Chief Greg Janik and the two township residents that initiated the recall effort agains them: Cindy Osman and Kathy Sturm.
The outbursts came towards the end of the meeting and it was all captured in a video recording of the meeting, available online at: www.saugatucktownshiprecall.com.
Among the statements made by the beleagured township officials, Saugatuck Township Trustee Lori Babinski—one of four on the Saugatuck Township Board who is being recalled and who very rarely makes any public comments—publicly admitted she had personally contacted five residents who had signed the recall petition to ask them why they had signed it, immediately raising ethical and legal questions.
The other board members who are being targeted for recall are Saugatuck Township Clerk Brad Rudich and Trustees Roy McIlwaine and Douglas Lane. Many township residents also say they want Saugatuck Township Manager Aaron Sheridan removed from his position due to serious and repeated “anger-filled explosions against residents and other government officials, lying and false statements on myriad government issues.”
Several township residents have confirmed to The Local Observer and also went to Saugatuck Township Supervisor Jonathan Phillips—the only board member who is not being recalled — to complain that they are being harassed by township officials for having signed the recall petition.
Voters that signed the recall petitions and are going to township hall to conduct routine business are being confronted by township officials in what Phillips has characterized as behavior meant to “intimidate.”
“Legal or not, nobody should be doing that, especially on township business time. How does it appear to our constituents? With what they (my colleagues on the township board) have over their heads (facing recall in the November general election), I don’t understand why they would do that,” Phillips told The Local Observer last Friday.
Michigan Department of State (under which the bureau of elections is placed) spokesperson Fred Woodhams told The Local Observer last Friday he is not aware of any state law that prohibits municipal officials facing recall from calling those voters that sign the recall petition to ask them why they signed the petition.
However, state officials also warn against calls or encounters that cross the line into harassment or intimidation, in which case would bring about grounds for a lawsuit.
Saugatuck Township Supervisor Phillips went on, noting, “To me, it sounds (from the complaints I have received from constituents) a lot like intimidation.
“They (constituents) are being verbally harangued by township officials and don’t feel welcome to come to the office if they are going to be scrutinized as to why they signed the petitions. I don’t think this is right; people shouldn’t feel uncomfortable (in dealing with their government),” added Phillips.
To provide an example, Phillips spoke about a woman that went to township hall for a routine business issue only to be accosted by township officials for signing the petition. She went home in tears from the way she was treated; her husband later confronted officials about it at the township hall, pleading for them to stop.
Phillips said he was not comfortable divulging names of persons who contacted him to file a complaint. Similarly, there are those who spoke with The Local Observer to confirm their bad experiences with the township officials, but asked for anonymity for fear of even more retaliation from those same township officials.
There are resources and options for voters and recall signees to turn to if they feel they are being harassed by their township officials, according to the grassroots organization Saugatuck Township Recall Committee on its website: www.saugatucktownshiprecall.com
Meanwhile, Phillips’ colleagues, including Sheridan, have not responded to The Local Observer’s request (they were all emailed with requests for comments, including a call to McIlwaine) for comment about the alleged harassment on their part.
The township officials were asked whether or not they had any qualms about Babinski using her role as township treasurer and as a public employee—using taxpayers’ time, energy and resources—to call and question people who had signed the recall and whether or not they thought Babinski’s actions constituted unethical, if not illegal behavior.
Babinski said during the township board comment section of the agenda last Wednesday, “I picked up my signatures on Monday, and I just reached out to five people and four people said they didn’t even know what they were signing. The fifth one said she was signing because it was to save the dunes. And I thought, ‘What is going on?’ So I think it’s just dirty politics.”
“And for Chief Janik, I am disappointed that you are circulating petitions. You signed it twice which is against Michigan election law. It’s just really sad.”
“It is very sad. I take no pleasure in it,” responded Janik, as to why he supports removing four of the five township officials from office.
“Well, yeah, I think you despise me. I am afraid if I had a house fire right now, you’ll take the long way there. I just feel really heartbroken,” said Babinski.
Janik responded with, “I am sorry you feel that way.”
With regards to Janik signing recall petition documents twice, Saugatuck Township resident Erin Wilkinson, who is involved with the recall effort and participated as signature circulator, told The Local Observer, “It is my fault and I will own up to it.”
Wilkinson has also videotaped many township board and fire districts meetings and posted them online, often pointing to the alleged failings and wrongdoing of township officials.
Wilkinson said she had mistakenly told Janik—himself a signature collector—to sign someone’s sheet of signatures in order to certify the sheet. Michigan law dictates that circulators can certify their own signature sheet.
“I thought you couldn’t certify your own signature sheet, so I told the chief (Janik) to sign someone’s sheet and then to complicate matters even more, in the rush, I forgot to put a line through one of his two signatures.”
Either way, petitioners are confident Wilkinson’s mistake will have no negative impact on the signature validation process or the overall recall effort.
The recall committee, on Monday, Feb. 26, submitted 435 petition signatures to the Allegan County Clerk Office, who is currently reviewing and verifying the signatures.
Voters will have the opportunity in November elections to remove Rudich, Babinski, Lane and McIllwaine from office and replace them with a new slate of township leaders.
Sheridan serves at the pleasure of the township board officials.