Some Saugatuck Business Owners Call City Officials "Bullies"
Cold, snowy, and somewhat stormy, the weather outside of Saugatuck City hall Monday night served as an appropriate backdrop for what was going on inside.
The atmosphere got agitated as some residents and business owners continue to fiercely charge city staff and council members of being derisive and taking on a bully attitude against some businesses.
The critics brought up varied issues, including allegations city officials are inappropriately and illegally questioning voters’ residencies and voters’ rights as well as allegations city officials’ communication tone -whether in conversation, emails, or letters - is “dismissive.”
City officials, on the other hand, say they are sticking to their responsibilities and always attempt to communicate and relate to residents and businesses alike in a “professional” and amicable manner.
The situation has become so tumultuous that both city officials and critics are accusing each other of “intimidation.”
Doug McIntosh, who co-owns Roan & Black Saugatuck Contemporary Art Gallery with his life partner John Newland, confronted officials Monday regarding back-and-forth emails between Newland and Saugatuck City Manager Kirk Harrier regarding the city’s schedule for workshops and meetings .
Newland said he was inquiring about the possibility of changing times to accommodate businesses’ busy day schedules.
He said he felt Harrier’s email tone in his response “was quite frankly unprofessional and dismissive.”
Saugatuck City Mayor Bill Hess unequivocally denied that was the case, saying Harrier’s email correspondence was “a really good response,” and affirmed Harrier’s position: it is difficult to accommodate everyone’s schedule.
Newland, in one email to Harrier, calls for council workshops to be scheduled early morning or evening hours, 6 p.m. or 7 p.m., noting, “Instead you choose to do during business hours…making it difficult for all. It is as if you could care less about the business owners at all! At least that is how the actions read.”
Harrier responded, in part, “I’m sorry you interpreted the scheduling of this meeting to specifically review the Water Street project as a message that the city ‘could care less about the business owners.’ I can assure you that is the furthest thing from the truth.
“This week I have personally reached out to a number of business owners (Pat Murphy, Pat Shanahan, Mike Johnson, Monica Vanhorn, and Marilyn Starring) on Water Street and have received positive feedback regarding the upcoming meeting.”
McIntosh also confronted the city council with the following on Monday: “I need to know why our emails (his and Newland’s) are being sent out outside city hall (disseminated to the public). This is looking funny, Bill (Hess). I would like a response from the city manager.”
Hess responded, “I don’t remember sending out (your emails) to a lot of people…it is all public knowledge.”
The more serious charge against city officials is that they are in violation of the law governing “elector challenges,” for which local resident Daniel Fox issued a prepared statement on Monday.
The charge stems from a March 11, 2014 letter from Saugatuck City Clerk Monica Looman sent to business and life partners McIntosh and Newland in which Looman informs them the city received information indicating they no longer had a permanent residence in the city.
Looman’s letter reads, in part, “Please be advised that you will not be allowed to vote until you respond to the challenge under oath and are determined to be eligible to vote in this jurisdiction. You may appear in person at my office and answer under oath the questions regarding your qualifications as an elector of the City of Saugatuck.”
Newland characterized the letter as a “dubious scare tactic” while McIntosh says that “the underlying message is: ‘You don’t live in the city, stay the hell out of our city.”
Newland and McIntosh are not the only ones who read the letter as having a tone of intimidation; it lead Fox to lodge an ethics violation complaint (paragraph 2 of the Ethical standards) against the city clerk and unnamed members of Saugatuck council.
Fox argued the city’s actions were an attempt “to keep him (Newland) from making critical comments to or about the city council in his capacity as a representative of local businesses.”
Newland and McIntosh are asking the city why they would mail them such a letter; is it the usual, normal protocol and is it necessary particularly since they are not denying they no longer live within the city boundaries - they say they now live in Saugatuck Township - and that that obviously changes where one can vote?
Looman says she is merely adhering to her responsibilities, saying the letter is a “state (of Michigan) generated letter” via the State Qualified Voter File, with the content actually provided by state guidelines.
“They (Fox, Newland, and McIntosh) are trying to intimidate me from performing my job the way I took an oath to do so,” Looman told the Observer.
She further noted, “The burden is left to the voter to provide the local clerk with proof of residency. When an individual has moved and hasn’t updated their voter registration/drivers license and the clerk has verifiable information that the individual has moved, these state generated letters are sent as a courtesy to the individuals so they are aware of the election law so they don’t disenfranchise themselves from voting.
“In most cases individuals won’t receive such a letter as when one moves the individual/voter does their due diligence and changes their address/voter registration/drivers license with either their local jurisdiction, by mail or the Secretary of State’s office…”
In contrast, Fox on Monday cited state statute (MCL 168.512) to assert the city was violating elector challenges, noting:
“The language of the statute is unambiguous: such a challenge requires that an elector, not the clerk, challenge another elector. And to do this, a written affidavit from an elector (i.e., registered voter) must be sent to the clerk.”