Township Attorney Miffed At Officials' Criticism
There are two questions in play for Saugatuck Township regarding its current legal counsel, Ron Bultje:
1. What hourly rate to continue to pay him at?
2. And should he or should he not continue representing the township relative to Oklahoma City gas magnate Aubrey McClendon’s Singapore Dunes property development application, particularly in providing assistance to the township’s Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA)?
Both issues were discussed at last week’s Saugatuck Township board meeting and both issues are drawing mixed opinion on the part of township board members.
The debate also is causing some tension between Bultje and certain township officials, as indicated by a recent letter from Bultje to the township in which he points out that “inaccurate criticisms” has been leveled against him.
As a result of the brewing controversy, some decisions by officials are being postponed on grounds that further discussion, reflection and exploration need to occur beforehand.
On the matter of getting a new attorney for the ZBA, a six-member advisory legal committee recently came to a deadlock after two meetings.
Following that ordeal, the board then determined last week it will wait until after the ZBA meets next week - March 28 - to interpret and determine what the township’s ordinance precisely dictates regarding how much open space is required for McClendon’s 25-home proposed project, specifically in the critical dunes district portion of the land he owns along Lake Michigan.
On the matter of Bultje’s pay rate, for 2012 the attorney says he provided the township with a “voluntarily” reduced rate of $100 per hour. After 2012, Bultje says, the rate was programmed to return to its pre-2012 rate of $130 per hour.
While some township officials would like to extend the $100 rate, others argue Bultje has already been generous enough.
“(The $130 rate) is a rate that is technically expected,” said Saugatuck Township Supervisor Bill Wester.
He is proposing that Bultje be paid the pre-2012 rate of $130 per hour, but cap it once - and if - legal expenses reach $40,000 for the year.
Once - and if - Bultje’s bills reach that figure, Wester is proposing the 2012 rate of $100 be imposed.
Wester says the issue will continue to be discussed with the attorney as well as board members.
In an e-mail dated February 28, 2013, sent to Wester, Bultje writes, in part, “I’m confident that my long-time rate of $130 per hour is still less than the rates charged by the vast majority of attorneys. However, very frankly, if it would help matters with the Saugatuck Township Board, I’m willing to go back to the $100 rate.”
He continued, “If I would do that, I would hope that at least township officials would refrain from the inaccurate criticisms leveled at me during the past months. Neither of us can control the public. However I felt a bit foolish for voluntarily reducing even my rates to help the township and then having township officials make inaccurate comments about me and maybe even…criticize me for being cheap and not good enough.”
“I don’t mean that township officials can’t criticize me. But I’d like to at least have a cooperative enough relationship with them that they would strive to be very accurate in whatever they say about me, and even give me a chance to defend myself before I (along with many of my other clients) read inaccurate and unfair criticisms in the newspapers.”
The March 28 ZBA meeting, which will take place at Laketown Township Hall at 5 p.m., will address the contentious issue of open space requirements for McClendon’s development plans.
Bultje and Saugatuck Township Planner Mark Sisson advised the township in December that the township’s current ordinance can be read to mean that two-acre lots in the critical dunes district is adequate open space.
Others, such as members of the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance (SDCA), long-time opponents of McClendon’s development plans, say the ordinance requires 35 percent open space.
The SDCA is appealing the Saugatuck Township Planning Commission preliminary approval of McClendon’s first-phase proposal, saying Bultje’s open space interpretation is incorrect.