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March 26, 2019 12:45 am

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Voters Remove Controversial Saugatuck Township Board Members From Office

In Tuesday’s historical Saugatuck Township recall election, the four challenging candidates that ran to replace those being targeted by the citizen group-driven recall effort handily beat the incumbents, according to the unofficial tally of the Allegan County Clerk’s Office.

The four new township government officials - Jon Helmrich, Bill Wester, Abby Bigford and Stacey Aldrich - were sworn into office Wednesday immediately replacing the former officials: Clerk Brad Rudich, Treasurer Lori Babinski, and Trustees Doug Lane and Roy McIlwaine.

“The large turnout (71%) and the large vote for all four of us shows that the voters were engaged, aware and ready for a change,” Saugatuck Township Treasurer-Elect Jon Helmrich told The Local Observer on Tuesday.

“Again, by getting out there and meeting hundreds of voters in their homes put a human face on the campaign and taught us so much about what people are most concerned about in the township,” noted Helmrich.

Independent elections public officer Pat Phenix, appointed by the Allegan County Clerk’s office, oversaw the township’s voting process.

Controversy plagued the ousted township officials (Babinski, Lane, McIlwaine and Rudich) as well as Township Manager Aaron Sheridan) until the very end.

In recent posts, Facebook users (both in the Saugatuck Township Board Reelect group and Saugatuck Township Recall group) raised ethical and legal concerns about the then-incumbents’ camp’s recent actions—including on the very day of the election—of illegally hanging political flyers on residential post boxes.

Federal law prohibits anyone other than a postal employee from placing anything on or in a home or business owners’ mailbox.

The outcry from concerned voters was such that it forced Rudich to issue an apology.

“We were told by a postal worker that it was okay. The postmaster says that it is not. Our apologies,” wrote Rudich in a post on the now-dissolved Saugatuck Township Board Reelect’s Facebook page.

All four of the challenging candidates won by a landslide and will serve the balance of what is normally a four-year term through November 2020.

Bill Wester took the clerk seat from Brad Rudich (1,113 vs. 817 votes). Jon Helmrich unseated Lori Babinski for the treasurer post (1,061 vs. 875 votes). Abby Bigford won against Roy McIIwaine for one of the trustee seats (1,105 vs. 815). And Stacey Aldrich garnered the most votes in the other trustee challenge, 1,174 votes against Doug Lane’s 750.

Saugatuck Township Supervisor Chris Roerig—the only board member not a target of the recall—ran unopposed.

“It was time for a change,” said Wester, a former long-time serving township board member.

“There were many questionable actions by them (the incumbents). Not everything. When it came to the mechanical aspects—bills getting paid, et cetera—that was executed just fine; it was the judgment part that was impaired (the way the ousted incumbents related to their constituents, fire department personnel, and their government counterparts in Saugatuck and Douglas) and they got called out on it.”

Wester was referring to the numerous problems called out by the citizen group which advanced the recall and many backers, including many outside the township jurisdiction: lack of transparency, social media posts on the part of now-ousted incumbents disseminating flagrant misinformation to tarnish the image of the local fire department and the fire chief, lack of accountability, and so on.

The many inappropriate actions of Saugatuck Township Manager Aaron Sheridan - including verbal assaults against former Township Supervisor Jon Phillips, being thrown out of a meeting by Rudich with the township fire chief, providing false information to the public and other government officials and more - led to his public reprimand by the board and an order to undergo anger management therapy.

Asked if she would vote to remove Sheridan from his post following those and other well-documented incidents of unprofessionalism, insubordination and belligerence during his stint at the township hall, Bigford told The Local Observer:

“Comprehensive reviews for all township employees must be a first priority. Aaron Sheridan will naturally be under greater scrutiny.”

Sheridan and his ousted township board bosses either declined comment or were unavailable for comment.

Because Michigan law (MCL 168.345) provides that township offices be elected on a partisan basis and because the Saugatuck Township Board members filled Republican slots, the challenging candidates were compelled to run as Democrats or Independents.

In other election news, voters from the cities of Saugatuck and Douglas re-elected their candidates; in each respective case, four candidates ran unopposed for four open seats for two-year terms, expiring in 2020.

In the City of Douglas, those re-elected included Linda Anderson, Patricia Lion, Aaron Miller and Neal Seabert. In the City of Saugatuck, they were Mark Bekken, Barry Johnson, Ken Trester and Jane Verplank.

In the City of Fennville, in a proposition that Fennville commissioners say will bring the operating millage back up to 15 mills (an increase by 6 mills from the current millage), the electorate voted 244-to-154 to override the Headlee Rollback.

Also, the electorate voted for Julio Almanza and Ross Thiele to fill posts on the Fennville Public Schools Board.

In the other area’s school board election, voters re-elected Saugatuck Public Schools Trustees Gordon Stannis as well as newcomers Nicole Lewis and Eric Birkholz to the education posts.

Voters Remove Controversial Saugatuck Township Board Members From Office

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