Thursday, Jan. 25 the new Potterville city council met for the first time in 2018. The four-hour meeting covered everything from filling a council seat vacancy, selection of a new mayor, committee appointments, a brief presentation from the city’s attorney, a vote on the Benton Township lawsuit, public comment, and requests for public apologies. The evening was a mix of regular business, catching up the new council on old policies and basic practices, and a number of tense moments between the council, the city manager, and the public.
The most notable moment of the meeting was when the city council voted to withdraw an appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court, with only a vote from councilman Doug Hartson to continue with the lawsuit. The council went into closed session with the city’s attorney to discuss the recent submission to the Michigan Supreme Court to hear the lawsuit from the City of Potterville. The lawsuit over the schools’ request for Benton Township fire department to be the first responders in the case of an emergency was heard by the state court of appeals, which stood mute on the issue. After that decision, the outgoing council voted to take the case to the Michigan Supreme Court.
“We have a chance to fix the rift in our community. If this proceeds forward, regardless of the outcome, I believe it’s in the best interest of our community to make this go away and let bygones be bygones,” said new councilman Duston Twichell.
“It’s not that there’s not a valid legal question at stake, it’s not that there’s not something our community could lose by dismissing the attorney’s opinion, but the goodwill of showing grace, and the goodwill of reaching out and attempting to mend fences is far more compelling of the standpoint of the needs of our city,” said Mayor Schmidt. “It’s showing good faith and goodwill in the people at Benton, and the other entities involved, and it’s also showing good faith in our own fire department and their willingness to work together.”
The hangover of the lawsuit concerning the fire departments did not stop with the vote to retract the lawsuit, however. Deeply intertwined with the lawsuit and discussions of the city and Benton Township departments was the residential fire that took place on Cottage Street in November of 2017. Later, after the vote to discontinue the fire department lawsuit, City Manager Wanda Darrow, and Potterville Fire Chief Ryan Lundquist made lengthy testimonies defending the integrity of the Potterville Fire Department. Darrow’s comments were made during the city manager’s report, and Lundquist’s during public comment. Darrow talked at length about the qualifications of the firefighters at the city fire department. The department recently passed an OSHA examination, something she and fire chief Ryan Lundquist shared with great pride.
“To discredit us is unfortunate, so I hope you guys will stand up and be behind our department,” said Darrow. “Unlike most of you think, I am not the fire chief, and when we go on call I do not present myself as the fire chief.”
Fire Chief Lundquist commented on the qualifications of his department, citing the training of his firefighters, as well as his own training and experience. His testimony turned to the council, who he felt unfairly targeted by in the months since the residential fire on Cottage Street.
“Specifically about this fire, not one person has called me, emailed me, or even come to my office, stepped foot in here, asked for my phone number. Not one person has called me about this issue, and I believe that is a huge issue,” said Lundquist.
In the exchanges that followed the fire chief’s initial comments, allegations of what was and was not said on social media, or to local news outlets were made back and forth between Lundquist and members of the council.
“We appreciate your dedication and your willingness to continue to work together. There’s a lot for all of us to improve on in presenting ourselves with a unified spirit as backing our community, our fire department, and also reaching out and seeing how we can serve and benefit our neighbors,” said Mayor Schmidt to Lundquist.
Closely related to the vote to recall the submission to the Michigan Supreme Court, though at notably different points in the meeting, was a proposal from councilman Twichell for a secondary vetting plan for the city manager’s communication to the city’s attorney. The proposal sparked a conversation about the roles of the city administration versus those of the council, at which point Laura Genovich of Foster Swift Collins and Smith Attorneys stepped forward to explain her role within the city. As an attorney from a private firm, she is not a city employee with an office at city hall, which means contact with her can elevate legal costs.
Twichell has been vocal about his concern with the frequency and tenacity of lawsuits from the city. His proposal requested the approval and notification of council members when the city manager contacts the city’s attorney. According to Twichell, the proposal was an effort to create more transparency and communication between the council and city manager, and to cut down on legal costs.
The interconnectedness of several agenda items, testimonies, and comments cannot be overstated. Tensions over differences in leadership roles, decisions of previous councils, and public opinion resurfaced throughout the four-hour meeting.
The first item on the agenda for the evening was filling the council vacancy left by the late Ryan Martin. Four candidates presented their names for the vacancy, including two former council members, Rodney Ross and Briant Titus. The candidate selected by the council was Rebecka Jo Lewis, who has lived in Potterville for three years. Lewis works for Meridian Township Fire Department, has extensive training as a paramedic and firefighter, and was in the Air Force.
The last topic of the evening, however, circled back to the vacancy left by Martin when councilwoman Jennifer Lenneman requested a public apology from councilman Doug Hartson. After the untimely death of Martin, Hartson reportedly went to Lenneman’s residence and accused Lenneman of in part being a cause of Martin taking his own life. Police were called to the scene at Lenneman’s residence.
“I did step in and say that I felt personally that there were some contributing factors involved that did affect Ryan,” said Hartson. “I’m apologizing for the way I said it, and what I said.”
Councilman Kring took issue with his name being involved in the police report that followed the incident, though he was not present, and echoed the frustration of Lenneman of being accused of being a contributing factor in Martin’s death. Councilwoman Schmidt called the meeting to order, intervening between the back and forth between council members, as well as an outburst from former councilman Briant Titus.
“Some of these things are best dealt with in-house and behind closed doors in a way that’s not damaging to the public, and not damaging to the offices that we hold,” said Mayor Schmidt. “Restitution may be public eventually.”
Although the request for public apology and debate over accusations was the peak of the awkward moments of the evening, it was testament to the recurring tension between old and new councils, council and city administration, and city presentation and public perception.
“I don’t know if you guys are up here to protect me too. I really don’t. I can just know that what I saw, and what you guys built your basis on and why you’re running for council position. Some of the things if you would have researched… they’re going to give it to you in little pieces of information,” said Darrow during discussions about frequent FOIA requests made to the city.
After the swearing in of councilwoman Lewis early in the meeting, the council spent time approving minutes from the last council meeting of December 2017. After the approvals, the council moved on to nominations for mayor. Councilwoman Katherine Schmidt was nominated by Jeff Bussard, and received the majority vote of the council.
“She has opened my eyes and given me a new attitude toward it (council), and that’s why I’m putting her up there,” said Bussard about his nomination of Schmidt.
Schmidt, who spent the evening calmly delegating the meeting, had previously stated she would not submit her name for the role of mayor, but gratefully accepted the appointment.
“I think the best thing I can offer is an open ear, and a middle ground between the old and the new, and the opportunity to provide an environment where everyone has a fair say and an opportunity serve this city to the best of their capacity,” said Schmidt.
The rest of the lengthy council meeting covered regular council business of approving bills, and other standard protocol.
It’s noteworthy that at various points in the meeting nearly all of the council members made statements about the need for closure and a unified front moving forward. In the end, the meeting can be categorized as a fresh foot forward for the council’s relationship with the city administration, various city departments, and the public.