By Bob Kenison and Emily Votruba
March 26, 2013
BENZIE COUNTY GOVERNMENT CENTER—More than one hundred Benzie County citizens overflowed the commissioners’ chambers, spilling into the hallway at the regular meeting this past Tuesday.
The people were clearly unhappy with the commissioners’ enactment of the new property maintenance code. Some also expressed displeasure at the manner in which the commissioners conducted this particular bit of county business.
The commissioners were criticized for not being transparent in their dealings. In one of many comments heard during an extended, half-hour period of public input, Eric VanDussen cited the fact that the property maintenance code was not even on the agenda for the February 19 meeting at which it was adopted, and that it was voted on without public knowledge or input.
This is not the first time commissioners acted behind closed doors without the public knowing. VanDussen compared the IPMC adoption to the firing of county building official Steve Haugen in September 2012 and the decision to contract with a downstate private firm. Haugen was asked by county administrator Chris Olson to clear out of his office a day before the commissioners were actually to vote on the decision.
Don Tanner asked the people attending the meeting to raise their hands to show if they were against the code. Almost everyone in the room raised their hands, some of them rising to their feet as well. The commissioners then promptly voted to rescind the code, and to look into other methods of dealing with problem buildings and property.
The code, which has hefty fines of up to five hundred dollars a day for such things as grass being over six inches, accumulating garbage, peeling paint, unused cars, etc., was seen as an overreach in an attempt to clean up problem buildings such as the so called “question mark” building in Honor. One citizen said it was like using a bazooka to kill a rat. County commission chair Don Tanner stated he thought is more like using a nuclear bomb.
It was very clear the citizens did not want the government to step into their private lives, and felt the code was an infringement upon their rights. Many said the code was unconstitutional. The Reverend Steven Thompson said he was surprised that the six commissioners who voted for the code were Republicans. The lone vote against the code came from Don Tanner (a Democrat). Thompson said after reading the code he was convinced it was “hateful… downright pure evil.” He also asked that the commissioners make decisions on such matters out of love and compassion rather than fear.
Honor Village president Robert Theobald, also speaking during public comment, said he felt blight was a serious issue throughout the county and he thought the code could be “tweaked” by a committee of the commissioners to make it less invasive while still taking care of the “select few people” who are “trashing” the county.
John Douglas Holmes gave a flip pad presentation that was cut short by the ending of his three minutes. But he did have time to state that he felt “more government is the problem, not the solution.” He said the owner of the Question Mark building, Gary Henning, had wanted to put a business in the building but had been “hassled at every turn” during the permitting process. He cited another example from Honor, the owner of a rock shop who had everything in line to open his business on the main drag but couldn’t get an occupancy permit. He now has a successful, expanding business in Chum’s Corners with many employees.
Commissioners were for the most part very quiet during the meeting, listening to public input. When the board revisited the ordinance (this new business item was moved up to the beginning of the agenda), Chris Olson spoke to the commissioners and the people about what other counties do, and the reasons for the code being approved.
Why introduce a code that is not meant to be enforced? It is widely thought the code was introduced without being thoroughly read over, to be selectively used to take action on buildings such as the Question Mark building in Honor.
Olson reported on a survey he’d sent out of counties statewide. A majority of counties do not have a property maintenance code; those codes are generally left up to townships and other smaller units of government. “Nobody likes to enforce this kind of ordinance. This is a last resort.” He stated that it was not meant to be enforced in its entirety but was put in place to address “life safety” issues in dangerous buildings throughout the county. “A lot of the details in the code were not the priority of the code.” He suggested reducing the code down to life safety issues and engaging members of the community in this process. “If we don’t have this code we can’t deal with commercial structures. This was to assist communities such as Honor who don’t have the resources to deal with these issues on their own.” Olson said the code didn’t have anything to do with Agenda 21, as had been claimed by some members of the public, and that it had been “published in Chicago.”
According to Olson, Branch and Oceana are the only counties in Michigan that have adopted the IPMC.
Don Tanner had come prepared with an ordinance to rescind the ordinance of adoption. The board then voted unanimously to rescind the code ordinance.
Commissioner Roger Griner admitted he had not read the code, and suggested that public hearings be held in the townships to come up with solutions to specific problem-buildings. “I would envision local unit of governments partner with this, have the public hearings and then bring it to us on a per-case basis, and by no means get into any witch-hunt business.” Don Tanner recommended not creating something overarching, but perhaps the committee could come up with some ordinance language that townships might feel comfortable adopting themselves.
The commission then voted to have the committee revisit the IPMC and hold public hearings, with two nays, from Vance Bates and Don Tanner.
In other commission meeting happenings, Sheriff Ted Schendel addressed the commissioners about the lack of personnel to properly protect our citizens. He is asking the commissioners to add five more deputies to provide the minimum of two officers on duty 24/7. He said the number-one priority for the county government should be safety for its citizens. Currently there are times only one deputy is on patrol during the day, and there are no deputies on patrol after 3:00 a.m. The estimated cost for 5 additional deputies would be around $300,000. Response time with one deputy can run 45-50 minutes to cross the county. It was also stated that the deputy spends all his time just going from call to call, with no time to do law enforcement. EMS coordinator Craig Johnson, Animal Control officer Jamie Croel, David Miner of Watson Benzie (who offered to lease the county some Durangos), and a couple of other residents also voiced their support for more deputies.
AUDIO of first part of meeting: County Commissioners Meeting Public Comment on IPMC 20130326 130226
Official draft minutes of meeting: March 26 County Commission Meeting Minutes revised