By Emily Votruba
BREAKING: A special meeting of the Village Council will be held this Wednesday at 7 pm in the Community Building to deal with agenda items council didn’t get to at last Thursday’s meeting and to finalize the budget. A great deal of time was spent on 2/20 dealing with the expulsion-by-letter from Parks and Rec of Bill Soper, which several council members said they did not agree to. Reggie Manville promised at that meeting to expel Bill at a future meeting. Let’s hope Council uses its time wisely on Wednesday to deal with the Agenda items related to the state-mandated corrective action plan and the budget, two matters that must be squared away before March 1.
Regular Council Meeting, February 20, 2014—Council approved a budget for FY 2014–15. Full report to come. In the meantime, here’s some audio from this three-hour meeting.
The Manville–Soper Conflict
And here are some primary documents, obtained from Eric VanDussen, relevant to some dramatic public comment at the beginning of the meeting. Bill Soper, who was present at the meeting, declined to be interviewed at this time. I did not attempt to contact Laura Manville on the matter.
In a nutshell (it’s quite often a bad idea to put things that aren’t nuts in nutshells…) the facts as far as I can determine them: Laura Manville wrote a letter to probate court regarding Bill Soper’s suitability to remain guardian for Jerry Little (see below). Her opinion was that he is not suitable. Bill Soper went to the office and confronted Laura about her letter. Laura filed a PPO against Bill after this encounter. Judge John Mead, meanwhile, had determined that Bill should remain Jerry’s guardian. On January 17, Sharyn Bower wrote Bill a letter (see below) informing him that by unanimous vote of council he had been removed from his Parks and Recreation commission position and would not be permitted to serve on any Village committees in the future; he was also to have no contact with Laura Manville by any means (in person, phone, email, mail). Bill contested the PPO at a hearing on February 18. The judge terminated the PPO order. At the meeting last night, some council members, Eric VanDussen and residents questioned Robin Rommell’s decsion to authorize Sharyn to write the letter banning Soper from serving on Village committees/commissions.
Here is a transcript of the portion of the January 16 regular council meeting at which the motion was made to authorize Robin Rommell to deal with the situation:
CORRESPONDENCE: …[Robin Rommell speaking] The second matter of correspondence is a letter from the Village treasurer [Laura Manville] and all I’m going to say about it at this point is I would like authorization from the council to handle the matter as recommended by the Sheriff’s department.
Linda Manville: I’ll make a motion that we authorize our president pro tem Robin Rommell to follow through on this on behalf of the Village as proposed by the Benzie County Sheriff. [Seconded by Joyce Gatrell, all ayes. Robin then asks Linda to state the motion again.]
Linda: …authorize president pro tem Robin Rommell to—
Robin: —to deal with the—
Linda: —Benzie County Sheriff Department as… as suggested…to follow the suggestions of the Benzie County Sheriff Department.
Robin: In regards to the letter from the Village treasurer. [tacit agreement and then council moved on to next item]
Full audio of that meeting here:
The official draft minutes reflected a slightly different take on this part of the meeting. I don’t have these minutes, but at the February meeting Linda Manville asked for an amendment to them to reflect what was actually said.
Herewith, a partial transcript of the discussion held during public comment at the February 20 meeting about the matter:
EVD: …this is the draft minutes that had to be changed, where it said “motion by Manville, supported by Gatrell, to authorize the president pro tem to direct the clerk to send a letter with return receipt as advised by the Benzie County Sheriff Department.”…Nowhere in the corrected minutes was anything about, to direct the clerk to send a letter with return receipt as advised by the Benzie County Sheriff. But the next day after that erroneous language was entered into that draft, a letter was sent to Mr. Soper…and it says [see above]. Unanimously voted to remove him from the Parks and Rec Commission. I’m wondering when that happened. I’m also wondering what the sheriff proposed or recommended, because it’s my understanding that he didn’t propose or recommend anything pertaining to removing Mr. Soper from the Parks and Rec Commission. And I’m wondering how this letter was on behalf of the Village sent to Mr. Soper without that every being deliberated on or discussed at this meeting… [relates a version of the story of the conflict between Bill Soper and Laura Manville that precipitated the letter from Bower].
Reggie Manville: One thing you left off was what the Judge said about the case when he was asked who he believed in this case.
EVD: Were you there? [According to EVD, Reggie Manville left the Government Building before the start of the hearing after a discussion with a Sheriff Department official, in relation to an altercation he had with trustee Linda Manville when she arrived at the building.]
RM: You’re out of order. You’re out of order, and if you’re out of order again I’m going to ask you to leave.
EVD: This is hearsay though.
RM: Were you there?
RM: So tell me what the judge said.
EVD: The judge terminated the PPO.
RM: OK but what did he say after that.
EVD: He said he believed Bill used profanity.
RM: Who did he say he believed.
EVD: He said he believed Bill used profanity.
Robin Rommell: Did Bill testify under oath that he didn’t use profanity?
EVD: Yes he did.
RM: What did the judge say, which side did he believe, Laura, or Bill?
EVD: Well, he terminated the personal protection order.
RM: I’m asking you a direct question. What did the judge say? Who did he believe?
EVD: The only instance in which he opined on the honesty of one person over the other was on whether or not he believed Bill had actually used profanity…He thinks Bill swore at her when he came in [to the Village office] because he was upset about a letter that she wrote to the probate court trying to get a guardianship that he has over an individual taken away from him and accusing him of fraud. [See letter above.] I’m not excusing what he did, if he did use profanities at her…regardless of what occurred in that instance, where did the clerk get the authority to write such a letter to him?
RR: OK. … I was president pro tem, I chaired that meeting. My intention when I came to the [January 16] meeting was to read the letter that Laura had written to the court requesting the PPO. IN consultation with Linda, we talked about it and Linda and I agreed that we would just as soon not air the dirty laundry in public. That was done on my part because I assumed and perhaps incorrectly that Mr. Soper would be regretful of his behavior on some level or somewhat embarrassed by it. But apparently that’s not the case. So if you want to talk about the letter that she wrote to the court that prompted the action and what the deputy said, we can do that. We can air the whole thing, we can talk about it, we’ll put it on the agenda for next month and we’ll get the whole thing out there.
EVD The question I’m really asking is how it came about that your clerk informed a member that you have appointed to a committee that they’re no longer on that committee without an actual action of this board.
RR: The action of the board, the way we, the way I elected to handle it—I’m not going to speak for Linda, I think she was in concurrence but she can speak for herself—the way I elected to handle it was that council should take the action recommended by Deputy Kastl. [His recommendation] was that we as a council would be negligent if we did not take action to protect our employees from the verbal assaults that were taking place, the harassment that was taking place, and that removing him from any official duties with the village was a part of that.
EVD: So you’re saying that you made the unilateral determination to remove a member—
RR: No I made no unilateral decisions. …We passed a motion to follow the advice given by the detective and that was his advice.
EVD: To remove him from the committee?
RR: Yes, absolutely.
EVD: But what authority does that person or you have to do that without the full board taking action?
RR: None. None.
EVD: You have to go through a procedure to remove someone. There’s a procedure to remove someone and that’s not it.
RR: No, that’s why we voted. OK. Done.
Holly O’Dwyer: I don’t think it’s right for the treasurer to pick on a resident for something that is none of her business and be writing letters to the court. I mean that is totally the wrong thing for an elected official to do. You can’t do that. It’s not right. And then you shouldn’t go and take your dirty laundry and turn it into Village business, and now the Village very well could get sued for this mishap, and we can’t afford it. I think the treasurer needs to just, keep her personal business personal, don’t involve the village. I think the Village needs to write Mr. Soper an apology letter because it is against the Village act to kick anyone off any committee without a vote of council to that exact effect. And we can’t afford another lawsuit. So you need to apologize up and down and one end to the other and beg him not to sue.
RR: There’s nothing in this letter—she did not write it on behalf of being the treasurer or a village official or anything else. Had she put it on village stationery or done it from her position as treasurer. She did it as a citizen and she has every right to do that.
RM: And Bill Soper’s profanity is well-documented. He was asked to leave a meeting here because of profanity. He received a ticket for letting his dog loose. He wrote profanity on that. And he also used profanity once before when he came in the office and my wife was there, and our clerk, and he used profanity again. And the judge agreed that he thought Laura was telling the truth and Bill was not.
Holly: But Bill was on the right side of the law.
Jonathan Kells: Then why did he reverse the PPO?
RM: The PPO has to do with the threat. He said there was no threat. But he acknowledged the fact that Bill Soper came to the office and used profanity. I’m not even going to read you what he said….
Holly: If this goes to court, the Village will lose. And we can’t afford it, and you need to make it right.
Ken Holmes: We didn’t come here to discuss Bill.
Jennifer Wilkins: Wait, this is something that—I didn’t vote for this to happen. As a member of Park and Rec and as a member of council, I did not vote to have somebody banned from being a committee member. I did not do that. And I don’t like it being said that I did it.
Linda Manville: My one comment would be that yes, council did take a vote, and I would be the first to say that it’s inappropriate for someone to be disrespectful toward any elected official, and I would support that. However, the letter, which I did not see till Tuesday—it says by a unanimous vote of the Village council, and I have to say that the items here were not things that I voted on. I voted to follow the directives of the Benzie County Sheriff’s Department and if indeed those were the directions of the Sheriff’s department, I need to see that. I find it difficult to believe that the Sheriff’s Department would ask that we deny someone their civil right to attend public meetings or be in a public place unless they are seriously disturbing the…
Ken H.: Well, if it had only happened once it wouldn’t make much difference, but since it happened more than once, it made all the difference in the world, and in the time that I’ve been around the same kind of incident happened three times. That one time, the Village employee stepped in.
RR: As far as denying him the right to be at public hearings and buidlings that was one of the things that was discussed when he suggested that the village council as her employer should write a letter to the court in support and that we should bar him from contact with her and the deputy said, if you had come into a private place of business and verbally attacked her and it happened on several occasions, then the employer would be negligent in not barring you from the workplace. The fact that it’s a public building which our taxes support means that we cannot bar him from going to the office, we cannot bar him from attending meetings, but we can bar you from any appointed position within the village. So the deputy really said, we can’t bar attendance at meetings, but we do not have to allow him to represent the village in any capacity.
Jennifer Wilkins: Why weren’t we told about any of this?
RR: I thought that it was a discreet way to handle it. Apparently I was wrong.
Ken H.: The last meeting we had we gave Robin the authority to follow that letter up.
RR: I thought you gave me the authority to do what was recommended by the deputy and that’s exactly what I did.
EVD: Is the deputy legal counsel for the Village of Elberta now?
Reggie: Can you wait? You just can’t speak out.
Connie Manke: I understand that both Laura and Sharyn attended the court. I’m wondering if the village office was closed down and were they paid for that time?
Sharyn: It was closed for two hours. I got back at 5 o’clock and I stayed until 7 trying to put these packets together.
Chris Olson: I got an email from her about 6:30.
Diane: I was not at that meeting, so I wasn’t part of that vote. I did not know about the letter until it was in my packet. I totally disapprove of it, unless there was something in writing from the Sheriff’s department, anybody acting [inaudible].
Jonathan Kells (Frankfort): I had a discussion with Ted Schendel after the letter was sent from the Village. Ted Schendel said he had no knowledge of any discussion that occurred between any deputies and anyone from the Village council and that it was unlawful based on Mr. Soper’s First Amendment rights, that he could be barred from any sort of meetings, the PPO specifying that he was not allowed to approach Ms. Manville if she was at the meeting. And Judge Batzer, in the reversal or termination of the PPO on Tuesday stated the Village council is not allowed to bar Mr. Soper from participation as is his First Amendment right. You can get the get the transcript of that, and you can look at it, and that’s the fact and that’s the law. And whether or not you thought you were keeping things under the table or whatever it is you thought you were doing, what you were doing is actually breaking the law. You were breaking the law of the Constitution of the United States.
RR: I think you misinterpreted the letter. It doesn’t bar him from any meetings.
JK: It says it in black and white. That’s against his first amendment rights according to the Constitution.
RR: It doesn’t say…
Reggie: As a council we can…
JK: Judge Batzer says you can’t do it as a council.
Reggie: As a council, we can terminate anybody on any committee—
JK: If you have grounds to do so. He considered you had no grounds…
RR: We don’t need grounds. We can remove him for any reason. They serve at the will of…[General uproar]
JK: Read your own bylaws.
Reggie: This is one reason we could remove him. And we could remove him tonight if we wanted to because of repeated violations of our dog ordinance. Repeated. Repeated. He also admitted to the judge that he still lets his dogs loose even after being fined. If that’s the standard that you want to set for people in the village, to have that type of person represent them, if you want to lower that bar…that’s fine.
JK: If you want to use your position as president to mete out some sort of faux justice because you have some sort of personal grudge against someone and they have a problem with you, and you continue to do this sort of thing, then you’re going to open yourself to all sorts of serious trouble.
Reggie: The dog ordinance—
JK: Dog ordinance schmog ordinance
Reggie: —has been documented
JK: You’re going from a loose dog [inaudible] threats and firing someone from a commission, which they’ve been on as a volunteer.
Reggie: We’re going to end this conversation. And I’ll tell you, the next meeting, I will bring this up and I would like to have him removed from office because of the ordinance. So, I’ll bring it up that way.
JK: You’ll get an injunction from the court so fast you won’t be able to see it.
Ken H.: We got a lot of audience talking and a lot of stuff to be done today.
[Public comment ends.]
On Friday February 21, both Deputy Kastl and Sheriff Schendel were out for the day. I spoke with Undersheriff Tucker, who said he had no knowledge of a conversation between Robin Rommell and Deputy Kastl and couldn’t comment on Rommell’s claim that Kastl had advised her in the way she described. He did say this: “Sometimes things are taken out of context based on the question that’s asked by the person that asked it. So you should be careful when you’re saying a deputy flat out told someone something when you don’t know the question that was asked.”