A Year-End Perspective and Report to Interested Islanders
Jack Gallagher, Peaine Township Supervisor
(Certain portions of this letter have been redacted by the editor of BINN, but no content has been changed other than certain deletions that do not effect the meaning of the letter.)
Beaver Islanders like to think for themselves — and they need to know what the conflict is really about and the factual information that lies behind it.
In my first year as Peaine Supervisor I struggled to do things “properly” but found much to be “broken”. The parts that were broken affected our relationships and credibility with state and county government—and attempts to fix what was broken affected relationships between and among members of the Peaine and St. James Boards. Some say, “nothin's broke” and urge admiration of past accomplishments. Others admit some things are broken but don't want to deal with the conflict of change.
I don't mind taking some responsibility for the fuss—but I want it clear that it is not personal. Today's issues are about real differences in how people want local government to operate on the Island. The issues and the tensions will be with us for a while—though we will be stronger once we work through them. I write here so people can better understand the differences, know what is broken, have the facts, and respond with feedback, questions, or suggestions.
So what are the key differences in how good township government should operate—and what is really broken ?
Three key differences lie beneath the current fuss and are in areas where I've been trying to bring about change. They reveal some of what is broken in Peaine:
Differences on financial accountability and how to make responsible, informed decisions regarding township revenues, expenditures, and taxes ;
Differences in how jointly owned Township committees should operate ; and,
Differences on the need for tough questions and healthy disagreement on key issues .
#1—Financial Responsibility and Accountability to our Taxpayers (the facts & issues)
This view of good government calls for: 1) Accurate and easily accessible financial information, 2) Appropriate and timely reports, 3) Compliance with state law, 4) Careful budgeting, and,
5) Competitive bids for Township work. Here are some things in need of repair.
In Summary —these are just a few of the broken things that have cost our Township time, money, credibility, and frustration. A handicap remains when access to information and cooperation is denied—but I will continue working to correct these problems by pressing respectfully for the needed information. I treat our taxpayer dollars more carefully than my own, and assure you that all major new projects, purchases, and improvements will be reviewed for their tax implications before Board approval. Not everyone agrees with this stance—which accounts for part of our contentious atmosphere at this time.
#2—How jointly-owned committees should operate (the facts and issues)
This major area of contention involves the Airport and Waste Management Committees, which were created by the townships as jointly-funded, jointly-operated units. St. James Township Board members have chaired these committees for most of the past decade, and have neglected their reporting obligations to the Peaine Board. The governing documents for the committees are incomplete, inconsistent, and often ignored. When issues of authority and responsibility are raised, we get resistance instead of clarity. Here's how the jointly-owned airport and waste management operations have broken down, how they should be fixed, and how they fuel the controversy between our two townships. I begin with the Airport Committee—but first a caveat. I must deal with the false charges that I don't support the Public Airport and Fresh Air Aviation.
Nothing could be farther from the truth! I support the competitive and complementary benefits both airlines bring to the Island. They are essential to our economy and emergency services—especially since they are the only means of transportation during the winter. I want both private airlines to be treated fairly and well by our local government, and I've said these things publicly, privately, and often—along with my expressed belief that we can and should improve Beaver Island's public airport. This is why, in fact , I have been seeking good information on its use, planned expansion, and finances. Those who assign simple false motives to me just fuel the controversy.
Joint Management of the Airport .
Failure to comply with Michigan law . Michigan requires either an airport authority or an intergovernmental agreement for joint operation and ownership. We have neither. What we have now are two incomplete and incompatible documents—the 1983 airport resolution and the 1993 airport ordinance. At the base of recent conflicts are issues about the authority of the Airport Committee and its obligation to report to the Peaine Board about its finances, plans, and activities. The way to “fix” this broken part of governance is straightforward. Have the Townships negotiate with each other in good faith and draw up a real agreement that conforms to Michigan Law. Though controversial, we're on our way to a solution by having both Townships meet in early January to discuss the alternatives.
Failure to record and share essential information . Effective joint-operations require more than agreed upon rules—they also require access to the same good information. But Peaine Township has not had such access. In July, as Peaine moved into its new budgeting process, I requested information on a preliminary airport budget, expansion plans, and airport usage. The Chair provided little meaningful information on the proposed budget. I received vague cost estimates on the expansion plans and nothing on airport usage. I got a brochure on terminal expansion that appeared in the Beacon , which provoked calls and criticism to me for running on a platform of transparency while keeping such important things hidden. Apologetically, I explained that I too had just gotten the information.
To better inform myself, as Township Supervisor, on the key Airport Committee issues, decisions, and recommendations, I requested copies of Committee minutes. I never received them. Then Jim Birdsall filed “freedom of information” requests and got them. Should the Supervisor have to file a freedom-of-information request to get information from a jointly-owned and jointly-operated unit?
Significant gaps existed in the minutes Birdsall acquired. The Airport Committee meets quarterly—so over the past ten years they would have had 40 meetings and 40 sets of minutes. We received 25—so either they didn't meet that often or minutes were not recorded. Four 12-month periods had no minutes at all—even when important activities took place.
Two days before our November Board meeting, the Airport Chairman brought me a proposed resolution that would authorize eminent domain proceedings to take private property. No background information was provided. The Board knew practically nothing about the Airport plans and certainly nothing about why the “taking” was necessary. We put the request on our agenda, but the Board deferred action and arranged for a joint meeting of the Townships later in the month to discuss the “resolution of necessity.”
At that meeting, both Townships agreed to table the eminent domain decision until better information was available. Some argued in favor of the proposed “taking” because plane crashes proved a lack of safety—but it was pointed out that the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board concluded thus far that all fatal Island plane crashes resulted from pilot error . The issues of airport expansion, eminent domain, and governance will be discussed at a special joint meeting of the Townships in January. The current status of airport expansion plans will be made public and our attorney will discuss alternative ways to legally govern the airport.
Joint Management of the Waste Management Committee
Failure to comply with Michigan Law . Michigan also requires an intergovernmental agreement or contract for joint operation and ownership of the Transfer Station. We don't have one. We've operated under a 1991 resolution that was adopted by both Townships, but it lacks clarity on the relationship between the Waste Management Committee (WMC) and the Township Boards. The “fix” will require the Boards to reach agreement on a new legal agreement with the help of the Townships' lawyer. This work is underway.
Failure to follow the written agreements we do have . In the case of the WMC (unlike the airport) we have a signed resolution passed in 1991—but it has not been followed. The WMC membership has not been constituted properly. The spending limitations have been ignored. St. James Township has had three of their Board Members on the Committee for years (constituting a quorum) when only two are allowed. This year they didn't hold even the minimum number of recommended meetings.
Disrespect for Peaine's equal role . Cooperation and respect are essential to good joint operations, but we've had little from the WMC. Peaine requests for agenda items are ignored. The Peaine Board officially approved a motion to conduct a study of WMC operations, but the Chair ignored it. In July, the WMC was sent financial information on the prior 15 months and asked to review it and prepare a preliminary budget for 2010. The St. James members of the WMC said they would not participate, but the Peaine members could do it. So they did and had it ready for the next meeting, only to have the chair cancel the meeting without notifying any Peaine members. Peaine is clearly not an equal partner in this joint operation.
Failure to develop and use needed operating and reporting policies and practices . The WMC should develop and get Board approvals for its operating policies and practices, but they haven't done so. There are no personnel, purchasing, bidding, record keeping, or reporting policies that I know of. Committee members receive no reports on monthly revenues or expenses or compliance with the budget. The Transfer Station's fee structure hasn't been reviewed in years. The infamous, expensive “Chipper” was to be evaluated over a year ago based on a unanimous order from both Township Boards. It has been ignored.
In Summary : Joint-ownership and joint-operations require recognition that both Townships are equal. Though our differences focus on insufficient information—they center on differing views regarding authority and involvement. We must work to develop Township equality and improved cooperation. Effective shared operations require agreed-upon rules, access to the same information, respect, and shared decision-making. Peaine wants a respectful, fair, and mutually beneficial relationship with St. James, but it is difficult if we can't find or agree on the rules—or if those we already have agreed to aren't followed—or if there is obvious disrespect shown to Peaine committee members—or if there is a refusal to adhere to the law.
#3—Differences on the need for tough questions and healthy disagreement
Probing questions, disagreement, and argument are important aspects of developing creative solutions to difficult problems. They are valuable tools—and the Townships' struggles on how best to organize for more productive work together are actually good struggles. If handled constructively, we can resolve our differences and come out with legal and mutually satisfactory operating agreements. But we must distinguish “conflict” from probing for facts, questioning people about issues, or even differing with them.
Sadly, some people equate questions and disagreement with disapproval and disrespect—they're uncomfortable with dialog that raises contrary views, issues, and questions.
More such “tense discussions” will likely take place in the coming months as the Townships work to reach agreement on budgets for our jointly-funded, jointly-operated units. The Townships have agreed to support these jointly-funded activities on a 50-50 basis, and under current practice the St. James Board sets its millage rates without consulting Peaine. Since Peaine must match 50-50 without consultation or agreement, St. James controls Peaine's tax assessments for the units. This is being changed and the St. James Supervisor has now agreed to exchange budget information by February 15 th , 2010—a step in the right direction. But it won't end all of our differences.
I ran for office on a platform of open government, public involvement, and fiscal responsibility. I encourage open discussion at all meetings and we've had, in fact, a number of contentious ones, —such as the one on All-terrain Vehicles . But we've maintained a healthy level of disagreement at Peaine meetings. I continue to encourage broad public participation, discussion, and dissent. Important and interesting views have been presented—often dissenting views.
I have not spoken disrespectfully to any participants—nor have I allowed others to do so. I work to be informed about township finances, and its rights and responsibilities under Michigan law. This often requires a search for the facts and pertinent background information. It may make some uncomfortable, but I must perform the fiduciary and legal responsibilities my position requires. Real democracies encourage different views, listen to them, discuss them, examine new data, and reconcile varied perspectives. Our nation was born in conflict and debate over critical issues, and dialog will forever remain a cornerstone of our national, state and local governments. (Just watch the recently acclaimed series on John Adams ). Even on little Beaver Island, “liberty and justice for all” must be in our deeds as well as our words—and it requires comfort with different views, beliefs, questions and perspectives.
Note : This report is posted on the Township Website and any comments or questions can be e-mailed to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to P.O. Box 255, or faxed to 231-448-2692 or call me at 448-2389 or 2441.
(The editor of BINN has redacted specific portions of this document. If you wish to read it in its entirety, you may go to the Peaine Township website.)