Note: After reviewing the video recording of the June 20, 2017 Council meeting, I verified that the council approved $200,000 for improvements to the dune walk. Council woman Ennis stated that it was a shame that the stairs had been allowed to deteriorate. Someone stated that Tony Ashbaugh had only been with the city for 18 months and the deterioration stared long before that time. Ashbaugh had a list of local Foundations to approach but he, Mayor O’Donnell, nor Council member Bobby Spirito mentioned that they had been considered ineligible for a large DNR fund the previous year but had been invited to reapply in 2017.
Much of government activity would remain behind closed doors if it wasn’t for the Freedom of Information Act. Due to a lawsuit, we know the city council violated the FOIA by keeping the public surveillance videos of Tony Ashbaugh and Debra Lambrix out of the public domain but on more than one occasion the city clerk and city manager violated it by claiming public documents didn’t exist. Appeals to the mayor were referred back to the city manager instead of investigated. If city employees are either destroying or hiding public information, the mayor and city council members have a responsibility to safeguard public records.
In the spring of 2016, the former parks supervisor began a grant application process with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) through the Land and Water Conservation Fund for a new concession stand and dune walk. It was confirmed that the city’s need fit the criteria for the grant and with that assurance the city council authorized $4,000 for a simple drawing of a new concession stand by a local architect. Many grants awarded in 2016 were for over well over a hundred thousand dollars and there was a good chance that with two applications the fund would cover both a new concession stand and dune walk with the help of matching grants that could be both financial and in-kind. Grant awards for 2016
There were two prerequisites for consideration of a grant request. The City had to have a five year parks and recreation plan and provide evidence of an advance notice for a public meeting held to discuss the grant application (a public hearing notice). Although the city had the five year plan the city council didn’t require a public hearing process prior to moving the project forward. And although required by both state and local laws, since Rusty Geisler, the new city managers no longer require public hearings prior to beginning city projects.
Instead of completing the requirement for a public hearing last year to receive the grant funding, the city council earlier this year allocated funding for repairs to the dune walk. Remembering that the DNR had rejected the grant request due to the omission of the public hearing and that the DNR had stated ineligibility one year would not reflect badly on resubmitting the following year, I filed a FOIA request for any communications between the DNR and the city concerning the grant. Although the city clerk sent over 40 pages of an email stream between the DNR and former park supervisor, she did not include the communications documenting the rejection of the of the grant. Through a FOIA request to the DNR, I was provided two correspondences addressed to Tony Ashbaugh who had taken on the duties of park supervisor with a large increase in pay.
These were two correspondences from Christie Bayus of the DNR to Ashbaugh, one dated October 17, 2016 and the other dated October 18, 2017 The correspondences noted that the information was a high priority and she mentioned that in July, Ashbaugh had spoken to a DNR representative when he was told that he needed a copy of the advance notice of a public hearing. Ashbaugh evidently never replied because there was no documentation from him to the DNR and so the city lost out on a new concession stand and dune walk. While the city clerk and city manager might be trying to protect Ashbaugh by not providing the correspondences the DNR provided, they can’t destroy or deny public information, it is illegal. The main reasons for the Freedom of Information Act is to provide to the public an avenue for oversight of government officials. DNR FOIA Response DNR Communications
At Tuesday’s city council meeting, the city clerk accepted a check on behalf of the city for a William J Deputy Endowment Fund donation to help repair the dune walk. It might not have been needed had Ashbaugh followed through with the requirements of the grant last year and requested the Planning Commission hold a public hearing. Or if time became an issue, he could have completed a new application for 2017, ensuring that a public hearing process was completed.
Although Ashbaugh had time to sit around thinking of ways to get even with the police chief and bad mouth co-workers, he didn’t have time to bother with completion of a grant request that could have provided the city a new concession stand and board walk that would enhance the lakefront and protect the dune. Instead of wasting funding to patch the deteriorating dune walk, it could have been used as leverage for the DNR funding for the completion of a new one along with a new concession stand.
The city council didn’t bother with a public hearing process prior to accepting a grant for new sidewalks, bypassing the opportunity for residents to voice their concerns about sidewalks they didn’t want or need. Yet the council members find fault with residents who complained that there was no official process for public input. The council also didn’t bother with a public hearing process prior to beginning the downtown project bypassing the ability for state funding to help with the costs. And just last night, a woman spoke to the council about their decision to allow a zoning variance that appeared to violate a number of zoning ordinances. Had the Planning Commission held a public hearing process as required by both law and zoning, the Commissioners might not have recommended the variance to the council for approval. Documented public input through a public hearing process can and should impact the decisions made by both volunteer commissioners and elected council members. We pay the bills, why not include us as required by law in the decision making?
The City Council felt it was appropriate to post on the city’s web-site a letter from a state agency to a private citizen as they did when they posted a letter from the Michigan Highway Administration addressed to me because I felt that fraud might have been committed in the Safe Route to School grant. Since the DNR sent a letter to a city employee, Tony Ashbaugh, stating the city was no longer eligible for a concession stand and dune walk grant, why doesn’t the city council post it? It seems much more appropriate to post a letter to a public employee than a private citizen.