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Tensions high at City Council meeting

Marie Havenga • Sep 7, 2017 at 8:00 AM

Supporters of Ferrysburg mayoral candidate Regina Sjoberg remain on the attack over a political banner that had been displayed on a city council member's deck prior to the August 8 primary election.

Residents Lisa Royce and Dan Matteson, who is running for a council seat in November, filed a formal complaint with the city last month after a banner promoting council member Rebecca Hopp for mayor had been removed from council member Kathleen Kennedy's deck.

Kennedy, a Hopp supporter, said her husband, Barry, put up the banner.

Royce complained to City Manager Craig Bessinger, who then sent a letter to Barry Kennedy that asked him to remove the sign within five days.

The sign was removed but reappeared on commercial property at Tri-City Oil.

Royce said because Kathleen Kennedy served on the Ferrysburg Planning Commission, which had recently drafted a sign ordinance, she was fully aware of the city's sign rules that limit sign size to six square feet. The banner on Kennedy's deck was 22.5 square feet.

Kennedy said she was aware of the sign ordinance's maximum size restriction, but wasn’t aware that a banner was considered a sign.

Royce and Matteson claim Kennedy, and Hopp by virtue of her name being on the sign, violated the city's standards of conduct and code of ethics.

“They removed the sign but it's not done and over with because they violated the laws they put into motion,” Royce said. “They write the laws and they can violate the laws but you and I can't. They should have some kind of reprimand. They should have some kind of price to pay for them being council members. It's a violation of the code of conduct.”

Royce said she would like Ferrysburg City Council to remove Kennedy from her Planning Commission duties.

City Council reviewed the formal complaint at its Aug. 21 council meeting and voted 3-2 to dismiss the complaint, with prejudice. In a court of law, “with prejudice” means the issue cannot be brought up again.

Bessinger said he is not certain if that holds true in a city council setting.

Royce and Matteson were upset that they weren’t able to attend that meeting and that council didn’t table the matter as they’d requested.

They then refiled the complaint. Royce also filed a new complaint against Councilman Tim O'Donnell, who made the motion to dismiss the complaint, and Councilman Mike DeWitt, who seconded the motion on Aug. 21.

Both complaints were on the agenda and scheduled to be discussed Tuesday night.

But, because the meeting was held on a Tuesday due to the Labor Day holiday, some council members were unable to attend.

After the clock struck 7 p.m. and only three members – Mayor Dan Ruiter, and council members Hopp and Sjoberg sat at the table, several audience members spoke among themselves, complaining that the other members weren't there because they didn't want to face the music and deal with the complaints.

Bessinger said he knew prior to the meeting that Kennedy, DeWitt and J. Patrick Twa wouldn’t be in attendance, but he didn’t cancel the meeting due to a lack of quorum because he thought O'Donnell would be there.

“Kathleen Kennedy mentioned it at the last meeting,” Bessinger said. “Mike DeWitt, earlier in the morning, indicated his girlfriend's mother was having a procedure and he was helping with transportation issues. Council member Twa called me late Monday evening indicating he was ill.”

Bessinger said he recalls O'Donnell, who is a Ferrysburg firefighter, mentioning that he had ambulance training Tuesday night.

“I'm not sure if he told me, or I forgot, that he would not be there at the meeting,” Bessinger said. “But I didn't know Tim was not going to be there until his wife mentioned it at the meeting.”

Karen O'Donnell, Tim's wife, told City Council on Monday that her husband has never missed a meeting and that he had a mandatory fire department meeting.

“He didn't let us know so I don't know if it's an excused absence or not,” Ruiter said.

Both Royce and Matteson chastised the board for not being present during public comment periods.

“This is kind of like the flip-flop of last week when I couldn't be here and nobody was going to give me time to speak,” Royce said. “There's no excused absence in my opinion because I didn't get one and I asked for one before the meeting.”

Royce then questioned Hopp on whether or not she believes the Ferrysburg Nature Preserve is a park.

Hopp responded that she had already answered that in a recent Tribune article.

“So your answer is no,” Sjoberg said.

“That's not what I'm saying,” Hopp replied. “It's very different, but it's listed in the rec plan as a park.”

Royce then pressed Hopp on if there might be a conflict of interest if she were elected mayor because of her involvement with the Ottawa County Land Bank, which can acquire property through delinquent taxes and other means.

Royce alluded to the potential of Hopp to have “inside information” and for the county to try to pick up city park land.

Hopp told her that she had already discussed this with Ottawa County Treasurer Bradley Slagh and said there was no conflict of interest should she become mayor.

Matteson took the podium next.

“I'm a little disappointed tonight,” he said. “I see four people who are missing tonight.”

Matteson said he'd like to make a motion to remove them from council because “they can't face their opponents.”

Matteson said he and Royce were simply bringing up an ordinance violation with the sign complaint.

“There are ordinances in this town and we're all supposed to abide by them equally, and without prejudice and bias,” Matteson said. “We tried to bring that up and make everyone aware of that in the city and hopefully by live (Facebook) feed here and it seems to have been put on the back burner or skirted. That to me tells me something about the character of the council as a whole.”

Following presentations by Janet Hasselbring, president of the Tri-Cities Area Imagination Library and Ottawa County Drain Commissioner Joe Bush, council opened the second public comment period.

Royce asked Hopp if there was a “paid for” disclosure on the banner that once hung on Kennedy's deck. Hopp responded that there was, on the back of the banner.

“It only needs to be posted on one side,” Hopp said.

Karen O'Donnell then raised her hand to speak. Ruiter gave her the floor, but O'Donnell, who has difficulty walking, asked if she had to come to the podium.

Quiet laughter and comments could be heard from one area of the audience.

“We need to be aware of other people's abilities,” Hopp said, telling the audience that “making fun and laughing” was not appropriate.

“Who are you chastisting?” Sjoberg said.

Ed Royce, Lisa's husband, said he was only saying that “we all feel like that sometime,” purportedly meaning that speakers don't always like going to the podium.

“Nobody really knows who I am but I have a sickness and I'm constantly in pain and sometimes I can't walk,” O'Donnell said.

She asked Ed Royce about a card he had sent out, claiming that only one mayoral candidate – Sjoberg – didn't vote to raise taxes.

Sjoberg voted “no” on putting a millage proposal on the November ballot which would be used to help fund the Smith's Bridge repairs.

Council members cannot vote to raise taxes. The people will decide in November whether or not the millage passes.

“It's misleading to the voters,” O'Donnell said. “Also, to say they're selling the parks, that's not true. My husband is an Eagle Scout and cries when a tree falls down.”

Royce and a group of neighbors near the Ferrysburg Nature Preserve gathered enough signatures over the summer to put the question of amending the city charter on the November ballot. The amendment would allow a vote of the people to decide whether or not to sell city-owned park land. The current charter allows council to make that decision.

Sjoberg and Royce led the campaign and are strong supporters of keeping the 43-acre property intact in the South Holiday Hills neighborhood.

Sjoberg said if she's elected mayor, she would like to set up a board of review for ethics.

“I think that's something that should be done,” she said. “The governor can remove you (from a council seat) if you're a chronic drunk and that's about it.”

When contacted Tuesday, Kennedy said she will be at the Sept. 18 meeting, but she hopes to get back to the business of running the city.

“It's ridiculous,” Kennedy said. “Move on. Ferrysburg is running a city. You don't like the answers so you're going to reapply the complaint? Really? My husband has the right to First Amendment rights under the law. When Craig sent him the letter, the sign came down.”

Kennedy said she understands Sjoberg's camp is passionate about the Ferrysburg Nature Preserve.

“You can be passionate about it, but this little minute stuff is not important,” Kennedy said. “What's important here is the day-to-day business that Ferrysburg has. We have more important matters like how we're going to finance that bridge. We have infrastructure that's going to need replacing. There are more important things than a sign that was taken down so move on.”

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