Lawsuit sparks park changes

Alex Doty • Jul 21, 2015 at 12:20 PM

According to Grand Haven Mayor Geri McCaleb, the new board can be implemented while maintaining Duncan Woods’ independence from city operations.

“This ordinance preserves the woods’ independence while allowing us to make the appointment process and service on the board consistent with all other city boards,” she said.

City Council this month approved the ordinance that creates the restructured park board.

The move follows a December 2012 decision by Ottawa County Judge Jon Hulsing, who concluded that the Duncan Woods Trust did not exist, and that the city owns the park. The judge was ruling on a lawsuit filed by the family of Chance Nash, an 11-year-old Nunica boy who died after hitting a tree branch while sledding in the park on Dec. 31, 2009.

City Manager Pat McGinnis said the judge's decision created a need to clarify the city ordinance that establishes the commission.

“The city attorney advised that, since the court had ruled on the matter of who owns Duncan Woods, the city should clear things up with a new ordinance,” McGinnis said.

The current president of the Duncan Memorial Park Commission, Ed Lystra, said that while he wasn’t involved in the creation of the ordinance that creates the new commission, he's pleased to see the update.

“I think some administrative changes had to be made, so I am glad they did that,” he said.

The park commission will be expanded from its current three members with lifetime appointments to five members with five-year terms. The new ordinance also confirms the court’s position that the city owns the property.

“The ordinance presents a board that will be appointed by the mayor and City Council,” McGinnis said. “The current Duncan Park Board will transition to the new one.”

McGinnis said anyone currently on the park's board would have to reapply. The city intends to have a new board seated about May 1.

Lystra said he does not intend to apply for the new commission. He said he's been putting off stepping down from the board until the sled accident lawsuit had been resolved.

“I have wanted to get off of the board for several years now,” Lystra said.

“Current and past trustees have done a magnificent job of preserving this natural asset,” McCaleb said. “Now is the time to modernize the appointment process and give volunteers the understanding that they will not be asked to commit to a lifetime of service.”

The mayor noted that the new structure clears up concerns about civil liability for accidents in Duncan Woods, as there was confusion as to whether governmental immunity extends to the park's commissioners.

“Our volunteers should never fear that they will be personally sued for their participation in local government,” McCaleb said. “Our attorneys assure us that responsible city volunteers are immune from liability in Michigan.”

Citizens interested in serving on the new Duncan Woods Commission may apply by downloading a form at grandhaven.org in the “Forms and Permits” section. They then are asked to submit it to City Clerk Linda Schmidt at City Hall, 519 Washington Ave.

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