Was park talk out of bounds?

Marie Havenga • Dec 7, 2016 at 10:00 AM

Some residents and a fellow councilwoman accused Ferrysburg City Councilwoman Kathleen Kennedy of breaking the city's code of ethics, but Kennedy and City Manager Craig Bessinger say there was no wrong-doing.

The allegations stem from the controversial conversations about City Council potentially selling the Ferrysburg Nature Preserve to raise revenue for upcoming budget items, including rebuilding the Smith's Bayou Bridge, a new boiler and roof for City Hall, and sewer improvements, which would total in the neighborhood of $10 million to $11 million.

Kennedy said she met with developer Ron Stroup after seeing him as she and her husband drove through one of Stroup's condo developments. She said she mentioned the 40-acre city-owned site in South Holiday Hills to see if there would be interest.

Resident Ed Royce and Councilwoman Regina Sjoberg said they have listened to audio tapes of the Sept. 1 City Planning Commission meeting. Kennedy, who also serves as a planning commissioner, said at that meeting that council was “mulling over” the possibility of selling the 40-acre nature preserve.

Kennedy said she had talked to a developer about the property possibly being for sale and that he suggested building condominiums there, which Kennedy said she thought would be a “good fit.”

Sjoberg said there had been no such discussions at the council level.

“Kathleen Kennedy brewed up a sale of a park that wasn't for sale,” Royce said during Monday's public comment session. “She solicited a developer and proceeded to mislead the Planning Commission ... then proceeded to lead this council into discussion of the sale to get revenue for the city when that revenue isn't even needed at this time.”

Royce said Kennedy acted “outside of our process” and told council “she's pulled you outside of our process.”

Royce concluded: “This consideration (of selling the nature preserve) is unnecessary. It was brought to you under false pretenses.”

Another resident, Heather Hawley, asked council what action it would take.

“We have some ethical codes that Kathleen is breaking,” Hawley said. “As we sit here as citizens, we're wondering what you guys want to do about that.”

Mayor Dan Ruiter said council will again discuss the nature preserve issue at its Jan. 16 meeting. He also stressed that the decision to sell or not sell the property is up to the entire council, and one person alone cannot make that decision.

Sjoberg said residents should be concerned.

“I think the elephant in the room is the ethics question,” she said.

Sjoberg said Kennedy showed “preferential treatment” by talking with the developer at his office. Sjoberg said if you talk to one developer, you'd have to talk to every developer in the Tri-Cities area to be fair.

“When she said we mulled it over, who was she talking about?” Sjoberg said. “To me, she is guilty of misconduct in public office and catering to a special interest. Or is she just clueless?”

When Ruiter asked if she would like to respond, Kennedy opted not to.

Earlier, however, Kennedy told a Tribune reporter that she had done nothing wrong.

“As far as I know, there's nothing unethical that I did,” she said. “It was a fact-finding mission and I can do that. The city will have expenditures coming up in the near future. The 40 acres in South Holiday Hills is owned by the city. It was an idea to see if anybody would be interested in it.”

Kennedy said she was just doing her job.

“It's one of my jobs to help figure out when a city is looking at a big expense like a $10 million bridge — how we are going to pay for it when we've been refused a grant,” she said. “There's nothing unethical about me talking to a developer.”

Kennedy said she and her husband were driving through a condo development off 174th Avenue and saw Stroup in his car. They waved, rolled down their windows and stopped to chat. Kennedy said she knew Stroup from her days as a Spring Lake Township board member.

“We went into his office and talked,” she said. “We yakked about this, that and the other. I said something like, 'Just out of curiosity, would you be interested in a development in Ferrysburg?'”

Kennedy said she never said the property was for sale, but said that if it did come up for sale that many developers might be interested in the land.

“Even if the property were to come up for sale, it would take the majority of council (to decide that),” she said. “It's a council decision — it's not my decision.”

Stroup later called Bessinger to ask to be put on the notification list in case the property ever went up for sale.

Bessinger told the Tribune that he didn't see any ethics issues with Kennedy meeting with Stroup.

“A lot of council members talk to residents and businessmen during the course of their day,” the city manager explained. “As long as they're not committing the city to any particular action, they have the right to talk to somebody.”

Kennedy said she understands neighbors are passionate about the property. Many kids play on the acreage and people walk their dogs or cross-country ski there.

Neighbors have created a Facebook page, spoken passionately at meetings and, on Halloween, some children paraded through downtown Grand Haven holding signs asking that the Ferrysburg land be preserved.

“This group is very passionate,” Kennedy said. “But we have to take into account all of Ferrysburg, not just a section of Ferrysburg.”

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