Probe causes sparks to fly at council meeting
ESCANABA — An investigation into funds that went missing during a failed attempt to redevelop the site of the former Delta County Jail and a call for the resignation of two council members darkened the tone of the Escanaba City Council meeting Thursday.
The issue of the funds, which were tied to a state grant, was not on the agenda. However, resident and Escanaba Planning Commission Chair James Hellerman raised concerns during public comment over why an ongoing investigation into the missing money and the developer involved in the project, Proxima Management Group, was never publicized by the council.
“Heads need to roll. Something needs to be done because Escanaba has been marked before and taken and marked again and taken. And Escanaba doesn’t need to be a mark for people to come and just take money. It needs to be known that the problem is solved. Something needs to happen,” said Hellerman.
Hellerman went on to allege the investigation was covered up by council members seeking reelection.
“It benefits two council members here tonight. So because of that I’m publicly asking for the resignation of Mayor Tall and Council Member Blasier, because they clearly had no intent of exposing this to the public before the election to their detriment,” he said.
Against the advice of the city attorney and city manager, Blasier addressed the accusations as a private citizen, leaving his seat at the council tables and taking to the podium.
He clarified that Hellerman’s claim there was more than $90,000 missing was inaccurate.
“The number’s reversed. The rumor in town is it’s $92,000; it was $29,000. And we can’t prove it in spite of a year of a detective getting the FBI involved. We can’t prove any of that,” he said.
After Blasier left the podium, Tall’s only comment directly related to the funds was to say “the investigation is still underway.”
According to City Manager Patrick Jordan, there is a file on the ongoing investigation in the Delta County Prosecutor’s Office; the issue was under investigation by an Escanaba Public Safety detective for about a year; and has involved the FBI in both Michigan and California.
“This council has been aware of it most of that time. I’ve been aware of it since it began,” he told the Daily Press.
No city employees are suspects in the investigation.
“It’s under investigation, and if there’s any wrongdoing there, it will be uncovered,” said City Attorney John M. A. Bergman, who noted the city was not accusing anyone of any crimes and that the city had followed the proper procedures by handing the investigation over to the authorities.
In September, the city scrapped a plan to develop the old jail site into a $23 million project, which would have included a $13 million hotel as well as mixed-use retail and residential spaces at the jail site and on adjacent parcels, including the parcel occupied by the former Delta County Chamber of Commerce building. The decision came about eight months after Proxima Management Group cut contact with the city.
At the time of the decision to terminate the city’s agreement with Proxima, Tall told the Daily Press no city or county money had been put towards the project. Some of the preliminary work at the site, such as a soil study, had been completed and paid for by the State of Michigan. That work, he said, would be of use to a future developer.