New county board reverses decisions of past board

ESCANABA — The newly-seated Delta County Board of Commissioners wasted no time reversing actions taken against boards and individuals by the previously-seated commissioners Tuesday.

While Tuesday’s meeting was technically the reorganizational meeting of the county board, it coincided with a regularly scheduled meeting and included agenda items that would have regularly appeared before the board. That included two unfinished business items: the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) and the appointment of an individual to the Delta Area Transit Authority (DATA) board. Both issues have been controversial for the county, primarily due to clashes between the commissioners who were removed by the May 7 recall election, Conservation District Board Chair Joe Kaplan, and Former Delta County Commissioner Theresa Nelson, who was nominated for the DATA position by the Delta County Township Association.

At the May 7 meeting, the commission voted not to appoint Nelson due to comments she allegedly made about asking businesses not to work with Commissioner Bob Petersen.

“I will not vote for that. Well, I guess it’s going to be personal, because she, early on in my tenure here, made a … statement that she was going to get ahold of my real estate companies that I work with regularly, she was going to send a letter asking them not to … work with me and I don’t see rewarding that as a good thing,” Petersen said at the meeting.

Joining with Petersen to block Nelson’s appointment were commissioners Bob Barron and Dave Moyle. All three men were removed as a result of the recall election, which took place the same day.

With Petersen, Barron and Moyle no longer there to prevent the appointment, the new board voted unanimously to give the open DATA seat to Nelson Tuesday.

For MAEAP, which is an environmental program administered by the conservation district, a major point of the discussion was a letter sent to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) that was drafted by Barron and took aim at Kaplan and, to some extent, Kaplan’s wife, Christine Williams. The letter said that Kaplan and Williams were using the conservation district for “their own personal agenda reasons and local political ambitions,” said Kaplan had violated confidentiality requirements of the MAEAP program and discriminated against the county as a landowner, and suggested Kaplan and the new conservation district board had create a hostile work environment for district employees.

“My recommendation to you is just let that letter be. I’m sure if I deserve the gallows, the state will determine that on their own,” Kaplan said during the first public comment period of Tuesdays meeting.

The commissioners, however, had a different idea about how to handle the complaint against Kaplan. After some discussion — and confirmation from County Administrator Ashleigh Young that, as far as she was aware, no confidentiality breeches had occurred related to the MAEAP program — the board voted unanimously to have Young reach out to MDARD and withdraw the complaint.

The past board had also voted at the May 7 meeting not to lift a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) exemption on the county’s MAEAP plans, keeping the documents out of the hands for the public. During his public comment Tuesday, Kaplan urged the commission to release the MAEAP plans, arguing that the public should be able to see the plans for public lands and that making the documents public would allow for more open discussions about the documents.

While Young raised concerns about where to draw the line on releasing FOIA-exempt materials, she supported the release, saying she wanted to be as transparent as possible. She also noted that any future MAEAP plans would need to come before the county board for review and would ultimately be released to the public as part of that process.

The commissioners voted unanimously to release the documents to the public, leaving only one more question: should the county remain in the program at all?

The past commission — whose relationship with the conservation district had devolved into what Commissioner Steve Viau called a “feud” at multiple meetings — requested Young look at the costs and benefits of leaving the MAEAP program. Young said Tuesday she had a difficult time finding reasons to leave the program and asked if the new commissioners wanted to pursue exiting MAEAP.

“I think we should stay in this program. The benefits — I really couldn’t find very much cost besides time. We’re already going to be developing management plans anyways so why not just apply those management plans to a program?” she said, noting the program’s potential benefits for grant applications and the services provided through the program.

No formal vote was taken not to withdraw from the program. However, there was no support from the commissioners for continuing to withdraw, and the county will remain in the program.


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