Northport halts first outspoken critic after adopting new rules
Jerry Spears became the first member of the public to get the gavel to curtail his comments since the Northport Village Council adopted a new public comment policy earlier this year.
Village Council president Fred Steffens put a halt to Spears’ commentary during the second public comment period after just one sentence.
Spears had also spoken during the first public comment period, making remarks and sounds throughout the regular meeting when there was not supposed to be public comment.
In the second public comment period, Spears applauded trustee Donna Groomes for standing up to trustee Barb VonVoigtlander on whether the Council should adopt an informational guideline outlining the upcoming ballot question as to whether villagers wanted to continue electing a clerk and treasurer or appoint one.
“First of all, first of all I’d like to thank Donna Groomes for having the (courage) to stand up to Joni Scott and her campaign manager here sitting on the Council,” Spears said. “Other than that ... what a joke if you two are going to ...
“Doesn’t anybody agree that all this is meddling?”
That’s when Steffens pounded the gavel and asked for order.
“What? The end of public comment? You told me I was going to get public comment and then you shut me off,” Spears said. “Am I limited to what I can say?”
Steffens said Spears had made his point in the first public comment period and everyone agreed with him and that the Council had had enough.
“You never want to interrupt someone,” Steffens said after the meeting. “But I had to.”
The Council approved new rules of order on Feb. 16, outlining in detail a new format and that comments would be monitored more closely. Village attorney Will Davison suggested the policy last year when a couple of issues came up.
Spears expressed disappointment during the first public comment period that he wouldn’t get a chance to comment during a discussion item on a summary letter in which VonVoigtlander was asking the Council to consider sending a letter to villagers explaining the appointed vs. elected clerk and treasurer questions being put to voters in November.
Spears said the letter, although he had not seen it, was unfair to other candidates running for office and favored the incumbent clerk. Scott’s residency issue has been a hot topic since she was elected in November 2010. Her residency status was challenged in a complaint to the Leelanau County Sheriff’s Department. She was exonerated of any criminal wrongdoing, however, in a letter last November by Michelle L. Steffen, Benzie County’s assistant prosecuting attorney.
So Spears asked each Council member whether candidates running for the office had to live in the village. He asked VonVoigtlander first.
“This is time for public comment, it’s not time for me to make personal opinions?” she asked. After the second public comment period, VonVoigtlander explained her no comment saying Spears didn’t follow protocol.
Other trustees joined Steffens and clerk Joni L. Scott in saying all Northport candidates had to live in the village. Trustee Phil Mikesell qualifi ed his statement, saying as it is understood in Michigan Election laws.
“Let’s not beat around the bush, we all know what’s been going on around here,” Spears said. “And now you want to send this Band Aid (summary letter) out.
“I don’t get it. I’m feeling that that’s a little unfair to the other candidates because the other candidates actually live in the village.”
It turns out that the Council as a whole did not support VonVoigtlander’s summary letter. It was referred to the Employee Relations Committee.
Steffens said the letter was biased and slanted.
“There are things here that are not correct,” he said.
VonVoigtlander urged fixing anything that was wrong.
Steffens said one of the things that was wrong with the letter is that if voters approved an appointed clerk or treasurer, there was not a two-year term of office. He said the appointed officials would serve at the will of the Council.
“This is simply to get a dialogue going, I think it’s important that we have the public informed,” VonVoigtlander said.
“I think it’s important to have an informed electorate,” said Mikesell, who noted there was some confusion about the appointment ordinance. “I support, not necessarily this particular thing, the idea of having an informed electorate, not only on the substantive changes that are associated, but the process.”
Spears, who banged a chair during various comments, snapped at Mikesell.
“C’mon Phil! Have you been reading the same paper that I’ve been reading” said Spears, who added an expletive.
Groomes said the Council doesn’t send out special letters on other issues.
“Tell them, Donna! Tell them, Donna,” Spears said.