2012-10-18 / Life in Leelanau


Seven make their case in Commission forum
By Alan Campbell Of The Enterprise staff

VINA MIKESELL, chair of the Leelanau unit of the League of Women Voters, stands and talks with county commission candidate Carolyn (Peachy) Rentenbach prior to a forum held Monday that attracted 65 county residents. Also shown, from left, are candidates Tom VanPelt, Patricia Soutas- Little, Bob Hawley and, after Mikesell and Rentenbach, Melinda Lautner. VINA MIKESELL, chair of the Leelanau unit of the League of Women Voters, stands and talks with county commission candidate Carolyn (Peachy) Rentenbach prior to a forum held Monday that attracted 65 county residents. Also shown, from left, are candidates Tom VanPelt, Patricia Soutas- Little, Bob Hawley and, after Mikesell and Rentenbach, Melinda Lautner. Eight county residents interviewed for four jobs Monday night, with about 65 of their peers asking the questions. Each interviewee has work experience, and four of them presently or in recent years have held the very jobs they are now seeking.

All eight are running for two-year seats on the County Board of Commissioners. Seven attended a candidates’ forum sponsored by the Leelanau County unit of the League of Women voters that was held at the county governmental center in Suttons Bay Township. Karen Zemaitis, a Republican from Leland, was unable to attend because she was representing Leelanau County at a conference for county land banks in Grand Rapids. A statement was read in her absence.

BARB REINERT lets a commissioner candidate know how much time is left for her response, with Barb Marsh counting down the seconds on a stop watch. Both are members of the Leeanau Unit of the League of Women Voters. BARB REINERT lets a commissioner candidate know how much time is left for her response, with Barb Marsh counting down the seconds on a stop watch. Both are members of the Leeanau Unit of the League of Women Voters. Four of seven commissioner districts will be contested in the Nov. 6 General Election; the other three seats will be unchallenged.

Candidates were cordial toward each other as they sought to differentiate themselves from their opponents. However, some differences emerged through questions posed by moderator John Erb, a retired attorney.

Candidates squeezed together behind a long table at the front of the community meeting room, sitting next to their opponents. Following are some of their responses, provided according to commission district:

 District No. 4, Leelanau and northern Suttons Bay townships.

This is a race between present and former County Board chairs. Tom VanPelt, a farmer and volunteer firefighter from Leelanau Township, is a Republican who unseated Mary Tonneberger two years ago in the Republican primary. Tonneberger unsuccessfully ran again in the General Election as a write-in candidate. She’s running without party affiliation in the General Election.

Tonneberger said her business background in forging consensus is needed on the County Board. “I respect a lot of his background,” she said of Van Pelt. “I do think what I bring is a lot of business experience. I think I can build a stronger consensus across the County Board and to other departments in the county to work together.”

Van Pelt pointed to County Board accomplishments during the past two years when he’s held the gavel as reasons for voters to support him in the election. In particular, he pointed to the board’s forced resignation of past county administrator Eric Cline, who was hired while Tonneberger was County Board chair.

He questioned the need for “consensus.”

“From the commission standpoint, I think we work well together. We haven’t all agreed on every item, but then we don’t agree on every item,” he continued.

Looking at future services the county could provide, VanPelt said commissioners are presently reviewing the role of the county Economic Development Corporation with an eye toward spurring more economic activity.

Tonneberger pointed to two “controversial” — her word — changes that would help the county’s bottom line. She said some of the responsibilities for absentee voting could be moved to the County Clerk’s office, and that the county Equalization Department is in a position to take over a bigger role in printing and mailing property tax bills. Both suggestions would decrease the workload for township officials.

“I say controversial because a lot of people’s jobs are dependent upon that,” she said.

Tonneberger considered listening skills as her greatest strength, adding, “I have a good track record of working to solve the problems.”

 District No. 5, Leland and Centerville townships.

Commissioner David W. Shiflett is not seeking re-election. Vying to replace him are Democrat Patricia Soutas-Little and Zemaitis, who provided a two-page statement that was read to the audience by Erb.

Zemaitis outlined her background as a business owner; senior personal banker for Empire and Huntington banks in Leland; community service with Zonta, Leland Educational Foundation and St. Wenceslaus Finance Council; and member of the county Land Bank Authority.

Zemaitis wrote that she has “attended all regular, executive, special and budget commissioner meetings for over two years ... The knowledge I have gained from this effort makes me a ready-togo, no training needed, able representative for you.”

She added, “I would not only be there for you but also do my homework; this is a big responsibility. I have the time and commitment to devote to you and the job.”

Soutas-Little said she decided to run after learning of Shiflett’s decision. “I felt it was important that his seat be filled by someone who could bring a voice of reason,” she said.

She outlined her past work as a laison between the local community health department and the state, special assistant to the state budget director for community health services and then the first director of the Michigan toxic control commission. She also chaired a committee that sought to have county government take a leading role in providing early childhood education across the Peninsula.

Soutas-Little called for the county Construction Code office to provide a website to issue building permits online, and possible reductions in permit fees.

She pledged to bring an open mind to the County Board. “I believe you should come to the commission with a vision, not an agenda. Because if you come to the commission with an agenda, you stop listening,” she said.

• District No. 6, Cleveland, Empire and Glen Arbor townships.

In this district commissioner David Marshall, presently the sole Democrat on the County Board, is not seeking reelection. Vying to replace him are former County Board chair Bob Hawley, a Republican, and Democrat Carolyn “Peachy” Rentenbach.

Although both candidates have extensive backgrounds in business, their opinions couldn’t be more opposite in many subjects.

Hawley was the only candidate to call himself a “tea party” Republican. A Navy veteran with an MBA from Notre Dame, he built a 300-employee business in the Grand Rapids area before selling in 1994.

“I’m a firm believer in limited government,” said Hawley, who considers an unfunded liability in the county’s pension fund as the biggest problem confronting future commissioners. He also pointed to a $300,000 deficit in the 2013 budget.

“We are involved in things that we should not be as a county,” he continued, specifically naming discussions to purchase the shuttered Sugar Loaf Resort, provide expanded broadband internet service and sponsor early childhood education problems. One way to lower expenditures, he said, would be to combine 911 dispatch services with neighboring jurisdictions including Grand Traverse County.

Rentenbach spoke of preserving the county’s natural beauty, working with farmers and vintners and providing adequate parking and restrooms for visitors to ensure they return. “I will work for the common good and work for all the people in the county. I want to be your voice ...,” she said. She and her husband are the former owners of the LaBecasse restaurant in Burdickville.

She said that the county needs to “encourage a new owner” that would keep Sugar Loaf in private hands. After the forum, she clarified that county ownership of Sugar Loaf would be a possibility if residents voted to fund its purchase and operation.

All candidates at the forum said they supported renewable energy but would not be voting for state Proposal 3 because such a provision has no place in the state Constitution. All the candidates, that is, with the exception of Hawley and Rentenbach. Proposition 3 would require that “clean” energy represent 25 percent of electricity used in the state by 2025.

“My quarrel with wind energy ... is that it doesn’t exist on its own, it has to be subsidized,” Hawley said in opposing Proposal 3 on its merits.

Rentenbach plans to vote for Proposal 3. “I think it’s come to that because the legislature has become paralyzed in moving forward. The people should be allowed to decide what will happen,” she said.

She pledged to unite the many groups and governments in Leelanau County. “I want to build coalitions. I want to build communities ... I think that you’ll benefi t from a fresh, new voice,” Rentenbach said.

• District No. 7, Solon and Kasson townships

Melinda Lautner, a Republican, is the longest serving commissioner on the board. Bill Dungjen, who is running without party affiliation, considers Lautner’s long tenure as a detriment to impartial decision making; Lautner has an opposite view. Dungjen ran against Lautner as a Democrat in the 2010 General Election.

“Our county needs to approach our future looking ahead, and not simply relying on the past and how it’s been,” said Dungjen, who has been raising he and his wife’s young daughter for the past few years. He said turnover in public offices is needed “so everybody is represented.”

Lautner said her years of experience on the board allow her to play “devil’s advocate” on issues, seeing them with a historic perspective. “I was asked to run again by several people in our district. And I think I bring years of experience to the board,” she said.

In general, the candidates did not outline major differences in their views on most issues with the exception of early childhood education. Dungjen, whose wife is a teacher, called for the county to create a “partnership” with early education advocates. “You have to address that. Young families can’t survive without it,” he said.

Lautner said an opinion from a county attorney stated that the county holds no authority to fund a plan to provide early education to all families. She added that having the county’s population base located close to Traverse City provided logistic problems for such an undertaking.

Lautner’s biggest concern is the size and expense associated with the County Jail, whose cells are mostly vacant. “It’s not paid for, and it’s not full,” she said.

Dungjen pointed to limited broadband internet service in Leelanau County. “This might not be within the purview of county government to pay for broadband, but the leadership of this county needs to address it ...,” he said.

Dungjen did not consider running a deficit budget in 2013, as proposed, to be a long-term problem given the county’s sizable fund balance. Lautner said if needed, the county could begin to cut non-mandated programs to keep expenses in line with revenues.

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