2012-10-18 / Life in Leelanau

Most candidates prefer to be elected in Northport

By Mike Spencer Of The Enterprise staff

Two candidates running for Northport Village treasurer and another running for clerk said Sunday during a candidates forum that they want to see Northport continue to have elected officials.

Incumbent Clerk Joni L. Scott, however, said she could see benefits to both and could go either way on the issue.

Northport voters will decide Nov. 6 whether they want to move away from an elected clerk and treasurer and have them appointed in the future, starting with the 2014 election.

“I believe the position should remain voted,” said Laura Weiss, a former clerk who lost the 2010 election to Scott by three votes. “I don’t think anyone should give up any right they already have. That’s what our country is about.

“In spite of the fact that I lost the last time, I still believe that it should be up to the people and whatever you decide. It should be your decision and not left up to a small board that changes members every two years.”

MERILEE SCRIPPS, left, and Suzanne Wollenweber give their views Sunday during the candidates forum for Northport treasurer. MERILEE SCRIPPS, left, and Suzanne Wollenweber give their views Sunday during the candidates forum for Northport treasurer. “I see both sides of an elected and an appointed clerk and treasurer,” said Scott, who said both jobs are non-policy making positions. “In can be kind of dangerous when you get into elected officials because it can be voting on popularity.

“But I also see that being elected that we do get to use our right to vote.”

Scott and Weiss were asked their views during a 10-minute forum sponsored by the Leelanau Unit of the League of Women Voters, Grand Traverse Area. There were about 100 people in attendance at the Leelanau Township Fire Hall.

Incumbent treasurer Merilee Scripps and challenger Suzanne Wollenweber also said an elected clerk was the only way to go during their eight-minute forum.

“I feel that the residents have a right to select or choose who they’d like to have in office,” Wollenweber said. “And I don’t think it should be left up to five or six people.”

Scripps agreed.

“We trust the electorate to be informed,” she said. “And I sincerely believe that it’s the correct way to proceed.”

The Council on June 21 voted 5-2 for a new village ordinance to appoint both the clerk and treasurer.

However, the change was put to referendum after a successful petition drive spearheaded by trustee Donna Groomes, who believes voters should decide their elected officials and not five people.

Meanwhile, two candidates running for the presidency present at the forum, trustee Barb VonVoigtlander and incumbent Fred Steffens, were also asked their thoughts on whether the village should have an appointed clerk and treasurer.

VonVoigtlander, a big proponent of going to the appointment process and Scott’s neighbor, said appointing would enlarge the pool of candidates and eliminate the residency question.

Steffens said he opposed the idea of appointing the clerk and treasurer because he was “old-school” and he believed in Democracy and the right to vote.

Weiss said that the Council has changed members more often than the clerks. Betty Mork served for 30 years, before Weiss landed the job. Weiss had it for eight years and Scott has had the job the last two years.

“If there was a lack of qualified candidates, perhaps I could see appointing one but I would not want to give up my rights,” Weiss said.

Scott suggested that if the position remains an elected one, the Council should consider an ordinance to make the clerk and treasurer four-year terms instead of two.

The clerk’s position has been a hot topic since the election in 2010 when Scott was voted in. Her residency was challenged in a criminal complaint made by resident and former trustee Rick Burmeister.

Michelle L. Steffen, Benzie County’s assistant prosecuting attorney, investigated Scott’s residency as it pertains to election laws. She exonerated Scott of criminal wrongdoing in a letter dated Nov. 1, 2011. However, the assistant prosecutor added that she personally believes Scott is “not a resident of the village of Northport and that she holds the office improperly.”

While the Council voted for the new ordinance, several villagers suggested that the appointed position was being created so that Scott could keep her job and avoid the residency controversy.

Weiss was first elected to the clerk’s office in March 2002, winning a drawing for the post after she and Scott each collected 108 votes.

Scott defeated Weiss, however, 166- 163, two years ago.

The two pulled a few punches Sunday, letting their constituents know they want to be clerk again in 2013.

Scott said she had to correct a few accounting errors made by Weiss, including taxing pensions of employees for eight years. Weiss denied any wrongdoing and said annual audits “never found any mistakes or errors of signifi- cant consequence.”

Scott said her experience as clerk for Northport and for the Northport/ Leelanau Township Utility Authority made her the most qualified for the job.

“I see my two years here as an asset and a building block to the future,” Scott said.

Weiss was asked whether she expected to retain the $48,000 salary she had in 2010 when she was clerk.

“I do not feel that the current fiscal situation is what it was before,” Weiss said. “I realize that it (salary) was an issue, but wages are set by the Council, not me.”

Weiss said she planned to be a fulltime clerk and would be more accessible to the public than Scott has been. Scott rebutted that she had posted office hours and did the job “for significantly less,” than Weiss and had just as many office hours.

Scott currently receives $34,683 in salary and benefits from Northport Village.

Wollenweber and Scripps were very cordial with each other during their forum. Scripps has been treasurer since 2004.

“This is the first time I’ve had a challenger,” said Scripps, who said her village experience as well as being the Leelanau Township deputy treasurer has given her the tools and experience needed to do the job. “We both use the same software system for billing and preparing taxes.”

Wollenweber said she just retired from the Leelanau County Construction Code Office as administrative assistant and handled treasurer-like duties. She said she was also a treasurer at her church and for the Sons of Norway.

“I’m retired now and have time to do this,” Wollenweber said in response to an audience question as to why she was running this year. “And I feel with past experience of 40 years that I could be a benefit to the village.”

Wollenweber said she was “open to suggestions” and “willing to be a team player with the Council.”

Scripps took exception to the idea that Wollenweber inferred that she wasn’t a team player.

“I certainly am a team player,” she said. “I treat residents in the village with respect.”

Wollenweber rebutted that she did not mean to infer that Scripps was not a team player.

“I just feel there needs to be a little closer relationship with the Council and better communication so everyone knows what is going on and not a certain few,” Wollenweber said. “I was told there were times in the past ... back to the sewer days ... that when people inquired about something, they felt they were not informed properly and left in the cold so to speak.”

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