Saturday, November 03, 2012

Portage Township Board candidates express views at forum; most challengers to incumbents absent

By Michele Bourdieu

Panel members for the Oct. 22 League of Women Voters Portage Township Board Election candidates' forum begin with questions for Bruce Petersen, incumbent township supervisor. Pictured here, from left, are Jill Burkland, who introduced the candidates; Kathy Flagstadt, Voter Service chair; and Fredi De Yampert, president, who asked questions from the League and from the audience. (Photo by Allan Baker for Keweenaw Now)

HOUGHTON -- The Oct. 22 League of Women Voters Portage Township Board Election candidates' forum, with the exception of the treasurer position, was marked by the absence of the candidates challenging the incumbents in a township that has been marked recently by controversy, a lawsuit over zoning enforcement and a costly appraisal caused by incorrect tax records. Actually, the challengers' absences allowed two incumbents -- the supervisor and the one trustee who attended the forum -- the advantage of more time to explain the problems that had beset the township, how they have worked to solve them, and what improvements they envision for the township's future.

An audience of about 60 people, scattered through the auditorium at Houghton High School, submitted written questions to the panel, made up of three League members: Jill Burklund, who introduced the candidates; Kathy Flagstadt, Voter Service chair; and Fredi De Yampert, president. De Yampert read the questions to the candidates, who were timed and limited to one-minute answers. Each candidate introduced himself/herself in an opening statement, answered questions, and gave a brief summary at the end of the questions.

Bruce Petersen: Present board working to solve inherited problems and to plan for future

Bruce Petersen, a Democrat, who has served as Portage Township Supervisor for the past two years (since his predecessor, Bill Bingham, resigned in 2010 to run for County Commissioner) was the first to speak at the forum. Petersen pointed out that, before accepting the position of township supervisor, he had worked for 34.7 years for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) under the U.S. Department of Agriculture and, with his agency, had addressed both environmental and economic issues. His experience with NRCS included oversight of contracting, design, engineering and construction; and he had to come up with unique solutions to individual problems, both for units of government and for individuals. He also involved his agency in the Torch Lake Superfund remediation of stamp sand.

"That taught me a lot about hydrology and engineering, forestry assistance, working with units of government. (including) tribal units of government. I came away with a lot of information over those 34 years that I think bodes well for this position," Petersen said.

Asked about what crucial issues he thinks need to be included in the township's Master Plan, now being updated, Petersen said the Master Plan is very important as the  baseline for all planning and zoning laws in the township.

"We need to get a sense of place in our Master Plan. What do we value as citizens in the township?" Petersen said. "That aids us in the future and gives us direction for where we're going."

In this video clip Petersen mentions some of the problems he inherited from his predecessor, including worn-out equipment, a failed tax review that cost the township $95,000 and the Valley View Quarry zoning violation, which led to a complaints by residents who threatened to sue the township:

At the League of Women Voters candidates' forum for Portage Township, Bruce Petersen, Democrat, Portage Township supervisor, introduces himself as a candidate for re-election. His challenger, Mike Wilmers, Republican, declined the invitation to participate in the forum. (Videos by Allan Baker for Keweenaw Now)

Replacing worn-out equipment was, for Petersen, a safety issue and therefore part of his responsibility.

"I have to provide for the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of Portage Township," Petersen said.

The failed tax review meant the township's records did not match what the state auditor found on the ground, Petersen explained. As a result, at the time he became supervisor, the state seized the tax records and ordered the township to re-do the appraisal, which was very costly.

The Valley View Quarry, owned by Moyle Inc., was actually a conflict of interest for Petersen's predecessor, Bill Bingham, whose son was a Moyle employee, Petersen noted.

In addition, from 2006-2010, Bingham worked as the zoning administrator as well as the township supervisor. The Quarry violated zoning because it was on land zoned rural residential.

Residents living near the quarry complained especially about noise that was actually magnified because of the landscape at the quarry, and they threatened to sue the township for failing to enforce the zoning ordinance.

"It took until 2009 before Bingham wrote a letter to Gary Moyle telling him that the quarry was illegal in the rural residential land use area," Petersen noted.

Eventually, the township sided with the complaining residents; but, because of HB 4746, a bill introduced by 110th Michigan House District Representative Matt Huuki and passed in 2011, zoning could no longer be used to prevent extractive industries.* The township then came to an agreement with Valley View called a Consent Judgment, which regulates how the quarry can be operated (dust and noise abatement, hours of operation), the legal permits it needs, how it would be defined as closed, once closed how the remediation would take place and who would pay for it.

This recent photo of Valley View Quarry shows a partially completed, grassed "earthen noise suppression berm" in the background. It has now been extended further to the southwest covering the front of the pit. Noise abatement is one of the requirements in the Consent Judgment that allows the township to regulate how the quarry is run. Also in the background are the sediment basins where all the wash water is collected and a large wetland area and tree line where the concerned citizens reside. (Photo © and courtesy Bruce Petersen)

In this video clip, after expressing his support of the Pilgrim River Watershed conservation project, Petersen speaks about the Valley View Quarry issue and the Consent Judgment:

During the candidates' forum, Bruce Petersen replies to questions on the Pilgrim River Watershed conservation project and the Valley View Quarry issue.

"I think if people read what Judge Roy Gotham stated in his final decision -- how we fought for what we believed was right concerning our zoning issues -- they would support us in this election," Petersen told Keweenaw Now after the forum. "They would know full well that we are supporting the citizens of the township."

Petersen also expressed strong support for the Portage Lake District Library.

Asked about ongoing grant proposals, Petersen mentioned grant proposals under the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) to improve the multi-use trail from Chassell to Houghton. While it would allow snowmobiles in winter (although some residents have objected to this) it would have an improved surface for biking and walking, and both Chassell and Portage townships have agreed to maintain it. It would allow people to bike from the trail along the waterfront to Michigan Tech.

"It would be a real nice opportunity for people to bike instead of driving," Petersen said.

He is also working with Houghton City Manager Scott MacInnes on a grant for composting yard waste.

Mike Wilmers, a Republican and former chair of the Portage Township Planning Commission, who is challenging Petersen for the township supervisor position, did not participate in the forum.

Wilmers did reply to the League's questions in the Voters' Guide. He mentions, as issues of concern to him, "resolution of all zoning issues" and "the questionable misappropriation of Portage Township taxpayer funds." He describes himself as a retired civil engineer and business owner.

According to Petersen, Wilmers was removed as chair of the Planning Commission because he had gone to Lansing and, claiming to represent the township, signed documents in support of Matt Huuki's HB 4746 without informing the Township Board or the Planning Commission.*

"He (Wilmers) has all the right to represent himself, but not to represent the township on such an issue," Petersen said. "Only the (township) supervisor can do that."

Later, Petersen added, Wilmers attempted to sue the township board, claiming they had violated the Open Meetings Act when they sent him a letter about his removal from the position of Planning Commission chair. Petersen said they sent him a second letter, approved by their lawyers and apprising Wilmers of his rights. The lawsuit did not materialize and Wilmers was awarded a monetary settlement, which was not enough to cover his own legal fees.

Two candidates vie for treasurer position

During the forum, incumbent Treasurer Carol Little, who has held the position for six years, answered questions along with her challenger, Quincy Higgins Arney. Both said they were familiar with software used for the position and were open to learning how to use new accounting software. Both expressed a need for the township to use the Internet.

Little said she would like to see wireless Internet "all the way to Pelkie."

Arney suggested the township post all township government documents on line or distribute them through a volunteer email list.

Arney mentioned a sewer project that affected her. She said she would like to see more grass roots involvement in such projects as this one (which included tax increases and a loan for the township) so residents can be included in the decision making.

This video clip includes statements from each of these two candidates on what they think is the most important financial issue for the township:

The two candidates for Portage Township treasurer, incumbent Carol Little and challenger Quincy Higgins Arney, answer a question on township financial issues and give their closing statements.

In her statements published in the Voters' Guide of the League of Women Voters, Little describes herself as a Republican and a Houghton County native. She also completed two years of state assessing classes to become a licensed Assessor, which, she says, helps her understand the taxation process better so she can help the taxpayers understand it better.

Arney also answered the League's questions in the Voters' Guide. She describes herself as an Independent Landscape Designer, having no party affiliation. She also served two years in AmeriCorps, where she helped facilitate programs for children and teens, the environment and the elderly. Arney notes she received special training in conflict resolution and peer mediation -- a skill she would like to bring to township government.**

One trustee candidate speaks at forum; six are absent

Only one of the seven trustee candidates, incumbent John Ollila, attended the forum. Ollila, a Democrat and a retired high school math/science teacher and college English teacher, described himself as a lifetime resident of the township, an outdoor person and trout fisherman (a member of Trout Unlimited), a former Peace Corps Volunteer (Malaysia) and a supporter of the Portage Lake District Library. He has served as Portage Township Trustee for four years. He also said he has a near photographic memory for text, which is helpful for township meetings.

In the following video clip, Ollila speaks about his strong support of the Pilgrim River Watershed conservation project. He also mentions an issue he feels should be addressed in the present revision of the township's Master Plan, gives more detail on the Valley View Quarry issue and the Consent Judgment, and answers a question on mining.

During the Portage Township candidates' forum, John Ollila, Portage Township trustee, answers questions on township issues.

In the League's Voters' Guide, Ollila says he believes land use and zoning will be critical issues in Portage Township.

"Families have chosen to live in Portage Township because of zoning protection. Yet we often have vocal individuals at meetings who equate any regulation as a landowner rights issue," Ollila writes. "We must cooperate. My vision is for the county's citizens to become more open-minded, inclusive, and pragmatic. Totally excluding another's interest or values is not visionary, and definitely not progress."**

In the following video clip, Ollila elaborates on the importance of zoning protection and his own learning experience in serving on the Township Board. He also comments on rumors about the Board that he would be glad to address and expresses strong support for the incumbent Board members.

John Ollila talks about zoning protection and gives his closing statement at the end of the forum.

The League announced at the forum that the other trustee candidates -- incumbents Peggy Lee Anderson and Mark Jalkanen and challengers Bill Bingham, Andrew Kemper and Jonathan Stone -- declined to participate, while they did not hear from incumbent James Zerbst. Anderson, Bingham and Kemper did reply in writing to the League's questions in the Voters' Guide.**


* HB 4746, introduced by Matt Huuki (R-Atlantic Mine), 110th House District representative, became effective as law July 20, 2011. Click here to read the final version.

** Click here to access the Copper Country League of Women Voters' local Voters' Guide. Comments from Portage Township candidates begin on p. 11 of the Guide.

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