At the Sept. 11, 2018 meeting of the Peninsula Township Board, Township Clerk Joanne Westphal submitted her resignation, effective Dec. 31, 2018.
While Westphal notes that there have been many successess since the new Township Board took office in November 2016, they have not met with success in all areas.
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“Over the past two years, strains within and outside of the team have resulted in a subtle, erosive disregard for maintaining the integrity of our Code of Ethics, Township Ordinances, and public policy,” she writes. “In turn, it has affected how we conduct ourselves and the business of the township.”
She adds, “Today, a lack of civility and decorum exists in the workplace. I personally have experienced bullying, insubordination, and intimidation. I have been shouted down in staff meetings and accused erroneously of acts I never committed or authorized. Recently, I was affronted and threatened by a staff member in my own office because I believed that a township contract should go out for bids. Behaviors such as these are debilitating and violate my sense of propriety, well-being and personal safety.”
Some of these conflicts involve the annual monitoring of the Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) properties on the Old Mission Peninsula, and whether it should be done in-house by Township staff or by an outside contractor.
At the August 28 Township Board meeting, Westphal questioned whether Christina Deeren, Peninsula Township Director of Zoning, would be able to do the PDR monitoring job following a personal injury.
At the Sept. 11 board meeting, Deeren said she was appalled that the issue of her health was being discussed openly at the earlier meeting without her permission or consent. She noted that her health issues are personal and protected by Michigan employment laws, and Westphal’s statements were in violation of HIPPA and privacy rights. Deeren said she would be seeking legal counsel regarding the matter.
Meanwhile, Township Assessor Sally Akerley noted that regardless of who is granted the PDR Monitoring contract, the reports are due by the end of the year. She felt that she and Deeren were qualified for the job because the Township Zoning Ordinance states: “The Township will contract with a recognized and legally established non-profit Land Conservancy or other experienced qualified individuals…”
Akerley agreed that the discussion of Deeren’s recent injury at an open meeting was invasive and unfair. She added that no one asked how they planned on segregating the duties of the PDR Monitoring contract, but rather, assumptions were made.
“Christina is one of the hardest working individuals I have ever met,” said Akerley. “Her drive and work ethic are beyond reproach, and she would never accept a project without knowing she could complete it.”
Westphal noted that the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy was interested in pursuing the PDR monitoring, and that it’s a conflict of interest for Township staff to monitor its own properties. She said that the PDR compliance examinations for field studies are to ensure that both sides of the covenant are being met.
“You can’t have your own people doing a compliance check,” said Westphal. “They are part of the Township.”
At a recent Human Recourse Audit workshop, Westphal asked the question of whether or not individuals in a Township can serve as independent contractors to do work for the Township. “The answer was absolutely not, unless they are independent contractors who have multiple employers hiring them to do that type of work, and they have liability insurance for doing the work,” said Westphal. “If they don’t, they then need to come back under the umbrella of their employment and be paid at the 40 hour breakout, at time and a half for the work that is being done. That is how the law interprets whether or not an independent contractor is independent or not.”
She added that if individuals are employed by the Township, they are a part of the Township structure that is being examined for compliance in an equal manner to the applicant. And that the Township has to observe the rules and regulations of the contract language as well as the applicant.
“Both sides benefit from having an independent, non profit contractor surveying and verifying that neither are violating their contract,” said Westphal. “That is the central crux of the matter. The issue that it has been done the last three or four years by people that were once associated with the Township, or in this case were hired last year to do this work, is against the basic premise under which those contracts were established and regulated within the Township. We must manage our policies so that both sides are held accountable for meeting the terms of the contract. That is why we cannot hire our own staff, period. It is just that simple.”
Here is the full text of Westphal’s resignation letter, as she read it into the record at the end of the Sept. 11 Township Board meeting:
Dear Township Residents and Esteemed Town Board Members:
It is exactly two years ago to the day that I attended my first Town Board meeting. At that time, the tasks before us seemed daunting, but there was an optimism that with team work a new day was dawning. And it was. Over the past 2 years, as a Town Board we have made significant hires in the persons of Christina Deeren, Zoning Administrator; David Sanger, Code Enforcement Officer; Fred Gilstorff, Fire Chief; and Randy Mielnik, Director of Planning. Where we found offices in disarray, we reorganized thousands of documents while we streamlined payroll procedures and improved accounting practices. Just last month, for the first time, the treasurer’s and clerk’s offices were able to reconcile their books, an important and essential fiduciary responsibility.
But we have not met with success in all areas. Over the past two years, strains within and outside of the team, have resulted in a subtle, erosive, disregard for maintaining the integrity of our Code of Ethics, Township Ordinances, and public policy. In turn, it has affected how we conduct ourselves and the business of the Township. Today, a lack of civility and decorum exists in the workplace. I personally have experienced bullying, insubordination, and intimidation. I have been shouted down in staff meetings and accused erroneously of acts I never committed or authorized. Recently I was affronted and threatened by a staff member in my own office because I believed that a Township contract should go out for bids. Behaviors such as these are debilitating and violate my sense of propriety, well-being and personal safety. These perceptions, in turn, make me less effective in challenging the status quo of questionable practices in the Township, or in fulfilling my statutory responsibilities as the Township Clerk. As a professional of 45 years, I cannot tolerate this set of conditions in the Town Hall. It is for these reasons that I tender my resignation as Clerk of Peninsula Township, effective December 31, 2018.
With this complete statement of resignation, I will have no further comments on this matter, and I recommend to the Town Board that this meeting be adjourned.
Joanne M. Westphal, PhD, DO
Clerk, Peninsula Township
During the citizen comment time at last night’s Township Board meeting, Peninsula Township resident Mary Swift read a statement into the record asking for Westphal’s immediate resignation. Here is the full text of that statement:
It’s with great sadness I am here for this public comment. I have struggled to find the right words to speak. I am not here because I have any agenda other than to help my community as I have for decades. I’m not looking for a pat on the back. Just stating some facts for background. I have worked on behalf of the community by working on citizen groups for parks, planning commission, ordinances, heritage roads status, master plans, elections and PDR. Even helping negotiate PDR contracts between the township and private land owners, like I did for the Edmondsons at one time.
People in the community have come to know my work, my integrity, and my passion for our community. And many trust me to speak for them. I do not speak without their input, however, so when I speak here tonight, please understand I am not speaking only for myself.
There clearly are issues surrounding the clerk’s office, as evidenced by the resignation of the clerk at the last Town Board meeting. In that resignation, the clerk left no doubt that she felt she was working in a hostile environment and that her efforts were not appreciated. That’s unfortunate. However, she set her effective date at December 31st, more than three months from the resignation. That may be legal, but I’m not in the legal and illegal business. I’m more in the right and wrong business, and it’s wrong for the effective date to be that far into the future, especially given the language of the resignation and the tone of its delivery.
The clerk found fault with her elected teammates, the staff and us, the community. She took no responsibility for her part in creating the environment she finds so offensive, and she delivered her resignation with anger. Because of that, and for the benefit of the community, the clerk should offer her resignation effective immediately. The Township needs to get on with the business of running the government, and the community needs to move on. There is no reason to stay. No one, no matter how credentialed, is indispensible. Not even an impending election is reason to stay. The prior clerk resigned in September of a presidential election year, and I’m one hundred percent confident we will have no issues this year.
We need to appoint a new clerk and let that person begin the learning curve of being an effective clerk. Having a new clerk go through a midterm election would be great training. By remaining through year end, the clerk’s continued presence creates a toxic environment for getting business done. This is not a court of law, but it is a court of public opinion. I am not alone in requesting an immediate resignation. If you need to see signatures on a petition, how many will help you understand? Having said that and because the clerk has not yet offered an immediate resignation, she may very well continue to sit in the position through year end. That would be wrong. But in the case it happens, it’s time for a reality check.
The clerk’s resignation speech from the prior meeting, as I said earlier, would have you believe that she didn’t share some of the responsibility for some of the problems. That would be factually inaccurate from the perspective of the community. I can’t speak for her elected teammates or staff, but I can speak for the community. Back in July of this year, I had a private meeting with the clerk at my home to try to help her understand the community was voicing concerns, questions, criticisms about the performance in the clerk’s office. It was a lengthy list of concerns unsolicited by me, received from community members over months. It wasn’t a one-time thing. It just wasn’t heresay, because I found the criticisms to be factually accurate when I studied minutes of meetings, started attending meetings and visiting the Town Hall.
The criticisms ranged from the clerk being unavailable to people who had legitimate business with the clerk’s office, such as not returning phone calls or emails, not being in the office except after hours, to personnel hiring practices being out of control, and that included hiring the deputy’s son in violation of promises of no nepotism.
There have been more serious concerns about her interface and interference with the planning commission and intimidating PC members. I don’t have time tonight to get into that in more detail, so there’s one more that’s more troubling, and that’s her refusal to recuse herself where clear bias exists, despite others recommending to her on more than one occasion to recuse herself. The clerk’s response to the message I was delivering was essentially excuses why or justifications for her behavior. My response was, ‘Don’t give me excuses. Just fix it.’
Not only did no improvement show, she continued to exhibit the bias and told others she didn’t need to listen to these concerns because I’m the one that’s biased by friendship, even though I was only the messenger.
This has nothing to do with whether I’m friend or foe of anyone. I will stand up against abuse of power, and in this matter, it’s about Bowers Harbor Vineyards. They have aboslutely no knowledge of what I’m about to say. I am not speaking for them. I’m speaking about a situation in our community that is wrong – lack of judgment, lack of transparency and perceived bias. It is a travesty that the clerk’s bias has not been halted. It is a surprise that the Township has not yet been sued for it.
As I said, I am not in the legal or illegal business, but I am going to speak about the wrongs being committed. I have no dog in the show, and I don’t know the specific nature of the complaints that have continually been filed against Bowers Harbor by Dave Edmondson. They may be nuisance and they may be real, and it doesn’t matter to me either way. But there is a process that this community must be able to rely on, and that is fair and impartial decisions.
The clerk’s longterm personal relationship akin to marriage is where the bias comes in. No resident should have to endure a neighbor’s borderline harrassing complaints, only to come before this board to have a spouse or significant other, relative or business partner of the person filing the complaints sit in judgment. It is wrong. The clerk must recuse herself from any and all discussions around Bowers Harbor Vineyards if she remains in office any longer.
I can validate the bias personally, even though I can corrobate the concerns voiced to me by others. So I’m willing to use my personal experience. How do I know? Two years ago, shortly after the clerk took office, Dave Edmondson started a series of complaints against Bowers Harbor. And how do I know that? Because two years ago, he asked me to meet him at the park to observe activity at Bowers Harbor Vineyards. I declined. I’m a neighbor, and I can look across the fence from my house and see if there’s a problem, and I didn’t see one at the time. Shortly thereafter, the first complaint was filed.
Dave Edmondson drives miles from his house and sits in the park with camera in hand. I’ve seen him there, as have others. if someone did that to me, I’d file a stalking restraining order. The clerk herself has gone to Bowers Harbor Vineyards to investigate after a Planning Commission member saw something and supposedly couldn’t reach an enforcement officer or zoning administrator or the supervisor. And I’ve heard that Bowers Harbor recorded this encounter. I assume that’s true.
So other than one PC member who works closely with the clerk, I also am assuming all of the complaints that have been filed against Bowers Harbor have been by Dave Edmondson. Yesterday, I turned in several FOIA requests directed at the clerk’s office to further validate these concerns. According to FOIA law, they have five days to answer. I don’t have the answers yet. Part of the questions and concerns raised by the community, for example, is ‘Did the clerk release documents and other information regarding Bowers Harbor Vineyards without following the freedom of information act requirements? Did information that could not have been obtained by visual observation make its way to Mr. Edmondson to aid his complaints without following the law?’ I don’t know yet.
So finally, why am I standing here and not the others whose concerns I carry? Because they also are concerned about retaliation and public sentiment. They do business here or have family members who did business here or may need to get something approved by the board. They also don’t want the community to turn against them for filing lawsuits. I understand it, because I made that same choice when we first moved here. My husband and I had a winnable legal case against a much earlier board for arbitrarily limiting the height of our accessory building. We decided not to sue, to try to be a good neighbor, because we, too, feared retaliation, as we had yet to build our home. I no longer have that fear. I will not be intimidated or bullied, and I will protect myself. I wish someone had advocated for us back then like I’m doing for my neighbors now.
I want to remind this board that in one of the Project 81 lawsuits, the judge forced a Township Trustee to recuse herself for “liking” a Facebook page of a group that was against the 81 development. That trustee’s actions paled in comparison to the actions of the clerk regarding Bowers Harbor Vineyards. This biased behavior will not and should not be tolerated going forward. In the court of public opinion, it is wrong for the clerk to participate in the board’s decisions where BHV is concerned. And if there are other issues like the PDR program, there, too, the clerk’s bias must be recognized. There are enough other board members to follow proper procedures and resolve the issues where there is bias and conflict of interest.
In closing, I have to say that while this may seem like it’s a personal attack against Joanne, it is not. It is about ensuring our community is as free from bias as humanly possible. It is about ensuring all are treated fairly and equitably. It is about right versus wrong. All board members need to be cognizant of their own and other board members’ potential bias. It’s not just a legal definition of conflict of interest.
Finally, I respect Joanne, admire her knowledge, appreciate her service to the community, and not just as clerk. I am grateful she volunteered for the job, and I’m very saddened by where we find ourselves today. But it is time for Joanne to step aside.
For more information about the Sept. 11 Township Board meeting, view the meeting minutes here.
A NOTE FROM JANE: I started Old Mission Gazette in 2015 because I felt a calling to provide the Old Mission Peninsula community with local news. After decades of writing for newspapers like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, and magazines like Family Circle and Ladies' Home Journal, I really just wanted to write about my own community where I grew up on a cherry farm and raised my own family. So of course, I started my own newspaper. Because the Gazette is mainly reader-supported, I hope you'll consider tossing a few bucks my way if I mention your event, your business, your organization or your news item, or if you simply love reading about what's happening on the Old Mission Peninsula. Check out the donation page here. Thank you so much for your support. -jb