By Scott Sullivan
Saugatuck City Council Monday reversed plans announced at its workshop four days earlier to replace planning commission liaison Russ Gardner with Garnet Lewis.
Scott Dean, who replaced Lewis as mayor post-Nov. 8 election, said last Thursday he felt both are eminently qualified and experienced as PC members, but Lewis might “serve better on emerging issues going forward, such as short-term rentals.”
Objections came swiftly.
Gardner, appointed in July 2021 as a citizen elected to council four months later, asked why council affirmed and retained him then to find only now they had overlooked a formal voice vote.
“When I was elected to council in November 2021, in compliance with Saugatuck City Charter Chapter/Section 31.31 (City Planning Commission, Terms of Office), council selected me to be their commission representative at their Nov. 8, 2021, regular meeting. My term runs concurrent with my council term and ends Nov. 1, 2023.
“I bring this to your attention,” Gardner went on, “as certain members of the current council plan to nominate council member Garnet Lewis to replace me on the PC.
“I have not resigned and plan to continue to serve on the commission through the end of my term. Any effort to replace me at this point would be in violation of the city charter,” continued Gardner’s letter.
“This proposal was first brought to council at our Nov. 23 workshop. Setting aside the legality of the proposed nomination, I question whether the council member that might be nominated is the right person for the PC.
“Recall that this council member, while serving as mayor:
“1) Knowingly violated city policy by moving a long-serving and knowledgeable PC member (Russ Crawford) to the Zoning Board of Appeals and nominated her personal choice to replace that person on the PC, without consulting the chair of either board as is required by city policy and,
“2) Singlehandedly negotiated a backdoor deal to override a PC decision (regarding Wick Park Bar & Grill’s expansion into and adjacent dwelling) without consulting the then chair of the PC or any member of the commission. Additionally, this member was serving on council and was involved in a decision related to the Dune Grass development which has cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
“Please ask yourself if this individual is truly a better fit than the current city council representative who has more years of planning experience, is a fifth-generation Saugatuck resident, works well with others, seeks to find a common ground for difficult decisions, and has the interests of the community first and foremost,” Gardner’s letter said.
To Gardner’s claims Thursday of tenure and longevity, Lewis noted she too had served four past years on the PC, the last two as chair, and her civic service speaks for itself.
“It’s the mayor’s duty per charter to make nominations, then council’s to approve or deny. When Holly (Leo) and I were first elected (in 2020) we nodded and abided with the process.”
Lewis was not present Monday. Citizen commenting that night were less reticent.
Former city clerk Erin Wilkinson, ex-planning commission chair Dan Fox and council member/mayor Barry Johnson described the proposed and since-reversed switch as a “backroom deal.”
Current PC member Jim Bouck, apprised of the possible move, wrote council the charter says commission membership “shall consist of a member of council who shall be selected by council and whose term of office shall correspond with his or her term as a council member …
“According to the charter,” Bouck went on, “inclusion of the word ‘shall’ makes council membership on the PC mandatory and the direct responsibility of the entire council.
“For the current council to imply that Russ Gardner’s representation as that mandatory council representative was not official would confirm that the prior council had no official representative and intentionally violated the city ordinance and perhaps the Michigan Planning Enabling Act.
“It seems that recognizing Mr. Gardner as that representative member was the method chosen to fulfill the legal requirement binding on the council. By failing to appoint another council member as the required representative, Mr. Gardner’s PC position was formally recognized.
“Mr. Gardner’s term on the PC must be the same as his city council term unless removed following public charges of malfeasance and a public hearing.
“Mr. Gardner has served with integrity, honesty and honorably as a Planning Commission member and deserves our full support,” Bouck said.
By Scott Sullivan