Who’s accountable? Commissioners take no official action on Cole’s Creek situation
The Houghton County Board of Commissioners and road commission heard and responded to comments from Cole’s Creek residents, now without water for over a month, at meetings in the last two weeks.
On October 13, Commissioner Glenn Anderson addressed the rest of the Houghton County commissioners, recapping the situation. The legacy pipeline feeding water to about eight houses on Cole’s Creek Road was repeatedly damaged and repaired by a contractor working for the Houghton County Road Commission. It was eventually removed entirely in mid-September, and without advance notice to any of the residents who used it as their sole source of water in their homes.
“Nobody wants to lose their water overnight,” Anderson said.
The residents are moving to get private wells dug, but well diggers are not immediately available, and the emergency expense is difficult, in the extreme, for some of the residents to handle.
Anderson then passed the opportunity to speak to the members of the public who had tuned into the online meeting to comment.
Bruce Woodry was the first to speak. Woodry is the father one one of the residents, Chris Woodry, and has been helping with research into accountability for the shut off and resources for the residents.
Bruce asked why comments were not allowed at the previous virtual commissioners meeting, despite people “raising their hand” and making written comments that they wanted to talk. Chairman Al Koskela said the special meeting was called only for budget matters.
“Nevertheless, public comments are required to be taken,” Woodry said.
According to the Michigan Open Meetings Act, public comment is required to be taken at any meeting of a public body like a board or council.
Koskela said he asked for comment three times, but did not see anyone trying to be unmuted.
Pete Mackin, a Hancock resident with expertise in cleaning water, gave a couple ideas for solutions to the problem and offered to be part of a community group seeking solutions for the residents who are still without water.
Tiffany Lam asked if anyone was being held responsible for the damage to the system and the residents’ water being cut without notice.
Commissioners responded that because the well was private, no public body had jurisdiction over it. Because it was old, it wasn’t built or kept to regulatory code.
“I guess in hindsight, it should have been registered and maintained under the state code,” Anderson said.
The day before the water line was taken out by the contractor, the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department did visit the site and declare it unsafe for drinking based on a visual inspection. A sample taken from one of the homes the same day returned a positive test result for coliform bacteria two days later. “Unsafe for Drinking” notices were given to the residents, but they were not told it was a shutoff notice. State law also requires a shutoff notice to be given 10 days in advance.
Anderson said he talked to state and local agencies on behalf of the residents to find emergency funding for help with a water source, but because the previous system and future wells are all private, wasn’t able to find any.
Chris Woodry also addressed the commissioners. He said the residents had offered and were prepared to repair the line themselves, and were not concerned about the coliform bacteria because they filtered the water in their individual homes.
“Nobody planned on being on this system forever,” Woodry said. “However, with COVID, flood impacts and whatnot, nobody was prepared to be off of it, especially with no notice.”
Woodry said he was frustrated with everyone telling the residents it was someone else’s fault.
“We keep getting run around or flat out lies, and we want answers,” he said. “We want people to be held accountable.”
Woodry told the commissioners he also wants to see an official channel for the residents to get drinking water until they can finish establishing their own wells.
In exploring questions about the design of the project, commissioners touched on a drainage issue that developed around the 2018 flood damage repairs to Cole’s Creek Road, too.
“That’s a whole different issue,” Bruce Woodry said.
He asked if the county would back a loan for the residents who still needed funding for their wells. The commissioners said they had no legal authority to do so.
“The Michigan constitution prevents us from spending assets on private property,” Anderson said.
Several solutions were considered during the meeting that could have been enacted before the pipes were pulled and the road work completed, including a new shared community well or running a city water line from Houghton, but none of those options is available immediately, and the residents need water now.
“The problem that these people are having is that it wasn’t adequately planned,” Bruce Woodry said.
Lam asked the last question of the meeting, if the contractor doing the work had any liability.
“The Commission hires the contractor should they also be held responsible?” Lam asked.
She was told that was a legal question.
At a special meeting on Friday, Houghton County Road Commission Chairman Bill Siler was reinstated by the commissioners in a split vote. The board voted 3-2 to reappoint Siler, with Chairman Al Koskela, Vice Chairman Tom Tikkanen and Commissioner Roy Britz voting in favor. Commissioners Glenn Anderson and Gretchen Janssen voted against the reappointment.
Anderson supported a change on the road commission as a way to signal the board’s dissatisfaction with the handling of the Cole’s Creek Road issue.
“I think we need to at least show some displeasure with how this was handled,” he said. “I don’t blame the Road Commission for coming up against an 80-year-old water system that’s not regulated, not permitted, but on the other hand, I think it could have been handled better.”
Koskela said Siler has been doing a “pretty good job.” Koskela said the Road Commission had not been to blame for what happened on the road.
At the road commission meeting on Monday, HCRC Engineer Kevin Harju read aloud an email, dated Oct. 19, from the property owners where the Cole’s Creek well is located. They denied having any agreement regarding the care or maintenance of the water system with the other residents of Cole’s Creek Road. They have previously declined to speak with the Gazette on the record.
Chris Woodry was able to address the board, and asked if they reviewed and approved the plans for work on Cole’s Creek Road as part of the permit process, and whether there was any instructions to damage or alter the private waterline marked on the approved plans.
“The contractor is supposed to verify the location of all utilities on a plan as specified…” Harju replied.
Woodry pointed out the water pipes had been marked, and the homeowners had offered further help.
Harju said he had received an email from the contractor saying he would like to send a bill for repairs to whoever the owner of the pipeline is, if one would have come forward.
The contractor has declined to speak to the Gazette on the record.
Harju warned Woodry he was almost out of time, and referred him to a legal opinion that was requested from Henn Lesperance PLC, an attorney in Grand Rapids.
The opinion stated, in part, “…the Road Commission cannot require the owner of the water line to continue to supply water to the residents of Coles Creek Road, and the Road Commission does not have authority to grant those residents the right to receive water from that source.” And, “an unauthorized water line within a highway right-of-way is an encroachment on the right-of-way… the Road Commission is authorized to remove encroachments within a highway right-of-way.”
“There’s nothing we can really do any longer on that water system,” Harju said.
Woodry was not satisfied.
“A third-party legal opinion is fine and dandy at all,” he said. “Of course, that’s going to be in your favor when you’re supplying it.”
Harju reasserted that nobody ever offered to repair the pipe for the contractor, offered to share a copy of the legal opinion, informed Woodry his five minutes of public comment time was up, and moved on with the meeting.