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Houghton Council holds ethics discussion over Cole proposal

HOUGHTON — The Houghton City Council discussed an ethical issue Wednesday regarding a proposal Councilor Virginia Cole had selectively circulated to two other council members that prompted a call during public comment for Cole to resign.

The discussion centered on actions by Cole that came up during the Jan. 13 meeting, a week after the council learned of the Veridea Group’s withdrawal from negotiations for development of the big parking deck property on Lakeshore Drive. The Council voted to have the Planning Commission make recommendations on a course forward for development of the downtown and the big parking deck area. The vote was 6-1, with Cole casting the sole dissenting vote.

After the vote, Cole brought up another idea: bring back the Lakeshore Drive Redevelopment Committee, which had been the city’s liaison with Veridea during the earlier process, but with expanded membership.

Under questioning from Councilor Daniel Salo at the meeting, Cole said she had written the proposal by herself, but with input from some others. Cole also said she had not attended any meetings about the proposal beforehand, and had not approached any other council members.

Asked by Salo if they had been given information about the proposal, Councilors Irizarry and Joan Suits, who joined Cole on the council in November, said yes. Other council members said they had not. Clerk Ann Vollrath had also been contacted about the proposal, and advised her on how to word her proposal, Cole said in a letter to the council. When Cole asked Vollrath if she should notify City Manager Eric Waara of the proposal beforehand, Vollrath said it was up to Cole, she said in the letter.

“The clerk said it was up to me and that there would be a big discussion, reconfirming my belief of what to expect,” she said.

Cole said in the letter she had expected a longer discussion before a proposal was voted on, similar to what had occurred at a Planning Commission meeting where ideas from several members were discussed before a motion was presented.

In a letter to the council, Cole said she had also crafted the proposal with the help of the Houghton Waterfront Redevelopment Citizens Group at a virtual meeting on Jan. 10, which Irizarry also attended. The group, which had urged more public input before any decisions on development of the Lakeshore Drive site, had endorsed all three candidates in November.

In a letter to the council submitted before Wednesday’s meeting, Cole said she had spoken with her attorney, City Manager Eric Waara and the city’s counsel, who all determined her actions did not violate the Open Meetings Act. She cited Michigan Municipal League guidance that members are encouraged to meet with civic groups, so long as a quorum of members –four, for the council — is not present.

During public comment at Wednesday’s meeting, Houghton resident Jennifer Julien, who also sits on the city Planning Commission, asked Cole and Councilor Brian Irizarry to resign.

Julien referenced the Jan. 11 Facebook post by the Houghton Waterfront Redevelopment Citizens Group demonstrating foreknowledge of Cole’s proposal. The post, which came a day after a group meeting, said at the Jan. 13 meeting the council would be “presented with a proposal for a new redevelopment process that puts Houghton residents front-and-center in determining the future of their waterfront.” It did not mention who would submit the proposal.

“Was it OMA? Was it ex parte contact? These things are determined in court,” Julien said. “The bigger issue here is the distrust created, the ethics behind the situation and the precedent set for both the council and all members of city government going forward.”

Julien contrasted Cole’s actions with the rhetoric during the campaign, in which she called for “fostering carefully planned growth and proper development that includes open, transparent and respectful dialogue between residents, businesses and city government.”

“These are the same people who accused the council of backdoor (Open Meetings Act) violations on the same topic in the recent past,” Julien said, referencing a suit against the city dismissed after it agreed to make Lakeshore Drive committee meeting public. “These are the same people that asked for everything to be public regarding this situation. They met … with members of the public, but in a private meeting … they met to develop a proposal so detailed it included timelines and names of people that would then determine the specific outcome.”

Cole said in her letter she had shared the proposal with Suits, who messaged her after seeing the Facebook post and asked if she knew anything about the proposal.

“I emailed a copy without any conversation,” Cole said. “Had other council members or members of the public requested a copy, I would have sent it to them.”

She emailed a copy of the proposal to Irizarry after he agreed to help her with screen share on Zoom, Cole said in the letter.

Council members took no disciplinary action against Cole Wednesday night, but said the council needed to work together as a team.

“It’s not your agenda, it’s our agenda,” said Mayor Pro Tem Robert Megowen.

Salo said he was offended by Cole’s letter, which he said was “an attempt to turn her answers back on me.” Cole said her earlier misstatements during the Jan. 13 meeting were the result of panic after Salo’s “angry and accusatory” tone.

“This is the first time in my 10 years on the council a council member attempted to bypass the city manager and council members to pass an agenda … my trust has been weakened by this,” he said.

Suits said without open discussion, the council would not have enough transparency, citing an email from resident Craig Waddell that found few motions had discussions related to them during the first half of 2020. She said she wanted to try to get to know other councilors personally and try to overcome what she called a “toxic environment” nationally regarding differing opinions.

“I support our city manage and everybody who works for the city,” she said. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to agree with everything. I’m trying to do what’s right and I’m trying to find out what’s going on.”

Councilor Mike Needham said the environment was more likely due to the local politics surrounding the Lakeshore Drive development, and comments made during the campaign by some of the three newcomers to the council.

“There’s been at least one attempt at an apology,” he said. “That’s fine, I appreciate that thought, but it’s always better when you don’t have to apologize.”

Mayor Bob Backon said the council has at times “missed the boat” on maintaining trust, and said the council needed to work with the city employees.

“We’ve got to work with them, and of course reinforce with them the process of what’s taking place,” he said. “When you start to lose that, then it affects you in many other ways.”

Irizarry agreed with Backon on the need to run everything through proper channels.

“It’s good for transparency and public perception,” he said. “We are new to this dynamic, and I look forward to integrating more with the process, because I know I’ve been banging my drum pretty hard with the issues I’ve brought forward.”

Cole apologized for any issues she had created, and said she had met with Waara to discuss going through proper channels.

“For the error I’ve made, I’m truly sorry,” she said. “I’m attending a conference on the MML about the OMA, about social media, and I intend to always uphold the OMA and any other laws that are appropriate and applicable to what we all try to do here.”

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