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Houghton council to hear mental health presentation

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette City Manager Eric Waara discusses his suggestion for a mental health subcommittee during Wednesday’s Houghton City Council meeting.

HOUGHTON — After extended, and at times fractious, conversation, the Houghton City Council tabled two items for further discussion next month.

The council heard discussion of two suggestions from Councilor Brian Irizarry: creation of a city subcommittee on mental health, and restoring the Internet livestream for council, planning commission and subcommittee meetings.

Irizarry had suggested the council discuss the subcommittee at its Jan. 12 meeting, following a suggestion from resident Craig Waddell.

Irizarry said the subcommittee would allow the council to get feedback from the community and bring together local stakeholders such as police, mental health agencies and schools.

“It’s incredibly important, and I think it looks good that the city council prioritizes such an important thing,” he said.

Police Chief John Donnelly said officers frequently deal with mental health issues in the community. They undergo extensive training on how to deal with people experiencing mental health problems. Officers are the “ultimate referral agencies,” Donelly said, responding on the scene to decide whether a person who is unwilling to seek help represents a threat to themselves or others.

“Sometimes our crisis intervention may be bringing somebody to jail, because … they’ve broken the law to the point where that’s what we have to do, especially when it’s dealing with addiction, whether it’s drunk driving, or what other laws are getting broken out there,” he said. “But a lot of times it’s referring people to the proper services. And it is very difficult to get the services for people. You have to know what kind of insurance they have or what insurance they don’t have.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, Waddell, who is also a candidate in May’s city council election, said having more active city subcommittees could enhance the public’s awareness of city issues.

“If you have a subcommittee that meets, that has an opening, and brings people in and talks to people and then is brought back to report to the full council people will know something of what the city’s doing,” he said.

The subcommittees must have fewer than four city council members to avoid having a quorum.

They meet as necessary to address a specific issue, Waara said. Last year, the city formed subcommittees on the master plan and parking deck, which met regularly; the parking deck subcommittee issued a final recommendation before dissolving in July.

Waara said the city uses subcommittees in an advisory role, rather than dictating day-to-day policy. He compared that favorably to more committee-run communities elsewhere.

“Historically, it’s been as simple as I think of something, I want to bounce it off a few people. And if I see a bunch of frowns, maybe I need to go in a different direction,” Waara said.

In one typical case, a subcommittee formed to discuss making Houghton Avenue more bicycle-friendly, which involved council members and citizens. It met frequently over a two-year period, but has since been inactive for five years or more, said Mayor Pro Tem Robert Megowen.

Before the council takes any action on forming a subcommittee, it will hear from an expert on what is being done to combat the mental health problem in the area at its Feb. 23 meeting. Waara said he would invite Portage Health Foundation Executive Director Kevin Store to give a presentation. The council should also have an in-depth discussion on what it hopes to accomplish with the subcommittee, Waara said.

“What I would (suggest) before we add a layer of something in here is to really understand what the issues are and what either you’re going to do about it as a city, or what individuals, maybe councilors, would do about it on their own, maybe become part of the board and their board meetings, find out what’s going on,” he said.

During the portion of the meeting for future agenda items, Irizarry brought up streaming the council meetings over Zoom or another online service. Members of the public would also be able to comment. Irizarry said he recommended the change “in order to facilitate more civic engagement in local government and increase voter feedback.”

The Houghton County board voted this month to resume the Zoom feed for the public. Houghton, like other municipalities, had met remotely for much of the first year of the pandemic. The council moved away from Zoom due to “Zoombombing,” a trend in which hecklers disrupted random meetings — including a Houghton council meeting. Meetings continued to be shown over Facebook Live when the council resumed meeting in person before being discontinued last summer.

Megowen said broadcasting the meetings could reduce the council’s professionalism. As a cautionary tale, he invoked past eras of the Hancock City Council when meetings were televised.

“It was basically a clown show,” he said. “I do not think we need to do things like that with our council.”

Councilor Virginia Cole said she would like to see the council return to it in the short-term, as people may be reluctant to attend at this point in the pandemic.

“Especially because we’re coming into a time where we’re talking about the parking deck in particular and how to pay for it, which I think a lot of people would want to be a part of,” she said.

Irizarry said he had three other items to consider for future meetings, which were withdrawn for time. Waara suggested scheduling a council work session to go over the issues.

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