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Houghton needs letter-verification policy and an end to election denial

The City of Houghton needs to revise its correspondence policy to verify that letters read publicly are from the people whose names they bear. The City also needs to end its two-year-long engagement in election denial and get on with the business of the people of Houghton.

During the Houghton City Council’s Jan. 11, 2023 meeting, a letter highly critical of recently elected councilors was read into the record, ostensibly from a Houghton resident named “A.T. Michels.” The letter is dated Dec. 19, 2022, and an accompanying cover note is stamped “RECEIVED DEC 21 2022.”

When I called the city office, I was told that this letter was received by mail in an envelope (which has since been disposed of) with no name or return address. On Jan. 12, I asked the city manager to identify the author of this letter by full name and address. I have not yet received a response to this request.

In early December, two letters critical of recently elected councilors were published in The Daily Mining Gazette. Both authors are employees of principals in current disputes within the City, yet neither was identified as such. Although the Gazette is under no obligation to provide such information, the authors themselves might have disclosed potential biases.

Hence, being curious as to what biases, if any, “A.T. Michels” might have, I searched for a person by that name–or whose name would include those initials–in (1) Houghton’s BS&A Online property records. Finding nothing there, I made a similar search of (2) Houghton’s Documents-on-Demand Center. Again, nothing.

I next checked (3) the local phonebook: nothing. I conducted (4) a Google search: nothing. Then I checked (5) a 2022 record of the City of Houghton’s registered voters: nothing.

Finally, I visited the Houghton County Clerk, who, at my request, checked (6) voter-registration records for the entire State of Michigan. Again, nothing.

The author of this letter claims to have followed City Council meetings closely. However, the fact that no one by the name “A.T. Michels” (or, again, with a name that would include those initials) appears in a search of Houghton’s Documents-on-Demand Center (which captures the names of people who have attended public meetings) suggests that this person has not attended any City Council or Planning Commission meeting–at least not under that name.

Despite this, the author shows curious familiarity with the City Council’s obscure subcommittees, some of which haven’t met in years and few of which ever make public reports. He or she also says, “Mr. Irizarry, I’ve personally heard you say we need to hold the City Manager accountable numerous times publicly.” How is this possible if the author has not attended meetings? Not, I think, by watching meetings via Zoom, given the audio problems the City has had with that system.

We all know the difficulty of proving a negative: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; it is only indicative. Hence, a Houghton resident named “A.T. Michels” may yet be identified.

Nevertheless, before letters–especially defamatory letters, such as this one–are read publicly or published in local media, they should be vetted to ensure that authors are who they say they are.

The City Council needs to revise its correspondence policy, which I first proposed to the Council on April 14, 2021, long before I was elected to serve on the Council myself. My suggestions included this: “Anonymous correspondence will not be read or included in the City’s records, nor will correspondence that includes obscenity, profanity, or vulgarity or potentially libelous claims.” This is a start, but more should be added about verifying the identity of authors.

The Gazette’s letter-to-the-editor policy specifies that “letters should be signed and include name, address and telephone number.” Authors of submitted letters are then called to ensure that they are who they say they are and that they did, in fact, submit the letter in question. Houghton’s policy should be no less rigorous.

Finally, “when they go low, we go high” is an admirable motto. However, when they go low, and we go high, and they just go lower, that tests the limits of the high-road approach. Over the past two-and-a-half years, the majority of the people of Houghton have repeatedly indicated that they want to see a change in municipal government. This is called democracy. What we have instead, however, is a bad case of election denial similar to what we’ve seen happen nationally.

For example, on Aug. 4, 2020, Houghton voters voted 79% (830 to 226) in favor a non-binding ballot initiative to postpone action on the Lakeshore Drive parking deck until people had more time to participate in an open decision-making process. The response from one city councilor was, “I’d like to see what would have happened if everybody had voted.”

As we know, denial is the first of five stages of grieving and is followed by anger. If people become stalled at those first two stages and never progress to acceptance, they never move on with their lives, or, in this case, with the business of the people of Houghton.

Craig Waddell was first elected to the Houghton City Council on May 3, 2022 to fill a partial term. He was reelected on Nov. 8, 2022. The views expressed here are his own, not those of the Houghton City Council or the Daily Mining Gazette.

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