This article is one of a series of editorial articles that express personal opinions and views. They are written with no pretensions to be error free. I will gladly correct substantial errors of fact. My opinions can change, depending upon my awareness of changes in factual information. It is my intent to remain focussed on specific public issues, regarding the personalities involved. For all I know, all the characters are saints, concerning their private lives and other public business...
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At the 07/19/04 meeting of the Schoolcraft County Board of Commissioners, the continued conflict of interest of County Board Chairman Frenette and the pressure from Hiawatha Behavioral Health Director, Sam Harma, may have finally paid off. It appears, at the moment, that H.B.H. has finally acquired the county owned Harbor Enterprises property, that H.B.H. has sought for years, at considerably less than its market value and at a loss of the $15,000 per year of rent revenue to the county.
In a County Board environment of obvious procedural, communicative and anger based confusion, another "low ball" offer from H.B.H., refused for years, was accepted. Hiawatha Behavioral Health's offer of $60,000, was accepted, for the buildings and ground, appraised at ~$183,000, two years ago. Whether there was a legitimate acceptance of the H.B.H. offer, by an obviously confused and angry Commissioner Dale DuFour, remains to be seen.
At the beginning of the Harbor Enterprises buildings agenda item, H.B.H. Director Sam Harma broke off his discussion with county commissioner candidate Leon "Butch" Jenerou, in the audience. He then strode to the commissioners' desk and handed each county commissioner a copy of an offer document that I assume, other than Leon, no one present for the meeting had seen before. Sam Harma then made his verbal presentation.
Based on what I witnessed, at the meeting, much of the details were lost to some of the Board and much of the audience, including me. The dysfunctional public address system was set up without a microphone and podium for those to address the County Board. Commissioners DuFour and Aldrich shared a microphone too far from them to be of use. Director Harma had to cup an ear to understand Commissioner Aldrich, directly in front of him. I understood, at the rear of the courtroom, maybe, three words of H.B.H. Director Mr. Harma's entire presentation.
To me, the almost total lack of parliamentary procedures made the ensuing discussion a circus of animated misunderstanding. Secretary Sigrid Doyle looked like character in a comedy, trying to cope with recording the minutes of a shifting barrage of official actions by various board members. Chairman Frenette, in his classic dismissive manner, acknowledged little to none of the confusion, concentrating, instead, to capitalize on it to get his "H.B.H. business" approved; business he introduced with a detailed exhortation to his fellow commissioners to support the H.B.H. insulting offer.
Candidate for county commissioner, Marian Helmus, spoke up to suggest that the state appraiser, in Escanaba, was available for a professional appraisal of the property, an appraisal that might be acceptable to both H.B.H. and the County Board. As I listened, I considered her honorable waste of breath in the context of years of effort by H.B.H. to seek gain from public loss. For years, H.B.H. had pressed to own the buildings and land for far less than the fair market value, and with the County Board chairman as their main champion for cheap public real estate, with no competitive bidding, Director Harma had no reason to consider a more ethical offer.
Dale DuFour, appeared livid with anger over the apparent anarchy, and, possibly, the continued efforts of H.B.H. to gain a piece of the public pie for far less than its value. Commissioner Erickson spoke against the offer, pointing out that the offer represented no more than four years of rental receipts that the buildings generate, now. Commissioner Aldrich flipped from his prior position of continued rental to one of sale. He claimed the sale would provide a source of revenue for industrial park improvements or matching funds for future grants.
From my perspective, and limited understanding of the drama unfolding, Commissioner Dale DuFour's apparent confusion was so complete and disorienting, that he made the motion to accept H.B.H's offer, and then voted to accept the offer, action that was at odds with my understanding of his past positions regarding the sale. He said, in support of his motion, and the reason for him to vote for it, that if he didn't like the resulting contract he could always vote against it.
Speaking to Commissioner DuFour, after the County Board meeting, regarding his apparent confusion, he said that to the best of his knowledge, at the time of the motion and voting procedures, it was his understanding that his motion to accept the H.B.H. offer was dead, due to the lack of a second, as pronounced by Chairman Frenette - after which it was "resurrected" by Commissioner Aldrich, in some procedure that I cannot be sure of - and I doubt that anyone else can.
Regardless of parliamentary procedural anarchy, Commissioner Dufour's spoken justification for his action implied, to me, a complete misunderstanding of what he had done. Apparently, he had voted to accept a legitimate offer from H.B.H. with the voiced expectation of being able to a vote against the resulting contract to render it void, "if (he) didn't like the terms". I concluded that Commissioner DuFour's statement was made without the (apparent, or possible?) knowledge that, assuming all the terms of H.B.H's offer were legal and sufficient for a contract, his acceptance of the offer created a contract that bound him to perform i.a.w. its terms.
I am no lawyer, and no legal advisor was present at the County Board meeting, to minimize possible legal complications.
There were two questions that occurred to me, at the County Board meeting.
1. Did Commissioners DuFour's vote represent his choice based on confusion and misunderstanding, or was his vote made with a clear understanding of the issues, terms of the offer, and procedures at hand?
2. Can the County Board legally void the pending written H.B.H. contract, by voting against it, when the contract is based, totally, on the terms of the offer and the commissioners' prior majority vote to accept the terms of the offer?
Based on my understanding of past negotiations regarding the property, and my witness of Dale's obvious confusion, under confusing circumstances, I have little doubt that what he said and did makes the legitimacy of the Board's acceptance of H.B.H.'s offer, questionable, at best, or void.
County Board Chairman Lindsley Frenette, also a current and long time member of Hiawatha Behavioral Health's board of directors, has, wearing both hats, found no problem promoting the welfare of Hiawatha Behavioral Health, a successful corporate-like business entity, beyond the control of the general public. At the expense of the general public, with little evident concern about his greater direct responsibility for Schoolcraft County's general welfare, he has shamelessly promoted and voted for that business' interests, as Chairman of the Schoolcraft County Board of Commissioners.
When the last public comment period of the meeting was announced, I barely heard the announcement, at the rear of the court room. Another county resident that had business to speak of, and was paying attention, failed to hear the announcement. Marian Helmus, a primary election candidate for Frenette's district position, waved her arm for recognition, and was ignored by the chairman.
To the best of my knowledge, no one of consequence, in the community, or elsewhere, has taken significant exception to what I perceive as obvious evidence of corrupt behavior, regarding Chairman Frenette's efforts and voting record concerning Hiawatha Behavioral Health business. As a board member of the Hiawatha Behavioral Health Authority Board of Directors, he has benefited from "per diem" travel money and related "business perks", from his business and political relationship with that successful business.
The corporate-like entity of the H.B.H. authority is administered by an astute and aggressive director with, as far as I am concerned, little evident responsibility to anyone, or anything else, that does not further his view and goals for his own welfare, and that of H.B.H's mentally ill clients. I believe that his ~$134,000 salary and benefits package is sufficient compensation to motivate him to maintain the success of the H.B.H. empire he has built on public funds, in whatever ways he chooses.
The county owned Harbor Enterprises property was transferred, at a "give away" price, to the Hiawatha Behavioral Health "business". The transfer was championed by H.B.H. board of director member-County Board Chairman Frenette, with no objection from H.B.H. employee-county commissioner McKinney, with the support of commissioner Aldrich, an ex-H.B.H. board member.
The situation was rife with policy, business, ethical and legal conundrums, but it is quite apparent to me, that, other than Commissioner Erickson, no one was aware, concerned, or motivated enough to pay the price for speaking against this obvious conflict of interest, at public expense.
The means and motives of business and politics are often opposite. That is why, in more enlightened communities, conflict of interest behavior in government is considered poison. Human nature will prevail, for personal gain, and one of the paths of least resistance, to the good life, is to be casual with public responsibilities and assets.
There is no way that County Board Chairman Frenette, or County Commissioner McKinney can avoid conflicts of interests, if they are involved with any issue that effects the welfare of H.B.H. at the expense of Schoolcraft County taxpayers, or vice versa. Both of their professional and political interests and responsibilities, regarding H.B.H. and related political decisions, make it impossible for either one to make an impartial decision. Any denial of the influence of human nature on their decisions would imply a nature alien to both.
Until now, based on what I have witnessed and understood, Commissioner McKinney, as an employee of Hiawatha Behavioral Health, deserved an "Attaboy!" for his efforts to minimize any appearance of conflicts of interests regarding his public and private responsibilities. Even though he was absent from the 07/19/04 County Board meeting, Commissioner McKinney's silence, regarding Frenette's past efforts to transfer public property to H.B.H., at a substantial discount, implies more than a casual personal interest in the outcome of Chairman Frenette's historical efforts.
From my perspective, based on what I have witnessed and understood, regarding Schoolcraft County politics, in general, and my understanding of the historical connection between County Board Chairman Frenette and H.B.H., in particular, if practicing shameless special interest politics, at public expense, is a crime, Chairman Frenette should be bunking with "Bubba".
So it goes in Schoolcraft County; it is business, as usual.
In the spirit of outlaw government, the "media" has been silent concerning a Schoolcraft County prosecutor's legal opinion regarding the transfer of Schoolcraft County real estate. Why it requires a lawyer's opinion to determine the propriety of squandering public assets is a mystery to me. I have no knowledge of any sitting commissioner who sold, leased or rented his personal real estate at a loss, deliberately, yet a majority had no problem selling Schoolcraft County property at a loss, as if it was a God given right to do so; as in the "Divine Right of Schoolcraft County Commissioners"...
The following quote is from a 10/19/04 legal opinion regarding the considered sale of county property to Schoolcraft Memorial Hospital.
... 5. Must the Schoolcraft County Board of Commissioners obtain fair market value for the parcel? A) Under certain circumstances. County property can be transferred to a public agency without regard to fair market value of the property; but this requires specific statutory authority to do so, as noted in Sinas v City of Lansing, 7 Mich App 464 (1967), aff'd 382 Mich 407 (1969); OAG 6454 of 1987. B) The County Board of Commissioners has the authority to authorize the sale of County property without appraisals or competitive bidding for the property, OAG 6454 of 1987, if it chooses, but unless a specific statutory provision is identified permitting sale or transfer as a "gift" or for less than fair market value, even to another public agency such as SMH, payment of consideration at fair market value is still required. Sincerely, Peter J. Hollenbeck Schoolcraft County Attorney PJH/kmt cc: County Board of Commissioners
Needless to say, I am no lawyer. Needless to say, I am not the sharpest individual in Schoolcraft County. As ignorant, stupid and slow as I may be, at times, I usually figure out how and why I am screwed by those in whom I have placed trust, and confidence. From my perspective, betrayal of trust and confidence is what most crimes of fraud are about, and government officials selling, leasing or renting public property at a loss, deliberately, is criminal. From my perspective, those that advocate such business are little more than wannabe public rapists.
"...payment of consideration at fair market value is still required." is not optional.
Regarding the public record of the transfer of the "Harbor Enterprises" property from Schoolcraft County to Hiawatha Behavioral Health, a lot of folk involved with the sale knew that it was like taking candy from a baby. Other than Commissioner Erickson, no one involved with the business took a public and articulate stand against the unjustified and unwarranted discount sale price of that particular piece of Schoolcraft County real estate.
Commissioner Erickson's public stand against acts of questionable, or corrupt official behavior, regarding the "Harbor Enterprises" property, prompted Leon "Butch" Jenerou, a candidate for Schoolcraft County Commissioner, District 5, to support the concept of "fire sale" prices of valuable public assets. Butch's "platform", published in the 10/25/04 edition of The Advisor, stands as documented testimony concerning the implied hazards to the public when they elect little more than a "good ol' boy", to public office.
From my perspective, as a good ol' boy, Butch is good company. That said, I do not want him as a county commissioner. I do not want anyone as Schoolcraft County Commissioner who would pedal county assets at less than fair market value. I do not want anyone, as Schoolcraft County Commissioner, who would give away public value to private interests. I do not want anyone, as Schoolcraft County Commissioner, who attempts to deceive me, not with "fish tales", but with a public political platform of lies and half truths, regarding the honest and conscientious efforts of a competent county commissioner; the only one I have recognized in the past 15 years.
Regarding the public record of considered details of the transfer of Schoolcraft County real property to the Schoolcraft County Memorial Hospital; I consider those that would acquire it at less than fair market value, and those that would sell it for less than fair market value, as public predators, cast from the same mold.
At the Schoolcraft County Board of Commissioners meeting of 12/21/04 , the Schoolcraft County Board of Commissioners approved a contract to sell the "Harbor Enterprises" property to Hiawatha Behavioral Health for significantly less than its fair market value. The lone dissenting vote was that of Commissioner Erickson, for reasons detailed earlier in this article.
What is fair market value?
It is not the $60,000 that H.B.H. paid, some $5,000 less than the "low ball" indicated market value appraisal H.B.H. bought from Appraisal Services, Inc., of Escanaba.
It may not be the $185,000 estimated market value appraisal that Schoolcraft County purchased from Gilbert and Associates of Gladstone.
It is likely to be somewhere in-between, much closer to $185,000 than $65,000, assuming that Schoolcraft County Tax Equalization Director and Zoning Administrator, Paul Wood, knows his stuff.
During two prior County Board discussions, that I witnessed, Commissioner Erickson stated that he acquired an informal thumbnail estimate, from Paul Wood, to have a better idea of the property value. It was Mr. Wood's informal professional opinion that the value of the property was far closer to $185,000 than $65,000.
Why the County Board wasted a rumored 2,500 taxpayer dollars, to purchase a professional appraisal the Board ignored, is a mystery to me. I can only guess that it was nothing more than a brainless attempt to give the sale an air of legitimacy.
County Board Chairman Frenette succeeded, again, in trading public value, at public expense, for an undefined benefit, contrary to the law and the fiduciary responsibilities he has sworn to uphold; with the help of a majority of County Board members and a majority of the board of directors of Hiawatha Behavioral Health, of which Frenette is a member of both.
When one considers that the entire unethical and illegal process has its roots in the professional and personal ends and means of Sam Harma, Director of Hiawatha Behavioral Health, you might understand the implications of the term "shadow government". In Schoolcraft County, a handful of individuals use their professional positions in a concerted effort to influence or bend local government to their wills, while others, on various boards and committees, plan, approve or condone a litany of questionable or corrupt public business, while the public and media remain silent.