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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On 01/20/04, I attended the Schoolcraft Board of County Commissioners regular public meeting. The major item of business concerned the subjective operation of the Brewery/ Carpenter Dam spillway gates that cause consequential water level fluctuations of Indian Lake, and the lower Indian and Manistique Rivers. There were many diverging opinions about various facets of the discussion, but the most important, to me, was Drain Commissioner Paul Hoholik's apparent problem in exercising his authority to maintain Indian Lake at a court mandated level.
Years ago, I was made aware that there was a court mandated level for Indian Lake of 613.27' above sea level. I understood that the effects of the 1945 court order, if followed with sound dam gates operating practices, would have rendered "predictable" the effects of procedures for opening and closing the Carpenter dam spillway gates to maintain the court set lake level. I assumed that if the lake's court set level was not maintained with procedures based on sound principles of hydrology and engineering, then valuable predictive data would be lost or corrupted. Any consequential property damage, environmental damage, public safety problems, or denial of use, upstream or downstream of the dam, that could be attributed to the improper operation of the dam gates, might create serious liability for local governments and individuals whose responsibility was to operate the Carpenter dam to maintain the court mandated Indian Lake level. It all made sense to me; so I thought.
In light of my understanding, or lack thereof, I was mystified by a decision of the Schoolcraft County Board of Commissioners meeting of 01/20/04. After a detailed presentation by Schoolcraft County Drain Commissioner, Paul Hoholik, concerning a history of anarchy surrounding the operation of the dam gates, the Board decided to sanction the subjective Carpenter Dam gates operation that would continue to maintain Indian Lake levels contrary to the 1945 court order that set the lake level to 613.27 feet above sea level.
As I understand what I witnessed, the Schoolcraft County Board of Commissioners formally sanctioned an unlawful act, for which the County is liable. What might have been denied before, was made part of the public record. A majority of Board members bet the tenuous financial welfare of the Schoolcraft County against the Board's ability to obtain new Indian Lake levels, before Schoolcraft County becomes liable for any damages due to the vagaries of prevailing anarchy and the weather. To the best of my knowledge, since 1989 when I first started to pay attention to local politics, no Board had formally sanctioned the subjective operation of the Brewery/ Carpenter Dam gates.
Was it political expedience to maintain an unspecified lake level, subject to the whims of those Indian Lake and River property owners that exert sufficient influence upon Board members, the Drain Commissioner, or the operator of the dam gates? Was it the knowledge that few, if any, property owners would, individually, or collectively, choose to sue the County for damages consequential to the Board's decision? Did the County's tax paid liability insurance and legal defence resources make Board members feel sufficiently bold and insulated from likely consequences for the anarchy promoted for the benefit of "squeaky wheel" special interest groups? Was it the consequence of a pervasive lack of ethics in local government? Was it personal interests in the lake's level? Was it ignorance? Was it collective stupidity?
I ask because I really dunno, but I 'spect it was a potpourri of all, and other influences unconsidered or unknown to me. Whatever the reasons, they were not too evident to me, in the light of what was very evident to me. It was too evident to me that those Board members that voted for the subjective dam gates operation procedures cared little about, or gave little thought to, the potential consequences of their decisions
I do not doubt the apparent necessity, to some lake and river residents, to obtain new court mandated Indian Lake level(s). I suspect that the historical control of the level of the Lake's surface, according to the wishes of certain residents, has fostered further development of lake and river shore property, that would have been considered undesirable, or illegal, if the lake's level had been maintained at its court mandated elevation. I doubt not that certain property owners want to lower the Lake's level to preserve their properties from the continuous effects of natural erosion processes.
Depending on individual lakeshore property owners' desires, taken to a logical extreme, I can imagine some folks with reasons to advocate pumping out Indian Lake to meet their desired lake level, with little to no concern for the impact of their whims upon the property and lives of others, in addition to the general public's interests in the lake and its surrounding environment.
I do not doubt that most folk that chose to live along the shores of Indian Lake, since the court set the lake's level in 1945, did so voluntarily, with a clear understanding of the impact of weather, especially moving ice and the Spring flooding. As a child of 10-11 years old, living in England, totally isolated from such life experiences, I knew of the consequences of the Spring breakup and storms upon inland lakes of northern America.
I have little doubt that there exists a Michigan D.E.Q. related responsibility to ensure that the environmental impact and public safety concerns of arbitrary Indian Lake levels are considered. Fluctuating lake levels have a widespread impact upon the flora and fauna in and surrounding Indian Lake, as well as effecting the quality of the water consumed by the downstream residents of Manistique. The shoreline of the lake and river abound with low lying septic systems, in various stages of disrepair and poor design. I can only begin to imagine the liability involved, beyond physical damage caused by selective flooding.
From my perspective, the authority and responsibilities of the elected Schoolcraft County Drain Commissioner should be immune to arbitrary, politically motivated decisions by the Schoolcraft County Board of Commissioners. I expect the elected Drain Commissioner to have the authority to meet his formal responsibilities, while the County Board seeks change consistent with the general publics' interests in Indian Lake and the lower Indian and Manistique Rivers.
Like it or not, Indian Lake is not the private pond of those that have chosen to live around it. The lake level cannot be played with, as one might play with the level of one's private swimming pool.
To me, on 01/20/04, the Board chose to manage the level of Indian Lake according to the collective whims of its members, the potential consequences of which I care not to pay for. I can only hope that Board members' decisions did not ignore legal counsel of the Schoolcraft County Prosecutor, had it been sought. Then again, perhaps, because the situation has existed "unofficially" for years, County Board members based their decisions on knowledge, unknown to me, that they did not care to share with the public, at the meeting.
I thank Drain Commissioner, Paul Hoholik, for his insightful presentation of 01/20/04. Hopefully, it, along with the Board's subsequent decision, may relieve him of liability for the consequences of the Board's attempt to hijack and pervert the significant authority and responsibility of the Schoolcraft County Drain Commissioner to maintain the court set lake level. I witnessed the Board choose to manage the level of Indian Lake according to the collective whims of its members, and direct Drain Commissioner Hoholik to implement its whim; while it pursued "new lake levels" at unknown cost within an unspecified time frame.
I commend Board Chairman Lindsley Frenette, for his lone and consistent vocal stand against the majority members' decision to ignore the court set level for Indian Lake, though I regret that I must temper that "Attaboy!" with my suspicion that he has no overriding personal interest in the decision.
02/17/04 - At the Schoolcraft County Board of Commissioners meeting, this evening, I was approached by Tom Kitzman, a retired Michigan state policeman who claimed to own property on Indian Lake. He told me my understanding of the lake level situation was incorrect. It was his contention that, because a strong sustained wind would drive broken lake ice upon his property and damage a fence on his property, then the level of the lake was too high and leaving the gates open during Winter set the lake to the proper level, because such ice damage would not occur if the gates were left open.
When I pointed out that leaving the dam gates open in Winter, to drop the water level to minimize ice damage, was inconsistent with the 1945 court order to maintain the lake level at 613.27', he told me I was wrong and that the lake level could not be maintained as if the dam gates were "some kind of faucet".
I closed the discussion by pointing out that the 1945 court order set one level, and it was ignored. I understood, from the context of our conversation, that the court order meant little to the retired lawman, because it would not save his fence, or any other threatened property, from the ravages of a natural process that he and others chose to ignore. As for his attempt to justify leaving the gates open in Winter, because they did not effect the level of the lake, immediately, I remained silent and though to myself "And this man is the Schoolcraft County Emergency Management Coordinator and the local administrator of certain F.E.M.A. and domestic security policies?"
His argument reminded me of my early introduction to Schoolcraft County politics when an influential Schoolcraft County Commissioner, "Sparky" Lauzon, tried to impress the Michigan D.N.R., at a public meeting, with his argument that opening and closing the gates of the Manistique Papers dam, on the lower Manistique River would effect the Manistique River level in the "High Rollaways". His implicit theory, that water flowed up hill, was only a shade worse than the ex-"lawman's" implication that the Carpenter Dam gates could not maintain the Indian Lake level in accordance with the 1945 court order, assuming the dam gates could be operated in Winter.
No reason to do the right thing when it is so easy to do the wrong thing and be the unchallenged champion of those that would impose, upon others, the consequences of their willful disregard of an effective court order and its impact and implications, both legal and environmental.
02/19/04, 16:30 - At the Schoolcraft County Courthouse, I attended a meeting of ten Indian Lake property owners. The meeting that was rumored to be scheduled at that time and date, by Schoolcraft County Commissioner Chairman, Lindsley Frenette, did not take place. No public notice of the rumored meeting was posted in the Schoolcraft County Courthouse, even though I was informed that some folk knew of it a week in advance.
During the meeting, that lasted approximately one hour, I listened to the property owners voice their various opinions concerning fears of flooding and ice damage, due to Schoolcraft County Drain Commissioner's efforts to maintain the court mandated Indian Lake level. It was quite apparent that Drain Commissioner, Paul Hoholik, was not held in high regard for attempting to meet the responsibilities of his elected office.
It was stated, in so many words, that the late Schoolcraft County Drain Commissioner, Archie Carpenter, was a cult hero for his choice to ignore the 1945 court order and allow the dam gate operator to maintain the lake level according to the whims of "whomever".
I will not report the various arguments voiced about why the current Drain Commissioner and Chairman of the County Board of Commissioners's were "wrong" and could be voted out of office for their attempts to comply with the court order of 1945. Let it suffice that I was not disappointed by a litany of subjective reasons, all of which centered on each individual's property owner's personal perspective, based on their personal experiences with the effects of the weather and the lake's level.
Several aspects of the meeting struck me as interesting, and worthy of note.
Clyde Chartier, operator of the dam gates for 40+ years, voiced two personal conclusions, of interest to me, that he had reached during his tenure of service:
A. The restricted channel of the Indian River, under the Copenhagen Bridge, set the maximum rate at which Indian Lake could drain, assuming no massive flooding over the bridge and road.
B. Water flow rate into the lake could exceed water flow rate out of the lake, depending on the weather, and/ or ice jam dams at the bridge and further down river, between the bridge and dam.
At no time did anyone grant any recognition to the legal impact of the 1945 court order upon the choices of various Schoolcraft County officials.
Even though I concluded from the context of the various points of discussion, that there was unanimous agreement among the property owners, present for the discussion, that two lake levels could be appropriate, a "Winter" and "Summer" level; not one person attending the meeting made any effort to express the desirability of pursuing a course to achieve a court order for different levels. Instead, the solutions tendered for consideration varied from "fire the bums" to "sue the bums" to "lets hire our own engineer" to "lets make this a complicated, expensive and divisive process to achieve our ends" to "open the gates all Winter and the court, and Drain Commissioner, and Chairman of the County Board be damned." ...
No consideration was given to the desirability of, or what it might take to gain a court order for, a new single lower lake level to minimize the environmental impact. No consideration was expressed, for seeking a new court order for two seasonal lake levels that would minimize the impact of weather upon lake shore property. No mention was made of seeking a new court order based upon verifiable historical data, engineering concerns, and environmental impact. No mention was made of the 01/20/04 attempts by the Drain Commissioner or Chairman of the County Board to suggest that course of action. It was as if the involvement of the court was inconsequential, beyond claims of suing the County for high water and ice damage from the 1945 court imposed requirement to maintain the lake level at 613.27'.
No consideration was given to the 10/02/03 dam inspection report, from a Michigan state licensed professional engineer, that recommended, among other actions, that:
"Gate operation protocols are needed. Presently, the dam operator adjusts the flood gates with no formal procedure and with no certainty of results. Also, a winter lake level has not been legally established, although the lake is regularly drawn down each autumn. The county should consider two actions to address this. Gate operation procedures should be determined and codified based upon water elevations at the dam. Coupling weir and backwater relationships between the dam and the lake will make future gate operations more accurate, predictable and defendable. Furthermore, a winter lake level elevation for Indian Lake shall be legally established in a court of law, or else the lake drawdown in autumn should be discontinued."
In my opinion, at that meeting of 02/19/04, Tom Kitzman had more to say, concerning the promotion of whim and anarchy, represented by costly, and complex or unlawful or pointless or irrelevant action, than any one else at the meeting. It appeared to me, that he, with several other vocal property owners, has chosen the most contentious and destructive path to resolve a relatively simple and straightforward issue.
There were several technical issues that caught my attention. 1 and 2 were voiced by Clyde Chartier, 3 was voiced by Tom Kitzman:
1. The water level gauge at the bridge is difficult to get to in Winter, and may not work correctly due to the impact of freezing weather.
2. The dam gates cannot be operated in Winter, due to ice.
3. The motors that operate the dam gates do not operate properly as a consequence of past physical abuse.
I must admit that I am baffled by claims that suggest that instrumentation, dam gates and motors are of questionable value for water level control, in the cold months. If the claims are true, they suggests, to me, some possible serious engineering, maintenance, operating, or policy problems.