Pat Kelly wanted to expand the regional fire department. Her board disagreed.
by James Leonard
From the July, 2014 issue
You'd think a township board meeting that included a twenty-minute fight between the supervisor and the clerk and ended with the supervisor's abrupt resignation would be memorable.
But it wasn't unusual for Dexter Township. Asked about the March 5 meeting, treasurer Libby Brushaber scrunches her eyes then replies. "I don't remember. I don't know. We have a lot of meetings."
Recalling the meeting that ended in her quitting the board, Pat Kelly bites her lip before she speaks.
"Probably more were like that than not since the middle of 2012," says the ex-supervisor. "Before that, we got business done ... After that, it was almost impossible to get anything done. It's a sad story."
And one that spells the demise of a five-year effort to create a western Washtenaw regional fire authority.
Kelly says she resigned because her relationship with clerk Harley Rider had broken down. "And I have not a clue as to why it happened."
Though triggered by her defeat on a procedural issue, the fight was really over the future of the Dexter Area Fire Department. Kelly wanted to implement a draft plan for an expanded regional department that included Scio Township. Rider and a majority of the board members didn't.
"It started in January," explains Kelly. "There was the public hearing to solicit comments on the regional fire effort. The room was full, and there were lots of comments, and Harley made a record of who was there and if they spoke in favor or not."
But Kelly says Rider detailed in his minutes only the comments of those who opposed the change. In an email to Rider, "I asked for [all] the public comments to be included," Kelly says. Rider added summaries of the favorable comments in an addendum online--but not in the published meeting minutes. Kelly then emailed him her own summary of what nineteen people who favored her plan said. "Harley didn't respond," she says.
At the board's next monthly meeting in February, Kelly introduced a motion to
include all public comments in the published minutes--and made her summary part of the motion. Rider left that part of the motion out of his draft minutes--leading to the March blowup.
"He accused me of going through the back door to get the comments in the minutes," Kelly says. It "was the straw that broke the camel's back. I thought if our relationship is so tainted I can't get public comments in the minutes, what am I doing here? That's when I made the decision to resign."
Rider agrees with Kelly that what happened between them at the March 5 meeting "was a culmination of things going back to 2012.
"Pat and I got along for a long time," the clerk says from behind his desk in the township hall. "But Pat was behaving more like the township emperor than the township supervisor, and I couldn't trust her.
"Pat won four elections," Rider explains, and he supported her three times. "But by 2012 I'd seen enough, and I couldn't support her anymore." Instead, he backed Libby Brushaber's husband--former supervisor Jim Drolett.
Kelly won by eighty-one votes--and continued her drive to consolidate fire services. The Dexter Area Fire Department already serves Dexter Village and Webster and Dexter Townships. Kelly and others would like to see an expanded regional authority that includes Scio Township's fire department too.
In January, Rider says, "There was a hearing on the consolidated fire, and before this meeting a lot of people were given talking points by a group organized to get the board in favor of the agreement. Most people spoke in favor, and some said that if we didn't vote for the agreement, they wouldn't vote for us. That's their right, but we're against some things Pat had gotten into the agreement.
"For example, she proposes Scio get more votes than everybody else. She says they're bearing 50 percent of the cost, so they should have three representatives on the board, not two like the rest of us. I have the 'one man, one vote' philosophy, and Scio and Dexter village could decide to run the department to the detriment of Dexter and Webster townships."
Rider admits that he didn't quote the pro-consolidation comments in the minutes for the February meeting. "A General Law Township, which is what Dexter is, can provide full minutes or a synopsis, and we always complied legally. In this case I put in a synopsis of their comments saying they supported consolidated fire service.
"Then Pat made a highly unusual motion to include people's comments from the February meeting, and she did it in an attempt to get the comments [printed] in the paper. And the motion failed."
Kelly thinks that stinks. "In our form of government we represent the people. That doesn't mean we don't listen to people. They voted to not put in public comments, and they effectively disenfranchised everybody."
That's why Kelly and Rider fought at the March 5 meeting--but Kelly says that's not why she resigned.
"I had been thinking of stepping down since the moment I got elected. I took an oath to serve four years, but the entire time was hell."
Kelly gave the board just four days' notice. "I didn't leave them high and dry," she says. "I had the next meeting agenda complete and had the board of review for property taxes ready." But Rider believes she left so quickly "to do as much damage as she could."
"She really put us on the spot," says Brushaber. "She should have given at least two weeks or thirty days. That's how much time is usually needed to select a supervisor."
But just ten days after Kelly tendered her resignation, the board appointed Jim Drolett--the man she beat in 2012--to replace her. He'll serve until November, when a new supervisor will be elected to serve out the remaining two years of Kelly's term.
"We knew we would catch flak over appointing Jim Drolett supervisor," allows Rider. "Jim had the experience [having previously served as supervisor from 1984 to 1996] and could hit the ground running, but there was some controversy."
As Drolett recalls, "Right after she resigned, a couple of board members asked me to be supervisor. They set up a meeting, and ten days later I gave a copy of my resume to Harley. The board selected me because I'd already been supervisor for twelve years.
Drolett believes Kelly's abrupt resignation was "unfair to the township. The way I see it, when somebody quits with four days' notice, it shoots their credibility. But she'd already lost the trust of the board and couldn't get anything done."
For her part, the former supervisor doesn't trust the board. "On March 20, five days after Jim Drolett becomes supervisor, they voted themselves a 9.2 percent raise," Kelly points out. "It was what they thought they could get away with. They originally voted in the budget [for] 27.1 percent."
"We never actually intended to give ourselves 27.1 percent raises," Rider says. "We froze our pay for eight years [because] the thinking on the board was 'how can we give ourselves raises when taxpayers were losing their jobs during the recession?' But by last year things were turning around, and it was suggested we get a raise. So I did a study, and if we'd been given raises according to the Consumer Price Index, we'd get 27.1 percent, and we agreed to include it in the budget as a placeholder. We ended with 9.24 percent.
"None of us are in it for the money, but it could be hard for the people who follow us, because it'll be hard to find people to work here when the pay is ridiculously low." Before the increase, the supervisor, clerk, and treasurer made $23,892 annually. Now they make $26,100, for which Rider estimates they work on average "about thirty hours a week."
When he was appointed, Drolett said he wouldn't run in November to fill out the rest of Kelly's term. That left the door open for Rider, who announced his candidacy in April.
"Dexter Township is still facing major issues that won't be fully resolved this year," Rider explains in an email, "so it is important that someone with knowledge of the issues and how to effectively work within the system to resolve the issues is in the Supervisor's position for the remainder of the term."
He's got the support of Drolett and Brushaber. "Harley Rider will make a fantastic supervisor," says the past and present supervisor. "Harley Rider will do a great job as supervisor," echoes the treasurer. "I will support him."
Kelly figures Rider will win in November. "He'll do OK," she says. "We could do a lot worse."
Kelly says she won't run for supervisor again herself: "I won't seek it, and I wouldn't be appointed." However, she's continued to attend board meetings and plans to remain politically active. "I am looking for candidates, and I will help in whatever way I can," she says. "Hope springs eternal, and in 2016 I sincerely hope there will be a new board."
With Kelly gone, however, the current board is even more unified in its opposition to consolidating fire services. Asked the project's status, Scio supervisor Spaulding Clark replies, "Dead in the water."
"It's been dead for quite a while," agrees Drolett. "She tried to push it down the board's throat, and the board voted against it five to two."
"Pat was instrumental in starting talks for the agreement," Clark explains. "This particular effort's been going on five years. We were close to an agreement, but because it was close to elections, we waited to bring it back to our boards.
"A lot of board members looked at it [after the 2012 election], and they didn't like parts of it, and they picked it apart because they were suspicious."
In Dexter Township, there were two key questions: what would be the effect on fire service, and what would it cost? But there was no agreement on answers.
The draft agreement predicts consolidation would bring quicker response times, which is why Kelly says "service would be improved." Rider, however, believes it "won't affect service at all." Drolett says he doesn't know how it would affect service--but worries about what would happen if the township were unhappy and tried to leave.
"There's a clause in the new proposal that within one year the new chief would develop a master service plan to deploy all the new department's resources," he points out. "They'd look at population, at where schools are, and where commercial and industrial development is, and my question is: where in Dexter Township do you find those things? Nowhere."
The implication is that he expects service would get worse--and Dexter Township would be stuck: "We'd have to give up all our equipment and could never get it back."
Brushaber agrees. "With Scio Township pulling our fire equipment from North Territorial, it's giving us less coverage, because our equipment is farther away from the farthest point in the township."
Not so, says Clark. "The agreement would improve service in Dexter and Webster townships. Dexter Township has established their own fire station on North Territorial, and we were looking to staff it full time, so it would have worked to their advantage."
Nor would all their equipment be pulled from the township. "All equipment would be the new department's equipment," Kelly acknowledges. "But the truck we just bought was purchased specifically for Dexter Township's road requirements, and it wouldn't be moved."
Kelly also acknowledges that Dexter Township "could not get its equipment back--and it should be hard to get out. Scio left [an earlier regional fire department] in '85 because it was easy to leave. That created bitter feelings, and right after Scio left, the Dexter Area Fire Department passed an amendment ... that says if you leave, you can't take your toys. And when Lima left, they did leave toys."
There is likewise no agreement among officials on how the regional plan would have affected Dexter Township's cost.
"Under the allocation model, in 2014 we would have saved $55,693," says Kelly. Rider concedes "possibly Dexter Township will save money," but Brushaber believes otherwise: "It's gonna go up because we'll have more area to cover."
"We don't know what the effect would be," says Drolett. "That's the issue. There's a $55,000-a-year estimate, but nobody knows for sure."
Spaulding Clark thinks he knows. "Scio's [costs] would have gone up," says Clark. "We're 52 percent of the mix, so Scio would still be paying the most. But Scio was willing because we'd be getting better service and a larger number of personnel all trained the same way."
That won't happen for the foreseeable future. "Fire consolidation is dead now," reports Rider. "The only thing that could get me to vote yes would be equality of votes [giving Scio two votes instead of three]. That's the only hope in the long run."
Clark doesn't buy Rider's argument that Scio and the village of Dexter could have run the department to the detriment of Dexter and Webster townships. With three votes on a nine-member board, he says, "We could outvote the others with a partner at the board meetings--if we could find a partner--but what could we do when it comes to budget, and every community gets one vote? How would we take advantage of them then?"
Rightly or wrongly, that question won't be answered: the expanded regional authority is dead. All that's left is the smoldering bad feeling in Dexter Township.
[Originally published in July, 2014.]