By: Benjamin J. Gohs, News Editor
You might call the race for the District 5 Charlevoix County Board seat the battle of the environmentalist versus the do-it-your-self-er.
Current Charlevoix County Commissioner Republican Richard Gillespie, a Beaver Island business owner, is fighting for the newly formed district—which includes the townships of Marion, Eveline, Norwood, Peaine and St. James—against long-time educator and environmental activist Democrat Nancy Ferguson.
Both candidates have extensive experience in local government: Gillespie having served on the county board both currently and back in the ’90s in addition to having served with the Beaver Island Transportation Authority, planning commission and historical society; Ferguson having served on both the Charlevoix County Solid Waste Committee and currently on the Charlevoix County Planning Commission in addition to the Eveline Township Planning Commission and ZBA.
Beaver Island multi-use garage facility
Gillespie is spearheading a multi-use garage facility for Beaver Island which, preliminary discussions show, could house county transit buses, snowplows, sheriff office boats and a holding cell, an apartment for deputies and possibly workers who may become stranded on the island and a mechanic’s area. While the plans for the tentative development have yet been released, cost estimates range between $1.4 million and $2 million.
Charlevoix County Commissioners, back in March, had pledged up to $720,000 in matching funds with the condition that they would only be released as the 40 percent match if the county was successful in receiving the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) Grant for which it had applied.
The grant was denied, but some are now claiming the $720,000 should be released in order to go through with the project.
Gillespie said the numbers mentioned so far were estimates of what it would take to be able to win the TIGER Grant.
“To use those numbers at this point is unrealistic,” he said. “We need a simple structure with a steel frame with insulation and heat—it needn’t be nearly as complex as what has been proposed.”
Gillespie said, at this time, he does not support an apartment or holding cell to be added to the project.
“The structure is supposed to be 100 by 100 (feet) to house equipment,” he said. “My argument is over $13 million has been spent on county buildings in recent memory … yet we have no county facility over here on the island. We pay our fair share, yet we have an 85-year-old garage that cannot house county trucks and equipment.”
Gillespie added, “I think the county has the money to do it and I think it’s only right to take it out of county reserves and get that done.”
Ferguson, who owns property on Beaver Island and spends roughly four months of the year there, is also in favor of the garage project.
“I support it big time,” Ferguson said. “The one out there is dilapidated and outdated.”
Ferguson said she would like to see the county allocate the $720,000 it had pledged as matching funds to get the project started.
She also supports the idea of adding an apartment for county staff and a holding cell for the sheriff’s office.
“I think it’s great that they want to use geothermal heating out there, and making it a multi-use building will make it easier to get grants,” Ferguson said. “I think it’s fair for the county board to say ‘this is how much we promised’ and if they go over that amount then they (Beaver Island residents and officials) need to figure out how to fund it.”
Ferguson’s husband does work for the Charlevoix County Road Commission as an hourly employee, though he has no administrative control or managerial capacity.
Ferguson has served the following organizations: Water Air Team Charlevoix (WATCH), Conservation and Renewable Energy Committee (CARE), Lake to Lake Trail Committee, Charlevoix County Recycling Committee, Michigan Wind Working Group.
“I’ve been called a ‘tree-hugger’ and I don’t deny it,” Ferguson said. “You’ve only got one Earth.”
She added, “Being an environmentalist doesn’t mean you’re not allowing development—there are just so many things we can do better, and we don’t need to ruin the Earth to do it.”
Gillespie has a different take on the environment.
“I’m a realist, and a realist will combine both things for the best outcome,” he said. “I’m for sensible things.”
A recent environmental issue presented to commissioners is the proposed Charlevoix County-wide Storm Water Ordinance.
Ferguson supports the measure, which as been adopted by a handful of the county’s municipalities.
“In general I am in favor of it,” Ferguson said. “I think it should be in place to ensure uniformity across the townships, and those townships have enforcement problems sometimes because they do not have police—if the county has one uniform code then we will have enforcement.”
Gillespie said though he has been accused of opposing the measure outright, his main concern rested in how little time the county board had to review the proposal before being expected to vote on it.
“I wasn’t sure where it came from or why and then it showed up in our board packet on a Friday, ubeknownst to us, and we’re supposed to vote on it the following Wednesday?” Gillespie said. “That seems like short notice to get any research done. One of my suggestions was to recommend it to the planning department to look at it.”
He added, “To put a rather onerous ordinance in place and to assume it will not cost anything is incorrect—it will cost taxpayers and property owners.”
Gillespie also pointed to his opponent’s involvement in the closing of the Cedar Ridge Landfill, located on Saunders Road in Eveline Township, to local garbage in 1999 but remained open to take in commercial waste until 2002.
Ferguson was one of several members on the Charlevoix County Solid Waste Committee who voted to deny Waste Management the right to expand the landfill for a second time; a move which ultimately ended in the closing of the landfill and transfer station.
Gillespie said that, not only did the closing drive up the costs of garbage removal for area residents, but it also eliminated nearly 35 jobs in Charlevoix County as employees were forced to work in Gaylord and Cheboygan.
Ferguson said she was only one vote on the committee, and since the landfill was taking in trash from several other areas, it was filling faster than originally anticipated.
“They said they wanted more land to enlarge and there was a creek on the property so we said ‘no’ and it was time for somebody else in another area to step up and we made arrangements with other places to haul our waste there,” she said. “And, during the years other people’s waste came here, that didn’t lower Charlevoix’s rates any.”
Ferguson said, if anything, the recycling committee and subsequent programs she spearheaded in Charlevoix County have done more to reduce the amount of money people have to pay to have their garbage removed.
For several years the idea of hiring an administrator to head Charlevoix County has been discussed.
According to both candidates, they would support revisiting the idea of hiring someone to lead the county.
“I think it’s never been more evident that we need someone to oversee board decisions and see that policy decisions are implemented to the criteria established by the board. If we get an administrative person I believe we would be that much more organized and better off,” Gillespie said. “We only come in every two weeks and we’re running kind of light as far as having a complete analysis with issues.”
Ferguson said a full-time leader at the county could help avoid issues like personnel disputes and lawsuits.
“The board needs to bring all their good ideas from their districts and one person needs to overview,” she said. “I think some of the things that happened … would not have happened if we had a good administrator.”
A movement is afoot by some to purchase the 20-acre Camp Seagull in Hayes Township—valued at nearly $4.5 million—and create a public park with camping and Lake Charlevoix access.
“I think we have lots of public lands,” Gillespie said. It’s a great notion, but I just don’t know how it can be afforded, and I don’t know if we can take more land off the tax roll.”
He added, “I question the cost and benefit for the greater good—we need taxpayers.”
Ferguson supports the effort for the local government to acquire Camp Seagull.
“Why wouldn’t you back that? It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “It’s a trail-head and the perfect place for a park with access to Lake Charlevoix.”
The Charlevoix County Planning Department has seen a major overhaul following the retirement of long-time planner Larry Sullivan. The county board decided not to replace Sullivan’s position and instead chose to promote Sullivan’s former assistant to the position of planner. Additionally, the board combined the county’s GIS (Geographic Information System) department with the planning Department in order to streamline planning efforts and save money.
Gillespie has long criticized both the planning department and the county’s planning commission and questioned the usefulness of both.
“I am for taking a reasonable look at this,” he said, adding that resetting the planning department will help ensure its proper operation.
Ferguson has publicly criticized the board for failing to seek the planning commission’s input on the matter.
“They (county board) knew nine months ago that Larry Sullivan was going to retire. I think it would have been helpful if they would have come to the planning commission and say they were thinking about not replacing this position,” she said. “I’m not against their move, but they held a meeting and said nothing about doing this and then they held a budget meeting and no funds were provided to replace the planning director, and they didn’t consult with us.”
Ferguson said she is concerned that the board may not always explain a resolution to the audience before voting on it.
Ferguson said she supports the new planning official and wants to ensure resources are available to her so she may best perform her duties.
Ferguson said she would like to see commissioners stop using computers during the meeting and that they do a better job of identifying what it is the commission is voting on.
Ferguson said one of the most important duties of the planning commission and department are to help maintain uniformity among townships.
“You don’t want one township putting in a highly populated thing right next to a piece of farmland in the next township,” she said. “You want them to blend together.”
The 57-year-old Gillespie said, if re-elected, he will continue working on re-powering the Ironton Ferry with a new propulsion system in addition to relocating the wheelhouse to allow for wider vehicles, and improve communication among county departments.
The 65-year-old Ferguson said, if elected, she will serve the wishes of all Charlevoix County’s residents, not just the ones from her district.