There are three people running to become Antrim County Commissioner in the newly drawn District #2, which includes Torch Lake, Central Lake and Banks townships.
Republican Melissa Zelenak is challenging Jarris Rubingh, Republican incumbent, in the August primary. In November, Democrat Raymond Kuiper will challenge the winner of the Republican primary.
Kuiper decided not to reply to the voter questionnaire. He wrote me as follows: “My intent was to get you the questionnaire form by today. I was going to have my wife edit my responses to you could have it today. Unfortunately I spilled my coffee cup all over the document. Ink was smeared everywhere! As I am running unopposed in the primary election in August, I am wondering if I can send you the questionnaire after the 4th of July which will give me a little more time?”
I didn’t understand, since I assumed that he wrote his answers on a computer. I also thought that I gave everyone lots of time. When I told him that I was hoping to write the story soon, in time to get it to absentee voters for August, he replied: “Sorry I will not have the time. As I am running unopposed in the August primary, you should probably just run the responses without me. Again my apologies.”
The answers for Rubingh and Zelenak are below. NOTE: I did not edit any of these responses for grammar, accuracy, etc. I cut and pasted exact words from the candidates’ responses.
1. Please tell us about yourself, i.e. your family, work experience, etc.
Jarris Rubingh: I am the fifth generation to live and work on a dairy farm in Banks township. Through the past years my family has been able to provide many of our neighbors with employment. Taking care of the people, land, cattle, and resources we have been blessed with is a wonderful responsibility. My wife and I have been married for almost 13 years and God has blessed us with six children. As a small business owner, I have personally seen how many rules and regulations adversely impact the ability to provide good paying jobs and grow our economy.
Melissa Zelenak: I’m Melissa Zelenak, residing in Central Lake for most of my life, and when possible in Chestonia as my sweetheart just moved there last year to a his new farm. I take care of my dad and son, and two beagles. I work for the conservation district and am a lifelong learner. I hold multiple college and university degrees and have recently been accepted into graduate school at MSU. I’ve worked on numerous boards, local to state level, non-profit to tribal. I’ve gained years of solid experience, am open-minded, considerate, compassionate, tenacious, and have a low tolerance for waste and political tactics. I want to see Antrim County on the map for amazing things, not the ongoing lawsuits and other nonsense we are embroiled in.
2. Are you an official member of either the Democrat or Republican party? If you are not a member, what made you choose to run as a Democrat or Republican?
Jarris Rubingh: My wife and I are both members of the Antrim County Republican Party and we have met many hardworking people at the meetings who desire to make our country and county a better place.
Melissa Zelenak: I’m not sure what official means in this question but if it means going to the party meetings held by Bishop and cronies, then by all means, no, I am not and never will be official, thank God. I came to choose the GOP because I love and believe in God, and belief was important to me when I researched and made my choice years ago. Today I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing, religion is a personal decision not a government mandate. In the last decade or so I’ve become greatly concerned that we see politicians acting the opposite of what their religion asks of them, whether they’re democrat, republican, or any other party. Why do they flat out hate and attack anyone because they don’t wear the same party color. What’s with that? How can people think that’s okay? I don’t push my belief in God on anyone. I don’t knock on people’s doors or thump a Bible and judge. I don’t run my life based on what the people in my church think. I run my life on making myself better, helping people, and helping this planet. The real deal is that I like to help everyone, it doesn’t matter what party they are, what religion they choose, or what color their skin is, etc. Effective leaders listen to and help all people. Political players condemn those who don’t go their way. Frankly, people should be able to vote for the person they choose, not corralled into straight voting for a particular party. That takes away their freedom of choice doesn’t it? Who do you see working for that right to choose? Even though I feel unrest about today’s politics, I’m still a republican, but I am not looking for a label, I just want to work to benefit the entire county.
3. Do you agree with cutting county taxes? If so, should the Commissioners have an overall long-term financial plan, or should they take every opportunity possible to help taxpayers pay less? Please explain.
Jarris Rubingh: Yes, taxes should be kept low and government should operate as efficiently and effectively as possible. I helped to pass the first meaningful tax cut for the citizens of Antrim County in over a decade. Inflation is forcing our citizens to do with less, and I believe that government should also become more efficient so we can allow citizens to keep more of their hard earned money. If people can keep more of their money they are more likely to work harder which produces more goods and services for all of our residents. I like good plans, but we can have really good plans that quickly become obsolete, Covid would be a good example. The best plans use taxpayers money more responsibly; the commissioners recently witnessed this when our maintenance director renegotiated an elevator contract with significant savings.
Melissa Zelenak: I think reducing taxes is wonderful, but not at the expense of taking services away from seniors, veterans, and other folks who rely on necessary things that tax monies provide. There’s a difference between fiscal responsibility and self-serving personal tax breaks. The county has several long-term plans, the master plan, the this plan, the that plan, but I don’t know that they are actually followed. While it would be great for us to have a long-term financial plan, holding staff and BOC accountable to make sure it is adhered to is the key issue. Another huge issue is data and logical analysis. Commissioners having a clue as to financial trending and in-depth budget assessments can keep costs lower and decrease tax needs. There are gaps in services and things that we could and should be doing to benefit citizens with tax dollars too, hello county clean-up day for example… So yes, reduction of taxes is fine, but it shouldn’t be done without some well thought out and long-term consideration of the consequences and benefits. Messing around with millage money can backfire in a big way. Citizens vote for millages they believe in, and commissioners should abide by their decision, not undo them. I think the best way for us to “help taxpayers pay less” is to 1) better manage expenses 2) make longer term improvements/make our investments last longer 3) stop getting sued..
4. What ideas do you have to keep the Administrative Staff accountable? There have been examples of negligence that have cost the taxpayers, such as the housing department fiasco five years ago, and the bank building having no plan for maintenance. Please explain.
Jarris Rubingh: It is always hard to be as responsible with someone else’s money as you are with your own. Encouraging communication and collaboration between staff, commissioners, and taxpayers should be encouraged and practiced frequently.
Melissa Zelenak: Every board member should contribute to the work plans created for the county administrator. Every board member should weigh in at evaluation time and recognize that when goals aren’t met or when mistakes are made, there are consequences. Time is money, we continue to waste a lot of it in my opinion because of poor communication and lack of vision and planning. I’m still tweaked over the bank building loss. We can’t afford that kind of loss ever again. We need an educated, experienced board that knows how to direct their administration to perform for the betterment of citizens and this county as a whole. The BOC is supposed to LEAD, not follow. It must be prepared to replace an employee who is not performing at the level their job demands. When I was a commissioner the first thing I noticed that was very odd was that we didn’t have a human resources department. Seriously, 100+ employees and no HR expert? I got that ball rolling and a good team of people stuck it out through multiple meetings and actions that ended up forming the current department. All employees, top to bottom, must have guidelines, workplans, and evaluations. When those things aren’t jiving with what the employee is doing, then action must be taken, up to and including dismissal. Accountability is crucial in our department heads, especially in the Administration office, as it touches every aspect of the county.
5. Have you experienced any issues or heard any citizen concerns with the county building department? If so, do you have any ideas to address those concerns?
Jarris Rubingh: Yes, I have. I have also seen the department address concerns. Again, communication and trying to understand the nature of the problem is very helpful.
Melissa Zelenak: I have not heard anything regarding the building department, however as in question 4, accountability must occur in any department to make sure jobs are being done in the best way possible.
6. Do you think the County Commissioners should spend time and vote on political resolutions that are not related to county business? Please explain.
Jarris Rubingh: It depends. First, resolutions do matter. Legislators, officials, and citizens do pay attention to resolutions that are passed. For example, a resolution encouraging the federal government to expand the production and refining of oil and gas may not directly relate to county business, however, lower gas prices would have a definite positive impact on all of our department head budgets because all of them drive and pay shipping on items purchased for Antrim county. Most resolutions impact people, some people that we know, and some that we don’t, so they need to be evaluated on a case by case basis.
Melissa Zelenak: Unless it has a direct impact on Antrim County, no. County commissioners work must be focused on the realm to which they were elected. In the last couple of years, we’ve seen all sorts of things brought forward that people have wondered why it was even on the agenda, worse yet, when it was, commissioners ignored the comments of the public who spoke to the issue anyway. We have state and federal representation who should be acting on our behalf toward state and federal concerns, that’s why we elect them. Antrim County commissioners must be educated and informed and concentrating on Antrim County issues not pushing political pet projects that have nothing to do with county business.
7. Do you believe that the citizens should be able to vote on a building project? Should the project be funded with fund balance, a millage vote, or bonding our children’s future? Please explain.
Jarris Rubingh: Absolutely, I would like the taxpayers to have a direct vote on large expenditures.
Melissa Zelenak: Yes, I think voting to build new facilities, whether admin building or jail, is the right thing to do. Citizen input is critical and since the BOC voted to get rid of citizen led committees (which I think is a super horrible decision) getting input from people must happen by vote. Remember this 8/2/22. I want committees back. So many people are still upset over that, and rightly so. The BOC took their voice away, and that’s wrong. As to paying for building, I think a combination of funding options would be worth consideration, like partial fund balance, maybe a loan, there are many options to weigh out. I’m okay with short term debt and paying the project off fast but I will not support a burden to taxpayers for the long run. Money is tight for everyone, we need to help people keep their money in their own bank, not the county coffers.
8. Should the county build a new jail? If so, should it be big enough to take in prisoners from other counties? Please explain.
Jarris Rubingh: The jail is old, however, my house is old too. I would like to see the sheriff put together a detailed list of pros and cons regarding a new jail. I am not in favor of holding prisoners from other counties. Inmate expenses are high and even if we get reimbursed for those, hiring and training additional people is hard and not worth the effort and legal issues that go along with it. People who have made mistakes should hear the message of Jesus who came to earth to live a perfect life and die for sinners. Seeing people learning to forgive and love their neighbors is such a blessing to observe.
Melissa Zelenak: Having toured the jail, I believe we need a solution, whether it’s remodeling or rebuilding, we must make efforts soon to keep staff and inmates safe. We don’t need more deaths or injuries in the jail. Staffing is tough as it is, bringing in inmates from other areas may not be the way to go when staffing is so challenging now. We don’t have hundreds of inmates to warrant a giant jail. This is one building I don’t want to plan for growth in! Sharing jail space might have potential in terms of cost sharing it but I want to see county funds used for county needs. Too many times Antrim County gets lumped in with other counties to get funding for this or that great cause, but we never see the funding come back to our own county, it ends up in some other county…See #7, again, I think the people MUST HAVE INPUT. This is a major decision, let people decide.
9. Do you support the Stepping Up Program to reduce jail population? Do you feel that the Sheriff should make this one of his priorities? Please explain.
Jarris Rubingh: I believe that the goal of this program is to keep people who have mental health problems out of jail. If we can use a program like this to help people become job holding, contributing members of our community then I am all for it. I would like to see former prisoners connected with a local pastor and a local church. People need support and encouragement to do the right things, and understanding sin and the price that was paid for it can totally renew a person.
Melissa Zelenak: OMG yes I support Stepping Up. This is not a new program, we could and should have embraced it long ago. I was at the state conference when it was introduced and it demonstrated great success. There’s not a commissioner on board who shouldn’t support it. Yes, the sheriff’s office could execute the program, but that department can’t do jack without the funding and approval of the commissioners. If commissioners don’t support it, it won’t happen whether the sheriff wants it or not. I am confident the sheriff wants the best for the population and our community and given the opportunity the department could make Stepping Up successful.
10. The board also approved a work at home plan during the pandemic. Do you have creative ideas to offer more online services for the county residents? How do you think this would impact the need for new county buildings?
Jarris Rubingh: I think the building department is setting a good example in this regard by allowing permits and payments to be made online. I would like to encourage other department heads to offer online services too, but we need a balance, if someone needs to have a document notarized they should be able to walk in and have it done. I think that there are opportunities for more employees to work from home, and if some of them do this it will open up spaces in our existing buildings without the need to build more buildings.
Melissa Zelenak: We can certainly streamline and offer more services online but there is a lot to consider to make sure its effective and that work is truly being accomplished efficiently. I’m pretty sure Antrim County has never done a cost analysis on services, but I suspect we are paying a lot more to get things done than we should be and working at home may not be as cost effective as one might guess. While some people loved working at home in their sweatpants during the worst of times, the world is wide open again and working at home in a service-oriented organization is difficult because people need face to face help. There are many things that this country learned by working at home that can help us save time and money, but time gets lost when we’re sending 42 emails back and forth instead of stepping over to Joe’s office and asking a quick question. I’m not for a blanket work at home policy. There are indeed times when it’s fine and good but in general, I don’t see government services improving because of it. What I would love to see very soon are more opportunities for citizens to pay for things online, that’s a real time and money saver. It’s a total pain in the bum for some folks to have to drive to the county building to pick up or pay for things that could have been handled with an electronic payment and simple mailing. As for impact on a new county building, having one that can maintain current capacity and ideally accommodate for growth should be considered. It doesn’t seem like enough people would be staying home to work that it would require construction of a smaller facility.
11. The county recently had a consultant report that the primary space needs in the county were for storage. Do you have any ideas to address that? Please consider building inexpensive storage units versus building all new expensive buildings just because we need storage.
Jarris Rubingh: think that a pole barn or a storage unit would be a lot cheaper than a large new county complex. I think that the county has the property to be able to build a secure shed to store items when not in use.
Melissa Zelenak: I’m down with inexpensive storage units, but better yet, I say let us get rid of stuff we don’t need
12. Do you have anything else to say about why people should vote for you?
Jarris Rubingh: I have learned a lot about Antrim County government during the past two years. I have made mistakes, and I have said some things that I would like to say differently. I have tried to make Antrim county a better place to live, work, and raise a family. If people vote for me I will continue to apply myself to learn and make the best decisions that I can. The townships and village that I represent know that I make every effort to communicate and collaborate with local governments. I believe that I have attended over 90% of the township meetings in my district.
Melissa Zelenak: I want people to vote for me or anyone in office whom they feel has the experience, education, and energy to solve problems and make Antrim County more successful. The ongoing legal issues and political drama doesn’t do a thing for our image, much less for the morale of staff and citizens. We have so many amazing things happening in our county. Every single commissioner should be praising the good works that get done every single day but some seem to spend time bashing county staff, and each other. How does that help anyone? It breeds discontent and disrespect and a whole lot of people are discouraged and sick of it. People need to know about the good things that are happening, not just the fiasco episodes. Praise and gratitude are bigtime game changers. I’m the person who can work with anyone, I want to work with everyone. I learn from people who have different viewpoints. What I absolutely don’t want is more time and money wasting. What I don’t want are more BOC decisions that only benefit a select few. I want people to vote for me because I have vision for the future. I have a broad network of resources, a solid skillset, and serious work ethic, but most important of all, I care deeply about this county. I’m all for the people, the land, the water, the wildlife, and everything that is Antrim County. People can go to the website I made and learn more about me, www.MZ4AC.com or see my long running Facebook page “Melissa Zelenak’s Antrim County Public Service that shows years of dedication to Antrim.
13. Do you support Randy Bishop’s lawsuit against the county?
Jarris Rubingh: No, I do not support this ridiculous lawsuit. I think our society as a whole is way too quick to pursue litigation. Why would someone sue every elected official in Antrim County? It looks like a publicity stunt, and lawsuits take a lot of time and effort that could be used in other areas to improve things for people.
Melissa Zelenak: That’s a hard no. I echo heartily what Mr. Gordy Schafer said in a Concerned Citizen’s post: “I would never vote for anyone connected to him. And add to that connected to him now, in the future, or in the past..” And add to that “…connected to him now, in the future, or in the past….”
To see the responses from candidates in all districts, see:
2022 Elections: Antrim County Commissioner Candidates Respond to Citizen Questions – Northwest Michigan Libertarians