Several residents were in attendance at the March 5th Antrim County Board of Commissioner’s meeting to hear what the Commissioners had to say about the citizens’ right to vote on the jail and facilities plans. Chair Ed Boettcher and Commissioner Christian Marcus were not in attendance.
The Commissioners started out by voting unanimously to move their March 19th meeting to Kearney Township Hall. The presentation will be at 7:00 pm to allow citizens to attend, while the regular board meeting will be held at 5:00 pm.
A discussion followed about the format of the meeting and the citizens’ right to vote on the jail and facilities plan.
Commissioner Dawn LaVanway stated that citizens want to hear specific data, such as the number of beds and occupancy rate. They also wanted to be able to ask questions about the plans.
However, “the presentation is not a question and answer session,” according to Vice-Chairperson Karen Bargy, who was chairing the meeting. “There will be public comment before and after the presentation.”
LaVanway countered that she thought the Board should have the informational meeting in May, when more people are in town. Bargy responded that the date of this meeting was voted on at the last meeting, when LaVanway was on vacation.
“A decision is not being made,” Bargy stated. “The presentation is informational, to be sure Commissioners are on same page. We have no proposal. Once we have proposal, we can bring it to the people.”
“If we as a board decide to move forward, we will have multiple public forums,” she promised.
“Too much money has been spent on consultants, without knowing whether people want the jail,” LaVanway countered.
Commissioner Ricksgers jumped in, “The people have a right to vote, but we need to decide as a board what they will vote on,” she said.
County Administrator Pete Garwood explained his view. “There are so many things to decide before the public has something to look at, between the ‘Stepping Up’ program, crime being down, separation issues, and more. Without more info, they would be voting yes or no on the jail without any information.”
“They will definitely say ‘no’ without a plan,” agreed Ricksgers.
“We have hired experts who understand the laws and the jail,” Bargy stated. “They have done engineering studies, and provided data. They are the experts.”
LaVanway argued, “We need to assure people they have right to vote, and we need to put a deadline as to when we will put this before them….versus going back to consultants and spending more and more money. Any consultant will tell you what you want to hear. Let’s look at other ideas rather than just blindly following these people.”
Commissioner Josh Watrous gave his opinion. “The public wants to see another alternative to building a new jail. We should get bids for remodeling or adding a second story,” he said.
Bargy seemed exasperated. “We have done an engineering study. We have data. We have experts,” she claimed.
Commissioner David Heeres chimed in. “I agree, we need to listen to experts. The public elected us to be the ones to make the decision.”
Commissioner Jason Helwig disagreed. “No matter what we do, citizens deserve a vote. The board is split 5 to 4 or 6 to 3.”
“Even if the board is 9-0, the public should vote,” Ricksgers agreed with Helwig.
Residents Dave Hill and Nanette Compton Mcclellan both made public comments about involving the public and having the informational meeting at night when more people are back in town.
Donna Gundle-Krieg also addressed the Commissioner. She is the founder of the group “Citizens Who Want A Vote on the Antrim County Jail.”
“We have 330 people in our group right now, with varying opinions on the jail, but we all agree that the public deserves a vote on such a big project,” Gundle-Krieg stated. “For the person who thinks that the public is too uninformed to vote, we hope that you will help us change that.”
“Based on the responses so far to my questionnaire, I am really hoping that one of you makes a motion at some point to have the public vote on this project. Thank you all for remaining open to this very important decision. For the sake of the people you represent, you really need to get it right.”