WThe Michigan State Police Lakeview Post is investigating the Winfield Township Board concerning certain township documents.
The Daily News confirmed the investigation with MSP Sixth District Public Information Officer Michelle Robinson.
“I cannot comment on any details as it is an open and ongoing investigation,” Robinson said.
The Winfield Township Board has been in turmoil for quite some time now, mostly fallout related to how township officials are handling the creation of wind energy and solar energy ordinances.
Supervisor Phyllis Larson, Clerk Colleen Stebbins and Trustee John Black are all facing a recall effort in November’s general election – recall signatures were filed on Monday at the Montcalm County Clerk’s Office, and the county clerk has 35 days to verify the signatures. Voters in Tuesday’s primary election were asked whether to approve or deny the township’s new solar ordinance and a referendum effort against the township’s new wind ordinance is also underway.
As previously reported in the Daily News, the township board voted in November 2021 to publish public notices only in the weekly River Valley Shopper and Lakeview Area Newspaper, even though Michigan’s Public Act 247 states that public notices must be published in a newspaper that has a list of paying subscribers, and that newspaper must annually average at least 25% news and editorial content per issue (the River Valley Shopper meets neither one of these requirements as its a free weekly ad publication with no editorial content). Multiple residents and even some township board members have repeatedly complained that the River Valley Shopper hasn’t been available in the Howard City area for years.
The Lakeview Area News does not post its public notices online, even though Michigan’s Newspaper Modernization Act of 2022 requires that all newspapers post all public notices online for free within 72 hours of receipt (which the Daily News does at www.thedailynews.cc/michigan-public-notices-2).
The township board voted on June 15 to approve a wind ordinance, and they then published a public notice of that ordinance in the Daily News – despite their previous vote to only use the two weeklies. The public notice was later published in the two weeklies; however, some residents felt the township board was trying to keep the notice hidden from them with inconstant publishing methods.
When questioned on this topic by the Montcalm County Election Commission at a recall clarity hearing on July 6, Larson said the township board gave its approval at the June 15 meeting to specifically publish the wind ordinance public notice in the Daily News.
“The Daily News was used to reach the residents sooner,” Larson said. “Time was a factor. The township can always reevaluate its decisions and this time we did.”
“We made a decision as a board,” Stebbins told the Election Commission. “They (those in attendance at the June 15 meeting) couldn’t hear it.”
However, a Daily News reporter was present at the June 15 meeting and did not hear the board vote or discuss anything regarding how to publish the ordinance. The Daily News reviewed a video recording of the June 15 meeting to double-check, and there was no vote or discussion.
According to the township’s minutes from that meeting, a vote was not taken on the matter. The very end of the meeting minutes simply state, “Due to time schedule, the notice of adoption to be in the earliest paper to get all paperwork to the county clerk to be on the November ballot as the two other paper (sic) the township put minutes in would be over a week and more.”
The Daily News clarified with Stebbins and Larson after the July 6 recall hearing whether they were claiming that the township board voted to change how to publish the wind ordinance.
“We discussed it and we made a decision because we knew we could get it in quicker (in the Daily News),” Stebbins said. “It was right there at the (June 15) meeting before we adjourned.”
When the Daily News asked Larson if this was accurate, Larson responded, “Yeah, I guess so.”
‘NONE OF US TRUST YOU GUYS’
The disputed topic of publishing public notices came up again at the township board’s July 14 meeting. As June’s meeting minutes were read aloud for approval, Trustee Steve Cole said he didn’t remember voting or even discussing whether to publish the ordinance in a different newspaper.
“I do not remember it being stated to put it in the Daily News,” Cole said.
“It was discussed,” Stebbins insisted.
“I’m just saying that I don’t remember it,” Cole responded.
During public comment, residents didn’t hold back in how they felt about the public claims being made by Larson and Stebbins.
“You’re a liar, Phyllis,” declared Julia Potratz of Winfield Township, a former member of the township’s Planning Commission. “You lied right to the Montcalm County Election Commission. You can’t say, ‘oh we discussed it, everyone just can’t remember.’ No, you didn’t. We have a video. There’s a video that proves you didn’t have this conversation. So you definitely didn’t do it with the board’s approval.
“Colleen, you also lied to them. You also said yes. You’re also a liar.
“Guess what? Forging minutes or altering minutes is against the law. We’re not going to forget about this.”
“Videos can be edited,” Larson responded, a comment eliciting loud groans and protests from those present, including Jamie Snyder of Cato Township who records video of many local township board meetings.
“I did not edit that video,” Snyder declared. “I have never edited any of my videos. I do multiple townships so I can help the community. Do not call me a liar.”
When Trustee John Black was asked by meeting attendees if he recalled discussing or voting to publish the wind ordinance in the Daily News, he said he’d have to watch the meeting video first.
“They posted it in the Daily News hoping that we’d miss it so we wouldn’t get the notice of intent (to referendum) filed in time,” Potratz continued. “Then you had to shove that in your minutes, then you lied to the judge (Charlies Simon III), the county clerk (Kristen Millard) and the county treasurer (JoAnne Vukin).”
“I don’t remember that they asked me that question,” said Larson regarding the Election Commission. “I really don’t remember. I know it’s in the paper (Daily News), but I don’t remember.”
“Then you told Elisabeth (Waldon) the same thing,” Potratz declared. “You lied to all of us. You just keep doing it. You know it didn’t happen. This is why you’re going to be recalled and this is why there’s going to be charges pressed. It’s against the law.”
“None of us trust you guys,” added Kathy Kok of Winfield Township. “It’s a game. I feel like I can’t miss one meeting because you’re going to stick it to us. Your transparency level is bad. You adjusted the minutes tonight. It’s wrong. You guys used to be decent people. I don’t recognize you right now.”
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