Belding planning commissioner candidacy gets sticky

By Cory Smith • Last Updated 11:09 am on Thursday, November 08, 2012

BELDING — A shroud of controversy involving a lack of recorded meeting minutes, a written letter addressed to council members, a disputed property fence and backyard chickens were at the heart of discussion at a Belding City Council meeting about the fate of the next possible Planning Commission member.

At Tuesday’s meeting, City Manager Randy DeBruine recommended item “B” be removed from the consent agenda so the item could be discussed in more detail at the next city council meeting on Nov. 20. The item in question was a vote on accepting the recommendation of the Belding Planning Commission to appoint Jon McGowan of Belding as the newest member of the commission.

Council members approved the decision in a 4-1 vote with Councilwoman Andrea Belding opposed.

Mayor Ron Gunderson said he asked DeBruine to postpone the decision “out of fairness to Jon McGowan.”

In packets given to City Council members, the minutes from the Planning Commission meeting where McGowan was recommended in a 4-2 vote were not included.

“I asked for it to be taken off the agenda because the only people that knew about the actual happenings of the minutes from the Planning Commission meetings were Joe Feurestein, who serves on the council, and myself, because I was there as a liason,” Gunderson said. “I asked for this decision to be postponed to give council members time to look over the planning commission’s 4-2 vote in favor of McGowen being appointed to the planning commission.”

McGowan was in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting and chose to speak during public comment. He said he was grateful to the city council for postponing its decision, but was troubled by actions that had been taken by Planning Commission Chairman Gary Knowlton.

A letter addressed to city council members from Knowlton was included in each council member’s packet. The letter recommended that council members not accept the appointment of McGowan to the Planning Commission, despite the commission’s 4-2 vote in favor of him.

“I don’t think sending this letter as the Planning Comission chairman was entirely appropriate,” McGowan said. “The fact remains, the Planning Commission made a recommendation in a 4-2 vote. I’m not sure why (Knowlton) felt he had the right to even (write the letter) in the first place.”

Knowlton was in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting, but did not speak.

At the Oct. 23 Planning Commission meeting, Knowlton asked McGowen four questions, asking for” yes” or “no” answers only, in regard to admitting personal violations against city ordinances, including building a fence in a public right-of-way and owning chickens on his property.

After hearing McGowan’s admittance of those violations, Knowlton wrote in his letter, “I therefore am recommending that the city council does not accept the recommendation of the planning commission to appoint Jon McGowan.”

“It doesn’t sit well,” McGowan said of Knowlton’s letter. “The board had made its decision. It was not fair that Gary was able to submit something secretly.”

McGowan’s wife, Jennifer McGowan, spoke before council members and admitted to council about their violations against city ordinances, but explained that they believed their actions were justified.

“We live in a neighborhood where there are a lot of small children and we have a big lot (of property),” she said. “We were having problems with neighborhood kids coming onto our property and playing with or without us being home.”

Jennifer McGowan said injuries to children on her property, to the point of broken bones, stemming from one particular child causing the injuries, was cause enough to put up the fence.

“It got to the point this summer where he showed up with a hunting knife, a length of rope and a shovel, threatening to do away with some of the kids, mine included,” she said. “Unfortunately we are now being painted as criminals because of the way that all happened.”

Jennifer McGowan said she and her husband are in the process of working with the city to rectify the situation.

“Everybody on the Planning Commission, with the exception of two, said they wanted it on record that they would have done the exact same thing in that situation,” she said. “We’re trying to make it right by the city.”

The McGowans are in violation of another ordinance because they own chickens on their property, which is against city law.

“We honestly assumed that in a rural community like Belding, it would be legal (to have chickens) on the property,” she said. “When we figured out it wasn’t legal, (council members) had already began talks about changing the ordinance, so it’s kind of in limbo right now, but we will rectify the situation depending on the outcome of your decision on that issue.”

The McGowans said they do not believe these violations represent a serious enough offense to warrant dismissal of Jon McGowan’s candidacy as a possible Planning Commission member.

City Council members did not comment further on the matter at the closing of the meeting. They will vote on Nov. 20 whether to accept the Planning Commission’s recommendation to appoint McGowen to the Planning Commission.


In other matters …

The Belding City Council unanimously approved a donation agreement for a property owned by Avis White to be donated to the city. The property includes approximately 20 acres of land in the city limits, which could possibly be used for future trail expansion in the future.

The costs related to the closing fees and environmental inspection is approximately $4,800.

DeBruine said the property is located northeast of where Ellis Street ends on the east side of the city.

Council members also approved budget amendments to the fiscal year 2012-2013 and approved an environmental consultant work plan for the DEQ concerning the city’s wastewater lagoons in unanimous votes. The DEQ work plan, including the installation of two additional monitoring wells, will cost $14,200.

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