STANTON — Have you heard the story about the wealthy secondhand dealer?
His business was doing so well that he willingly decided to use his extra money to purchase electronic equipment and begin putting detailed information about his customers and inventory online so local police officers could return stolen items to their rightful owners.
In case you haven’t guessed it yet, it’s a fictional story.
But it’s a fact that the Montcalm County Board of Commissioners are considering an ordinance that would require local secondhand dealers to do just that.
Monday afternoon’s Board of Commissioners meeting was standing room only on the third floor of the Administrative Building in Stanton as commissioners listened to almost an hour of comments about a proposed ordinance. In theory, the ordinance would help law enforcement officials track down thieves, but the ordinance would also place new responsibilities on secondhand dealers.
The majority of Monday’s feedback was negative — the lone supporting comment coming from a police chief.
When all was said and done, commissioners unanimously agreed to send the proposed ordinance back to the drawing board.
However, Commissioner Steve DeWitt who authored the proposal remained firm in his conviction that the ordinance would be beneficial not only to law enforcement, but also to local businesses and citizens.
“This started as a very small, well-intended — and it still is — a very well-intended ordinance,” said DeWitt, who is Howard City’s police chief.
‘Nanny state, pre-crime, big brother mentality’
James Freed, who is manager of both the city of Stanton and the village of Lakeview, led the charge during the public comment session. Freed said he opposes the ordinance due to financial costs and privacy violations, which he believes will violate the national Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures without probable cause.
“You’re asking law-abiding citizens to submit photographs, physical characteristics and biometric forms when they want to sell something,” Freed said. “In the 21st century, it is shameful. This takes the burden away from law enforcement and submits the burden to stores themselves. This bill has no place in Montcalm County. This ordinance is 100 percent against that philosophy of small, local government.”
Freed went after DeWitt personally, calling him ignorant and, later in the meeting, dishonest.
“I rise today in support of the hundreds of small business owners and rise in opposition to the nanny state, pre-crime, big brother mentality that is being peddled in this reseller ordinance,” Freed said. “Commissioner DeWitt, given your lack of legislative experience, I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you proposed this ordinance in ignorance rather than with malicious intent.”
Freed addressed DeWitt again at the end of the meeting, calling him out for allegedly saying one thing about the proposed ordinance in an email and then saying another thing to the general public.
“I began the meeting under the assumption that it was ignorance, but now I believe it’s blatantly dishonest,” Freed said. “You can’t talk out of both sides of your mouth. This will kill jobs, this will kill businesses. I run two cities. I understand legal statutes and ordinances. It’s blatantly dishonest. I’m going to hold you accountable. You will be held accountable.”
Montcalm County Prosecutor Andrea Krause didn’t plan on voicing an opinion one way or the other during public comment about the proposed ordinance; however, she was inspired to speak up after listening to Freed.
“To call Commissioner DeWitt stupid and dishonest is just blatantly wrong,” Krause said. “Commissioner DeWitt has done nothing wrong but try to stand up for victims of crime, so I applaud him.”
Judy Guevara has owned Hotel Montcalm for the past 20 years, which she says has been a battle hard fought. The downtown Stanton business offers a bed and breakfast and cafe, plus antiques for sale.
“I’m still there by the tips of my fingernails, just hanging on,” she said. “This type of expense will probably make me fall. It (the ordinance) doesn’t make sense. The expenses are atrocious. What are you going to do to Main Street?”
Diane Lowell owns Birdie’s Antiques in Stanton. She said whenever she has any “extra” money, she spends it on advertising to keep her business alive.
“There’s no way I have enough money for the manpower it would take,” she said of the proposed ordinance’s new regulations. “It would close our business. I encourage the commission to come and see our stores. Come and talk to us. See how we can work this out. I want to help the police, but I don’t want to close our store.”
Larry Pettit, who has antique shops in Greenville and Stanton, said he’s been on the telephone for several days with local government officials from all counties surrounding Montcalm County trying to get details about regulations in neighboring counties. Only Kent County has an ordinance similar to the one being proposed in Montcalm County.
“I spoke with every person I could to try to figure out why we’re doing this,” he said. “I think this really needs to be looked at long and hard. You will hurt a lot of businesses. This bill could kill it all.”
Ida Church, who owns Kaleidoscope of Times in Greenville, was concerned about the cost the ordinance would cause her business to take on.
“Any additional outgoing money from our small mom and pop shops are gonna cause us to close down,” she said. “We’re small town USA. We don’t wanna leave. I like Greenville. I don’t wanna be chased from it.”
Ronald Finegood, a Stanton attorney, said the ordinance may be necessary for pawn shops, but not for antique stores.
“These aren’t people who are buying stolen property,” he said of antique store owners. “I think most of that problem comes from pawn shops. Who do the police go to when something is stolen? They go to pawn shops. They don’t go to antique stores. Why not just make this a pawn broker statute? It’s my understanding there’s only one or two in the county. Tailor this statue to apply where the problem really is. Don’t paint this with such a broad brush.”
Flea market fears
Dave Wills questioned whether massive flea markets such as Burley Park and Howard City and Trufant Flea Market would be affected by the ordinance.
“I understand wanting to catch the bad guys; however, should the good guys always suffer?” he asked. “If this is passed, a lot of hardworking, honest businesses will probably go out of business. Please consider all the consequences.”
Dan Rogers, who owns Burley Park on M-46 just north of Howard City, got right to the point.
“I don’t know that Burley Park would fall under this ordinance or not, but if I have to keep track of all the people and merchandise that come through Burley Park, it would be humanly impossible,” he said. “Drop this ordinance. Short and sweet.”
Robert Kirsch owns Kirsch’s Corner in Edmore, where he sells a variety of crafts and furniture.
“I sell new stuff, I sell used stuff,” he said. “I have Amish goods coming in. I’m operating on a shoestring. The bank is helping me out. It (the proposed ordinance) would shut my business down.”
Brenda Gleason, who enjoys shopping at antique and secondhand stores, was concerned as a customer.
“What is it going to do to church sales and Goodwill stores?” she asked about the proposed ordinance. “For example, the Hidden Treasures store in Howard City. There’s thousands of people that come through there a day. Do I want to stand in line behind 20 people a day in order to have my mugshot and fingerprints taken in order to sell my grandma’s dishes? It’s not fair, it’s not right.”
Edwin Hansen of Evergreen Township said the proposed ordinance is the same kind of burdensome regulation that has been killing the national economy over the years.
“The idea of forcing the decent citizens of Montcalm County into acting as policemen and subjecting the remainder of the good citizens of Montcalm County to being treated as criminals for no probable cause is unspeakable,” he said. “It might be well received in someplace like Cuba, but this is the United States.”
Following in the footsteps of state law
DeWitt reminded everyone present at Monday’s meeting about Michigan’s Public Act 350 of 1917, which regulates and licenses secondhand dealers and junk dealers. That state law contains many similarities to the countywide ordinance DeWitt is proposing.
“State law is very clear about secondhand dealers,” he said. “We’re not reinventing the wheel here.”
The state law was news to some, including Guevara, owner of Hotel Montcalm in Stanton.
“I’ve been a dealer for 40 years and I’ve never heard of that ordinance,” Guevara admitted.
DeWitt said just last week he used an online reporting system to track down a weed whacker someone stole from the Howard City area. The weed whacker turned up in the city of Wyoming.
“Thieves travel,” he noted. “This ordinance will benefit not just Montcalm County, but those around us.”
DeWitt agreed that the language of the proposed ordinance needs to be revisited so that it doesn’t ensnare people it wasn’t intended to ensnare. He said the goal of the proposed ordinance is to get people to make the switch from using paper documents and fax machines to computers and online files.
“Let’s get with the 21st century,” he said. “Let’s do this electronically at the time of the person coming in. It’ll be more efficient, which of course means more savings for everyone. Montcalm County is way behind on this. There is a very, very poor reporting system in Montcalm County.
“The cost involved, there’s some equipment that’s needed, but it’s not equipment that I don’t think most business owners already have,” he said. “A computer. Internet access. A camera. It’s not a big expense. There’ll be some time doing inventory, that’s correct. A fingerprint scanner, an estimate for that is $200. That is a lot of money, but it’s not a crazy amount to do business. Most of us already have the equipment. We’re asking for this just to do electronic reporting rather than the handwritten reporting that you’re already required to do.”
After hearing the feedback from local business owners and residents, commissioners unanimously voted to send the proposed ordinance back to the Law Enforcement & Courts Committee for further discussion.
Carson City Police Chief Bruce Partridge voiced the lone comment supporting the proposed ordinance.
“The focus of this ordinance is to help give law enforcement a way to reunite victims of a crime with their stuff,” he said. “We’re not trying to put anyone out of business. I would urge you not to kill the ordinance and find a middle ground of some fashion.”