Township hunts for missing reportPublished 10:53pm Wednesday, October 26, 2011
The controversy involving the investigation of Niles Township Treasurer Jim Ringler and the illegal closed meetings of the township board surrounding the situation seems to have come to a head.
A Berrien County judge ruled in August that the Niles Township board of trustees violated the Open Meetings Act on two occasions. The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit filed against the township by township resident and City of Niles police officer Shane Daniel.
The closed meetings in violation of the act involved board members discussing a complaint made by Zoning Administrator Stefanie Woodrick against Ringler. Woodrick alleges that last year Ringler tried to intimidate her into making illegal zoning changes that would have benefited Ringler, who works as a real estate broker in the area.
Jeff Crampton, Daniel’s attorney, said that as part of the remedy, he is requesting a copy of the summary report of the findings of the investigation of Ringler from Kurt McCamman, a Kalamazoo attorney the township hired to complete the investigation.
Crampton explained in an interview last week that if the summary report and findings of the investigation were discussed in the illegal meetings, they should be entered into public record.
But when Frederick Lucas, the attorney representing the township in the lawsuit, requested the summary report from McCamman, he was informed that it isn’t completed.
Township Supervisor Jim Kidwell said he has been trying to get a copy of the summary report for six months. Kidwell emailed McCamman three times, called his office on several occasions and sent him a personal letter.
“I never heard anything back from him the whole six months,” Kidwell said. “He just didn’t call me back.”
Phone calls made by the Niles Daily Star to McCamman weren’t returned.
McCamman, an attorney with Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone, billed the township in April for $7,402 for the investigation, including charging the township for 5.8 hours of work on the summary report.
The township hasn’t paid the bill and Kidwell has indicated it won’t until it receives a summary report.
“He billed us for 5.8 hours,” Kidwell said in an interview last week. “When he says he just didn’t get around to doing one, the bill contradicts him totally.”
The township board has advised Lucas to have McCamman produce the report as soon as possible.
Scope of investigation
Kidwell claims when he signed the agreement with McCamman to complete the investigation, he didn’t know the scope of the investigation. He alleges that former township attorney Mary LaSata Spiegel handled setting up the investigation with McCamman.
“Kurt (McCamman) was given very specific, narrow avenues for this investigation,” Kidwell said. “He was only to investigate whether the township employee policy was violated. Had I known that was the case, I would have stopped the investigation at the beginning.”
Because Ringler is an elected official, the employee policies don’t apply to him anyway, Kidwell said.
Niles Township doesn’t have an ethics handbook for elected officials, something Kidwell pushed for when he was elected in 2008.
“The first year I was here, we tried to get a policy for the board, but the board continuously tabled it,” Kidwell said.
Kidwell said he thought the investigation would include looking into possible criminal offenses. Woodrick hasn’t filed a complaint with law enforcement or the county prosecutor about the incident though, according to Kidwell.
LaSata Spiegel wouldn’t comment on the scope of the investigation but said Kidwell visited McCamman before he was hired and signed the agreement between the township and the investigator.
“If Mr. Kidwell, after his visit with Mr. McCamman, had been dissatisfied, we certainly would not have retained him,” LaSata Spiegel said.
She also said McCamman is a highly respected investigator and recently gave a presentation on municipality internal investigations at a Michigan Township Association conference.
At a township board meeting in March, LaSata Spiegel informed the trustees that the investigation of Ringler concluded that “no violation of policy occurred.”
In an interview Tuesday, Lasata Spiegel said she had received a phone call before that meeting from McCamman reporting that Ringler hadn’t violated the township employee policy. The employee policy doesn’t apply to elected officials, but Spiegel said the report found that even if the policies did apply, Ringler wouldn’t have been in violation.
But without a summary report, some are skeptical if the findings are valid.
“Where we can exonerate somebody without any proof or factual basis to stand behind is wrong,” Daniel said.
Daniel said even if the summary report does find Ringler innocent, the report is already “soiled.”
“The way I look at it now, how can we trust this investigation if after months he has billed us for it, he has not put it together? How do we know if the content is even going to be fair?” Daniel said.
Ringler and Kidwell make no bones about the fact they haven’t gotten along since Kidwell was elected township supervisor. They have had differing opinions on many issues, sometimes with the disagreements erupting into shouting matches at township board meetings.
The investigation of Ringler first came to light after Kidwell issued a press release to local media outlets. This led to a recall effort against Kidwell with supporters arguing Kidwell breached the confidentiality of a closed meeting and an employee’s right to a confidential investigation.
Ringler called the press release “defaming” and has threatened to file suit against Kidwell if he doesn’t send a retraction letter to the Niles Daily Star, South Bend Tribune and St. Joseph Herald-Palladium — all media outlets that quoted the release.
The terms of Kidwell and Ringler, along with all the other Niles Township trustees, expire in November 2012.