Anonymous letter causes township stirPublished 7:26pm Monday, November 14, 2011
An inflammatory letter distributed in mailboxes and newspaper tubes throughout Niles Township has a Niles Township official and a longtime township resident crying foul.
The letter, which accuses Niles Township Treasurer Jim Ringler of using his township office to “enhance property for his Real Estate business and for his own personal gain,” is anonymous. The letter identifies the writers simply as members of the Honest Citizens for Honest Government (HCHG).
Both Ringler and Jane Tenney, owner of Tenney Associates and the developer of the Longmeadow subdivision on Niles-Buchanan Road, say the letter doesn’t tell the whole story and includes some claims that are untrue.
Telling the ‘whole story’
The two-page letter accuses Ringler, a broker for Grubb & Ellis/Cressy & Everett, of conducting Real Estate business out of his township office.
Ringler denied the claims and said he has an office in Mishawaka for that purpose.
The letter also references Ringler’s involvement several years ago in a sewer project for Longmeadow — a deal that the HCHG claims left the township “having to write off $450,000” after Tenney Associates went bankrupt.
Ringler defended himself in an interview Friday, clarifying that township sewer and water reserves, not taxpayer money, funded the project. He also pointed out that the township came to an agreement with Tenney that left her with the responsibility to pay back the cost over a 15-year period through tap-in fees.
In an interview last week, Tenney, who has lived in the township for 30 years, said while she did default on the agreement with the township due to the economy, she didn’t go bankrupt.
Tenney said if more people purchase property in Longmeadow and “tap in” to the sewerline, she will be able to pay off the debt.
Tenney is upset that those details didn’t make it into the HCHG’s letter.
“They’re destroying people’s reputations,” Tenney said. “They don’t mind smearing someone to push their agenda.”
Ringler said he doesn’t regret the sewer project and believes it was good for the township.
The township still owns the sewer line and the lift stations that Tenney Associates installed.
“We haven’t lost a dime,” Ringler said. “We have gained a half million dollars in assets and sewer infrastructure.”
Ringler defended Tenney, pointing out that Longmeadow increased property values by some $20 million.
The letter also accuses Ringler of improperly loaning $26,000 to James “Cricket Butler,” president of Butler Family Enterprises which runs Morris Farms, to drill test wells there in 2006. The letter refers to it as “gross misappropriation of township funds.”
Ringler explained that the test wells were drilled when Morris Farms, Woodland Terrace and Lutheran Homes were in need of municipal water. Tenney had approached the City of Niles about obtaining water. But when she found it would be cost-prohibitive to run a line to Niles-Buchanan Road, she opted not to go that route.
“It absolutely made sense to see if water was available there,” Ringler said, regarding the test wells.
Ringler said it was simpler for the township to pay for the wells upfront and Butler did pay the township back.
‘It’s about burning me’
The letter also brings up a complaint filed against Ringler by Township Zoning Administrator Stefanie Woodrick that claimed discussions with him last year about lot-split issues at Morris Farms left her “intimidated, frustrated and very uneasy.”
When Township Supervisor Jim Kidwell issued a press release in February about the complaint, an investigation was launched, which found Ringler didn’t violate township employee policy. The township is still waiting on a summary report of the exact findings of the investigation.
Ringler denies intimidating Woodrick and said he believes Kidwell issued the press release to “destroy” him.
“It talks about me intimidating (Woodrick). I asked her some tough questions she couldn’t answer,” he said. “Nothing I asked her was out of the context of what people ask zoning administrators every day.”
Ringler said he believes Kidwell is behind the letter, just as he was the author of the press release.
“It’s about burning me and destroying my credibility and character,” he said. “There’s no doubt he is driven by a vendetta to destroy me personally.”
Reached by phone Monday, Kidwell said he had “nothing to do with the letter.”
“I didn’t write or distribute it,” he said. “I haven’t even seen the letter myself.”
Kidwell admitted to knowing a few of the members of the group and said they obtained much of their information in the letter and on their website from the Freedom of Information Act.
Who is HCHG?
Tenney said she is frustrated HCHG won’t identify its members in the letter or its website (www.hchgnilestwp.blogspot.com).
“They’re being very dishonest by not dating and signing what they’re putting in people’s mailboxes,” she said.
Earlier this year HCHG started a recall effort against Ringler, Clerk Marge Durm-Hiatt and trustees Dick Noble and Dick Cooper. The group was represented by township resident Tony Millin.
The Star was unable to reach Millin for comment, but he did send an email explaining that the recall effort has disbanded.
“We are not vacating these efforts due to lack of support,” the letter reads.
Millin explains in the email that the group decided to discontinue the recall to avoid a costly special election and because Kidwell urged the group not to continue with the effort.
Millin ended the email by calling for the four officials to resign.
A note from the publisher
Michael Bennett, publisher of Leader Publications, notes that the letters by the Honest Citizens for Honest Government were improperly distributed in Leader newspaper tubes.
“We want to make it clear that these groups do not have the authority to utilize our tubes nor do we endorse their views,” Bennett said.