Special meeting a surprise to Village President

Published 7:07 am Thursday, May 6, 2004

By By MARCIA STEFFENS / Cassopolis Vigilant
CASSOPOLIS -- Even using her gavel sometimes didn't help Cassopolis Village President Julia Bell keep order. Those in the audience still spoke out without being recognized.
The special meeting Monday evening called by three unnamed council members came as a surprise to Bell, who learned of the meeting when a packet came to her door.
The agenda listed discussion of the qualifications of the Community Housing Initiative (CHI) which works with the village administrating the housing and rehab grants; discussion of the Clerk's position and finances and requested a closed session to discuss the Ameigh family's grant, which Bell said was illegal.
Also, under new business, a request was made for a motion for the personnel committee to hire an independent counsel to review and advise the village on the "effectiveness of internal management."
The undercurrent of distrust among those on the board and those in the audience was evident, as was Bell's plea for everyone to work together for the good of the village.
Not receiving a second to Maxine Snipe's motion to adjourn the meeting, Bell had Jim Oleksak of CHI speak of the how his nonprofit business helps the village secure and administrate state grants and loans.
Oleksak introduced Sam McGrath of Niles, a new employee who replaces Mike Joyce, who he said resigned. She has 10 years of construction experience, even owning her own company and has worked with suppliers.
She will be soon holding an open house of the two new homes on O'Keefe Street, built by Garden Homes for CHI, and instructing those interested in purchasing one.
Oleksak said he had a "handshake" agreement with Village Manager Art Sciorra for CHI to be a "long-term" partner with the village a few years ago. He praised Sciorra for being "unique," looking at a long range plan to improve the village, instead of concentrating on just one project.
He said Sciorra had three goals, rehabing houses, putting up houses on empty lots, or tearing down those which needed removal and rehabing downtown.
In the past few years they secured money for residents for rehab from Michigan National Bank in a two-for-one grant.
They have brought $800,000 to Cass in the last few years, he said.
CHI, which has also worked with Dowagiac and Niles, has received a clean bill of health, Oleksak added and are audited every year by the state housing program. Sciorra said the state originally recommended using CHI.
Oleksak added new procedures are being set in place to eliminate some of the programs seen in Cass recently with the apartment rehab program.
Along with explaining the program verbally, a check list will be given to the applicant. A letter will be signed to hold the village and CHI harmless. After all documents have been submitted, a formal "closing" will be held, he said.
Cassopolis definitely has a need for the housing program, Oleksak said.
William Curry, a new member of the council, met with a village-council appointed committee to discuss the housing and rehab grant program.
Curry said he was expecting to give a report at the regular meeting next Monday at 7 p.m., outling some of the changes CHI was making. Curry questioned why Monday night's special meeting was held to discuss the issue when he thought is was on the agenda for next Monday night's meeting.
In another agenda item, Clerk Paula Beauchamp asked to speak at Monday's special meeting about her concerns about village finances.
During the special meeting, she apologized to Rhonda Ivens, former clerk, for previous criticism, saying she has a clearer understanding of the office now and things she tried to tell her, "standing in her shoes."
Beauchamp is also making an election manual and writing clerk procedures, which had never been done. "No one should have to go through what I went through."
She requested the council have a finance committee. Recently, when she noticed the checking account balance had gotten quite low, she set a meeting with Sciorra and the treasurer and funds were transferred. She questioned whether an "emergency meeting" of the council should have been the action taken.
Sciorra told the council they would need to set policies, if they want to change the way duties are done on a daily basis.
Snipes suggested looking at the books quarterly, but Beauchamp added monthly would be better.
During the public comments portion of the special meeting, which was limited to three minutes per citizen: