Berrien County Commissioners fill vacant seat

Published 6:00 am Friday, May 20, 2022

ST. JOSEPH – The Berrien County Board of Commissioners is back to full strength after filling the vacancy left by the resignation of Don Meeks at the end of April. Commissioners are also one week away from approving a new strategic plan for the county and appointing a permanent county health officer. 

Commissioners interviewed four people for the vacant seat and voted to appoint James Martin to serve until the end of the year. He is a former Berrien County Commissioner, having served on the board for two years in the 1990s. He is also a former member of the Benton Township Board. He has lived in the township from 1962-95 and 2009 to the present. 

He has served in township and county government both here and in Lake County, Mich. and has also been a 9-1-1 dispatcher with FEMA and emergency management training. 

“The issues now are similar to what they were when I was on the board,” he told commissioners during his interview. “I think my training in public service would help the board. I’m also familiar with county board operations … I feel like I have a great many skills that I can give to the board to help keep the county moving forward.” 

Others interviewed Thursday during a special meeting before the regular meeting were Chokwe Pitchford, Jerry Sirk and Joseph Taylor. Pitchford and Taylor both filed as Democrats to run for the seat later this year. They will face off in the August primary. No Republican has filed to run, but people have until July to file to run as a non-partisan candidate. 

Commissioners thanked the other three who applied to fill the seat on an interim basis. “I know the district will be well served now and after the election, it will be in good hands,” County Board Chairman McKinley Elliott said. 

The bulk of the regular meeting was taken up with a presentation by consultant Jim Hettinger. Hettinger has been working with the county board and county officials for the last year to develop a new strategic plan. County Administrator Brian Dissette said he plans to bring it to the board next week for a formal vote. 

Hettinger noted that the title of the proposed new plan is “Strategic Initiative Priorities 2022: A 10 Year Plan to Build Resilience in Berrien County.” He said that the development of the plan has evolved over the last year from one focusing primarily on economic development to one that also emphasizes asset management strategy. 

“There was a switch in tactics to prioritize funding coming from the American Rescue Plan Act funding,” he said. “We slowed down to allow the asset management planning process to catch up and then Congress passed the infrastructure bill last November which provides multiple opportunities for funding and greatly strengthens the prospects for infrastructure work.” 

Hettinger noted that the strategic plan has changed over the months with input from commissioners and others. For example, he switched the focus on expanding e-learning alternative education opportunities such as what Berrien Springs offers around the state to a more generalized concept of encouraging online education for all ages. 

He said he left out much of what was originally included about coastal resiliency after more input from commissioners.  

“By the end of February, the effort transitioned from a planning document to now a strategic priorities document,” he said. “This is a great document for you to work from in the future. With all the federal and state funding, you have an unusual opportunity to meet your asset management needs and plan out over the next 10 years.” 

Dissette told commissioners that once the strategic plan gets their approval next week he will immediately place it in the hands of the county’s state legislators and others in Lansing. “The criticism some will have is that it will sit on the shelf once you approve it,” he said. “But my next step will be to place it in the hands of legislators.” 

“Legislation changes on a day to day basis,” he added. “We have a grant funding stream for new broadband expansion and this plan helps us communicate our other needs. We have an idea of what is being considered in Lansing but it’s like shifting sands and it’s more important than ever for the county to have a loud voice about what our needs are.” 

Also Thursday, commissioners paid tribute to the late Forrest “Nick” Jewell who died over the weekend. He served as the Berrien County Sheriff from 1969 to November, 1991. During his tenure, the department added a narcotics lab, crime lab, bomb squad and improved communications. 

Dissette also reported to the board that he and the board’s committee on committees have conducted interviews to fill a number of department head positions. He said he will be recommending next week that Interim Health Officer Guy Miller be named to the post on a permanent basis. Miller has served in that position since last fall. 

Action is also expected next month on a resolution to apply for a Michigan Economic Development Corporation grant for the Benton Harbor and Niles Downtown Development Authorities. As much as a combined $10 million could be awarded to help new businesses and make downtown improvements.