Wording submitted for petition to recall Buchanan mayor

Published 5:00 am Saturday, November 18, 2023

ST. JOSEPH — Wording has been submitted to the Berrien County Clerk’s Office to recall Buchanan Mayor Sean Denison. A number of local residents warned Denison at Monday’s Buchanan City Commission meeting that they would file recall language if he didn’t resign.

Dozens of city residents attended Monday’s City Commission meeting to get answers as to why new City Manager Ben Eldridge had been suspended. Denison and other commissioners said the investigation into the Eldridge matter is ongoing and asked for patience in providing answers.

Residents Carla Johnson and Monroe Lemay filed the wording Friday at the county clerk’s office in St. Joseph. The wording simply states “City Commissioner Sean Denison suspended Benjamin Eldridge as the Buchanan City Manager”.

The Berrien County Election Commission will meet Monday, Dec. 4 at 1 p.m. in the second floor jury assembly room at the St. Joseph Courthouse to decide the clarity of the recall wording. A clarity hearing must be held within 10 to 20 days of the submission of the petition wording.

The Berrien County Election Commission is made up of County Clerk Sharon Tyler, County Chief Trial Judge Mabel Mayfield and County Treasurer Shelley Weich. Denison as well as those submitting the recall wording can appear at the clarity hearing to argue whether or not the recall reason is factual and the wording clear.

The recall effort will move forward if the wording is determined to be clear and pending any appeal by Denison. Recall organizers would then have 180 days to gather the required signatures to force an election to recall Denison. That number of signatures is believed to be 290.

Johnson said Friday that she and others supporting the recall are concerned about Denison’s decision to suspend Eldridge earlier this month. She noted that this is Denison’s fifth year in office and he was re-elected to a new four year term on the city commission last November.

“I will add that this is the mayor’s fifth year overseeing a city with a declining population and increasing debts they can’t pay, and he has not been able to get spending in control,” Johnson said. “It’s time for him to move on.”

She passed on comments from former County Commissioner Don Ryman who also supports the recall.

“We chose language appropriate for the ballot that is factual and clear,” Ryman said. “It was the mayor’s action of suspending a cost-cutting city manager in a time of serious city budget deficit that catalyzed this recall petition.”

For her part, Lemay said she and others supporting the recall have identified four issues including ethical violations of Denison’s fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers through awarding no-bid contracts and violating the City Charter by suspending Eldridge without city commission consent.

Also, they claim Denison has usurped the city manager’s authority as defined in the city charter in all matters to city employees and violated the Open Meetings Act by censuring legal discourse in open public meetings.

Denison could not be reached for comment. In extensive comments at the end of Monday’s city commission meeting, he claimed that state law, court cases and the city charter allow him as mayor to suspend an employee with pay. He said a suspension is not an adverse employment action if it is needed to protect all parties in a workplace dispute.

He said he was concerned that another commissioner he would not name “violated his oath of office” and hindered the conducting of city business by sharing confidential information.

He also denied claims that the city was in danger of being taken over by the state due to budget deficits or any bad financial decision. He said the city has been searching for ways to increase revenue at a time when state shared revenue continues to decline and costs are increasing on infrastructure and other projects.

Commissioner Dan Vigansky was not named by Denison but said in his remarks Monday that he had had not released confidential information but had provided Eldridge with the information “they were going to railroad him out with.”