Buchanan City Commission dismisses charter violation complaints against mayor

Published 12:56 pm Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

BUCHANAN — Buchanan City Commissioners said Monday that it was time to put the Benjamin Eldridge controversy in the past.

A majority of commissioners voted to not hold a hearing on resident Carla Johnson’s complaint against Mayor Sean Denison for violating the City Charter for suspending Eldridge.

Johnson submitted a complaint last month against Denison, stating that the mayor violated the city charter’s provisions relative to the powers and duties of the mayor when he suspended Eldridge, who was then the city manager, last November without notice to the public or a vote of the city commission.

She also alleged that Denison violated the Open Meetings Act as well as the Michigan Bullard-Piawecki Employee Right to Know Act by not giving Eldridge access to the grievances against him. Eldridge was suspended in early November and resigned Nov. 29 at a hearing where a majority of commissioners appeared poise to fire him.

In comments before the vote Monday, Johnson reiterated her view that the City Charter does not give the mayor the power to unilaterally suspend the city manager without a commission vote. She said a Detroit case cited by the city attorney last fall as precedent in defending Denison’s decision was faulty and does not apply to Buchanan.

Commissioners didn’t respond directly to Johnson’s comments but did vote unanimously to release the attorney memo prepared by attorneys Mowitt Drew III and Matthew Derby on Johnson’s complaint. Attorney memos are normally not subject to public release but was in this case with copies distributed to those in attendance and put on the city’s website.

The attorneys concluded that Denison had followed proper protocol and procedures in suspending Eldridge with pay following the receipt of complaints against him. They said doing so was consistent with the City Charter and state law. They added that Denison did not violate other state laws including the Open Meetings Act.

The vote to not proceed with a hearing on Johnson’s complaint was approved 4-1 with Commissioner Dan Vigansky voting no. Vigansky earlier made a motion to hold the hearing but it died for lack of a second.

“You had a hearing on me on trumped up bogus charges,” Vigansky said in reference to the hearing held in December that resulted in the other four commissioners voting in early January to ask him to resign or be removed by the governor.

“Three other city commissioners and the attorney didn’t step up when you tried railroad the city manager out,” he told Denison. “… The hearing should be held so we can air it out publicly and get it over with.”

Denison said he found it humorous that Vigansky and those supporting him talk about wasting taxpayer money at the same time they keep coming to the commission with complaints and issues the city has to pay the attorney to comment on.

“If we have a hearing, we’re going to spend more money on attorneys for the hearing,” he said.

“The attorney said the mayor did his job and acted accordingly,” Commissioner Patrick Swem said. “Should we continue to spend taxpayer money to pursue a hearing? I for one just want to move on. It’s not worth it to spend money on it. It’s just a distraction.”

Commissioner Mark Weedon agreed.

“The bottom line is that everybody is aware of what happened,” he said. “There’s no additional information, people are still looking for something they’re not going to find … People can be upset all day long … They can make their opinion known, it doesn’t mean it has to be accepted.”

Commissioner Larry Money called the Johnson complaint and the comments from other residents a “witch hunt” that has gone on long enough.

“It’s time to get on with what’s important in the city.”

Resident James Busby expressed similar sentiments during the public comment periods at the start and end of the meeting. “Ben (Eldridge) is gone, you have to give it a rest, stop this BS,” he said.

He said that efforts he and others are doing to better life in the community are being hurt by the negativity people are spreading about the city. “When you put false information on Facebook, people who are willing to give grants are not willing to give money to us,” he said.

The commission’s decision to not hold a hearing on Johnson’s complaint didn’t stop her and others to continue to express concerns about the operation of the city at the end of the meeting.

Johnson and former County Commissioner Don Ryman read aloud an anonymous letter distributed in the city late last week. The letter is addressed to city commissioners and outlines the writer’s concerns about a variety of projects such as the construction of the new DPW building as well as the city’s finances, budget and staffing.

The writer stated that city commissioners have “destroyed trust and cast a debt on my city that my grandchild will be paying” yet “take no responsibility”. The person asked commissioners to step down and to not run for re-election.

Mayor issues statement

Near the end of the meeting, Denison released a statement regarding the allegations made against him as well as his response to the discovery of an email chain allegedly containing several examples of various local residents colluding against him, which had been accidentally attached during an email conversation with a Buchanan business owner:

“There are folks who live amongst us, who are actively working against the best  efforts of this city, its administration and its staff. 

Yesterday, I received an email from a business owner downtown. The email was a blatant attempt to disparage the reputation of the city attorney and the  allegation has since been debunked. But what was interesting about the email,  was that there was an email chain attached that the sender probably forgot to  remove. It made it incredibly clear to me that there is a coordinated effort by a  handful of people in our community to file false complaints and grievances which  is incredibly sad and an abuse of process. 

“The email was interesting in that it shed some light on how people were being  informed of things. For instance, the people on it knew when we had received  the memorandum from the City attorney, and had quote “talked to Dan”. It also stated things like “time for another complaint?” It even gave directions to a member of the press who was colluding with this group, to file another FOIA,  which she did first thing this morning. I’m sorry, that’s not journalism. 

“The city is in regular contact with folks in Lansing concerning our ambitions to be  a Michigan Main Street community. We’ve been told that they have been  contacted several times by Alan Robandt, who is trying to discredit the Live  Buchanan board so that the application will not be accepted. They have also told  us that there is a group of individuals actively trying to discredit and remove our  community from the application process by finding faults in our status. The  campaign these folks are waging interferes with our ability to receive state funds, technical assistance and legitimacy, as receiving those funds is only possible as a  member of the MMS program. 

“These same people are telling falsehoods and half truths about the financial  status of the city, or their stance on financial aspects relating to the city. In the  Jan. 27th edition of the Buchanan Chronicle, regarding the recall petitions costing  the city $40K, Monroe Lemay states “The town simply can’t afford that”. Yet, at  my second recall hearing on December 18th, after the Berrien County Clerk Sharon  Tyler warned of the costs of moving forward with a recall – Monroe Lemay stated  in her public comments, “I don’t care how much it costs, I want to hit them where  it hurts”. She goes on to say, “Their taxes have been raised, nearly doubling in the  past four years”. This is simply not true. We have not raised taxes since I was  elected in 2018. The truth matters. 

“They are also saying things about myself and members of the commission that  simply are not true. Carla Johnson stood at that podium and appeared outraged  to learn that the entire commission was made up of Republicans – Monroe Lemay  went farther, stating at one point on her Facebook page that we were all “Trump-loving racists.  

“I’m a registered Democrat. Although I will admit that at this time, I don’t believe either party represents me, or anyone I know. 

“My point is this. You don’t know me. If you did, you would know that I only want  what is best for Buchanan. Pure and Simple. I would kindly ask all of you working against the city – please stop. Please use  your energy for good. The world needs it.