by Graham Sturgeon, co-editor

The Woodhull Township Board accepted its most recent resignation Wednesday, Sept. 7, this time from Clerk Paula Starr, who accepted the position May 16 following the resignation of Beverly Lang. The remaining four board members, Supervisor Diana Hasse, Treasurer Jim Cribbs, and Trustees Bill Dodge and Jim Brehm, then proceeded to address the board’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) policy, with the help of attorney Helen Mills of Fahey Schultz Burzych Rhodes, LLC.

Supervisor Hasse reported during her report that the township has received 79 FOIA requests since she was appointed to her position on May 16. She also noted that the township had not received a single FOIA request in the previous 12 months under Supervisor Pam Slee, which Slee later explained was due to her openness and availability. Trustee Brehm also read a letter addressed to the board from 35 concerned residents that questioned the board’s use of resources to pay legal bills, as well as the board’s reluctance to disclose exactly how the money is being spent. The residents’ concerns, as read by Brehm, include hiring the Fahey law firm without first seeking competitive bids for the services, paying for unauthorized legal work, paying for routine administrative and procedural matters, keeping secrets by redacting significant portions of invoices and denying FOIA requests, and withholding invoices from board members until presenting the information for a vote during a meeting.

Brehm also pointed out during his reading of the letter that the board is spending more on legal services than he is comfortable with. The township was charged $3,400 by the law firm for services rendered in the month of August, and Brehm said he believes the township is on the hook for another $1,800 for the month of Sept., which Brehm said is something the board “needs to get a handle on.” For her part, Supervisor Hasse said later in the meeting that, “When the FOIA requests stop, so will the legal fees.”

The board went into closed session after hearing its monthly reports, but Brehm refused to leave the room with the rest of his board members, saying he did not feel like they were acting legally, and that he agreed with the residents who thought the board needed to be more transparent. Township resident and former Clerk Bev Lang entered the closed session to inform the board that the closed session was not entered into legally because of the absence of a fifth member. Mills then advised the board to hold the discussion, which regarded the township’s handling of FOIA requests and appeals, to be conducted in front of the roughly 50 township residents in attendance.

Mills and the board then re-entered the meeting chambers and discussed the formulation of a FOIA policy, in addition to making decisions on several individual FOIA appeals. Mills informed those in attendance that her firm works for the township board, and so her duties of confidentiality are owed to the board, and not township residents. Mills told the board members that it is their decision as to what is divulged to the public when it comes to legal billing and communications, and she recommended the board maintains its attorney/client privilege whenever possible to avoid setting a precedence that could be detrimental to the board in the future. She reported that the board does not have to disclose anything regarding communications with its law firm, and does not have to specify why money is being spent on legal advice and research. The board will hold a special meeting at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 13 to create a formal FOIA policy, but did agree Wednesday evening that all FOIA requests and appeals would be decided on an individual basis, since the board members were not comfortable making a blanket policy.

Also during the meeting, it was also announced that Lang’s seat on the Woodhull Township Planning Commission had expired, and the board voted to appoint Fred Junger as her replacement. Lang was then handed a letter

telling her to return all documents to the township office. She was obviously angered by the decision and said that she was removed from the planning commission because of her FOIA requests. She felt that she was a useful member of the commission and was interested in continuing in the role.

Woodhull Township Board Accepts Clerk’s Resignation was last modified: September 13th, 2016 by Karen Elford